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It’s too early to discount Spain, but there were some definite warning signs on Sunday

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In previewing Spain’s Confederations Cup semifinal against Italy, we noted that with the possible exception of Portugal at last year’s European Championships, no team had been able to go toe-to-toe with Spain and survive. Yes, Switzerland (World Cup 2010) and the United States (Confederations Cup 2009) had beat La Furia Roja in competitive matches, but they did so by employing a low-percentage approach that gave them the proverbial puncher’s chance. Like Holland in the 2010 World Cup final, they didn’t exactly play their game.

Yet in the span of four days, we’ve seen two teams stay true to themselves, stand flat-footed in front of the world champs, and survive. Other teams have done this in friendlies – Italy and France are two that come to mind – but Italy’s semifinal performance was the first time since Portugal we’ve seen a team truly trouble the Spaniards.

And then Sunday, Brazil not only troubled Vicente del Bosque’s side, they routed them. A goal in the second minute followed by a half of pressure led to a 2-0 lead by intermission. Scoring two minutes into the second half, Brazil couldn’t have made it look simpler. It was an unfathomably easy win over a team many consider to the best of all time.

Since there’s no way to know whether this was just an off day or the first cracks in the dam, it’s of little use to proclaim this is the end of the Spanish armada. It might be. Results as dramatic as these often hint at something bigger. But without the context of future matches, we can’t draw broad conclusions. All we can do is look at possibilities.

As it concerns their future dominance, the most concerning part of today’s performance was their midfield’s ineffectiveness. Yes, their defense was troublesome, but that’s never hindered them before. And although Iker Casillas was bad, Spain has a slew of other goalkeepers. But they don’t have another Xavi Hernandez. They don’t have another Andres Iniesta. If other teams can find ways to limit that duo’s effectiveness, be it through athleticism and physicality (like Brazil) or pure numbers (like Italy), Spain is in as much trouble as their doubters may proclaim. You don’t need super talent, only a particularly type of talent, to implement either of those approaches.

Compounding this possibility – and as this point, it’s nothing more than a distant possibility – is Spain’s unwillingness to develop another option. Jesus Navas’s wide play could be thought of as a significant change, but there was a time before Vicente del Bosque where Spain used to make better use of their forwards, be they David Villa, Daniel Guiza, or an in-form Fernando Torres. Now, with Spain rarely playing real wingers and seemingly accepting forward’s a synonym for black hole (they’re still starting Torres), there are no alternatives. They’ve imposed their own tactical limitations, making themselves a sitting duck.

It’s a testament to Spain’s talent that they haven’t been exploited before, exactly why predictions of their demise are so confounding. We can talk Xs and Os all day, but those are ultimately mere plans which make teams more or less likely to win. At some point, Iniesta can just better than his opponent. Same for Xavi. Same for any of the myriad of options del Bosque has at his disposal. Even if that doesn’t mean reintegrating a player like Fernando Llorente, Spain is more than capable of adjusting.

The question is whether they will. Their lack of adjustments over the last five years is both understandable and what’s led to this point of doubt. Is this a flaw in their DNA, something that can’t be changed without compromising what makes them Spain? Or will Spain evolve?

Or, is this result just a one-off? Spain is old. Their Barcelona and Real Madrid-heavy squad has played an unprecedented number of games (club and country) during Spain’s run, and unaccustomed to the Brazilian heat, La Roja may have wilted. Had they not played four games leading into the Brazil match, or if they had more preparation ahead of the games (as they will at next year’s World Cup), perhaps we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.

We are, in fact, having this conversation, though. Brazil proved Spain was not only mortal but potentially vulnerable: exploitable. While it’s too early to know the extent to which Spain have faded, based on the lofty stature they held after their game against Uruguay, it’s fair to say they have faded. If only a little.

