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MUNICH, Germany — Jurgen Klopp has insisted Liverpool’s Champions League focus will not be diverted by “pundits from Manchester United” after rejecting claims by Gary Neville that the club’s Premier League title prospects would be boosted by a European exit at the hands of Bayern Munich.

Liverpool, currently one point behind Premier League leaders Manchester City, face Bayern in the Allianz Arena in a round of 16 second-leg tie knowing that a score draw will be enough to secure a place in the quarterfinals following last month’s 0-0 draw at Anfield.

But with City still aiming to add the Champions League, Premier League and FA Cup to the Carabao Cup they won last month — teeing up the prospect of an unprecedented quadruple — former United captain Neville said last week that being eliminated by Bayern would help Liverpool’s title bid.

Speaking on the Gary Neville Podcast, he said: “I’m going to say it: go out against Bayern Munich. That sounds like madness.

“Of course, you’d never play to lose a game, but it will be in Liverpool’s favour if they have a clean run as they can get everyone fresh.”

Yet speaking at his pre-match press conference in Munich on Tuesday, when asked whether progression would give Liverpool greater momentum, rather than drain their resources, Klopp was quick to dismiss the comments of pundits attached to United, Liverpool’s great rivals.

“I don’t think any other manager in the world other than the Liverpool manager would be asked this question when they are playing a Champions League game,” Klopp said. “The pundits come from Manchester United and start this thing!

“That is how it is. You also ask us in the FA Cup or Carabao Cup if it is better that we don’t win.

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“We won’t see it like this. In the cups, we wanted to go through and we didn’t, but we want to win this game.

“The whole world is watching tomorrow night, but we want to be focused on this game. Even if it harms us [by winning], we could not change it.

“I just wish the guys who write these questions find a way in real life to make it possible and not just in the studio. It would help.

“If we win this game, it could build momentum. If we win tomorrow and play good football, it could change the world. If not, on Thursday it is over and we concentrate on Fulham.”

Klopp admitted that Liverpool’s task is straightforward against Bayern, saying: “we have [to] defend tomorrow and score … from where we score, I don’t care.”

Despite the prospect of reaching the last eight, however, the focus on Liverpool remains firmly fixed on the title race due to the club’s inability to win the English title since 1990.

But Klopp insists he and his team are not feeling the pressure of expectancy in Liverpool as they attempt to end their 29-year wait.

“The pressure and titles — if you come to England, people ask the same question and answers,” Klopp said. “But we don’t see that pressure.

“We want to be champions, of course. We are not stupid. We don’t have pressure or feel pressure, the atmosphere is great in the club.

“If people say I have to achieve success, I am happy with that. People know where we started from and where we are at.

“We feel well, we are young team and we can develop further and see where it leads us to.”

Klopp, meanwhile, voiced his surprise that Bayern trio Mats Hummels, Thomas Muller and Jerome Boateng will no longer play for Germany following the decision of national coach Joachim Low to end their international careers last week.

All three were key figures in Germany’s 2014 World Cup triumph and Klopp admits he cannot understand the finality of Low’s decision.

“Having a break from the national team now, they will feel more power [by playing fewer games],” Klopp said

“I am a coach myself and I think Jogi Low has the 100 percent right not to pick them because he has other players at his disposal.

“I don’t know if he can say ‘I won’t pick you ever again,’ but I don’t know how it works with the national team.

“At a club, you can say that a player will leave in the summer. I can say who leaves, but with a national team, I don’t know how it can be so determined and you can say never again.

“I understand the need to look at new generations, but we will see what is delivered in the end. That’s how coaches are measured.”

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MILWAUKEE, WI – As the Boston Celtics completed their first practice on return from the All-Star break, an imposing figure was unfortunately left on the sideline, in what has become an unfortunately familiar sight so far this season.

While Kyrie Irving and Al Horford among others worked on their three-point shot, Australian big man Aron Baynes was in a lengthy discussion with a Celtics staff member, still recovering from a left foot injury that caused him to miss the six games leading up to the break, his return date still unclear.

The foot injury has been a frustrating interruption for Baynes, who missed 13 games earlier in the season with a broken bone in his left hand. The wretched injury run is in direct contrast to his previous four seasons, where he suited up in 307 of a possible 328 games.

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“Yeah, I’ve watched a few this year, it’s not great,” Baynes said with a shrug.

“We were just watching some film and there was only one of the games I was actually playing, and we’d gone back a bit of a way, so it’s a bit upsetting I’m not out there going to battle with these guys night in night out.”

