Tottenham’s new-look midfield still a work in progress

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LONDON — Andre Villas-Boas was understandably a happy man following Tottenham’s narrow 1-0 win over Crystal Palace.

Spurs’ manager was delighted with the three points in their first game of the 2013-14 season and praised his team for a disciplined display.

“Very happy. It was a good performance. It was a surprise against Palace because of the amount of new signings that they brought and the fact that we don’t know them so well,” Villas-Boas said. “I am extremely happy with the performance, we had plenty of chances to put the game to bed. We can only be pleased and overall we were the deserved winners.”

Inevitably AVB was asked about the future of Gareth Bale but he declined to comment on a potential transfer, instead stating he is injured and will not be featuring for the foreseeable future.

“The player is injured and unavailable for selection as is not likely to start neither the Tbilisi [Europa League qualifier] or the Swansea game [next Sunday].”

But with Tottenham grinding out a win without their influential attacker, Villas-Boas’ side were lacking a cutting edge with their Welsh wizard sidelined. Spurs deployed two holding midfielders against Palace as Paulinho and Mousa Dembele battled it out with Mile Jedinak in the engine room.

(MORE: Crystal Palace 0 – Tottenham 1, Soldado’s penalty seals the win for Spurs)

Villas-Boas accepted that Palace made Spurs’ job extremely difficult.

“I think Palace set up really, really well. Because they put three players behind the striker very, very narrow. Plus two more in midfield so it made it extremely difficult for us to play through the middle. We were outnumbered in the middle.”

Belgian international Dembele, 26, also believed Spurs did as well as they could on a hot and sticky day in South London.

“It was not easy,” Dembele said. “The pitch was very dry, so it took a bit out of our game because we want to play fast and everything. In the end we had some good chances. They are a good side but we should have been ahead by more.”

Dembele’s fellow Belgian international Nacer Chadli carved out a few chances and did well out on the left. Leaving Spurs fans optimistic that they’re covered even if Bale does leave. And Icelandic attacker Gylfi Sigurdsson was sharp and creative in the No. 10 role.

Sigurdsson was happy with his performance and to return to his favored position behind the front man.

“It was nice to play there again and I enjoy playing there. Hopefully I will stay there behind the striker. I think that is probably what I prefer, but I will play wherever the manager wants to play me.”

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Paulinho, and Spurs, battled well in the engine room.

Capping off a whole host of new faces in Spurs’ midfield, Brazilian midfielder Paulinho looked bright and sharp in the tackle. Palace’s midfield was marshaled by Jedinak who was the pick of their players and made the Spurs midfield work for every single ball.

AVB was pleased with his new midfield terrier. Although Tottenham’s Portuguese boss wasn’t too pleased about Paulinho playing the full 90 minutes for Brazil in midweek, as the Samba Boys lost to Switzerland.

“I don’t understand why he was the only player involved for Brazil for 90 minutes against Switzerland. And he probably should have been taken off a little bit earlier,” Villas-Boas continued. “We didn’t speak to Scolari [Brazilian national team manager] and we didn’t get involved. I was mentioning it because he hasn’t had a 90 minutes for a while. So it was a great, great effort for someone who hasn’t done that in preseason.”

With Paulinho, Dembele and new signing Etienne Capoue — who came on as a second half substitute — shoring up the midfield, Spurs looked solid and dependable as Palace cranked up the heat late on. They certainly looked less fragile than they had last season, as a late onslaught was thwarted with Spurs claiming the shutout.

Last year Spurs conceded easily at times, but they had Bale to rescue them late in games. This season they might not be able to rely on his clutch goal scoring exploits, so a solid midfield core is a necessity. Will it be a different Tottenham team this season?

“I don’t think so,” Villas-Boas said. “Not in terms of the system because we will keep on what we did last season. Between the 4-2-3-1, the 4-3-3 and the 4-4-2. These are the systems that we will continue to work on, it gives us flexibility.”

On this showing, Spurs’ new midfield is more then capable of providing flexibility and solidity.

It will just take time.

“This game belongs to the players” Wenger downplays Guardiola success

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Arsene Wenger has stressed that Pep Guardiola has not changed the game of soccer over the last decade or so, maintaining that the players are the ones who make a team truly great.

Asked if Guardiola has “raised the bar” of managing in his time at the top, Wenger said, “No, because you look at Barcelona and they are still the best team in Europe. You have to accept that the modern game has changed with the recruitment of the best players in a short number of clubs.”

[ MORE: EFL Cup final preview ]

“We, as managers, can maybe impart our philosophy but this game belongs to the players because the importance of the players has become bigger than ever before.”

In fact, Wenger showed a twinge of jealousy at all the attention Guardiola is getting with the team blowing out the rest of the Premier League this season, referencing trophies in the recent past Arsenal has hoisted. “We are maybe underdogs but we have to believe in our quality. The history, the fact we have done it before, shows why not do it again?”

“At the end of the day, you have to be cool,” Wenger said, “because Manchester City is dominating the league in the head of everybody and so maybe we are more underdogs than in the FA Cup semi-final [last season when Arsenal beat Man City].”

Deportivo wastes penalty kick, remains winless under Seedorf

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MADRID (AP) — Clarence Seedorf remained winless as Deportivo La Coruna coach after a 0-0 draw with Espanyol in the Spanish league on Friday.

