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Is Arouna Kone the answer for Everton?

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The biggest transfer rumor out of Goodison Park these days is that the Toffees may soon sign Wigan striker Arouna Kone for a fee in the region of £5-6.5 million ($7.5-9.8m).

So the question has to be asked – Is Kone the answer for Everton up top?

My immediate reaction is one that I’ve held for many, many months: Yes.

I’ve been an admirer of Kone’s since he arrived at the DW Stadium last summer and, in his second match, stripped Southampton defender Jose Fonte in the 89th minute and proceeded to dribble the length of the pitch before slotting past Saints’ keeper Kelvin Davis.

The goal had been coming Kone’s way the entire match as the Ivorian repeatedly found space and ripped shots on the opposition’s cage.

Six weeks later Everton went to Wigan for what should have been an easy three points and Kone was absolutely suffocating. He opened the scoring ten minutes in, heading home a Shaun Maloney cross.

Thirteen minutes later and Kone was at it again, skunking Leighton Baines on the Everton by-line and crossing to Franco di Santo, who fired into the roof of the net.

The onslaught lasted the entire 90 minutes with Kone shredding the Toffees defense and springing his counter-parts left and right. Man on fire.

The two sides met again on Boxing Day and, once again, Kone was relentless.

Speed. Skill. Vision. Desire. He had it all going. And while, this time around, the Latics were outplayed by Everton, Kone still got on the score-sheet.

But I didn’t hate. I just admired.

I simply wanted that kind of zest leading the line at Everton. Nikica Jelavic was not getting it done and Victor Anichebe, despite drastic improvement, did not seem like ‘The Answer’ up top. So when Kone went on to finish his debut season with 11 league goals and five assists (13 and 7 in all comps), I was sold.

‘Everton need to buy that man,’ I told myself.

A few weeks later Roberto Martinez was crowned successor of David Moyes and, at that point, I was damn well sure the Toffees were in great shape to make that dream a reality.

But, time has a funny way of changing things and now, I’m not so sure.

As always is the case with Everton, it all starts with finances. While £5-6.5 million is a drop in the bucket for most English clubs, it is significant investment for Everton. As such, a transfer for that amount means that the player who is acquired must play a position where the club is truly hurting.

While striker is a position where Everton currently lacks top talent and could definitely improve, the Toffees are in much greater need of a creative central midfielder, a center-back (to provide cover for an aging Sylvain Distin), and a winger (preferably a right sided player so Kevin Mirallas can take up a more central role). Of course, if Marouane Fellaini and/or Leighton Baines is sold, additional cover will be required in the center of the park and at left-back.

Those are the needs that take precedence so spending £5-6.5 million – which could easily be half of Roberto Martinez’ transfer budget this summer – seems misguided.

Is Kone worth that kind of fee? Probably. But keep in mind that at the age of 29, the Ivorian is no spring chicken.

Plus, just because Kone did well in his debut season in the Premier League does not mean he will excel this year. Sophomore seasons are notoriously difficult in England as the bloom is off the pumpkin and defenders are now wise to a striker’s previously mysterious ways.

Just ask Nikica Jelavic. After scoring 9 league goals in 13 matches after his arrival in January 2012, he managed only 7 goals in 37 contests this past season.

After that kind of performance, many Evertonians are ready to close the book on Jelavic. This would be a mistake.

The Croatian may have struggled last season but a lot of his woes came down to being unlucky. He worked hard and got himself into good positions but the ball simply did not go into the net. Expect Jelavic to come into this season with a chip on his shoulder and a point to prove, which is exactly the kind of hunger Everton want up top.

If Jelavic continues to under-perform, Victor Anichebe can get the job done. The Nigerian avoided major injury for the first time last season and was a force to be reckoned with up top. Perhaps he lacks the finesse of the league’s top strikers but Big Vic gets the job done. And he’s a nightmare to mark in the box.

That being said, if Martinez is hell-bent on bringing a new striker into Goodison Park then he needs to dig deep into Bill Kenwright’s pockets and get the chairman to pony up for a top striker who is undoubtedly better than Jelavic and Anichebe.