Widely regarded as one of the locker room leaders on a Boston team laden with individual talent, Baynes has had to find a way to stay involved without being able to assert his physical ‘follow my lead’ approach on the floor.

He admits it hasn’t been easy but stresses the importance of remaining present as much as possible, whether that be at practice or on game night.

Aron Baynes (C) looks on during Boston’s game with Indian in Boston, January 9, 2019 Photo By Matt Stone/ Boston Herald
“I’m on the baseline, I’m with the guys, talking to them. I try not to talk too much, I think sometimes guys get six or seven people in their ear when something bad happens so I’m just trying to offer support when I’m out there and at the same time, I’m just making sure everybody sees me doing the right thing. I’m pretty visible when I’m out doing what I need to do.”

On the back of an unlikely playoff run to the Eastern Conference Finals last season, Baynes was faced with a free agency decision: Look elsewhere for a more prominent role or return to Boston and launch an assault on the Larry O’Brien trophy.

Baynes re-signed with the Celtics, inking a two-year, $[U.S] 10.6 million contract, stating he had “unfinished business” in Boston.

“We were young, we did it with a lot of people that people didn’t expect much from,” Baynes said. “It’s always fun going out and exceeding expectations, but while we exceeded theirs, we didn’t exceed ours, that’s one of those things.”

The Celtics are well placed to once again claim home court advantage in the playoffs, though their current 37-22 win-loss record is already below lofty preseason predictions of 60-65 wins.

Aron Baynes (R) celebrates a Celtics basket during their win over the Hornets, alongside Marcus Smart (L) and Al Hordford (C), in Boston, on January 30, 2019 Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald
While the media microscope is firmly locked on a Boston locker room trying to integrate all their pieces, Baynes says there is little conflict within the group, instead pointing to good health being the key to their chances down the stretch of the NBA season.

“There’s always challenges, every team faces challenges, we’ve just had a few different ones to what we did last year in the playoffs. It’s a good thing though, we still have everyone available, nobody is out long term, which is one of the positives compared to last year.”

“Our depth is so big that it doesn’t matter if we are missing one or two guys, we still have the right guys that are able to step into the line-up and do what’s needed to come out with a win.”

While Baynes continues to work on his return to the floor, an aspect of his game he continues to improve is his shooting from beyond the arc.

4-for-29 from deep across 402 NBA appearances prior to last year’s playoffs, Baynes erupted to knock down 11 of his 23 attempts from beyond the arc in 19 games. With non-shooting big men quickly evaporating from the game, Baynes had been honing his craft in the practice gym for years.

“I’ve always worked on it, it’s something I’ve continued to work on since I first picked up a basketball; it’s one of those things, you have to be able to put the ball in the hoop at the end of the day,” Baynes acknowledged.

Boston’ Aron Baynes looks to pass the ball during the NBA game with Memphis in Boston, January 18, 2019 Adam Glanzman/Getty Images
The difference between having the confidence to shoot at practice and actually pull the trigger in an NBA game, under the bright playoff lights?

“The confidence from Brad [Stevens], having the confidence from your coach telling you to shoot those open shots because it’s good for the team,” Baynes revealed.

That green light from Stevens naturally extends throughout the entirety of the roster.

“As a group we are confident in this team that everyone on this team, when they take a shot we’re confident it’s going in. We stand around watching each other shoot all day so it’s definitely having that added confidence and it certainly helps having that little bit of swagger when you’re shooting the ball.”

As mentioned earlier, the Celtics are in no danger of missing the playoffs, but after last year, this group expects more, and anything less than an appearance in the NBA Finals would be deemed a failure.

“We still have higher expectations of what we can achieve as a group and that’s what we are working towards every time we step on the floor, so hopefully we can take those extra steps and play for a couple extra weeks this season.”

First things first, Baynes just needs to get healthy.

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JUPITER, Fla. — Adam Wainwright stood in front of his customary corner locker following the St. Louis Cardinals’ first workout and said he was healthy.

“Last year going into spring training, I was struggling,” the pitcher said Wednesday. “I was trying to convince myself I was better than I was, but I was doing a poor job of it, I think.”

Wainwright had minor elbow surgery after the 2017 season and was just 2-4 with a 4.46 ERA last year, appearing in only eight regular-season games. His average fastball velocity dropped 1 mph to 89.75 mph, down from 92 mph in 2013, when he went 19-9 and helped the Cardinals reach the World Series.

“I’m excited to play baseball again without having to flinch every time I throw a ball,” Wainwright said.

