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Mane magic, Thiago impresses in Liverpool debut

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Liverpool shrugged off last week’s rollercoaster win over Leeds United at Anfield with a composed, dominant 2-0 win over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Sadio Mane and new signing Thiago were the driving forces for Jurgen Klopp’s side, who showed why they’ll be difficult to dethrone in the Premier League this season.

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The Reds began the brighter of the two sides and enjoyed plenty of possession, playing like the home side in the opening exchanges. Yet the game didn’t really turn until just before half-time, when Andreas Christensen was sent off for denying Sadio Mane a goal-scoring opportunity.

Having had just one shot on goal in the first half, the man advantage proved decisive as Mane scored twice in nine minutes after the restart: the first was a fine glancing header beyond Kepa Arrizabalaga following superb approach play by Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino, while the second saw the Senegal international intercept Kepa’s pass in the box and calmly sidefoot into the empty net.

Chelsea had a chance to get back into the game with a quarter of an hour remaining, when Thiago fouled Timo Werner in the box, only for Alisson to make a sharp save from Jorginho‘s spot-kick to keep the score at 2-0.

The win keeps Liverpool perfect to open the season and they’ll need this momentum heading to in-form Arsenal in the league next Sunday.

Positives

Almost everything. It felt like a “return to form” for a side that’s notably been a couple of gears below its best since clinching the 2019-20 Premier League title back in July. They were tighter, sharper and more assertive in defense after conceding three goals at home last week to Leeds. Also looked slick in attack and will have been buoyed by the ease at which new signing Thiago slotted into the midfield after the break, giving them the incisive through-ball passer they’d been lacking.

Negatives

Klopp could perhaps find fault with Liverpool’s profligacy around goal, with 12 of their 18 shots not on target at Stamford Bridge. Didn’t make too much of a difference in the end, but the Reds must continue to channel their dominance on the ball and ensure they don’t give opponents any hope of getting back into games after they take the lead.

Manager rating (out of 10)

8 — Klopp little wrong with his selections, slotting Fabinho neatly into central defense in light of Joe Gomez‘ injury, and also getting immediate dividends to put Thiago into the lineup at half-time despite the ink barely drying on his contract with the club!

Player ratings (1-10; 10 = best, players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)

GK Alisson, 7 — Such was Liverpool’s dominance, and the lack of shots, that the Brazil international didn’t have a save to make in the first half. Yet he had to be sharp on a couple of occasions after the break, including an impressive stop to deny Jorginho‘s penalty in the 75th minute that could have made for a tricky final quarter-hour.

DF Trent Alexander-Arnold, 6 — A slow start from Alexander-Arnold, who was sometimes caught in position but who typically remained dangerous when with the ball at his feet in the opposing half.

DF Fabinho, 7 — Is there a reason why he can’t play in the back four every week? Performed his role with aplomb, reading the game well alongside Van Dijk and proving just as tough to beat in one-on-one situations. One notable challenge to deny Werner on the break, with the score 0-0 in the first half, showed his confidence and comfort level.

DF Virgil van Dijk, 7– Typically confident at the back, he did little wrong as per usual to keep things tight and prevent Chelsea’s counter-attack via Werner.

DF Andy Robertson, 6 — Hustling and bustling effort down the left, but not as pinpoint with his crosses as he can be. Fortunate that Chelsea’s limitations didn’t force him into too much work on the defensive side of the ball.

MF Naby Keita, 6 — Worked tirelessly as is his remit in midfield before being withdrawn after the hour mark in favour of fresh legs.

MF Jordan Henderson, 6 — A commanding performance from the skipper, who not only dominated in the middle but displayed an excellent range of passing. He was unlucky to get hooked at the break when he was replaced by new boy Thiago Alcantara at the break, although it was precautionary given complaints of a tight thigh.

MF Georginio Wijnaldum, 6 — Few players in the Premier League can match the Dutchman’s work rate and effort on both sides of the ball. A quiet afternoon from an individual point of view, but did his job admirably from start to finish.

FW Mohamed Salah, 6 — Salah was involved early on, linking well and bringing others into play. Had one shot blocked and then a penalty shout waved away after he was seemingly upended by Mateo Kovacic. He linked well with Firmino again when Liverpool took the lead, playing a neat one-two with the Brazilian who then crossed for Mane. Industrious and busy in the front three.

FW Roberto Firmino, 7 — The Brazilian was unlucky not to put Liverpool ahead when his close-range effort was cleared off the line by Marcus Christensen. He then played a crucial role as Liverpool took the lead, crossing for Mane to put the visitors ahead.

FW Sadio Mane, 9 — The star man on the day, Mane’s constant presence around the attacking third paid dividends with two fine goals, one as a result of his great positioning and the other thanks to his persistence and positivity in pressuring Kepa to make a costly mistake. Took both goals well and came close to completing what would have been a well-deserved hat trick.

Substitutes:

MF Thiago, 8 — Made a surprising debut for the Reds at half-time of what was a 0-0 game at Stamford Bridge and was an immediate upgrade in midfield, keeping possession ticking over nicely and also creating plenty of chances with his passing range and vision. Was lucky that Alisson denied Jorginho’s penalty, which was awarded after Thiago tripped Werner in the box with 15 minutes left.

MF James Milner, 6 — Replaced Keita on 64 minutes and continued Liverpool’s aggressive press from midfield as required. Some sloppy touches prevented him from creating a couple of scoring chances.

FW Takumi Minamino, N/R — Came on too late to make an impact, replacing Firmino in the 86th minute.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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