England’s relegation battle: What changed on Saturday

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Barring two highly improbable runs (and help from almost everybody around them), Reading and Queens Park Rangers are going to be relegated. Each sit on 23 points, eight points adrift with just over a month left in the Premier League season. If they recover, the story will be their miraculous turnarounds, not our assumptions it won’t happen.

That leaves six teams trying to avoid the last relegation spot: Norwich City, Stoke City, Newcastle United, Aston Villa, Sunderland, and Wigan.

Aston Villa came into the day in 18th, but after two late goals at the Britannia, the relegation battle’s in flux. And with the continued disappointing results of Stoke and Norwich, the picture’s becoming even more cluttered.

Here’s where the teams stand after Saturday’s results.

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Relegation battle – England

Pos. Club GP Pts.
13 Norwich City 32 35
14 Stoke City 32 34
15 Newcastle United 31 33
16 Aston Villa 32 33
17 Sunderland 31 31
18 Wigan Athletic 30 30
  • Aston Villa increase pressure on Wigan, Sunderland

Of course it’s three huge points. When you start the day in 18th, any points are, and with Saturday’s 3-1 win at Stoke City, Aston Villa have climbed all the way to 16th, a status that could be temporary.

Thanks to that result, Wigan now need a Sunday win at QPR to return to safety. Sunderland need to spring an upset at Stamford Bridge to guarantee they’ll stay above the drop.

Wigan do have a game in hand, but even if Roberto Martínez’s men are able to climb on Sunday, Villa’s win should sound an alarm. Having floundered for most of the season, Aston Villa now seem capable of getting a few surprise results. While Stoke’s quality is in question, Paul Lambert’s side showed an admirable resiliency in finding two late raod goals.

The team that joins Reading and QPR in the Championship will be the one that flounders most. If Villa prove as resilient over these next six weeks, somebody else will volunteer to go down.

Right now that looks like Sunderland. It could be Wigan. Maybe Stoke will supplant them both. But based on what we say on Saturday, it probably won’t be Villa.

  • Reading, Southampton’s fates sealed

source: Getty ImagesWhat a bitter day for Nigel Adkins. The new coach at Reading saw Mauricio Pochettino guide his former club to their third straight win and 11th place. That spot in the table makes it highly unlikely every team between them and 18th will out-play them over the season’s last six rounds.

Most galling to Adkins will be the ease with which Saints got their win. In a must win game at home, Reading offered little. Adam Le Fondre had a chance to put them up early, after which Southampton controlled the game, with basic passing around an ineffectual midfield maintaining their hold on the match.

Reading are last place with 23 points through 32 rounds. Seven points back of Wigan, they’d need an unprecedented comeback to survive. Unfortunately, they showed no sign they’re capable of turning things around.

  • Stoke City, Norwich City making things too interesting

source: Getty ImagesNorwich City may be five points clear, but after today’s 2-2 draw at home with Swansea City, the Canaries have two major problems. First and most important, they’re not getting results, winless in five while being out-scored 8-3. Second, their goal difference is terrible. At -19, they’re unlikely to win a tiebreaker against anybody but Aston Villa. Their only saving grace right now is their run-in, a schedule that features visits from Reading, Villa, and West Brom.

Stoke’s in a similar situation. Although they don’t have Norwich’s goal difference issue, they’re only four points clear after a season where relegation was a blur in the rearview. They’re winless in six and have only one league win since December. They’ve been hel scoreless three times in their last five matches and have scored a league-low 28 goals.

Both Stoke and Norwich have played so poorly that their previously comatose relegation worries have been awakened and emboldened. Having allowed themselves to be pulled into this fight, there now needs to be a sense of urgency, the type of intensity we’ve seen from Southampton, Aston Villa, and Wigan.

Stoke doesn’t have that. Neither does Norwich. Their only saving grace may be Sunderland, an even more inept squad that sits lower in the table.

But all it takes is one Black Cats result to pull Stoke in. And the Canaries would be right there, too. Neither side can afford to take anything for granted.

Arsenal sends Gabriel Paulista to Valencia

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Arsenal has a thin defense, but that hasn’t stopped Arsene Wenger from thinning the squad even further.

Gabriel Paulista is headed back to the Spanish top flight after the completion of his transfer to Valencia. The Brazilian was sold for a reported $12.8 million, just below the $14 million price tag Arsenal coughed up to Villareal back in January, 2015. He will partner with Manchester City loanee Eliaquim Mangala at Valencia.

The 26-year-old made 64 appearances for the Gunners across all competitions, including 46 in the Premier League. His only goal for the club was Arsenal’s first of a 2-0 win over Bournemouth in December, 2015. His high-water mark with the club was a 120-minute performance against Manchester City in the FA Cup semifinals where Arsenal came back to win 2-1 on an Alexis Sanchez goal in extra time.

“We would like to thank Gabriel for his contribution to the club and to wish him well for his return to La Liga with Valencia,” Arsenal said in its confirmation of the deal.

Paulista was utilized more than expected last season thanks to an injury crisis at the back, and still the Arsenal squad doesn’t seem fat enough to offload defenders, but Gabriel’s over-aggressive nature and tackling inaccuracy led him to an early exit.

