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Soccer notebook: PSG’s Leonardo rejects Pochettino exit, German teams face COVID, more under the radar stories

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We are almost at the end of another crazy week in European soccer with the UEFA Champions League and Europa League providing our collective midweek fix between packed weekends of action.

As always, we recap those stories which might have escaped your notice such as the COVID-19 sweeping its way through German soccer, an independent regulator being considered for English clubs or Tony Hibbert’s improbable return at 40 years of age in the backwaters of France.

We catch you up here.

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Leonardo rejects Pochettino exit

First, though, starting with something that nobody in the soccer world could have missed in Manchester United’s search for a new manager and strong interest in Paris Saint-Germain’s Mauricio Pochettino.

Parisien sporting director Leonardo has come out and denied reports that the French giants want to part ways with the Argentine or that contacts have been made with Zinedine Zidane as a potential replacement.

“We do not want Mauricio Pochettino to go,” said the Brazilian. “He has never asked to leave, and nobody has contacted us for him. We respect Zinedine Zidane a lot, both as a player and coach, but I tell you very clearly that there has been no contact. No meeting.”

Tony Hibbert laces up again

Sticking in France and Everton legend Tony Hibbert has come out of retirement at the age of 40 to to join ES Louzy in France’s 10th tier. The right-back played for the Toffees between 1998-2016 and has been living in France for three years and had already overseen the under-13 side.

“We are a family club,” said President Jerome Archambeau to Nouvelle Republique. “I think that is what he liked. The spirit of camaraderie rather than a competitive one.”

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Milan extend Pioli

AC Milan have rewarded Stefano Pioli for their solid start to the season by extending his contract until 2023 with an option for an additional year. Although the veteran Italian was not the dream choice when he took over and also had to see off the threat of Ralf Rangnick ariving at San Siro, the 56-year-old has the Rossoneri in Serie A title contention and also in with a shout of extending their continental adventure after a tough start.

“I want to thank the Club for having given me the chance to coach a competitive team and one that is replete with great values, which must never go missing and which make Milan special,” said Pioli. “I am proud of the work we’ve done until now, with the good relationship I have with the management, with the growth of my players and with the passion displayed by everyone working at this incredible Club. Our fans are extraordinary and I hope to return their affection by making AC Milan more and more competitive.”

“Stefano is — due to his professional competence and for his temperament and personality — our ideal head coach,” said technical director and club legend Paolo Maldini. “He has completely bought into the values and strategy of our Club; his leadership has created a cohesive atmosphere for big ambition. The aim is to continue the journey we have begun and attain better and better results.”

COVID hits German soccer

Germany is grappling with COVID-19 once again with an outbreak of positive cases and depleted squads with many players and staff still not yet vaccinated which threatens to impact domestic and continental matches before the end of the year.

Bayern Munich has a number of players suspected of not having been vaccinated with one of the most prominent, Joshua Kimmich, now out of action while he quarantines having tested positive on the eve of the Champions League clash with Dynamo Kyiv.

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On top of that, RB Leipzig were without coach Jesse Marsch and goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi  and facing a rapidly deteriorating situation while Borussia Dortmund have also been hit in recent weeks as they dropped out of the UCL and into the Europa League.

Perhaps most curious, though, was the investigation into Werder Bremen boss Markus Anfang’s vaccination certificate which was mentioned in this column last week. Seven days on and he is no more having resigned citing “extreme stress.”

“Because of the extreme stress caused to the club, the team, my family, and myself, I have decided to immediately step down from my role as head coach of Werder Bremen,” said Anfang. “I requested that the club management dissolve my contract, a request they have granted. I wish Werder all the success in the world for the future.”

Parma appoint Iachini

Parma’s hopes of an immediate return to Serie A have been suffering of late with Enzo Maresca dismissed due to the Crociati being closed to the relegation zone than to automatic promotion or even the playoffs in lowly 14th place. Giuseppe Iachini is a promotion specialist and will be expected to turn things around swiftly.

Joaquin dreads retirement

Real Betis are enjoying their season so far and are currently fifth in the La Liga table with 40-year-old Joaquin still going strong as Manuel Pellegrini’s men have progressed to the Europa League knockout phase too. However, the lovable Verdiblanco legend has admitted that retirement is approaching — like it or not.

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“I have thought about it, and not seeing my teammates, not smelling the grass, the wet boots,” said Joaquin. “No matter how many things you have to do and how much you have planned for the future, I think that in the end, I am going to miss it a lot.”

Independent regulation in England

The English government has endorsed the idea of an independent regulator for English soccer with the recommendation put forward after a fan-led review of soccer governance which has been met with support from the secretary of culture.

It is now up to the government to work on a “substantive response” which will be presented next spring with the move called “a turning point for the game in this country” to “secure the future.” Ex-sports minister Tracey Crouch said that soccer needs to stop “lurching from crisis to crisis” particularly in the wake of the failed Super League breakaway.

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