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Quick Six: Ramsey’s rise, Di Canio’s plight, and the storylines from the Premier League weekend

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(Highlights of Arsenal’s 3-1 victory Saturday at Sunderland.)

1. ÖZIL DEBUTS, RISE OF RAMSEY CONTINUES FOR ARSENAL …

The international break did little to quell anticipation of Mesut Özil’s debut, with his recovery from a stomach virus unable to prevent the German Real Madrid refugee from taking his bow at the Stadium of Light. Despite some controversy, Arsenal took a 3-1 win from Sunderland, making it nine points from three games since their shock loss to Aston Villa on the league’s opening weekend. Despite all the deficiencies we’ve been harping on since that’s first week stunner, Arsenal are top of the table after four rounds.

But while Özil’s debut made him the headliner, teammates had as much (if not more) to do with the result. Olivier Giroud has been the league’s best striker, on Saturday scoring his fourth early, go-ahead goal of the season. Mathieu Flamini had a stand out day as the team’s deep midfielder, going 10 for 10 on long balls while completing 87 of 98 passes. Jack Wilshere even bounced back from his mid-week trough in Ukraine to calm England’s insecurities.

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Through four matches, Aaron Ramsey (left) has two goals, one assist, and has completed 87.7 percent of his passes. Combined with his Champions League performances against Fenerbahçe, the 22-year-old has been Arsenal’s best player this season. (Photo: Getty Images)

But again, the story was Aaron Ramsey. With two second half goals, the young Welshman continues his quick ascent from criticized prospect to breakout star. While Giroud may be the league’s best striker, Ramsey has been his team’s best player overall, his second half brace finally giving him a scoresheet presence to match his on-field influence.

And Arsenal wasn’t even at full strength, though coming off an international break, few teams are. Santi Cazorla wasn’t in Arsene Wenger’s 18. Mikel Arteta and Lukas Podolski are still injured. Per Mertesacker was absent at the back. When they return, we can really start assessing how far the Gunners have come in the fight to keep fourth from Spurs.

[MORE: Sunderland 1-3 Arsenal – Gunners rise continues (Video).]

[MORE: Arsenal “lucky” in win at Sunderland.]

[MORE: Gunners sweating on Giroud’s knee injury.]

2. BUT WHAT TO THINK ABOUT PAOLO DI CANIO’S ACT?

It was a gambit by a desperate team, one that always had a downside. In bringing in Paolo Di Canio to wake up a squad left comatose by Martin O’Neill, Ellis Short always risked the controversial boss would be unable to keep Sunderland in the Premier League. The downside if they stayed up? You’d be stuck with Paolo Di Canio.

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After Saturday’s game, Paolo Di Canio confessed he suggested referee Martin Atkinson to send him to the stands. After the loss, his team sits 20th in the Premier League with one point through four rounds. (Photo: Reuters.)

The former West Ham star is an authoritarian, a quality that’s more than a lazy assumption based on his fascist beliefs. He overworks his players, lacks tact when criticizing them publicly, and fosters an environment where their professionalism (or, their view of what a professional is) is not trusted. It’s an approach that can work at lower levels with inexperienced players who have relatively little recourse or power. At the top-level, with a squad full of veteran players who’ve played for more proven managers, Di Canio’s will breed frustration and disrespect.

It’s the type of thing that’s solved by winning, something Di Canio did at Swindon Town. And having survived a relegation battle last year, the manager entered this season with some credibility. But after Saturday’s loss, Sunderland are in last place, with one point through four rounds. Intentionally getting himself sent in Saturday’s second half off will only heighten concerns the combustible boss isn’t up to it.

(Highlights of the 0-0 draw between Stoke City and Manchester City Saturday at the Britannia Stadium.)

3. WEEK ONE SO FAR GONE FOR MANCHESTER CITY, ASTON VILLA …

Here’s a shocker: We were too quick to sing Aston Villa’s praises. Just as the dissection of Arsenal after their week one loss looks hasty, foolish, and short-sighted, the lionizing of Villa now seems premature. After a home loss to Newcastle, a defeat which would be disappointing no matter the team’s start, Villa is 1-3-0 and sit 16th. Only one team (Sunderland) have allowed more goals. Against Newcastle, they managed only one shot on target (Magpies: eight).

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Aston Villa’s Brad Guzan allowed two more goals this weekend, bringing his (and the team’s) total to six conceded in four games. Only last place Sunderland (eight) has allowed more goals this season. (Photo: Getty Images.)