Wainwright finished second or third in National League Cy Young Award voting four times in six seasons through 2014. But he is 29-19 since then, averaging 18 starts per year.

Coming off a $97.5 million, five-year contract that paid him $19.5 million last season, the 37-year-old right-hander agreed to a $2 million, one-year contract that allows him to earn $8 million in performance bonuses as a starting pitcher, $3 million for relief appearances and $4 million more for games finished.

Wainwright is scheduled to throw his first bullpen session on Thursday.

He is excited about St. Louis’ additions of first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and reliever Andrew Miller.

“When I look at our lineup, and I look at our bullpen and I look at our starting rotation, I don’t see many holes,” Wainwright said.

Cardinals All-Star catcher Yadier Molina loosened his arm and monitored throwing sessions but never put on his shinguards. Molina is recovering from left knee surgery in December and isn’t expected to catch bullpen sessions before the start of exhibition games.

“He’s able to do everything, it’s just a matter of — listen, it’s Day 1 of pitchers and catchers,” St. Louis manager Mike Shildt said of Molina. “We don’t feel like we need to push him to do anything.”

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LAKE FOREST, Ill. – Like predecessor Vic Fangio, new Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano will have close to full autonomy over the team’s top-ranked defense. It will amount to the same arrangement Fangio enjoyed last year with head coach Matt Nagy.

“Chuck has been in this thing for a long time and has had a lot of success,” Nagy said on Monday. “We’re going to start building our relationship day by day just like Vic and I did. From the professional side, he’ll have to gain trust and I’ll have to gain trust back and forth with each other. But that’s the beauty of it and then you do that and you start giving ideas and you start feeling more comfortable in the environment together. But really it’ll be nice and I feel like it’ll be a pretty seamless transition.”

Nagy confirmed that secondary coach Ed Donatell also interviewed for the coordinator position. The Bears could have opted to replace Fangio in-house but instead hired Pagano, who worked as a consultant for the NFL last year after the Colts fired him as their head coach following the 2017 season.

“Ed has been a guy that has done a lot of good things for us, and just have a lot of respect for him,” Nagy said. “But we need to do whatever is best for this organization, the players, the coaches and then you take it all together, and you just weigh it out and you see how it fits. And so, you know, that was definitely something that we looked into and that’s part of the process, for us, too. That was important.

“I think with Chuck, from the times that we talked, and just kind of seeing where he’s at, No. 1, I always say this: It starts off with good people and good, high character, so that’s No. 1. Then you get to the second part. That’s the X’s and O’s part and everything that we talked about in the interview is really what I enjoy and what I think can be really good with this defense.

“He has an attacking-style mentality. He is aggressive. But yet, as we try to talk about all the time, being, you know, calculated, too. You’ve got to be smart with it. But he’s been doing it for a long time. He’s been in this league for a while. He’s had a lot of success. He’s been around some really, really good defenses, some really good players on defense, and you know, the more we talked, the more that I felt like, you know what, this is a really good, perfect fit for us and just really looking forward to it and excited for it.”

Chuck Pagano’s defense could very well use some of the same terminology as Vic Fangio’s. Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Pagano was the Colts’ head coach for six seasons (2012-17), leading Indianapolis to two AFC South championships (2013, 2014) and three consecutive playoff appearances (2012-14). Pagano was fired with a 53-43 regular-season record and a 3-3 mark in the postseason.

Prior to accepting the Colts’ head-coaching job, Pagano served as the Baltimore Ravens’ defensive coordinator in 2011. Pagano coached the Ravens’ secondary from 2008-10.

While in Baltimore, Pagano coached alongside Fangio for two seasons. For that reason, Nagy hinted that Chicago’s defensive terminology might not change much under Pagano.

A 16-year NFL coaching veteran, Pagano takes over arguably the league’s best defense. The Bears ranked No. 1 in the NFL in takeaways (36), interceptions (27) and interceptions returned for touchdowns (five). They also allowed the fewest rushing touchdowns (five), posted the lowest passer rating allowed (72.9) and surrendered the fewest 20-plus-yard plays (46) in 2018.

Additionally, Chicago set a franchise record for fewest rushing yards allowed in a 16-game season.

“We had a lot of success last year as a defense and as a team,” Nagy said. “But as we talked about it to our guys when they left, this is going to be a new year so it’s important that the players trust in us as coaches, and us an organization that we hire the right next people and that’s what we’re in the middle of doing right now.

“You know, so far between Chuck and myself just talking through everything, we have a solid plan on how we’re going to go about doing it and I think everybody can feel really comfortable with what we’re going to do.”