Hey guys, chill the heck out: Brad Guzan has got this

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News of Tim Howard’s back injury, unfortunate though it is for the longtime U.S. No. 1, should be nothing more than a little fender dent on the U.S. bus toward Brazil.

Brad Guzan will do fine.

The Aston Villa man has shown again and again this year that he can stand the test. Just because Villa is not competing for top spots in England – not ever threatening to sniff top-table glory this season – doesn’t mean there isn’t pressure aplenty at the Birmingham ground. In fact, the pressure around Villa Park is immense. Countless players and managers have spelled it out for me over the years: there is no pressure like the weight of a relegation fight.

And yet, Guzan delivers one outstanding performance after another, with no signs of slippage, no signs of cracked confidence due to Villa’s losing or to a goals against ledger that teeters somewhere between “brutal” and “unspeakable.” He was a game-changer once again Saturday as Villa prevailed in a huge “six-pointer” over Reading.

(MORE: Crucial win sees Aston Villa move out of drop zone) 

Further, Guzan’s international experience in the U.S. shirt may shade toward the limited side, but it’s hardly down at zero.

Guzan, 28, has appeared in five World Cup qualifiers (a 3-1-1 mark). In most of his matches the United States already had sufficient qualifier points in pocket, or they were matches where Bob Bradley’s team would win comfortably.

But there one was a biggie as the United States neared its ticket punch for World Cup 2010, although it was anything but across the finish line.

That was in 2009, during a contest in El Salvador. (And we all know how these Central American contests can prove uncomfortably tricky.) Tim Howard was serving a one-game suspension, so it was Guzan between the posts that night during a 2-2 draw at the Cuscatlán Stadium, San Salvador.

So, nothing that will happen in Denver on March 22 will faze the Illinois born-and-bred Guzan. Plus, there’s this:

The United States needs three points from these two matches (against Costa Rica in suburban Denver, then four nights later at Mexico.) The pressure will be on that match in Denver; the United States must emerge from DSG Park with a “W” and nothing else. From there?

If we’re honest, no one expects Jurgen Klinsmann’s side to win in Mexico – never mind that historic win in a friendly eight months ago. If they drag out a point out of Azteca Stadium, well, wonderful! If they manage to sneak away with a win, bust out the bubbly for three “bonus” points earned en route to Rio! But no one expects it.

But if the United States can carry the Denver night and scoop up all three points against Costa Rica in potentially chilly Colorado, you can stamp “Mission Accomplished” on this so called FIFA World Cup qualifier “double date.”

The United States, rebuilt back line and all, backstopped ably by Guzan, should be plenty to handle that task.

Barcelona defends Messi over “unfair” suspension

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says Lionel Messi’s four-match international suspension for insulting a linesman was “unfair and totally disproportionate.”

[ MORE: Messi handed ban by FIFA ]

Barcelona released a statement Wednesday expressing “its surprise and indignation” with FIFA’s decision to sideline the playmaker for so long following the incident in Argentina’s win over Chile in World Cup qualifying last week.

The punishment was announced before Argentina lost at Bolivia 2-0 Tuesday, a result that left the two-time champions at risk of not qualifying for next year’s World Cup in Russia.

Barcelona says it “wishes to reiterate its support for Leo Messi, an exemplary player in terms of conduct both on and off the field.”

Pending an appeal, Messi will only be available to play in Argentina’s final qualifier, on Oct. 10 against Ecuador.

World Cup hopes back on track: What next for USMNT?

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After a four-point haul over the past week in their two crucial 2018 World Cup qualifiers, the U.S. national team is back on track and heading in the right direction.

[ MORE: Latest USMNT news ]

Bruce Arena led the USMNT to a thumping 6-0 win over Honduras last Friday and then a gutsy 1-1 draw in Panama on Tuesday in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying, as the Hexagonal standings will now look a lot better to U.S. fans who saw their team sitting bottom of the pile for the past four months following defeats to Mexico and Costa Rica which cost Jurgen Klinsmann his job.

So, the “Road to Russia” is looking a little less daunting for the U.S. but there are still tough tests ahead in the months to come in World Cup qualifying as well as a Gold Cup campaign on home soil in July.

