Premier League Preview: Top 5 Midfielders to Watch

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In addition to previewing two teams from the Premier League each day until the beginning of season, we will name five players to watch at each position, goalkeeper through forward. The 2013-14 season begins Aug. 17, and for the first time, every game will be broadcast live in the United States on NBC Sports

Any discussion of midfielders must define its scope. Particularly in a world where the 4-2-3-1 formation is so prevalent, the line between midfielder and outright attacker is easily blurred. Some players deployed in the line of three may be tasked a conventional midfielder’s responsibilities: moving to provide an outlet for play coming forward; linking to and creating chances for more advanced attackers; marking opposition in deeper areas of the opposing midfield. Other players are more outright attackers – wingers and forwards whose defensive responsibilities often lie along the opponent’s back line.

Today, we’re focusing on the first category – the players who play like midfielders. So even though a Gareth Bale or and Eden Hazard may vaguely play similar positions to players on this list, we’ve passed them on to tomorrow, when we’ll rank the Premier League’s five forwards. Today, we’re staying in the middle.

Santi Cazorla, Arsenalsource: AP

The former Villarreal and Malaga man may have cost Arsenal a record fee last summer, but with some of the prices we’ve seen paid for lesser talents this summer, £15 million is a steal for somebody of Cazorla’s talents. The 28-year-old Spanish international can function as a central playmaker, wide man, or somebody that can go get goals for Arsène Wenger’s team, versatility that was reflected in his 2012-13 output. In his first season with the Gunners, Cazorla posted 12 goals and 14 assists in all competitions, numbers which could improve with a year’s experience in the unique Premier League. Capable of playing any of Arsenal’s attacking midfield spots, you’re most likely to find Cazorla was Wenger’s No. 10 or wide right when his club hosts Aston Villa on Saturday.

source: Getty ImagesMarouane Fellaini, Everton

Thanks to former manager David Moyes using the Belgian international behind his striker for chunks of the last two seasons, Fellaini began garnering attention that transcended Premier League diehards. For the first half of the 2012-13 campaign, he was part of the conversation for player of the year, and while that buzz eventually dissipated, broader respect for Fellaini’s game did not. Tall, strong, and sporting with an afro that’s often as talked about as his on-field contributions, Fellaini can play either as a supporting striker or in his preferred role: deep-lying midfielder. Under new manager Roberto Martínez, that versatility could prove vital to Everton’s chances of replicating last year’s success. Playing in a more fluid system, Fellaini could see more opportunities to leverage his versatility, his ability to couple goal scoring, target man’s prowess, physicality and defensive impact again making him one of the league’s top players.

Juan Mata, Chelsea

Since arriving from Valencia two years ago, Mata (pictured, at the top) has been the Premier League’s most prolific player. In 118 all competition appearances, the Spanish international has scored 32 goals and recorded 59 assists. So why is Mata rarely mentioned with Gareth Bale, Luis Suárez, and Robin van Persie as one of the best players in the Premier League? Because physically, there isn’t much to him. He’s just short of 5’9″. He isn’t particularly strong or fast. He’s yet to carve out a major role for his national team, and the two years he’s been at Stamford Bridge have been strange (if successful) ones for the club. Ultimately, however, the production speaks for itself. If you like watching players who create and score goals, Mata is as watchable as anybody in the Premier League.

source:  Oscar, Chelsea

Just under a month short of his 21st birthday, Oscar is already a starter for both Chelsea and the Brazilian national team, and although his in-league numbers weren’t particularly impressive (four goals, seven assists), his youth, all competition production (12 goals, 13 assists in all competitions), and skill demand a place on this list. With the talent to become one of the best creators in the league, Oscar’s numbers will certainly improve. Even if they don’t, his ability to make himself available for the ball and get it to Chelsea’s creators further up the field (Mata, Hazard, who combined for 60 assists) shouldn’t be overlooked, even if basic statistics do.

source: Getty ImagesYaya Touré, Manchester City

Two years ago, Touré was the league’s best player – an absolute beast, attacking and defending, during Manchester City’s first Premier League title. Last year, like the rest of his team, he waned. Whether that was because of natural regression, wear-and-tear, or his commitments at the African Cup of Nations, City will need the 30-year-old Ivorian to be the same, dominant player he was in 2011-12 if they’re to reclaim the title. If he plays at that level, Touré will not only provide a perfect complement to the newly purchased Fernandinho, he will again be one of the league’s best players. He has the strength and awareness to be the league’s top defensive midfielder (when played there). He also possesses the range and skill to fill the space behind City’s phalanx of forwards, allowing Fernandinho to sit and distribute while adding another goal-scoring threat to City’s attack.


Your mileage may vary, and in players like Manchester United’s Michael Carrick, Arsenal’s Mikel Arteta, and Newcastle’s Yohan Cabaye, there are certainly strong candidates to replace those on this list. In reality, there are far more than five midfielders to watch this season in the Premier League. But if you were going to focus on only five, we’d suggest Cazorla, Fellaini, Mata, Oscar, and Touré.

Spartak and Zenit fined in latest Russia fan racism cases

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MOSCOW (AP) Spartak Moscow and Zenit St. Petersburg have both been fined for racist chants by their fans, the latest such incident in World Cup host nation Russia.

