Shipped from Abroad, England: Paths of Villas-Boas, Rodgers diverge

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On a weekend where José Mourinho was left searching for answers in Spain, two of his former associates diverged in England. Previously, Tottenham manager André Villas-Boas and Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers had been sprinting hastily down the same pothole-ridden road, winless starts with new clubs leaving supporters checking their gardening supplies, looking for the crumbled paper pouch holding rashly discarded seeds of doubt.

Villas-Boas gave Spurs supporters reason to abandon the search. Thanks to two goals from Jermain Defoe, Tottenham posted their first victory of the season, a 3-1 win over Reading. Given the Royals are newly promoted (and yet to win on their return), Spurs’ win might be seen as obligatory, given their top four aspirations. But the three points were also just deserts for a squad that had performed better than their 0-1-2 (W-D-L) record. Beguiling swoons late in matches had undermined Villas-Boas’s first games, but after Tottenham scored twice in the final 20 minutes at the Madejski, the biggest qualm with the new manager’s regime was obliterated. Spurs can move on.

Closing the deal

Even though Spurs scored twice in Sunday’s final hour, a late goal from Reading’s Hal Robson-Kanu continued Tottenham’s pattern of conceding in a match’s last 10 minutes.

Score
(Spurs-opponent)
Date Opponent at 79′ Final
Aug. 18 at Newcastle 1-1 1-2
Aug. 25 West Brom 1-0 1-1
Sept. 1 Norwich 1-0 1-1
Sept. 16 at Reading 3-0 3-1

Liverpool, however, can not. A late Luis Suárez goal earned the Reds a good point at Sunderland, but the accomplishment is overshadowed by Liverpool’s record: 0-2-2. Their 17th place standing is Hodgsonian, even if their soccer is not. Showing continued (if subtle) progress in Rodgers’ system and style, Liverpool outshot Sunderland 23-7 (6-1 in shots on target), dominating the Opta possession, 66-34. Those numbers mean nothing as they concern Saturday’s final score, but they are hints – clues in the mystery that is Brendan Rodgers’ start. Results have eluded him, but there’s reason to believe they’ll come.

Just like Villas-Boas had his boogeyman, Rodgers has his. Spurs’ boss lifted The Curse of the Late Match Swoon (which would have been the title of the eighth Harry Potter book), but Rodgers can’t seem to find a non-Suárez scorer. Of Liverpool’s three goals on the season, Suárez has two, with nobody looking likely to join him. Raheem Sterling continues to enthrall with his pace and skill, but he’s lacking in final product. At 17, he can’t be expected to become the complete package overnight. Liverpool’s other attacker, Fabio Borini is a more worrisome case. Productive in Italy after being sold by Chelsea, Borini (21) is now scoreless in eight Premier League appearances, which wouldn’t be so troublesome if there were signs the drought would end.

After a Thursday trip to Switzerland to face Young Boys, Liverpool returns home for the season’s first North West Derby. It’s a game for which Steven Gerrard has typically stepped up, though Rodgers’ team doesn’t need Gerrard heroics. They need the plan to click. They need to start getting goals from the people who are supposed to score them. A few from Gerrard, Jonjo Shelvey and Joe Allen would be nice, but Liverpool needs long term, consistent help for Suárez. That would be more valuable than  an veteran inspiration.

Mixed starts for Premier League’s promoted sides

Of the three clubs that sit below Liverpool in the table, two were in the Championship last season. Reading’s opening day draw at home to Stoke is their only point, while Southampton has had to play Manchester City, Manchester United, and Arsenal (losing 6-1 on Saturday) en route to four straight losses.

A season after all three promoted teams stayed up, this year’s trio are off to a 2-7-2 start. If it wasn’t for West Ham United, it’d be much worse. Their point at Norwich on Saturday pushed them to 2-1-1 on the season, though the Hammers were always bound to be a special case.

Like Newcastle three years ago, West Ham should have never one down. They were too big, too well-resourced – too talented. Left to the guidance of Avram Grant, new owners David Gold and David Sullivan saw the tactics of neglect sink the team into 20th place despite.

West Ham had the talent to be a decent Premier League side, and although Scott Parker has since moved on, they still do. That they had to go through a promotion playoff this spring to get back to the Premiership shows how much they’d taken the second division for granted. Now that they’re back in the top tier, there’s no reason West Ham can’t finish mid-table.

