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They Got to the Premier League. Staying? That’s the Hard Part.

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LONDON — The thing about Aleksandar Mitrovic is that he is not just a striker, barrel-chested and shaven-headed and keen-eyed. He is not simply a Serbian international, a fairly constant presence for his country for the better part of a decade. Nor is he merely something of a national hero, scorer of the goal that sent his country to the World Cup.

He is also, it turns out, an existential question.

Rafael Benítez, one of Mitrovic’s long line of former managers, has been considering the conundrum of his former protégé for about 15 minutes when he hits upon it. “There is a saying in Spain,” said Benítez, a man never short of an aphorism. “It is better to be the mouse’s head than the lion’s tail.”

What Mitrovic must decide, Benítez said, is whether that is enough for him.

Few players present quite such a distinct dichotomy as Mitrovic. In alternating years as his club, Fulham, has yo-yoed in and out of the Premier League every year since 2018, the 27-year-old forward has at times been one of the most ruthless finishers in European soccer, an implacable goal-scoring machine, and at others a stalled engine, a dulled blade, ineffective and anonymous.

The difference, of course, is the division where he finds himself. In the second-tier Championship, Mitrovic’s record is peerless. He averages a goal every 117 minutes. He is already 12th on the division’s all-time scoring list. Last year, he made 44 appearances and scored 43 goals. Nobody has ever scored more goals in a single Championship season. The previous record was 31.

That his output should diminish in the Premier League, where Fulham will return yet again this season, is hardly a surprise. He will, after all, be facing a higher caliber of defender, and Fulham, a cruiserweight sort of a club, will struggle to craft quite so many chances for him. It is natural, then, that Mitrovic should struggle to score quite so many goals: 11 goals in his first top-flight season at Fulham, and only three in his last.

What is noteworthy, though, is the scale of the drop-off. By the time Fulham was last relegated, in 2021, Mitrovic was only a fleeting part of the team. A player who was far too good for the Championship appeared to be not good enough at all for the Premier League.

He is not the only one caught in that same quandary. Mitrovic is, instead, simply the starkest illustration of a dilemma facing a swath of players and, increasingly, a select cadre of clubs, including Fulham. They represent possibly the most pressing issue facing English soccer on the dawn of a new Premier League season: the teams that find themselves lost somewhere between the mouse’s head and the lion’s tail.

Rick Parry has stopped using the term “parachute payments.” That might have been how they were designed — a way to cushion the economic blow for teams descending from the Premier League and landing in the Championship, a safety net for the loss of the vast television income guaranteed by the former — but it no longer captures their impact.

Instead, Parry, the chairman of the English Football League, the body that oversees the second, third and fourth tiers of English soccer, has given the payments a name that better encapsulates their effect. The three years of extra income, totaling $110 million, function now as “trampoline payments,” Parry said.

Fulham provides an apposite example. The reason that it is so easy to see the contrast in Mitrovic’s fortunes in the Premier League and the Championship is because he has spent the last four seasons bouncing between them: Fulham was relegated in 2019, promoted in 2020, relegated again, promoted again.

Norwich City has done much the same (promoted in 2019 and 2021, relegated in 2020 and 2022), while Watford (relegated in 2020 and 2022, promoted in between) and Bournemouth (relegated in 2020, promoted this spring) have proved only a little less volatile.

That those teams should monopolize the promotion places does not surprise Parry. It is not just that the money they receive from the Premier League allows them to run budgets far higher than the majority of their opponents in the Championship. It is the fact that so few teams in the division now receive those payments.

The trampoline clubs account for so many of the promotion and relegation slots in recent years that only five teams — the three ejected from the Premier League last season, as well as West Bromwich Albion and Sheffield United — of the division’s 24 clubs will receive parachute payments this year.

For most of the rest, automatic promotion is effectively out of reach.

“The Championship is a great league,” Parry said. “It’s incredibly competitive and unpredictable, as long as you accept that two of the relegated teams will go straight back up.”

