Germany: Win over Bayer caps turnaround week for Schalke

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They finished one place apart in last year’s standings, but for Bayer Leverkusen and Schalke, the beginning of the Bundesliga season saw two of Germany’s better teams on divergent paths. Bayer impressed out of the gate, an attack led by Stefan Kießling, Sidney Sam, and Son Heung-Min leading an offense that’d scored eight times in their perfect, three-game start. Schalke, on the other hand, had conceded nine times in three rounds and, combined with a home draw in the first leg for their Champions League play-in against Greece’s PAOK, hinted at a tailspin to start the campaign.

Yet mid-week, ahead of today’s visit from Bayer, Schalke got a huge result in Thessaloniki. Two Adám Szalai goals bookended a key, second road goal via Julian Draxler, giving the Miners a 3-2 win which secured their place in Champions League group stage. Add in the Friday acquisition of Kevin Prince Boateng, the attacking midfielder surprising with a move away from Milan, and the week’s been a boon for the Blues. Though Prince’s transfer has rekindled speculation about Draxler’s future (speculation immediately shot down by the club), Schalke looked to have moved beyond their troublesome Bundesliga start.

If, however, Bayer got a win today at the Veltins-Arena, those good vibes would be squelched, potentially by the realization that Bayer, while still decidedly south of Germany’s two current elites, may be pulling away. A Big Two Plus One scenario would leave a talented but enigmatic Schalke to position itself as the best of the rest, seeking a Wenger-inspired honor for merely finishing fourth in your league.

To the joy of 61,793 in Gelsenkirchen, that realization never happened on Saturday. Schalke proved the better, more energetic side throughout, holding the previously firing Bayer off the scoresheet. Marco Höger’s first half, set piece conversion combined with Jefferson Farfan’s second half penalty kick to have Schalke a convincing win, the 2-0 result ruining Bayer’s perfect start. With Boateng proving influential debuting as Jens Keller’s number ten (pushing Draxler left), Schalke limited Bayer to one shot on goal, overcoming the continued absence of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (knee) to record their first victory of the season.

Despite Boateng’s acquisition, the key to this team, will continue to be Farfan (pictured, above), his often dominant displays on the right giving Schalke a player that’s near-impossible to match up against. For Huntelaar and Szalai, life is easier being able to plan on that threat from the right, but whereas Schalke’s inability to come up with more tricks may have contributed to their erratic form last year, now they have Boateng in the middle. Now Draxler’s out left, balancing the team in a way that proved promising during Michel Bastos’s brief tenure last season. As much as Bayer may be improving, the acquisition of Boateng gives Schalke the potential to keep up.

But even after today’s win, Schalke’s potential still needs to be realized. We’ve seen these highs before, and within a couple of weeks, we may see another low. This is Schalke, after all. They had a good win today, one that could prove important come spring, but they’re still in Germany’s bottom half, four points through four games leaving them 13th after Saturday’s results.

More from Germany: Bayern Munich played on Tuesday, drawing at Freiburg, while Borussia Dortmund play tomorrow … Hamburg, who like Schalke were off to a terrible start, woke up against visiting Braunschweig, posting a 4-0 win. Rafael van der Vaart had the opener … Borussia Moenchengladbach routed visiting Werder Bremen, with Juan Arango and Max Kruse among those who got on the scoresheet in a 4-1 win … Wolfsburg got goals from Ivica Olic and Diego (pk) in the last three minutes of the first half to hand Hertha Berlin their first loss of the season, 2-0 … Kevin Vogt’s late goal, scoring three minutes after coming on, allowed visiting Augsburg to take advantage of 10-man Nurnberg, 1-0 … Hannover won their third in four games, overcoming an early goal by Nicolai Müller to blow past visiting Mainz, 4-1.

Reports: Barcelona holding talks with Verratti’s agent

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Barcelona has their eyes set on a new Andres Iniesta.

Sure, projecting anyone to meet Ballon d’Or finalist standards is silly, but news that Barca has had multiple meetings with Paris Saint-Germain’s Marco Verratti does inspire comparison hunting.

[ MORE: Klopp explains Lovren extension ]

An influential and creative central midfielder, the 24-year-old Verratti is 8.5 years younger than Iniesta and wowed Barca in the first leg of PSG’s ill-fated UEFA Champions League tie with the Catalans.

Mundo Deportivo, amongst others, reports that Verratti feels life at PSG has gotten stale and that Barca is one of the few clubs that represents a significant jump up in class. He’s also been linked with Real Madrid and Manchester United in the past few transfer windows.

