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.

USMNT eyeing the table as it kicks off training camp

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COMMERCE CITY, Colo. (AP) Goalkeeper Tim Howard‘s uniform was filled with grass stains after the first day of training camp.

And this was considered a light workout.

“Just getting everybody back together, getting a sweat,” Howard said Monday after the U.S. squad went through a roughly 60-minute workout. “Day by day, we’re just trying to add on to the pile, put some concepts in and get some understanding between players.”

What awaits the squad in resumption of the final round of World Cup qualifying is certainly a gantlet. They have a game against Trinidad and Tobago on June 8 in Commerce City and then at Mexico three days later.

[ MORE: Wenger would pay Sanchez, Ozil ]

There’s little margin for error, with the U.S. currently in fourth place in the six-team standings. They have three home and three away matches remaining. The top three teams qualify, with the fourth-place squad going to a playoff against Asia’s No. 5 nation.

“We need to keep climbing that table. We feel like this is a good opportunity to do it,” said Howard, now with the Colorado Rapids and who will feel right at home with the Trinidad game on his turf at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. “One game, that’s as far as you can look. You can’t look to next week or the week after or two months from now.”

For now, Howard will be coach Bruce Arena’s goalkeeper over Brad Guzan, Ethan Horvath and Nick Rimando, who all were invited to camp. But it’s an ongoing evaluation.

“We have good goalkeepers here. That’s the least of my worries, to be honest,” Arena said.

Given the short amount of time between games, Arena fully plans on using more players than usual. One particular competition to watch will be at right back between Timmy Chandler and DeAndre Yedlin.

“I have a close eye on everything,” Arena said. “We have a bunch of good players here. … We’re watching everybody and thinking about how we can best utilize everyone.”

[ MORE: Kroenke, Wenger meet; Decision looms ]

The roster features a solid blend of youth and experience. Leading the youngsters is Christian Pulisic, the 18-year-old Borussia Dortmund midfielder who last weekend became the youngest American to win a club medal in Europe.

On the veteran side are players such as Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, DaMarcus Beasley, Michael Bradley and Howard, all of whom have more than 30 World Cup qualifying appearances.

“We’re past the experimentation phase. These are all guys who the manager believes in whole-heartedly,” Howard said. “They’re not here for anything other than to play minutes, play important minutes.”

Arena couldn’t agree more.

“This is a nice group we have here. Hopefully, we can find the right balance in the team, putting them in the right position to complement them both individually and collectively,” Arena said. “If we can accomplish that, there’s no reason to believe we can’t be successful in these two games.”

Joining the camp in Colorado are a few players who weren’t with the squad in March. Guzan, Chandler, Fabian Johnson, Bobby Wood and Yedlin are all on the field. Guzan didn’t participate because his wife was expecting their second child, while the others were dealing with injuries, illnesses and yellow-card suspension.

Now, it’s a matter of getting their timing down – and accustomed to the altitude.

“There’s no reason to make it an excuse,” midfielder Paul Arriola said. “Just doing the best we can to acclimate to it.”

Arena’s squad will get things rolling in a friendly against Venezuela in Sandy, Utah, on Saturday.

“That’s a good game for us,” Arena said. “It gives us a little bit of exercise at lower altitude, which isn’t perfect for what we need to do to get ready here and Mexico City, but it’s a start. Think it will be good to give a chance to 16 players and build from there – get us ready for Trinidad and Mexico.”

Stam after Reading playoff final loss: “Tough to take”

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Jaap Stam has won silverware in three different leagues for five different teams, and has a Champions League title from his time at Manchester United.

He’s used to winning, and that includes his first stop as a full-time manager. And that makes Reading’s loss in Monday’s playoff final sting a bit more.

[ MORE: Wenger would pay Sanchez, Ozil ]

Reading lost in penalty kicks and it’s not like the Royals were thoroughly outclassed by Huddersfield Town. But it still burns. From Sky Sports:

“You don’t want to play football to be in the grey areas, you want to get the max out of your career, win trophies and play at the highest level.

“It’s tough to take, but it has to be difficult. It’s not good to lose a game like this, you need to feel it and experience it and then take that forward if you get into the same moment again. The good players do that.”

Reading loses a trio of loan players — Lewis Grabban, Reece Oxford, and Jordon Mutch — as well as American midfielder Danny Williams. It won’t be easy for Reading to get back into the playoffs without an injection of money, but Stam’s first rodeo as a manager was a good ride that came up just short.

Wenger, Kroenke meet; Board to learn decision Tues.

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Wenger watch is entering its final hours.

The BBC is reporting that Arsenal owner Stan Kroenke met with longtime manager Arsene Wenger on Monday to discuss the Frenchman’s future, and that the decision was going to be made together.

[ MORE: Wenger would pay Sanchez, Ozil ]

It seems almost certain that Wenger is going to come back to the Emirates Stadium. From the BBC:

The outcome is unclear but the decision rests solely with Wenger and Kroenke and will be relayed to directors at a Tuesday board meeting.

Fresh terms were agreed in principle some months ago, but nothing is signed.

There have been questions about whether Wenger would accept a sporting director being placed above him, and if Kroenke believes the repercussions of keeping the boss would negatively impact the business.

Barcelona to keep goalkeeper Ter Stegen until 2022

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says it has reached a deal to extend the contract of goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen until June 2022.

The club said the new agreement, which has a buyout clause of 180 million euros ($201 million), will be signed on Tuesday.

[ MORE: Yaya to stay at Man City ]

Ter Stegen has been with the club since 2014, helping it win nine titles in three seasons.

The German goalkeeper has played 93 matches with Barcelona, conceding 90 goals in 71 wins, 10 draws and 12 losses.

Barcelona has already renewed the contracts of Javier Mascherano, Luis Suarez, Neymar, Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic. It is still working on new deals for Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi.