Shipped from Abroad, England: ‘Til the landslide brought them down

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LONDON – The Brendan Rodgers era at Liverpool would have gotten of to a worse start if there was anything to glean from their 3-0 loss at West Bromwich Albion. At least, there wasn’t much to glean as it concerns their prospects to improve this season. After Saturday’s match, we can say Liverpool are incapable of stopping aberrational Zoltan Gera goals and they don’t play well when they’re down to 10 men. But there’s nothing more general – more applicable to future games – which came from the match. No team stops that Gera goal, and teams are generally pretty poor when outmanned. As it concerns Liverpool’s 2012-13, Saturday was neither hint nor revelation.

“It was just one of those games” is one of soccer’s many overused clichés, mostly because “those” is so ill-defined. In the context of Saturday’s game, it means a match where your team had little chance to winning. West Brom’s first goal (Gera’s) was unstoppable, and while Daniel Agger’s straight red was probably the right call, the penalty kick awarded after Martin Skrtel was judged to have fouled Shane Long almost certainly wasn’t. Peter Odemwingie’s conversation, coming minutes after Pepe Reina had stopped Long’s attempt after Agger’s foul, sealed the match.

Without the Skrtel call (at which time the score was 1-0, West Brom), perhaps Liverpool could have held out for half an hour before stealing a goal late. But to score two and allow none while down a man? That was too much.

There is a counter to the claim Liverpool could do little to win Saturday’s match: They could have scored some goals before Agger’s sending off. That’s fair enough, but Liverpool isn’t the first talented team to go an hour without scoring. They were on the road, against a moderately talented opponent, facing a man (former assistant Steve Clarke) who knew their personnel inside and out. They also generated a number of chances for Luis Suarez, with the Uruguayan justifiably disappointed not to have converted two relatively easy headers. Though it’s always precarious to apply “if” to strikers, it’s natural to wonder how the game would have changed if Suarez converted with his normal efficacy.

Rodgers is unlikely to be up late thinking about Suarez’s finishing. Those goals will come, though there are other issues that should cost Rodgers sleep. Suarez was Liverpool’s only real threat, with Fabio Borini, Stewart Downing and Steven Gerrard failing to generate chances. The Reds looked disjointed, often needing to play directly to their main threat rather than crafting better chances. In the middle, Lucas Leiva’s obviously rusty, while at the back (particularly, in the middle), Liverpool looked predictably slow, offering the Baggies little second half resistance.

But Leiva will undoubtedly improve. Rodgers still seems to be looking for help in attack (he shouldn’t be happy having to start Downing), while Jamie Carragher, badly exposed at times on Saturday, won’t play often (though Agger will now serve a suspension thanks to his dismissal).

There’s no need to listen to Chicken Littles, if there are any chirping about after Liverpool’s opener. It was just one of those games.

Two 5-0s, and it could have been worse

Reflexively, you want to give credit when teams score five goals, but the terrible defending we saw from Queens Park Rangers and Norwich City makes it difficult to aggrandize Swansea City and Fulham. With both winners early Premier League leaders (sitting on top of the table thanks to their +5 goal difference), they don’t need adulation from random American bloggers to round out their raucous openers. If I point out the lopsided scores were more the defenses’ doing than the attacks’ skill, they won’t notice, let alone take offense.

Norwich City, under new manager Chris Houghton, were inexplicably stoic, with players often standing still, the Canaries’ midfield and defense cemented to their positions as Fulham weaved through them. Against a Cottager attack that Martin Jol’s based on passing and movement, it was a disastrous approach. Mladen Petric scored twice in his Premier League debut, while the likes of Damien Duff, 20-year-old Alexander Kacaniklic, and Steve Sidwell also open their accounts. It’s not like Fulham needed performances from the likes of Moussa Dembele, Bryan Ruiz, and Clint Dempsey (not in the game day squad) to post the landslide.

Elsewhere in West London, QPR was giving new Swansea manager Michael Laudrup an unexpectedly warm welcome to the Premier League, making new attacking midfielder Michu look like an early steal. The former Rayo Vallecano man was brought to Wales for £2 million this summer. Within an hour of his debut, he had two goals. The first was the result of a botched effort from new goalkeeper Robert Green. The second came after it became clear Park Ji-Sung, failing to track a jogging Michu through midfield on a counter, left his third lung in Manchester.

Nathan Dyer followed with two relatively easy goals, while Scott Sinclair was unbothered as he came off the bench of tee up the fifth.

Queens Park Rangers were disorganized, lacked initiative, and were a poor reflection on a manager who had over a month of training to get his team prepared for this game. Mark Hughes claiming (post-game) his team should have been much better was as much an indictment of his preparation as his players’ performance.