Verratti has a contract through 2020-21, so any purchase will not be cheap considering PSG’s desire to continue growing its status as a UCL contender. The Italian is 21 times capped by the Azzurri.

Klopp talks new Lovren deal, Top Four worries, Watford

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Liverpool announced a new contract for Dejan Lovren on Friday, complete with the requisite “I love my club” comments from the defender.

Then Jurgen Klopp got his hands on a microphone.

The outspoken manager explained that re-signing Lovren to a new “long-term” deal ensures that the Croatian spends the best years of his career with the Reds.

[ MORE: Top PL Storylines ]

He also spoke plainly about Lovren’s perceived struggles and successes since arriving at Anfield from Southampton in 2014.

From The Liverpool Echo:

“If Dejan played for another club you would want to sign him – and pay a lot of money. He is 27, the best time is still to come.”

“If you’d asked fans after the Dortmund game they would said give him a 20-year contract. After the Palace game fans would have said ‘can we find another team who will have him?’ Truth is somewhere in between.”

Turning to Monday’s trip to Watford, Klopp isn’t concerned about the chance that his Reds will open the day outside the Top Four if Man City and Manchester United both win at the weekend.

He also says the Reds could have Adam Lallana and Daniel Sturridge at Vicarge Road, though Jordan Henderson remains out.

Premier League Preview: Sunderland vs. Bournemouth

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  • Sunderland won 2-1 on Nov. 5
  • Fourth meeting since 1990
  • Sunderland leads all-time 5W-3D-1L

Sunderland looks to keep its faint hopes of Premier League safety alive by managing a season sweep of Bournemouth when the two sides meet at the Stadium of Light on Saturday (Watch live at 10 a.m. ET on CNBC and online via NBCSports.com).

The Black Cats are a mess, having lost to Tees-Wear Derby rivals Middlesbrough on Wednesday and living 12 points back of 17th place Swansea City.

Bournemouth battered Middlesbrough 4-0 last weekend to move seven points clear of the drop zone, and can finish the day in the top half with a win up north.

What they’re saying

Sunderland boss David Moyes on calls for him to quit“I’m here, I’m the manager, you take it on the chin. … I’m a football supporter, I know what it’s like. You don’t like seeing your team lose. There is nobody who wants to win more than me. I am used to winning, I’m not used to losing and I don’t want to get used to it either.”

Bournemouth captain Simon Francis on Sunderland’s woes“It just show how things can happen when clubs are not run properly. If we do lose Sunderland from the Premier League it will be a real shame. They are an enormous club and playing at grounds like theirs is the pinnacle of anyone’s career.”

 

Prediction

The Black Cats haven’t quit, but manage two fewer points than they need, all but heading for the Championship after a 2-2 draw.

Premier League Preview: Southampton vs. Hull City

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  • Hull won 2-1 on Nov. 6
  • Tigers two points clear of drop zone
  • Saints lead all-time 23W-20D-15L

After back-to-back losses to Man City and Chelsea, Saints meet a different kind of desperation when Hull City arrives at St. Mary’s (Watch live at 10 a.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

With a win, Hull can move five points clear of the final relegation spot and heap pressure on Swansea City, who plays Sunday. With a loss, Marco Silva’s men open the 17th place door for Swans.

[ MORE: JPW on Romeu the Destroyer ]

Since the start of the 2011-12 season in the Championship, Southampton has won six of seven matches against Hull. That seventh, however, was the match at the KCOM Stadium earlier this season, one that saw now-West Ham man Robert Snodgrass spur a Tigers comeback.

Saints open the day four points back of eighth place West Brom, and also hold a match-in-hand on the Baggies.

What they’re saying

Saints boss Claude Puel on slump busting“After two losses it’s important to move forward now and take points on Saturday in front of our own fans. We have to improve in the right areas and find a good balance of play, but also a good clinical edge in both penalty areas.”

Marco Silva on Hull’s away troubles““We have conceded goals on the counter-attack away from home in games when the result has been looking good for us – we cannot make it possible for our opponents to do this to us. The second goal we conceded at Stoke is an example of this – conceded at a time when we were in control of the game. Details like this are making the difference and these are things we must look to change. This is clear to me and I pass this on to my players.”

Prediction

Saints have more quality than Hull, but may not have as much fire in the belly. Still, home field means a lot here and Southampton should reverse the score line from November’s tilt. 2-1, with Manolo Gabbiadini and Dusan Tadic leading the way.