Arsenal and the ‘top club’ tag

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Are Arsenal a ‘top club’? Fiorentina’s Luca Toni certainly doesn’t think so.

With team-mate Stevan Jovetic’s admission earlier this week that he would be tempted to leave Viola for a move to Arsenal, the 35 year old Toni (yes, the behemoth striker is still playing) decided to throw around his veteran weight by recommending Jovetic only leave for a “top club.”

While expressing his desire to see Jovetic stay at Fiorentina, Toni said that if the Montenegrin striker is to leave the club, it should be for the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City or Chelsea. The former Bayern Munich player said: “I tell him to think carefully before leaving Florence, as there is an important project here. If he has to leave, then make it for a real top club. Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United fit that bill, but Arsenal are not better than Fiorentina.”

There’s little doubt that Toni’s words will trigger the ire of Gunners supporters but does the Italian striker make a point? A look back at Arsenal’s finishes over the last three years suggests that he does.

Arsenal currently sits 5th in the table on 50 points, four points behind Tottenham and a Champions League qualifying spot, five points behind 3rd placed Chelsea, nine points behind 2nd placed City and 24 points behind table-toppers United. Last season the North London club finished 3rd, only to be out-done by City and United. And in 2010-11 the Gunners finished 4th in the table behind United, Chelsea and City. These facts, combined with the failure to win a trophy during that time, means that Toni raises a good point – United, City and Chelsea are all clubs that, within the last few years, ‘top’ Arsenal. We’ll come back to this topic in a little bit.

But what about Toni’s assertion that Fiorentina is on par with Arsene Wenger’s side?

Fiorentina are currently 4th in the table on 51 points, three points behind AC Milan and a spot in the Champions League. The Florence side trails 2nd placed Napoli by five points and top-of-the-table Juventus by 14 points. Last season, however, was a different story for Fiorentina, who stumbled to finish 13th in the Serie A table. Their prior campaign wasn’t much better, finishing 9th in the league.

So while Fiorentina and Arsenal may be enjoying nearly identical seasons, it’s hard to see how the two clubs can be considered to be on the same level. Apart from the current campaign, Fiorentina has struggled to consistently finish in the top half of the Serie A. They also haven’t qualified for Europe since the 2008-09 season and haven’t won a trophy since the 2000-01 Coppa Italia. Arsenal, on the other hand, have qualified for Champions League every season since 1998-99. And, since the turn of the millenium they’ve also won two Premier League titles (2001-02, 2003-04), three FA Cups (2002, 2003, 2005) and two Community Shields (2002, 2004).

Sorry, Luca, but the numbers speak for themselves. Arsenal are ‘better’ than Fiorentina.

Which brings us back to the original question – are Arsenal still a ‘top club’? For my money – and I am an Evertonian, not a Goonah – the answer is ‘yes’.

Merely because United, City and Chelsea have all had better runs of late doesn’t mean Arsenal should be stripped of the ‘top club’ label. Granted, they are nearing 8 years without a trophy but the Gunners are consistently one of the top clubs in the league and in Europe – putting them head and shoulders above clubs like Fiorentina.

Whether Arsenal have any interest in bringing Stevan Jovetic into the fold, and whether the 23 year old would be able to make an impact at the Emirates, however, are questions for another day.

Barkley ineligible to make Chelsea debut in FA Cup replay

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Ross Barkley was expected — and himself expected — to make his Chelsea debut on Wednesday, when the Blues host Championship side Norwich City in a third-round FA Cup replay at Stamford Bridge.

Alas, the 24-year-old English midfielder has been ruled ineligible due to a lesser-known and -applied rules surrounding transfers and player registration.

[ MORE: Tuesday’s 3rd-round replay roundup | Wednesday preview ]

Barkley completed his move from Everton to Chelsea, for $20 million, on Jan. 5, the day before Chelsea and Norwich drew 0-0 at Carrow Road. In order to be eligible for Wednesday’s replay, Barkley is required to have completed his transfer prior to the noon cut-off the day prior to the original tie. While the time of official approval is unknown, Barkley’s move wasn’t announced by the club until after 5 p.m. in the UK.

As such, Chelsea will attempt to set up a behind-closed-doors friendly this week, in order to provide Barkley a bit of game action as he builds fitness and sharpness ahead of a potential debut against Brighton & Hove Albion on Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com). Barkley hasn’t seen a single minute of first-team action this season after suffering a serious hamstring injury in the summer.

FA Cup preview: Three more PL sides face 3rd-round replays

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Three more Premier League sides, including a top-four fighter, attempt to join a dozen of their top-flight contemporaries in the fourth round of the FA Cup on Wednesday…

[ MORE: Tuesday’s 3rd-round replay roundup ]

Chelsea and Swansea City host Championship opposition in the form of Norwich City and Wolverhampton Wanderers, respectively, while Bournemouth will make the 500-mile roundtrip to take on League One side Wigan Athletic.

The Blues, who now sit fourth in the PL after their disappointing 0-0 draw with Leicester City, could manage only a scoreless draw with the Canaries at Carrow Road earlier this month. They are winless in their last four games across all competitions — all draws — including their League Cup semifinal first-leg draw with Arsenal last week; the last three of those all finished without a single goal scored. Chelsea, who are tied with Liverpool with the fourth-most FA Cups in their history (7), lost out to Arsenal in last season’s final at Wembley Stadium.