Elsewhere in England …

  • Arsenal dominated Sunderland but could never break through, opening the season with a 0-0 at Emirates Stadium. It’s a disappointing result, but one that should (but likely won’)t leave Gooners encouraged. Santi Cazorla looks like he might be on of the leagues best players. The team constantly generated chances. Alex Song wasn’t missed. The defense was largely fine (if untested). Fans need not be worried unless Arsenal strings together two more of these.
  • Stoke City’s the same as ever, which was almost enough to get three points at Reading. According to the BBC, captain Ryan Shawcross was warned in the first half to calm his team down, the Potters giving the Royals a rude (and rough) welcome back to the Premier League. Perhaps it was only appropriate that a penalty allowed Reading to snare a point on their return.
  • There was unwarranted controversy at the Boleyn Ground, with many onlookers thinking West Ham’s Ricardo Vaz Te was offside before setting up Kevin Nolan’s goal against Aston Villa. Replays showed Mike Dean made the correct call, noting Ciaran Clark played a header back to the Hammers’ attacker. Of greater importance than the perceived blown call to Villans: Their team gave no impression this will be anything but a long, dramatic year for the Midlands’ biggest club.
  • In the Match of the Day, Tottenham gave fans reason to believe the transition to Andre Villas-Boas will be a smooth one. Unfortunately or them, Newcastle was still able to take a 2-1 win. Though Spurs looked the better side for much of Saturday’s match at Sports Direct Arena, a great second half goal from Demba Ba and penalty kick drawn (and converted) by Hatem Ben Arfa were enough for the Magpies to take three points. Spurs missed Luka Modric and need more striking power (Harry Kane was their forward off the bench). Perhaps instead of creating undo drama (and wasting time) with Modric, Daniel Levy can start addressing this squad’s needs?

La Liga: Sevilla win late to move even with Atletico Madrid in 3rd

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MADRID (AP) Wissam Ben Yedder scored three minutes after entering the game to give Sevilla a late 2-1 win over 10-man Celta Vigo in the Spanish league on Thursday.

The victory moved Sevilla even on points with third-place Atletico Madrid with four matches left. Third place guarantees an automatic spot in the Champions League next season, while the fourth-placed team has to go through a playoff.

Ben Yedder netted the winner from close range after a low cross by Samir Nasri in the 79th minute, beating a defender to the ball and hitting the top of the net with a right-footed shot.

“It was a complex game but the team was able to overcome the difficulties,” Sevilla coach Jorge Sampaoli said.

Joaquin Correa put the host ahead after halftime, and Iago Aspas equalized by converting a penalty kick just minutes later. Aspas did not celebrate the goal out of respect to fans of his former club.

Sevilla dominated from the start and was pressuring vigorously in search of the winner, especially after Celta went a man down when midfielder Pablo Hernandez was sent off with a second yellow card in the 56th with the game 1-1.

Sergio Escudero and Nasri each struck the crossbar a few minutes apart late in the second half, and Vicente Iborra also had hit the woodwork earlier in the game played under steady rain in Seville.

It was the third win in four matches for Sevilla after a streak of five games without a win.

Sevilla and Atletico are level on points, but the Madrid club is ahead on the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Top PL Storylines: Bye-bye, St. Totteringham’s Day? So long, Sunderland?

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Ahead of Week 34 of the 2016-17 Premier League season, we’re most looking forward to keeping an eye on the following storylines…

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Cancel St. Totteringham’s Day?

8,018 days (otherwise known as 22.9 years) have passed since Tottenham Hotspur last finished above Arsenal in the Premier League. First of all, that’s a lot of days. Secondly, the time to reset that clock is nearly upon us, as Tottenham take a 14-point lead into Sunday’s North London derby (Watch live, 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com) — perhaps the final one to be played at White Hart Lane. With Arsenal having only five games left to play after Sunday, a 17-point deficit would be mathematically impossible to overcome, and would guarantee Spurs’ first PL finish above Arsenal since the spring of 1995.

The fact that Spurs could end that embarrassing, heinous streak in a game against Arsenal, in perhaps their next-to-last game at White Hart Lane, and maybe even close to within a single point of Chelsea in the title race… it’s almost all too timely and too perfect to believe it could really happen… to Spurs.


Finish the job

With all due respect to Middlesbrough (home), West Bromwich Albion (away), Watford (home) and Sunderland (home), Sunday’s trip to Goodison Park, where they’ve lost on their last two visits (all competitions) and they’ll take on seventh-place Everton (Watch live, 9:05 a.m. ET, on CNBC and NBCSports.com), is far and away the toughest remaining fixture on Chelsea’s schedule as they chase a fifth PL-era title (fifth in all eras). Having booked their spot in the FA Cup final by beating Spurs last weekend, Antonio Conte is dreaming of — and a favorite to win — a double in his first season at Stamford.


Someone has to finish top-four

Ahead of the weekend, two points separate Liverpool (third), Manchester City (fourth) and Manchester United (fifth), with Arsenal another four back in sixth (but possessing a game in hand). Given all the points dropped by each of the aforementioned sides in recent weeks, it’s important to remember that someone has to finish third and fourth in the PL this season.