Though he sees the division’s playoffs — which widen the pool of promotion hopefuls before crushing the dreams of all but one of them — as a “saving grace, giving everyone else a target,” he believes that the entrenched inequality serves to entice owners into unsustainable spending to try and level the playing field. “There is a feeling that you have to over-invest,” he said.

But while the ongoing health of the Championship is Parry’s central concern, he argues that predictability should be a source of anxiety to the Premier League, too. “It is a problem for them, too,” he said. “Its selling point is how competitive it is: for the title, for the Champions League places, at the bottom. If you know which teams are going down, then some of the drama is lost.”

As ever, at the dawn of a new season, there is a conviction at Fulham that the cycle can be broken. Marco Silva, the club’s fourth manager in four years, has been studying the root causes of the relegations suffered by his predecessors in 2019 and 2021. He is confident that he can avoid the same trapdoors. “We have to write a different story,” he told The Athletic.

Like all of those teams caught on English soccer’s great cliff edge, though, the balance is delicate. Fulham, like Watford and Norwich before it, has to spend enough money to stand a chance of remaining in the Premier League, but not spend so much that — in the event of failure — the club’s future is endangered. (The lavish spree undertaken after promotion in 2020 backfired so spectacularly that the idea of recruiting too heavily in preparation for the Premier League has entered the lexicon as “doing a Fulham.”)

For most of those clubs, the watchword is “sustainability,” said Lee Darnbrough, a scout and analyst who has spent much of his career working for teams trying to tread the fine line between the Premier League and the Championship. Darnbrough has spent time at Norwich, at Burnley and at West Brom, before landing in his current job, as the head of recruitment at Hull City.

At West Brom — English soccer’s most traditional yo-yo club — that search for sustainability led the team’s executives to budget for a place among the “top 25” teams in the country, Darnbrough said: neither assuming a place in the Premier League, nor accepting a slot in the Championship.

“In my time, we didn’t finish any higher than 17th in the Premier League or any lower than fourth in the Championship,” he said. “It was sustainable like that. I wouldn’t say we were comfortable with it, but we knew where we stood. The challenge was to avoid yo-yoing between the divisions, but we knew the parameters.”

The ambition, of course, was always to find a way to survive that first season, to turn the club into something of a fixture, as the likes of Crystal Palace and (more spectacularly) Leicester City have managed in recent years. “The problem is knowing at what point you are established,” Darnbrough said. “You can’t stay up once and then take the shackles off straightaway.”

For a whole clutch of teams, that point may never truly arrive. Parachute payments may distort the Championship, but they are a drop in the ocean compared to what a team has earned once it has enjoyed three, four or five consecutive years in the Premier League.

That, Parry said, creates a cycle in which the teams who come up are always likely to go back down. “There is a reason the Premier League clubs love parachute payments,” he said.

Fulham and Bournemouth, like Watford and Norwich and West Brom before them, are trapped in the same no man’s land as Mitrovic, caught between the mouse’s head and the lion’s tail.

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College Football Playoff predictions: Georgia vs. Ohio State, Michigan vs. TCU

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And then there were four. 

After a dramatic conference championship weekend that saw two of the nation’s top four teams suffer losses, the committee finalized one of the least controversial fields in the history of the College Football Playoff: Georgia, Michigan, TCU, and Ohio State. 

There was little drama heading into Sunday’s selections, but there’s plenty of intrigue within the matchups themselves. Can Georgia maintain its title defense against a talented and hungry Ohio State squad? And will Michigan stay undefeated against this plucky TCU squad? 

Here are the odds at BetMGM for the two semifinal matchups and our early lean on each:

Warren Brinson #97 and Tyrion Ingram-Dawkins #93 of the Georgia Bulldogs celebrate
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College Football playoff predictions and picks 

No. 1 Georgia (-6.5, 60.5) vs. No. 4 Ohio State (Dec. 31, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN)

When I first saw the odds for this game, I was surprised that Georgia wasn’t dealing as a touchdown favorite or bigger. Sure enough, bettors have already pushed this line to 6.5, and I wouldn’t be shocked to see this one cross the key number before kickoff later this month. 

