Arsenal v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League

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.

Mourinho pleased with United’s “attitude” after gritty FA Cup win

BLACKBURN, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 19:  Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Manchester United celebrates with a fans as he runs onto the pitch as he scores their second goal during The Emirates FA Cup Fifth Round match between Blackburn Rovers and Manchester United at Ewood Park on February 19, 2017 in Blackburn, England.  (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)
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Danny Graham gave Manchester United some early worries on Sunday at Ewood Park but the Red Devils ultimately responded and booked themselves a place in the FA Cup quarterfinals.

[ MORE: United books place in quarterfinals after Zlatan’s winner ]

Despite the adversity from both the Blackburn Rovers supporters’ roars and the deficit, United fought their way back into the tie after Marcus Rashford equalized on 27 minutes and Zlatan Ibrahimovic completed the comeback with a quarter hour remaining.

[ MORE: Kane hat-trick sends Spurs past Fulham ]

Ibrahimovic entered the match after the hour mark along with Paul Pogba, which gave United the final lift it needed to get past Blackburn.

Jose Mourinho spoke highly of his group following the 2-1 victory, particularly of his squad’s “attitude” after trailing inside the opening 20 minutes.

“I think the attitude of every player was really good,” Mourinho told BT Sport. “With a different attitude, we wouldn’t win. They gave us a really hard match and I am really happy with the players, of course.”

“I have important players on the bench and I can try to make them have an impact, but that doesn’t always work,” he said. “I spoke with Paul and Zlatan and they came with the right attitude.”

While Mourinho was understandably pleased with the result, the Portuguese boss gave Blackburn their credit for the hard-fought bout.

“We deserved to win, but Blackburn also deserve to go to Old Trafford,” he said. “But they can now focus on a very difficult Championship. A second match at Old Trafford would have been a disaster.

“I think the referees had everything under control and were really calm and even the ball boy to my right was really good.”

United will now move on to face Premier League leaders Chelsea in the FA Cup quarterfinals, easily making for the most exciting fixture in the last eight of this season’s competition.

La Liga & Serie A: Messi rescues Barca, Pescara earns second win

BARCELONA, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 19: Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona shoots on goal next to Martin Maximiliano Mantovani of CD Leganes during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and CD Leganes at Camp Nou stadium on February 19, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)
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A roundup of Sunday’s action in Spain and Italy’s top flights…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s La Liga coverage ]

Barcelona 2-1 Leganes

The Blaugrana were just minutes away from another disappointing result but Lionel Messi rescued his side on the brink of time with an opportune penalty kick. The Argentine attacker netted a brace on Sunday, which helped keep Barcelona within a point of league leaders Real Madrid at the top of Spain’s top flight. Messi entered his name on the scoresheet in the fourth minute before Unai Lopez equalized for the visitors in the 71st minute. The loss for Leganes keeps the club just two points above the relegation zone through 23 rounds of play.

Real Sociedad 0-1 Villareal

Samu Castillejo’s stoppage time winner kept Villareal in a top six position after the team struggled to find its way in the attacking third for much of the match. The Yellow Submarine currently sit six points out of fourth place Atletico Madrid, while Sociedad holds a slim, two-point margin over Villareal.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Valencia 2-0 Athletic Bilbao
Celta Vigo 3-0 Osasuna

 


Roma 4-1 Torino

A pair of goals on both sides of halftime helped propel Roma to its 18th win of the season on Sunday, while keeping the Giallorossi within seven points of Juventus at the top of Serie A. Edin Dzeko continues to pay dividends for Luciano Spalletti’s side after scoring early for Roma, while Mohamed Salah, Leandro Paredes and Radja Nainggolan each booked their place on the scoresheet in the rout. Maxi Lopez provided the visitors with a consolation in the 84th minute, as Torino remain in ninth place.

Chievo 1-3 Napoli

Napoli’s potent attack continues to score goals at an astounding rate, and the third place side is still very much alive in the title race. The visitors jumped out to a 3-0 lead before the hour mark before Chievo finally pulled one back by way of Riccardo Meggiorini. Their three goals on Sunday move Napoli to a total of 60 for the season, which is six more than Roma.

Pescara 5-0 Genoa

The last place side picked up its second win of the season on Sunday after scoring three goals inside of the opening 45 minutes. An own goal from Lucas Orban in the fifth minute kickstarted Genoa’s misfortunes, and Pescara continued to pile it on from that point.

Sunday’s Serie A schedule

Bologna 0-1 Inter Milan
Sampdoria 1-1 Cagliari
Udinese 1-2 Sassuolo
AC Milan 2-1 Fiorentina

‘Gabigol’ finally starts to pay off transfer in Inter win

BOLOGNA, ITALY - FEBRUARY 19:  Gabriel Barbosa # 96 of FC Internazionale celebrates after scoring a goal during the Serie A match between Bologna FC and FC Internazionale at Stadio Renato Dall'Ara on February 19, 2017 in Bologna, Italy.  (Photo by Mario Carlini / Iguana Press/Getty Images)
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ROME (AP) Gabriel “Gabigol” Barbosa began repaying his 30 million euro ($32 million) transfer fee by scoring his first goal for Inter Milan in a 1-0 win at Bologna on Sunday.

