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    L.A. Galaxy Fire Chris Klein, a Target of Fans’ Anger

    Last in the standings and facing a boycott from fans, the Los Angeles Galaxy ousted Chris Klein.When the world’s most famous soccer player, David Beckham, came to Major League Soccer in 2007, his arrival put the league on the map and affirmed the Los Angeles Galaxy’s status as the young league’s superteam. During his tenure, the Galaxy played in three M.L.S. Cups, won two of them and exuded a Hollywood glamour that resonated around the world.So it is startling to see that the Galaxy has the worst record in the league this season, with only two wins from 14 games. In response, and after missing the playoffs in four of the past five seasons, the team on Tuesday fired its longtime president, Chris Klein, who had also played with Beckham at the Galaxy.Klein’s dismissal came after months of clamor from hard-core fans upset at the club’s direction. Several supporters groups had called for Klein’s dismissal and threatened to boycott games; some already have done so. The Galaxy’s attendance is down about 10 percent from last season, a reflection of both the team’s cratering on-field results and simmering anger among its fans.“I hope that there’s a resolution, and the supporters’ groups — who are really important to all of us, and to the players — find the right way, whatever the resolution is for them to show up,” Galaxy Coach Greg Vanney told ESPN in February. “Because it’s probably not going to be ‘Chris out.’”Now Chris is out. “We believe it is in the best interest of the club to make a change and begin a comprehensive process to seek new leadership that will return the club to the level that our fans and partners expect,” Dan Beckerman, the president of A.E.G., the team’s parent company, said in announcing Klein’s departure. Vanney will remain in his job as coach, the team said.The Galaxy’s last M.L.S. championship came in 2014, its third in four years, but it has not won anything significant since then. Last year’s playoff appearance, its first in three seasons, ended in the conference semifinals.The team that knocked out the Galaxy at that stage particularly rankles: It was Los Angeles F.C., the new club in town, which has only been a member of the league since 2018 but already has more honors in its trophy case (three) than the Galaxy have in the past decade.L.A.F.C. has twice won the Supporters Shield, awarded to the team with the best regular-season record, and last season it won its first M.L.S. Cup championship. It also has advanced to the final of this year’s Concacaf Champions League, where it will meet Club León of Mexico in a home-and-home series this week for the regional club championship.The Galaxy, meanwhile, are staggering. The team is a league-worst 2-9-3 with a minus-14 goal difference this season. Going into Wednesday night, the Galaxy have lost three straight league games without scoring a goal. After the last of those defeats, by 1-0 at home to Charlotte on Saturday, fans chanted, “We want better!”While L.A.F.C.’s Dénis Bouanga leads M.L.S. with 10 goals, the Galaxy’s scoring leader, Dejan Joveljic, has two. Among the underachieving big-name Galaxy players are the Mexico striker Javier Hernández, known as Chicharito, and Douglas Costa of Brazil, who scoreless in four appearance Costa also faces arrest in Brazil on charges of nonpayment of child support, it was revealed this week.In the aftermath of Klein’s firing, supporters groups congratulated each other on the news and vowed to return to games.Klein had his own problems late last year: He was suspended in the off-season after M.L.S. found violations in a deal to sign the Argentine wing Cristian Pavón. The sanctions also limit the moves the Galaxy can make in the international transfer market this summer. That means rebuilding the Galaxy will be a tall order. Even with their fans back on board, a return to glory may take a while. More

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    North America Got the 2026 World Cup. Now Who Will Get the Final?

    A decision on which city will host the men’s 2026 World Cup final is expected in the fall. Leaders from the New York area are making their case, with Dallas and Los Angeles also in the running.It has been almost five years since a bid from the United States, Canada and Mexico beat out a proposal from Morocco to host soccer’s 2026 men’s World Cup. Now the competition has turned intramural.The stadiums for the tournament have been chosen, but FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, has not yet said which one will host the final game.Officials from New York City and New Jersey are starting a concerted push to land that final for MetLife Stadium at the Meadowlands, including an event in Times Square on Thursday morning with Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey and Mayor Eric Adams of New York.“Eric and I believe strongly that we have the most compelling case by far to get the best package, including the final,” Murphy said in a joint interview with Adams on Wednesday morning.At most other World Cups, there is an obvious choice for the final game. Moscow, Rio de Janeiro and Paris were always going to be chosen when their countries hosted the tournament. But there are several attractive candidates for the 2026 final, to be played July 19. (Though Mexico and Canada will host some of the tournament’s 104 games, the bidders agreed that the majority of the matches — and everything from the quarterfinals on — would be in the United States.)The only previous time the United States hosted the World Cup, in 1994, the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., got the final. This time, SoFi Stadium is the Los Angeles-area site on the list of stadiums for 2026. But that stadium was built primarily for N.F.L. football, and there is concern that the field there is too narrow for soccer, which would require removing some seats, and reducing capacity.Dallas has also emerged as a leading candidate, in part because nearby AT&T Stadium can potentially be expanded to offer over 100,000 seats for soccer.But Adams and Murphy are making their case that the New York City area outshines those places as the best spot for the game.“Yes, L.A. is known for its extravaganza and its appeal of Hollywood,” Adams said. “But I think New York is the largest stage.”Murphy said: “New York is the international capital of the world. With no disrespect to Dallas, we’re taking about New York.”The other contenders are not lying down. “We are making our case to the committee right now that we would be the perfect site for the semifinals and finals,” Dan Hunt, president of Dallas’s bid, told the local NBC affiliate late last year. “We have two great airports, we have the infrastructure, we have the hotels, we have AT&T Stadium. We have what it will take to host what I call ‘the Super Bowl on steroids.’”Kathryn Schloessman, head of the Los Angeles bid, said, “Our region is so fortunate to have a world-class stadium and infrastructure to be in consideration for hosting the final and other prominent matches.”The decision will ultimately be made by top FIFA officials, up to and including President Gianni Infantino, with input from the regional governing body, Concacaf, and U.S. Soccer. It is expected in early fall.Whether the New York region wins the final or not, there are likely to be about eight games at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. “Eight games is like eight Super Bowls in six weeks, so no matter what the games look like it’s going to be a huge success,” Murphy said. “We’ll sell every one of them out; it doesn’t matter who’s playing.”“But clearly to get the final — and we think we’re in the best position to get the final — is the icing on the cake that is almost unparalleled in sports,” he added. “There is both prestige and I’m sure an extra boost to the regional economy.”If a “huge success” is coming either way, why is there such a hunger to land the final? Adams acknowledged another motivation: “I’m extremely competitive, and I want to beat other cities to have the final. We were chosen, now it’s time for us to bring home the Cup.” More

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    With Stakes at Their Highest, Manchester City Rises Higher Still

    MANCHESTER, England — No matter what happens from here, regardless of whether Manchester City’s campaign in the Champions League ends with medals and parades and the realization of the club’s ultimate, meticulously-planned dream, it felt as if something shifted amid the delirious, crowing tumult of the Etihad Stadium on Wednesday night.It is not enough to say that Manchester City defeated Real Madrid to seal a place in the Champions League final for the second time in three years. It is not just that Pep Guardiola’s team demolished the reigning champion, outclassing the club that regards this competition as its own private party by 4-0.It is that City did so with a performance — given the circumstances, given the stakes, given the identity and reputation and talent of the opponent — that surely ranks among the finest, the most dominant, this tournament has seen. This was Manchester City sending a message, making a statement, proving a point. And in the process, it was also Manchester City vanquishing its ghosts.Midfielder Bernardo Silva scored Manchester City’s first two goals.Oli Scarff/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesJulián Álvarez had the fourth, moments after he came on as a substitute.Oli Scarff/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesGuardiola’s travails in this tournament are well-known. He is, by common consensus, the finest coach of his generation, and yet he has spent much of the last decade or so finding new and inventive ways not to win the Champions League. He has contrived to lose to Monaco and Lyon, Liverpool and Tottenham. He lost a final to Chelsea because he fiddled with his team. He lost a semifinal to Real Madrid in the blink of an eye.It has become a trope that Guardiola, in his urgency, overcomplicates matters. There is a theory — one that he himself alluded to here — that his background, as a Barcelona fan, has given him what might look in certain lights like a slightly unhealthy fixation with this tournament.He has always scotched it as nonsense, of course, dismissing the idea that there might be a pattern, attributing the repeated disappointments to nothing more complex than the vicissitudes of the game. That has done little to quell the sense, though, that the Champions League had become his — and by extension Manchester City’s — Achilles’ heel, the one world that the club’s bottomless, state-backed wealth and knife-edge precision could not conquer.

    .css-fg61ac{display:-webkit-box;display:-webkit-flex;display:-ms-flexbox;display:flex;-webkit-flex-direction:column;-ms-flex-direction:column;flex-direction:column;position:relative;}@media (min-width:600px){.css-fg61ac{margin-bottom:0;-webkit-flex-basis:calc(2 / 3 * 100%);-ms-flex-preferred-size:calc(2 / 3 * 100%);flex-basis:calc(2 / 3 * 100%);}}.css-1ga3qu9{-webkit-flex-basis:50%;-ms-flex-preferred-size:50%;flex-basis:50%;}.css-rrq38y{margin:1rem auto;max-width:945px;}.css-1wsofa1{margin-top:10px;color:var(–color-content-quaternary,#727272);font-family:nyt-imperial,georgia,’times new roman’,times,Songti TC,simsun,serif;font-weight:400;font-size:0.875rem;line-height:1.125rem;}@media (min-width:740px){.css-1wsofa1{font-size:0.9375rem;line-height:1.25rem;}}@media (max-width:600px){.css-1wsofa1{margin-left:20px;margin-right:20px;}}.css-1nnraid{display:-webkit-box;display:-webkit-flex;display:-ms-flexbox;display:flex;-webkit-flex-direction:column;-ms-flex-direction:column;flex-direction:column;margin:0 auto;gap:4px;}@media (min-width:600px){.css-1nnraid{-webkit-flex-direction:row;-ms-flex-direction:row;flex-direction:row;-webkit-box-pack:justify;-webkit-justify-content:space-between;-ms-flex-pack:justify;justify-content:space-between;height:auto;gap:8px;}}.css-1yworrz{display:-webkit-box;display:-webkit-flex;display:-ms-flexbox;display:flex;-webkit-flex-direction:row-reverse;-ms-flex-direction:row-reverse;flex-direction:row-reverse;gap:4px;}@media (min-width:600px){.css-1yworrz{-webkit-flex-direction:column;-ms-flex-direction:column;flex-direction:column;-webkit-flex-basis:calc((100% / 3) – 4px);-ms-flex-preferred-size:calc((100% / 3) – 4px);flex-basis:calc((100% / 3) – 4px);gap:8px;}}The many moods of Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola.

    Perhaps, given the nature of the City project, that was always likely to evaporate eventually. This is a club, after all, that has an unavoidable mechanized quality. For all the richness of its style, the gleam of its talent, it is hard not to discern the cold, calculated precision with which it has been constructed.It is a club that feels as if it has been built — to the exact specifications of the best coach in the world, and then equipped with the best of everything that money can buy — rather than one that has grown. At some point, that was always going to tell. At some point, establishing yourself as the Champions League’s dominant force is less a sporting challenge and more an economic formula.That, though, should not be allowed to disguise the style with which City swatted aside Real Madrid. Guardiola had, in the days preceding the game, detected in his players the three ingredients he believed would be required if they were to seal a place in the final against Inter Milan in Istanbul on June 10.There was a sense of “calm,” he said, a lack of panic and anxiety and nerves. There was “tension,” too, the edge, the alertness that is necessary to perform. And, crucially, there was the “pain” of what happened last year, when City fell victim to that peculiar magic that is wielded by Real Madrid and Real Madrid alone. For a year, Guardiola said, his team had been forced to “swallow the poison” of that game. This was the chance to purge it.In the first half, in particular, it felt as if this might come to be remembered as the high-water mark of Guardiola’s project in Manchester, the culmination of the team he has spent the past six years constructing, honing, polishing, perfecting.By halftime, City led by 2-0, thanks to two goals from Bernardo Silva, and it would have had every reason to feel more than a little disappointed. Erling Haaland had missed two glorious opportunities. Kevin De Bruyne had whipped an effort across the face of goal.Real Madrid had spent 45 minutes pinned back not only in its own half but in its own penalty area, apparently powerless to break City’s spell, to escape its stranglehold. Its players, many of them veterans of multiple triumphs in this competition, seemed harried and frantic, suddenly stripped of their poise and their prowess.Toni Kroos and Luka Modric of Real Madrid after Silva’s second goal.Michael Regan/Getty ImagesLuka Modric could not judge the weight of his passes. Toni Kroos kept giving the ball away. Vinícius Júnior, stranded on the left wing, forlornly urged his teammates to step forward. Federico Valverde, overwhelmed in midfield, seemed continually baffled to discover that there was always another light blue jersey behind him.Real Madrid’s reputation is such, of course, that even when wounded most teams would consider it a threat. At no point, though, did City consider shrinking into itself. Guardiola, clearly, had scented something: not just the chance to win a game but to change the story, to shift the emphasis.Riyad Mahrez came on. Phil Foden came on. Whirling, gesticulating, prowling on the touchline, Guardiola urged his players forward. Manuel Akanji made it three. Julián Álvarez, in the dying embers of the game, added a fourth. A victory turned into a triumph, and then morphed into a rout.This was not simply City taking revenge on Real Madrid for last year. It was City exorcising all of those demons it has built up over the years, all of the disappointments it has endured, all of the times the machine that Guardiola has built has stalled at precisely the wrong moment.At the final whistle, as Real Madrid’s players sank to their haunches — bereft at the defeat, relieved the humiliation was at an end — the Etihad Stadium was filled with wild, discordant noise. The club was playing Gala International. The fans were roaring, booming, exulting. The word “Istanbul,” displayed in neon pink, was emblazoned on the giant screens in the corners of the stadium. Guardiola, his energy almost frantic, was hopping and jumping and dancing with his players.Paul Ellis/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesGreatness now rests in Manchester City’s grasp. It should claim the Premier League title this weekend, its third in a row. It has already qualified for the F.A. Cup final, against Manchester United. It will, though Guardiola protested it, be an overwhelming favorite in the Champions League final. It is 270 minutes, no more, from winning a treble. Whatever happens, though, whatever comes next, this victory was not simply a step on the way. It was a destination in itself, the night that Manchester City vanquished its ghosts. More

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    When Your Champions League Dream Runs Through a War Zone

    Shakhtar Donetsk’s foreign stars fled Ukraine when Russia invaded. Now some are returning or signing up, proof that the lure of opportunity can trump fear.By the time Lassina Traoré returned to his team, everybody else was gone.In 2021, Traoré, a forward from Burkina Faso, had joined the other expensive foreign recruits lured to Ukraine by the country’s perennial soccer champion, Shakhtar Donetsk. Back then, Traoré played in a team built around a Brazilian core, supplemented by other foreign talent and some of Ukrainian soccer’s best players, for a club that was regarded as arguably the top team in Eastern Europe. Then the Russian bombs began to fall, and everything changed.When Shakhtar returned to practice after a monthslong hiatus abroad, the cosmopolitan air of the club had vanished. A roster that had been dotted with almost a dozen Brazilians just over a year ago now contains only one. Clubs elsewhere in Europe, shopping for bargains amid broken contracts, skimmed off other talent. Even Roberto de Zerbi, Shakhtar’s highly rated Italian coach, had moved on.Traoré, like all the others, could have gone, too. FIFA, soccer’s governing body, issued an edict shortly after the start of the war that allowed foreigners, whatever their contractual status, to unilaterally quit Ukrainian teams and sign elsewhere.Traoré was vacationing in Barcelona on the day Russia invaded Ukraine. He could only follow from afar as Shakhtar’s foreign stars — crammed in a hotel conference room with their families — pleaded for help as war planes circled the skies above Kyiv. Within a few days, they had left the country. Those who escaped did not return.Traoré returned to Amsterdam, where he had previously played for the Dutch club Ajax, to wait out the early months of the war. While the rest of Shakhtar’s armada of foreign talent found new clubs — some back home in Brazil, others in Europe — Traoré took his time. Slowly, the thought of returning to Shakhtar started to look like not only a viable option but the right thing to do.“I had many options,” he said after a recent practice in Kyiv, where the team has been based for the last few weeks. “The club knows. I know. And we discussed it. But I decided to stay.”For him, he said, “it’s in my culture that when they give you something, you have to give something back. For me, it was time to give back the love they gave me before.”Traoré said that he understood why many of his teammates decided not to return. He admitted that he had some difficult conversations with his wife and parents before agreeing to do so. (His wife is now living with his parents at their home in Paris.)For most of the season the team lived in a hotel complex in the western city of Lviv, but it has recently moved to Kyiv, closer to its training ground. A return to Donetsk, in the east, is out of the question; Russian forces have controlled the city since last year, joining separatists that forced Shakhtar into exile as long ago as 2014.The club Traoré has rejoined is a shadow of the powerhouse it once was. The squad and its finances have been gutted; Shakhtar estimates that it has lost at least $40 million worth of talent for nothing as a result of FIFA’s decision to let players walk away from their contracts.Shakhtar and rivals like Dynamo Kyiv play their league matches in empty stadiums. Shakhtar remains on course for a return to the Champions League next season.Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters“We have no money,” the club’s chief executive, Sergei Palkin, said on a recent visit to London. The Ukrainian league’s return, as much a symbol of the country’s resolve as a sporting competition, is played out in front of empty stands and to the sound of occasional air raid sirens forcing players from the field. The league’s television contract has collapsed. Sponsors have all but disappeared.“We have no income from Ukraine,” Palkin said. “Zero.”What money there is has come from Shakhtar’s presence in the Champions League and the Europa League, European soccer’s second-tier competition, and from the record transfer fee the club received by selling its star Ukrainian forward Mykhailo Mudruyk to Chelsea in England.New money cannot come soon enough. While FIFA allowed foreign players to leave Shakhtar without a fee, it insisted the club pay any debts to the clubs it signed those foreign players from, including a handful that did not play a single minute for the club because of the war, according to Palkin.Traoré’s decision to return, then, came as a pleasant surprise. He had cost the club $10 million in a transfer fee when he joined from Ajax in 2021. A forward who was not considered a mainstay before the war, he is suddenly a pivotal figure, and not just for what he is doing on the field.His continued presence, Traoré and the club hope, is a sign to potential recruits that soccer in Ukraine remains a viable career option. It is an option that proved alluring to players with European dreams like Kevin Kelsy, an 18-year-old striker from Venezuela.The 18-year-old Venezuelan striker Kevin Kelsy said his family was worried about his move to Shakhtar. “When I told them, they asked, ‘Why Ukraine?’” Yoan Valat/EPA, via ShutterstockNot so long ago Kelsy would not have been a target for Shakhtar, which for years used the wealth of its oligarch owner to shop at a higher price bracket. But now, in its more straitened state, Shakhtar has turned to eager young players like Kelsy and recruits from Georgia and Tajikistan.Kelsy said signing a five-year contract with a club in a country at war was a surprisingly easy decision. The prospect of fulfilling a dream of making it to Europe trumped everything else, he said — even the persistent threat from Russian missiles and planes, the regular drone of air raid sirens and the rumble of distant explosions. His family, though, had questions.“When I told them, they asked, ‘Why Ukraine?’” he said in an interview in Spanish. “They knew everything that happened, and there was a little bit of nervousness and a little of fear. But I spoke to them about this theme, that it’s very important for me to go to play football in Europe, in a big team like Shakhtar, and in the end they understood.”Kelsy, like the scores of South Americans who have signed for Ukrainian clubs in the past, views the club as a steppingstone on a journey that he hopes might one day propel him to the club of his dreams, A.C. Milan. Games in elite competitions like the Champions League, he knows, offer an elite stage to show he belongs. (Shakhtar, which led the Ukrainian league entering the weekend, is on track to return to the competition next season.)Having lost so many players, Palkin, the Shakhtar chief executive, now insists that any new recruits sign contracts that include clauses that would prevent them from taking advantage of any FIFA regulations that would allow them to suddenly leave. Any player who signs on now, he said, surely understands the commitment they are making.So strong is the pull of making it as a professional in Europe, though, that Kelsy said not even war could stop him from coming. “I try not to think about it,” he said, “and focus on what matters now.”As a new recruit, Kelsy knows no other reality as a Shakhtar player. That is not the case for Traoré, who recalls far more luxurious times. In those days, jet travel and big crowds were the norm, not the long, arduous bus journeys that are now required to fulfill fixtures in empty stadiums.“It’s not normal life like we used to have: no home, you can’t see family, and also you have to always be careful, sirens on all the time,” he said. “But you get used to it.” More

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    The Premier League Crucible Produces Something New: Ideas

    England has long relied on imported players, imported coaches, imported best practices. Now it’s trying something new for a change.Manchester City had been in possession of the ball for a minute, no more, but to the denizens of the Santiago Bernabéu, it felt like an hour or more. Pep Guardiola’s team moved it backward and forward and then backward again. It switched it from side to side, sometimes via the scenic route, stopping off to admire the view from midfield, and sometimes taking the express.Real Madrid’s players did not seem especially concerned about this state of affairs. They would have known as they prepared for their Champions League semifinal that there would be phases when there was little they could do beyond watch City move the ball around. The danger, in those moments, is allowing your concentration to flicker, just for a moment, to be mesmerized by the swirling patterns.The crowd, though, did not like it one bit. The modern Real Madrid might be something of a dichotomy of convenience — simultaneously seeing itself as the game’s greatest statesman and nothing but a scrappy underdog — but there are some boundaries its fans are not willing to cross.The idea that a visitor, no matter how talented, should come to the Bernabéu and look as comfortable as Manchester City did, in that spell on Tuesday night, was clearly one of them. Guardiola’s team looked so thoroughly at home that it might as well have had its feet on the coffee table and a wash in the machine.And so, as if to make its displeasure known, the crowd started first to whistle, and then to jeer. Boos washed down the stands, designed to encourage Real’s players to break out of their defensive phalanx, to take a more aggressive stance, to reassert their primordial right to dominance.Real Madrid is not used to being bullied on its home field.Javier Soriano/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesIt was hard, in that moment, not to be struck by the oddness of the scene. The idea that English teams arrive at Europe’s great citadels with a technical deficit is now horribly outdated. The idea that English soccer lacks refinement when compared with its continental cousins is, at the elite level, such an anachronism that younger viewers might struggle to believe it ever existed at all.The Premier League’s emissaries have, between them, conquered all of the most revered territory in Europe over the last couple of decades. It was as long ago as 2006 that Arsenal became the first English team to win at the Bernabéu. A couple of years later, Arsène Wenger’s team did the same thing to A.C. Milan at San Siro. Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and City itself have all won at Camp Nou or the Allianz Arena or one of the European game’s other sacred spaces.Some of these victories have been rooted in defensive obduracy and surgical precision in attack. Sometimes, they have been won by greater physicality, higher intensity — England’s traditional virtues repurposed as weapons. One or two of them might even have been just a little bit lucky.Increasingly, though, they win by inflicting on Europe’s great and good the sort of treatment that England’s teams had to endure for so long. They have, with mounting frequency, displayed a level of tactical sophistication and technical deftness that their opponents cannot match. England has not had any reason to be ashamed for some time.City’s display in Madrid might not have led to a victory — not yet, anyway — but the scale of its superiority was nevertheless noteworthy. In part, of course, that could be traced to the individual excellence of Guardiola’s players. The coach, too, deserves credit for the work he has done in shaping and molding this team. City’s real advantage, though, was in the novelty of its ideas.Pep Guardiola, imported innovator.Borja Sanchez Trillo/EPA, via ShutterstockThere should be nothing especially controversial about the suggestion that the Premier League, in its current incarnation, is not identifiably English, not in any real sense. It bears about as much relation to the century of English soccer culture that preceded it, in fact, as the modern Manchester City does to the club that occupied the stadium on Maine Road for all those years.The colors are the same, of course. Something about the atmosphere, too, is native, idiosyncratic, even if it is all a little quieter these days. Perhaps it is possible to discern a little Englishness in the tempo of the game, in how crowds celebrate corners, in the ongoing appreciation for a thundering tackle.But for the most part, what the Premier League sells is imported. The players, of course, and more and more of the coaches, too, but everything else as well. The training methods, the organizational structures, the playing philosophies, the strategies, the tactics: All of them have been sourced elsewhere and added to the mixture.That, it should be stressed, is not a criticism. It is the Premier League’s openness — both to ideas as well as to investment — that has helped to transform what was once a backwater league into the most engaging domestic competition on the planet. The transformation in England’s soccer culture, once so insular, is something to be admired.But while the Premier League has long been a crucible, it has rarely been a laboratory. The soccer its teams play now is, of course, substantially more complex than it was 20 years ago. There are wing backs and false nines, low blocks and high presses, inverted wingers and sweeper-keepers. Every tweak, every trend, every notion has washed up on these shores eventually (and, sometimes, a little reluctantly). It is a showcase of soccer’s contemporary thought.Rarely, though, have any of those ideas actually emerged in England. Perhaps a degree of skepticism is an enduring streak of Englishness, or perhaps it is a function of the league’s wealth: Why experiment when you can, in effect, pay someone else to take those risks for you?All of the innovations that have changed English soccer have been developed elsewhere, in the start-up cultures of Europe: from Wenger’s decree that perhaps athletes should not drink the whole time and Claude Makelele and his eponymous role all the way to the high press preached by Jürgen Klopp, Mauricio Pochettino and Marcelo Bielsa.It is, then, entirely possible that Guardiola has done something unique this season. He had already pioneered the idea that a fullback might actually be a wing, at Barcelona, or an ancillary midfielder, at Bayern Munich. Now, though, he has gone one step further, and introduced the concept that perhaps a central defender does not need to be held back by a label.At the Bernabéu, it was the presence of John Stones — both a defender and a midfielder — that allowed City to exert such control. It was the numerical advantage he gave Guardiola’s team in the center of the field that meant Real Madrid had to be so passive that it risked the wrath of its home crowd.John Stones, the central defender unbound.Jose Breton/Associated PressNothing in soccer is ever truly new, of course. All of these positional switches are, as the journalist, historian and Ted Lasso product-placement expert Jonathan Wilson has noted, simply the game reverting to the formation known as the W-M, played essentially