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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.

Liverpool to postpone further Anfield expansion after fan protest

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 10: General view of the new stand during the Premier League match between Liverpool and Leicester City at Anfield on September 10, 2016 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Liverpool owner John Henry says fan protests against ticket prices are causing the club to reassess plans to further redevelop Anfield.

Henry’s Fenway Sports Group apologized to fans earlier this year and reversed planned rises in ticket prices after a walkout during a game.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

But having funded the redevelopment of Liverpool’s main stand over the last year, the next phase of the expansion program might not make economic sense if the club can’t recoup the construction cost. The Anfield Road stand had been next in line for rebuilding at the 54,000-capacity Anfield.

“I don’t know if there is a next step because ticket prices are an issue in England,” Henry said. “That may foreclose further expansion. We’ll have to see.”

Henry was speaking Tuesday at Yankee Stadium where his baseball team, the Boston Red Sox, was playing the New York Yankees.

Liverpool has opened its first full season with Juergen Klopp in charge by winning four of its six Premier League games. The German signed a contract extension in July through 2022.

[ MORE: PL power rankings — Liverpool fall, through no fault of their own ]

“He was a perfect fit for Liverpool, for the culture of the club, for the supporters, for the kind of team that we were trying to build,” Henry said. “We couldn’t have asked for a better fit.”

With no European matches this season, Liverpool is chasing a top-four finish to return to the Champions League.

From the 2018-19 season, entry into the Champions League group stage is easier for English clubs with the Premier League’s fourth-place team no longer having to go through a playoff.

The “market pool” system, which steers UEFA prize money to clubs in England, Germany, and Italy, where the broadcasting deals are bigger, will be changed to reward better historical results in the competition. That should help Liverpool as a five-time European champion but see income drop for Manchester City, which has never won the continent’s top prize.

[ MORE: Tuesday’s Champions League roundup | Wednesday ]

The Champions League changes were agreed by a small number of club officials and UEFA, with the rest of Europe not knowing the outcome until the announcement in August.

Henry said he was aware of other teams in England “obviously not happy with the UEFA deal.”

“The changes weren’t really discussed with us, they were implemented essentially. They unilaterally made changes to the market pool and there should have been I think more discussion. But I can tell you that the (Premier League) owners were not happy … at least among the clubs that I speak with.”

AP Sports Writer Ronald Blum in New York contributed to this report.

Premier League Power Rankings: Red Devils on the rise; City still the standard

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24: Jose Mourinho, Manager of Manchester United reacts  during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Leicester City at Old Trafford on September 24, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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The 2016-17 Premier League season is a month and a half old now, which means we think we know who some of these teams are.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Of course, that’ll change a handful of times between now and the end of the season, but it’s fun to pretend every Thursday before the latest round of shocking results completely upset the applecart.

[ ARCHIVE: All of PST’s Power Rankings ]

