Can Mathieu Flamini’s grit get Arsenal back into the Premier League title race?

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LONDON — Coming on for Jack Wilshere in the 43rd minute, Mathieu Flamini’s second spell at Arsenal started in the exact manner you would’ve expected.

Crunching tackles, grit, determination and a hard-fought win in the North London derby was the perfect stage to show off what Flamini does best.

The destroyer is back and boy, Arsenal have missed him.

Returning this week on a free transfer after five-years at AC Milan, Flamini has been missed by Arsenal ever since he left in 2008. He may not be the most skillful or talented player in the world but he does all of the dirty things that keep the Gunners ticking over. He presses, tackles, organizes, harasses the opposition and leads by example.

(MORE: Arsenal 1-0 Spurs; Giroud’s goals continue as Gunners grind out win)

Many people questioned Arsenal manger Arsene Wenger for bringing back 29-year-old Flamini on a free, as fans and pundits continued to scoff at the Gunners lack of transfer of activity. But adding the experienced Frenchman could be a masterstroke after his display against Spurs.

“I said it was a no-brainer. I’m just sorry that it didn’t cost $35 million,” Wenger joked. “His overall performance on the pitch was exceptional, he hasn’t played since May but overall his performance was very convincing.”

As Arsenal and Tottenham’s players walked off the pitch at half time on Sunday, Flamini remained. He had only just come on as a substitute for Wilshere two minutes before the break and was ready to roll. So, as the sprinklers swung their vapor across the immaculate Emirates pitch, Flamini stayed out on his own to perform shuttle runs and get a touch on the ball.

His commitment to the cause was there for everyone to see and it’s something that’s been sorely missed by Arsenal.

source: AP
Flamini’s destructive nature in the engine room is exactly what Arsenal need.

In the 54th minute Flamini went flying into a tackle with Danny Rose midway through his own half and was rightly booked for an extremely rash challenge. The sight of a yellow card for the combative Frenchman was greeted with applause by the home fans.

They’ve missed that.

That nasty streak Arsenal was famed for during Wenger’s most successful years in charge has vanished over the last five or six seasons. Visions of Martin Keown shoulder-barging into a striker, Patrick Vieira clattering into a tackle and Ashely Cole getting in the oppositions faces are a distant memory.

(MORE: Arsene Wenger aims big; “We need one or two super players”)

But Flamini’s second half performance against Spurs was a reminder of Arsenal’s wild side. And make no mistake about it, his presence after the break was pivotal as Arsenal’s spirit pushed them on to claim all three points. Flamini was screaming at left back Kieran Gibbs as stoppage time ticked away. He talked, he chased, he led from the front like a warrior in the midst of battle.

After the match Wenger spoke about that togetherness and claimed he always knew it was there.

“I was one of the few that never doubted that,” Wenger said. “This team has lost one game since March in all competitions. You don’t do that with an average spirit.”

And with Flamini’s return you have to think the spirit will only improve and the famous chant “1-0 to the Arsenal”, which rang out across English stadiums throughout the 1990’s, could also be returning. Wenger was delighted with his sides new desire and defensive nous as they beat their North London rivals.

“We showed aspects in our game that aren’t use to see from us,” Wenger said. “That means commitment, desire, defending. And overall their ‘keeper was their best player, so that shows we had the chances to win comfortably today.”

The last time Flamini wore an Arsenal shirt they lost out on the league title by four points in the 2007-08 season, the year before they narrowly lost in the Champions League final to Barcelona. And although Flamini’s first spell with the Gunners wasn’t exactly trophy laden, just one FA Cup and a Community Shield to show for his efforts, the French midfielder brings a certain je ne sais quoi that has been lacking in Arsenal’s engine room for some time.

Is Flamini the magic ingredient to success?

Earlier this week he returned to the Emirates, signing a three-year deal after turning down AC Milan’s offer of a new contract, his motivation was that he had ‘unfinished business’ in North London. He certainly played like that on Sunday afternoon.

“The story with Arsenal is not finished… I have unfinished business,” Flamini said. “I am happy to be back and I have come to fight and win titles.”

And Flamini’s style separates him from the rest of Arsenal’s midfielders as Jack Wilshere, Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey are all ball-playing midfielders who can get stuck in when need be, but that tough-tackling approach doesn’t define them.

(MORE: Olivier Giroud the hero again… Do Arsenal need a new striker?)

Flamini is purely a no-nonsense midfielder. His job is to win the ball and give it to others to create. That is what Arsenal need this season as they aim to not just make the top four, but win the title.

“What Arsene made clear with me is that we are fighting for the title,” Flamini said. “Not fourth place and qualification for the Champions League. This is a big club with big ambitions for the title.”

A statement of intent from the new man who will put his body on the line, week in, week out, to try and deliver the Gunners first trophy since 2005. We’ve talked about his penchant for tackling above all else but Flamini can still stroke the ball around midfield with great accuracy. The former Marseille man had a pass accuracy rate of 85 percent during his 102 games with Gunners before he packed his bags for the San Siro in 2008. But his appetite for destruction is what should excite Arsenal fans.