as orthodoxy in the 1930s.Many of them have fluttered around elsewhere, too, occasionally popping up in the least likely of places. Anyone hailing Guardiola’s imagination might be pointed to Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United, for example, a team that regularly allowed its defenders to moonlight as midfielders without any risk at all of being presented as soccer’s cutting edge.That Guardiola has done it, though, matters. It gives the concept his seal of approval, turns it automatically into best practice. Where he treads, others will follow. For once, the Premier League will not find itself adopting the ideas of others, perfecting and reflecting them to be admired, but with a contribution of its own that it can send out into the world, something that will forever be a little slice of England.Fitting FinaleMr. Messi will inform you of his decision when he is good and ready.Emmanuel Dunand/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesNothing, Jorge Messi would like you to know, is decided yet. His adult son, Lionel, will not be making any decision on the identity of his future employer until the end of the French season. And with good reason. The Ligue 1 title race sure is a nail-biter, and Messi would not want any of the Paris St.-Germain fans who are so devoted to him to think his focus might have drifted elsewhere.That does not stop the speculation, of course. So far this week, there have been reports that Messi’s “priority” is to remain in Europe; that he has agreed to a deal to sign with a club in Saudi Arabia; that he is talking to a club in Saudi Arabia but has not yet signed on the dotted line; that he is waiting for the green light from La Liga before completing a move back to Barcelona.Needless to say, not all of these things can be true. It is hard to tell if any of them are. There is never any paperwork produced to support any of the claims. There are never any on-the-record quotes from people actively involved in the negotiations. Everything is hazy, indistinct, disguised behind what is, in this case, the coward’s or the liar’s veil of deep background.As previously noted, the most romantic conclusion to all of this is that Messi returns to Newell’s Old Boys, or failing that Barcelona. In many ways, though, it feels increasingly fitting that he should draw the curtain on his career in Saudi Arabia.What could better encapsulate this era of soccer, after all, than the sight of Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the two men who define the modern game, who crystallized everything that it is, eking out the final drops of their talent in a country that has sought to co-opt them, and their phenomenon, for its own purposes, effectively weaponizing their star power? Perhaps, in a way, that is where Messi should be. Perhaps Saudi Arabia was your destiny all along.Every End Has a StartFor Victor Osimhen and Napoli, it’s celebrations today and consequences later.Andrea Staccioli/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesAmong soccer’s very worst traits is its restless, obsessive desire to know what comes next. Managers who pull off unexpected successes must, always, be encouraged to move to different clubs, bigger clubs, to see what they might do next. Players enjoying breakthrough seasons must immediately be photoshopped into the jerseys of their many and varied suitors. No achievement is allowed to exist merely for and of itself. Meaning is only bestowed when it is clear where glory might lead.It feels a little reductive, then, to ask what might come next for Napoli. It is hard to think of a less appropriate question. Napoli has waited 33 years to win Serie A for the third time. The city is still caught in a wave of euphoria. This is no time to think about the future. Worrying about all the chores you have to do tomorrow does have a habit of ruining the perfect today.It is intriguing to consider, though, whether those celebrations might become a rather more familiar sight, as Napoli’s president, Aurelio De Laurentiis, has intimated. As the author Tobias Jones has pointed out, Napoli’s title was not a stereotypically Neapolitan triumph: It had its roots not in the magical or the mystical but in the comparatively mundane details of intelligent recruitment and adroit coaching. Those are the sorts of things, of course, that can be repeated.They will have to be. It is not just fans or the news media that have a habit of assuming that all success is a steppingstone. Europe’s apex predators do, too. Manchester United, Chelsea and Bayern Munich are all casting covetous glances at Victor Osimhen, the Nigerian forward who did so much to carry Napoli over the line. Others are watching the Korean defender, Kim Min-jae, and Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, the edge-of-the-seat Georgian winger.Napoli’s plan, as things stand, is to lose no more than one (most likely Osimhen), and then use the fee it receives — $150 million or so — not only to find his replacement but to add further ballast to its squad. If the club can invest as judiciously this summer as it did last, then it may be that the party in Naples is just getting started.CorrespondenceRoyale Union St.-Gilloise after reading last week’s newsletter.Yves Herman/ReutersExciting times for this newsletter, which treads virgin ground this week by issuing an apology to a whole nation. Well, a bit of one, anyway. “A small correction from a fan of Union Saint-Gilloise,” Flor Van der Eycken wrote. “The club is not Wallonian, but from Brussels.”My lawyers, of course, would point out that this subject was raised in a direct quote from a reader, and thus morally I am in the clear, but trying to apportion blame here feels churlish. It happened on my watch, and so it is my fault. I apologize, unreservedly, to any Belgians who feel let down.Tony Walsh, meanwhile, is evidently on a very similar page to me. One aspect of Napoli’s stirring victory in Serie A that has intrigued me — and probably warrants further investigation — is how those long-serving players who left the club last summer feel about it. Lorenzo Insigne, a Neapolitan to his core, and Dries Mertens, an adopted son of the city, are the best examples, but Tony wonders about someone else. “A penny for the thoughts of Kalidou Koulibaly,” he wrote. “Eight years in Naples, and then when they win the title he is amid the chaos at Chelsea.”And Carolyn Janus Moacdieh noticed a somewhat surprising parallel in last week’s note on Leeds, a club where fans have been taught that process is no less significant than outcome. “I will not defend the show ‘Ted Lasso,’” she wrote (unnecessarily: This newsletter is pro Lasso and the causes of Lasso.) “But Marcelo Bielsa’s philosophy at Leeds sounds a lot like the idea which the creators have integrated into the show: What you do is not as important as how you do it.”And another week, another suggested career path for my dog. “I think he can learn from Pretinha, a dog that supports my team, Fluminense, and celebrates each time the team scores,” Fernando Secco suggests. “Since Fernando Diniz became coach, the dog has been celebrating a lot.” I would suggest we are reaching a tipping point as we accumulate evidence that dogs improve soccer. Maybe the solution to how to make the game more engaging to teenagers was in front of our faces, tongue lolling and tail wagging, this whole time. More

