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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)

UEL: Saint-Etienne hope Beric comes to the rescue vs. Man United

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 16:  Paul Pogba of Manchester United and Kevin Monnet-Paquet of Saint-Etienne in action during the UEFA Europa  League Round of 32 first leg match between Manchester United and AS Saint-Etienne at Old Trafford on February 16, 2017 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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PARIS (AP) While Zlatan Ibrahimovic was scoring a hat trick in Manchester United’s win over Saint-Etienne in the Europa League last week, Robert Beric’s 11-minute substitute appearance at Old Trafford was barely noticed.

Still reeling from a hamstring injury, Beric’s cameo had little impact as Ibrahimovic ended Saint-Etienne’s 10-game unbeaten run in Europe by 3-0.

[ MORE: Man City win in epic comeback vs. Monaco | Atleti blitz Bayer ]

Beric’s condition has improved since the heavy loss, and he featured in a French league game in Montpellier last weekend. The 1976 European Cup runner-up is hoping that’s enough for Beric to help it overturn their deficit against United on Wednesday in the last-32 return leg.

Beric, a versatile center-forward capable of playing with his back to goal and creating, joined Saint-Etienne last season. He’d scored 27 goals in 34 matches in his final season with Rapid Vienna, but was unable to replicate the feat in the French league because his progression was abruptly stopped by a serious right knee injury.

He is expected to start at Geoffroy Guichard Stadium after his teammates managed to force United goalkeeper Sergio Romero into only a single save from 14 shots last week.

“Beric is so skillful and astute in front of goal that we all want to give him a starting nod,” former Saint-Etienne striker Herve Revelli, now a club ambassador, told L’Equipe.

[ MORE: Rooney left out of Man United’s Europa League squad (again) ]

United was carved open at times, but the French club was made to pay for its blatant lack of efficiency. Revelli insisted Beric can make a difference.

“He is likely to put our chances into the back of the net,” Revelli said.

With an estimated budget of close to 70 million euros, Saint-Etienne simply can’t afford the services of a world-class striker. When he joined the 10-time French champion for a reported six million euros, Beric became the third most expensive player signed by the club.

A humble player and a man of few words, Beric is somewhat the opposite of the self-infatuated Ibrahimovic.

Unlike Ibrahimovic, who once said he will be “God of Manchester,” Beric rarely speaks about himself and his rare comments on social networks are limited to praise of his teammates and Saint-Etienne fans.

Beric, who scored the last of his three league goals this season back in September, is not yet fully fit and should not be able to last the whole match. But Revelli is counting on his instinct for goals.

[ MORE: Guardiola “so happy” to see Man City “achieve another step” ]

“With him in a finisher role, I firmly believe in our chances,” said Revelli, Saint-Etienne’s all-time best scorer.

Saint-Etienne needs to find a way to stop Ibrahimovic, but history does not favor the home side.

During his time in France with Paris Saint-Gernain, Ibrahimovic was the scourge of Saint-Etienne, scoring 14 goals in 13 games in all competitions. He now has 17, including three hat tricks.

“It’s difficult to neutralize him. There is a possibility that we will set up an anti-Ibra plan,” Saint-Etienne coach Chirstophe Galtier said. “I don’t know what’s inside Zlatan, but for sure he likes to play against us. It’s not easy to score a hat trick in a European Cup game.”

Champions League Wednesday: Leicester’s last stand; Porto-Juve

SEVILLE, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 21:  Claudio Ranieri, manager of Leicester City looks on during a press conference ahead of the UEFA Champions League round-of-16 first leg against Sevilla FC at Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan on February 21, 2017 in Seville, Spain.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Previewing Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League round-of-16 action…

[ MORE: Man City win in epic comeback vs. Monaco | Atleti blitz Bayer ]

Leicester City vs. Sevilla

There’s no two ways about it: Leicester’s season — and perhaps their status as a Premier League club — is quickly spiraling out of control. The Foxes, just nine months after winning the PL title, sit 17th in the league table, one point clear of relegation, with 13 games still to play. Chances are, they won’t be back in the Champions League anytime soon, making Wednesday’s round-of-16 first-leg clash away to Sevilla all the more a monumental moment in the club’s history.