Many would argue that Arsenal have missed having a true midfield terrier, someone who isn’t focused on playing attractive soccer and wowing the crowds. Flamini plays to win and at his destructive best, the Frenchman is perhaps the missing cog in Arsene Wenger’s flamboyant attacking mechanism.

Tammy Abraham denies switching national teams

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Fans of the England National Team may still have a chance to see Tammy Abraham don the Three Lions crest one day.

Abraham refuted reports from earlier Thursday that he was in the process of switching his national team to Nigeria from England. The 19-year-old Swansea City forward on-loan from Chelsea has played as high as the England Under-21 Men’s National Team but because of his Nigerian father, he’s eligible for the African nation.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Abraham confirmed that he had met with Nigeria Football Federation chief Amaju Pinnick after Swansea’s last game, but denied that he was looking to play for the Super Eagles.

“I have informed The FA that I remain available for selection for England,” Abraham said, via the BBC. “Contrary to reports in the media I would like to clarify that I have not agreed to switch my national team allegiance. I can confirm I met the President of the NFF after our last game against Tottenham at Wembley on Saturday given he is a friend of my father. However, any suggestion that I have made a decision to change my international representation is incorrect and wide of the mark.”

Earlier in the day, reports emerged that Pinnick said the process was underway for Abraham to switch his international allegiance.

Abraham’s apparently decision to remain with the England set-up is good news for his club Swansea City, who will get to keep him closer to Wales on a regular basis, but Abraham may be missing a chance to play senior national team soccer at a young age.

Paulinho has silenced his critics at Barcelona

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MADRID (AP) Brazil midfielder Paulinho wasn’t greeted with the warmest of welcomes when he arrived in Barcelona.

Fans made it clear they were not too thrilled to see the club spend 40 million euros ($48 million) on a defensive midfielder who was playing in the Chinese league.

[ MORE: La Liga scores, schedule ]

They were expecting a blockbuster signing after Neymar’s departure and ended up getting a player they knew very little about.

Paulinho didn’t have any links to the club’s youth academy and his style apparently didn’t suit the team’s traditional ball-possession game.

A video of Paulinho struggling to juggle the ball during his presentation at Camp Nou Stadium didn’t help, going viral and igniting even more criticism against the player and the club.

But things have changed quickly in favor of the low-key, hard-working Brazilian.

After five Spanish league games, Paulinho has done enough to mollify the critics.

He has two goals, including a late winner against Getafe last weekend, and showed some of the prowess that led him to success in Brazil and made him an indisputable starter for his national team.

He thrived after coming off the bench in his first four matches, and eventually earned a start on Tuesday against Eibar.

“I’m happy with how things have gone for me,” Paulinho said. “I’m glad that I’m playing well, it helps me get adapted to the club. I’m playing alongside some great players and they have all been supporting me a lot.”

The 29-year-old Paulinho has added versatility to the midfield. He is solid as a defensive midfielder but also excels with attacking runs that often surprise defenders.

That’s how he scored the decisive goal in the 2-1 win against Getafe, making a run between defenders and entering the area to fire a firm shot into the far corner. His second goal was a header in a 6-1 rout of Eibar.

“He will end up being a cheap signing,” Brazil teammate and former Barcelona player Dani Alves said.

Paulinho has a lot more presence in the area than some of the team’s other midfielders, including Ivan Rakitic and even Andres Iniesta.

It was this that made Paulinho a key player in the Corinthians team that won Club World Cup in 2012. His success with the Brazilian club prompted a move in 2013 to Tottenham, where he disappointed in his two seasons before moving to Guangzhou Evergrande.

Paulinho, who signed a four-year contract with Barcelona, said he had regained his confidence while playing in China. And his good performances with Brazil also helped.

“He gives us a lot of versatility. He can help us in many different ways,” Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde said.

Barcelona’s next game is on Saturday at Girona. The Catalan club has won its first five Spanish league games and has a two-point lead over second-place Sevilla.

More AP Spanish soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/LaLiga

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Sargent, Carleton headline U.S. Under-17 World Cup squad

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Josh Sargent has decided his professional future lies in Germany. But first, he’ll be going next month to India with 20 other teammates.

Sargent headlines head coach John Hackworth’s 21-man U.S. Under-17 Men’s National Team squad for the 2017 U-17 World Cup in India. The World Cup takes place from October 6-28.

Joining Sargent are Atlanta United prospects Andrew Carleton, Chris Goslin and Justin Garces as well as New York City FC Homegrown signing James Sands, who recently made his first team debut.

The squad also features a handful of players based abroad, including Philadelphia, Penn. native Carlos Joaquim Dos Santos of Benfica, Ajax’s Sergino Dest and New York native Timothy Weah, who currently plays with Paris Saint-Germain.

The U.S. was drawn in Group A with host India, Colombia and Ghana. The U.S. U-17s begin the tournament in the opening game on October 6 against India, before facing Ghana on October 9 and Colombia on October 12.

In the press release, U.S. Soccer said that all U.S. U-17 games will be broadcast live on FS2 and UNIVERSO.

