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.

The Mendy Effect: Pep praises injured back

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Full back Benjamin Mendy cost Pep Guardiola and Manchester City $68 million, but perhaps he’ll be just as valuable as a very expensive sports psychologist.

The “Shark Team” member was amusing on social media even before his ACL injury sent him to the sidelines until at least April, but he’s become a must-follow Twitter fixture with his in-game messages (See some of his work below).

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

City faces Burnley at 10 a.m. ET Saturday (Watch live on CNBC and online via NBCSports.com).

It’s fairly clear his act has translated in private, too, as apparently Mendy is just as good in group messages (Let us in, Pep. We won’t tell anyone). From ManCity.com:

“Usually, players who are out for a long time with injury are sad. They sometimes train apart and feel isolated.

“Mendy decided to be present. He is communicating on social media, WhatsApp and he calls his teammates and messages me. He is going to be so important outside the pitch because people like him make the atmosphere much better.”

It’s not surprising for anyone who’s been following the former Le Havre, Marseille and Monaco man.

Keep in mind, these Tweets below are from the last few days alone!

Ozil to Manchester United?!? Wenger reacts to gossip

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Sometimes, even the biggest Arsene Wenger detractors have to feel for the guy.

Coming off a thrilling late win in Serbia, one that saw Olivier Giroud cap off a team goal straight out of the creative Wenger playbook, the manager should’ve been discussing how to stretch those good vibes into this weekend’s visit to Goodison Park.

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

Yet no. Instead of talking about how the Gunners would respect the struggling Toffees, Wenger had to address speculation from several outlets claiming Mesut Ozil would move to Manchester United, perhaps as soon as January.

Feeling it? No, no Wenger was not feeling it. From Arsenal.com:

“We have to deal with all kinds of speculation when the players are at the end of their contracts. On the other hand, to be professional is to give 100 per cent as long as you are somewhere. For the rest, we came out many times and said that’s the situation. It [the media] can come out tomorrow and say that he extends his contract here. It will be exactly the same, it will not change anything. When you play the next game, commit 100 per cent. … When a player plays for Arsenal Football Club, his commitment cannot be linked with the length of his contract, it has just to be linked with the responsibility and the ambition he has to win the football game.”
Of course most big clubs have to deal with such drama on a year-to-year basis and, yes, having Ozil and Alexis Sanchez still in town was completely avoidable. But the idea that Ozil could leave, for free, to Manchester United? We’re sure Gooners the world over will be thrilled with the gossip.

MLS Decision Day preview: Much at stake

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Four teams can claim a Western Conference second round berth, while four more can earn a valuable first-round bye in the East.

Yep, there’s plenty to play for beyond the West’s final playoff spot Sunday during Major League Soccer’s Decision Day, when every team will take the pitch for 4 p.m. ET kickoffs.

[ MORE: Conte feels pressure ]

Here’s what we do know regarding the playoffs:

  1. Supporters’ Shield winning Toronto FC gets a first round bye, while No. 6 seed New York Red Bulls are headed to the road for a first round playoff
  2. New England, Montreal, Philadelphia, Orlando, DC, Minnesota, Colorado, and LA will not make the playoffs
  3. Full stop.

So, yes, this will be fun.

First, let’s look at the Eastern Conference Standings ahead of Sunday’s extravaganza:

Eastern Conference
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Toronto FC 33 20 8 5 72 35 37 13-3-1 7-5-4 68
x – New York City FC 33 16 8 9 54 41 13 10-4-2 6-4-7 56
x – Chicago 33 16 7 10 61 44 17 12-3-2 4-4-8 55
x – Atlanta 33 15 9 9 68 38 30 11-2-3 4-7-6 54
x – Columbus 33 16 5 12 51 47 4 12-2-3 4-3-9 53
x – New York 33 13 8 12 51 46 5 9-6-2 4-2-10 47

— New York City FC controls its bye destiny, though Columbus could join them on 56 points and would pass them on tiebreakers (wins).

— If that happens, Chicago could claim the second bye with a win or draw in Houston (The Fire owns the goal differential tiebreaker).