Spartak’s fans were accused of aiming monkey chants at FC Tosno player Nuno Rocha, who is black, while some Zenit supporters allegedly chanted a Nazi slogan during a league game.

[ MORE: Bayern 1-2 Real Madrid ]

The clubs must each pay a 100,000-ruble ($1,600) fine, and Spartak has been hit with a partial stadium closure for its next cup game, state news agency RIA Novosti quotes Russian Football Union disciplinary committee head Artur Grigoryants as saying.

The verdict comes after FIFA charged Russia with racist abuse of France players during last month’s friendly.

Zenit has also faced two racism charges from UEFA this season.

Europa League: Arsenal, Marseille host semifinal 1st legs

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Arsenal’s Champions League dreams could be in for a rude awakening against tournament-tested Atletico Madrid.

The Premier League vs. La Liga match-up is one of two Europa League semifinal first legs set to be served up Sunday, with Marseille and Red Bull Salzburg meeting in the other.

[ MORE: Bayern 1-2 Real Madrid ]

There’s something romantic about Arsene Wenger closing out his time at Arsenal against French opposition in Lyon, but Atleti and Salzburg won’t step aside for poetics.

Both matches kickoff ay 3:05 p.m. ET

Arsenal vs. Atletico Madrid

It’s a bit stunning that this tie has no history considering both club’s statures in their leagues and Europe, but that’s what we’ll se when Arsenal welcomes Atleti for the first leg.

Arsenal boasts two of the top 10 performers in the UEL this season — it would be three had the Gunners not sold Theo Walcott — and are paced by Aaron Ramsey, who has four goals and an assist. Mesut Ozil, who’s ready to return to the pitch, has the reverse with a goal and four helpers.

The Gunners have outscored UEL opposition 29-10 this season.

It’s no surprise that Antoine Griezmann has been Atleti’s best attacker since the Madrid side dropped out of the UCL to run rampant through the UEL knockout rounds. Atleti beat Copenhagen 5-1, Lokomotiv Moscow 8-1, and Sporting Lisbon 2-1 for an aggregate score line of 15-3.

Marseille vs. Red Bull Salzburg

Don’t expect this to be a simple case of Ligue 1 bossing inferior opposition: This pair met in the group stage, with the Austrian side winning at home and drawing 0-0 in France.

Salzburg has shown its mettle in various ways during the UEL. After allowing just one goal in an unbeaten group stage, they’ve won 4-3 over Real Sociedad, 2-1 against Borussia Dortmund, and 6-5 versus Lazio. That’s no easy road, and Marseille represents another big challenge.

Marseille is bidding to make its first European final since 2004, and has been led by Dimitri Payet‘s three goals and four assists, and Lucas Ocampos’ four goals and one assist. Marseille has knocked off RB Leipzig, Athletic Bilbao, and Braga after the group stage.

Names you’ll need to know from Salzburg: defenders Stefan Lainer and Paulo Miranda have been spectacular, and Munas Dabbur and Valon Berisha have each scored five times in the tournament.

Mourinho on longtime nemesis Wenger: ‘We can be friends in future’

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Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger have had a poor relationship, but the former thinks he’s soon to get along with the latter.

[ MORE: Bayern 1-2 Real Madrid ]

Manchester United boss Mourinho, 55, heaped praise on the departing Arsenal manager ahead of the two sides’ Sunday meeting at Old Trafford (Watch live at 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com), saying the Frenchman has earned much respect.

Branding Wenger “iconic,” Mourinho says his fiery rivalry with Wenger stemmed from Arsenal’s stature in the Premier League when the Portuguese took over Chelsea.

“If he respects me even 50 percent of what I respect him we can even be friends in the future,” Mourinho told Sky Sports News. “I have lots of respect for him. But the reality is that he was at Arsenal, he was the champion and I came to the country in 2004 and wanted to steal his title. That’s football.”

Mourinho said he’s tried to show his respect for Wenger, 68, over the past few seasons. It may become a passable relationship, but we find it hard to believe the pair will be dining together on a regular basis as the sun sets on their managerial careers (Mou has a while to go, we think).

Real’s Modric on Bayern feeling unlucky: “That’s their problem”

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Bayern Munich produced far more chances than visiting Real Madrid in Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League semifinal first leg in Germany, but lost 2-1 at the Allianz Arena.

Franck Ribery butchered an open shot at goal, Robert Lewandowski beat Keylor Navas but didn’t score late, and Thomas Mueller missed getting contact on a shot inside the six.

[ MORE: Bayern 1-2 Real Madrid ]

It was that kind of day, and Mueller is baffled that his team did not finish more than Joshua Kimmich’s opener.

“Everybody is wondering why this game is 1-2 for Madrid,” Mueller reportedly said. “We still cannot believe it.”

The quote comes from BeIN Sport’s Tancredi Palmeri, who has a stinging rebuke from Real Madrid maestro Luka Modric.

Real wasn’t great on Wednesday, but also limited their big mistakes to one: Marcelo’s lapse of judgment which helped Kimmich to open the scoring for Bayern Munich.

The hosts had a huge giveaway from Rafinha on the match-winner, and backup backstop Sven Ulreich didn’t have a phenomenal day on either goal. Throw in Arjen Robben’s injury requiring an 8th minute substitution, and Bayern did not have much good fortune on the day.

This one, though, doesn’t seem over, even with the tie moving to the Bernabeu.