Seven minutes after coming on, Barbosa tapped in a cross from Danilo D’Ambrosio in the 81st minute to secure fourth-placed Inter its ninth win in 10 Serie A matches.

Barbosa had been hailed as the next great Brazil striker when he signed a five-year deal after transferring from Santos in August. But he struggled in his first five months at Inter.

“I’m happy for him. He had a bit of a tough time at the start. But now he’s starting to click,” Inter coach Stefano Pioli said.

Garbosa was preparing to offer his teammates and coaches a Brazilian dinner to celebrate his goal.

“The dinner is more than welcome,” Pioli said.

With captain Mauro Icardi serving the second game of a two-match ban for dissent, Inter labored for long stretches.

Inter forward Rodrigo Palacio wasted a great chance directly in front of the goal 12 minutes in following a cross from Ivan Perisic.

But substitutions proved decisive and Inter has now scored 13 goals in the last 15 minutes of play this season – the most in Serie A.

“It’s always a good sign for a coach when you have a squad that believes until the end,” Pioli said. “We struggled between the lines and were slow maneuvering but we still worked hard. The team believed until the end and that perseverance paid off.”

CHIEVO VERONA 1, NAPOLI 3

Napoli bounced back from its Champions League loss at Real Madrid with a comfortable away win that extended its unbeaten streak in Serie A to 14 matches.

Lorenzo Insigne opened the scoring with an effort that improved on his goal in Madrid. After collecting the ball at the left side of the area, Insigne dribbled in and launched an angled shot around two defenders that flew inside the far post.

Napoli captain Marek Hamsik slotted another into an empty net and Piotr Zielinski made it 3-0 before the hour mark.

Riccardo Meggiorini pulled one back for Chievo midway through the second half.

Napoli moved into second place, one point ahead of Roma, which was facing Torino later.

OTHER MATCHES:

Attack-minded Zdenek Zeman made an immediate impact on last-placed Pescara, which routed Genoa 5-0 in the Czech coach’s first match back in charge since leading the club to the Serie B title five years ago.

Substitute Gregoire Defrel scored twice as Sassuolo came back from a goal down to beat Udinese 2-1 after Seko Fofana’s spectacular volley had put the hosts ahead.

Also, Mauricio Isla gave Cagliari an early lead before Fabio Quagliarella equalized for Sampdoria midway through the first half in a 1-1 draw.

Andrew Dampf on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/asdampf

Harkes speaks for first time since FC Cincinnati sacking

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 6:  John Harkes (Former captain, US men's national team) joined Budweiser, the global official beer of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil, to celebrate the Final Draw on December 6, 2013 at the Brazilian Ambassador's home in Washington DC.  In partnership with Budweiser, the global official beer of the FIFA World Cup?, Garibaldi created a commemorative work of art representing the 32 countries competing in the tournament next summer and their quest to be crowned the best in the world  (Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images for Budweiser)
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As far as non-MLS news goes in the U.S., Friday’s announcement that John Harkes would no longer be managing FC Cincinnati came as a great shock to the American soccer community.

[ MORE: David Villa shown red card via MLS’ video replay ]

The former U.S. Men’s National Team player was sacked on Friday without any true warning, however, reports have suggested that a power struggle between Harkes and president/general manager Jeff Berding could have spurred the decision.

Assistant coach Alan Koch has been tabbed as the replacement for Harkes at FC Cincinnati after joining the club from the Vancouver Whitecaps II side.

Harkes had this to say following Friday’s shocking development:

“Although my time here was cut short prematurely, I am extremely proud of this team, the work I put in and all the accomplishments of the players and coaching staff of the inaugural season in the USL. To build something from scratch was special. From the time I signed my contract, a full eight months prior to the first match, the process of building a team, creating a relationship with the fans and the city, drawing on the passion of the city and its soccer community, and creating a major league soccer environment in a major league city was completely gratifying.

I thank God for the life he has given me and all the blessings in it, especially my family and friends. Their unconditional sacrifice, love and support has been incredible. I would like to thank  Carl Lindner III and the entire Lindner family and the owners for believing in me and giving me this opportunity.  I want to recognize the inaugural group of players for taking a leap of faith and congratulate each one of you for creating a special atmosphere for the fans. To the players we worked so hard to bring in this year, I’m disappointed that I didn’t have a chance to work with you but perhaps our paths will cross again. To the soldiers in the front office who worked tirelessly, thank you. And finally, to the incredible fans and supporter groups of FC Cincinnati – you are some of the most passionate and educated supporters that I have been around as a player and coach! Keep supporting and growing the game we all love.

In the words of the great coach John Wooden,
“Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming. Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”

In Cincinnati’s inaugural season in USL, Harkes helped lead the Eastern Conference side to the playoffs after boasting a 16-6-8 record during the regular season.