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).

source: Getty Images
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.

Surprises, disappointments halfway through Champions League group stage

AP Photo/Dave Thompson
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Clubs have met each of their group mates once, giving us an imperfect but workable sample size for the 2017-18 UEFA Champions League group stage.

Five groups have a side boasting a 3-0 record, while four clubs have yet to seize a single point.

[ CHAMPS LEAGUE: Tuesday | Weds. ]

Some of the strugglers, like 0-1-2 Maribor and 0-1-2 APOEL, are not surprises. And it’s no shock to see Manchester United at perfect 3-0 given its draw.

Others? Well, that’s not the case.

Status down 

While Manchester United is a perfect 3-0 in Group A, raise your hand if you figured Benfica would have just one goal and zero points through three matches. Benfica’s also played two of its three home ties, making the knockout rounds a dream.

Atletico Madrid has found the UEFA Champions League Final in two of the last four seasons, but finds itself with work to do moving forward. Atleti’s Wednesday draw at Qarabag leaves it three points behind Roma and five back of leaders Chelsea. Diego Simeone’s men still host Roma and Qarabag, so points are out there.

Serie A play has been gorgeous for Napoli, who has failed to bring that momentum to Group F. It’s worth noting that a missed penalty by red-hot Dries Mertens could’ve earned the Neapolitans a point at Man City on Tuesday, but as it stands Napoli is three points back of Shakhtar and could be six back before the Ukrainians visit on Nov. 21.

It turns out you can’t sell everyone and expect the youth to come through shining. Monaco is at the bottom of a very winnable group, having lost at home to Porto and Besiktas. Still just three points behind RB Leipzig, they’ll need to win at Monaco and/or Besiktas to have any hope of the knockout rounds.

Borussia Dortmund got a rough deal from officials when it visited Wembley Stadium, but losses to Spurs and Real Madrid can happen in a group stage. Tuesday’s draw at APOEL Nicosia, however, is close to a backbreaker.

(Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images).

Status up

Spurs draw at Real Madrid may have been aided by a huge performance from Hugo Lloris, but goalkeepers — as you know — are actual components of a team. This is in fact a group of death, but the North Londoners are holding a scythe. If Mauricio Pochettino can lead a home win over Real Madrid at a raucous Wembley on All Saints Day, well, look out!

Cenk Tosun has gone from sleepy transfer target to the tip of many gossipers’ tongues, as Besiktas is a perfect 3-0 including wins at Monaco and Porto. Anderson Talisca and… wait for it… Ryan Babel (!!) have also starred for the Turkish powers who will almost certainly see the knockout rounds.

[ MORE: JPW sits down with Ederson ]

Pep Guardiola‘s done this Champions League dance, you know, and Manchester City has weathered all storms. That includes conceded two penalties — one was saved by Ederson — as a down performance versus Napoli still ended with a home win. If City can win at the Stadio San Paolo on Nov. 1, Pep can sleepwalk into the final two matches (though that’s not his style).

Roma has a classy draw at Chelsea and has gathered five points including four away from home. Mimic that mark and i Lupi will be a challenge in the knockout rounds.

Neymar was best pals with Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez last season at Barcelona, but having a less-than-perfect relationship with Edinson Cavani hasn’t hurt a thing in Paris. Paris Saint-Germain is for real, scoring 12 times and yet to concede in wins over Bayern Munich, Celtic, and Anderlecht.

Grey area

Liverpool leads its group and advancing is really the only goal, but there’s something off-putting about the home draw against Sevilla. The 1-1 draw at Spartak Moscow looks better now that the Russians hammered Sevilla 5-1, but a return visit from Maribor next should help the Reds buttress their stock.

Be careful how finely you analyze a club as accomplished as two-time reigning champs Real Madrid, but Cristiano Ronaldo’s men don’t look so hot. Still well-positioned to move on, keep a close eye on how they look at Wembley in a few weeks.