We’ve already discussed Arsenal’s titanic task, so here’s the challenges facing the other three this round: Liverpool, at Watford (Monday, 3 p.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com); Man City, at Middlesbrough (Sunday, 9:05 a.m. ET, on  NBCSports.com); Manchester United, vs. Swansea City (7 a.m. ET, on CNBC and NBCSports.com).


So long, Sunderland?

For five seasons now, Sunderland have flirted with relegation from the PL; and every previous season, they’ve pulled a rabbit out of the hat and managed to stay up. This season, though, under David Moyes, there appears to be no rabbit. With five games to go, safety is a whopping 12 points away, which means a loss to Bournemouth on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET, on NBCSports.com), coupled with a win or draw by 17th-place Hull City, would officially send Sunderland to the Championship next season. If the Black Cats somehow find their way out of this predicament, a northeastern knighthood awaits Mr. Moyes.

French authorities investigating 2018, 2022 World Cup bids

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PARIS (AP) French financial prosecutors are investigating the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups and have heard former FIFA president Sepp Blatter.

A person with direct knowledge of the investigation told The Associated Press on Thursday that France’s financial prosecutor services (PNF) opened the investigation on grounds of private corruption, criminal association, influence peddling, and benefiting from influence peddling relating to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, which were awarded to Russia and Qatar respectively.

The person spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the case.

Blatter was questioned in Switzerland last week as a witness, the same person told the AP.

The office of the attorney general of Switzerland said in a statement that “at the request of and in the context of proceedings being conducted by French justice authorities, it has questioned Mr. Joseph Blatter in his capacity as a person providing information on the 20th April 2017 in Zurich.”

The PNF opened its investigation last year.

FIFA has also been targeted by investigations led by Swiss and US authorities. Last month, FIFA sent 1,300 pages of internal investigation reports into suspected bribery and corruption to Switzerland’s attorney general. The documents complete a 22-month probe by legal firm Quinn Emanuel, which FIFA retained in the fallout from United States and Swiss federal prosecutors revealing their sprawling investigations of soccer corruption in May 2015.

Blatter said last week that he met with U.S. Department of Justice investigators and insisted he was not a suspect in their bribery and corruption case linked to FIFA.

Blatter was suspended from office in September 2015 and later banned from soccer by the FIFA ethics committee.

Johannsson expected to leave Bremen this summer — is MLS next?

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Aron Johannsson’s time at Werder Bremen is all but finished, as the 26-year-old American-born, Icelandic-raised striker is expected to leave the club this summer after 22 months with Die Werderaner.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage | MLS ]

Having failed to make much of an impact during his second season in the Bundesliga, following a few promising days early in the fall of 2015, the German press stated on Thursday, in no uncertain terms, “Aron Johannsson is leaving the northern club” — quotes from Kicker (translation courtesy of Google Translate):

In addition, Aron Johannsson is leaving the northern club. The US boy was not able to get through the hard competition in the storm, claimed more time, which can hardly be guaranteed in the next season. The fact that Baumann is already talking about finding a meaningful solution with the striker in the summer can be interpreted as follows: Johannsson will leave Werder.

Since various bits and pieces are lost in the above translation, allow us to offer a translation of the translation: the “hard competition in the storm” refers to the three or four strikers presently ahead of him in the pecking order. Johannsson fell down the depth chart due in large part to a hip injury which cost him the final seven months of last season.

Johannsson was recently quoted as saying, “It’s not my desire to leave, but at the end of the day it’s important that I play. I love football, but I need to play to be happy.”

[ MORE: John Brooks hip injury is worrying ahead of World Cup qualifiers ]

So, what’s next for Johannsson?

He can probably forget about a move to a top-division team in any of Europe’s premier leagues (England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France). A move back to Holland, where he starred at AZ Alkmaar (39 goals in 81 games) before moving to Bremen, would make sense if his goal is to stay in Europe at all costs. Another strong season (just a half, even) could earn him another shot with a first-division side roughly the size of Bremen.

Then, there’s MLS, which Johannsson’s been linked with before, and has publicly expressed a desire to join one day. As a current U.S. national team player, a move to MLS would mean a trip through the league’s allocation order for Johannsson. As of this posting, the Houston Dynamo hold the no. 1 spot in the allocation order, with Columbus Crew SC, San Jose Earthquakes, Minnesota United and Orlando City SC rounding out the next five.

[ WATCH: If you haven’t Darlington Nagbe’s latest golazo ]

Any team in MLS could land Johannsson by acquiring the top spot in the allocation order, via trade, and agreeing (what would almost certainly be) a Designated Player contract with him.

At the age of 26, Johannsson will likely feel there is still something left for him to accomplish in Europe. A strong showing in this summer’s Gold Cup (he’s a perfect candidate for Bruce Arena’s “B-team”) could open plenty of eyes — and doors. Money talks, though, just as the opportunity to be the face of the franchise and score a boatload of goals in MLS might also do.