How they stand

Champions: 1. Chelsea (4 gp/10 pts), 2. Manchester United (4/9), 3. Arsenal (4/8), 4. Manchester City (4/8)

Europa:5. Swansea City (4/7), 6. West Bromwich Albion (4/7), 7. West Ham United (4/7)

Relegation:18. Queens Park Rangers (4/2), 19. Reading (3/1), 20. Southampton (4/0)

Results:
Norwich City 0-0 West Ham United
Arsenal 6-1 Southampton
Aston Villa 2-0 Swansea City
Fulham 3-0 West Bromwich Albion
Manchester United 4-0 Wigan Athletic
Queens Park Rangers 0-0 Chelsea
Stoke City 1-1 Manchester City
Sunderland 1-1 Liverpool
Reading 1-3 Tottenham
Everton-Newcastle (Monday)

Elsewhere in England

  • See that top our to the right? Boy, that didn’t take long.
  • Despite their first blemish, Chelsea stay on top of the league after their 0-0 draw with Queens Park Rangers, a team that gave up five the last time they played a Loftus Road. Most disappointing for Chelsea: The nil-nil was a fair result.
  • Roberto Mancini decried Peter Crouch’s handball, but unfortunate goals happen to everybody. It’s not fair, but it’s something millions-approaching-billions in player expenditures could theoretically overcome. Instead, Manchester City was held to a 1-1 at Stoke.
  • Manchester United was shutout by Everton to begin the season. Since, they’ve scored a league-leading 10 goals, four of which came against Wigan on Saturday. Wayne Rooney is not missed.
  • Aston Villa got a highlight reel shot from Matthew Lowton and a late insurance tally from Christian Bentenke to post the first win of the Paul Lambert era. The bigger story: The Swansea goal machine was held under two for the first time this season.

Barkley ineligible to make Chelsea debut in FA Cup replay

Photo credit: Chelsea FC / Twitter: @chelseafc
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Ross Barkley was expected — and himself expected — to make his Chelsea debut on Wednesday, when the Blues host Championship side Norwich City in a third-round FA Cup replay at Stamford Bridge.

Alas, the 24-year-old English midfielder has been ruled ineligible due to a lesser-known and -applied rules surrounding transfers and player registration.

[ MORE: Tuesday’s 3rd-round replay roundup | Wednesday preview ]

Barkley completed his move from Everton to Chelsea, for $20 million, on Jan. 5, the day before Chelsea and Norwich drew 0-0 at Carrow Road. In order to be eligible for Wednesday’s replay, Barkley is required to have completed his transfer prior to the noon cut-off the day prior to the original tie. While the time of official approval is unknown, Barkley’s move wasn’t announced by the club until after 5 p.m. in the UK.

As such, Chelsea will attempt to set up a behind-closed-doors friendly this week, in order to provide Barkley a bit of game action as he builds fitness and sharpness ahead of a potential debut against Brighton & Hove Albion on Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com). Barkley hasn’t seen a single minute of first-team action this season after suffering a serious hamstring injury in the summer.

FA Cup preview: Three more PL sides face 3rd-round replays

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Three more Premier League sides, including a top-four fighter, attempt to join a dozen of their top-flight contemporaries in the fourth round of the FA Cup on Wednesday…

[ MORE: Tuesday’s 3rd-round replay roundup ]

Chelsea and Swansea City host Championship opposition in the form of Norwich City and Wolverhampton Wanderers, respectively, while Bournemouth will make the 500-mile roundtrip to take on League One side Wigan Athletic.

The Blues, who now sit fourth in the PL after their disappointing 0-0 draw with Leicester City, could manage only a scoreless draw with the Canaries at Carrow Road earlier this month. They are winless in their last four games across all competitions — all draws — including their League Cup semifinal first-leg draw with Arsenal last week; the last three of those all finished without a single goal scored. Chelsea, who are tied with Liverpool with the fourth-most FA Cups in their history (7), lost out to Arsenal in last season’s final at Wembley Stadium.

Swansea are undoubtedly the side on highest Cupset alert, as Wolves are the runaway leaders and champions-elect in the Championship (10 points clear after 27 of 46 rounds played), thus able to devote more attention to the FA Cup than the typical second-division side. With the two sides separated by just a single place in the English footballing pyramid (Swansea, 20th in the PL; Wolves, 1st in the Championship), they appear destined to swap places by the end of May.

Meanwhile, Bournemouth’s punishment for conceding a pair of early goals to a side currently 32 places below them in the pyramid, is the long, midweek trip from the south coast to the DW Stadium in the northwest of England. It was the Premier Leaguers who needed a two second-half goals, including Steve Cook‘s 90th-minute equalizer, to draw level at home in the first meeting.

