New York Red Bulls v DC United - Eastern Conference Semifinals

Thinking through Andy Najar’s prolonged absence

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Word came down from on high yesterday: Andy Najar will get two extra games off for throwing the ball at referee Jair Marrufo during last Saturday’s game. He missed the second leg of DC United’s semifinal with New York, and now he’s set to sit both halves of the Eastern Conference final. Expect Robbie Russell to get the call at right back for Ben Olsen.

What exact does that mean for United? What do they lose in the switch from Najar to Russell?

In defense, DC’s unlikely to miss much. Russell, now 33, might be a downgrade if Houston played somebody more fleet of foot down their left. Then Najar’s speed would be missed. Against Brad Davis, Russell might actually be a better bet to prevent some of those dangerous crosses into the box.

Russell’s experience may also be a bonus for United. Having played a part in Real Salt Lake’s 2009 title run (as well as appearing for Rosenborg in UEFA Champions League), Russell has as much big game experience as anybody at Ben Olsen’s disposal. Against Dominic Kinnear’s bag of tricks, that may come in handy.

Going forward, however, Najar will be missed, especially for a United team that’s generating few good chances in attack. A lot of that is due to the team’s passive defensive approach, their willingness to absorb pressure leaving them unlikely to generate the midfield turnovers that can lead to easy transition chances.

But beyond tactics, Najar, a converted midfielder, is just much better getting forward than Russell, who has only two goals and nine assists in parts of five Major League Soccer seasons. In the last stages of his career, Russell is now more of a traditional fullback than Najar. He’s even seen time in central defense for United. Though he was good for the odd goal during his years in Norway, Russell doesn’t pose an attacking midfielder’s threat.

I’m not convinced it will make that much of a difference. With Najar adapting to right back, he’s still learning how and when to utilize his attacking talent. Some times we see it, as we did in flashes against New York. Often, we don’t. Much of the excitement surround Najar at right back is more about the 19-year-old’s promise than his present.

Against a Houston team that doesn’t give teams many opportunities in transition, Najar’s forays forward could have had little effect, though it would have still been an x-factor, of sorts.

Najar’s suspension means the team has had to sacrifice that wild card for the certainty of Russell’s defending. It may prove a meaningless trade-off.

Kane: Wembley needs to be “our home” long before next season

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 14: Harry Kane of Tottenham Hotspur reacts during the UEFA Champions League match between Tottenham Hotspur FC and AS Monaco FC at Wembley Stadium on September 14, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images
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Tottenham Hotspur have been — how should I say this? — less than stellar at Wembley Stadium this season.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

In their three UEFA Champions League group-stage games played inside England’s national stadium, Mauricio Pochettino‘s side was thrashed by a vibrant Monaco side; blunted into apathy by Bayer Leverkusen; and victorious against last-place CSKA Moscow, but only after having already been knocked out of the competition.

Ahead of Thursday’s Europa League round-of-32 second leg against Belgian side Gent — which will be played at Wembley, as they will do for every European fixture this season — Spurs’ captain of the future, Harry Kane, has called upon the north London side to make themselves at home inside the 90,000-seat arena on the following counts: 1) they’ll be playing the entirety of the 2017-18 season there; 2) they’re a victory over League One side Millwall away from an FA Cup semifinal, at Wembley, this season — quotes from the Independent:

“If we get through the next round of the FA Cup it’s to Wembley, and we play at Wembley on Thursday. Hopefully we get through. We’ve got to try to make Wembley our home. We could be there next season, so we want to make it as good for us as possible, try to win as many games there as we can and get that confidence going. We could be playing there a few times yet this season.”

[ FA CUP QF: Chelsea-Man United; Spurs-Millwall; Arsenal-Lincoln ]

As for Spurs’ recent form, perhaps best described as indifference, Kane says that’s an issue which was raised during a series of meetings in which Pochettino and a handful of the young side’s more senior figures called for more “hunger” and “sharpness” from the opening kickoff — quotes from the Independent:

“We’ve been starting quite slow in games and it was just about bringing the desire and hunger back to the team, chasing balls down, running in behind. We did that great on Sunday. Sometimes we need that — we need a reminder of who we are and what we’re about. We had a couple of meetings between us and we were glad to go out and put that right.”

