Juventus v Barcelona: History beckons in Berlin


In Italian, the word is ‘triplo’. In Spanish and Catalan, it’s ‘triple’.

One word is dominating the build-up to Saturday’s mouth-watering UEFA Champions League final between Juventus and Barcelona: Treble.

Juve and Barca have proven themselves the dominant forces in Italian and Spanish football this season, with both claiming domestic doubles. Now, it’s time for one of them to make history by adding the biggest trophy of them all to their hauls.

Only seven teams in history have won the treble, with Barca bidding to become the first club to achieve the feat twice – just six years after Pep Guardiola’s 2009 vintage swept the board.

Juve are not part of that elite group. They travel to Berlin bidding to become European champions for the third time overall and first since 1996.

But while many make Barca overwhelming favourites to claim their fourth Champions League title in 10 seasons, coach Luis Enrique – who is looking to emulate his great friend Guardiola by winning the treble in his first season in charge at Camp Nou – is not so sure.

“Winning the Champions League would signify a treble for us and it’s something that excites everyone. It’s happened just once in the club’s history, and this tells you how difficult it is to achieve,” he said.

“[But] I’m concerned about everything Juventus have to offer. They possess quality players. I hope [playmaker Andrea] Pirlo doesn’t have too much influence on the game, because we all know what he’s capable of doing.

“They have great defenders who know how to get things moving from the back. [Alvaro] Morata’s been a big asset for the team and has a real nose for goal, while [Carlos] Tevez guarantees absolute quality.”

Luis Enrique’s citing of Juve’s defence is telling.

If his front three of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez are the irresistible force, then Massimiliano Allegri’s trio of goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and centre-backs Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci have been the immovable object.

However, Chiellini’s absence due to a calf problem sustained in training on Wednesday represents a huge blow for Allegri.

Buffon is Juve’s captain, but it is Chiellini who is their on-field general; a leader of men who will be sorely missed as they attempt to contain Barca’s stellar triumvirate. Either Angelo Ogbonna or Andrea Barzagli are Chiellini’s most likely deputies.

Without Chiellini, Juve will have to shackle Messi, Neymar and Suarez, who have scored a scarcely believable 120 goals between them this season.

They put Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich to the sword en route to Berlin, while Messi scored a goal that can only be described as breathtaking even by his otherworldly standards in Barca’s 3-1 Copa del Rey final victory over Athletic Bilbao last Saturday.

But if any defence is streetwise, tough and downright good enough to stop them, it is Buffon and co, who are aided and abetted by full-backs Stephan Lichtsteiner and Patrice Evra.

To say a team boasting the attacking talents of Tevez, Pirlo, Paul Pogba and Arturo Vidal are relying on their defensive colleagues for glory this weekend would be doing them a disservice.

But it was they who thwarted Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema in the semi-finals, as Juve eliminated Barca’s great rivals and holders Real Madrid.

And if Messi, Neymar and Suarez can be similarly frustrated, the ‘triplo’, rather than the ‘triple’, could very much be on the cards.


Neville: Liverpool stuck in mud


Liverpool have been unable to agree a contract extension with Sterling and the 20-year-old England international is expected to be targeted by the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City this summer.

Writing in his column for The Telegraph, Neville argues that this represents the latest evidence that Liverpool are a fading force.

“The harsh reality for the club is that this situation has been 15 years in the making,” Neville wrote. “There is a wider context to this story and it centres on how Liverpool have gone from being from one of Europe’s great superpowers to one which is in danger of becoming a provincial club.

“The uncomfortable truth is that this is nothing new for Liverpool. Just look back over the past 10 to 15 years and count the number of players who have left Anfield to pursue bigger and better things elsewhere.

“Steve McManaman, Michael Owen, Javier Mascherano, Xabi Alonso, Fernando Torres and Luis Suarez have all gone.”

Although Neville acknowledges that Liverpool remain alongside Manchester United in terms of global appeal, he feels the club have been responsible for their own decline.

“While United have been happy to shout from the rooftops about how big they are and promote the legend and mythology of the club on a global scale for years, Liverpool seem to have been stuck in their own mud,” Neville added.

“They are years behind the biggest European clubs and, for me, their problems are a direct result of that failure to think beyond the confines of their city.

“Great football clubs like Liverpool will never go away, but they need to find a way to arrest the slide and make themselves a team that players want to play for rather than one they try to leave in search of bigger things elsewhere.

“If Sterling leaves, then that will be another star player who has decided that Liverpool is a club that is unable to match their ambitions.”


Carver haunted by Shearer pain


Carver – who was on the coaching staff at St James’ Park under Sir Bobby Robson – had left the club by the time playing legend Shearer was drafted in to attempt to keep the club in the Premier League in 2009.

