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Pro Soccer Talk’s Premier League Team of the Week

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I think I speak for most of us when I say, thank the Gods of Football that this weekend is over.

Even as a ginormous fan of the Premier League, I couldn’t escape the feeling that the build-up to the August 17th kickoff had become so immense that it started to feel like we were expecting the birth of a child.

By early August we couldn’t help but discuss our excitement at having a kid.

Kids are cool,’ we thought. ‘This is gonna be fun.’

By the second week into the month, tension began to build and suddenly it felt it we were having twins.

Hmm, twins. Ok. We can deal with twins.’

But by the third week the anticipation became so overwhelming that our tension turned to anxiety like we’d just been informed we were the victim of a fertility drug gone wrong. We weren’t having twins, we were having septuplets.

Gulp.

So when the matches finally kicked off and the goals began to flow like Four Loko’s at frat parties, we breathed a collective sigh of relief. Our over-anticipated minds had played a trick on us. We weren’t going to be changing seven diapers after all – we were just waiting for the most competitive soccer league in the world to commence.

Over the course of 10 matches we saw many a brilliant performance. For Pro Soccer Talk’s Premier League Team of the Week, we select 11 starters and an 11 man honorable mention. So here they are, in all their glory.

Goalkeeper – Asmir Begovic (Stoke City)

Before Simon Mignolet’s fantastic double save off of the Jon Walters penalty, Asmir Begovic had Liverpool supporters thinking they’d made the wrong summer purchase. The Bosnian netminder was sensational in his 2013-14 debut, sprawling out to make a number of mind-blowing saves, the best being his finger-tip parry on Jordan Henderson’s 63rd minute rip. Mignolet was great, but Begovic deserved his Man of the Match award making more saves (10) than any other match he’s had in a Stoke City kit.

Defender – Luke Shaw (Southampton)

Luke Shaw enjoyed a fantastic match on Saturday, helping anchor a Saints defense that kept a clean sheet. In addition to shutting down the likes of Nicolas Anelka and Shane Long, the 18 year old academy product changed the scope of the game when his 89th minute dribble into the West Brom box drew the penalty that Rickie Lambert converted for the 1-0 win.

Defender – Brede Hangeland (Fulham)

Most had Sunderland rolling through this match but the Black Cats attack was consistently thwarted by Brede Hangeland and the Fulham defense. The center-back marshalled the surprising defensive setup of Sasha Reither, Kieran Richardson and Aaron Hughes to a clean sheet.

Defender – Seamus Coleman (Everton)

For all the buzz that Leighton Baines earns as an attacking full-back it’s time people started giving Seamus Coleman his due. The Irishman has bags of pace, cheeky skills and an eye for goal. His clever cut-in set up Ross Barkley for his 60th minute golazo and five minutes later Coleman’s insatiable hunger was rewarded when he pounded home John Ruddy’s parry of Nikica Jelavic’s shot.

Midfielder – Fernandinho (Manchester City)

Welcome to the Premier League, Fernandinho. The Brazilian was everywhere in yesterday’s destruction of the Magpies, linking short passes from defense to attack and pinging an array of precise diagonal passes to his speedy wingers. Defensively, the 28 year old strangled any opportunity the Magpies had at getting in on City’s goal with perfect positioning and impressive sliding challenges off the back-track.

Midfielder – Philippe Coutinho (Liverpool)

Philippe Coutinho is the definition of a playmaker. The Brazilian fit in perfectly behind Daniel Sturridge, slipping perfectly weighted passes through the Stoke City defense and into the path of the Reds onrushing attackers. In Coutinho, Brendan Rodgers has found a key balance to Steven Gerrard’s long balls and a player who initiates a tricky intermix between the midfield and forwards. He arguably faded a bit in the second half but the 21 year old was simply too effective to be denied a place in the Team of the Week.

