Ashley Cole released by LA Galaxy as part of year-end roster moves

Ashley Cole has been released by the LA Galaxy as the club opted to decline the defender’s contract as part of its year-end roster moves.

Cole, who was one of eight players released by the club, joined the Galaxy in 2016 and went on to make 83 regular season appearances for the MLS side.

The former Chelsea and Arsenal star won 107 caps for England between 2001 and 2014.

The defender had a base salary of $422,000 (£329,000) and a total compensation of $722,500 (£564,042), making him the second-best paid defender on a team that conceded 64 goals en route to missing the playoffs.

Cole was largely the bright spot in that defense, but, with the fullback now 37 years old, the club will go in a new direction.

The former England star isn’t the only defender set to depart the club as Michael Ciani and Rolf Feltscher also saw options declined as the Galaxy move on from three of the four highest-paid members of the backline.

Goalkeeper Brian Sylvestre, forward Ariel Lassiter, defender Sheanon Williams, midfielder Baggio Husidic, and midfielder Servando Carrasco also saw options declined, while midfielder Chris Pontius, defender Dave Romney, and midfielder Emmanuel Boateng remain in negotiations with the club.

One name still on the roster is Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who is one of 16 players currently under contract with the club. Ibrahimovic has been linked with a move with AC Milan in recent weeks after scoring 22 goals in 27 games through his debut MLS season.

The Swiss star beat out Wayne Rooney to Newcomer of the Year honors while also winning Goal of the Season for his debut goal against Los Angeles FC.

The Galaxy had a chance to extend that season on the final day of regular season play, but collapsed against the Houston Dynamo by squandering a 2-0 lead en route to a season-ending loss that knocked the team out of the postseason race.

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‘I can drink and smoke with serenity’ – Nainggolan pushes back against ‘bad boy’ image

Radja Nainggolan has pushed back against his “bad boy” reputation, declaring himself a “normal person” and prideful of his origins.

The Inter midfielder’s strong personality has made him both a fan-favourite and a target for criticism over the years.

His smoking habit has also earned him a rebuke, given his profession, and, combined with his reputation, may have played a role in his exclusion from Belgium’s World Cup squad this past summer.

Regardless, Nainggolan has taken the time to hit back at the negative press against him, as well as addressing his smoking and drinking, declaring it is fine for a player to do both, even if they do not have a typical job.

“I can tell you that I am just a normal person and not a bad boy as many people label me,” Nainggolan told France Football. “I can walk about in the worst neighbourhoods and live in a normal way. I can accept the favours that are given to the players, but it does not mean that I look for them.

“I shop at the supermarket, I can drink and smoke a cigarette with serenity. Even a footballer can smoke, even if they do not have a ‘normal’ job.”

Nainggolan grew up in Antwerp in a single parent household, under difficult circumstances, before moving to Italian club Piacenza in 2005.

The retired Belgium international reflected on those early days, and noted his desire to provide for his whole family is inspired by his late mother.

“In the early days at Piacenza I earned a thousand euros a month but for me and my family that was a lot,” he added. “I try to ensure a good standard of living for all my family members. I am inspired by my mother. She was the most important person in my life, she had nothing but she gave me everything by making a lot of sacrifices.

“I have a strong bond with my twin sister, she is homosexual and happy and that is enough for me.”

The midfielder also discussed how he considers himself as a player, believing himself to be “Italian” after spending his career there with Piacenza, Cagliari and Roma.

While he doesn’t consider himself the master at any individual skills, Nainggolan thinks of himself as a valuable jack of tall trades.

“I am very proud of my origins even if they did not allow me to have an easy life,” he said. “I feel originally from Antwerp while as a player I consider myself to be Italian from both a technical and tactical point of view.

“I have many qualities but I do not excel in any. My style allows me to give everything for my team-mates.”

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Jose’s Special One: Mata proving Mourinho’s unlikely Man United saviour

It mystified many Manchester United fans. With the Red Devils needing a goal to break the deadlock against Crystal Palace, off came Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard for Marouane Fellaini and Marcus Rashford with 30 minutes still to play.

On his 200th appearance for the club, Mata’s afternoon had been cut short, and it didn’t go down particularly well with the Old Trafford faithful as they watched their side disappointingly amble to a 0-0 draw with the Eagles.

Not only is Mata a fan favourite for his humble, forthcoming nature, the Spaniard also has recent form when it comes to being the man to step up and make the difference when United have been looking for a saviour.

