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United States-Russia: What we learned from Wednesday’s draw

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A 2-2 draw might slightly flatter Jurgen Klinsmann’s team, but a road draw against a quality European team is always a good result for the United States.

Tim Howard and Michael Bradley were the stars of this one, which went all kinds of sideways in the feeble first 30 minutes. But the U.S. gamely regrouped, providing room for Bradley to hit a fabulous equalizer and later for late sub Mix Diskerud to claim a late leveler once the Americans had slipped behind again.

Here are the important, early elements we can take away from Wednesday’s draw with Russia in Krasnodar.

(MORE: Man of the Match, Michael Bradley)

This is not Guatemala or Antigua or …

We have all spent so much time over the last few months analyzing matches, dissecting the collective performance and the individual abilities in varying situations. But here’s the rub:

The games are getting more difficult. So are the choices.

The lesser CONCACAF teams have been dispatched. The opposition in World Cup qualifiers ahead will be closer to Russian in terms of collective ability. And they will ruthlessly punish mistakes – just like Wednesday.

Young Danny Williams, for instance, seems to have taken hold of the central, holding midfield position. And he has previously performed those duties adequately against … Guatemala and against Antigua and Barbuda, etc.  But these are better players, faster, stronger, more tactically astute. And under the guidance of better managers. Fabio Capello may not have gotten it done for England, but he’s certainly got something between his soccer ears.

Wednesday, the young midfielder looked overwhelmed.

Here’s another good “for instance:” We saw Eddie Johnson excel in a wide role, roughly the same role where Herculez Gomez failed to make an imprint in the first-half Wednesday. But we simply cannot make too much of Johnson’s performance against such unequal competition.

In some ways, we can take a lot of what we learned in the last qualifying round and toss it out. The stakes are rising – and so is the quality of opposition.

Center backs. We are still talking about center backs …

Geoff Cameron did enough in his latest start centrally. We can nitpick here and there – a few too many “thump aways” that needed be controlled and spun into attacker starters, for instance. But generally, Cameron was solid against a quality bunch.

Past that? Just not good enough – to the point of being alarming

The midfield shape and performance left the American back line with lots to do, admittedly. (More on that below.) Still …

Carlos Bocanegra started but soon left injured. Coming in cold was no easy assignment for Clarence Goodson, but he was still erring late in the match, after plenty of time to warm up, adjust and take control.

Rather, he gave the ball away too much, sometimes too casually, lost his position too often and gave away a potentially devastating penalty kick (at a moment when Howard seemed to have the situation covered).

Is Goodson still the U.S. third choice center back? That’s probably the bigger question. Omar Gonzalez, not available for this one due to MLS playoffs, cannot get back into the U.S. fold quickly enough.

The three-man midfield still a work in progress.

Results have been mixed, at best, when Jurgen Klinsmann deploys some version of a 4-3-3, using three across the middle who are more or less defensive-minded. It seems to work at home when Bradley’s starting positions are slightly more advanced, where he can perform a little more as a playmaker and linker, a little less as a redundant defensive screener.

(Actually, the three man midfield probably isn’t going to work at all , in any form or alignment lean, if Bradley isn’t in the mix. Again, I say, he’s the most important U.S. man these days, not Clint Dempsey, not Landon Donovan and not Howard.)

(MORE: Video of Bradley’s breakthrough goal)

But on the road, when all three midfielders are saddled with heavy defensive duty, it tends to fall apart. As we saw in some of the qualifiers, the shape and organization can get shoddy. Where is the pressure and where is the support? Who is tracking whom? Who is organizing?

Williams, for his talent and potential, may not be the commanding presence to hold things together and ask teammates to be accountable. And we can ask questions about whether he gets too timid in the 50-50 challenges.

Distribution out of the back looks untidy — but some of that is down to midfield shape, where outlets seem less available than they should be. It seems to be all improvisation, less plan and pattern.

Important point here: Maurice Edu certainly has his flaws as a midfielder. But the moment he replaced Williams in the second half, things began to look more settled and organized. He wasn’t getting drawn out of position as Williams was.