Swansea are undoubtedly the side on highest Cupset alert, as Wolves are the runaway leaders and champions-elect in the Championship (10 points clear after 27 of 46 rounds played), thus able to devote more attention to the FA Cup than the typical second-division side. With the two sides separated by just a single place in the English footballing pyramid (Swansea, 20th in the PL; Wolves, 1st in the Championship), they appear destined to swap places by the end of May.

Meanwhile, Bournemouth’s punishment for conceding a pair of early goals to a side currently 32 places below them in the pyramid, is the long, midweek trip from the south coast to the DW Stadium in the northwest of England. It was the Premier Leaguers who needed a two second-half goals, including Steve Cook‘s 90th-minute equalizer, to draw level at home in the first meeting.

Tuesday’s FA Cup replay actionFULL ROUNDUP

Leicester City 2-0 Fleetwood Town
West Ham United 1-0 (AET) Shrewsbury Town
Mansfield Town 1-4 Cardiff City
Sheffield Wednesday 2-0 Carlisle United
Reading 3-0 Stevenage

Agent: 37-year-old Ronaldinho has retired

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SAO PAULO (AP) The brother and agent of 2005 Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldinho announced Tuesday that the former Brazil and Barcelona playmaker has retired from football.

Roberto Assis made the announcement to Brazilian media on behalf of the 37-year-old midfielder, who played his last professional match in 2015 for Brazil’s Fluminense.

“Ronnie’s professional career is over. He wants to be a football ambassador, do charity, and work with his friends in music from now on,” Assis told The Associated Press.

Assis hopes to schedule some farewell matches for Ronaldinho after the World Cup in Russia, which ends July 15. The initial plan is to play games in Brazil, Europe and Asia and to also get Brazil’s national team involved, Assis said.

Last July, Ronaldinho said on the sidelines of a friendly in Chechnya that was he was “too old” to return to action.

The Brazilian’s decorated career also includes one World Cup title (2002), one Champions League victory (2006) and two Spanish league titles with Barcelona, and two FIFA world player of the year awards (2004 and 2005).

Ronaldinho started his professional career at Gremio in southern Brazil in 1998. He left for Paris Saint-Germain in 2001 and was signed by Barcelona two seasons later.

At the Camp Nou, he was the engine of a team that took Barca back to the limelight. However, after a series of club trophies, Ronaldinho’s career took a downturn. He was often accused by Brazilian and Spanish media of lacking professionalism, despite his mentoring of a then youthful Lionel Messi.

In 2008, with Messi then leading Barcelona, Ronaldinho left for AC Milan. Despite being part of a team that won Serie A in 2011, he failed to reach his previous heights as a player.

When returning home became a real option, Ronaldinho frustrated Gremio’s efforts to re-sign him and joined Flamengo instead.

Disappointing performances in Rio de Janeiro took him to Atletico Mineiro, a club that then was more often fighting against relegation than for titles.

Yet a more mature Ronaldinho took Atletico to a different level.

In his last great run, Ronaldinho carried Atletico with his superb passes and dazzling dribbles to second place in the 2012 Brazilian Championship.

A year later, he was the key to his club lifting its first Copa Libertadores, South America’s most prestigious club trophy, but his hopes of playing at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil were dashed.

Ronaldinho left to play for Mexico’s Queretaro in 2014-15, but was mostly on the bench.

He played his last seven matches as a professional for Fluminense, though his performances were a far cry from his best days in Spain.

Now living in Rio, he has appeared in advertisements all over the world since leaving Fluminense.

USL granted 2018 2nd-division sanctioning by U.S. Soccer

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U.S. Soccer has officially granted the United Soccer League second-division sanctioning, behind first-division Major League Soccer, for the upcoming 2018 season, as well as first-division status for the National Women’s Soccer League.

[ MORE: Landon Donovan unveiled by Liga MX side Club Leon ]

USL, which will feature 33 teams in 2018, had been granted temporary second-division sanctioning, alongside the North American Soccer League, in 2017. As NASL’s demise continued and accelerated — the league will not begin play this spring, opting instead for a late-summer kickoff, after a number of its teams either folded or jumped ship to USL — USL, with the help of MLS, quickly pounced to capitalize — from U.S. Soccer’s statement:

Sanctioning allows NWSL and USL to operate a Division I and II league, respectively, during the 2018 season and includes a two-year pathway to full compliance with the Professional League Standards. USL has demonstrated substantial progress toward reaching full compliance since being granted provisional Division II sanctioning in 2017.

Conspiracy theorist’s take: USL supplanted NASL as the U.S.’s second-most viable professional men’s league — and more importantly, being granted official second-division status — paves the way for MLS to, at some point well down the line — say, 2030 or so — implement its own multi-tiered system of promotion and relegation, featuring anywhere between 60 and 80 teams, while still remaining a single-entity structure closed to the lower reaches of the sport in America, as the lines separating MLS and USL have only become more and more blurred in recent years.

[ MORE: Donovan ready to “win championships” after ending retirement ]

MLS realizes that public demand for promotion and relegation in the U.S. has grown significantly louder in recent years — particularly given the climate of the sport after the men’s national team failed to qualify for the World Cup, and subsequent ongoing presidential-election campaign — thus an open-but-not-really-open system which satisfies neither side will eventually be the end result.