So is Kone is the answer for Everton. It’s debatable. But for me, that kind of money would be better used on another Wigan player, like Callum McManaman, Shaun Maloney or James McCarthy.

PL Playback: One from six; who are the title favorites?

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MINI-LEAGUES EMERGING

We saw yet another weekend of dominance for the big boys in the Premier League (except for Manchester City) and the gap is growing bigger between the top six and the rest of the league.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Throughout the entire league there are now three “mini-leagues” which are taking shape in a six-eight-six formation.

Here’s a look at what I’m talking about…

  1. Chelsea – 52 points
  2. Tottenham – 45
  3. Arsenal – 45
  4. Liverpool – 44
  5. Man City – 42
  6. Man United – 40
  7. Everton – 33
  8. West Brom – 29 
  9. Stoke – 27
  10. Burnley- 26
  11. Bournemouth – 25
  12. West Ham – 25
  13. Southampton – 24
  14. Watford – 23
  15. Leicester City – 21
  16. Middlesbrough – 20
  17. Crystal Palace – 16
  18. Hull City – 16
  19. Sunderland – 15
  20. Swansea City – 15

The top six will, obviously, get plenty of the focus on right now apart from Chelsea there is little to separate the rest with just five points between second-place Tottenham and sixth-place Manchester United. The middle eight teams are all having “meh” seasons, apart from Burnley who are overachieving, while the bottom six all look destined for a relegation scrap in the closing four months of the campaign with Leicester City struggling to claw themselves away from danger.

This season it seems like the overachieving and underachieving is at a minimum. Things are almost back to normal, especially with the perennial powers, after the madness of the 2015-16 campaign.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings

Yes, the title battle will be intense as Chelsea will, inevitably, drop points along the way and Diego Costa‘s situation has given their title rivals a boost. However, the more intriguing factor could be which two teams miss out on the top four and qualification for the UEFA Champions League.

If Man City’s struggles continue and Pep Guardiola misses out, or if Jose Mourinho and Manchester United don’t push into the top four in the coming months, then those will be huge stories. Yet, it is tough to see any of the current top six dropping many points between now and the end of the season.

It will be a long, hard slog and with UEFA Champions League and Europa League action to kick off next month, along with FA Cup action for all of the top six, the games will come thick and fast.

Who can handle all of this and stay in the hunt?


Chelsea
Position: 1st
Points: 52
Biggest strength: No European action to contend with, 3-4-3 and a strong defensive unit. Antonio Conte has been here before with Juventus and has been influential in their rise to the top.
Biggest weakness: Temperamental stars (I’m looking at you Diego Costa) could go missing either figuratively or literally at any moment. Chelsea need to add a new striker in January to stop that from curtailing their title bid.

Tottenham Hotspur
Position: 2nd
Points: 45
Biggest strength: Harry Kane and Dele Alli are on another level right now but when you look across Spurs’ team, everyone is hitting form at the right time. Walker and Rose at wing-back is a great option to. This team has learned from their title challenge faltering last season and they are without doubt the biggest threat to Chelsea right now.
Biggest weakness: Europa League and injuries. Mauricio Pochettino has said he will go for Europa League success but if injuries start cropping up (Vertonghen could be out long-term) then he will change his mind.

Arsenal
Position: 3rd
Points: 45
Biggest strength: Endless talent in attack with Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and even Olivier Giroud now in top form. Skhodran Mustafi has been a huge boost in defense too.
Biggest weakness: Being Arsenal. Logic suggests that a slump is coming up in the second half of the season. Just because, Arsenal. Across the board there are few weaknesses though.

Liverpool
Position: 4th
Points: 44
Biggest strength: No European action. Plus, Philippe Coutinho has been out injured for almost two months and now looks ready to roll and re-energized. The front four have been so good all season.
Biggest weakness: Fatigue. Even with no added European action, EFL Cup and FA Cup games in recent weeks have shown Klopp’s methods could be too much. Remember how much Liverpool tired last season?

