Arsenal grabs Champions League spot with victory over Newcastle

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Arsenal secured its 16th consecutive spot in the Champions League with a hard-fought 1-0 win over Newcastle at St. James’ Park on Sunday.

Laurent Koscielny was the hero for the Gunners, volleying home from close range in the 52nd minute. The goal gave Arsenal the edge they needed to ensure they wouldn’t be leap-frogged by Tottenham for the final spot in next season’s Champions League.

The Gunners came out strong, linking together well-worked passes through Santi Cazorla and Mikel Arteta. There was some cause for concern among Gunners fans when the later hobbled off in the 28th minute but Arsenal kept its wits, continuing to retain possession for long periods of time. Chances, however, didn’t come easy for Arsene Wenger’s men as Newcastle’s much maligned defense held up well among the pressure.

Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa did well to contain Theo Walcott while Cheick Tiote bull-dozed his way through the center of the park, denying the final pass to Arsenal point man Lukas Podolski. The Gunners finally managed to unlock the Magpie defense when Aaron Ramsey found Kieran Gibbs down the left and the full-back cut into the box before providing silver-platter service for Cazorla. The Spaniard got it all wrong though, firing over the bar much to the delight of St. James’ Park.

The much improved Koscielny broke the deadlock seven minutes after the break. Bacary Sagna received the ball on the right touch-line and worked his way parallel to the Newcastle box before Yohan Cabaye hacked the full-back down with a full-blooded tackle.

On the ensuing free-kick, Walcott bent in a cross that found Podolski in the center of the box, eight yards away from goal. The German forward missed his header and the ball re-directed off of his shoulder. Koscielny was the first to react, spinning Fabricio Coloccini and launching himself into the air for an acrobatic volley. The shot banked off the head of Newcastle keeper Steve Harper and into the net. It was bad luck for Harper who produced some stunning saves during his final match before retiring.

Koscielny earned his man-of-the-match stripes at both ends of the pitch and in the 58th minute the Frenchman blocked a promising shot by Papiss Cisse. Six minutes later Newcastle had another chance denied when Yoan Gouffran’s effort was intercepted by Per Metersacker.

For 89 minutes Arsenal fans enjoyed a relatively low amount of anxiety as Tottenham, who needed to win and for Newcastle to earn a result, struggled to find the back of the net against Sunderland. But when word of Gareth Bale’s wonder strike reached St. James’ Park, things grew tense. Instead of possessing the ball and killing off the match, Arsenal went for the jugular and nearly got it when Walcott found himself through in the 91st minute. The winger raced into the box and dragged the ball left, sending the Newcastle defensemen to the ground. With just Harper to beat, Walcott carefully knocked the ball to the far post where it dinked the woodwork.

As the final seconds ticked off Newcastle desperately tried to get forward but nothing came of it. The final whistle blew signifying an end to the match and a long, stressful season for the Gunners.

But what a comeback its been for Arsene Wenger’s side.

Incessantly criticized and ridiculed by the press, the Gunners were 10th in the Premier League table at the start of December. All that changed in the second half of the season when the Gunners finished on a 10 match unbeaten streak, winning eight and drawing only twice.

And while securing their 16th consecutive Champions League spot will taste sweet, it’s even sweeter knowing that this off-season the talk around the Emirates isn’t about the players who are leaving, rather, those who are coming in.

Liverpool holds all the cards in Coutinho saga

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In a time of heightening player control in a rapidly expanding transfer market, one club sticks out as grasping a clear understanding of the shifting business landscape and how to retain its grip on its most valuable assets.

Following the sudden departure of superstar playmaker Neymar, Barcelona is trying desperately to pry Philippe Coutinho from Liverpool. On Friday, numerous reports in England claimed that Barcelona had gone in with a third bid, one even more ridiculous than the previous two. But they’re fighting a losing battle.

For a number of reasons, the Reds hold complete control over Philippe Coutinho’s transfer saga, a saga that will likely end with no transfer having been completed.

First and foremost, Coutinho just recently signed a contract extension in January that runs through 2022. As far as we know, there is no release clause in the deal, meaning at the most basic of levels, Liverpool maintains contractual control. However, as we’ve seen the past few years, that alone hasn’t stopped a number of players forcing their way out.

Yet this time, Liverpool finds itself in an advantageous position outside of just the contract. With the 2018 World Cup right around the corner, the Reds know that should they force Coutinho to stay, he is obligated to play at his best, knowing that any less would see him miss out on a spot in the packed Brazil roster, or at the least a starting position. Thus, Liverpool can be sure that even if their denial of his departure renders him despondent, he will likely remain the quality player he has proven to be.

The money Barcelona is offering – a whopping $151 million according to the most recent reports – is indeed a ludicrous amount for a player who, while quality, does not have nearly the marketability of his countrymate now residing in Paris. On talent alone, Coutinho likely isn’t worth that total, meaning Liverpool should sell. And yet, even with that cash in hand, in this hyper-inflated market where more is less, could it really do justice in replacing his impact in the club? This late in the transfer window, there’s no chance they could replace the 25-year-old, meaning they’d likely be torpedoing their entire season – Champions League included – to feel the warmth of $151 million burning a hole in their pocket until January, or even next summer.

Liverpool has built its entire roster around Coutinho. The arrival of Salah, the use of Firmino, the wide deployment of Mane, the makeup of the midfield. He’s good enough and young enough to be considered a “franchise player.” In two games without Coutinho this season, they’ve scored five goals, but that is a poor metric to describe the 180 wild minutes. The money alone isn’t worth the cost of his departure.

