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.

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.