 

WATCH: Premier League TV schedule, stream links – Matchday 7

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Week 7 of the 2016-17 Premier League season as we prepare for a two week break following this weekend.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live here ]

It all kicks off on Friday with Everton welcoming Crystal Palace to Goodison Park (3 p.m. ET live on USA and online via NBC Sports.com) as Ronald Koeman and Alan Pardew clash on the sidelines.

On Saturday Swansea host Liverpool (7:30 a.m. ET live on NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) at the Liberty Stadium with Francesco Guidolin under pressure and Jurgen Klopp flying. Then Hull City welcome Chelsea (10 a.m. ET live on NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) to the KCOM Stadium as Antonio Conte‘s side look to get back to winning ways after two-straight defeats.

On Sunday we have a busy day as Manchester United host Stoke (7 a.m. ET live NBC and online via NBC Sports.com) to get us going. Then it’s the big game of the weekend as Tottenham welcome Man City to White Hart Lane (9:15 a.m. ET live on NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) in the battle of the Premier League’s two unbeaten teams.

At the same time Leicester City host Southampton (9:15 a.m. ET live on NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) with both teams coming off European action and to round things off Burnley welcome Arsenal (11:30 a.m. ET live on NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) to Turf Moor with the Gunners flying after four-straight wins.

You can watch every single second of every single game live online via NBC Sports.com and the NBC Sports App, plus you can also watch Premier League “Goal Rush” at 10 a.m. ET for all the goals as they go in. Goal Rush is available via NBC Sports.com and the NBC Sports App,

If you’re looking for full-event replays of Premier League games, you can find them here. They are available soon after the final whistle, but rights limit us to a certain number each week. Looking for game highlights? Try this. Here’s your full TV schedule for the coming days. Enjoy.

FULL TV SCHEDULE

Friday

3 p.m. ET: Everton vs. Crystal Palace – USA [STREAM]

Saturday

7:30 a.m. ET: Swansea vs. Liverpool – NBCSN [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Hull vs. Chelsea – NBCSN [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Watford vs. Bournemouth – Premier League Extratime [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Sunderland vs. West Brom – Premier League Extratime [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: West Ham vs. Middlesbrough – Premier League Extratime [STREAM]

Sunday

7 a.m. ET: Man United vs. Stoke City – NBCSN [STREAM]
9:15 a.m. ET: Tottenham vs. Man City – NBCSN [STREAM]
9:15 a.m. ET: Leicester City vs. Southampton – CNBC [STREAM]
11:30 a.m. ET: Burnley vs. Arsenal – NBCSN [STREAM

VIDEO: Previews of all 10 Premier League games – Matchday 7

Liverpool's James Milner, left, celebrates scoring his side's second goal of the game during their Premier League match Liverpool versus Hull City at Anfield, Liverpool, England, Saturday Sept. 24, 2016. (Dave Howarth/PA via AP)
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We have a busy weekend of games coming up with matches across Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live here ]

The Premier League will take a two-week break after Matchday 7, so make sure you totally immerse yourself in all the action this weekend.

Below you can find previews on all 10 PL games this weekend. Enjoy.


West Ham vs. Middlesbrough

West Ham’s struggles have been widespread and Slaven Bilić is under continual pressure heading into Matchday 7 against Middlesbrough. Ownership has said things need to turn around, but that may not happen this week.

Watford vs. Bournemouth

Watford and Bournemouth, both promoted last season, have quite the history. Will Bournemouth’s momentum carry into Matchday 7?

 

Burnley vs. Arsenal

Arsene Wenger celebrated 20 years at Arsenal this week and despite Burnley’s ability to frustrate the Gunners, it could be another big win for Arsenal.

Swansea vs. Liverpool

Swansea City enters their Round 7 match against Liverpool under a bit of turmoil, which isn’t a good sign because Jurgen Klopp‘s club is firing on all cylinders.

Hull City vs. Chelsea

Chelsea is looking to bounce back after an embarrassing loss to Arsenal, while Hull City attempts to recreate some of their early season magic.

