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.

EFL Cup Rewind: Southampton, Newcastle knocked out by Championship sides

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Last season, Southampton made it to the EFL Cup final. This year, it’s a different story.

The Saints were bounced by Wolverhampton Wanderers, 2-0 at home on Wednesday in the second round of the cup. Joining Southampton of Premier League sides going home early was Newcastle, which lost 3-2 after extra time at home against Nottingham Forest.

Four other Premier League sides did advance to the third round, as Stoke City, Huddersfield Town, West Ham United and Burnley all won their fixtures.

Here’s a look at the rest of Wednesday’s EFL Cup action:

Blackburn 0-2 Burnley

Cheltenham 0-2 West Ham

Huddersfield 2-1 Rotherham

Newcastle 2-3 Nottingham Forest

Southampton 0-2 Wolverhampton

Stoke City 4-0 Rochdale

Breaking down who each Premier League team could face in the UCL Group Stage

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The UEFA Champions League group stage lineup is complete, with five Premier League clubs making the list.

On Wednesday, Liverpool joined Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester City and Manchester United in the group stage after beating Hoffenheim, 6-3 on aggregate in the playoff qualification round.

Thursday’s Champions League draw (2 p.m. ET) will place clubs into groups of four, where they’ll play three matches at home and away.

Here’s a look at the four coefficient pots and who each Premier League club could face:

(more…)

Follow Live – Texas Derby, Cascadia Cup headline busy night of MLS action

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Welcome to MLS Rivalry Week.

The surging Houston Dynamo could move to first place in the Western Conference with a win over rivals FC Dallas while the current first-place side, the Seattle Sounders travel north and across the border to face Vancouver Whitecaps FC.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

The Dynamo have made an impressive turnaround under coach Wilmer Cabrera and he’ll have the trio of Ricardo Clark, Alberth Elis and star forward Erick Torres available to face Dallas after missing the Dynamo’s match at Vancouver last weekend, which ended 2-1 in favor of the Whitecaps.

FC Dallas are in its worst form of the season, winless in its last four games, but the team will be extra motivated to beat its rivals.

El Capitan is on the line after draws between FC Dallas and the Dynamo in two matches earlier this season.

Meanwhile up in Vancouver, the Whitecaps host a Sounders squad that pulled out a last-gasp victory last weekend over Minnesota United. While the team is in great form on the road recently (two wins and two draws), the top story heading into the game is the unexpected absence of Joevin Jones, who left the Sounders for his home in Trinidad and Tobago ahead of the upcoming international break.

[ FOLLOW: Live MLS scores ]

On the other side, Fredy Montero faces his former club and carries an interesting record into Wednesday’s match. Of his 35 MLS goals, 11 have been scored against Cascadia Cup competition.

Here’s a look at Wednesday’s action:

Full schedule

Columbus Crew vs. LA Galaxy – 7:30 p.m. ET

D.C. United vs. Atlanta United – 7:30 p.m.ET

FC Dallas vs. Houston Dynamo – 8 p.m. ET

Toronto FC vs. Philadelphia Union – 8 p.m. ET

Real Salt Lake vs. San Jose Earthquakes – 10 p.m. ET

Vancouver Whitecaps vs. Seattle Sounders – 10 p.m. ET

Portland Timbers vs. Colorado Rapids – 10:30 p.m. ET

UCL Playoff Wrap: Liverpool, Sporting CP, CSKA advance to group stage

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It was another memorable European night for Liverpool in front of the Kop at Anfield.

Lifted by three goals in the opening 21 minutes, the Reds cruised to a 4-2 win over Hoffenheim 1899 in the second leg of the UEFA Champions League playoff stage Wednesday evening. With the win, Liverpool returns to the Champions League group stage for the first time since the 2014-2015 season.

[ MORE: Champions League scores ]

Sadio Mane set up Emre Can twice and both Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino chipped in with goals of their own to lead Liverpool to victory. After Can’s double and Salah’s goal gave Liverpool a three-goal lead, Hoffenheim’s Julian Nagelsmann brought Mark Uth off the bench onto the field and he promptly scored in the 28th minute to draw within two.

Firmino again put Liverpool ahead by three goals with a goal into an open net in the 63rd minute. Hoffenheim recorded a consolation goal in the 79th minute through Sandro Wagner but Liverpool was resolute and held on for victory.

Liverpool, and the rest of the winning clubs, will learn their fates for the group stage on Thursday.

Here’s a look at the rest of the Champions League playoff scores:

Slavia Prague 0-0 APOEL (APOEL advances 2-0 on aggregate)

FC Copenhagen 2-1 Qarabag FK (Qarabag advances on away goals, 2-2 on aggregate)

FCSB (Steaua București) 1-5 Sporting CP (Sporting CP advances 5-1 on aggregate)

CSKA Moscow 2-0 BSC Young Boys (CSKA advances on aggregate, 3-0)