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.

Mourinho: Leicester home should be Claudio Ranieri Stadium

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24:  Claudio Ranieri, Manager of Leicester City shows his frustration as Jose Mourinho, Manager of Manchester United looks on during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Leicester City at Old Trafford on September 24, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
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Jose Mourinho cannot quite get his head around Leicester City’s firing of Claudio Ranieri.

The story is on the tips of the tongues of many in the Premier League, and Manchester United’s boss is no exception.

[ MORE: UEL draw | Who is Rostov? ]

Speaking Friday ahead of United’s EFL Cup Final against Southampton, here’s what Mourinho had to say.

From the BBC:

“He deserves the Leicester stadium to be named ‘Claudio Ranieri Stadium’. The most beautiful thing in the Premier League and one of most beautiful in football history.

“Now Leicester are in the highlights again with a decision that has everyone in football united. It’s very difficult to accept. It’s important to realize how football is and we need to react. I was sacked as a champion [by Chelsea], a giant negative as I thought – peanuts compared to Claudio.

“I don’t think he needs more. Nobody can do what he did. If some of the stories have just a little bit of truth, it is difficult to find words to justify but we have to be able to cope.”

Mourinho is giving voice to what many feel, this writer included. Ranieri is in a relegation fight, yes, but to fire him days after the Foxes stole a road goal against Sevilla that gives them reasonable odds to advance in the UEFA Champions League? It’s an odd one, and smacks a bit of, “Well, we can’t fire him if he beats Liverpool or Sevilla”.

Liverpool visits the King Power Stadium this weekend, and the Foxes will need an incredible response at home to topple the rested Reds. Sure the Premier League is win now, but add me to the chorus who thinks the new manager will have the same odds to fix Leicester as Ranieri.

Roma’s American president losing patience over stadium delay

James Pallotta, AS Roma
AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino
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ROME (AP) Roma’s American president is starting to lose patience with city officials over long-delayed plans for a new stadium.

Ahead of a meeting between municipal authorities and club officials Friday, James Pallotta issued a statement saying the team expects “a massively positive result” from the encounter.

Pallotta adds “the alternative would be catastrophic for the future of AS Roma, Italian football, the city of Rome, and quite frankly for future business in Italy.”

[ MORE: PST feature on Pallotta ]

The mostly privately financed 1.6 billion euro ($1.7 billion) project received another setback this week when cultural authorities announced plans to declare the proposed stadium site – an abandoned hippodrome – as a site of “particularly important interest.”

The project in Tor di Valle, halfway between downtown and Leonardo Da Vinci Airport, also includes three office towers.

Who is Manchester United’s UEL opponent Rostov?

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - OCTOBER 15: Jano Ananidze (L) of FC Spartak Moscow is challenged by Alexandru Gatcan of FC Rostov during the Russian Premier League match between FC Spartak Moscow v FC Rostov at Otkrytie Arena Stadium on October 15, 2016 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Epsilon/Getty Images)
Photo by Epsilon/Getty Images
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Jose Mourinho and Manchester United have learned their fate for the UEFA Europa League’s Round of 16.

The Red Devils face Russian side FC Rostov in the next round of the tournament, four victorious ties from claiming an automatic spot in the UEFA Champions League.

[ MORE: Spurs sent packing | Full UEL draw ]

So who is Rostov? Seventh in the Russian Premier League standings, Selmashi finished second last season and won the league in 1994 and 2008.

Rostov entered the Europa League after a run through the Champions League which saw the club knock out Anderlecht and Ajax, both still alive in the UEL, before finishing third behind Atletico Madrid and Bayern Munich in the group stage. Rostov beat Sparta Prague in the Round of 32 of the UEL.

The club is led by former Moldova boss Ivan Daniliants. Its leading scorer is left wing Dmitri Poloz with 11 goals, and Ecuadorian national teamer Christian Noboa and Moldova veteran Alexandru Gațcan among its mainstays.

While some will make the case that a rough pitch, long trip, and stingy team makes this draw a bad one for United, Mourinho’s crew should triumph. How worse could it have been? This one won’t be easy, but consider Roma, Schalke, Borussia Monchengladbach… even a reunion with Memphis Depay and Lyon would bring more of a challenge than Rostov.

Europa League draw: Man Utd learns fate

Manchester United's Henrikh Mkhitaryan, center back to camera, celebrates scoring the opening goal with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, 2nd right, and other teammates during a Europa League round of 32 second leg soccer match between Saint Etienne and Manchester United at Geoffroy Guichard stadium in Saint Etienne, France, Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017. (AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani)
AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani
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The travel is tricky, but Manchester United’s draw for the UEFA Europa League Round of 16 could’ve been much worse.

The Red Devils are off to Russia to face FC Rostov in the next round of the UEL competition.

[ MORE: Spurs out | Who is Rostov? ]

In another draw that leads you to question whether there’s anything random about it all, United and lone La Liga representative Celta Vigo drew winnable matches against Russian clubs, Roma has a tantalizing match against Lyon, and an all-Bundesliga match hits the docket.

Heck, we’ll even see an all-Belgian tie between Gent vs. Genk.

And in a draw which will have many glued to their sets, USMNT left-sided man Fabian Johnson will help Borussia Monchengladbach against German rivals Schalke. The first leg comes five days after the pair face off in Bundesliga play.

The Round of 16 legs will be played March 9 and 16.

UEFA Europa League Round of 16

Rostov vs. Manchester United
Celta Vigo vs. Krasnodar
Copenhagen vs. Ajax
Olympiacos vs. Besiktas
Lyon vs. Roma
Schalke vs. Borussia Monchengladbach
APOEL Nicosia vs. Anderlecht
Gent vs. Genk