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    Milan Divided by Partisanship, United in Voice

    The Champions League semifinal matchup between A.C. Milan and Inter may be less refined than its counterpart, but it does not lack for atmosphere and fervor.MILAN — Smoke wreathed and coiled around the Curva Sud, billowing in clouds thick and dark enough to obscure the top two tiers of the stadium stand almost entirely. Flags swooped and fluttered. Flares burned lurid red. Firecrackers, as loud as thunder, exploded. And all the time, the noise rose, echoed and gathered enough strength to rattle San Siro’s ancient concrete.A.C. Milan trailed by two goals at that point Wednesday, and had been for some time. Its nightmare prospect was starting to materialize: not just losing a Champions League semifinal, its first trip there in 16 years, but doing so at the hands of Inter, its rival and housemate. Stefano Pioli’s team stood on the verge of a defeat it will never be allowed to forget.It made little difference. At the front of the Curva, home to Milan’s most ardent fans, a group of men — clad wholly in black — urged their choir, tens of thousands strong, to increase the volume. The response was instant, earsplitting. “Hell is empty,” a banner unfurled by Milan’s fans had read before kickoff. “All of the devils are here.”A close examination, of course, would doubtless conclude that this Champions League semifinal matchup was not quite as refined, glossy or accomplished as the previous day’s meeting between Real Madrid and Manchester City: an encounter between a team that already belongs to history and one constructed for the express purpose of making it.This Champions League semifinal has divided Milan into red and blue.Luca Bruno/Associated PressClaudia Greco/ReutersThe power dynamics — read: who has the most money — of European soccer dictate that was always going to be the case. For all their rich histories, Milan and Inter belong firmly in the second category of European powers these days. They are not paupers, not by any means. Neither one makes an especially convincing underdog. One is owned by an American investment fund. The other is backed by a Chinese private enterprise vehicle.But they, and the league in which they play, have undeniably been diminished by the wealth that has flooded into England, especially in the last two decades. They do not have the benefit of the state-backed resources that have been poured into City. They have not ridden the turbulent waves of the game’s economics quite as well as Real or Bayern Munich.Milan had so many ticket requests for this game that it could have sold out San Siro — which hosted more than 75,000 Wednesday — no fewer than 13 times. These are clubs of renown, of widespread and fervent and deep-rooted support, not just in Italy but across the world. They are not small, even if the distorted lens of modern soccer can, from the outside, make it feel that way.Inter, for example, does not currently have a jersey sponsor. The firm that occupied that cherished real estate across players’ chests had been acquired during soccer’s brief and intensely regrettable cryptocurrency boom, the club lunging hungrily for the easy money on offer. The firm has, it will surprise absolutely nobody, subsequently failed to make some of its payments.Milan, meanwhile, has roughly 11 million followers on TikTok. Real has almost three times as many. Their players are, of course, among the best in the world, prodigiously gifted, high-specification athletes, but they can be broadly sorted into two categories: those already deemed surplus to requirements by the new elite, and those who dream one day of making it there. Few, if any, would be regarded as global stars at the peak of their fame. These are teams that have, by the standards of the superclubs, been thrown together by compromise and cost control.For all the intrigue naturally generated by this pairing — a derby played out over 180 minutes spread across six days, creating a city anxious and alert, divided by red and blue — it was understandable that it was seen, by many, as a formality of a semifinal with the teams competing for the right to be beaten in the final next month.And, in many ways, that was true. The passes were not quite as crisp. The control was a little less sure. Some of the decisions were rash. One or two of the ideas were muddled. Everything was somehow more deliberate, a fraction slower. The players of Milan and Inter might require two touches where City’s Kevin De Bruyne or Real’s Luka Modric might need only one.Sandro Tonali tried desperately, to no avail, to narrow the margin for A.C. Milan heading into the second leg.Alex Grimm/Getty ImagesLikewise, when looked at in the finest possible detail, the soccer was neither as perfectly executed nor as cutting edge as it had been at the Bernabéu. At no point, for example, did either Milan or Inter invert a full back — no, not even a single one — in order to create an overload in one of the central half-spaces.That was all true, but none of it seemed especially relevant, or to contain even the slightest real significance, because inside San Siro it was extremely difficult to think at all. The stadium, the one both clubs are so desperate to leave behind, was so noisy, so animated, so vivid and so vibrant that it bordered on a form of sensory overload.The game itself was no less compelling. It might have been a little jagged, kind of rough around the edges in comparison to what went before, but that did not seem to matter in comparison to the bustling passion of Nicolò Barella, the daring play of Federico Dimarco, the faintly desperate determination of Sandro Tonali to rescue something — anything — from Milan’s harrowing start in the first leg of the tie.If it was not, then, quite the apex of soccer as a sport, but it lacked absolutely nothing as a spectacle, right from the moment the Champions League anthem began and the Curva, in an instant, was turned into a sneering devil’s face. That is not something that should be taken lightly and presented with a pat of the head and a condescending smile as an unwanted consolation prize.There is something stirring about soccer played to a pitch of perfection, when a team transforms itself into something approaching art. That is why those who can affect that transformation are so revered, and so richly rewarded. But it does not need to reach those heights to be absorbing, engaging, thrilling. All it has to be is a contest, an occasion, an event.That, after all, has a far broader, far more visceral appeal. Some games exist to be watched, to be admired, to be appreciated. Others are there to be heard, to be sensed, to be felt. The slender technical deficiencies — of both teams — will not be remembered. In the white heat, they may not even have been noticed. The noise, though, washing down from the Curva Sud even as the thing Milan had dreaded most of all slowly came into being, will echo for some time. More

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    Manchester City and Real Madrid Will Eventually Have to Be Themselves

