Lyon, Marseille reclaim spotlight for one week in France

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The extent to which Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco dominated this summer’s Ligue 1 headlines meant the circuit’s former titans, Lyon and Marseille, were not only pushed out of the spotlight but off the stage entirely. An especially detailed mainstream account of Ligue 1’s state might allude to the battle for third, the league’s final UEFA Champions League spot, but unless you went to a France-dedicated blog or followed the right people on Twitter, you were unlikely to hear much talk of Lyon or Marseille.

Which, of course, is a shame. Marseille is one of (if not the) largest clubs in France, while Lyon won seven straight titles the last decade. From 2001 to 2011, at least one of the clubs finished in the league’s top two. Though it was Bordeaux that eventually broke Lyon’s title run in 2008-09, it was Marseille that was always considered the most likely usurper – the club with the history, prestige, and resources to make France a two-team league, if they got their act together.

Marseille eventually claimed a title in 2009-10, but fast-forward three years, and France is finally on the verge of becoming that two-horse race. Only now everybody’s focusing on PSG and Monaco, leaving those not so far off days of Lyon dominance and OM potential in another era.

For one weekend, however, OL and Marseille (who finished third and second last year, mind you) turned back the clock, posting convincing victories on Ligue 1’s opening weekend. While the results may not be enough to get people outside of France excited for something other than PSG dominance and Monaco intrigue, there may be no better time to convince potential fans there’s something beyond the league’s big two; particularly after a weekend where the Parisians disappointed and Monaco still looked within reach.

The round started Friday in Montpellier where the two latest champions met at the Stade de la Mosson. An early goal from Remy Cabella left PSG down at halftime, though a second half score from left back Maxwell (starting over big summer acquisition Lucas Digne) allowed the Parisians to salvage Laurent Blanc’s debut.

PSG started slow last year, with draws in their first three matches warning us against reading too much from their August results. (More on Blanc later tonight.)

On Saturday, while Monaco played out a convincing 2-0 win at Bordeaux, it was a former Girondins player that stole the show for Lyon. Yoann Gourcuff, who’s move to OL has seen random flashes dot a three years of bust-worthy performance, was the weekend’s best player. The France international set up two goals and did a Juninho impression on a third, leading Lyon to a 4-0 win over Nice. While the show only fueled speculation he could jump to Lorient to join his father (who coaches the team), it gave Lyon fans one night of joy in during this troublesome Gourcuff era.

On Sunday, Marseille looked set to best Lyon’s act, scoring twice at Guingamp in the first four minutes, three times by the 18th. André-Pierre Gignac, ready to affirm his last year under Didier Deschamps was indeed an aberrational one, scored in the second minute, while former Lille winger Dimitri Payet scored twice on his OM debut. Though Marseille created a couple other clear good chances in the first half, they eventually let off the gas, allowing their hosts a goal before going on to a 3-1 victory.

It’s worth remembering Marseille got off to a blistering start last year, too. Regardless, on Sunday this year’s squad proved as potent in real life as their attack implied on paper, with Payet’s presence balancing a group that already had André Ayew, Mathieu Valabuena, and “APG”. Though their defense looked generous on Mustapha Yatabaré’s  second half goal, Marseille have enough talents to make even the likes of Monaco slightly envious. And with players like Alexandre Lacazette, Clement Grenier, Maxime Gonalons and Gueïda Fofana, the same could be said for Lyon.

That, however, is unlikely to capture many imaginations when the big spenders bring in the likes of Edinson Cavani and Radamel Falcao, but until Monaco can show they’ve forged a team from their lavish parts, we may want to hold of ceding second place to the Red-Whites. At least, let’s wait until after Monaco visits Marseille on Sept. 1 before making the Big One (PSG) into a duopoly.

Willian proves he’s Chelsea’s x-factor against Brighton

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There’s a considerable difference when watching a Chelsea team that plays with and without one of its Brazilian influences in the attacking part of the field.

Willian — who first debuted for the Blues back in 2013 — hasn’t always managed to be a regular starter for Chelsea, whether it was Jose Mourinho, Guus Hiddink or current manager Antonio Conte at the helm, though.

[ SOURCES: Jack Harrison expected to join Stoke City this winter ]

The 29-year-old plays with considerable flair, something that certainly isn’t uncommon amongst many players that have grown up in Brazil.

At times Willian’s overconfidence is a significant blessing, and at others it can be considered a curse, however, the former Corinthians player’s presence is something that Chelsea needs now more than ever.

That was on display on Saturday during the side’s 4-0 win at Brighton, a match in which Chelsea dominated from start to finish with Willian on the pitch. While the performance cannot solely be attributed to the attacking midfielder’s showing, it’s easy to argue that the Blues midfielder is becoming the club’s biggest x factor — one that can determine the outcome of a match.

Just look six minutes into the match, when the Blues put together one of the best team goals you’ll see in a match this year (or any year for that matter), which of course, was started and finished by none other than Willian.

What stands out about the play isn’t the brilliant slicing shot into the near post corner by the veteran playmaker, but instead the confidence that Willian exudes and brings to a Chelsea lineup that has plenty of talent to be considered one of the best teams in England and all of Europe.

After all, Conte’s group is just a season removed from winning the Premier League and still sits inside the top three in the world’s top league.

Then, there’s the Blues’ third goal against Brighton, which was set up by a smart, and instinctive, through ball played into the path of Eden Hazard by Willian (below).

