Screw the style points: Santi Cazorla leads Arsenal to victory over Aston Villa

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For most of the first half, if not the entire game, Arsenal was arguably the lesser team. Which means nothing, of course. The game is judged by goals, not figure skating judges, and particularly when there’s a very early goal, we should hold off judging teams based on style points.

But when we’re talking about Arsenal, who beat Aston Villa 2-1 at the Emirates on Saturday, the statement becomes ironic. This is a team that used to be defined by their style, an approach that used to win leagues and became an ideological life-preserver once the trophies stopped flowing. The Gunners played beautiful soccer, better soccer, and employed an approach that would give manager Arsène Wenger license to stubbornly insist his team was better after back-breaking losses to Chelsea and Manchester United.

Even though the Gunners came around on Saturday and eventually controlled the match, that philosophical high ground is gone, another rueful side note in Arsenal’s slow decay. But at least they got three points. After Santi Cazorla completed his double in the 85th minute, restoring a lead he’d given the Gunners six minutes into the match, Wenger can do as every other manager in world soccer does and be happy with three points. Trade your contrived morality for three points, Arsène. Sitting fifth in the league, you need them.

(MORE: Considering the evolving Manchester United narrative.)

For some, this assessment of Arsenal may seem harsh. By more objective measures, Arsenal were the controlling side, dominating possession and more than doubling Aston Villa’s shots on goal. Yet it took a while to get there, Villa eventually equalizing through Andreas Weimann mid-way through the second half. Until that point, the teams looked fairly even except for one extremely important moment: Cazorla’s opening goal. That Arsenal is allowing Villa, one of the league’s worst teams, that much of a match at the Emirates is something we’ve had to get used to.

But that larger arc shouldn’t overshadow Cazorla, who put in one of his best performances of a great debut campaign on Saturday. In recent months the Spaniard had failed to match his early season dominance, but against Villa, it returned, with Cazorla complementing his two goals by consistently providing the team’s most dangerous passes.

Though he again had to make room for a slightly more advances Jack Wilshire, Cazorla gave us our first hints that the setup could work. In a left-to-in role, Cazorla was the game’s best player.

It’s something on which Arsenal can build. With the win, they temporarily sit one point behind fourth place Spurs, with Tottenham set to visit West Ham on Monday.

Here’s Cazorla’s opener, a nice bit of control and finishing after his first shot was blocked:

More reaction to the day’s English Premier League results coming throughout your Saturday.

Police say officer collapsed by himself during fan violence

AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos
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MADRID (AP) The riot police officer who died of cardiac arrest during crowd trouble before a Europa League match in Spain collapsed on his own and not in a direct confrontation with fans, authorities said Friday.

Officials in the Basque region of Spain said doctors dismissed the possibility the cardiac arrest was caused by any type of trauma sustained by the officer in fighting that took place before the match between Athletic Bilbao and Russian club Spartak Moscow on Thursday.

[ MORE: Europa League draw ]

There had been conflicting reports about what caused the officer’s death, with some saying he might have been involved in a struggle with fans or was hit by one of the many objects being thrown during the altercation.

Five people remained detained – three Russian nationals and two Spaniards – following the violent clashes that took place less than four months before the World Cup is held in Russia.

Authorities identified the victim as 51-year-old Inocencio Alonso Garcia and said he “suddenly felt ill in the course of the serious incidents” that took place outside San Mames Stadium in the northern city of Bilbao.

They said the officer was quickly transported from the scene but went into cardiac arrest before arriving at the nearby Basurto hospital. Doctors said they tried to revive him for more than an hour.

Video footage published by local media appeared to show the moment the officer collapsed while standing near the fighting along with other policemen.

Other images of the clashes showed fans hitting each other, and a group of policemen striking a man on the ground after he fell trying to run away.

The officer who died was among the large police force summoned to try to keep order as several hundred Russian fans – many of them considered by local authorities as radical ultras – arrived in the city for the round-of-32 match in Europe’s second-tier club competition.

The trouble erupted as police were escorting Spartak fans into the stadium and a stray group allegedly started igniting fireworks and throwing flares and objects toward Athletic supporters and police officers.

[ PL PREVIEW: Liverpool vs. West Ham ]

Police said “violent fans from both clubs” participated in the fighting which spread onto the streets near the stadium located in a central area of Bilbao. Many fans were seen trying to run away from the trouble as fireworks went off all around.

Authorities said they had identified several people before the fighting carrying items that included knives, iron bars, brass knuckles and even bags of stones.

