Falcao, Pekerman have Colombia slowly changing South America’s landscape

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Radamel Falcao’s running out of ways to react. Scoring has become such a frequent occurrence, the Colombia star has had to find new ways to describe his goals.

After a double on Friday, Falcao resorted to comedy.

“[T]he right leg is getting jealous,” he said after scoring twice with his left in Colombia’s 2-0 win over Paraguay.

“Paraguay were a very tough obstacle to break down,” according to Falcao. “We had to really fight hard to get the job done.”

The performance wasn’t as convincing as last break’s blowout of Uruguay. Colombia struggled through the first half against a dogged but unthreatening Paraguay.

Seven minutes into the second, Falcao broke through.

“Thank God my goals (got us the win), but it was the work of the whole team … I’m very happy with the win and the goals.”

Both have been coming in bunches for Falcão. The Atlético Madrid striker has scored eight times in six Liga matches. He’s bagged another five in qualifying. Just as the Atleti sit second in Spain, the Cafeteros are behind only Argentina in South America.

“Our goal is the World Cup and it is a long way there,” Falcao said Friday. “We must continue with the same intensity and mentality (to achieve this goal.)”

At this point, Colombia missing out on Brazil would require a major dip in form, even if they’re only five points up on sixth place Venezuela. Four CONMEBOL teams will earn automatic qualification for the 2014 World Cup, with the fifth place team destined for a playoff against a representative from Asia.

In 2010, Colombia finished seventh in qualifying, scoring only 14 goals in 18 games while coming up one point short of the playoff spot. After qualifying for every World Cup in the 1990s, Colombia has missed out on the last three finals.

With a new decade has come a new regime and new hope. In January, José Pekerman became Colombia’s third coach of the decade. Under the former Argentina boss, the Cafeteros are a changed team, having already matched last cycle’s goal output during a 5-2-1 start.

Along with Falcao’s emergence, Pekerman’s presence is reason to believe this is more than just a hot streak for Colombia. Pekerman’s successes with Argentina’s youth teams (three U-20 World Cups) along with a strong showing with the senior team at the 2006 World Cup make him one of the most respected coaches in South America. His failures in Mexico (with Toluca and Tigres) did little to dampen his reputation, making his capture by Colombia a minor coup.

Pekerman made an immediate impact, leading the team to a 2-0 win over Mexico in his debut, implementing more proactive tactics that took advantage of talents like Falcao, Porto’s James Rodríguez, and Napoli’s Juan Camilo Zuniga. In defense, Colombia has moved even more stingy than the previous cycle, their goals allowed rate dropping from one per match to 0.75.

The Cafeteros‘ improvement makes an already crowded South American scene almost unfair. Even though the number of World Cup spots available to CONMEBOL has increased from 4.5 to 5.5 (with Brazil already awarded one), two good teams from South America are destined to miss out on the finals.

Paraguay, participants in four-straight World Cups, will almost certainly miss 2014. Friday’s match was viewed as make-or-break for a team that had lost its four previous qualifiers. While they were able to take a scoreless tie into halftime, the second half showed a Paraguayan team that has regressed starkly from last cycle. After the loss in Baranquilla, they sit in last place with only four points through eight matches.

Venezuela may be the team most hurt by Colombia’s resurgence. After a strong showing at the 2011 Copa America, the Vinotinto was picked by many to make their first finals in 2014. Halfway through the qualifying tournament, César Farías’s team sits sixth, one point out of a playoff spot. With only seven goals through eight matches, their troubles emulate Colombia’s during the 2010 cycle. Aside from 23-year-old striker Salomón Rondón, no Venezuela player has scored more than one goal in the tournament.

That Ecuador (like Colombia) is also experiencing a surge makes it even less likely Venezuela will break through for 2014. But unlike the Ecuadorians, who could push a team like Chile or Uruguay into the intercontinental playoff, Colombia’s rise looks like more like an awakening than a run. The second-most populated country on the continent, Colombia has always had the resources to challenge the big two. The only thing they lacked were the roots to cultivate those resources.

Thanks to Pekerman and Falcao, Colombia has awaken from a dormant decade. They’ve risen into the top 10 of FIFA’s world rankings, and while that may flatter the still improving team, Colombia may yet develop into the giant many used to see emerging.

Arsenal sends Gabriel Paulista to Valencia

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Arsenal has a thin defense, but that hasn’t stopped Arsene Wenger from thinning the squad even further.

Gabriel Paulista is headed back to the Spanish top flight after the completion of his transfer to Valencia. The Brazilian was sold for a reported $12.8 million, just below the $14 million price tag Arsenal coughed up to Villareal back in January, 2015. He will partner with Manchester City loanee Eliaquim Mangala at Valencia.

The 26-year-old made 64 appearances for the Gunners across all competitions, including 46 in the Premier League. His only goal for the club was Arsenal’s first of a 2-0 win over Bournemouth in December, 2015. His high-water mark with the club was a 120-minute performance against Manchester City in the FA Cup semifinals where Arsenal came back to win 2-1 on an Alexis Sanchez goal in extra time.

“We would like to thank Gabriel for his contribution to the club and to wish him well for his return to La Liga with Valencia,” Arsenal said in its confirmation of the deal.

Paulista was utilized more than expected last season thanks to an injury crisis at the back, and still the Arsenal squad doesn’t seem fat enough to offload defenders, but Gabriel’s over-aggressive nature and tackling inaccuracy led him to an early exit.

