Preview: Sunderland vs. Fulham

2 Comments
  • Sunderland signed 10 new players this summer
  • Neither side have lost on Opening Day in the last 4 years
  • Fulham only secured five points from losing positions last year

“Fulhamerica” visits Jozy Altidore’s Sunderland in a U.S. special Saturday. The red-hot 23-year-old striker is set to make his Sunderland debut, his first in the English Premier League since his failed Hull City stint in the 2009/10 season.

Just like in the Stoke City vs. Liverpool matchup, both these clubs finished in relatively disappointing positions. Last year’s hot start for Fulham (including a 5-0 defeat of Norwich on Opening Day) fizzled out as they relied heavily on Dimitar Berbatov for goals. The end of the year brought fatigue, which led to them being sucked into the relegation battle before outside help saw them pushed up to 12th place.

Sunderland were very much in the relegation tempest, finishing just above the drop zone in 17th thanks largely to Wigan’s league failures down the stretch. Paolo Di Canio, brought in with seven games to go to inject some fighting spirit into the squad and avoid relegation, has signed a whopping 10 new players this summer, including Altidore. Many of them, like Emanuele Giaccherini and Vito Mannone, could not just make appearances Saturday but start as well.

MORE: Game schedule | Match finder

Altidore is on a blistering hot streak this summer in international play for the United States, and Di Canio would love for his new signing to carry that success over to his team as well. Jozy bagged a hat-trick against Bosnia-Herzegovina to spur the United States to a stunning comeback just two days ago, making it five consecutive matches Altidore has scored in for the United States.

On the flip side, Fulham manager Martin Jol will have a selection headache with the brand new addition of former Sunderland striker Darren Bent. With former Golden Boot winner Dimitar Berbatov at the front of last year’s attack, Bent’s addition presents the question whether Berbatov will move behind the Englishman or alongside him. If Berba moves back as a secondary striker to utilize his distribution abilities, it displaces current secondary striker Bryan Ruiz. Ruiz is capable of playing on the wing, but has lacked conviction from there in his previous Fulham appearances out wide.

Will Altidore continue his goalscoring stampede? Will Berbatov continue his form from last season? You can find out by tuning in live on Saturday at 10:00am ET on NBC Sports Live Extra.

What they’re saying

Di Canio on Altidore: “I don’t hope he will be a success — I am sure he will be a success. With his characteristics he will score many goals. He can play very well for the team and can score lots of goals. His main part is to score goals and to help the others. He is a modern footballer, like you saw last night. He can make lovely movements and we expect that he will score many goals for us. I don’t know a number, but it won’t be two obviously.”

Altidore on his move to Sunderland: “One of the biggest reasons for the move for me was the chance to train against the best every day. My last club was a great club, and now I need to be challenged more.”

Martin Jol on his squad: “We need pace up front. We need goals and if you see our flank players they are very talented, but since Clint Dempsey left we have not scored enough. I think Adel [Taarabt] is capable of scoring goals, Berbatov is, Bryan could be. But what I need is someone who can score more. We are a very good Premier League club and we have some good players, but I want to strengthen the squad.”

Prediction

It would seem, with two sides looking to improve on last year’s goal tallies, that the new additions would mean a more attacking match. With Paolo Di Canio having brought Sunderland to life and Martin Jol given his side a boost in the transfer window, there very well may be goals in this match. It’s hard to imagine Altidore’s hot streak not carrying over, so he leads Sunderland to a 2-1 victory over a Fulham side that has always struggled away from home.

Gold Cup Final preview: USMNT needs a trophy vs. Jamaica

AP Photo/Jeffrey McWhorter
Leave a comment

The major selling point of Bruce Arena’s hire, aside from his being the anti-Jurgen Klinsmann, was that the United States men’s national team would not be out-foxed tactically (or at least not be caught without a game plan).

Thirteen games into the tenure, the jury is out on whether the American boss’ second stint is on the path to World Cup success — those assumed goal posts will likely be moved depending on the group draw in Russia — but he has brought stability to the team and engineered a positive change in mentality.