    The teams drew the first leg of their Champions League semifinal as each tried to prevent the other from playing to its strengths.Erling Haaland had his instructions. His Manchester City teammates were methodically working the ball from the center circle all the way back to Ederson, the goalkeeper, but Haaland was not watching. He knew what was coming. Ederson pitched the ball high into the night sky, an unusually rudimentary opening gambit for a team coached by Pep Guardiola.Haaland was not watching, either, as the ball reached the apex of its parabola and started to descend. He was moving to where it was going to make landfall. He started to gather a little speed. And then, just as the Real Madrid defender David Alaba met the ball — his header sending it back into the sky — Haaland arrived, crashing into him. Not dangerously or recklessly but, with only about 40 seconds elapsed, certainly ominously.Guardiola being Guardiola, of course, the working assumption has to be that this was all preordained, the sort of effort that he has spent time perfecting on the training ground for Tuesday’s match. An understudy would have been drafted to act as Haaland’s crash test dummy. Haaland, the Norwegian striker, would have been lectured on the finer points of clattering technique. No, Erling, don’t barge into him like that; lead with the shoulder just a touch more.In this case, though, perhaps the agency lay elsewhere. Standing behind Alaba, watching the opening skirmish unfold, was Antonio Rüdiger, the German defender. Happenstance had brought him into Real’s lineup — standing in for the suspended Eder Militão — but he is not the sort to back away from a test of strength.Rüdiger has that valuable knack, for a central defender, of ensuring he gets the game he wants. He may as well have been licking his lips at the sight of Haaland’s opening salvo on Alaba. Clearly, this was going to be his sort of evening.This Champions League semifinal was, on a macro level, always going to be cast not just as a tussle between old glory and new money, the establishment and the aspirant, but as a conceptual collision, too. Carlo Ancelotti’s Madrid is inherently improvisational and player-centric; Guardiola believes, more than anything, in the power of his collective, his system. It is free jazz against orchestral arrangement. (The score, after the first of two legs, is 1-1; no sweeping conclusions on scant evidence can yet be drawn.)Vinícius Júnior, left, scored Real Madrid’s only goal.Julian Finney/Getty ImagesBut it was also — and at times, it seemed, mainly — an arm wrestle between Rüdiger and Haaland. That is not to suggest that either player is nothing but brawn, of course. Rüdiger’s job is to ensure that things do not happen; his successes are, often, inherently invisible to those not blessed with his foresight. Likewise, for someone so large, Haaland can make it very difficult to say with any certainty where he is at any given time, right up to the point when he materializes, peeling off an opponent’s shoulder.On this occasion, though, both players willingly indulged what might be described as their more muscular instincts. For an hour and a half, the two of them pulled and pushed and strained and tensed, relishing the atavistic thrill of it, each trying to establish nothing grander than sheer physical dominance over the other.Here was Haaland, dropping deep to pick up the ball, being thrown to the ground by Rüdiger. Here was Rüdiger, for some reason slipping his head through the crook of Haaland’s elbow, effectively giving his consent to be placed in a headlock, grinning in (presumably) accidental homage to Jack Nicholson in “The Shining” as he did so.Most judges, by the end, would have scored it a split decision: Haaland did not score, a rarity this season, and in truth had only a couple of sights of goal; his presence was central, though, in creating the space that led to Kevin De Bruyne’s equalizer for City, the strike that will make Guardiola’s team the slight favorite when hostilities are resumed next week in England.And that, perhaps, will not displease either coach. For all their philosophical differences, what was striking about this game was just how aware both teams were of the other’s strengths, their capacity to inflict damage. That, more than anything, might have been the enduring lesson of their encounter in a semifinal last season: Madrid conscious of just how good City can be; City conscious that a team can be as good as it likes against Madrid and still lose.Real, on home territory, was at times so passive that it tried its fans’ patience; the Bernabéu is not used, after all, to its visitors having the temerity to keep the ball for long periods of time. There was a point, midway through the first half, when City’s passing started to affront the crowd’s dignity: What had started as whistling turned, slowly but surely, into jeers.For Ancelotti, though, that was a price worth paying: Tactically, strategically, it made sense for Real to dig in, to sit deep, to lie in wait, and then to pick its moments. A few minutes later, his approach bore fruit: Eduardo Camavinga, playing the hybrid fullback/midfielder role that is so de rigueur these days, spotted a gap and levered it open, then found Vinícius Júnior in sufficient space to fizz a shot past Ederson.Even a goal down, though, City did not see the need to adopt a more assertive, more aggressive posture. Guardiola’s insatiable appetite for possession is not a purely offensive maneuver: To some extent, it is a defensive measure, too. More than he would like to admit, perhaps, he hews to his old rival José Mourinho’s adage that “whoever has the ball, has fear.”Kevin De Bruyne, right, scored Manchester City’s equalizer.Manu Fernandez/Associated PressIf Guardiola’s team is in control, he knows the opposition cannot score. In those moments, watching the ball sweep hypnotically between his players, he can feel safe. Against Madrid, a team whose superpower is its ability to score at any moment and effectively without any warning, that is doubly important.It was, both sorts of coaches seemed to have decided, that sort of occasion, one in which the focus was on preventing the opposition from expressing its identity. And so Haaland, the most devastating forward in Europe, a player who has seemed at times in his debut season in England like an inevitable force of nature, was employed — at least in part — as a battering ram.Guardiola and Ancelotti will both take heart that their approach worked, that nothing has yet been lost. Both will know, though, that at some point it will not be enough merely to stop the opposition; to win, someone will have to be themselves. More

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    The New A.C. Milan Picks Up Where the Old One Left Off