Victories against both Newcastle United and Juventus this season have come from losing positions, and on each occasion it was a Mata free-kick which instigated the fightback. Moreover, in both scenarios the result did a lot to ease the pressure on the shoulders of United boss Jose Mourinho.

It is a curious relationship which exists between the player and his manager, with Mata’s exit from Chelsea having come as a direct result of his lack of playing time under the Portuguese in 2013-14.

When Mourinho followed the attacker’s career path to Manchester, there was a widespread belief that Mata’s days at United were numbered but, until now, they have managed to coexist with few or no problems.

There is also now a very real possibility that Mata will soon sign a three-year extension to his expiring United contract, and it is the least he deserves given the hole he has dug Mourinho out of lately.

While the manager’s job has at no point ridden on a single result, the two wins which were sparked by Mata free-kick goals have both allowed Mourinho a sigh of relief at a trying time.

With United sitting seventh in the Premier League and needing a favour from Juventus to make their matchday-six trip to Valencia in their Champions League group irrelevant to their European hopes, the prospects for their ailing season can only have been made even worse had Mata not stood tall at crucial moments in recent weeks.

In his own humble way, the 30-year-old took the chance to remind people of his quality at set-pieces following his crucial goal against Newcastle when writing his ‘One Hour Behind’ blog the following week.

Juan Mata Man United PS

“On a personal level, obviously it was important to score the first goal, the one that got us back into the game and made us believe in the chance of a comeback,” he said.

“It was a free-kick, something which isn’t new to me (they have told me that since I’ve arrived in the Premier League, nobody has scored more goals from direct free-kicks) and, therefore, sometimes I ask to take them.”

More than that, nobody has done more than Mata to haul Mourinho back into the black with United fans. With credit running lower and lower following United’s rough start to the season and his constant digs at players left, right and centre, the Portuguese has needed every ally he can find.

If only he could find a regular spot for Mata in which the former Valencia man can thrive, the constant frustrations of slow, ponderous football and a lack of creativity in the final third might be a thing of the past.

In a team lacking game-changers, Mata’s natural game might be harnessed more if he was given the leeway to offer exactly the kind of characteristics United are missing.

Juan Mata Man United PS

Instead, he has been restricted to an average of 51 minutes per appearance across his 13 games in the Premier League and Champions League this term heading into Tuesday night’s home fixture against Young Boys, and it feels like an asset is being wasted.

Could Mourinho make more use of Mata? Definitely, since he has used him as a No.10 from the start of a game only five times in the last two years.

Can Mata make all the difference in Mourinho continued fight to keep his head above water at Old Trafford? The evidence suggests he has a major part to play.

Any more heroics like those he has produced lately and Mata, the man whose future appeared most at threat when Mourinho arrived at the club, could prove to be Jose’s very own special one.

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‘We don’t fear PSG’ – Liverpool star Van Dijk ready for Champions League showdown

Virgil van Dijk insists Liverpool will have no fear when they travel to Paris Saint-Germain for their crucial Champions League clash this week.

The Reds know that victory in the French capital on Wednesday would likely secure their place in the last 16 of Europe’s premier knockout competition, but are also aware that a defeat against the Ligue 1 champions would place them in a precarious position heading into their final group match with Napoli in a fortnight’s time.

It promises, then, to be quite an occasion. Liverpool ran out 3-2 victors when the sides met at Anfield back in September, but PSG have won all 14 of their domestic games so far this season, and could be boosted by the return of the injured duo of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe for this week’s contest.

Van Dijk, though, says Jurgen Klopp’s men are ready to take care of business – whoever takes to the field on Wednesday night.

“I don’t have any fear,” said the Dutch international. “We respect them as a team but the thing is we want to win the game. We are going to totally up for it, motivated and we will make sure we are ready from the start.

“We don’t need to forget that we are one of the best teams in Europe as well. We reached the final last year and we want to do at least the same this year. That’s our goal. So we are going to try, try and beat them.”

Liverpool head into the game buoyed by Saturday’s 3-0 victory at Watford, a game which saw them extend their unbeaten start to the Premier League season to 13 games, and set a new club record for the fewest goals conceded (five) at this stage of a league campaign.

Impressive stuff, even if the common perception is that the Reds are not yet operating at the level of Manchester City, the league champions and current leaders. Klopp’s side remain two points behind Pep Guardiola’s men.

Virgil van Dijk Liverpool v PSG

“I don’t care what other people think,” Van Dijk said. “We are still unbeaten. We need to look at ourselves. We are doing very well.

