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Sunderland v Manchester City - Premier League

Joe Hart, Robert Mancini failings on display against Sunderland

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This space has occasionally made light of England the English media’s quest to anoint Joe Hart the best keeper in the world, but until this year, the cause had always been excessive excitement about a player who, while clearly a small step behind the world’s elite, gave his home country plenty of reasons to be proud.

But this year, the Manchester City keeper is in the middle of bad season, a series of misreads and outright gaffs undermining his countrymen’s campaign. The most famous of these mistakes may have come in a meaningless game, but the fame of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s goal rightly brought attention to the fact Hart hasn’t been very good.

Today wasn’t the first time this season Hart may have cost City points. It was just the more egregious.

Tied 0-0 in the second half against an impotent Sunderland, Hart was challenged from long and wide by a speculative Adam Johnson shot. Only the challenge wasn’t very strong. Headed for the bottom right corner, the ball should have been caught. Or blocked. Or generally prevented from becoming the game-deciding goal, provided any degree of goalkeeping competency.

But Hart’s competency had left him by the time Johnson let go of his shot. Badly out of position, Hart needed a quick leap to have a chance. But allowing himself to be screened, the England international reacted too late. Johnson’s shot curled down and into the corner, giving Sunderland the goal they needed to hand Manchester City an embarrassing defeat.

It was Johnson’s first game against the team that sold him this summer, his goal proving manager Roberto Mancini was wrong to assume he wasn’t needed. Though Johnson would have been unlikely to get time on the wing, he would have done to stop that type of shot. Most players would have.

But Hart wasn’t Manchester City’s only Wednesday failing. In front of him, the team continues to play uninspired soccer, showing little of the drive that shot them out of last year’s gates and toward their first Premier League title.

source: Getty ImagesThe squad has the look of a team that needs shaking up, their lethargy and disinterest agonizingly apparent as they offered no resistance at Dortmund, fell behind early to Manchester United, needed a swallowed whistle to get full points from Reading, and lost on the road to a bad Sunderland team. That’s four of their last five meetings.

MORE: Manchester United: Flawed and fabulous

Most discouraging for City may be the merely mortal performance of Yaya Touré, though to say he’s been a Hart-level disappointment would be an exaggeration. The Ivorian has simply failed to carry the team as he did down the stretch last season, forcing us to ask whether City can challenge for a title when Touré is not playing like the best player in England. Because it may not be fair to ask for such consistent greatness from any player, particularly when they’ll spend half the winter in at the Africa Cup of Nations.

At every point of comparison, Manchester City is worse than they were last year. In league, they’re six points off last year’s pace (and seven behind United). In Europe, they failed to even qualify for Europa. To the eye, they seem more talented but less capable than the team that tracked down the Red Devils last May. They’re adrift, if not in the standings then in spirit. This is not title-contending form.

Then there’s Mancini’s continued fascination with a 3-5-2 formation, something he never used during last year’s better times. That comparison is important because at no point this season has City looked as good as they did when they tinkered instead of overhauled. The choice to start with three at the back at Sunderland reeked of the same desperation we saw last week from José Mourinho.

And just as Real’s loss at Málaga forced us to consider Mourinho’s viability at El Real, so does Mancini’s defeat at Sunderland compel consideration of his future. Only unlike Mourinho, these doubts are not new. Ever since Mancini failed to prepare his team for Ajax in Champions League, his suitability for City should have been in doubt. Now, as Manchester United seems ready to stumble into their typical winter surge, City management must ask if Mancini can keep up.

With a squad that looks desperate to be shaken up, almost anybody else will do. And City has the virtue of being able to lure elite managerial candidates.

Unless the thinking around Eastlands is Chelsea-esque uncertainty might scare Pep Guardiola (or José Mourinho) away, there seems little to endear Mancini for this job. With his capabilities laid bare three years into the job, Mancini must improve results before Sheikh Mansour makes a move.

City Council approves plans for new Los Angeles soccer venue

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LOS ANGELES (AP) The City Council has approved plans to build a $250 million stadium for Major League Soccer’s expansion Los Angeles Football Club.

[ MORE: Can MLS teams begin to create separation in Week 10? ]

The council voted 12-0 Friday to move forward with a 22,000-seat stadium on the site of the old Sports Arena next to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and USC.

The 15-acre complex is also slated to include a conference center, restaurants, 140,000 square feet of plazas and streetscapes, and a soccer museum.

At its center would be the home to the new MLS team when it makes its debut in 2018.

LAFC is owned by Malaysian billionaire Vincent Tan, American venture capitalist Henry Nguyen and a celebrity-studded list of investors including Magic Johnson, Tony Robbins, Mia Hamm and Nomar Garciaparra.

Barcelona reportedly seeking out Nice winger Hatem Ben Afra

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Lost in the 2015-16 campaign has been Nice attacker Hatem Ben Afra.

[ MORE: Leicester can provide more magic at home vs. Everton ]

While Paris Saint-Germain has stolen the spotlight in France for much of this season, the former Newcastle midfielder has been nothing short of special for Les Aiglons.