With Arsene Wenger now deploying a back-three, the only natural central defenders currently on the roster are Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker, Shkodran Mustafi, and Rob Holding. Koscielny is suspended from a red card at the end of last season, and Mertesacker is battling a head injury. Sead Kolasinac, Nacho Monreal, and Calum Chambers have played CB for the Gunners in the recent past, but it is not their natural position.

Fabian Johnson misses Gladbach training with injury

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With John Brooks already out long-term due to a thigh injury, the United States may have another key injury to work around.

According to Borussia Monchengladbach manager Dieter Hecking, full-back/winger Fabian Johnson missed training on Friday due to an unspecified injury, and is now a question mark for Gladbach’s home match on Sunday against FC Koln. It could be nothing, but even the scare is cause for concern among U.S. fans.

Johnson has battled a few injuries the past couple of seasons, including a hamstring problem last spring that kept him out for nearly two months, including a pair of World Cup qualifiers in March.

Johnson’s absence would leave a hole at right-back for the United States. The 29-year-old has been deployed some at right wing for the USMNT, but he has been relatively poor at that position in the national setup, looking better when pushed further back where he is given more defensive duties, roaming forward with less frequency but more intent.

In place of Johnson, another converted winger in Graham Zusi has been seeing more time at right-back, but he offers less in the attack and lacks Johnson’s recovery speed, meaning mistakes by the Sporting KC veteran are punished more often.

Falcao scores again to extend red hot start

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Monaco is hoping to ride out the final two weeks of the transfer window with 18-year-old wonderkid Kylian Mbappe still in tow.

While they wait, they aren’t missing a beat.

With Mbappe out of the squad, Radamel Falcao has begun the 2017/18 Ligue 1 season as Europe’s hottest goalscorer. He bagged a hat-trick last weekend with Mbappe on the bench to give him four goals in the first two league matches. Then, with Mbappe out of the squad entirely, Falcao netted the winner in a 1-0 road win over FC Metz.

Falcao has scored five goals so far this year, and his club has a +5 goal differential. In a way, Falcao has already been worth six points thus far.

Thanks in part to Ligue 1’s early start, Falcao’s five league goals are by far more than anyone else in the major European leagues. Four players have scored a pair of Premier League goals, nobody in La Liga or the Bundesliga have scored more than one, and the Serie A season has yet to start.

The Colombian did the same thing last season. After eventually coming off the shelf from to hamstring and concussion problems to start the season, Falcao scored 10 goals in 10 Ligue 1 matches leading up to the new calendar year.

At 31 years old, Falcao isn’t a long-term solution and the club will clearly look to retain Mbappe despite Falcao’s hot start, but should they lose the young Frenchman, the club will be in good hands while they search for a replacement over the next year.

Arena should give Ream a look in Brooks’ absence

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With John Brooks out three months thanks to a horribly timed thigh injury, the United States yet again has to scramble to fill a void at the back. It’s not the first time an injury to Brooks has left the USMNT scrambling for cover at a thin position.

In the successful Gold Cup this past summer, with a largely domestic squad in place, Omar Gonzalez saw the bulk of the time at central defender, with Matt Besler his partner through the final two matches. However, with European-based players now in contention for spots with the early September international break, those two are unlikely to continue, at least not together.

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The most obvious choice to start September 1st against Costa Rica and likely shoo-in should he remain healthy for the next two weeks is Geoff Cameron. The 32-year-old has been back and forth between defense and midfield with club and country, and although he has publicly acknowledged his preference for a spot higher up the pitch, he was used in a back-three in Stoke City’s Premier League opener last weekend and is steadiest at the back.

But with a spot next to Cameron up for grabs in Brooks’ absence, a player who should get serious consideration is United States fill-in extraordinaire Tim Ream.

Ream has had to work hard to earn his place with the U.S., and while he’s seen time of late, he’s not been a first-choice pick. The 29-year-old has four caps so far in 2017, with two of those starts, including one in the impressive 1-1 draw against Mexico at the Azteca with the US still clawing its way back up the Hex standings. Even then, Ream would likely not have earned that spot had Arena not chosen to rotate nearly the entire squad between the pair of qualifiers in that window. His other start this year, the 1-1 draw at Panama, only came after Cameron pulled out of the squad the day of the game with a late injury. The last time Ream started back-to-back matches for the U.S. came back in 2015 when he was somewhat of a regular through the second half of the calendar year.

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But now, with Brooks out, Ream looks like the perfect man to fill in again. The 29-year-old defender finished last season in top form as Fulham narrowly missed out on promotion, earning the official website’s Man of the Match award in a May 2nd draw with Brentford, and won it again in the club’s final match of the season.

Without missing a beat, Ream has picked up where he left off last campaign in the first few matches this month. Last weekend against Reading at the Madjeski Stadium, Ream’s center-back partner Tomas Kalas was sent off 36 seconds into the match, forcing Fulham to play a man down for 89 minutes. Ream and company solidified the back, conceding just once in the 61st minute en route to a 1-1 draw.

The club still likely requires reinforcements at the CB position – Ream was forced to partner with right-back Denis Odoi against Reading with Kalas suspended and Michael Madl injured – meaning Ream could see an influx of competition in the coming weeks. However, as it stands, the American is far and away the best (and most improved) central defender on a club favored for promotion.

Gonzalez performed well in the Gold Cup, and Matt Besler was serviceable, but with few other options in the heart of defense to take Brooks’ place, Bruce Arena could yet again look to Ream for an in-form replacement.