That’s no disrespect to Ohio State, which clearly owns one of the three best rosters in the country. In fact, the argument for the underdog here is simple: These teams were seen as near-equals when the season began, and the Buckeyes lost one game all year to one of the other playoff finalists. 

Clearly, that’s an oversimplification. That loss came on the heels of a tricky win at Maryland, which came two weeks after a near-stumble at one-win Northwestern. Compare that to Georgia, which made quick work of LSU in last week’s SEC final — flashing elite offensive upside with a 50-piece to go alongside the most dominant defense in the country. 

Emeka Egbuka #2 of the Ohio State Buckeyes
Emeka Egbuka #2 of the Ohio State Buckeyes
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Yes, there’s plenty of talent on this Ohio State roster. That wasn’t enough to hold up against Michigan’s offense, which gashed this unit with four touchdowns of 69-plus yards even with superstar Blake Corum (knee) on the sidelines for most of it — a somewhat predictable result for a Buckeyes secondary that hadn’t truly been tested all year. 

I’m skeptical of that unit holding up against Stetson Bennett and this resurgent Bulldogs offense, while C.J. Stroud and Co. have their toughest test yet against this monstrous Georgia front. Kirby Smart’s team blew out Michigan in a similar spot in last year’s semifinals, and I don’t expect this one to be all that much closer. 

Pick: Georgia -6.5 (BetMGM)

Members of the Michigan Wolverines celebrate with Donovan Edwards #7 of the Michigan Wolverines
Members of the Michigan Wolverines celebrate with Donovan Edwards #7 of the Michigan Wolverines
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No. 2 Michigan (-9, 59.5) vs. No. 3 TCU (Dec. 31, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN) 

The biggest question heading into this year’s playoff selection wasn’t really whether TCU deserved to be one of the top four teams in the country. Its résumé answered that. The bigger issue at hand: are the Horned Frogs any good? 

Obviously, that’s a bit hyperbolic. This team had to be good to survive a sneakingly loaded Big 12 unscathed before losing in the conference title game to a team it had already beat earlier this season. It also ranked in the top 10 by most advanced metrics with a Heisman Trophy contender at quarterback in Max Duggan. 

Did this group ever really look the part of a playoff team, though? The Horned Frogs won seven straight games by 10 or fewer points at one point, regularly falling behind before relying on late-game heroics. That came back to bite them last week, when their second big deficit of the year against Kansas State was too big to overcome. 

There was rarely a doubt for Michigan, which led the country in average scoring margin (+26.7) and won nine of its 12 games by at least 20 points. That includes the best win by any team this season: a 22-point romp over the very Ohio State team that most consider to be better than TCU, rankings aside 

Max Duggan #15 of the TCU Horned Frogs
Max Duggan #15 of the TCU Horned Frogs
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Losing Corum late in the season was a tough blow on paper, but quarterback J.J. McCarthy has come alive late in the year to round out one of the most complete teams in football. TCU deserves credit for its phenomenal season to date, but that should end in convincing fashion on the big stage. 

Pick: Michigan -9 (BetMGM)

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Fantasy football Week 14 waiver wire advice: Act quick after big injuries

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Quick hitters and waiver wire advice for a handful of notable players after Week 13 of the fantasy football season:

Hire learning

Zonovan Knight RB, Jets

A week late to this, because we thought James Robinson would get worked into a significant role. We no longer harbor that belief. We like Knight as long as Michael Carter remains sidelined.

DeeJay Dallas RB, Seahawks

Rashaad Penny and Travis Homer already were out. Then rookie starter Kenneth Walker went down with an ankle issue Sunday. If he misses time, expect Dallas to lead a two-headed committee with Tony Jones Jr.