Rejuvenated and reinvented, Toure integral to Man City again

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 06: Yaya Toure of Manchester City speaks to Josep Guardiola, Manager of Manchester City after being subtituted during The Emirates FA Cup Third Round match between West Ham United and Manchester City at London Stadium on January 6, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)
Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images
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MANCHESTER, England (AP) It has been one of the great sights of English soccer in recent years, Yaya Toure picking up possession in central midfield for Manchester City, rampaging upfield and scattering opponents in his path.

Those days appear to have gone.

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Toure is now found sitting in front of City’s defense, reading the game, dictating its tempo, picking off opposition passes, and starting attacks rather than finishing them.

His reinvention over the last three months as a holding midfielder — and one of Pep Guardiola‘s most integral players — is one of the stories of City’s season and has coincided with an upturn in the team’s fortunes. It’s as much a tale of the 33-year-old Toure’s enduring quality and hunger as circumstance and opportunism.

The former Ivory Coast captain started the season ostracized by Guardiola, who was unhappy at both Toure’s fitness levels and the criticism coming from the player’s outspoken agent, Dimitri Seluk.

Toure was even omitted from City’s squad for the Champions League group stage but he knuckled down, lost about 14 pounds, and waited for his chance. That came when one fellow midfielder (Fernandinho) was hit with a four-match ban and another (Ilkay Gundogan) sustained a season-ending knee injury.

[ MORE: FA Cup QF draw — Chelsea vs. Man United; Arsenal vs. Lincoln City ]

Toure, looking lean and fit, started a Premier League game against Watford on Dec. 14 and has played every match since, excelling as the team’s deep-lying midfielder and no longer the box-to-box player that City fans have been used to seeing.

Such is his change in status and importance that he was one of the few players rested by Guardiola for the FA Cup match at Huddersfield on Saturday ahead of City’s match against Monaco in the last 16 of the Champions League on Tuesday.

“He has been unbelievable since the game he came back,” City midfielder Kevin De Bruyne said on Monday. “Last year, he wasn’t that sharp. Give him credit for coming back and doing very well.”

Guardiola has settled on a central-midfield trio of Toure, as the protector of the defense, and De Bruyne and David Silva as the playmakers, and it is proving an ideal mix. City has conceded only one goal in its last five games, and its previously shaky defense kept five clean sheets in its last six away games.

Toure has said he feels like a kid again under Guardiola.

[ MORE: Fifth-division Lincoln City shock PL side Burnley in FA Cup ]

“He is so important for his personality,” Guardiola said on Monday of Toure. “He is part of the history of the club. He helped the club to be where it is. He is back with us and playing at a high level.”

Monaco will be a big test for Toure. The French league leader has scored more goals than any other team in Europe’s top five leagues this season, and is lethal on the counterattack thanks to ultra-fast transition play involving forwards Bernardo Silva, Kylian Mbappe, and Valere Germain.

Toure will be tasked with stopping them from getting at City’s backline, and that’s no easy job. The games in which he struggled since his return have been the losses to Liverpool and Everton, who played a high-energy and up-tempo style.

Monaco will be a level up from that.

[ MORE: FA Cup roundup — Premier League sides underwhelm in 5th round ]

“As a spectator, it is so nice to watch them. I am really impressed how good they are; physically strong, the full backs play like wingers, the wingers play like attacking midfielders … a complete team,” Guardiola said on Monday, describing their attackers as “killers in the box.”

Yet these are exactly the sort of games in which Guardiola will lean on the experienced Toure, a Champions League winner under the Spanish coach at Barcelona in 2009.

In those days, he also played as a holding midfielder and it is in that position that he’s set to end his career.

“I judge players on whether they are able to go to Anfield, Old Trafford, the Nou Camp, or Madrid or Turin and if they are able to react,” Guardiola has said. “There is no doubt about Yaya with that.”