[ MORE: Prince-Wright’s PL picks are in for Week 37 ]

That has left La Liga giant Barcelona contacting the 29-year old Frenchman over his services, according to Nice president Jean Pierre Rivere.

Rivere told France 3 he wouldn’t mind Ben Afra exiting the club:

“I would be very happy for him and for Nice if this move comes off,” Rivère said. “You do not reject Barcelona, but it is up to him to decide. If I was a player and Barcelona was offered to me I would not ask questions, I would go! But it is not yet done according to what I am told.”

In 32 appearances this season for Nice, Ben Afra has notched 17 goals and added five assists. He ranks third in goals, only behind PSG’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Alexandre Lacazette of Lyon.

Barcelona could very well be the frontrunners to acquire the talented attacker, but several European sides have also expressed interest in Ben Afra. Premier League clubs Chelsea and Liverpool, as well as AC Milan have also been named as potential suitors.

[ MORE: What do other PL teams have to say about Leicester? ]

Ben Afra’s age may be a bit of a concern for the Blaugrana though, in addition to the fact that this current season is the only time in his career that he has tallied double-digit goals. The Lyon academy product could provide solid depth to Barcelona’s attack should a deal get finalized.

Follow @MattReedFutbol

Premier League Preview: Leicester City vs. Everton

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  • Leicester simply playing for home pride
  • Everton seek top-10 finish

Leicester City host Everton on Saturday from the King Power Stadium (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on USA and online via Live Extra) in hopes of providing its fans with a season-capping victory, after winning the Premier League title on Monday.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE VIA LIVE EXTRA

By now everyone has seen Christian Fuchs‘ video of the Leicester players in celebration mode, but there are still two games left to play. The match against Everton may be more about pride than anything else, but it can still represent an important feat for the club and serve as a true celebration in front of their home supporters.

Jamie Vardy‘s return will provide the fans with yet another moment to applaud and you’d expect the Leicester forward to want to add to his 22 PL goals.

[ MORE: Norwich in desperate need of three points vs. Manchester United ]

The Foxes will be met by an Everton side that don’t really have anything to play for either. Toffees manager Roberto Martinez will surely be looking for a win with his job on the line, however, it’s left to be seen whether or not he can actually maintain his position. Everton has finished in the PL top 10 each of the last eight seasons, and a finish outside of that mark would be a huge setback for the club.

What they’re saying…

Ranieri on his team competing: “Inside me there are two people. One is a very aggressive, I want to win, I won the Premier League but now I want to win on Saturday.”

Martinez on Leicester not letting up: “I’m sure any sort of celebration could affect you in the long term if you had to face a difficult month. In a 90-minute game where the stadium is going to be an historic environment, I’m sure that can only be positive for the home team.”

Prediction

The title is already theirs but why wouldn’t Leicester win this match? The KP Stadium will be rocking into the night and the Foxes will come away with a convincing 3-0 win against Everton.

Follow @MattReedFutbol

Premier League Preview: Norwich City vs. Manchester United

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  • Norwich sit two points out of 17th place
  • United in battle with West Ham for Europe
  • Canaries are losers of three straight

Norwich City host Manchester United from Carrow Road on Saturday (Watch live, 7:45 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) as the Canaries seek Premier League safety with two weeks remaining.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE VIA LIVE EXTRA

With their season on the line, Norwich is facing desperation as they meet Manchester United. The Canaries posted just one win in four matches in April, leaving them 19th in the PL. While neither Newcastle nor Sunderland were able to create separation between themselves and Norwich, a win against United is a necessity with three games left to play.

Goals have come at a minimum this season for the Canaries, leaving Nathan Redmond and Dieumerci Mbokani in need of a big game. Each player has notched five goals this season for the side.

[ MORE: Ranieri’s on-field changes as manager have propelled Leicester ]

Disappointment has surrounded United for much of the 2015-16 season, however, the Red Devils still have important matches to play down the stretch. That starts with Norwich. Sitting four points behind fourth place Manchester City and holding a game in hand, Louis Van Gaal‘s club can close the gap on the Citizens with a strong performance on Saturday.

What they’re saying…

Neil on match’s importance: “Everybody knows the situation, so I don’t think it is going to have massive difference in terms of how we would approach the game or they (relegation rivals) would approach the game. What it does do is apply pressure to their game, but there will be pressure on that anyway. They will recognise and we recognise that all the teams need to win games to stay in the division.”

Van Gaal on injury struggles: “I always talk about facts, not about hypothetical circumstance and activities. I can only say that in the end of November we had first position, after that we had a big decline.”

Prediction

Despite playing in front of a feisty home crowd at Carrow Road and picking up a 2-1 victory early this season against United, the Canaries chances aren’t too optimistic. Norwich hasn’t scored in three straight matches, all of which were losses. With United still playing for something I don’t expect the Red Devils to drop this match. Give United the points on the road, 3-1, leaving Norwich to rely on Aston Villa and Chelsea to pick up wins.

Follow @MattReedFutbol

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