Manchester City are another team we overrated after week one, though perhaps with more justification. The Sky Blues have finished first and second over the last two years and made huge improvements this offseason, fomenting a justifiable bias. Most people thought they’d be better, with a 4-0 win over Newcastle on the weekend’s opening Monday only confirming that belief.

Since, the Citizens have strong together three disappointing performances, and while they’ve yet to replicate their loss at Cardiff City, a scuffling win over Hull City and a draw at Stoke City don’t exactly scream ‘ready to contend for a title.’ While City’s struggles haven’t kept them from holding down fourth place (one spot above rival Manchester United), the team doesn’t look ready to start their Champions League campaign.

Like Aston Villa, week one is so far away for City, as are the assumptions about their quality. The larger body of work shows significant tweaks are needed.

(Highlights of Newcastle’s 2-1, Saturday victory over Aston Villa at Villa Park.)

4. WHILE NEWCASTLE HAS DARED TO PUSH ON

Since losing at Eastlands to start the season, Newcastle haven’t lost. They hadn’t exactly wowed, though, playing poorly in a draw with West Ham before a 1-0 win over a bad Fulham, but with this weekend’s win at Villa, Alan Pardew’s team has seven points from three games. Sitting eighth in the league, Pardew’s seen the early storm fueled by the Yohan Cabaye controversy and Joe Kinnear’s empty bag from Deadline Day pass without coming ashore.

And on Saturday, Newcastle has their first legitimately good performance of the season. They outplayed Villa on the road, taking advantage of their hosts’ defensive issues while limiting them to one shot on goal.

We’ll need to see more performances like these to know Newcastle’s ready to push on from last year’s struggles, but their year’s early challenges have already been cast aside. Newcastle is in better shape than we previously thought.

(Highlights of Everton’s 1-0 victory over Chelsea Saturday at Goodison Park.)

5. EVERTON BREAKTHROUGH CAN’T WIN OVER MOURINHO

Everton scored. They broke through in the win column. They recorded the type of victory the Toffees didn’t see enough under David Moyes. Toppling Chelsea, they’ve emboldened faith the Roberto Martínez era will allow them to push on, not merely consolidate.

José Mourinho doesn’t care. Scoreboard be damned, he thought his team was the better side on Saturday, despite finishing on the wrong end of a 1-0 result:

“We dominated the whole game and had 21 shots, we risked everything we could,” the Chelsea manager said after Steven Naismith’s goal secured a 1-0 home victory. “In that sense I think it’s fair to say we deserved to win the game. But in another way, the team had 21 shots and some of them easy shots too, but we didn’t score.

“We made a mistake in the last minute of the first half where we lost the ball in a strange situation and we conceded a goal. Maybe because of that, we deserved to lose, because if you don’t score you can’t win …

“We didn’t deserve to lose because we were the best team and the team that tried harder to win the game.”

Aside from the last sentence, they’re actually relatively benign comments. Perhaps the only thing to add is shots on goal, which Chelsea led six to five. That hardly hints at a huge difference in the teams, particularly given Everton were defending a lead for half the game.

But there’s no reason for concern here. Everton will compete for a spot in Europe, leaving a 1-0 loss on the road in a coin-flip game a perfectly justifiable result. Perhaps on another day, Chelsea converts an early chance and wins this game, but as the tone of Mourinho’s comments notes, there’s no reason to dwell, even if it was the team’s first league loss their manager’s return.

(Highlights of Tottenham’s 2-0 victory over Norwich City Saturday at White Hart Lane.)

6. SPURS: NOW FEATURING OPEN PLAY GOALS

In the abstract, a 2-0 win at home against Norwich City is par for the course from Spurs. This is the type of result a Champions League-aspirant should be posting, and with a two-goal lead by the 50th minute, it was done in the kind of controlling style you’d expect from one of the league’s most-talented squads.

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Christian Erikson (right) made his Premier League debut on Saturday, recording an assist in 71 minutes as Spurs went on to a 2-0 win over visiting Norwich City. (Photo: Getty Images.)

In other words, Spurs are now playing like they should, something you couldn’t say after three rounds of the season left them without an open play goal. That all changed in the 28th minute, with Gylfi Sigurdsson giving Spurs a lead he doubled four minutes after halftime.

