Swansea City v Wolverhampton Wanderers - Premier League

Look ahead, Premier League: Another chance for a Liverpool breakthrough

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Somewhere over the course of the winter it’s become acceptable to see the Brendan Rodgers Project in a new light. Though the first-year boss ambitiously (if perhaps slightly disingenuously) said his team could finish second this season, most onlookers saw this as another year of transition for the Reds. Disappointments like last Sunday’s at Oldham Athletic still dot Liverpool’s record, but the quality of their play has been encouraging. At their best, Liverpool looks like a Champions League contender, even if that status is still at least a season away. But with that quality apparent now, fans have been left yearning for the type of win that will validate suspicions the team can be as good as they  look.

That win almost came mid-week, but conceding a two-goal lead in London means fans are still wait for Brendan Rodgers’ big breakthrough. After an hour at the Emirates, it looked set to arrive, but goals from Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott salvaged a point for Arsenal. Against the Premier League’s top six, Liverpool is now 0-4-4 this season.

For all the beautiful soccer Rodgers has instilled at Anfield, it’s fair to ask when it means if they aren’t beating top competition. The former Swansea boss was brought in to build something better than Kenny Dalglish had last season. If that requires a transition year, fans seem ready to be patient, but when the results start to hint at a roadblock that defies their talent — the type of block that hints at something mental rather than physical — curiosity’s natural. And at some point, that curiosity becomes a concern.

Rodgers isn’t quite there, yet. Even after capitulating mid-week, he’s still focuing on the positives.

“Normally you would be bitterly disappointed not to have won but I can only be proud of the players,,” Rodgers silver—linings it after the match. “I thought they were absolutely magnificent.”

Those players get their next chance for a breakthrough Sunday at Eastlands. There they’ll face a Manchester City side whose last two performances should engender hope. Their 1-0 win on the 26th at Stoke City came only after Pablo Zabeleta’s late right place, right time goal. Three days later, the Citizens were drawn at Loftus Road, the title aspirants dropping points against the Premier League’s worst team.

The problem’s up front. It’s been 328 minutes since Edin Dzeko scored at Arsenal on Jan. 13, the last time a City forward got on the scoresheet. The last time one of the team’s strikers scored against 11 men in league  was Jan. 1 (Dzeko against Stoke City). Sergio Aguero’s “struggling”, down to 8 goals in 20 games after scoring 23 times in his first Premier League season. Carlos Tévez hasn’t scored in league since Dec. 1, and Mario Balotelli’s no longer on the books.

But if his strike corps is a problem, manager Roberto Mancini’s not admitting it.

“Now we have three strikers,” Mancini said when asked if City tried to acquire another forward. “We have only Premier League and FA Cup, I think that could be enough.”

On Sunday, it just might. In Liverpool’s eight games against the top six, they’ve given up multiple goals seven times, including their Aug. 26 meeting with City. Their 30  goals allowed puts them a respectable eighth in the Premiership, but having conceded half those in  eight games against the league’s best, their defensive record only feeds into the theme: The next step for The Brendan Rodgers project is a breakthrough against one of the league’s top teams.

Elsewhere in England

Saturday

Queens Park Rangers (20th) vs. Norwich City (14th) – Must wins don’t exist in February, but how can QPR be confident they’ll stay up if they can’t beat Norwich City at home? The Canaries last league win was Dec. 12.

Arsenal (6th) vs. Stoke City (10th) – Now four points and two places out of a Champions League spot, the Gunners can’t afford to drop points in these types of games. The last time Stoke took points at Arsenal was 1981 (eight matches).

Everton (5th) vs. Aston Villa (19th) – Not so long ago, this was a battle for non-Big Four supremacy (when there was a Big Four). Now Everton’s competing for Champions League while Villa looks to have reached new lows. In the drop with the worst goal difference in the league, Aston Villa’s no longer one of Everton’s peers.

Newcastle United (15th) vs. Chelsea (3rd) – Who knows what to expect from Chelsea? Would anybody be surprised if they lost this one? Newcastle’s been reinforced by Moussa Sissoko, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, Yoann Gouffran and Mathieu Debuchy in the winter window, giving the Magpies the talent to take advantage of the Blues, particularly if a newly healthy Yoann Cabaye can tilt the battle in the middle. But this is stills not a match Chelsea should be losing. While Newcastle’s intriguing, they aren’t on Chelsea’s level.

Reading (17th) vs. Sunderland (11th) – How has this happened? Reading hasn’t been much different after their rough start, yet they’re getting better results. Seven points in their last three and have allowed them to claw out of the drop. The pack has come back to them, something you can also say about Sunderland. They also have seven in their last three, they’ve climbed to 11th, and while they’re now finding more goals (and turning draws into wins), it’s difficult to say things have truly turned around. Both these teams are  taking advantage of a weak bottom half.

West Ham United (13th) vs. Swansea City (8th) – The Hammers have hit a wall. After a strong start to the season, they closed January with three loses in four, conceding 12 times. Swansea ran out 3-0 winners in the teams’ August meeting. Undefeated in league since Dec. 16, this could be another convincing result for Swans.

Wigan Athletic (18th) vs. Southampton (16th) – Two weeks ago this would have been one of the more obscurely attractive matches in the schedule, but with Nigel Adkins asked to give way for Mauricio Pochettino, we’re no longer guaranteed two styles that augur a beautiful game.

Fulham (12th) vs. Manchester United (1st) – I refuse to say anything predictive about #FlawedButFabulous. Fulham, on the other hand, are another illustration of England’s weak bottom half. As much as they’ve struggled this season, they’re still 12th.

Sunday

West Bromwich Albion (9th) vs. Tottenham Hotspur (4th) – Lewis Holtby’s arrival will probably mean an even greater playing time struggle for Clint Dempsey, but the German playmaker is exactly when Spurs need. This Sunday’s match may provide a perfect example. On the road against a team whose tactics could have previously exposed Spurs’ occasional lack of creativity, Holtby may provide a dimension that forces opposing managers to reconsider laying of Spurs and daring them to craft a killer ball.

West Ham United 2-1 Liverpool: Ogbonna strikes after 120 minutes

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 09:  Jordon Ibe of Liverpool takes on Pedro Mba Obiang of West Ham United during the Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round Replay match between West Ham United and Liverpool at Boleyn Ground on February 9, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Angelo Ogbonna is now an FA Cup hero.

Two sides willing to move the ball and attack produced a fine FA Cup tie on Tuesday at the Boleyn Ground, with Ogbonna heading home the match-winner in the 121st minute of play for a 2-1 win.

Michail Antonio scored a first-half goal for West Ham before Philippe Coutinho equalized for the visiting Reds.

[ WATCH: Coutinho’s cheeky free kick ties the score ]

All told, West Ham heads to Ewood Park for a fifth-round date with Blackburn Rovers. Peterborough United hosts West Bromwich Albion on Wednesday to sort out the fourth round’s other replay.

Liverpool played a more second-string set than the home side.

Brilliance met brilliance in the 38th minute, as Dimitri Payet struck a gorgeous dipping free kick over the wall only to see Mignolet get the slightest touch to help the ball crank off the goal post. Cheikhou Kouyate failed to scissor kick the rebound, and Mignolet flew back into the picture to parry Antonio’s header.

Antonio would get his glory next, as Enner Valencia took Payet’s pass and dribbled through the left side of the 18 and toward the end line before crossing the ball. Antonio let the ball sink to hip height before volleying home. 1-0, 45′.

There were three goal posts struck in the first half.

[ MORE: American takeover at Everton update

[ MORE: Recapping Week 25 in the PL ]

Coutinho scored on a clever free kick from the edge of the 18, betting on the wall jumping and cheekily rolling his shot under it and past Hammers keeper Darren Randolph.

Christian Benteke started and nearly finished a 56th minute chance inside the box, but his shot was blocked.

West Ham should’ve been awarded a penalty when Tiago Ilori pulled down Valencia in the box. Roger East didn’t see it that way.