    Is there muscle memory to Champions League success? An Italian giant, no longer fallen, is hoping to draw on its own.Stefano Pioli could feel it, even if he could not quite define it.In the nicest possible way, Pioli has made several journeys around the block as a soccer manager. At 57, he has been coaching in the volatile, capricious world of the Italian game for two decades. His current job, at A.C. Milan, is the 13th of his career. There is very little, these days, that counts as new to him.The couple of weeks leading up to and surrounding Milan’s Champions League quarterfinal against Napoli last month, though, were different. Quite what it was is difficult for him to identify. It manifested not just in the atmosphere in the stadium — unique, Pioli called it — but in an energy that infused the club’s inner sanctums, too.He came to understand it, eventually, as a sort of institutional muscle memory. For a long time, Milan’s present has felt just a little unworthy of the club’s past. Milan has felt, in recent years, like a club diminished, almost a relic of another age. Only Real Madrid has won more European Cups than A.C. Milan, but for 16 years Milan had not so much as made a semifinal. That is, technically, not quite a generation. In soccer time, it may as well be the Pleistocene.The mere promise of a return, though, brought everything flooding back. For Pioli, as for most of his players, it was virgin territory. For the fans, for the staff, for the directors — among their number the likes of Paolo Maldini, seemingly barely aged from his playing days — it was reassuringly familiar.“This club is used to these moments, these emotions,” Milan Manager Stefano Pioli said.Luca Bruno/Associated PressIt manifested not as a mass, Pioli said, but a force. For those games against Napoli, he said, the pressure of history “gave us more faith, more strength, more conviction.” The idea that a soccer club, with its ever-rotating cast of characters, might have some sort of vestigial memory baked into its bedrock is not poetic fantasy. “It exists,” Pioli said. “This club is used to these moments, these emotions. It knows how to be a protagonist.”For Milan, this is the stage on which it belongs. Its return represents a revival, a restoration of its grandeur, blurred but never quite lost in the tumult of the last decade or so. Even the opponent that lies in wait — its city rival and current San Siro housemate, Inter — brings the memories of how things used to be flooding back.The clubs have been here before: They were paired together in the semifinals in 2003, and again in the quarterfinals in 2007. (The auguries are good for Milan — on both previous occasions, it progressed — but not great for neutral observers: none of the four games, all home and away and yet held on precisely the same turf, could be described as a classic.)And yet the rivalry’s return is not testament to how little has changed, but how much. The Milan that took the field in 2007, on its way to winning its seventh European Cup in Athens, was the last incarnation of the club’s imperial phase: Maldini and Alessandro Nesta in defense, Andrea Pirlo in midfield, Kaká and Filippo Inzaghi upfront. It was still, recognizably, the team that Silvio Berlusconi had built, the fruits of the first modern superclub: experienced, authoritative, impossibly glamorous.The Milan that will face Inter at San Siro on Wednesday, and then again six days later, is quite different. Milan’s time in the doldrums — the years in which it was sold by Berlusconi, bought by a mysterious Chinese investor, salvaged by an activist hedge fund, and eventually purchased by an American consortium — have necessitated a complete change of approach.Where once Milanello, the club’s training facility, was famous for its ability to eke a few more years out of aging stars, the focus is now on youth. It is with great pride that Pioli points out — more than once — that his Italian championship-winning team of 2021 was “the youngest squad in history” to claim the title. That Milan returned to the pinnacle is the most important thing. But how it got there matters, too.The modern Milan is a blend of old (forward Olivier Giroud) …Marco Bertorello/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images… and new (forward Rafael Leão).Alberto Pizzoli/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesInter, notably, has refused to countenance such a switch of focus, rejecting the idea of abandoning its long-held status as one of Europe’s handful of destination clubs. “Inter is a very strong club, which rarely sells its best players,” Inter’s chief executive, Giuseppe Marotta, said last year, seemingly affronted by the idea that players might use it as a way station on their journeys to Real Madrid, Paris St.-Germain or the Premier League.Milan, by contrast, has bowed to reality, and sought to use its new place in the pecking order to its advantage. Under successive owners — first Elliott Investment Management, the activist fund, and now Red Bird Capital, backed by Gerry Cardinale — it has adopted a data-infused approach, based around locating the underappreciated and overlooked and burnishing them to a sheen.The midfielder Brahim Díaz came from the ranks of Real Madrid’s stand-ins. The versatile Malick Thiaw was plucked from Germany’s second tier. The defender Pierre Kalulu was playing for the French club Lyon’s second team. Milan has accepted that the world has changed. “A club has to have a project,” Pioli said. “Ours was very clear: to invest in young players with talent, and then give them time to grow.”A sprinkling of stardust remains, a ghost of the old glamour, in the form of Zlatan Ibrahimovic — now largely an immaculately-dressed cheerleader — and the ageless Olivier Giroud, but they have been scattered judiciously through the squad, given a role that is, at least in part, pastoral.“The club was smart in making sure there was a mix,” Pioli said. “That’s why we have been able to get such good results in such a short space of time. Sometimes, a coach can say something and it has an impact. But sometimes, when it is a teammate, a champion, it helps, too. It is all done with the same aim in mind.”Milan’s San Siro has two home teams in the Champions League semifinals. Only one can advance to next month’s final in Istanbul.Daniele Mascolo/ReutersThat aim has, broadly speaking, been an act of restoration. For most clubs, winning the championship would have been enough. Milan, though, belongs to that slim category of teams — along with Real, Bayern Munich, and to some extent Liverpool — that draw their identity less from domestic affairs and more from continental triumphs. The semifinals of the Champions League, and beyond, is where Milan, historically, feels at home.The place looks very different these days, of course. For all the mounting frenzy, the churning anxiety in Milan at the prospect of a winner-takes-all derby unspooling over the next week, received wisdom has it that both are playing for a silver medal. Whoever wins, the overwhelming favorite for the final will be whichever team emerges from the meeting of Real Madrid and Manchester City in the other semifinal. Unfeasible as it would have seemed in 2003, Italian soccer is an underdog now.Pioli, though, is undaunted. Economically, the teams of Serie A can no longer compete with even the small fry of the Premier League: Milan found itself outbid by Bournemouth, no less, when both were chasing the Italian midfielder Nicolo Zaniolo in January. Italy’s shine has faded, and its power has dimmed. This Milan is not a reprise of the glory days when Serie A towered over the world, but something closer to a requiem for them.“But when that is true, you have to be innovative,” Pioli said. “With ideas, with quality of work.” Necessity, he said, has been the mother of invention. “It has become an undervalued championship, in my mind,” he said. “There are lots of different ideas, different styles, lots of confrontations with teams and coaches who have different systems of play or how they interpret games.”That, in turn, has helped the new breed of Italian teams — their squads diminished, perhaps, from the days when they acted as a roll-call of global superstars — to begin to make up for the financial shortfall.They may not have the best players any more. They may not have the luster they once did. In the bright, harsh light, a team as grand as A.C. Milan might even come to look like a minnow. But they have, Pioli said, a “knowledge” rooted in the variety of challenges they encounter domestically, one that means they are “prepared” for whatever Europe can muster.“Calcio has suffered for a few years,” he said. “But now it is ready to be a protagonist again.” More