Manchester City
Position: 5th
Points: 42
Biggest strength: Star-studded attackers who can get them out of any mess. It is now time for Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva to turn up. Massive numbers in his squad also helps.
Biggest weakness: Defense. Claudio Bravo has had a nightmare in goal and City’s defense has been far from inspiring as Pep’s masterplan has stalled significantly. Bravo’s struggles has in-turn led to John Stones, Nicolas Otamendi and others crumbling. Pep will never change his philosophy and the way he wants to play. That could mean City pay a big price and finish outside the top four unless they improve drastically in defense.

Manchester United
Position: 6th
Points: 40
Biggest strength: Superstars Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba, plus Mourinho’s experience at grinding out wins.
Biggest weakness: Not finishing teams off and, again, the Europa League. Mourinho has and will continue to cut some deadwood from his squad. That means he will use plenty of the same players for EFL Cup, FA Cup and Europa League games. Can he balance this out to help United get right back in the top four mix? A title push seems out of the question now as they’re 10 points, but with nine wins on the spin in all competitions before the last game against Liverpool, they are in form and arguably have a better chance than Man City of overhauling that deficit.


KLOPP NOT CORRECT TO CALL OUT LONG BALL

Following Liverpool’s 1-1 draw at Manchester United on Sunday, Reds boss Jurgen Klopp took exception to United’s direct approach in the final 20 minutes of the game.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned on United vs. Liverpool ]

Let’s call it what it was. Mourinho went direct for the entire second half. Eventually it paid off when substitute Marouane Fellaini hit the post with a header and Zlatan Ibrahimovic stooped to head home the equalizer in the 84th minute, even if Antonio Valencia was slightly offside when the initial cross came in.

[ MORE: Player ratings – United vs. Liverpool ]

Klopp looked agitated, frustrated and annoyed afterwards as he told multiple news outlets that Liverpool “were the better team who had the better plan” plus kept slamming United for using long balls late on. He was probably also still smarting a little over the Joel Matip situation as he could be out for another month and Liverpool missed him once again at the heart of their defense. Matip’s height would’ve helped Klopp significantly with United’s direct approach late in the game.

[ MORE: Klopp slams “long ball” United ]

Klopp won the tactical battle to start with as Liverpool lined up with a diamond formation in midfield and nullified the impact of Michael Carrick and Paul Pogba, but Mourinho changed things up and went direct, not allowing Liverpool’s high-press to catch out his defenders as they bypassed midfield. Mourinho did what he had to do to get a draw, just like he did at Anfield.

Klopp was most likely just trying to make a point that although his side have not won in their last four games in all competitions, they should still be admired. They should. The progress Liverpool has made under him in just over a year has been huge but United and Mourinho reminded him that there is more ways to get goals than Gegenpressing.

Zlatan summed it up best when describing how United got back into the game as a big derby ended honors even and both managers were upset with dropping points as Chelsea’s gap at the top grew.


WHAT NOW FOR GUARDIOLA?

Pep Guardiola has all but given up hope of winning the Premier League title in his first season in England.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Guardiola, 45, looked 10 years older when speaking post-game at Everton on Sunday as his side were hammered 4-0 by the Toffees in an inept display which showcased all of their weaknesses.

The much-lauded coach was supposed to turn City into not only the champions of England but also Europe. It’s not going to plan, at all, and especially in defense.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]  

After he suffered his worst-ever league defeat as a manager, plus City’s heaviest league defeat since 2008, Pep was asked if their title bid was over.

“Yes. Ten is a lot of points,” Guardiola said. “The second one [Tottenham] is three points. We have to see. I spoke to my players the last three weeks or a month, forget about the table. Focus on the next game and try to do our best to win the games and after that at the end of the season we are going to evaluate how our level and performance was — how was the coach, how was the players and after we are going to decide.”

Although it may seem like too early for City — don’t forget, they were the preseason favorites who won their first 10 games in all competitions under Pep to start the season — to concede the title, it is perhaps telling that Guardiola is already looking resigned to just challenging for the top four.

He knows that if he stays with his passing philosophy out of the back that his team will be susceptible to fast, strong, counter-attacking teams like Everton. There are plenty of teams who deploy those tactics in the PL — Tottenham, Chelsea, Leicester to name a few — and have had great success doing it against City. Guardiola will never play like that and his style is something which led Barcelona and Bayern Munich to glory and often eviscerating English teams in the Champions League.