Here’s a look at the U.S. U-17 World Cup squad.

GOALKEEPERS (3): Alex Budnik (Sockers FC; Arlington Heights, Ill.), Carlos Joaquim Dos Santos (S.L. Benfica; Philadelphia, Penn.), Justin Garces (Atlanta United FC; Miami, Fla.)

DEFENDERS (6): Sergiño Dest (Ajax; Almere-stad, Netherlands), Christopher Gloster (New York Red Bulls; Montclair, N.J.), Jaylin Lindsey (Sporting Kansas City; Charlotte, N.C.), James Sands (New York City FC; Rye, N.Y.), Tyler Shaver (New York City FC; Greenwich, Conn.), Akil Watts (Portland Timbers, Fort Wayne, Ind.)

MIDFIELDERS (6): George Acosta (North Carolina FC; Hollywood, Fla.), Taylor Booth (Real Salt Lake; Eden, Utah), Christopher Durkin (D.C. United; Glen Allen, Va.), Blaine Ferri (Solar Soccer Club; Southlake, Texas), Chris Goslin (Atlanta United FC; Locust Grove, Ga.), Indiana Vassilev (Unattached; Savannah, Ga.)

FORWARDS (6): Ayo Akinola (Toronto FC; Brampton Ont.), Andrew Carleton (Atlanta United FC; Powder Springs, Ga.), Jacobo Reyes (C.F. Monterrey; Houston, Texas), Bryan Reynolds (FC Dallas; Little Elm, Texas), Joshua Sargent (St. Louis Scott Gallagher Missouri; O’Fallon, Mo.), Tim Weah (Paris Saint-Germain F.C., Rosedale, N.Y.)

MLS at Week 29: NYCFC looks to clinch vs. Houston, Atlanta hosts Impact

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Five weeks remain in the MLS regular season, and the playoff picture in both conferences are still quite murky despite time running out ahead of the postseason.

[ MORE: Sporting KC claims its fourth U.S. Open Cup title ]

While the playoff situation in the Western Conference likely won’t be settled until the final week or two, another team in the East can lock up a spot in the postseason this weekend with a victory.

New York City FC vs. Houston Dynamo

New York City FC has struggled a bit as of late with injuries and are also winless in their last two matches, but Patrick Vieira’s side has the opportunity to clinch its place in the East playoffs and potentially draw one step closer to locking up the second seed.

Vieira’s boys have scored just two goals in their last three outings (1-1-1 in that span), but the good news for NYCFC is that David Villa is expected to return to the starting XI on Saturday. MLS’ leading goalscorer has racked up an impressive 19 goals this season, and the Spaniard looks on pace to capture another MLS MVP award in 2017.

They’ll face the Dynamo in a “home” match in Hartford, Connecticut after the game was moved from Yankee Stadium due to a stadium conflict with the Yankees. The fixture still bodes well though for NYCFC, as the Dynamo boast one of the worst road records in MLS this season, at 1-9-5.


Atlanta United vs. Montreal Impact

Tata Martino’s side continues to benefit from playing at their new venue, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and Atlanta will have the opportunity to put on another show on Sunday against the Impact.

Atlanta has leapt all the way up to fourth in the Eastern Conference and could potentially go third this weekend with a victory. Over the team’s last four matches, Atlanta has scored an astounding 17 goals, putting the rest of MLS on watch over the club’s potent attack.

For the Impact, they are in desperate need of a victory after picking up three points against Toronto on Wednesday. Mauro Biello’s side is on the outside looking in with five matches remaining, and the Impact are still three points behind the New York Red Bulls for the final playoff spot in the East.


Real Salt Lake vs. Seattle Sounders

Even if the Claret and Cobalt don’t qualify for the playoffs, Mike Petke has done a really special coaching job this season in Salt Lake City. RSL holds the final playoff spot out West for the time being, and it’s no coincidence that they’ve risen in the table given their form.

Since July 4, RSL is unbeaten in nine of its 11 matches, including six victories during that span. Unfortunately for Petke and Co., they have to play the Sounders this weekend — who haven’t lost June 17 at NYCFC.

The Sounders have drawn four in a row, but their unbeaten streak has extended to an MLS-best 13 matches as of late, putting them within a point of the Western Conference lead.


Here’s a look at the full rundown of the weekend’s action around MLS.

Saturday

New York City FC vs. Houston Dynamo — 3 p.m. ET
New England Revolution vs. Toronto FC — 5 p.m. ET
D.C. United vs. San Jose Earthquakes — 7 p.m. ET
Philadelphia Union vs. Chicago Fire — 7 p.m. ET
Columbus Crew vs. New York Red Bulls — 7:30 p.m. ET
Minnesota United vs. FC Dallas — 8 p.m. ET
Real Salt Lake vs. Seattle Sounders — 9:30 p.m. ET
Vancouver Whitecaps vs. Colorado Rapids — 10 p.m. ET

Sunday

Sporting KC vs. LA Galaxy — 2 p.m. ET
Atlanta United vs. Montreal Impact — 5 p.m. ET
Portland Timbers vs. Orlando City — 8 p.m. ET