It was a busy day in England as – unusually – all seven Saturday fixtures kicked off at the same time.
Fulham 0 Arsenal 1: With fellow top-four wannabes Chelsea and Tottenham not in action until tomorrow, Arsenal moved into third place but were largely unimpressive against opponents reduced to ten men in the twelfth minute when Steve Sidwell was red-carded for a foul on Mikel Arteta. Per Mertesacker’s first-half header was the difference but Olivier Giroud was dismissed late on.
Norwich 2 Reading 1: Visiting goalkeeper Alex McCarthy was terrific against Liverpool last week but less good today as Norwich scored twice in 90 seconds to take a giant stride towards survival and all but seal Reading’s relegation. Ryan Bennett and Elliott Bennett scored early in the second half, with Garath McCleary replying for Reading in the final twenty minutes.
QPR 0 Stoke 2: Only mathematical pedants wouldn’t stick a fork in Harry Redknapp’s team now. They’re ten points from safety with four games left and will be down if Aston Villa win on Monday. QPR old boy Peter Crouch gave the out-of-form visitors a 42nd-minute lead and Jon Walters added a penalty kick in the second half. It was a huge win for Stoke and under-pressure manager Tony Pulis, lifting them to six points clear of the drop zone.
Sunderland 1 Everton 0: A week after a stunning 3-0 win over rivals Newcastle, Paolo Di Canio’s first home game as Sunderland manager brought another vital victory (pictured). It was a scrappy match settled by a fine dribble and low shot from Stephane Sessegnon, capitalizing on a rare misplaced pass from Leighton Baines. Defeat leaves a huge dent in Everton’s prospects of a top-four finish.
Swansea 0 Southampton 0: Two clubs effectively playing out the season in cosy mid-table security shared the points at the Liberty Stadium. The visitors defended well and sit twelfth, eight points clear of the bottom three. Swansea were indebted to goalkeeper Michel Vorm for a couple of good saves. They’re ninth in the standings.
West Brom 1 Newcastle 1: With Stoke, Norwich and Sunderland winning, Alan Pardew’s team slipped to a stressful 16th despite what in other circumstances might have seemed a solid draw at The Hawthorns. Yoan Gouffran’s early header gave Newcastle the lead and they had chances to add to it before Billy Jones responded for the home side in the 64th minute.
West Ham 2 Wigan 0: The London club can start planning for next season with confidence: this win lifted them to tenth place, eleven points above today’s opponents. Wigan remain three points adrift of safety in the relegation zone, though they have a game in hand on rivals. A cross-shot from Matt Jarvis midway through the first period and a late Kevin Nolan volley made Wigan pay for missed opportunities.
T’s are crossed and i’s dotted on Neymar’s new contract, keeping him at the club through the 2020-21 season.
Neymar, 24, will make his 100th La Liga appearance with his next step onto the pitch.
Lionel Messi’s deal runs through 2017-18, and Luis Suarez’s goes through 2018-19.
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He’s scored 59 goals in league play, and has 91 total when you include all 150 of his matches in a Barca kit.
Neymar is on a similar scoring rate to last season, when he netted 31 times. The Brazilian also has 49 international goals in 73 caps.
Pep Guardiola is seething with reports that claim star striker Sergio Aguero is not in his plans for Manchester City’s future.
Aguero started on the bench for Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League loss at Barcelona, inspiring talk that the Argentine star wasn’t long for the Emirates Stadium.
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Guardiola says that’s garbage, and that he simply needed more midfielders for his attack. Next time, just ask.
From the BBC:
“It was a tactical decision. I wanted one more midfielder, I tried to keep the ball in the Camp Nou and when you have the ball, Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez don’t.
“I spoke with Sergio and he was understanding, I thought in the last 30 minutes, with the Barcelona centre-halves tiring, he could help a lot from the bench. When Sergio decides to leave it will be his decision. Next time before you (the media) decide he is not in my plans you can call me.”
Still, not using Aguero is risky business.
The striker believes, rightly, that he’s among the most dangerous players in the world. Guardiola has said as much, too.
While few would put him in the class of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, it’s difficult to imagine either being sat for tactical reasons against one of the best teams in the world.
The managers are meeting the media ahead of this week’s Premier League matches, and many eyes are trained on one specific match-up.
Chelsea and Manchester United meet on Sunday, the first time Jose Mourinho will manage against his old side since his unceremonious exit last winger.
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Mourinho, of course, led Chelsea to the 2014-15 title only to see a miserable start to the following campaign. He was hired at Manchester United this summer, but Conte thinks Mourinho’s Chelsea laurels have earned him some love from Stamford Bridge.
“I have great respect for Mourinho. He deserves a good reception. He was an important man for Chelsea and wrote part of the club’s story.”
Conte also touched on Paul Pogba‘s decision to head back to Old Trafford. Pogba is coming off a starring role in United’s 4-1 win over Fenerbahce, and Conte guided the French midfielder during their time at Juventus.
“It was Paul Pogba’s dream was to return to Manchester United. I wish him well, but only after this game.”
Conte said John Terry is available to return for Chelsea, and that could be invaluable against a big, strong forward like United’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic. With the Red Devils having played Thursday, Conte will like his chances a bit more than usual.
The bracket is set for the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals, and ensures that at least one MLS vs. Liga MX semifinal will happen next Spring.
No. 1 seed New York Red Bulls will cross the continent to meet No. 8 Vancouver Whitecaps, with the winner moving on to face the victor of Mexico’s Tigres UANL vs. Pumas UNAM.
[ VIDEO: Previewing all 10 PL matches ]
The possibility of an all-Liga MX or all-MLS final still exists, with Pachuca and FC Dallas on opposite sides of the bracket. Arabe Unido gives Panama hope for its first CCL semifinalist, while Saprissa can be Costa Rica’s first semifinalist since 2011.
Of the remaining teams, only Pachuca has won a title in the CCL era (2008-present). Tigres lost in the 2016 final, the only other team to make it that far.
New York Red Bulls (1) vs. Vancouver Whitecaps (8)
Tigres UANL (4) vs. Pumas UNAM (5)
Arabe Unido (2) vs. FC Dallas (7)
Pachuca (3) vs. Saprissa (4)
The first legs will be played in late February, and the bright side to the intra-league quarters will be one MLS side waiting a round before facing a more in-form club playing a traditional season schedule (though that’s an overblown excuse at this point).
Some fans don’t care much for the tournament, while others — myself included — are extremely keen to see an MLS team win the CCL and represent North America in the Club World Cup, where it can get a high profile litmus test in a serious competition (Real Madrid beat Cruz Azul 4-0 in a 2014 semifinal).