Midfielder – Gabriel Agbonlahor (Aston Villa)

Christian Benteke earned much of the praise for his brace but the Belgian wouldn’t have had the opportunity to capitalize if it weren’t for Gabby Agbonlahor. After an injury-riddled season Agbonlahor was a nightmare for Arsenal, using his speed and trickery to draw both of the Villains penalties. After the match, manager Paul Lambert called it the greatest performance he’d seen by Agbonlahor.

Midfielder – Ross Barkley (Everton)

After three years of David Moyes tempting Evertonians with small injections of Ross Barkley it now appears that the Liverpool-born midfielder has a firm spot under new boss Roberto Martinez. Barkley was sensational on Saturday, busting a lung to offer his services all over the park and providing a creative link between the midfield and forwards. His greatest acheivement, however, was unleashing a left-footed howitzer to bring the Toffees level at one apiece. Which raises the question, has there been a better first Premier League goal?

Forward – Robin van Persie (Manchester United)

Robin van Persie is the fine wine of the Premier League – he just keeps getting better. His first goal was an acrobatic feat that Olympians would admire and his second was a deak and smash that left everyone’s jaw on the floor. Think United aren’t capable of duplicating last year’s championship run? RVP says otherwise.

Forward – Danny Welbeck (Manchester United)

Making his case for Manchester United to forget about the brooding Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck put in an eye-opening performance in the South Wales rain. His first goal displayed an intricate reading of the game and his second finish was straight class. What would’ve normally been a rip on goal, Welbeck surprised everyone by thoughtfully dinking his effort over the head of Michel Vorm and into the far post.

Honorable Mention: GK Simon Mignolet (Liverpool); D Antonio Luna (Aston Villa); D Kolo Toure (Liverpool); D Steven Whittaker (Norwich City); M Frank Lampard (Chelsea); M Joe Cole (West Ham); M Mohamed Diame (West Ham); M Oscar (Chelsea); F Edin Dzeko (Manchester City); F Sergio Aguero (Manchester City); F Daniel Sturridge (Liverpool)

Rafa Benitez to have total control at Newcastle, including player sales

NEWCASTLE, ENGLAND - MAY 15:  Rafa Benitez Newcastle United manager reacts during the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle United and Tottenham at St James Park on May 15, 2016 in Newcastle, England. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty images)
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Usually, when teams are relegated to the Championship, squad salaries must be reevaluated to make ends meet, often meaning the axe for players who are deemed too costly.

That won’t be the case with Newcastle next season.

With manager Rafa Benitez back on board with the hopes of navigating the Magpies back to the Premier League as quickly as possible, owner Mike Ashley has handed Benitez the reigns.

Benitez confirmed he will have complete, unmitigated control of the squad roster in exchange for his services.

“What I have is the assurance that if I don’t want to sell any players I don’t have to,” Benitez said in his second unveiling as Newcastle manager. “We can keep all the players who we want to.”

But that’s not all. “For football business I will have responsibility. But the main thing is that I have had assurances we will have a strong team. We will have a winning team and the fans have to be sure I will try to build a strong squad. If I am sat here it is because I am sure we can do it. To clarify I am a person who likes to talk. But if I have to take responsibility I will, no problem.”

This is not only big news for anyone relegated to the Championship, but especially big news for a Mike Ashley club. Not even Sam Allardyce or Alan Pardew were given this type of total control of the club. Ashley knew he had little leverage with such a big name having fallen out of the Premier League, and he needed to make concessions to get his man.

Fernando Torres, back from the depths, can become a Champions League leader

VALENCIA, SPAIN - MAY 08:  Fernando Torres of Atletico de Madrid looks on during the La Liga match between Levante UD and Atletico de Madrid at Ciutat de Valencia on May 8, 2016 in Valencia, Spain.  (Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images)
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His days in England are well past him. From Liverpool superstar to Chelsea flop, the unconventional route the 32-year-old’s career has taken has all led to this.