“Obviously there is always room for improvement but we can’t be sad about the situation we are in. We just need to keep improving. Keep doing what we are doing and get better. That’s the only way forward.

“We can only look at ourselves. We can’t look at them [City]. They are the champions, they are a fantastic team. But so are we and we need to focus on our game. Then we’ll see in the end how it’s going to be, whether it’s going to be very close. Hopefully it is.”

Van Dijk’s own form, of course, has been outstanding, the Netherlands captain settling brilliantly since his £75million (€85m/$96m) move from Southampton in January. The suggestion now is that the 27-year-old is among the world’s best centre-backs – but does that bring an added layer of responsibility?

“I think at a club like Liverpool you always feel a bit of pressure,” said Van Dijk. “You should. But it doesn’t bother me.

“I just want to play. I want to enjoy the games because not a lot of people have the chance to do what we do. That’s how we started football as well, enjoying what we are doing and that’s what I try to do as well.

“It’s always a great feeling to help Holland as well as Liverpool but we all do it together. We want to evolve, same as with Liverpool.

“Both teams have great players and everyone wants to do their best. In the end we all to it together and I am just enjoying every minute of it.”

Liverpool will train at Melwood on Tuesday morning before flying to Paris, having declined the opportunity to use the Parc des Princes for their open session ahead of Wednesday’s game. Klopp, along with Sadio Mane, will face the media at a press conference on Tuesday evening.

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Burnley 1 Newcastle United 2: Magpies march on despite Ritchie horror miss

Newcastle United recorded a third consecutive Premier League win with a 2-1 victory at Burnley despite Matt Ritchie missing an open goal from close range.

Rafael Benitez’s side led 2-0 thanks to a Ben Mee own goal and Ciaran Clark’s header, but Sam Vokes hit back for the hosts before half-time.

Ritchie looked set to make sure of the points early in the second half but the winger, who had set up Clark’s goal, bizarrely slotted wide at the back post after DeAndre Yedlin beat Charlie Taylor for pace.

But Newcastle held on for their first top-flight win over Burnley since 1975 to move up to 13th in the table, while a fourth loss in five league games leaves the Clarets still a point and a place above the relegation zone.

Kick-off was delayed for half an hour due to a medical emergency in the tunnel, but Newcastle made a rapid start and opened the scoring in the fourth minute.

Burnley did not properly clear a corner and, when Federico Fernandez took aim, his 25-yard drive – which was heading wide of the post – beat Joe Hart via a deflection off Burnley captain Mee.

And the visitors’ lead was doubled in the 23rd minute with the Clarets again switching off at the back, Clark getting between two defenders to cleverly flick in a header from Ritchie’s cross.

Burnley reduced the deficit before the break, Mee’s long pass perfectly flighted for Wales striker Vokes to send a looping 18-yard header past Martin Dubravka.

Newcastle should have restored their two-goal cushion shortly after the restart but Ritchie somehow missed an open goal from three yards out when it was easier to score.

While not in Ritchie’s league, Chris Wood wasted a good chance to earn Burnley an undeserved point when he shot straight at Dubravka, the New Zealand international later denied by Yedlin’s outstanding block before he also fired a bouncing ball over the crossbar.

Joselu struck the post with 10 minutes to go after fine work from Ayoze Perez but Benitez’s side held firm to collect another three points, leaving Burnley – for whom Vokes missed a last-gasp header – still in the mire.

What does it mean? Burnley a shadow of 2017-18 side

No onlooker would guess this Burnley side finished seventh last term, qualifying for Europe for the first time in over 50 years, but relegation now looks a real possibility this term. Newcastle’s own fears of the drop have been eased with a dire start followed by a superb run of results.

Benitez tactical switch proves key in first away win of the season

Newcastle lined up with a back three featuring Clark, Fabian Schar and Fernandez, and Burnley took time to adapt to the surprise tactical tweak. Although the Clarets mounted plenty of late pressure, Newcastle’s rearguard held strong despite the absence of injured skipper Jamaal Lascelles.

Ritchie miss one to remember…or forget

The pantheon of diabolical Premier League misses has a new entry with Ritchie’s incredible effort. After Yedlin burst clear of Taylor down the right all Ritchie had to do was turn the ball in at the back post. Newcastle fans were already celebrating but only a humiliated Ritchie ended up in the net.

What’s next?

Burnley will seek to bounce back at Crystal Palace on Saturday, while Newcastle are hunting a fourth straight Premier League win when they host West Ham on the same day.

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