Deportivo squandered chances including a second-half penalty kick taken by Lucas Perez. Its winless streak reached 10 games in all competitions.

It was the third game in a row without a victory since Seedorf took over to try to avoid relegation. Deportivo was 18th in the 20-team standings, in the relegation zone.

In addition to the missed penalty, Deportivo twice hit the posts in front of a supportive crowd at Riazor Stadium. The players left the field applauded by the local fans despite the setback.

Perez’s penalty attempt was saved by Espanyol goalkeeper Diego Lopez in the 65th minute. Lopez, who earlier this season stopped a penalty taken by Lionel Messi, dived to his right to stop Perez’s low shot.

The match marked the Deportivo debut of veteran Ghanaian midfielder Sulley Muntari. He played alongside Seedorf at AC Milan, and was signed this week after a trial period.

Espanyol, 15th in the standings, hasn’t won in seven matches, since it ended Barcelona’s 29-match unbeaten streak in the first leg of the Copa del Rey quarterfinals. Espanyol’s last league win was in January, seven rounds ago.

Barcelona defends its seven-point lead in the standings when it hosts Girona on Saturday. Second-place Atletico Madrid visits Sevilla on Sunday.

Conte says he believes in his selection regarding Willian

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Antonio Conte has lashed out at anyone questioning why Brazilian winger Willian hasn’t played regularly until recently, saying

“Do you think that I am stupid when I put Willy on the bench?” Conte fired back at reporters when he was asked about Willian’s earlier lack of playing time at his pre-match press conference ahead of Chelsea’s match on Sunday against Manchester United.

[ MORE: Heynckes squashes Lewandowski to Premier League rumors ]

“I have to try and make the best decision for the team, no? Maybe last season we won the title, or did I forget something?”

The 29-year-old has made 29 Premier League appearances, but only 13 starts. He started in the midweek Champions League match against Barcelona and not only scored Chelsea’s only goal but also proved their most incisive player, prompting questions about his selection.

“Now he is playing because he deserves to play, not because there is some regret from the past,” Conte said. “For what? If a player deserves to play, and shows me during the training session that he is on top of his form, and wants to work defensively, he plays. If not, [he will] stay on the bench, stay in the stands.”

Instead of saying he wishes Willian had played more earlier in the season, he praised himself for giving the Brazilian the start at the appropriate time.

“He is playing now and I am very happy with my choice. Willian deserved to start in the previous game, and played well. I did a fantastic choice, and I want to take credit for that.”

EFL Cup Final preview: Arsenal, Manchester City fight for different types of glory

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  • These two clubs have never met in a major Cup final
  • With a win, Arsene Wenger would become the 8th PL manager to win all 3 major English trophies
  • Sergio Agüero has scored in all of his last 4 appearances against Arsenal

For Manchester City, it’s the first step of a potentially record-setting season. For Arsenal, it’s the Gunners’ best chance at securing a trophy.

The two teams are fighting for very different levels of glory as the two meet at Wembley Stadium on Sunday at 11:30 a.m. ET. Manchester City, despite losing to Wigan in the FA Cup just a week ago, would still be on track for a Double this season with a win against the Gunners. Meanwhile, Arsenal is outside the Premier League top four, and – as they have done each of the past two seasons in the FA Cup – could salvage an otherwise disappointing league season with a major Cup trophy.

Both teams will be struggling with selection in certain areas. Manchester City is likely missing Raheem Sterling, who could sit out due to an unspecified muscle injury according to Pep Guardiola in his pre-match press conference, while Fabian Delph is suspended after his sending off against Wigan in the FA Cup. That means either Danilo or 21-year-old Oleksandr Zinchencko would start at wing-back. Zinchenko is the likely candidate there, having appeared in four of City’s five EFL Cup games this season so far and playing almost every minute of those four matches. Gabriel Jesus, who missed more than two months with a knee injury, could be ready to make his early return. Claudio Bravo will continue to play in goal for the domestic Cup competitions.

Arsenal, meanwhile, is without new signing Henrikh Mkhitaryan who is cup-tied to his previous club Manchester United, while Alexandre Lacazette is not yet recovered from his knee injury suffered in the North London derby, and Mesut Ozil could miss out with an illness. The Gunners are likely, however, to get Aaron Ramsey back in midfield after recovering from a groin injury, while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang can return to the lineup after his own cup tied absence in the Europa League midweek.

What they’re saying

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola on playing Arsenal twice in a week: “We will be happy if we win, sad if we don’t but after the game we have another match against Arsenal. We are going to try and maintain our level, but finals are different, it is not what you have done in the past.”

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger on playing Manchester City: “Manchester City have so many players that you think you have to stop that it is better to focus on the team plan than rather than on any individual. It’s true that I always used to use this competition with a youth team. For us it’s an opportunity. We’ll play with all the regular players.” 

Prediction

Arsenal has often come up big in hotly contested Cup matches, despite poor form in the surrounding competitions, so it would not be surprising to once again see Arsene Wenger hoist a trophy on Sunday to temporarily distract the fanbase and media from larger struggles. However, picking against this Manchester City team would be selection suicide, even after their disappointment against Wigan and considering the absence of under the radar star Raheem Sterling. Manchester City wins 3-1 with a pair of late goals to sink the Gunners, with a newly healthy Gabriel Jesus providing an influential injection off the bench in the final 20 minutes. Pep Guardiola raises another trophy at the site where he won the 2011 Champions League.