With Arsene Wenger now deploying a back-three, the only natural central defenders currently on the roster are Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker, Shkodran Mustafi, and Rob Holding. Koscielny is suspended from a red card at the end of last season, and Mertesacker is battling a head injury. Sead Kolasinac, Nacho Monreal, and Calum Chambers have played CB for the Gunners in the recent past, but it is not their natural position.

Fabian Johnson misses Gladbach training with injury

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With John Brooks already out long-term due to a thigh injury, the United States may have another key injury to work around.

According to Borussia Monchengladbach manager Dieter Hecking, full-back/winger Fabian Johnson missed training on Friday due to an unspecified injury, and is now a question mark for Gladbach’s home match on Sunday against FC Koln. It could be nothing, but even the scare is cause for concern among U.S. fans.

Johnson has battled a few injuries the past couple of seasons, including a hamstring problem last spring that kept him out for nearly two months, including a pair of World Cup qualifiers in March.

Johnson’s absence would leave a hole at right-back for the United States. The 29-year-old has been deployed some at right wing for the USMNT, but he has been relatively poor at that position in the national setup, looking better when pushed further back where he is given more defensive duties, roaming forward with less frequency but more intent.

In place of Johnson, another converted winger in Graham Zusi has been seeing more time at right-back, but he offers less in the attack and lacks Johnson’s recovery speed, meaning mistakes by the Sporting KC veteran are punished more often.

Falcao scores again to extend red hot start

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Monaco is hoping to ride out the final two weeks of the transfer window with 18-year-old wonderkid Kylian Mbappe still in tow.

While they wait, they aren’t missing a beat.

With Mbappe out of the squad, Radamel Falcao has begun the 2017/18 Ligue 1 season as Europe’s hottest goalscorer. He bagged a hat-trick last weekend with Mbappe on the bench to give him four goals in the first two league matches. Then, with Mbappe out of the squad entirely, Falcao netted the winner in a 1-0 road win over FC Metz.

Falcao has scored five goals so far this year, and his club has a +5 goal differential. In a way, Falcao has already been worth six points thus far.

Thanks in part to Ligue 1’s early start, Falcao’s five league goals are by far more than anyone else in the major European leagues. Four players have scored a pair of Premier League goals, nobody in La Liga or the Bundesliga have scored more than one, and the Serie A season has yet to start.

The Colombian did the same thing last season. After eventually coming off the shelf from to hamstring and concussion problems to start the season, Falcao scored 10 goals in 10 Ligue 1 matches leading up to the new calendar year.

At 31 years old, Falcao isn’t a long-term solution and the club will clearly look to retain Mbappe despite Falcao’s hot start, but should they lose the young Frenchman, the club will be in good hands while they search for a replacement over the next year.

Arena should give Ream a look in Brooks’ absence

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With John Brooks out three months thanks to a horribly timed thigh injury, the United States yet again has to scramble to fill a void at the back. It’s not the first time an injury to Brooks has left the USMNT scrambling for cover at a thin position.

In the successful Gold Cup this past summer, with a largely domestic squad in place, Omar Gonzalez saw the bulk of the time at central defender, with Matt Besler his partner through the final two matches. However, with European-based players now in contention for spots with the early September international break, those two are unlikely to continue, at least not together.

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The most obvious choice to start September 1st against Costa Rica and likely shoo-in should he remain healthy for the next two weeks is Geoff Cameron. The 32-year-old has been back and forth between defense and midfield with club and country, and although he has publicly acknowledged his preference for a spot higher up the pitch, he was used in a back-three in Stoke City’s Premier League opener last weekend and is steadiest at the back.

But with a spot next to Cameron up for grabs in Brooks’ absence, a player who should get serious consideration is United States fill-in extraordinaire Tim Ream.

Ream has had to work hard to earn his place with the U.S., and while he’s seen time of late, he’s not been a first-choice pick. The 29-year-old has four caps so far in 2017, with two of those starts, including one in the impressive 1-1 draw against Mexico at the Azteca with the US still clawing its way back up the Hex standings. Even then, Ream would likely not have earned that spot had Arena not chosen to rotate nearly the entire squad between the pair of qualifiers in that window. His other start this year, the 1-1 draw at Panama, only came after Cameron pulled out of the squad the day of the game with a late injury. The last time Ream started back-to-back matches for the U.S. came back in 2015 when he was somewhat of a regular through the second half of the calendar year.

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But now, with Brooks out, Ream looks like the perfect man to fill in again. The 29-year-old defender finished last season in top form as Fulham narrowly missed out on promotion, earning the official website’s Man of the Match award in a May 2nd draw with Brentford, and won it again in the club’s final match of the season.

Without missing a beat, Ream has picked up where he left off last campaign in the first few matches this month. Last weekend against Reading at the Madjeski Stadium, Ream’s center-back partner Tomas Kalas was sent off 36 seconds into the match, forcing Fulham to play a man down for 89 minutes. Ream and company solidified the back, conceding just once in the 61st minute en route to a 1-1 draw.

The club still likely requires reinforcements at the CB position – Ream was forced to partner with right-back Denis Odoi against Reading with Kalas suspended and Michael Madl injured – meaning Ream could see an influx of competition in the coming weeks. However, as it stands, the American is far and away the best (and most improved) central defender on a club favored for promotion.

Gonzalez performed well in the Gold Cup, and Matt Besler was serviceable, but with few other options in the heart of defense to take Brooks’ place, Bruce Arena could yet again look to Ream for an in-form replacement.