D.J. Chark WR, Lions

The Detroit offense is rolling, and with Chark looking 100 percent again, he should provide enough production to warrant an occasional fantasy start as Amon-Ra St. Brown’s sidekick.

Greg Dulcich TE, Broncos

Led all tight ends in Week 13 targets (8) heading into Monday. With that kind of volume, he can produce even with the nadir version of Russell Wilson as his QB.

The Seahawks’ DeeJay Dallas
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Promote from within

Geno Smith QB, Seahawks

With “Seattle running back” now the most dangerous job in America, expect the Seahawks to lean more heavily on the passing game. So the Great Geno Awakening becomes even “awakener.”

Brian Robinson RB, Commanders

Washington has a bye next week, but we like the volume we’ve seen recently from Robinson. Reminds us of James Conner: Not terribly flashy, but good enough to produce if given enough opportunity.

AJ Dillon RB, Packers

Had a nice game while Aaron Jones was dealing with a shin issue. If that issue lingers past the upcoming bye week, we’re on board with starting Dillon, even against a relatively stout Rams run D.

Cam Akers RB, Rams

Akers has at various times been the assumed heir to the feature role to banished to the bench. Now, he’s back to toil with our emotions and rosters again. Gets bad run defenses next two weeks — Raiders and Packers.

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NFL power rankings for Week 14: Bengals rising with new team on top

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Any predictions of a Super Bowl 47 rematch took a big hit last weekend.

The San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens both lost their starting quarterbacks. Make that two season-ending injuries at quarterback in the top-heavy NFC for the 49ers, as free-agent-to-be Jimmy Garoppolo joins Trey Lance on the bench.

The news is potentially better for the Ravens, who consider Lamar Jackson’s availability “week to week” with a sprained knee. The Ravens’ 2021 season fell apart in December when Jackson missed five starts. The AFC — and the North Division’s hard-charging Bengals — doesn’t offer much margin for error again.

Here are The Post’s NFL power rankings for Week 14:

1. Philadelphia Eagles 11-1 (2)

A.J. Brown finished with eight catches for 119 yards and two touchdowns in his first game back in Tennessee since a blockbuster trade on draft night. Jalen Hurts keeps climbing up MVP ballots, as he threw for three touchdowns and ran for another in a 35-10 win against the Titans. The Eagles are 11-1 for the fourth time — first since 2004.

Jalen Hurts and the Eagles are back at No. 1.
AP

2. Buffalo Bills 9-3 (4)

Josh Allen became the first player in NFL history with three seasons of at least 25 touchdown passes and five rushing touchdowns as the Bills won in Foxborough, Mass., for the third straight time, with a 24-10 victory against the Patriots. The Bills, who had started 0-2 in the AFC East, pressured Mac Jones plenty, even without the injured Von Miller.

3. Dallas Cowboys 9-3 (5)

Who needs free agent Odell Beckham Jr.? Dak Prescott threw two touchdown passes to Michael Gallup and another to CeeDee Lamb in a 54-19 demolition of the Colts. Tony Pollard rushed for two scores. One interception helped turn a one-point lead into eight before halftime and a second essentially ended the game with less than 11 minutes remaining.

4. Minnesota Vikings 10-2 (6)

The Vikings improved to 9-0 in one-score games and completed a four-game sweep of the AFC East with a 27-22 win against the Jets. Camryn Bynum sealed the victory with an interception at the 1-yard line with 10 seconds remaining, assuring that a 20-3 third-quarter lead didn’t go to waste. Justin Jefferson scored a touchdown and set up another with a tough over-the-middle catch.

5. Cincinnati Bengals 8-4 (8)

Joe Burrow is proving to be a worthy nemesis for Patrick Mahomes. The Bengals beat the Chiefs for the third time in the 2022 calendar year, with Burrow completing 6 of 7 passes on the game-winning 53-yard touchdown drive. Ja’Marr Chase returned, but Joe Mixon did not. Samaje Perine rushed for 106 yards in Mixon’s absence.