Yes, Fernando Torres has a Champions League winners’ medal, but it did not come in the fashion many believed he was destined for when he peaked at Anfield. A shell of his former self at Stamford Bridge, he was second-fiddle to fan-favorite Didier Drogba during the 2011/12 run Chelsea made through the competition. Ridiculed by plenty all across England for his YouTube-worthy misses and sleepy performances, Torres was run out of Stamford Bridge with just his medal to accompany him.

“This is the most important game of my life,” Torres emphatically claimed Wednesday morning ahead of Saturday’s final against Real Madrid in Milan. “A chance to write a page that has never been written in 113 years of Atlético’s history. I have the chance to make my dream come true, a dream I had as a kid, to win this cup with this club”.

Torres does not speak as if this is his team, because it is not his team. Despite his dominance at Liverpool, Torres will never be a standout player on a Champions League final caliber squad. Those days are well in the past. Now, Torres knows his place in the squad, an important cog in an engine with no one part more valuable than the other. Such is the way of Diego Simeone.

“I knew I was risking everything by coming back here to Atletico Madrid,” Torres said. “A lot of people thought it couldn’t get better for me here, but I knew the group I was coming into. I knew this group was destined for something big and I wanted to be part of it.”

For all the praises Simeone gets for his teams’ fitness, grit, and defensive prowess, bringing Torres back from the depths of obscurity might be one of his most underrated achievements. The ridicule Torres was forced to endure towards the end of his time in England can break a person. But Torres somehow managed to stay afloat despite the demons lapping at his ankles, and Simeone pulled him ashore. Now, reborn, Torres has finally shown flashes of his former self that only Anfield remembers. Across April and May, Torres bagged six goals and two assists in eight appearances – all starts – to close out the La Liga season. The Spaniard also fed the ball that sprung Antoine Griezmann free for the goal that won the semifinal against Bayern Munich.

No longer a star but still a valuable piece of the puzzle, Torres is right where he belongs. While his time with Chelsea brought him that medal so many legends in the game fail to achieve, he knows now is where his legacy will truly be judged. “The past can only help you get better,” Torres said. “We only think about Milan, which is the present.”

The key word being “we.” For his entire club career, the narrative surrounding Torres had always been about himself, from superstardom at Liverpool to the abuse he suffered after. Now with a “we” to fall back on, it’s time for Torres to play the most important game of his life.

Copa America 2016 preview, Group B: Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Haiti

Brazil's Willian, left, and United States’ Alejandro Bedoya contend for the ball during the first half of an international friendly soccer match Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2015, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
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Brazil

They’ve won five Copa America titles with the last in 2007, but in their previous two Copa campaigns Brazil hasn’t made it past the quarterfinal stage. Despite not having captain and talisman Neymar around they’ll be one of the favorites this summer.

Star player: Douglas Costa – The winger was in fine form for Bayern Munich this season and along with Willian he will be a real threat in support of Hulk.

They will sweep all before them because… They have a huge number of talented attacking midfielders who can rip teams apart on their own. Together it could get rather silly. Expect them to be in the final four.

Really, though, Dunga will be on the hot seat in July: The one thing that stands out about this team is the lack of goals. Only one player in the entire squad has double figures (Hulk, with 12) and anything less than winning a major title is always treated with despair by the Brazilian population. If they don’t win either Copa America Centenario or the gold medal at Rio 2016, Dunga will be under big pressure.


Ecuador

LOS ANGELES, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA - MARCH 28:  Miguel Layun of Mexico (L) fights for the ball with Antonio Valencia of Ecuador (R) during a friendly match between Mexico and Ecuador at Memorial Coliseum Stadium on March 28, 2015 in Los Angeles, United States. (Photo by Omar Vega/LatinContent/Getty Images)
(Photo by Omar Vega/LatinContent/Getty Images)

Man, Ecuador is due a good Copa America performance. They haven’t made it out of the group stage since 1997 and have finished in fourth place twice.