Perhaps we could see some literary irony in a hold-over scoring two goals after Spurs’ prodigious summer spending (and selling), but most Tottenham supporters will look at Christan Eriksen’s performance and note the impact the new signings will have. The Danish international, bought from Ajax in the last week of the transfer window, went 71 minutes and posted an assist playing as André Villas-Boas’s number 10.

It’s still going to take time for Spurs to gel, but every sign from Saturday hints things are turning it around. They outshot Norwich 23 to five, put seven on goal to the Caneries’ one, and held 69 percent of the ball. And being able to bring the likes of Sandro, Erik Lamela, and Lewis Holtby off the bench, Tottenham showed they have even more power in reserve.

LIVE – Europa League group stage finale: Saints, Man United in crucial deciders

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 03:  Virgil van Dijk of Southampton celebrates after scoring his team's first goal during the UEFA Europa League Group K match between Southampton FC and FC Internazionale Milano at St Mary's Stadium on November 3, 2016 in Southampton, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
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This is it, don’t get scared now.

[ LIVE: Europa League scores ]

Premier League duo Southampton and Manchester United both go into their final group game of the UEFA Europa League needing to avoid defeat if their going to make the knockout rounds.

For United, their task is simple. Jose Mourinho’s men need just a point from their trip to Ukraine to play Zorya Luhansk to advance to the Round of 32, while a win could see them finish top depending on the result of the Feyenoord vs. Fenerbache game.

As for Southampton, it’s a little bit more complicated.

A win for Claude Puel‘s side at home against Hapoel Be’er Sheva at a sold out St Mary’s would see them safely through to the knockout rounds of the Europa League for the first time in club history. A 0-0 draw would also do the trick but a score draw (1-1, 2-2, 3-3 etc) would send the reigning Israeli champions through instead as they’d have the advantage in head-to-head away goals after the duo drew 0-0 in Israel back in October. Making the knockout rounds of this competition would be a huge deal for Southampton and would keep their cup momentum going after they reached the semifinals of the EFL Cup last week.

[ MORE: Europa League standings ]   

Elsewhere there is plenty on the line across the 12 groups, with the standings page in the link above very handy to work out the permutations as the top two teams from each group (first place team is seeded, the second unseeded) advance to the Round of 32 and will be joined by the eight teams who finished third in their respective groups in the UEFA Champions League group stage.

Below is the full schedule for Thursday’s game which kick off in three separate time slots, while you can follow live commentary and stats on the games by clicking on the link above.


Full Europa League schedule, Thursday Dec. 8

11 a.m. ET
Konyarspor vs. Gent
Qarabag vs. Fiorentina
Osmanlispor vs. Zurich
Braga vs. Shakhtar Donetsk
Villarreal vs. Steaua Bucuresti
PAOK vs. Liberece

1 p.m. ET
Vikrotia Plzen vs. Austria Wien
Apoel Nicosia vs. Olympiacos
Sassuolo vs. Genk
Anderlecht vs. Saint-Etienne
Zorya Luhansk vs. Manchester United
Rapid Wien vs. Athletic Bilbao
Young Boys vs. Astana
AZ Alkmaar vs. Zenit Saint Petersburg
Feyenoord vs. Fenerbahce
Maccabi Tel-Aviv vs. Dundalk
Mainz vs. Gabala
Astra Giurgiu vs. Roma

3:05 p.m. ET
Panathinaikos vs. Celta Vigo
Standard Liege vs. Ajax
Inter Milan vs. Sparta Prague
Southampton vs. Hapoel Be’er Sheva
RB Salzburg vs. Schalke
Nice vs. Krasnodar

Bob Bradley will remain in charge, says Swansea chairman

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With reports circulating in the British press that American coach Bob Bradley could be fired after just seven games in charge of Swansea City, their chairman has publicly backed the former U.S. national team head coach.

[ MORE: Ranking the PL superstars ]

Bradley, 58, has just one win in his opening seven games in charge of the Swans who currently sit bottom of the Premier League table on nine points, three points off safety.

That poor form, coupled with many other issues at the club, has reportedly prompted new American owners Steve Kaplan and Jason Levien (they took over as majority owners in July) to conduct an extensive review of every department at the club.

However, chairman Huw Jenkins has moved to quell rumors about Bradley becoming the second Swansea manager to be fired through the opening 14 games of the season.

“I don’t know where that story came from, but it’s natural in football that everyone wants and needs results. But the last thing we need at this moment of time is a continual change in manager. We need stability first and foremost,” Jenkins told talkSPORT. “Take a team like Fulham, they changed managers three times in the season they tried to stave off relegation and we’re in a similar position now.”