[ MORE: How will USMNT line up? ] 

I have a great deal of respect for Joe Prince-Wright’s view of the national team, and ProSoccerTalk’s editor wrote today that U.S. Soccer would be proven right in its hiring of Arena if the Yanks won the Gold Cup with a Wednesday win over Jamaica.

But it doesn’t take a devil’s advocate to ask if it is quite that simple?

As much as I’m sure the removal of Klinsmann became necessary due to the morale of the USMNT and its players’ opinions of the German manager, I’m far from certain we’ve learned much about the hiring of Arena. Frankly, I can’t imagine any of the results being much worse under Peter Vermes, or Caleb Porter, or Ben Olsen.

The best win of Arena’s second tenure so far was probably the semifinal defeat of Costa Rica this weekend, and the best moment was the 1-1 draw at Azteca against Mexico. There’s no denying he’s righted the World Cup ship —  and that’s paramount — but it’s hard to imagine just qualifying for Russia should give Arena some sort of status, 0-2 hole or not. Any coach needs to be judged by his tournament, and Arena knows this. He’s helped author the best World Cup performance in modern U.S. men’s history, and he’s also presided over a train wreck (Imagine pulling that performance with that roster into the 2018 supporters’ climate. I’m shuddering on behalf of social media).

Which brings us to the import of Wednesday in Santa Clara. The United States lineup is experienced in big games and superior to Jamaica, which is coming off one day less rest. Yes, Jamaica’s squad features an incredible goalkeeper in Andre Blake and a half-dozen MLS players, but the rest are largely players who ply their trade in the U.S. second tier or Jamaica’s top flight.

Again, against Michael Bradley, Tim Howard, Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, et cetera, et cetera.

The bookmakers say a Jamaica win would pay off 8:1. Just getting to penalty kicks would pay 3:1.

(Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

The U.S. should win the 9:30 p.m. ET start, and put one foot in the 2021 Confederations Cup in Qatar. If it doesn’t, it’ll be because the side couldn’t sort out its wobbly back line or find its way past Blake. The latter would be more forgivable than the former, but really only in a “Tim Howard vs. Belgium but unblemished” fashion.

And it could be wrong to call Arena’s tournament a failure if the Yanks lose, depending on how it happens, but this is a man who helped a much lesser U.S. side to a 1-0 home friendly win over Jamaica just a few months ago (a Jamaica side who’s only missing player of consequence was Darren Mattocks). Arena trotted out Luis Robles, Graham Zusi, Steve Birnbaum, Walker Zimmerman, Jorge Villafana, Dax McCarty, Chris Pontius, Benny Feilhaber, Sebastian Lletget, Jordan Morris, and Juan Agudelo. The team he’ll start on Wednesday will be miles better.

Mattocks and his Reggae Boyz are true to their country’s national reputation of electrifying speed, and it’s imperative that Arena sets his backs to handle that. That means true outside backs — sorry, Graham Zusi — and center backs who won’t be forced to foul too often. That is, after all, the only way Jamaica found its way past Mexico via a free kick from a dangerous spot.

Mexico attempted 200 more passes, converting 150 more than Jamaica in the semifinal. It’ll be on Arena’s enterprising attackers to find a way past a stacked defense without opening up the midfield too much to counter attacks. Jamaica also played a borderline perfect game when it did have the ball, missing on just 16 of 143 passes and, again, scoring on a free kick.

Frankly, if the U.S. loses to Jamaica in the same way as Mexico did, it probably wouldn’t be proper to lay it on Arena. It would mean another batch of American players had failed to find a way to goal. But what we’re counting on is a better organized team than the baffled bunch that fell 2-1 to Jamaica under Klinsmann in the 2015 Gold Cup.

In that way, yeah, we can count on Arena being a relative success. But winning this tournament, especially given who Mexico called up, needs to be treated the same way you’d view it under any other manager: expectation. Anything less wouldn’t make Arena a failure, but would certainly qualify as a failure for the U.S. program.