Bengals
Tee Higgins celebrates during the Bengal’s win over the Chiefs.
USA TODAY Sports

6. Kansas City Chiefs 9-3 (1)

Harrison Butker missed a potential game-tying field goal as time expired in a 27-24 loss to the Bengals. The bigger surprise was that Travis Kelce lost a fumble at the end of a 19-yard gain with the Chiefs leading by four points early in the fourth quarter. The loss allowed Buffalo to take the lead in the chase for the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs.

7. San Francisco 49ers 8-4 (7)

Welcome to the Brock Purdy Era. Garoppolo suffered a broken foot in a 33-17 win against the Dolphins. The last pick of the 2022 draft, Purdy didn’t look like a Mr. Irrelevant as he threw for 210 yards and two touchdowns. A dominant defense forced two interceptions that led to field goals and scored a touchdown on a fumble return.

8. Miami Dolphins 8-4 (3)

Head coach Mike McDaniels’ first game against the 49ers since spending five years there as an offensive assistant did not go well. Lip readers caught him admitting that he “f–ked up” after burning a first-half timeout. The Dolphins’ streaks of five straight wins and four games with 30-plus points were snapped despite one Tua Tagovailoa-to-Tyreek Hill touchdown bomb.

9. Baltimore Ravens 8-4 (9)

Tyler Huntley led a 16-play, 91-yard drive (aided by two defensive penalties) that he capped with a 2-yard touchdown run with 28 seconds remaining to beat the Broncos, 10-9. The defense’s 14-game streak of forcing a takeaway ended, but Roquan Smith (11 tackles) had his most-active game since he was acquired at the trade deadline.

Ravens
Lamar Jackson
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10. Tennessee Titans 7-5 (10)

Treylon Burks — drafted with the pick acquired from the Eagles for A.J. Brown — caught a touchdown pass, but Ryan Tannehill (141 passing yards and six sacks) and Derrick Henry (11 carries for 30 yards) couldn’t get anything going. In losing a second straight, the Titans’ last six possessions ended with five punts and a turnover on downs.

11. Seattle Seahawks 7-5 (12)

12. Washington Commanders 7-5-1 (11)

13.New York Giants 7-4-1 (13)

Five different players had sacks, including Azeez Ojulari’s that led to a fumble he also recovered. That takeaway set up Daniel Jones’ lone touchdown pass in a 20-20 tie against Washington, which has lost just once in its last eight games. Nearly automatic kicker Graham Gano missed a 58-yard field goal into the wind as time expired in overtime.

14. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 6-6 (17)

15. New England Patriots 6-6 (15)

16. New York Jets 7-5 (16)

One touchdown on six trips into the red zone and three conversions on 16 third downs weighed down all the positives in the loss to the Vikings. Garrett Wilson went off with eight catches for 162 yards, but a late fourth-and-goal throw went to Braxton Berrios and slipped through his fingers. Mike White’s 57 passes are too many for a supposedly run-based offense.

17. Los Angeles Chargers 6-6 (14)

18. Pittsburgh Steelers 5-7 (22)

19. Detroit Lions 5-7 (23)

20. Las Vegas Raiders 5-7 (25)

21. Atlanta Falcons 5-8 (18)

22. Arizona Cardinals 4-8 (21)

23. Cleveland Browns 5-7 (28)

24. Green Bay Packers 5-8 (26)

25. Indianapolis Colts 4-8-1 (20)

26. Jacksonville Jaguars 4-8 (19)

27. New Orleans Saints 4-9 (24)

28. Carolina Panthers 4-8 (27)

29. Los Angeles Rams 3-9 (29)

30. Chicago Bears 3-10 (30)

31. Denver Broncos 3-9 (31)

32. Houston Texans 1-10-1 (32)

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