Arsenal's Walcott celebrates his goal against Chelsea with Wilshire during their English Premier League soccer match at Stamford Bridge in London

Arsenal’s frustrating season and their newfound grit

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It’s been quite a season for the Arsenal.

Widely recognized for their free-flowing, ooh là là style of play, the trials and tribulations of the 2012-13 season has forced the Gunners to grow into a grittier, more-hardened side.

The media ramped up their witch-hunt for Arsene Wenger this season, seeking to crucify him for everything from player selection to transfer targets to club finances. It all came to a boil before the second-leg of the Champions League quarter-finals at Bayern Munich when the Frenchman showed his towering frustration by sarcastically explaining to the media, “we want to lose tomorrow’s game so you can all be happy.”

It was an uncomfortable moment for all involved and one that could have tipped either way. Fortunately, it tipped in Wenger’s favor when his words ignited an impassioned fortitude  among the players resulting in a 2-0 victory over the Bavarian giants.

It was a moment that should not be undervalued, especially after the demolition that Barcelona suffered at the same venue this past Tuesday. The return leg at Bayern was a hand that Arsenal could easily have folded, opting instead to put out a second-string squad to provide youth products with experience and veterans with a respite before a furious conclusion to the Premier League season.

But Wenger refused, his players responded and the Gunners gave Bayern hell. It will be interesting to see if in next week’s semi-final second leg Barcelona are made of the same ilk.

It’s been an equally trying year for the players.

Arsenal’s center-back situation has been the source of constant drama and question marks as Thomas Vermaelen looks a shell of his former self and Laurent Koscielny continues his high-highs and low-lows. Per Mertersacker has been solid for the Gunners but always looks one step away from crumbling and hardly feels like the rock around which to build a back four.

In the midfield, Jack Wilshire was named to the short-list for PFA’s Young Player of the Year but the Gunners’ puppet-master has struggled with an ankle injury and currently looks a shadow of his former self.

After six months of hinting he wanted out of North London, Theo Walcott put an end to the drama by re-signing yet his on-field inconsistency remains a stress point for Arsenal supporters. When he’s on, he’s the most dangerous winger in English football. But when he’s off, he’s merely a boy who picked up football after a lifetime of athletics.

The list goes on as Gervinho leads the league in shots that go out for throw-ins, Bacary Sagna defends with his body in England and his mind in France, and Lukasz Fabianski and Wojciech Szczesny have both had their moments but neither has stepped up to the forefront of Premier League goal-keeping.

A huge source of this season’s stress arose from the sale of Robin van Persie to United. It wasn’t that Arsenal could have done something to convince him to stay at the Emirates – the striker’s mind was made up. But he absolutely should not have been sold to a club in the Premier League. Even if it meant accepting 5M less for his transfer, the Dutchman should have been sent to Italy or Germany where his heroics may have been seen but not felt.

Selling van Persie to United and watching him score hat-tricks to confirm league titles was like getting dumped by the prom queen and spending the entire summer watching her make-out with your best friend. And what are Arsenal supporters left with? Olivier Giroud. A talented player in his own right but hardly the rebound that will make your ex lover jealous.

Point being, Arsenal have endured immense growth this season, albeit different growth from previous years. They have acquired a much-needed chip on their shoulder, and rightfully so. They back down from fewer challenges and are now more more likely to grind out points for the sake of merely grinding out points. The change in personnel has also compelled the club to become more resourceful in where they find goals.

If Arsenal are to compete for next year’s Premier League title the club has to show a willingness to financially compete with United, City and Chelsea. They also need to tailor the majority of their signings to players who are proven stars rather than high-upside talent. With this kind of ambition, combined with this season’s mental advancements and the high quality of football for which Arsenal is so famous, the Gunners may soon return to the top of English football.

Defoe: Sunderland’s Duncan Watmore reminds me of Gareth Bale

during the Barclays Premier League match between Crystal Palace and Sunderland at Selhurst Park on November 23, 2015 in London, England.
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Duncan Watmore is highly regarded at Sunderland, as the 21-year-old was rewarded with a new four-year contract with the club earlier this week.

While the club has high hopes for the young winger, his teammates are taking notice as well.

[ MORE: Transfer Rumor Roundup ]

Watmore’s teammate Jermain Defoe, a seasoned veteran who knows all about succeeding in the Premier League, praised the 21-year-old’s play, comparing him to one of his former teammates at Tottenham, Gareth Bale.

In a funny way he reminds me of Gareth [Bale]. When he came on the scene at Tottenham, he used to just get the ball and glide.

He’s such a nice boy, I don’t think he’s bothered about signing new contracts and stuff, all he wants to do is play football and do well for the club.

If he can go on to do what Gareth has done then he’ll be fantastic. He’s the future of this club.

That’s quite the comparison, as Watmore has only made six Premier League appearances in his young career. Bale was twice named the Premier League Player of the Year before being sold to Real Madrid for a world record transfer fee in 2013.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

While it’s a bit too soon to be calling Watmore the next Gareth Bale, there’s no denying he could be a huge talent for Sunderland. After coming on as a substitute in the Black Cats’ win over Crystal Palace on Monday, Watmore showed his speed and willingness to run at defenders, something the club is in desperate need of. He made his debut for the England U21 side this fall, which shows his form has impressed many outside of just the North East.