Guardiola’s team isn’t eviscerating anyone on a weekly basis in the PL right now. Right now, it’s the other way round.

When it clicks their style of play looks beautiful but City is too inconsistent and as soon as they go a goal behind they are lacking in confidence and crumble. Make no mistake about it, this is Pep’s biggest challenge of his managerial career but a country mile. He knows it. You can see it in his eyes. He knows he doesn’t possess the players, in defense at least, to carry out his style and he can’t do too much about it. He will never change his ideals no matter the intense criticism coming his way.

[ MORE: Premier League stats

Right now, many would say he’s failing in the PL and at City. Big time. Yet, let’s give him until the end of the season because an appearance in the UCL semifinals and a runners up spot really wouldn’t be too disastrous. Yet with defending like this and Bravo conceding almost every shot which goes on target right now, those targets seem rather lofty and a long way off for this talented yet tainted City outfit.


Premier League Playback comes out every week as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here.

Transfer Rumor Roundup: Payet to Marseille; Livermore to WBA

WEST BROMWICH, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 17:  Dimitri Payet of West Ham United during the Premier League match between West Bromwich Albion and West Ham United at The Hawthorns on September 17, 2016 in West Bromwich, England. (Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images)
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West Ham are said to be holding out for around $40 million for star player Dimitri Payet.

[ MORE: Costa trains on his own ]

Manager Slaven Bilic revealed that Payet, 29, has refused to play for the Hammers as he wants to push through a move away from the club. The Telegraph reports that Marseille president Jacques-Henri Eyraud flew to London on Monday to discuss a deal for Payet, who joined the Hammers from Marseille in the summer of 2015 for $13 million.

The Hammers are said to be reluctant to sell Payet at all, but it’s obvious they’d rather sell him to a foreign club instead of strengthening one of their Premier League rivals. Payet’s quality is undoubted and he’s created more chances than any other player in the PL this season.

However, West Ham won’t let him leave in a hurry and Sky Sports are reporting that the London club have rejected a second bid from Marseille (believed to be around $25 million) as they want the Ligue 1 club to reach their valuation. Payet is said to be training with West Ham’s U-23 side and the club is demanding that he apologizes to the fans, his teammates and his manager for his actions.

Payet was paid a $1.2 million “loyalty bonus” in September after being signing a new lucrative deal in the summer following his heroics for France at EURO 2016.


Sky Sports are reporting that West Brom have bid $12 million for Hull City midfielder Jake Livermore.

The 27-year-old has been a regular for Hull all season but was on the bench for Marco Silva’s first Premier League game in charge at the weekend. Hull beat Bournemouth 3-1 and Livermore may now see his future elsewhere.

Tony Pulis is openly looking for a new central midfielder as the Baggies, who are sitting comfortably in eighth place in the table, lost out on Morgan Schneiderlin to Everton last week.

Livermore has been a steady player throughout his career and he would surely jump at the chance to join a team who are all but guaranteed to be playing in the Premier League next season, rather than stay with Hull we are battling relegation. Hull have plenty of other options in central midfield too and this money would give Silva plenty of funds to spend in the window.

Surely this deal would work out for everyone?

Joel Matip set to miss a month as FIFA dispute continues

DERBY, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 20:  Joel Matip of Liverpool in action during the EFL Cup Third Round match between Derby County and Liverpool at iPro Stadium on September 20, 2016 in Derby, England.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
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Liverpool could be without central defender Joel Matip for another month.

[ MORE: Costa trains on own ]

Matip, 25, was called up by the Cameroon national team for the 2017 African Cup of Nations which is currently taking place in Gabon. However, the former Schalke defender has previously stated that he did not want to play for them and he had retired from international duty.

Cameroon called him into their initial 35-man squad for the competition anyway but did not include him in their final 23-man squad once it became clear Matip, along with six other players, had no interest in playing for them at AFCON.