He looked like the leader that Williams, 23, isn’t quite ready to be.

(MORE to come from ProSoccerTalk, including thoughts on Josh Gatt, who earned his first U.S. cap Wednesday)

Report: Granit Xhaka accused of racial abuse

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 22:  Granit Xhaka (R) of Arsenal protests to referee Jonathan Moss after shown a red card during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Burnley at the Emirates Stadium on January 22, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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Arsenal midfielder Granit Xhaka has not had the best 48 hours of his life.

[ MORE: Coutinho key to Liverpool? ]

Xhaka, 24, was sent off for the ninth time in his career on Sunday for a two-footed lunge in Arsenal’s dramatic 2-1 win against Burnley.

It has new been reported by the Telegraph that Granit Xhaka has been accused of racially abusing a member of staff at Heathrow Airport on Monday, just over 24 hours after being sent off.

The Swiss midfielder, who joined Arsenal from Borussia Monchengladbach for $43.8 million in the summer, was reported by a third party for abusing the staff member as he dropped off a friend at Heathrow airport but they were then refused entry to security after turning up late for the flight.

Xhaka is said to have abused the staff member in German but he refutes the claim.

“Police were called at 19:29hrs on Monday, 23 January following an allegation that a member of staff had been racially abused at Heathrow Airport, Terminal Five. The allegation was made by a third party. Officers attended and spoke with a man in his 20s. He was not arrested. He voluntarily attended a west London police station where he was interviewed under caution. Enquires continue.”

Arsenal have no comment on what they call “a private matter” according to Sky Sports, but it has certainly not been a great 48 hours for the club who also had manager Arsene Wenger hit with a misconduct charge by the FA after being sent to the stands for his reaction at a late penalty kick was awarded to Burnley.

Wenger is also being investigated for an apparent push on fourth official Anthony Taylor as he watched from the tunnel area with many expecting Arsenal’s manager to receive a touchline ban.

Again, not a vintage 48 hours for Arsenal as they sit eight points clear of Chelsea and prepare for a pivotal week in their Premier League title hopes which culminates with a battle against their London rivals on Feb. 4 at Stamford Bridge.

How important is Philippe Coutinho to Liverpool?

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24:  Philippe Coutinho of Liverpool scores their fourth goal during the Premier League match between Liverpool and Hull City at Anfield on September 24, 2016 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
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With reports circulating that Philippe Coutinho‘s agent is in talks with Liverpool over a new deal, it is easy to see why the Reds want to reward the Brazilian playmaker.

[ MORE: Klopp on title chances

Coutinho, 24, is undoubtedly the key cog in Jurgen Klopp‘s offensive machine and since he went down with an ankle injury in November against Sunderland they’ve missed him being back to his best.

In the nine games since Coutinho was injured Liverpool have dropped 12 points in the Premier League. In the 13 PL games before his injury they dropped just nine.

Now, this isn’t down to one man but there’s no coincidence here. He makes Liverpool tick and as good as Adam Lallana and Roberto Firmino have been, Coutinho is the main man. Even when you look at Liverpool’s defensive record, their much-maligned backline is slightly better with Coutinho in the team. They conceded 14 goals in 13 games before he was injured and they’ve conceded 13 in their last nine games.

Maybe that’s because Coutinho takes the pressure off his teammates by getting on the ball, dipping between the lines of defense and attack and easing pressure to allow Liverpool to dominant play rather than seeing them susceptible to counter attacks like we did against Swansea City.

Klopp’s main man started at Plymouth last week and against Swansea at the weekend, playing over an hour in each game and showing flashes of his ability. Slowly but surely he is getting back to his best and Liverpool need him to be fully fit for a pivotal stretch of games.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

On Wednesday they host Southampton in the EFL Cup semifinal second leg as the Reds trail 1-0 from the first leg. They then play an FA Cup game against second-tier Wolves and host Premier League leaders Chelsea next Wednesday in a game which they simply must win to have any hope of overhauling Chelsea to win the Premier League title.

Top four is the priority for Klopp’s men but keeping Coutinho fit and in-form is a close second.