After starting his career in the Manchester United youth setup, Watmore was released and played with non-league side Altrincham before signing with Sunderland in 2013. He scored 11 goals in 18 appearances last year with the U21 side, being named the Under 21 Premier League Player of the Season.

Five Premier League players make UEFA Team of the Year shortlist

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 03:  Kevin de Bruyne of Manchester City celebrates scoring his team's fourth goal with his team mate Sergio Aguero (L) during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Newcastle United at Etihad Stadium on October 3, 2015 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
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UEFA has released the 40-man shortlist for the 2015 Team of the Year, with five Premier League players making the cut.

[ MORE: Champions League roundup ]

Chelsea’s Eden Hazard is on the list after being named the Premier League Player of the Year last season, as is Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez.

Manchester City accounts for the other three players, as Joe Hart, Sergio Aguero and Kevin De Bruyne have been selected. However, De Bruyne makes the list mainly based off his play for Wolfsburg last season.

Three teams have more players selected than the entire Premier League combined. Barcelona leads the list with eight players, while Bayern Munich and Juventus each have six.

[ MORE: FIFA Ethics Committee seeks lifetime ban for Sepp Blatter ]

Cristiano Ronaldo already has the most appearances on the final list with nine, and is looking to make his ninth consecutive Team of the Year. No other player has been selected more than six times since the beginning of the award, which was started in 2001.

Below is the complete 40-man shortlist.

Goalkeepers: Joe Hart (Manchester City), Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus), Manuel Neuer (Bayern Munich), Denys Boyko (Dnipro).

Defenders: Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus), David Alaba (Bayern Munich), Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus), David Luiz (Paris St-Germain), Dani Alves (Barcelona), Thiago Silva (Paris St-Germain), Jerome Boateng (Bayern Munich), Ricardo Rodriguez (Wolfsburg), Javier Mascherano (Barcelona), Diego Godin (Atletico Madrid), Gerard Pique (Barcelona), Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid).

Midfielders: Grzegorz Krychowiak (Sevilla), Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City), Ivan Rakitic (Barcelona), Arturo Vidal (Bayern Munich), Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Claudio Marchisio (Juventus), Marco Verratti (Paris St-Germain), Yevhen Konoplyanka (Sevilla), Andres Iniesta (Barcelona), James Rodriguez (Real Madrid), Paul Pogba (Juventus), Hakan Calhanoglu (Bayer Leverkusen).

Forwards: Gareth Bale (Real Madrid), Thomas Muller (Bayern Munich), Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Paris St-Germain), Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich), Neymar (Barcelona), Antoine Griezmann (Atletico Madrid), Alvaro Morata (Juventus), Sergio Aguero (Manchester City), Luis Suarez (Barcelona), Alexis Sanchez (Arsenal), Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid).

New York Red Bulls’ Jesse Marsch voted MLS Coach of the Year

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NEW YORK (AP) — The Red Bulls’ Jesse Marsch has been voted Major League Soccer’s Coach of the Year, the first to earn the honor in the two-decade history of the New York team.

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The Red Bulls went a league-best 18-10-6 in Marsch’s first season after replacing Mike Petke, winning 14 of their last 20 games with one tie. They trail Columbus 2-0 going into Sunday’s second leg of their Eastern Conference final.

MLS said Tuesday that from combined team, media and player votes, Marsch received a weighted total of 152 out of a possible 300.

Dallas’ Oscar Pareja was second with 91 and Vancouver’s Carl Robinson third with 24.

How can Chelsea qualify for last 16 of Champions League?

HAIFA, ISRAEL - NOVEMBER 24: Willian of Chelsea celebrates scoring his teams second goal during the UEFA Champions League Group G match between Maccabi Tel-Aviv FC and Chelsea FC at Sammy Ofer Stadium on November 24, 2015 in Haifa, Israel.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
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With one match left in UEFA Champions League group play, Chelsea control their own destiny.

After beating Maccabi Tel-Aviv 4-0, the Blues sit tied with FC Porto on ten points at the top of Group G.

[ MORE: Champions League standings

However, with Dynamo Kyiv earning a big win over Porto on Tuesday, Chelsea must wait until the final matchday to qualify for the knockout round, as there is a possibility of a three-way tie for the top spot in Group G.

With Chelsea hosting Porto on December 9, here are the scenarios for Jose Mourinho’s men to assure advancement.

  • A win over Porto will clinch Chelsea the top spot and a place in the last 16.
  • A draw against Porto will see Chelsea advance.
    • Chelsea draw/Dynamo win: Chelsea win group, Dynamo finish second
    • Chelsea draw/Dynamo draw or loss: Porto win group, Chelsea finish second
  • A loss to Porto and a Dynamo Kyiv draw/loss to Maccabi Tel-Aviv will see Chelsea finish second in the group and advance to the last 16.
  • The Blues have secured at least a berth in the Europa League, regardless of the result in their final match.

Simply put, get a point at Stamford Bridge and Chelsea advance.