— If New York City and Chicago lose or draw, Atlanta could finish second with a home win over TFC.

— Columbus can finish second with a win and non-wins for Chicago and Atlanta.

Western Conference
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
x – Vancouver 33 15 7 11 49 47 2 9-5-3 6-2-8 52
x – Portland 33 14 8 11 58 49 9 10-4-2 4-4-9 50
x – Seattle 33 13 11 9 49 39 10 10-5-1 3-6-8 50
x – Sporting KC 33 12 13 8 39 27 12 10-6-1 2-7-7 49
x – Houston 33 12 11 10 54 45 9 11-4-1 1-7-9 47
San Jose 33 12 7 14 36 58 -22 9-5-2 3-2-12 43
FC Dallas 33 10 13 10 43 47 -4 7-7-2 3-6-8 43
Real Salt Lake 33 12 6 15 47 54 -7 8-4-4 4-2-11 42

Byes

— Vancouver finishes first with a win or draw at Portland. The ‘Caps could finish as low as third with a loss to Portland and a Seattle win versus Colorado.

— Portland finishes first — and wins the Cascadia Cup — with a win over visiting Vancouver.

— Seattle can claim a first round bye with a win over visiting Colorado and a Vancouver win over Portland.

— Sporting KC can finish second with a win at Real Salt Lake and non-wins for Portland and Seattle.

Final playoff spot

— San Jose claims the sixth seed with a home win over Minnesota. They can also finish sixth with a draw joined by non-wins for FC Dallas at home to LA and Real Salt Lake at home versus SKC.

— FC Dallas claims the sixth seed with a win over LA and a San Jose draw or loss versus Minnesota. FCD gets sixth with a draw, and a San Jose loss coupled with a RSL loss or draw versus SKC.

—  Real Salt Lake gets sixth with a win over SKC, and non-wins from San Jose and Dallas. RSL could also get sixth with a draw and losses for San Jose and Dallas.

(Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images)

Schedule
FC Dallas vs. LA Galaxy
DC United vs. New York Red Bulls
San Jose vs. Minnesota United
Real Salt Lake vs. Sporting KC
Houston vs. Chicago
Seattle vs. Colorado
Philadelphia vs. Orlando City
Portland vs. Vancouver
Montreal vs. New England
New York City vs. Columbus
Atlanta vs. Toronto

Predictions

— NYCFC hangs on for a draw against Columbus, earning a bye, leaving Chicago to host New York Red Bulls and Atlanta off to Columbus for the first round of the playoffs (We have Toronto beating Atlanta on Sunday).

— Vancouver and Portland draw, while Seattle beats Colorado. The ‘Caps and Sounders get byes, while Seattle takes back the Cascadia Cup.

— San Jose beats Minnesota, gaining the West’s sixth seed. The Quakes head to Portland for the first round, while SKC hosts Houston.

Conte feels pressure, but “most important thing is to work”

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Chelsea has sputtered a bit in its bid to repeat as Premier League champions, though this isn’t quite “stop me if you’ve heard this one before.”

The Blues sit fifth in the Premier League table with 13 points, nine behind leaders Manchester City, and tossed away a 2-0 lead before rallying to draw Roma at midweek.

The Blues host fourth-placed Watford to kick off Saturday’s Premier League action at 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday (Watch live on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com)

[ MORE: West Ham 0-3 Brighton ]

And while fans are frustrated with the plan, Chelsea was in 15th at the end of October during Jose Mourinho’s ill-fated follow-up to the 2014-15 Premier League title.

Still, manager Antonio Conte feels their pain, although he’s satisfied with the effort. From Chelsea’s official site:

“Do I feel the pressure? Every manager feels pressure, but I try to give all of myself into my job, so I’m happy when I go home because I know in every moment I give all of myself for the fans, the players and the club. In football you know anything can happen, but the most important thing is to work.”

Chelsea may not look as good as Man City or Manchester United, but is still well-positioned to finish amongst the leaders and is leading a very difficult UCL group with Roma and Atletico Madrid. Things are fine, but the gossip storm just won’t leave Conte and his future at Chelsea alone (Thanks, Italian press).