Starting Sturridge with Suarez, Liverpool explodes for five against Norwich

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While the debate over Daniel Sturridge’s value is far from settled, there’s little doubt he represents an intriguing piece for a Liverpool team that spent the first half of the season trying to find enough attackers to match Brendan Rodgers’ system. When he was acquired from Chelsea, it was initially unclear to what extend Sturridge would help, but after the Reds posted five today with the 23-year-old starting with Luis Suárez, we got some answers.

The effect was evident on the Reds’ second goal, Liverpool having already gone up after Jordan Henderson’s well hit half-volley from inside the arc. A ball hit to feet just inside Norwich’s half saw Sturridge dummy, leaving the pass to roll behind the line as the Canary defense collapsed on Sturridge. Coming in from the left, Suárez was left to go in alone on Mark Bunn, the Uruguayan converting for this 20th all-competition goal of the season.

Sturridge would add his own early in the second half. After Steven Gerrard and a Norwich own goal rounded out the scoring, Liverpool had their most impressive victory of the season: 5-0 at Anfield.

It’s not the victory over a top team for which Reds supporters have begun to pine, but unfortunately for Rodgers, Liverpool weren’t scheduled against one of the league’s better sides. Had they been, the Reds probably would have secured three points and quieted all the building criticism. They were that good.

We’re also likely to hear some misgivings about the competition. While Norwich has played well this season, they’ve also been prone to some terrible results. In September, one of those results came against Liverpool, who won 5-2 in the reverse fixture. It’s possible Liverpool just matches up particularly well against Chris Houghton’s team.

Beyond the Sturridge-Suárez combination, there are a number of reasons to believe Liverpool’s actually improving and not just taking advantage of a fortuitous matchup:

Jamie Carragher gets a start – At this point in his career, if Carragher is the answer you need to really reconsider the question, but there has been something off all season with the Daniel Agger-Martin Skrtel partnership. My theory: They’re too similar, and it leaves the Reds vulnerable to pace (as they were exploited against Manchester United ahead of the Red Devil’s second goal). While it’s uncertain Carragher would solve that problem, he got his chance ahead of Skrtel today.

Joe Allen sits – He was considered an astute signing in summer, but Joe Allen has not met expectations since following Rodgers from Swans. Again Manchester United, he was a non-factor, a huge indictment for a midfielder. Jordan Henderson got the nod today and came through with a goal.

Switch in approach – With both Suárez and Sturridge getting the start, Rodgers had to change things up (formation-wise) to accomodate two through-the-middle forwards. As a result, we saw Henderson return to a wide-to-in role he often played under Kenny Dalglish (possibly the reason he started over Allen). Stewart Downing manned the other side. Whereas Rodgers has been pretty staunchly 4-3-3 this season, we may now be a change of approach.

Stewart Downing continues to contribute – This is not new news, but after a year-and-a-half of middling contributions after moving from over Villa, Stewart Downing’s finally found a place at Liverpool. The England international assisted in Sturridge’s goal.

The victory temporarily moved Liverpool into sixth place, and while the rest of the weekend’s results might see them fall one or two places, Rodgers has the Reds at the edge of Europe. Although he proclaimed greater expectations, this is right about where we thought Liverpool would land. If they continue improving, they’ll end Rodgers’ first season ahead of where we’d thought they’d be.

UCL wrap: Napoli, Celtic win big; Nwakaeme volleys beauty (video)

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A day after three of five road sides felt good with their work in first legs of the UEFA Champions League playoff round, it was the hosts time to celebrate good results.

[ MORE: Tuesday’s UCL first legs ]

Home sides in Italy, Scotland, Greece, and Israel posted wins. Spanish side Sevilla did manage a road win.

Napoli 2-0 Nice

Chances and even possession was at a premium for the visitors, and Napoli found its breakthrough from one of the more overlooked gems in the world. Dries Mertens scored in the first half, his sixth career UCL goal, and Jorginho converted a second half penalty to give Napoli a foot in the group stage.

Adding insult was a pair of red cards in the 80th minute, the first to Vincent Koziello for a dangerous tackle (it was a harsh call) and Alassane Plea was given a second yellow for protesting the sending off.