There had been reports of other minor clashes involving Russian fans in Bilbao ahead of Thursday’s match, which Spartak won 2-1. Athletic advanced despite the loss, winning the tie 4-3 on aggregate.

UEFA condemned the violent clashes and said it was in contact with local authorities to obtain more information on the incidents, while Spanish league president Javier Tebas called for action by FIFA and UEFA to halt fan violence.

Bilbao will host matches in the 2020 European Championship. Six years ago, a fan died in the city in clashes after a match between Athletic and German club Schalke.

Earlier Thursday, German police arrested a Russian suspected of seriously injuring a British soccer fan during the European Championship in France two years ago.

More AP Spanish soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/LaLiga

Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni

Premier League Preview: Leicester City vs. Stoke City

Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images
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  • Foxes unbeaten in five vs. Stoke
  • Drew 2-2 at the Potteries on Nov. 4
  • Leicester leads all-time 34W-34D-31L

Leicester City can rejoin the Top Seven with a win and help on Friday when it hosts relegation-threatened Stoke City (Watch live at 12:30 p.m. ET on CNBC and online via NBCSports.com).

The Foxes sit eighth in the Premier League table, a point back of Burnley (The Clarets host Southampton on Saturday)

Stoke, meanwhile, is two points back of safety. The half-full glass says the Potters have only lost once since Paul Lambert took over as boss, but the half-empty one sees draws against Watford and Brighton to go a loss at Bournemouth.

What they’re saying

Leicester boss Claude Puel on Stoke’s fortunes: “Shaqiri can make the difference and at the moment they play well with a good fighting spirit. I think they play good football on the floor. When they recover the ball they try to get in behind and make good pressing on the opponent. Shaqiri has more freedom and plays between the lines and they are a good team at this moment.”

Stoke’s Xherdan Shaqiri on Paul Lambert’s style“He has a German mentality with his teams… I’m really glad he came here. With German teams they always sit together – there are no phones on the table. It’s brought us more together – when you eat together you have to speak more to other team-mates who you don’t normally speak to. It’s a good thing.”

Prediction

Phone ban or no, it will take improved communication to deal with Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez, and Adrien Silva. Leicester gets another win, 3-0.

FA charges Guardiola for wearing yellow ribbon to advocate Catalonia

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The English Football Association has charged Pep Guardiola for wearing a political message.

Guardiola has been wearing a yellow ribbon in support of Catalan independence, and that’s in breach of the FA’s kit and advertising regulations.

[ PL PREVIEW: Liverpool vs. West Ham ]

The Manchester City boss was born in Santpedor in central Catalonia, and played for Catalan club Barcelona in addition to representing both the Spain and Catalonia national teams.

Guardiola has until Monday to respond to the charge.

He’s spoken of jailed Catalans and Spain’s unwillingness to allow a Catalan independence vote as a concern for democracy.

Premier League Preview: Liverpool vs. West Ham United

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  • West Ham one loss in last 8 PL matches
  • Reds won 4-1 in London on Nov. 4
  • Liverpool leads all-time 70W-37D-28L

Liverpool can move second in the Premier League if it handles its business against West Ham United at Anfield on Saturday (Watch live at 10 a.m. ET on CNBC and online via NBCSports.com).

The Reds enter the day two points and two goals of differential behind Manchester United, and are a point ahead of fourth-placed Chelsea. The Red Devils and Blues meet on Sunday.

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

A Mohamed Salah double led the Reds past the Irons in a London Stadium meeting earlier this season, but West Ham is a much different team under David Moyes.

Part of that is a firing Marko Arnautovic, who has seven goals and three assists in his last nine matches for West Ham.

The Irons announced the sale of Jose Fonte to Chinese Super League club Dalian Yifang on Friday.

What they’re saying

Jurgen Klopp on Liverpool’s Spanish training camp“As always with a training camp, you want the boys to be together the whole day. We are a lot together but not when we have time off so we had that time as well.  The weather was brilliant and everything was easier – if you have to do hard work, which we did there, it is easier if the weather plays in your cards and that was a change of circumstance after a long winter. ”

West Ham’s Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez on the Irons renewed season“We had our targets, but they changed. At the beginning of the season, we were aiming to qualify for European competition, but now we are fighting against relegation, but that is sport, that is football and part of life, so we need to accept it and try to be better and get out and see what’s going to happen next year. If we have all these players recovered, probably next year we are going to be fighting for a European position, you never know.”

Prediction

The Reds are hard to predict, but the lay-off between their Porto triumph in the Champions League and Saturday’s match should benefit Liverpool. 2-1 to the hosts.