First let’s look at the standings in the Hex. Ah, that’s better but things are now very tight aside from Mexico running away with things.

With six games to go the U.S. currently occupies the play-off spot as the top three teams in the Hex standings will qualify automatically for the World Cup and the fourth-place team has to play against the fifth-place team from qualifying in the Asian Football Confederation region.


Mexico — 10 points (+4 GD)
Costa Rica — 7 points (+4)
Panama — 5 points (0)
———————
USA — 4 points (+1)
———————
Honduras — 4 points (-5)
Trinidad and Tobago — 3 points (-4)


And these are the USA’s six remaining qualifiers as they aim to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

June 8: vs. Trinidad and Tobago
June 11: at Mexico
September 1: vs. Costa Rica
September 5: at Honduras
October 6: vs. Panama
October 10: at Trinidad and Tobago

The first three games at crucial. If the U.S. manages to get seven points from those three matches, that’s magical. Even six points by beating T&T and Costa Rica on home soil would be superb. Yet, if the U.S. drops points to one or both of T&T and Costa Rica, that puts so much pressure on themselves to pick up wins on the road at Honduras and T&T in two of their final three qualifiers. That would not be an ideal scenario.

Still, heading into the past week the aim for the U.S. was to get back on track in qualifying and give themselves a chance of making the 2018 World Cup. They’ve done that. Now, the hard work begins.

Chelsea chase Alexis Sanchez; Man United want Dier

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The summer transfer rumors are heating up long before the heat of summer arrives…

[ MORE: Zlatan to stay at United?

On Wednesday it is being claimed by the Guardian that Alexis Sanchez has become Chelsea’s “No.1 target this summer” as the Arsenal and Chile forward has yet to sign a new deal with the Gunners.

Per the report, Chelsea boss Antonio Conte has drafted up a shortlist of the players he wants to sign this summer and Sanchez is at the top of the Italian managers wishlist as he is also close to signing a new deal at Stamford Bridge.

Sanchez, 28, has a deal at Arsenal until the summer of 2018 but if the north London club fails to agree a new deal with him this summer (as well as Mesut Ozil and Arsene Wenger, but that’s another story…) then they’ll have to sell him on or risk losing him for nothing as a free agent next season.

The striker scored twice for Chile in their 2018 World Cup qualifying win over Venezuela on Tuesday and has been essential all season long to Arsenal, scoring 18 goals and adding nine assists after playing through the middle on his own for much of the campaign.

Would Arsenal really sell Sanchez to a PL rival? It wouldn’t be ideal but it’s not like they haven’t done that in the past. Think of Robin Van Persie, Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy.

The thought of Sanchez on one wing with Diego Costa up top and Eden Hazard on the other wing at Chelsea should be enough to get Arsenal to offer their star man whatever cash he wants — the report states he wants $310,000 a week which would almost double his current $160,000 a week salary — when they sit down to discuss the new deal at the end of this season.


Elsewhere in north London, Tottenham Hotspur’s versatile defender Eric Dier has been linked with a $50 million move to Manchester United this summer.

According to Neil Ashton of the Sun, Dier, 23, is being lined up to replace Michael Carrick in the holding midfield role at United.

Now, Tottenham are notoriously tough to do business with and chairman Daniel Levy will not want to lose one of his top prospects and an England international to a direct rival in the Premier League.

That said, Dier has been used in multiple positions by Spurs this season and Mauricio Pochettino appears to prefer Victor Wanyama and Mousa Dembele as the holding midfielders and the emergence of Harry Winks has seen Dier’s importance questioned by some.

The fact that Dier can play in holding midfield or anywhere across the back line will also suit Moruinho who likes to have a smaller squad to work with and per the report the Portuguese boss has been a long-time admirer of Dier. His power to break up the play and also use he ball safely could work very well alongside Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera.

PHOTOS: Bizarre Cristiano Ronaldo statue unveiled

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Hang on, is that really meant to be Cristiano Ronaldo?

On Wednesday the Portugal and Real Madrid legend had Madeira Airport named after him just outside his hometown of Funchal and during the ceremony a bust of his head was put on show.

Except, it looked horrendous…

Take a look for yourself in the photos below. See.