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.

Sergio Ramos suffers broken nose in Atletico Madrid draw

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Real Madrid trails Barcelona by 10 points in the La Liga title race just 12 matches in, and now they will have to play catch-up without their best defender.

Club captain Sergio Ramos suffered a broken nose after being accidentally kicked in the face by teammate Lucas Hernandez during the first half of Madrid’s 0-0 draw with cross-town rivals Atletico Madrid. He received treatment and remained on the field, but he was withdrawn at halftime.

Manager Zinedine Zidane was unable to give a timetable for Ramos’s return.

Ramos said via Twitter, alongside some graphic images of his bloody nose, “I would bleed a thousand times for this badge and this shirt. Thanks for your support. I’ll be back in no time.”

Up next for Madrid is Champions League group match against Cypriot club Apoel midweek before a league game against Malaga at home. Athletic Bilbao and Borussia Dortmund are also on the horizon. A masked Sergio Ramos could be in our midst soon.

Real Madrid has not lost a league match without Ramos since March of 2015, but they drew their only game this season with Ramos suspended, a 2-2 home split with Valencia.

Moyes roasts West Ham players after loss to Watford

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After his first game in charge of West Ham, David Moyes thought he had a better squad. Apparently he was mistaken.

A 2-0 loss to Watford gave Moyes a rude awakening as he looks to replace Slaven Bilic and pull the Hammers out of the relegation zone. He was not pleased with his players.

“Overall, that level of performance will not be good enough,” Moyes told reporters after the match.

He wasn’t done.

“I thought this was a big job, but there were some players with big reputations who disappointed me. There were some who I thought would show me more, and why they play for the team regularly. They need to show me, ‘If that’s your reputation, show me why you’ve got it.'”

He backtracked slightly, agreeing that the players are in a difficult position changing managers, but ultimately that excuse wasn’t enough for him. “It’s tough for the players – I could sense that – but I didn’t enjoy our performance in the end. I didn’t enjoy us giving the ball away too cheaply, too many times and I expected us to do better.”

Moyes even called out striker Andy Carroll, saying he removed the England international because he feared Carroll would pick up a second yellow card. Carroll had picked up his caution seven seconds into the match, leaving Marvin Zeegelaar with a bloody nose after an elbow to the face, something Carroll has been sent off for earlier this season.

“I thought we defended OK,” Moyes said, “but then we gave away cheap goals by getting bundled off the ball and we didn’t really deal with it. We didn’t do well enough in all departments at different times.”

That’s about as ruthless as you’ll ever hear the mild-mannered David Moyes, and all West Ham players should beware that their places in the team are in jeopardy.

Napoli takes commanding Serie A lead after Juventus loss

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Six-time Serie A defending champions Juventus are in trouble. Not a lot, but the heat has been turned up.

A wild 3-2 loss to Sampdoria means the Italian giants are now four points back of Napoli in the Serie A table, and heading into their Champions League matchup with Barcelona, there is plenty of soul-searching to do in Turin.

Juventus nearly mounted what would have been a monumental comeback, down 3-0 heading into stoppage-time but posting goals by Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala in the first and fourth minutes of injury time. It was not to be, and the four-point deficit through 13 games not only leaves Juventus looking at Napoli more than a game in front of them, but also over their shoulders at Roma and Inter Milan both a point behind in third and fourth.

Goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon was kept out of the lineup as he continues to deal emotionally with the World Cup miss, and it showed. After a scoreless first half at Stadio Luigi Ferraris, Duzan Zapata beat Stephan Lichtensteiner in the air and sent a looping header over a flatfooted Wojciech Szczesny for the opening goal.

With 20 minutes to go, Sampdoria struck again as former Premier League creator Gaston Ramirez fed 21-year-old Lucas Torreira at the top of the box, and with nobody closing him down, he fired into the bottom-left corner of the net. They got the eventual winner nine minutes later after an embarrassing defensive breakdown by the visitors. A free-kick saw two attackers in front of net against five defenders, but somehow Gianmarco Ferrari was completely unmarked in front of the net for a tap-in.

Higuain struck from the penalty spot and Dybala hit on the counter to beat Emiliano Vivaldo at his near post, but it wasn’t enough for Juventus. The defensive frailty will need to be corrected moving forward, as they face a vital match at Napoli on December 1st, and a loss there could spell disaster for their title charge.

American right back Moore makes first La Liga start

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La Liga saw an American amongst its Starting XIs on Sunday.

Shaquell Moore made his first La Liga start in Levante’s 2-0 win at Las Palmas on Sunday.

According to WhoScored, Moore completed 71 percent of his passes, had three interceptions and four tackles won. He was credited with one key pass and three crosses.

[ MORE: McKennie impresses again ]

The right back turned 21 earlier this month, and our primitive research shows him as the first U.S. player to make a La Liga start since Oguchi Onyewu at Malaga in 2013.

Oddly enough, Sunday’s opposition had an American on the books last season with Emmanuel Sabbi skipped college soccer to join Las Palmas. Sabbi joined Danish side Hobro this summer, and made his first start on Friday.

Jozy Altidore spent time with Villarreal and Kasey Keller played for Rayo Vallecano.

Levante’s next match is Sunday at Real Sociedad.