Tuesday’s FA Cup replay actionFULL ROUNDUP

Leicester City 2-0 Fleetwood Town
West Ham United 1-0 (AET) Shrewsbury Town
Mansfield Town 1-4 Cardiff City
Sheffield Wednesday 2-0 Carlisle United
Reading 3-0 Stevenage

Agent: 37-year-old Ronaldinho has retired

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SAO PAULO (AP) The brother and agent of 2005 Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldinho announced Tuesday that the former Brazil and Barcelona playmaker has retired from football.

Roberto Assis made the announcement to Brazilian media on behalf of the 37-year-old midfielder, who played his last professional match in 2015 for Brazil’s Fluminense.

“Ronnie’s professional career is over. He wants to be a football ambassador, do charity, and work with his friends in music from now on,” Assis told The Associated Press.

Assis hopes to schedule some farewell matches for Ronaldinho after the World Cup in Russia, which ends July 15. The initial plan is to play games in Brazil, Europe and Asia and to also get Brazil’s national team involved, Assis said.

Last July, Ronaldinho said on the sidelines of a friendly in Chechnya that was he was “too old” to return to action.

The Brazilian’s decorated career also includes one World Cup title (2002), one Champions League victory (2006) and two Spanish league titles with Barcelona, and two FIFA world player of the year awards (2004 and 2005).

Ronaldinho started his professional career at Gremio in southern Brazil in 1998. He left for Paris Saint-Germain in 2001 and was signed by Barcelona two seasons later.

At the Camp Nou, he was the engine of a team that took Barca back to the limelight. However, after a series of club trophies, Ronaldinho’s career took a downturn. He was often accused by Brazilian and Spanish media of lacking professionalism, despite his mentoring of a then youthful Lionel Messi.

In 2008, with Messi then leading Barcelona, Ronaldinho left for AC Milan. Despite being part of a team that won Serie A in 2011, he failed to reach his previous heights as a player.

When returning home became a real option, Ronaldinho frustrated Gremio’s efforts to re-sign him and joined Flamengo instead.

Disappointing performances in Rio de Janeiro took him to Atletico Mineiro, a club that then was more often fighting against relegation than for titles.

Yet a more mature Ronaldinho took Atletico to a different level.

In his last great run, Ronaldinho carried Atletico with his superb passes and dazzling dribbles to second place in the 2012 Brazilian Championship.

A year later, he was the key to his club lifting its first Copa Libertadores, South America’s most prestigious club trophy, but his hopes of playing at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil were dashed.

Ronaldinho left to play for Mexico’s Queretaro in 2014-15, but was mostly on the bench.

He played his last seven matches as a professional for Fluminense, though his performances were a far cry from his best days in Spain.

Now living in Rio, he has appeared in advertisements all over the world since leaving Fluminense.

USL granted 2018 2nd-division sanctioning by U.S. Soccer

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U.S. Soccer has officially granted the United Soccer League second-division sanctioning, behind first-division Major League Soccer, for the upcoming 2018 season, as well as first-division status for the National Women’s Soccer League.

[ MORE: Landon Donovan unveiled by Liga MX side Club Leon ]

USL, which will feature 33 teams in 2018, had been granted temporary second-division sanctioning, alongside the North American Soccer League, in 2017. As NASL’s demise continued and accelerated — the league will not begin play this spring, opting instead for a late-summer kickoff, after a number of its teams either folded or jumped ship to USL — USL, with the help of MLS, quickly pounced to capitalize — from U.S. Soccer’s statement:

Sanctioning allows NWSL and USL to operate a Division I and II league, respectively, during the 2018 season and includes a two-year pathway to full compliance with the Professional League Standards. USL has demonstrated substantial progress toward reaching full compliance since being granted provisional Division II sanctioning in 2017.

Conspiracy theorist’s take: USL supplanted NASL as the U.S.’s second-most viable professional men’s league — and more importantly, being granted official second-division status — paves the way for MLS to, at some point well down the line — say, 2030 or so — implement its own multi-tiered system of promotion and relegation, featuring anywhere between 60 and 80 teams, while still remaining a single-entity structure closed to the lower reaches of the sport in America, as the lines separating MLS and USL have only become more and more blurred in recent years.

[ MORE: Donovan ready to “win championships” after ending retirement ]

MLS realizes that public demand for promotion and relegation in the U.S. has grown significantly louder in recent years — particularly given the climate of the sport after the men’s national team failed to qualify for the World Cup, and subsequent ongoing presidential-election campaign — thus an open-but-not-really-open system which satisfies neither side will eventually be the end result.