Dijon escape automatic relegation on final day of Ligue 1

Paris (AFP) – Dijon came from behind on the last day of Ligue 1 on Friday to beat Toulouse, 2-1, and grab a lifeline that could keep them in the French top flight.

At the start of the final round, Guingamp were sure to finish last, while Dijon occupied the other direct relegation spot, one point behind Caen occupying the pace that brings a playoff against a Ligue 2 team. Both could have caught Monaco and Amiens and escaped altogether.

Dijon needed to win but fell behind at home to a 33rd minute goal by Bafode Diakite. Naim Sliti levelled after 58 minutes. Four minutes later, Julio Tavares smashed in a close range shot that Mauro Goicoechea reached but could not stop only for the assistant referee to flag off side. Referee Mikael Lesage consulted video replay and awarded the goal.   

Caen, who had needed only a draw to stay clear of Dijon, lost 1-0 at home to Bordeaux despite frantic second-half pressure. Younousse Sankhare headed the only goal of the game after 19 minutes.

That meant Monaco, who suffered an ugly 2-0 loss along the Riviera at Nice and Amiens, who beat Guingamp 2-1, were safe. 

Paris Saint-Germain, long ago confirmed as champion, lost 3-1 at Reims but still finished 16 points clear. Kylian Mbappe scored the PSG goal to finish the season on 33 goals, 11 more than the next highest scorer in Ligue 1, Nicolas Pepe of Lille.  

Lille, already sure of second and a place in the Champions League group stage, subsided 3-1 at Rennes, finishing the match with 10 men.

Lyon, sure of third and, at the least, a place in Champions League qualifying, scored in the 89th minute and then in added time to win 3-2 at Nimes.

Dijon will now play Lens, who finished fifth in Ligue 2 but beat Troyes in a the playoffs earlier Friday, for a place in Ligue 1. The two-leg playoff begins on Thursday.

Neymar to arrive early in Brazil for Copa America

Teresópolis (Brazil) (AFP) – Star striker Neymar will join Brazil’s Copa America squad for training Saturday, three days ahead of schedule, an official said Friday.

“He will arrive tomorrow between 11:00 am and noon,” (1400 GMT and 1500 GMT) Brazil football federation press officer Vinicius Rodrigues told reporters at the Granja Comary complex in Teresopolis near Rio de Janeiro. 

Neymar, the world’s most expensive player, had been expected to arrive on May 28, six days after Brazil began preparations for the tournament. No explanation was provided for the change. 

Reporters were tipped off to Neymar’s early arrival after he failed to show up to a PSG training session open to the media. 

His team-mates Marquinhos and Thiago Silva, who are also part of the Brazilian squad, were there. 

When asked if Neymar had been released from training, coach Thomas Tuchel said “not by me.”

Neymar had been sidelined for PSG’s last two games of the domestic season and the French Champions Trophy after being handed a three-match suspension for lashing out at a spectator following PSG’s shock defeat by Rennes in the French Cup final earlier this month.

His early arrival was welcomed by his Copa America team-mates.

“Neymar is our best player, it’s good that he is here, he brings us his experience,” said Manchester City goalkeeper Ederson. 

Everton winger Richarlison said “we can do better training” with Neymar. 

Eight-time winners Brazil face Bolivia, Venezuela and Peru in the group stage, which start on June 14, after two friendlies against Qatar and Honduras.

‘Do fans in Baku not deserve it?’ – UEFA chief Ceferin defends Europa League final

Berlin (AFP) – UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin has defended the decision to host the Europa League final in Baku in an interview with German news magazine Der Spiegel set to be published on Saturday.

Chelsea and Arsenal are set to play in Baku on May 29, and UEFA has faced heavy criticism, both for the distance of the venue from London and over Azerbaijan’s record on human rights.

Ceferin, 51, told Der Spiegel that the final would be played in Baku because “there are people who live there who love football”.

“The human rights situation is a problem, but it is also a problem in other European states. Does that mean the fans in Baku do not deserve live football?”

The controversy over Baku increased this week, when Arsenal’s Armenian midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan decided not travel to the final amid concerns for his safety.

The UEFA president said that the decision was Mkhitaryan’s to make, and said that Azerbaijan had given guarantees about the player’s safety.

“If football allows itself to be stopped by such tensions, then we will not be able to organise anything in future,” said Ceferin. 

“We managed to organise a safe European Championships in France when the country was a target of terrorist attacks.”

Ceferin also said that he was in no rush to reform the UEFA Champions League. 

“If you ask me, there is no need to change anything,” he said. 