It was an appointment which was to end in failure on the final day of the campaign as a 1-0 defeat at Aston Villa condemned Newcastle to the Championship.

Carver witnessed Shearer’s pain from afar on a pub television screen and as he prepares for a similarly crticial clash with West Ham at St James’ Park on Sunday, he has no intention of suffering a similar fate.

“I remember seeing Alan on the pitch afterwards, watching it on the TV, and on that day I genuinely didn’t speak for an hour afterwards,” Carver recalled.

“I thought, ‘I hope that never, ever happens to me’.

“As it happens, I saw him the other day and we talked about what his feelings were, and I told him what I felt at the time. I just said, ‘I hope I don’t have to experience that’. Hopefully, I don’t.”

Carver revealed that two veterans from that relegation at Villa Park six years ago – skipper Fabricio Coloccini and fellow Argentine Jonas Gutierrez – had shared their experiences at a team meeting earlier this week.

He added: “They’ve experienced this – Ryan Taylor and Tim Krul were here as well – so they know what it feels like. I talked about their experiences and how they had to deal with what came next, because it wasn’t nice.”

But Carver has resisted the temptation to show the current crop of players footage of that day, but did consider using an inspirational collage of images before thinking better of it.

He said: “I considered showing them something to reinforce what it’s like to be in the Premier League compared to what it’s like to be in the next division down – ‘This is what it’s like to go to Old Trafford, the Emirates and Stamford Bridge’ compared to ‘This is what it’s like to go to the lesser clubs with a smaller changing room and all of that’.

“I thought about showing them the fans after the Aston Villa game, but I decided against it because I think if you can’t motivate yourself for a game as big as this when you’ve got so much to play for, then no matter what I show you, it’s not going to make any difference.”


Oakland Raiders collect picks, plug holes as NFL draft comes to a close

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After targeting two of their biggest needs on the first two days of the NFL draft, the Oakland Raiders looked to fill a hole on their offensive line on the final day.

The Raiders drafted Miami guard Jon Feliciano in the fourth round Saturday after trading down twice to acquire three extra picks.

“A lot of the targets that we went into in terms of needs matched up in certain areas with the value of the board, and that’s how we put together our draft weekend,” coach Jack Del Rio said.

Oakland later added two linebackers in the fifth round in Kansas’ Ben Heeney and Florida’s Neiron Ball. The Raiders then took Virginia defensive end Max Valles in the sixth round, and Tennessee State tackle Anthony Morris, Florida return specialist Andre Debose and Kansas cornerback Dexter McDonald in round seven.

They add to a class that features two pass catchers for quarterback Derek Carr in first-round receiver Amari Cooper and third-round tight end Clive Walford, and a potential pass rusher in second-round defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. out of Florida State.

“You have to realize when you come into it, you can’t always fulfill every need that you maybe go into — or every person on the wish list,” Del Rio said. “But I thought, for the most part, we were disciplined in terms of staying with value and working the board from that standpoint.”

The Raiders took Feliciano 128th overall with hopes he can compete for the starting right guard spot. General manager Reggie McKenzie traded down twice before making the selection, adding a fifth- and seventh-round pick from Carolina in the first trade and a seventh-rounder from Tampa Bay in the second deal.

Oakland moved last year’s starter Austin Howard to right tackle to compete with 2013 second-rounder Menelik Watson for the starting spot. That left converted tackles Khalif Barnes and Matt McCants as the top two options at guard leading into the draft as offensive line coach Mike Tice said the race on the right side is “wide open.”

“That’s all you want coming in is an opportunity to compete and get better,” Feliciano said. “We have that there at the Raiders and I know everyone is going to go in there and compete and try to get better and that’s going to be awesome.”

Feliciano has experience playing tackle, guard and center. Feliciano is listed at 6-foot-4, 323 pounds and is a physical player who fits Oakland’s style of play. Feliciano allowed just four sacks the past three seasons at Miami.

“It’s going to be great to add him to the mix,” Tice said. “We’ll get some young blood in here with some toughness, intelligence, versatility.”

Feliciano had a tough road to the NFL. He was born breech and with a foot deformity that required a brace and was told he would never play sports. His mother had bouts with cancer and his home was condemned when he was in high school.

That made draft day all the more fulfilling for Feliciano, who watched at a friend’s house surrounded by those close to him.

“Growing up there was a lot of just extra stuff that I had to go through and everyone here at this house right now at this party helped me get through it,” he said. “That’s why I wanted them around me and to be able to get drafted in the fourth round by such a great organization. It’s a blessing and I’m so happy.”