Tottenham vs. Man. City

Manchester City and Tottenham both enter their Round 7 match with unbeaten records. Will one team leave with their first blemish of the season?

Leicester vs. Southampton 

Leicester City has struggled to put together any momentum this season, while Southampton has been on a bit of a roll. Will The Foxes be stunned in Round 7?

Manchester United vs. Stoke City 

With Wayne Rooney and Marouane Fellaini on the bench, Man. United comfortably defeated Leicester City, but will their success continue against Stoke?

Sunderland vs. West Brom

Sunderland is still searching for their first win of the 2016-17 Premier League season, while West Brom is coming off of an exciting 1-1 draw with Stoke City.

Everton vs. Crystal Palace

Crystal Palace is flying high after three straight wins, while Everton is looking to bounce back from a loss to Bournemouth.

Antonio Conte on Chelsea’s struggles: “We haven’t got a magic wand”

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24:  Antonio Conte, Manager of Chelsea looks on during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Chelsea at the Emirates Stadium on September 24, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
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Antonio Conte knows turning things around at Chelsea will not be easy.

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Especially since, well, waving a magic wand around will do absolutely nothing to solve their defensive frailties.

Chelsea’s Italian manager was seething following their 3-0 drubbing at Arsenal last weekend as his team looked all over the place defensively and they’ve now conceded nine times in their last four games.

For a manager of Conte’s ilk who prides himself on setting up his teams to be tough to beat and stingy at the back, it hurt him. Big time.

Speaking to the press ahead of Chelsea’s game at Hull City on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET online via NBC Sports) Conte knows the size of the task facing him.

“It is never good when you lose, but I think also in these two games we saw and learnt a lot of important things. We must work very hard to recover,” Conte said. “We finished 10th last season – when you finish 10th it means you have problems. Now we are trying to solve this situation, but we haven’t got a magic wand.

“We faced two teams who were very strong (Liverpool and Arsenal) and for me, these two teams are now at the top. We have a lot to improve, but this is the hope we must have. I see the present and the opportunity to improve, it’s not easy. But we know this.”

The Italian also revealed that captain John Terry will not return for this game so he may well have to continue with the likes of Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic in defense, despite both of those long-time Chelsea defenders going through a tough time in terms of their form.

It will be intriguing to see if Conte switches to a 3-5-2 formation this week at Hull. The Tigers usually only play with one man up front, Abel Hernandez, so it would seem unlikely Conte will add an extra man in the center of his defense.

That said, such has been the shocking nature of Chelsea’s defending in recent weeks, the Italian will try anything — expect from magic — to turn this slump around and get back on track after three-straight wins to start the PL campaign had many people touting them as title contenders.

What is Arsenal’s best XI from Arsene Wenger’s 20 years in charge?

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Wow. This was tough.

With Arsene Wenger celebrating 20 years in charge at Arsenal on October 1, tomorrow, now seems like a good time to look back at all the players he’s managed and pick the best XI during his two decades at the helm of the Gunners.

[ MORE: Wenger to England? ]

Of course his early teams dominated the Premier League, winning three PL titles in his first eight seasons in charge which included the “Invincibles” and going 49 games unbeaten in the Premier League. Arsenal fans won’t need reminding that they haven’t won a title for 12 years but that doesn’t mean plenty more fine players haven’t played for the Gunners in that time period.

Below is my selection of the best XI to play for Arsenal under Wenger, and I urge you to tell us yours in the comments section below.

Remember: At 12:30 p.m. ET, this Saturday, Oct. 1, NBCSN presents a new Premier League Download: Inside the Mind of Arsene Wenger, hosted by The Men in Blazers’ Roger Bennett to celebrate 20 years at Arsenal. Promo video is above.


JPW’s best Arsenal XI under Arsene Wenger

—– Seaman —–

— Dixon — Adams — Campbell — Cole —

—- Pires — Vieira — Fabregas — Sanchez —-

—– Henry — Bergkamp —–