The 51-year-old said that UEFA were in a “consultation phase” over reforms proposed earlier this year by the European Club Association. 

The proposals envisaged a restructuring of all European club competitions into a three-tiered system with internal relegation and promotion from 2024.

Ceferin said that UEFA had already vetoed a suggestion to hold Champions League games at the weekend, saying that “this will not happen”. 

– ‘The Chinese are nice people’ –

Yet he also called for a more measured approach to the reform proposals, and argued that UEFA had to respond to its global market. 

“Football is the only European product which is the best in the world in its field by some distance.”

“The Champions League is a global product, it is getting bigger in China and the USA. Why should Chinese fans not be treated well? They are nice people.

“Everything is dramatised. The usual suspects start shouting about the death of football and demand more solidarity.

“I think that the five big leagues should give money to the federations in smaller countries when they sell TV rights there. Because if you show the top leagues on TV, you weaken the football in the smaller markets.”

Messi backs Valverde but admits Barca are still hurting

Madrid (AFP) – Lionel Messi wants Ernesto Valverde to continue as Barcelona coach but admits the team have not recovered from their Champions League loss to Liverpool as they face Valencia in the Copa del Rey final on Saturday. 

After winning La Liga by 11 points, Barca can complete a domestic double by beating Valencia in Seville, but even that will not erase the disappointment of throwing away a three-goal lead at Anfield. 

Valverde conceded his future was uncertain after the loss but the club’s president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, has since said the coach will remain in charge.

“I honestly believe the boss has done an impressive job during his time in charge,” Messi said at a press conference on Friday. 

“I think that in the defeat to Liverpool, he is practically blameless, we are the only ones to blame for that match.

“That can happen one year. but two years in a row is unforgivable. The boss will obviously be partly to blame but it is the players even more. 

“I would like him to continue. Last year, we did the double and even though it was stained by getting knocked out of the Champions League, this year we can win the double again. 

“If you look at his two years, there have been two bad games, but beyond those the rest has been good.” 

Valverde was also asked again about his future. 

“I have no complaints from the president or the board,” said Valverde, who added: “You seem very worried, don’t worry so much.” 

Barcelona were desperate to win the Champions League, after failing to reach the final in four consecutive years while also watching Real Madrid lift the trophy three times in a row. 

Since losing to Liverpool, Valverde’s team have beaten Getafe 2-0 at Camp Nou before ending the league season with a 2-2 draw away at Eibar on Sunday. 

“We are still recovering from the game against Liverpool, at least I am, I just want to win this final and finish the year with another title,” Messi said. 

– ‘Hard blow’ –

“It was a very hard blow and both I and the whole club have had a hard time lifting ourselves, which I think has been shown in the matches we have played since. 

“It was hard but that’s it, this is a final, it is a title and we have the chance to do a double.

Arsenal, Chelsea return unsold Europa League final tickets

London (AFP) – Arsenal and Chelsea have returned over half of their combined allocation of 12,000 tickets for next week’s Europa League final due to the difficulty and great expense for fans travelling to Azerbaijan.

A lack of direct flights between London and Baku means supporters face costs of over £1,000 ($1,300) just to make the 5,000-mile round trip before tickets and accommodation are taken into account.

Arsenal had initially complained over their small allocation, but confirmed to AFP that they have returned 2,200 tickets for the Gunners’ first European final in 13 years.

AFP understands that Chelsea have sold just 2,000 of their 6,000 allocation.

UEFA denied reports that sponsors had also returned tickets and said they were confident that local fans will snap up the spare tickets to ensure there is a capacity crowd at the 68,000 Olympic Stadium.

“The majority of these tickets have already been sold to local fans in Azerbaijan and we are confident that the remaining ones will also be sold as demand is very high,” UEFA said in a statement to AFP.

The Chelsea Supporters’ Trust (CST) joined other supporters’ groups in criticising UEFA for the location of the final, but also turned on their own club’s handling of the affair.

“Baku is a totally unsuitable location for a major European final. The combination of cost, complexity in regard to travel arrangements and time off work has massively reduced the travelling support, including those who loyally and ordinarily go to all home, away and European matches,” said the CST in a statement.

The CST also complained about the cost of charter flights put on by Chelsea and that the club has not extended the time for season ticket renewals in order to help fans’ cash flow.

Arsenal midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan will also not travel to the final due to safety fears.

Mkhitaryan’s native Armenia and Azerbaijan have feuded over Nagorny Karabakh since Armenian separatists seized the territory in a war that claimed about 30,000 lives in the early 1990s.