Where has hasn’t it gone wrong for Claudio Ranieri‘s side this season? If you’re of the mind that one player — N'Golo Kante in Leicester’s case — doesn’t make a team himself, then we’ll have to go one step further in diagnosing the stunning regression seen at the King Power Stadium this season: Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, who combined to score 41 goals in the PL last season, have managed all of eight together in 2016-17. It’s the loss of Kante, though, that has left the defense forever exposed (43 goals conceded in 25 PL games, after conceding 36 in 38 all of last season), and the goal-getters forever feeding on scraps (24 goals scored, compared to 68 last season).

[ MORE: Rooney left out of Man United’s Europa League squad (again) ]


Porto vs. Juventusfrom the AP

Juventus defender Leonardo Bonucci will be left in the stands for Wednesday’s Champions League match against Porto as punishment for his outburst aimed at coach Massimiliano Allegri.

Allegri announced the move on Tuesday at the pre-match news conference, saying he had agreed it with club officials as “a fair decision, out of respect for the squad, the fans and the club.”

Bonucci became embroiled in a heated argument over substitutions with Allegri after a 4-1 win over Palermo on Friday.

Allegri also will punish himself for his angry reaction to Bonucci, announcing a donation to charity.

U.S. U-20s awaken in 2nd half vs. Haiti, keep WCQ hopes alive

USMNT U-20 team (Photo credit: U.S. Soccer)
Photo credit: U.S. Soccer
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With many thanks to the hat trick scored by Brooks Lennon (Real Salt Lake, on loan from Liverpool), the U.S. U-20 national team’s hopes of qualifying for the 2017 U-20 World Cup remain intact.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage | MLS ]

After dropping all three points in their opening group-stage game against Panama on Saturday, Tab Ramos’ young Yanks faced elimination from CONCACAF’s U-20 Championship in Costa Rica with a defeat to Haiti on Tuesday. After 15 minutes, the Americans found themselves a goal down, the prospect of winning zero points from their first two games a terrifying possibility.

Then, Lennon struck from the penalty spot. A draw wouldn’t be enough, realistically, though, as they’d still trail Haiti by three points ahead of the final group game, against Saint Kitts and Nevis, with the top two sides from each team advancing to the classification stage.

The score remained 1-1 until halftime, after which point the Yanks roared to life with three goals in a seven-minute span. Luca de la Torre (Fulham) scored the first of the bunch, an empty-net finish after a failed punch by the goalkeeper. Lennon quickly followed suit with two more to make it 4-1.

With three points from two games and a goal differential that now sits at +2, the Yanks are second in Group B, just ahead of Haiti on goal differential (+1). Panama sit atop the group with six points and a +5 goal differential. A U.S. victory over Saint Kitts and Nevis, to go with a Haitian upset of Panama, would see the Americans finish top of the group go into Group E in the classification stage, which would see them accompanied by a pair of second-place sides. The first-place side in each classification group qualifies for May’s tournament in South Korea.

Guradiola “so happy” to see Man City “achieve another step” as a club

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 21:  Josep Guardiola manager of Manchester City reacts as Leonardo Jardim head coach of AS Monaco looks on during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg match between Manchester City FC and AS Monaco at Etihad Stadium on February 21, 2017 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
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In the past, when faced with adversity in the UEFA Champions League, Manchester City could do little more than wilt and crumble as their European dreams when up in smoke year after year, typically in embarrassing and/or heartbreaking fashion.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

On Tuesday, when faced with 2-1 and 3-2 deficits late into the second half of their round-of-16 first leg against Monaco, deja vu was quickly setting in for anyone who’s followed Man City’s rise from middling afterthought to mega-rich conglomerate with aspirations of world domination. Then, something strange (based on years of recent history) happened: Sergio Aguero fired City back to level at 2-2 in the 58th minute. Sure, more shocking defending saw the deficit restored three minutes later, but again, Aguero dissented.

For this reason, and perhaps this reason alone considering the putrid defensively display over the course of 90 minutes, first-year City manager Pep Guardiola should be heartened by Tuesday’s events at the Etihad Stadium. In his mind, it was a massive step forward in the club’s psyche — quotes from the BBC:

“I am so happy for the result, we are still alive. These kind of things help this club to achieve another step. We attacked in small spaces. That’s why they wanted me to come here. Everybody has to be congratulated.

“We are going to fly to Monaco to score as many goals as possible. If we don’t score in Monaco we will be eliminated.”