Now, Matip and Liverpool are in limbo and the Reds do now want to risk facing a FIFA sanction for playing someone who is deemed ineligible for selection.

FIFA has confirmed that Liverpool has been in touch regarding Matip’s status and it now appears that he will not be able to play in any other competition while Cameroon is still in AFCON action under Article 5 of FIFA’s rules which are as follows:

“A player who has been called up by his association for one of its representative teams is, unless otherwise agreed by the relevant association, not entitled to play for the club with which he is registered during the period for which he has been released or should have been released pursuant to the provisions of this annexe, plus an additional period of five days.”

What now?

Cameroon is not releasing Matip as they obviously feel slighted that he didn’t want to play for them (even though he hasn’t made an appearance for The Indomitable Lions since Sept. 2015) so now Liverpool must wait for them to be knocked out of AFCON unless an agreement is reached. If Cameroon make it to the final on Feb. 5 then Matip will not be available to play for Liverpool again until Feb. 10.

Matip was left out of Liverpool’s squad for the 1-1 draw at Manchester United in the Premier League on Sunday as there wasn’t any clear guidance given to the club by FIFA on his availability.

After the game his manager Jurgen Klopp revealed his true feelings about the situation.

“Our understanding is Joel is retired from international football and we, the club, did everything we had to do to make this clear but until now we could not get the response we need to be 100 per cent sure that he can play,” Klopp said. “It’s pretty difficult and pretty frustrating, to be honest. He’s been in training for five days and would have been in the squad, 100 per cent, maybe on the pitch today, so I don’t think it’s fair. But we cannot do more and are still waiting on the decision. We could not take the risk. It is public now, we have this problem and we are not the only team with this problem.”

I’m with Klopp. Shambles.

West Bromwich Albion are also dealing with a similar situation with Cameroon as Allan Nyom cannot get FIFA clearance to play after he also refused a call up.

As for Liverpool, Matip has been key since arriving last summer on a free transfer, playing 14 games in all competitions and scoring once. His partnership with Dejan Lovren has now been broken up and Ragnar Klavan has looked shaky since coming back into the team after Matip’s ankle injury which last saw him play on Dec. 11 against Middlesbrough.

Chelsea’s Diego Costa trains on his own

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - MARCH 12: Diego Costa of Chelsea reacts during the Emirates FA Cup sixth round match between Everton and Chelsea at Goodison Park on March 12, 2016 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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Reports from multiple outlets in the UK claim that Diego Costa trained on his own on Monday.

[ MORE: Europe’s 100 most valuable

That shouldn’t be too surprising but anything to do with Costa right now is news.

Costa, 28, was left out of Chelsea’s squad for the 3-0 victory at Leicester City on Saturday but manager Antonio Conte cited a back injury for the absence of the Premier League’s leading scorer who has 14 goals and five assists this season.

However, reports emerged last Friday that Costa was involved in a training ground bust up last Tuesday with a member of Chelsea’s medical staff and had a heated debate with Conte. Couple that with reports of a monster contract offer of over $40 million per year from the Chinese Super League and you have, reportedly, a player in turmoil.

Pro Soccer Talk can confirm that Chelsea’s players who played on Saturday were given two days off by Conte, so the vast majority of the squad were not in training on Monday.

Photos taken on Monday (below) show Costa on his own at Chelsea’s Cobham base on Monday and he has supposedly been working on his own for the past two days as he tries to regain full fitness.

All of this will add further fuel to the fire that Costa has been exiled from the first team due to his supposed row with Conte, but it must be noted that it is not uncommon for players returning from an injury to train on their own until they get back up to speed.

It is thought that Costa has been working hard in the past two days in individual sessions to prove to Conte and his staff that he can return to first team training. Whatever you want to believe is going on, Costa’s importance to Chelsea is clear as their top scorer is needed back fast despite their seven-point lead at the PL’s summit.

Chelsea is a different team without Costa and although Eden Hazard and Co. breezed past Leicester at the weekend, they didn’t look the same in attack and they need Costa back ASAP.

Both Costa and Conte should put their differences aside, but it seems as though Conte will be the one who will be dictating the next step and its up to Costa to make amends.