With that said, feast your eyes on the latest round of PL power rankings…


TEAM RANKING
source: 20 (17) West Ham: Four straight losses, by a combined score of 14-5, see the Hammers fall three more places to last place in the Power Rankings. They’re currently just two points clear of the bottom in the real-life table. Slaven Bilic needs a win, badly.
source: 19 (19) Sunderland: Six games into the season, one of two sides without a win. Blew a 2-0 lead against Crystal Palace, and lost 3-2, at home. Yet another fight against relegation looks on the cards for the Black Cats.
source: 18 (20) Stoke City: The other winless side. PL-worst four goals scored. The scheduled has gotten easier the last two weeks, but the Potters managed just one point from games against Crystal Palace and West Brom. Up next: Man United. Dun dun dun dunnnnn.
source: 17 (16) Swansea CityJust a win and a draw thus far, but they’ve been in just about every game. Haven’t lost a game by more than two goals this season, unlike the aforementioned cellar dwellers. Don’t be surprised if that changes this weekend, against Liverpool.
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16 (13) MiddlesbroughThree straight losses after winning five points from their first three games. Palace, Everton and Tottenham isn’t an easy stretch, though. Away to West Ham this weekend — just what the doctor ordered?
Hull City logo 15 (14) Hull City: With just one point in their last four games, the early-season honeymoon is over. Fortunately for the Tigers, there have been far worse teams thus far. Unfortunately, they’re all more talented and figure to snap out of it eventually.
source: 14 (18) Bournemouth: Handed Everton their first defeat of Toffees’ season, while keeping the second clean sheet of their own. Unexpected points are the best kind.
burnley fc crest 13 (15) Burnley: Unbeaten in their last three games at home following a 2-0 victory over Watford. Still without a point away from home. Arsenal visit Turf Moor this weekend. They wouldn’t, would they?
source: 12 (8) Leicester City: Beating the side you’d expect them to do, and losing to the big boys with ambitions for the title. Exactly what you’d have expected from them last season. Southampton at home this weekend — it’s right in the coin-flip zone.
source: 11 (11) Chelsea: Totally no-showed the first half against Arsenal, the biggest game of their season so far. A disaster defensively, Antonio Conte has a tall task ahead of him. And, Arsenal just scored again.
source: 10 (6) Watford: The best, so far, of the five sides currently on seven points. That said, after topping Man United at home one week, you’d have expected a better showing away to Burnley the next.
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9 (9) West Brom: Took a 1-0 lead into stoppage time against Stoke, but threw away a pair of points at the Britannia. 20 percent of the way to 40 points for the season, with just 15.7 percent of fixtures played.
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8 (10) Southampton: Sure it was only West Ham, but that’s more like it. Anytime you win 3-0 away in the PL, it’s cause for celebration.
source: 7 (12) Manchester United: With Wayne Rooney dropped to the bench, the sky is the limit for Jose Mourinho’s United. I kid, I kid … kind of. It needed to be done, and now it must persist.
source: 6 (7) Crystal Palace: Three straight wins, including the comeback against Sunderland, has Pardew’s Eagles all the way up to 7th in the league table. A massive test at Everton this week, under the lights on Friday. 
source: 5 (3) Everton: No longer unbeaten, but still a worthy candidate for European qualification. Romelu Lukaku is still only 23 years old (finally?), and he looks the best striker in the PL this season. Sky’s the limit under Ronald Koeman

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4 (5) Tottenham: For the second straight season, PL-best defensive record (three goals conceded). Eeked out a win (and two goals) without Harry Kane. Heung-Min Son has five goals in Spurs’ last three games (all competitions). Harry who?
source: 3 (2) Liverpool: Three straight wins, by a combined score of 11-3. Jurgen Klopp‘s Reds are a terrifying attacking juggernaut, but a clean sheet would be nice. Most goals conceded (9) of any side in the top half, to go with 2nd-most goals scored (16) in the PL.
source: 2 (4) Arsenal: Four straight wins, by a combined score of 12-3. Since the Gunners have started the season so brightly, they’ll fade around Christmas time and limp to a fourth-place finish. That’s how this works, right? They’re beyond brilliant to watch right now, though.
Logo_Manchester_City 1 (1) Man City: Suffered their first blemish under Pep, but still perfect in the league. PL-best 18 goals scored. The season’s first adversity: Kevin De Bruyne is out three weeks. Will the onslaught of goals continue?

Inexperienced Southgate given first shot at vacant England job

BURTON-UPON-TRENT, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 05:  Gareth Southgate the manager of England U21's looks on during a training session at St Georges Park on September 5, 2016 in Burton-upon-Trent, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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MANCHESTER, England (AP) After the acrimonious departure of Sam Allardyce, England’s national soccer team is temporarily in the hands of a man who said just three weeks ago that he wasn’t ready for such a high pressure job.

Yet interim coach Gareth Southgate may end up keeping it given the paucity of top-class English managers around.

The English Football Association’s preference is that an Englishman coaches the national team, but there’s hardly a queue of top-quality candidates.

[ MORE: MLS Playoff Picture gets clearer ]

Alan Pardew, Eddie Howe and Steve Bruce are high on the list of bookmakers’ favorites to be the next England coach, yet none of them have managed a so-called big club in the Premier League or coached a team in the Champions League. Pardew and Howe are in charge of unfashionable Premier League clubs (Crystal Palace and Bournemouth, respectively) and Bruce recently quit as manager of Hull.

Glenn Hoddle, England coach from 1996-99, is also on the bookies’ list and a popular call with ex-professionals even though he hasn’t coached in a decade.

So Southgate, who has been given the reins for England’s next four matches – against Malta, Slovenia, Scotland and Spain – can stake a claim for the role on a full-time basis should he impress as a caretaker coach.

Except this was the same man who said as recently as Sept. 5 that he needed more experience to be England manager, having coached only one club (Middlesbrough, from 2006-09) and been in charge of the England under-21 side since 2013. Southgate pulled out of the race to succeed Roy Hodgson after the European Championship for this very reason, with the job going to Allardyce.