It’s quite possible that Barcelona’s stubbornness, brought on by the sudden loss of a beloved player and the meteoric rise of their rivals to all-time greatness, could see the Catalans come back with an even more preposterous bid. It’s true every player has a value, and at some point, should Barcelona’s blind rage see them flail wildly into the transfer window, the Reds should sell, and will. But with Fenway Sports Group not in dire need of cash and in an advantageous position, in all likelihood they won’t. Barcelona can throw all the Neymar money at Liverpool their heart desires, but nothing will force the Reds to budge.

Top 25 moments in Premier League history: 19-21

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To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Premier League we thought it would be great to count down our top 25 moments from a quarter of a century of action.

[ VIDEO: Top 25 moments in PL history ]

Each week we will release our best moments and you can keep track of the full list here.

Below are numbers 19-21 to as we continue our list.

(more…)

Premier League Preview: Stoke City vs. Arsenal

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  • Shkodran Mustafi, Francis Coquelin, Per Mertesacker all in line for season debuts.
  • The game will likely come too soon for Alexis Sanchez, who is still working to get to match fitness.
  • Stoke City have lost only one of their last seven home matches against Arsenal (W3 D3 L1).
  • Stoke City forward Jese Rodriguez could make his debut following his season-long loan move from Paris Saint-Germain.
  • Alexandre Lacazette could become the first Arsenal player to score in both of his opening two PL appearances for the club.

Coming off an exciting 4-3 comeback victory at home against Leicester City, Arsenal travel to what’s been in the past a house of horrors, visiting the bet365 Stadium to face Stoke City. (Watch live at 12:30 p.m. ET Friday on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

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Three months ago, Arsenal ended some of the bad voodoo on them in Stoke with a 4-1 win on the road. This time around, the Gunners have even more firepower, with Alexandre Lacazette off to a strong start in the Premier League.

Stoke City, like Arsenal, are still getting comfortable in the in-vogue 3-4-3 formation, as well as getting used to life without Marko Arnautovic. Spanish forward Jese, a Real Madrid academy graduate, could make his season debut for Stoke on Saturday and summer signings Kurt Zouma, Bruno Martins Indi and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting will push American Geoff Cameron for a place in the team each week.

What they’re saying

Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger on last year’s win at Stoke: “We were well-organized, efficient and under pressure to win the game. We were on a strong run as well. We had a convincing win there and that should inspire us. Traditionally it’s always been a difficult place to go for everybody, but of course we continue in a strong way our start to the season.

“I don’t believe in bogey teams too much. What is important is the performance on the day. We had a good performance last season and we have to focus on that, just to deal with the same performance. Stoke have a good record at home against many teams and I’m convinced that if we play our game, we have a good chance of winning.”

Stoke City manager Mark Hughes on this season’s new signings: “We are hoping to involve all the guys we have signed this summer, some will be on the bench, others won’t. We are very excited by the group that we are assembling to be honest.”

“We always aim to be stronger at the end of the window than we were at the beginning, and I would argue that of all the players that have left only one would have been considered as a regular starter. We have replaced those guys with players who I see as potential regular starters.”

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Prediction

Arsenal are clearly still a work in progress, but offensively they’re improved from a year ago. Stoke City on the other hand fell by a slim margin to Everton last week but have greatly improved defensively. We think it will be another defensive struggle, ending in a draw. Stoke City 1-1 Arsenal

Premier League Preview: Liverpool vs. Crystal Palace

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  • Liverpool will still be without Philippe Coutinho due to a back injury.
  • Adam Lallana, Nathaniel Clyne also miss out, but Daniel Sturridge is fit.
  • Crystal Palace has won three-straight games against Liverpool in the Premier League.
  • Both teams have scored in each of the last 10 meetings in all competitions between Liverpool and Crystal Palace, averaging 3.9 goals per match.

For the second-consecutive week, Liverpool will have to play without Philippe Coutinho, who is still missing with a back injury.

However, that didn’t seem to be an issue last week against Watford as Liverpool scored three goals, but it was the leaky defense that allowed Watford to score three goals themselves. (Watch live at 10:00 a.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

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Crystal Palace meanwhile also allowed three goals last week but couldn’t score any of its own as it was humbled, 3-0 to Huddersfield. Crystal Palace’s squad is still struggling to adjust to manager Frank De Boer‘s free-flowing style of play and Wilfried Zaha will miss Saturday’s encounter.

But working in Crystal Palace’s favor is Christian Benteke and the club’s three straight wins over Liverpool. It will surely be an open and exciting match at Anfield.

What they’re saying

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp on Crystal Palace: “We played Crystal Palace a few weeks ago. I’m not 100 per cent sure about the line-ups in that game, but Phil and Zaha were on the pitch and they will not be [this weekend]. I’m not sure if Adam played in this game, but that’s how it is…The only thing we know is it’s a tough game, probably both teams were not overly happy – we were not really disappointed about our first game, but it was how a first game can be, there are things to improve and it’s always like this, but even then we could’ve won which I think everybody knows.”

Crystal Palace manager Frank De Boer on his system of play: “I am not a manager who suddenly after a defeat decides to change things around and as I say I did see some very positive points so I am not going to change the system. We don’t need to use adapting to a change in style of our play as an excuse, it’s not so difficult and quite easy to play. The Premier League is so competitive that you have to work hard as a team to get a result because if you don’t you get punished. The players don’t want to use the new system as an excuse and I think everybody understands what we want but we have to execute it better.”

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Prediction

Liverpool’s centerback pair of Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren looked better midweek in the UEFA Champions League against Hoffenheim, but it’s another challenge to face Benteke and a motivated Crystal Palace team. Still, the speed of thought and pace on the field of Mo Salah and Sadio Mane should prove to be the difference. Liverpool 3-2 Crystal Palace