[ MORE: Chelsea’s Courtois says FA Cup or UEFA Champions League final a must ]

The match went to extra time after eight minutes of second-half stoppage time.

Mignolet made a solid flying stop on Mark Noble in the first frame of extra time. At the other end, Benteke struck a low chance wide of the right post. Moments later, Randolph came out to thwart Benteke on a breakaway.

If anyone needed a reminder of Daniel Sturridge‘s skill, the late sub let fly with a 108th minute bullet that missed the goal by inches.

Then Lucas Leiva gave up a free kick just as two minutes of extra time stoppage began, and Ogbonna struck.

LINEUPS

West Ham United: Randolph, O’Brien (Moses, 83′), Reid (Collins, 64′), Ogbonna, Cresswell, Kouyate (Carroll, 76′), Noble, Obiang, Antonio, Valencia, Payet.

Liverpool: Mignolet, Flanagan, Stewart, Tiago Ilori, Smith, Teixeira (Origi, 60′), Lucas, Chirivella (Milner, 102′), Ibe, Benteke, Coutinho (Sturridge, 60′).

WATCH: Liverpool’s Coutinho bewitches West Ham with cheeky free kick

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 09: Philippe Coutinho of Liverpool scores from a free-kick during the Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round Replay match between West Ham United and Liverpool at Boleyn Ground on February 9, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images
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Philippe Coutinho has some gumption.

Liverpool’s Brazilian wizard tied things up with West Ham United in Tuesday’s FA Cup replay at the Boleyn Ground, and did it in style.

[ MORE: Courtois says FA Cup or Champions League final a must ]

With a free kick from just outside the 18, Coutinho thought West Ham would expect he’d hit a ball that would get up quick before dipping after the wall.

They’d jump, he figured, and he’d roll it under the wall. He was correct (video courtesy Fox Soccer):

USWNT’s Solo says Zika fears could make her skip the Olympics

Hope Solo attends the premiere of "He Named Me Malala" at The Ziegfeld Theatre on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP
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As it stands, Hope Solo would skip the Olympics if fears over the Zika virus don’t subside in Brazil.

It’s been speculated that Zika increases the odds of certain birth defects, and Solo said playing in the Olympics is not worth risking future pregnancies.

[ MORE: American takeover at Everton update

With CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying heading to NBC Live Extra at 8:30 p.m. ET Wednesday against Costa Rica (All games of the tournament will be streamed on Live Extra), Solo is set to star between the sticks for the USWNT.

But in an interview with Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl, the 34-year-old netminder is far from ready to commit to the tournament.

She went as far as to say she wouldn’t go if the tournament was today, elaborating in this story from SI.com:

“I would never take the risk of having an unhealthy child,” said Solo, 34. “I don’t know when that day will come for Jerramy and me, but I personally reserve my right to have a healthy baby. No athlete competing in Rio should be faced with this dilemma. Female professional athletes already face many different considerations and have to make choices that male professional athletes don’t.”

Brazilian officials claim there will be minimal risk by the Summer Games because of the change in season, but that won’t alleviate all the concerns of female athletes. It will certainly be interesting to monitor how the situation develops in the coming months.

Chelsea’s Courtois says FA Cup or Champions League final a must

Thibaut Courtois, Chelsea FC
Brian Westerholt/AP Images for International Champions Cup
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Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois is used to big matches, whether at Stamford Bridge, with the Belgian national team or during his loan to Atletico Madrid.

[ SPORTSWORLD: Courtois “standing tall” at Chelsea ]

If he doesn’t get one or two of those contests by the end of this season, a bad season will become an utter failure.

Courtois says it’s a long way to the Top Four, but Chelsea hasn’t given up on that hope. Regardless, he’s targeting wins over Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain in the FA Cup and UEFA Champions League, respectively.

From ChelseaFC.com:

“After that we play in the Champions League and FA Cup against two great sides and we have to try to win those games because the only way to save our season is to reach the final in one or both of them.”

Chelsea’s star has fallen this year, but this is still largely the team that won the Premier League last season. Courtois’ goals are not unreasonable.