“Perhaps in the summer I could have made a better decision – from pre-season onwards I don’t think things were right, it was too flat at the club. That had a knock-on effect and obviously it’s taken us a while to work through it. But we’re with Bob now to try and turn that corner – that’s what we’re working towards. We look at the January window as a chance to reinforce things. There are players not hitting the form levels they have done in the past and we have to find out why that is and get that right as well.”

So, it seems that sense is prevailing after all.

Jenkins took the blame for Swansea’s poor start to the season in media interviews on Wednesday and now the long-time chairman is backing his manager.

The south Wales businessman was part of a consortium which saved Swansea in 2004 and then led them on an incredible journey up from the fourth-tier to the Premier League, plus winning the League Cup and getting to the group stages of the Europa League. He and other directors have come in for some serious stick from Swansea’s fans for selling their stake to the new American owners and Jenkins is believed to have made just over $10 million from selling 8.2 percent of his 13.2 percent stake in the club.

On the pitch, it’s difficult to blame Bradley for the current situation Swansea finds itself in.

After some woeful moves in the transfer window last summer (Jenkins has admitted they weren’t great with Ashley Williams and Andre Ayew allowed to leave for big profits but their replacements just haven’t been good enough) the American coach needs at least one transfer window to bring in better players and the Swans are only three points off safety with a pivotal stretch of six games to come in the Premier League.

Home games against Sunderland, West Ham and Bournemouth, plus trips to West Brom, Middlesbrough and Crystal Palace will see the Swans go up against direct relegation rivals between now and Jan. 3.

The next four weeks will be huge not only for Swansea’s future but also for Bradley and ahead of their crunch home game against Sunderland on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET online via NBCSports.com) the American coach is eager to cut out defensive mistakes as the Swans have now conceded 19 goals in his seven games in charge.

“When you are a manager it (the pressure) goes with the territory,” Bradley said. “It is work as usual, knowing from the beginning when I got here that it would be a big challenge, and it is. When you see a scoreline like that it is easy to jump on us. We are not going to survive if we keep on conceding goals like this.”

Man United’s Europa League clash in doubt over frozen pitch

Manchester United's coach Jose Mourinho, centre, attends a training session with his team at Chernomorets stadium in Odessa, Ukraine, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016, ahead of Thursday's Europa League group A soccer match against FC Zorya Luhansk. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
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Manchester United and Jose Mourinho may not play their UEFA Europa League game against Zorya Luhansk on Thursday.

[ MORE: Ozil, Sanchez leaving Arsenal? ]

Amid freezing conditions in the Ukrainian city of Odessa (Zorya cannot play their games at home due to the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine) the pitch underwent an inspection on Thursday and with covers and heaters on the playing surface overnight, there is hope the game should go ahead.

However, Jose Mourinho has already talked about the state of the pitch as not being ideal, while the likes of Daley Blind and Paul Pogba looked far from impressed when they went out for a training session on Wednesday in freezing conditions.

Remember, United only needs a point from the game against Zorya to qualify for the Europa League Round of 32 and Mourinho has selected a strong 19-man squad for the trip. 

A statement from Zorya said the following on Thursday morning, as they remain hopeful of the game going ahead.

“Everything depends on the weather. The pitch is not brilliant at the moment. We are expecting temperatures of two or three degrees and everything should be okay.”

Below was the scene in Odessa yesterday for United’s training session, via Simon Peach of the Press Association.


Yep, the pitch doesn’t look great.

Barcelona invites Chapecoense to play friendly

CHAPECO, BRAZIL - OCTOBER 22: Supporters of Chapecoense cheer their team during the match between Chapecoense and Sao Paulo for the Brazilian Series A 2014 at Arena Conda on October 22, 2014 in Chapeco, Brazil. (Photo by Alan Pedro/Getty Images)
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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says it has extended an invitation to host a friendly match against the Brazilian soccer club involved in last week’s plane crash.

Chapecoense was on its way to the final of the Copa Sudamericana, one of South America’s most prestigious club tournaments, when its flight went down in Colombia, killing all but six of the 77 players, officials and journalists on board.

The match would be played in August. The friendly, called the Joan Gamper trophy, is used as Barcelona’s traditional curtain raiser for the new season.

Barcelona says it sent a formal invitation to Chapecoense on Thursday.

Barcelona says it wants to “pay homage to the 71 people who died in the accident as well as their families.”