PSG, Barca quizzed on Neymar rumors; Pique blasts Ligue 1

Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images
Leave a comment

We don’t have a ton of sympathy for them, but credit to Barcelona stars Javier Mascherano and Gerard Pique for giving actual answers when put in the awkward position of hearing the media’s Neymar-to-PSG questions on Tuesday night.

PSG boss Unai Emery was far less interested in doing that.

Emery has refused to comment on speculation linking Neymar to big move to the Parc des Princes.

[ MORE: Van Dijk to Liverpool after all? ]

Speaking ahead of Wednesday’s International Champions Cup match against Juventus, Emery had nothing of substance to say to the idea of Brazil’s captain heading to his stable.

“Our focus is to talk about the game tomorrow and a season to get ready for. I prefer to focus on the present moment and the preparation with the team.”

As for Edinson Cavani?

On the Barca side of things, Mascherano said he thinks Neymar will stay because he’s very important to the team, while Pique backed off a little after causing a stir by posting a photo of the defender with Neymar captioned, “He stays.”

“The post was nothing official, it was a gut thing, it doesn’t depend on me. Only (Neymar) can say what will happen, but I hope he stays. I tried to explain to Neymar, as a team-mate and a friend, the situation he’s in. I would say don’t go to a league which, with all due respect, is not as good.”

Boom, roasted (Though there’s some pot-kettle-black here, as there’s a fairly precipitous drop-off further down La Liga’s table, too).

Spanish report claims Coutinho (not Liverpool) agrees deal with Barca

Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images
Leave a comment

According to Sky Sports’ transfer centre, Spanish radio station RAC1 reports that Barcelona has agreed a deal with Liverpool midfielder Philippe Coutinho.

The report comes on the heels of the half-hour delay of Barca’s nightly press conference, though that could be coincidental.

It also states that the agreement is between Barcelona and Coutinho, and that no fee has been agreed between Liverpool and the La Liga giants. That’s a huge obstacle, with Liverpool maintaining that no offer will work this summer, so the idea of a transfer being imminent could be beyond the pale.

[ MORE: Van Dijk to Liverpool after all? ]

A sale like this risks overturning Jurgen Klopp‘s apple cart, as the Reds boss was quoted this week as saying, “The very important message is that we are not a selling club and that’s how it is.”

Mohamed Salah is good, but he’s no Coutinho. Meanwhile, Coutinho has the potential to be as close to a like-for-like replacement for Neymar — one of the Top Five players in the world — as there is on the market.

The two clubs have done business before, and in more trying circumstances; Barcelona bought Luis Suarez from Liverpool within a month of the Uruguayan striker being banned for a biting incident at the 2014 World Cup.

A spectacular deal, Liverpool would have to make such a move this early in the summer when it can invest what would have to be a wild amount of money given the fees splashed about this transfer window.

Source close to Van Dijk expects Liverpool move within window

Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images
Leave a comment

It wasn’t too long ago that Liverpool apologized for its pursuit of Southampton center back Virgil Van Dijk, ending its quest for the big Dutchman.

Is it apology accepted and then some at St. Mary’s? Sky Sports reporter Kaveh Solhekol says not much has changed since the big sorry toward Anfield, but that a source close to Van Dijk expects Van Dijk will be a Red “by the end of the window.”

[ MORE: JPW’s take on the Van Dijk saga ]

That said, Sky’s report makes it unclear what’s changed to lead to such a proclamation.

There is no suggestion that Liverpool have done anything wrong since they apologised and ended their interest. Southampton’s position remains that Van Dijk is not for sale but Chelsea and Manchester City are also interested.

So… it’s happening then? Money does talk, and a massive fee from Liverpool could make Southampton’s life easier in explaining the sale to its fans. It would also mean Saints sold Van Dijk and Jose Fonte within a year. For more on the possible transfer, here’s JPW’s take.

Van Dijk averaged 1.9 tackles, 2.6 interceptions, 6.8 clearances, and 4.7 aerials won per Premier League matches last season, his second since a Summer 2015 move from Celtic.

[ MORE: Milan talk to Costa, Falcao agent ]