Even though Hazard ends up with a ton of time on the ball to make his next decision, which was ultimately to cut inside on his preferred right foot, the run by Willian towards the end line dragged a defender away from the Belgian international — allowing the sequence to progress.

Arguing Willian’s importance isn’t a knock on Hazard — a world-class player in his own right — or Alvaro Morata, who has had the intolerable task of replacing a key player like Diego Costa.

Instead, it simply shows that Chelsea has a plethora of talent, and that some of the club’s attacking struggles throughout the 2017/18 season can be chalked up to Willian being left out of the starting XI on a regular basis.

[ MORE: Sergio Aguero continues to display brilliance for Man City ]

The Brazilian international has scored eight goals and added seven assists this season in all competitions for the Blues, despite only starting 19 matches.

The mind of manager Conte is an ever-changing one, so maybe Willian still doesn’t get the starting nod on an every week basis, but just by watching the team’s performance at the Amex Stadium it’s quite hard to argue against the player being on the field as much as possible.

Premier League Preview: Southampton vs. Tottenham

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Southampton will host Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday (Watch live, 11 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) with both sides hoping to pick up three points for very different reasons.

The Saints are currently in the midst of a fierce relegation battle through 23 matches, and sit in 18th place in the Premier League, while Spurs are hoping challenge for a top-four position.

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Mauricio Pellegrino‘s Southampton could get defender Maya Yoshida back in time for Sunday’s match, however, the side will be without Charlie Austin once more, who is currently nursing a hamstring injury.

Meanwhile, a number of key figures will miss the match for Tottenham, including goalkeeper Hugo Lloris and Harry Winks. Also, Danny Rose and Toby Alderweireld remain sidelined with injuries, although the latter is expected to be back soon.

What they’re saying

Mauricio Pellegrino on state of the Saints: “We are not happy with our position but in three or four weeks’ time everything can change. It’s part of our competition. I feel in our team the spirit is really good and everybody is conscious about what we need. I receive these messages from players every day, and we have to convert these feelings into stats.”

Mauricio Pochettino on potential January moves: “To be honest it will be difficult. At some point you always dream but not too much exciting [is happening]. If it happens, it happens. If not, then it doesn’t happen. We are happy with the squad.”

Prediction

Harry Kane is firing at an absurd rate recently, and Southampton’s current form is worrisome to say the least. With just four wins all season, it’s hard to imagine the Saints coming out in front in their clash. Southampton 0-3 Tottenham

La Liga: Las Palmas stuns nine-man Valencia, Atleti settles for draw

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A roundup of Saturday’s action in Spain’s top flight…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s La Liga coverage ]

Las Palmas 2-1 Valencia

It’s never ideal when you finish a match with nine men, and that was the case on the day for third-place Valencia. Things were going according to plan for the visitors early on at the Gran Canaria when Santi Mina scored five minutes into the match.

However, goals from Jonathan Viera (22nd minute) and Jonathan Calleri (53rd minute) brought Las Palmas in front, and they wouldn’t relinquish the advantage.

Gabriel Paulista‘s second yellow card, which set up Las Palmas’ penalty kick in the second half was the first sending off for Valencia, while Ruben Vezo joined his teammate in the locker room with three minutes remaining in regulation.

The victory moves Las Palmas into 19th place in La Liga.

Atletico Madrid 1-1 Girona

Barcelona’s lead at the top of La Liga will likely grow courtesy of Atletico’s inability to apply pressure on the Blaugrana. Antoine Griezmann’s first-half strike wasn’t enough to cushion the Atleti lead, and in turn, Girona equalized with 17 minutes left in regulation when Portu scored off of a great take out of the air.

Espanyol 0-3 Sevilla

Franco Vasquez got things started for the visiting side after just 15 minutes, and before halftime Sevilla managed to double their lead through Pablo Sarabia. For good measure, the sixth-place side added a third goal in the 90th minute as Luis Muriel finished off a pass from Sarabia.


Elsewhere in La Liga

Villareal 2-1 Levante


Sunday’s La Liga matches

Alaves vs. Leganes — 6 a.m. ET
Real Madrid vs. Deportivo La Coruna — 10:15 a.m. ET
Real Sociedad vs. Celta Vigo — 12:30 p.m. ET
Real Betis vs. Barcelona — 2:45 p.m. ET

Blockbuster trade sends Kamara to Galaxy, Zardes to Columbus

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The MLS offseason has been in full force for some time now, and the blockbuster moves continue to take shape.

On Saturday, the Columbus Crew finalized a deal with the LA Galaxy to send striker Ola Kamara to the Western Conference side.

[ MORE: All of the picks from Friday’s MLS SuperDraft first & second rounds ]

In exchange for Kamara, the Galaxy have sent U.S. Men’s National Team attacker Gyasi Zardes and $400,000 in Targeted Allocation Money to the Crew. The amount of TAM could increase to $500,000 if Kamara scores 12 or more goals in 2018.

Since arriving on the MLS scene in 2016, the Norwegian had scored 34 regular season goals for the Crew, while adding five assists.

Meanwhile, Zardes has spent his entire professional career with the Galaxy up until this point, after having signed a Homegrown contract with the club over five years ago.

The USMNT winger has scored 34 goals in 131 regular season appearances since making his senior team debut for the Galaxy.