Mertens’ goal was smooth as silk:

Celtic 5-0 Astana

A pair of Scott Sinclair goals joined an Astana own goal as the Bhoys went a long way towards avoiding the tight tie that made the last round tricky.

Olympiacos 2-1 Rijeka

Heber gave the visitors a halftime lead in the 42nd minute, but Vadis Odjidja-Ofoe equalized in the 66th minute to minimize the damage for Olympiacos, who would go on to win.

Istanbul Basaksehir 1-2 Sevilla

Remember Eljero Elia? The Dutchman’s on his eighth club and third since leaving Southampton after just a half season, but he’s given his Turkish side hope against mighty Sevilla after Sergio Escudero gave the Spanish side an early lead and Wissam Ben Yedder nabbed the winner.

Hapoel Be’er Sheva 2-1 Maribor

Goals from Anthony Nwakaeme and Shir Tzedek boosted the Israeli hosts to a come-from-behind win.

In the case of the former, it was a beauty:

Brighton breaks transfer record (again) with Izquierdo (video)

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Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: Brighton and Hove Albion have broken its transfer record.

A week after setting a new club standard with the signing of Davy Propper from PSV Eindhoven, the Gulls have signed electric Colombian attacker Jose Izquierdo from Club Brugge for over $15 million.

[ MORE: Matuidi medical at Juve ]

Izquierdo averaged a goal every other match for Brugge last season and broke through to the Colombian national team with two caps this summer, scoring in a friendly against Cameroon.

With Propper and Izquierdo, manager Chris Hughton has two more playmakers who can better set the table for a strike corps that has been questioned at the Premier League level.

Brighton lost to Man City 2-0 on Saturday and next faces Leicester City at King Power Stadium.

Matuidi having a medical at Juventus ahead of move from PSG

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TURIN, Italy (AP) Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Blaise Matuidi was having a medical at Juventus on Wednesday ahead of a potential move to the Serie A club.

Juventus said that Matuidi arrived at Turin airport in the afternoon and was undergoing tests.

Juventus will reportedly pay PSG 20 million euros ($23 million) plus bonuses for the 30-year-old Matuidi, who had a year left on his contract with the French club.

[ MORE: Wenger issues updates on Alexis, Ox, Wilshere ]

PSG, which is also trying to balance the books after buying Neymar for 222 million euros, could not afford to lose Matuidi on a free transfer.

Matuidi played nearly 300 games for PSG in all competitions after joining from Saint-Etienne in 2011.

After a difficult first season, he quickly became an integral part of the team for successive managers, Carlo Ancelotti and Laurent Blanc.

He flourished from a largely defensive midfielder to a robust, tireless runner with an eye for goal and an enormous work-rate.

Overcoming some technical deficiencies in his game, Matuidi gradually earned himself a place in the France lineup and became a key player at the 2014 World Cup and last year’s European Championship.

At the beginning of last season, after Blanc was fired and replaced by Unai Emery, he expressed a desire to leave PSG and already wanted to join Juventus. But the club blocked his move, considering him too important to leave, and he stayed for another season.

Altogether, Matuidi has scored 33 goals for PSG in 295 appearances, becoming a well-respected player among fans and teammates alike, often taking a public stance when others would not and when tensions arose within the club.

In all, Matuidi has won four league titles, three French Cups and four League Cups with PSG.

This story has been corrected to show that Neymar’s fee was 222 million euros, not 220 million euros.

Furious Cristiano Ronaldo responds to five-game ban

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Cristiano Ronaldo has hit out at the Spanish soccer federation after his five game ban for pushing a referee in the back was upheld.

Ronaldo, 32, pushed the ref after he was shown a second yellow card in Real Madrid’s 3-1 win in the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup at Barcelona on Sunday.

It capped an eventful El Clasico for Ronaldo who arrived in the second half as a sub, then scored a stunner to put Real 2-1 up.

He received his first yellow for taking off his shirt and holding it up to the Nou Camp crowd to mock Lionel Messi for doing the same in a goal celebration in April at the Santiago Bernabeu. Ronaldo then received a second yellow for going down in the box under a challenge.

In an Instagram post the Real Madrid forward had the following to say about the decision which sees him banned for the second leg ag the Bernabeu on Wednesday as well as Real’s next four games.

“It seems to me exaggerated and ridiculous, this is called persecution.”