Brazilian footballer in tears after racist chants in Serbia

Partizan Belgrade's Brazilian player Everton Luiz, centre left, leaves the field accompanying by goalkeeper Filip Kljajic, during a Serbian championship match between Rad and Partizan, in Belgrade, Serbia, Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017. Luiz was in tears after suffering persistent racist chants during his team's 1-0 victory against Rad in the Serbian premiership. The Brazilian, who joined Partizan from the Swiss league in 2016, received monkey chants and other abuse, including a racist banner on the stands where Rad fans were standing. (AP Photo/Miroslav Todorovic)
AP Photo/Miroslav Todorovic
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BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) Partizan Belgrade midfielder Everton Luiz was in tears after persistent racist chants during his team’s victory over Rad in the Serbian league.

The Brazilian, who joined Partizan last year, played through monkey chants and other abuse, including a racist banner in the stands where Rad fans were standing.

[ MORE: FA Cup QF draw — Chelsea vs. Man United; Arsenal vs. Lincoln City ]

The banner was removed after intervention from the referee.

There were scuffles between the players after the match on Sunday, when Partizan won 1-0, after Everton Luiz showed the middle finger to the Rad supporters.

Wiping away tears, Luiz said he “faced racist abuse during the entire match.”

[ MORE: Wenger “didn’t really enjoy” Arsenal’s FA Cup win over Sutton ]

Serbian fans are notorious for racist outbursts against black players. Rad supporters are known for their nationalist ultra-right behavior.

On Monday, the Serbian Football Association suspended Rad’s stadium in Belgrade until further notice because of the fans’ behavior.

Wenger “didn’t really enjoy” Arsenal’s FA Cup win over Sutton

SUTTON, GREATER LONDON - FEBRUARY 20:  Arsene Wenger, manager of Arsenal looks on from the bench before the Emirates FA Cup fifth round match between Sutton United and Arsenal on February 20, 2017 in Sutton, Greater London.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
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One might imagine that Arsene Wenger doesn’t enjoy too terribly much these days, especially when it comes to matters regarding his employment as Arsenal manager, a post he’s held for the last 7,456 days.

[ MORE: FA Cup QF draw — Chelsea vs. Man United; Arsenal vs. Lincoln City ]

From the constant reports and rumblings that his time at Arsenal is coming to an end, to falling all the way out of the Premier League title race, to being absolutely demolished in the UEFA Champions League last week, the 2016-17 season has looked quite similar to those of recent years.

On Monday, the Gunners knocked off fifth-division side Sutton United in the fifth round of the FA Cup, a triumph which was beamed out for the entire world to witness on television. Surely the 67-year-old would have immensely enjoyed that, right? Sadly, it was anything but enjoyable for Wenger, according to his post-game comments — quotes from the BBC:

“We did the job. It is very different, I must say, on this kind of pitch. It was not an easy game at all. We have to give them credit because every error we made, they took advantage of on this pitch. They played very well.

“It is basically division five, and when I arrived here 20 years ago in division five, they were not as fit physically as they were today. They were organized and had a huge desire. If we were not mentally prepared, we would not have gone through today.

“I don’t really enjoy tonight, because we absolutely had to do the job and it is tricky. It is important for the confidence of the players. At Bayern we were 1-1, and then in the second half it all went wrong, so at halftime today at 1-0 up it was not finished.”

On the one hand, Wenger has a point: there’s very little to be gained by the “bigger” sides in Cup clashes versus opposition the size of Sutton — if you win, that’s great, but you were “supposed” to; if you lose, that’s … well, a much greater embarrassment than losing 5-1 to Bayern Munich.

[ MORE: Fifth-division Lincoln City shock PL side Burnley in FA Cup ]

On the other hand, that kind of potential embarrassment (should the prospects of winning a third FA Cup in four seasons doesn’t do it for them) should have been all the motivation the Gunners needed, and … well, they were far from dominant in this one.

Elsewhere in the FA Cup

Burnley 0-1 Lincoln City — RECAP | REACTION
Huddersfield Town 0-0 Manchester City
Middlesbrough 3-2 Oxford United
Millwall 1-0 Leicester City
Wolverhampton Wanderers 0-2 Chelsea RECAP
Fulham 0-3 Tottenham Hotspur RECAP
Blackburn Rovers 1-2 Manchester United RECAP | REACTION