This season he has scored five goals and added five assists in just 13 starts in the Premier League and Coutinho’s ability to thread balls in-behind to onrushing attackers, always seem to have time on the ball and ability to change the direction of play has been much missed by Liverpool over the past two months. It is inevitable that in recent displays Coutinho hasn’t looked as sharp as he did before he got injured but Klopp will be hoping the rust has been shaken off and he’s back to his best in the next week.

Along with Sadio Mane‘s absence at the Africa Cup of Nations with Senegal (which will likely be until the first week of February at least as he led them to the knockout stages) Liverpool’s attack looks less dangerous and that extra bit of quality and pace is missing.

That’s because Mane and Coutinho have been missing.

With Mane away, more pressure is now on Coutinho’s shoulders.

Last season was Coutinho’s most productive of his career with 10 goals and seven assists in all competitions. He is well on the way to breaking that record this season based on goals and assists in the Premier League alone.

If Liverpool is going to at least finish in the top four this season and make at least one Wembley final, they have to keep calm and pass it to Coutinho.

He’ll do the rest.

Yaya Toure slams big money moves to China

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 21:  Yaya Toure of Manchester City looks on during the UEFA Champions League Group D match between Manchester City and Sevilla at Etihad Stadium on October 21, 2015 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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Yaya Toure is sick of hearing about players moving to the Chinese Super League for big money.

[ PLAYBACK: Ref calls cost Man City ]

Toure, 33, is out of contract at the Etihad Stadium this summer but after coming back into the fold at Manchester City in recent weeks (thanks to an apology from his agent to manager Pep Guardiola) he has been a key cog in central midfield and wants to stay at City.

The towering Ivorian midfielder has been instrumental since joining City in 2010 from Barcelona. Toure has won the FA Cup, two League Cups and two Premier League titles with City and has questioned what means more to players.

Money or enjoyment?

“I always say that if I went to China I would end up feeling angry there. Do you play football because you love football, or do you play because you want to make money? What’s the purpose?” Toure said. “Me, I just want to play football because I enjoy it, I love playing. I enjoy helping my team-mates, I enjoy playing against the big players and teams. I want to carry on in that way. Some people have the mentality that they want to do that, to try something different but, for me, my feeling is that I want to play more football.”

Toure also said that he hopes to remain at City beyond the end of his current deal which expires in the summer.

“I’ve said before that I’ve been involved with a lot of clubs but, especially at City, I want to give something back to the fans,” Toure said. “I’d like to continue to work hard for them, keep giving them entertainment, keep them happy – that’s what I want. If I was tired, I’d say ‘no more, move on’, but I don’t feel like that. I feel very, very good. I feel young.”

Over to you Pep and Man City. Toure clearly wants to say.

Toure certainly has a lot more to give and now that Pep is on board, a two-year extension would surely be signed if it was offered.

The song below becomes more and more poignant. All together now…

Hull give latest update on Ryan Mason after skull fracture

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 22:  Ryan Mason of Hull City is examined by a medical staff after the collision with Gary Cahill of Chelsea during the Premier League match between Chelsea and Hull City at Stamford Bridge on January 22, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
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Ryan Mason is making “excellent progress” after fracturing his skull in Hull City’s 2-0 defeat at Chelsea on Sunday.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays

Mason, 25, collided with Chelsea’s Gary Cahill when challenging for a header in the first half.

The English midfielder has since been diagnosed with a fracture in his skull and has undergone surgery at a central London hospital

On Tuesday the Premier League club gave the latest update on Mason’s condition.

The Club can confirm that Ryan Mason continues to make excellent progress after sustaining a skull fracture in Sunday’s game against Chelsea. He will continue to be closely monitored by staff at St Mary’s Hospital over the next few days, whilst also remaining in contact with our medical team to assess his progress. There will be no further updates from the club until there are any changes in Ryan’s condition. We also ask that people respect Ryan and his family’s privacy whilst he remains in hospital.

Mason has been visited in hospital by Chelsea’s John Terry, Gary Cahill and assistant manager Steve Holland, plus Hull captain Michael Dawson and members of their staff have also been by his side.

This is very promising news.