“I’m pretty clear on what I’m comfortable with,” Southgate said then, “but also I know to take that role wasn’t something I think I’ve got the experience for.

[ MORE: Why is Walcott on fire? | Wenger on MiB pod ]

“I think it’s one of the ultimate jobs and you want every skill set possible when you go into it. I think with England, there are one or two other things that I would want to have had experience of before I took that role, to be going into it from a real position of strength. Maybe that happens in the future, maybe it doesn’t?”

Less than a month later, he’s been thrust into what some term “The Impossible Job.”

Clean-cut, well-spoken and with no baggage, the 46-year-old Southgate fits the bill for the FA in terms of image. He would be the last person likely to get caught up in the kind of newspaper sting that led to Allardyce losing his job on Tuesday. He also knows the FA and what the national body wants and expects, having been an employee for three years.

“Gareth Southgate will do a good job,” FA chairman Greg Clarke said. “He knows the people, he knows the team, he knows the setup at St. George’s Park. He’ll take over pretty seamlessly.”

Best known for missing a crucial penalty in England’s shootout loss to Germany in the Euro 1996 semifinals, Southgate was fired after three years at Middlesbrough following its relegation from the Premier League. He has repaired his coaching reputation with England’s under-21s and led the team to a first title in 22 years at the Toulon tournament this year.

[ MORE: Wenger excited at Arsenal’s chances ]

Bruce is the second-favorite with bookmakers, behind Southgate, and has to be a big contender considering he was interviewed by the FA for the job eventually given to Allardyce. The 38-year-old Howe, who guided unfancied Bournemouth into the Premier League and kept it there, is widely regarded as a future England coach but now may be too soon for him.

The problem for English coaches is they are rarely given the chance to prove themselves at the leading Premier League clubs, who prefer foreign managers. The FA has tried to address the lack of top English coaches by building the sprawling National Football Centre in central England in 2012 and using that as a base from where talented young coaches can be brought through. That will take time, though.

For now, the FA has given itself some breathing space and will look to have a new man in place by England’s World Cup qualifier against Lithuania in March.

“It wasn’t the plan we had,” Clarke said, “but we’ve now got to make the new plan work.”

MLS Snapshots: Montreal, DC strengthen playoff bids; TFC draws Orlando (video)

Montreal Impact midfielder Ignacio Piatti, center, is congratulated by teammate Matteo Mancosu (21) following a goal against the San Jose Earthquakes during the first half of a soccer game, Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2016 in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press via AP)
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For most of Wednesday’s trio of Major League Soccer matches we had a paucity of goals, Montreal’s potent attack the only thing assuring it wasn’t zero.

[ MORE: Tata chooses Atlanta United ]

But the final half hours in two of our three matches proved fruitful for the box scores.

Montreal Impact 3-1 San Jose Earthquakes

With Didier Drogba resting, the Impact still managed to strengthen their playoff plans while crushing San Jose’s hopes for the second season. Dominic Odoro buried a rebound early before MVP hopeful Ignacio Piatti made it 2-0 before halftime. Piatti later helped Johan Venegas put the game away late.

Chris Wondolowski scored his 11th goal of the season to pull San Jose within a goal with just under a half-hour to play, his 120th in MLS has him 25 behind Landon Donovan of the LA Galaxy for the all-time record.

The loss leaves San Jose seven points shy of a playoff spot with four matches to play.

Toronto FC 0-0 Orlando City

There were chances, sure: Michael Bradley looped a gorgeous pass that Jonathan Osorio somehow hit over the net from inside the six, and Cyle Larin was denied by a diving Alex Bono at the other end.

Two yellow cards to Tosaint Rickets in a 14-minute span left TFC down a man for the final 20 minutes, but the Reds held on for a point at home. Orlando is now five points shy of the East’s final playoff spot, while Toronto used its game-in-hand to pull ahead of New York Red Bulls and New York City FC for the top spot in the East.

DC United 3-0 Columbus Crew

This one saw the chances evenly distributed but the ball mostly with the visitors. Fortunately for DC’s playoff hopes, Lloyd Sam’s third goal of the season opened up a 1-0 lead in the 71st minute off a slick feed from Luciano Acosta. Lamar Neagle had a classy finish to make it 2-0, then assisted Alvaro Saborio to end this game and Columbus’ playoff hopes.