Crystal Palace earns Premier League promotion – Thoughts on Zaha, Zola, Holloway and Cassetti

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By now I hope you’ve heard about today’s thrilling finish to the English Championship where Crystal Palace defeated Watford 1-0 in extra time earning the Eagles the 20th and final spot in next year’s Premier League.

After fighting tooth-and-nail to a 0-0 draw after 90 minutes, the two sides went to extra time where the ageless Kevin Phillips blasted home a penalty just before the interval.

Here are a few thoughts on the game:

Wilfried Zaha is a gem of a player and, at £15 million, an absolute steal 

Crystal Palace winger Wilfried Zaha, who Manchester United recently acquired for a paltry transfer fee of £15 million, is an absolute gem of a player.

He’s young (20 years old), raw, athletic and relentless. While not nearly as technically gifted, Zaha reminds me of Gareth Bale with a sprinkling of Demba Ba, Marouane Fellaini, Moussa Sissoko and Antonio Valencia.

Given his influence in both today’s match, drawing the winning penalty, and his brace in the second-leg of the Championship playoff semi-final, Palace will be devastated to see him go.

But fair play to Zaha, his departing gift for the Eagles was a fantastic match that supporters will not long forget. He could have taken it easy, knowing his ticket to the Premier League was already punched but instead, he tore it up, giving fans a taste of what’s to come. It was a very, very classy way to depart a club.

Really looking forward to watching the Ivory Coast born, England International blossom in the top-flight but have to be honest, I would’ve preferred him to play the 2013-14 season with Palace and then head to United.

Sad to see Zola stay in the Championship

I’m a bit sniffly over not having Watford manager Gianfranco Zola back in the Premier League.

The Italian was such a fabulous player both for Chelsea and the Premier League, in general. And now as a manager, he’s just a guy you want to route for. He’s got charm, commitment  passion, knowledge – the perfect makeup for a gaffer.

My gut tells me that Zola may want to stay at Watford for one more season to see the Hornets through to top-flight football. But then again, he  could very well see a nice offer come through from a club like Stoke City or Everton. Both clubs look poised to pounce on Wigan’s Roberto Martinez (Everton is also strongly linked to Porto’s Vitor Perreira) but don’t be surprised if you see the little Italian popping up in the mix.

Fired up to have Ian Holloway back in the Prem

As I reflected over Twitter earlier today, having Palace manager Ian Holloway back in the top-flight has me positively fired up. I could listen to him talk for days – easily one of world football’s best characters.

Here’s a snippet from the Palace manager after today’s match:

“I’ve been very fortunate to have worked with some great players and I’m very grateful to this bunch. We’re in the Premier League now and … god help us. We battled hard.”

If you see Marco Cassetti, buy the man a beer

Phillips’ game-winning spot kick came virtue of a reckless hack by Watford’s Marco Cassetti on Wilfried Zaha. My sympathies are with the Italian defender, who was undoubtedly drained from 105+1 grueling minutes.

Making matters even worse, Cassetti was the player who conceded the injury-time penalty that nearly cost Watford a semi-final aggregate victory over Leicester City. Tough to hate one a guy going through that so if you see Cassetti on the beach or local pub, do me a favor and buy that man a beer.

Henry, Aguero discuss playing up top under Pep

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One great striker got another one to open up on an up-and-down year at Manchester City.

Thierry Henry — one of the greatest of all-time, it must be said — sat down with Sergio Aguero ahead of Thursday’s Manchester Derby at the Etihad Stadium, and asked the Argentine about Pep Guardiola, Gabriel Jesus, and more.

[ PL PREVIEW: Manchester Derby ]

At times, it’s a fascinating discussion on playing lone striker. Even apart from the obligatory questions regarding Jesus’ arrival at City, Henry and Aguero speak their craft in a manner you don’t see too often.

That’s helped by the fact that Henry played for Guardiola at Barcelona, and can relate to the positional demands of Man City’s boss. Consider this exchange, from Sky Sports:

HENRY: When I was at Arsenal, I played up front and if I wanted to drift out to the left, I could. But when I got to Barca, I had to stay out wide and press. Sometimes doing that can be hard.

AGUERO: The thing I’ve found the hardest has been getting into my head the fact that I have to press the centre-back and the goalkeeper in matches. That’s what Pep asks me to do. It may not be a big deal, but in terms of processing it, the two of us speak a lot. He knows what I’m like.

I’ve been gradually learning and adapting to that style of pressing over the last few months. The first thing he taught me was how to press and how to do it well. Obviously there are times when I might drift out of position or I might press in an area where I’m not supposed to be, which might make it hard for the wingers or midfielders.

In the game itself, I may not realise because I’m so immersed and you can’t stop yourself. I’ve learnt a lot from him in terms of zones. He asks me to play as a No 9 and to stay in that position. I often drift out wide during matches and he looks at me and says, “If there’s a player out wide who wants to cross it in, who’s in there? Nobody.”

HENRY: I know all about that, believe you me.

I love this, because it shows how difficult it is for an elite striker to adapt his mentality. Both Henry and Aguero found world-celebrated success by playing in a certain fashion, and Guardiola understood that and still demanded a change. Earlier this season, the manager somewhat famously spoke of improving Aguero.

Aguero has been linked with Real Madrid given the tumult at City.

PHOTO: Liverpool unveils 125th anniversary kit for next season

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Liverpool rolled out its 125th anniversary kit, featuring a special crest to celebrate the occasion.

The Liver bird has 1892 on one side and 2017 on the other, with “125 YEARS” spelled out underneath the club’s emblem.

[ PL PREVIEW: Manchester Derby ]

The red shirt with a gold crest has a white V-neck and white at the ends of the sleeves. The goalkeeper kit is green.

The jersey will be available on May 19, and was announced last month.

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Jara’s goal lifts Pachuca to CONCACAF Champions League crown

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Hirving Lozano’s dipping shot rebounded into the path of Franco Jara, who scored the goal that won Pachuca its fifth CONCACAF Championship early Thursday morning.

The Argentine’s goal was the only one of the win over UANL Tigres, and gave Pachuca its first continental title since 2009-10. USMNT veteran Omar Gonzalez played for the winners, while Jose Torres started for Tigres.

[ PL PREVIEW: Manchester Derby ]

Major League Soccer teams were eliminated in the semifinals, with FC Dallas falling to Pachuca and Vancouver Whitecaps losing to Tigres.

Beginning with the 2017-18 tournament, qualified MLS and Liga MX teams will not enter the tournament until the Round of 16. The entire tournament will be held in the same calendar year.

USMNT: Brooks out with hip strain; World Cup qualifiers loom

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John Brooks is out of Hertha Berlin’s lineup “for the time being” after scans revealed a hip strain suffered in this weekend’s win over Wolfsburg.

That’s all Hertha has said, and that makes it hard to imagine whether American fans should be a little concerned or very concerned ahead of the USMNT’s World Cup qualifiers against Mexico, and Trinidad and Tobago in early June.

Brooks was unavailable for two weeks with an adductor strain in September, missing a month before returning to the starting lineup.

The U.S. center back pool isn’t teeming after Brooks and Geoff Cameron. Matt Besler, Tim Ream, Omar Gonzalez, and Walker Zimmerman were called up for the last World Cup qualifiers, and Gonzalez struggled but is a Bruce Arena favorite from their time in L.A.