Ball also overcame a lot. The former four-star recruit was diagnosed after his freshman year with an arteriovenous malformation, a defect of the circulatory system in the brain. He sat out the 2011 season recovering from brain surgery before playing his final three seasons at Florida.

He missed the final three games last year because of knee surgery but said he is completely healthy now.

“It’s definitely a dream come true,” Ball said. “I just feel like I’m just so blessed. I can’t really explain the feeling that I’m going through right now.”

Ball and Heeney both add depth at linebacker and will be counted on to contribute on special teams.

Valles is a raw player who has potential as a pass rusher. He played both linebacker and defensive end in college but will be used primarily as an end in Oakland. He had nine sacks this past season at Virginia.

“Obviously, if you’re still involved down low like that, there is a reason that you slid down the board,” Del Rio said. “We’ll try and help him grow through some of those things and become a kind of player that can help us.”

San Francisco 49ers go offense, offense, offense on Day 3 of NFL draft

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After addressing defense during the first two days of the NFL draft, the San Francisco 49ers turned to offense Saturday.

The 49ers used six of their seven picks on the draft’s final day on offensive players, including each of their three selections in the fourth round.

In a span of 45 minutes, San Francisco added Oklahoma tight end Blake Bell with the 117th overall pick, South Carolina running back Mike Davis at No. 126 overall and Georgia Tech wide receiver DeAndre Smelter six picks later.

After making Clemson punter Bradley Pinion the first kicking specialist selected in this year’s draft in the fifth round, the 49ers went back to offense for their final three picks.

All six offensive players fit the mold of power and size the 49ers are looking for after losing three mainstay starters in free agency from an offense that ranked fourth in the NFL in rushing last year but just 20th overall.

“It was all about best player available,” 49ers general manager Trent Baalke said. “We went into this draft looking at certain criteria that we felt we needed to do. We wanted to stay big. We wanted to get faster. We wanted to get as much football intellect as we could at each position. We felt we addressed all that. We feel real good about this group of guys, for sure.”

Particularly Bell, who earned the nickname “Bell-dozer” while in college thanks to his brawny style with the football in his hands.

“It goes back to OU,” Bell said. “The fans kind of gave it to me and it stuck, and that was it through my whole career. That’s what they called me and it works.”

It worked for Bell while playing quarterback, where he scored 24 rushing touchdowns as a redshirt freshman and sophomore, often entering the game in goal-line and short-yardage situations.

Bell, rated as one of the nation’s top prep quarterbacks coming out of high school in 2009, became a more conventional quarterback as a junior in 2013 when he started eight games for the Sooners, passing for 1,648 yards and 12 touchdowns.

But it was also during that season Bell realized he had a better chance of playing football at the next level as an athletic tight end rather than an oversized quarterback. So the 6-foot-6 prospect switched positions last year as a senior, when Bell bulked up to 259 pounds.

“That was my decision,” Bell said. “A lot of people thought OU or somebody wanted to do it for me. The big deal was, my dad played tight end in college and in the NFL, and we kind of sat down and talked about quarterback and different ways to maybe transfer and stuff. One thing was, hey, what about playing tight end. I was pumped up about it. So when I made the switch I was fully invested and did it. It was pretty cool.”

Bell’s father, Mark, also was a fourth-round draft selection in 1979. Mark Bell played six seasons in the NFL as a tight end with the Seattle Seahawks and Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts. Mark’s twin brother, Mike Bell, was the second player selected overall in the 1979 draft and played 12 seasons as a defensive end with the Kansas City Chiefs.

Bell became the seventh tight end currently on San Francisco’s offseason roster, and the 49ers added an eighth with their final pick in the seventh round by selecting South Carolina tight end Rory ‘Busta’ Anderson.

Davis is the eighth running back on the roster, which added free agent Reggie Bush and international rugby star Jarryd Hayne during the offseason.

But Davis fits in as a versatile rusher in the mold of Frank Gore, who left San Francisco in free agency this year after leading the 49ers in rushing each of the past 10 seasons while becoming the franchise’s all-time leading rusher with 11,073 yards.

Davis is the same size as Gore at 5-foot-9 and 217 pounds.

At 6-foot-3 and 222 pounds, Smelter becomes the biggest wide receiver on the roster and also fits in with the physical theme of San Francisco’s early third-day draft picks. Like Davis, Smelter also draws comparisons to a San Francisco star that he will try to emulate in starting wideout Anquan Boldin.

The 49ers also got bigger along the offensive line by selecting guards Ian Silberman (6-foot-5, 306 pounds) of Boston College in the sixth round and Trenton Brown (6-8, 353) of Florida with the first of the team’s two seventh-round picks.