Star player: Enner Valencia – After returning from injury in the final 13weeks of the season we saw just how important he is for Manchester United. That was from right back. Valencia will play in a more advanced role for Ecuador and provides bags of experience.

La Tricolor will go far because of forwards: Goals. Goals. Goals. Ecuador has a ton of talented attackers in its squad. Enner Valencia and Jefferson Montero will be dangerous and through the first five 2018 World Cup qualifying games they’ve scored 12 times and sit second in the table.

Likely heartbreak warning: With top scorer from World Cup qualifying, Felipe Caceido, out injured, Ecuador has been dealt a huge blow. They seem to always be the nearly men.


Peru

Paolo Guerrero, Peru

They’ve won the tournament twice in their history and last summer they were the surprise semifinalists who finished in third place. Anchored by a strong defense, they’ll be hoping to cause another upset.

Star player: Paolo Guerrero – He is their main man up top with 26 goals in 67 appearances. If Peru has a chance in the box, they want it to fall to him.

They will be the darlings of the tournament: If they get off to a flying start against Haiti in Seattle then we can expect big things. Confidence will be key ahead of the final game against Brazil.

Goals will be the big problem: They scored just twice in three games during the group stage last summer and somehow made it through. They will have to do more than that this time out and if they don’t beat Haiti, it is curtains for their knockout stage hopes.


Haiti

Gyasi Zardes, Frantz Bertin
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This will be their first-ever appearance in the Copa America and after their successful Gold Cup campaign in 2015, who knows what’s possible? They will fancy their chances of advancing despite all the odds stacked against them.

Star player: Johnny Placide – He shone for Haiti during the Gold Cup last summer and their goalkeeper will be another busy man. A beast.

Beware of the underdogs, they’ll get you: As we saw last summer, we shouldn’t underestimate Haiti. They only lost to the USA 1-0 and beat Honduras on their way to a quarterfinal exit to eventual runners up Jamaica. They will keep it tight and try to grind out wins.

Tight isn’t good enough: As they’ve found out in World Cup qualifying, you have to do more than hang in there. They haven’t scored a goal through four games of 2018 World Cup qualifying in CONCACAF Group B and sit bottom of the table. Placide will have to come up big this summer if they’re going to produce something special.


Game schedule – Full schedule for Group B, here

Who’s going through, who’s going home: Brazil, Ecuador going through; Peru and Haiti going home

Marquee match: I’m going with Brazil vs. Ecuador on June 4 at the Rose Bowl. This two will go at it to try and take control of Group B. Should be a fun one. 

Top players to watch

1) Douglas Costa
2) Willian
3) Antonio Valencia
4) Paolo Guerrero
5) Johnny Placide

French security chief: Strikes won’t threaten sports events

MARSEILLE, FRANCE - OCTOBER 28:Tens of thousands of the French workers protest as the Unions in France launch new strikes against the pension reform plan on October 28, 2010 in Marseille, France. This is the seventh day of protest for French workers angry at the Government's proposed pension reforms. Nicolas Sarkozy, however, has not wavered in his plans to increase the state pension age from 60 to 62 and last night the National Assembly passed the bill.  (Photo by Patrick Aventurier/Getty Images)
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PARIS (AP) France’s interior minister says violent labor protests and strikes causing gas shortages won’t jeopardize the upcoming European Championship or other sporting events.

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About 1,500 people have been detained in recent weeks and hundreds of police officers have been injured in breaking up protests and dislodging protesters from fuel depots.

The tensions have added to concern about security for Euro 2016, already facing what Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve called the “double threat” of violent Islamic extremism and hooliganism.

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Cazeneuve told reporters Wednesday that the government respects the right to strike and does not see the labor movement as a “threat.”

He said it won’t disrupt protection of the June 10-July 10 championship, involving an unprecedented 90,000 people ensuring security.