Holding pattern

Chelsea‘s 3-3 draw versus Roma today was its first real stumble of the UCL, but there shouldn’t be too many alarm bells considering their injury problems and Roma’s desperation. Consider their status even, especially given their clever win at Atletico Madrid.

Jose Mourinho is doing a fine job with Manchester United, but it’s really hard to praise the club too much for doing what’s expected in a glorified Europa League group. Clearly Sir Alex Ferguson was involved in the icing some of the draw balls again…

UCL wrap: Barcelona, PSG roll; Dzeko scores stunner (video)

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There were a few more zeroes on the board in Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League action, but that doesn’t mean the day failed to entertain by any stretch of the imagination.

[ MORE: Landon Donovan, USSF prez? ]

Chelsea and Roma staged a slugfest at Stamford Bridge, while PSG and Barcelona saw its stars shining, and Jose Mourinho orchestrated another away defensive masterclass for Manchester United.

Chelsea 3-3 RomaRECAP

There’s a lot to say about this one. Chelsea goes up 2-0 through solid goals from David Luiz and Eden Hazard, but finds itself down and needs another Hazard goal to rescue a point.

But this goal, one of two from Edin Dzeko, is why we watch this wonderful sport. Aleksandar Kolarov also scored and had an assist as ex-Man City men came to play at Stamford Bridge.

Benfica 0-1 Manchester UnitedRECAP

The perfect road match, more or less, though United scored its lone goal thanks to goalkeeper error. Marcus Rashford took the free kick that was carried across the goal line, and United completed more than 500 passes to double Benfica’s output at the Estadio da Luz.

Barcelona 3-1 Olympiacos

It’s not much of a surprise to see Barca triumph at home over Greek opposition. An own goal joined Lucas Digne and this historic Lionel Messi marker to build a 3-0 lead at the Camp Nou.

Anderlecht 0-4 Paris Saint-Germain

In case you think PSG cannot make a run this year, consider its list of goal scorers on Wednesday: Kylian Mbappe, Angel Di Maria, Neymar, and Edinson Cavani.

Elsewhere
Qarabag 0-0 Atletico Madrid
Juventus 2-1 Sporting Lisbon
CSKA Moscow 0-2 Basel
Bayern Munich 3-0 Celtic

Mourinho: Tactics involved targeting young Benfica backstop

AP Photo/Armando Franca
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Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho knew that promising Benfica backstop Mile Svilar would be facing some big nerves.

The 18-year-old was making his UEFA Champions League debut, and Mourinho instructed his Red Devils to challenge the backstop at every turn.

[ RECAP: Benfica 0-1 Man Utd ]

That paid off when Svilar carried Marcus Rashford‘s free kick into the goal, the lone marker of a 1-0 loss that keeps United atop Group A and Benfica three points behind second- and third place.

“I knew how good the goalkeeper was, I told the players that. We had a little bit of a strategy, especially on set-pieces to make him uncomfortable. We put men around him on corners so he cannot come out. He risks a lot, but only top keepers do that. He was unlucky for the goal,” Mourinho said.

Svilar looked dejected after the game, apologizing to fans at the Estadio da Luz and getting consolation from a fellow Belgian in Manchester United’s Romelu Lukaku.

Nemanja Matic laid out United’s strategy a bit more, from the BBC:

“The manager said to us to try and shoot and get some crosses towards their goalkeeper because he is young and playing in his first game. This is football and I know he is a great goalkeeper and I wish him well for the future.

“We had control, some difficulties in the first 30 minuets but then we controlled the pitch. We used our experience. We could not find the second goal but did not make any mistakes at the back.”

Rashford limped out of the game, and Mourinho says he initially thought it was cramps. Instead, it’s a problem with his left knee. Simon Peach of the Press Association quotes Mourinho as hoping the injury is not bad.

United completed more than 500 passes, doubling Benfica’s production. Some have been critical of Mourinho’s penchant to play it safe, and he winked at them after the match in calling his tactics “a crime.”

“We were in control, David De Gea did not have one save to make. I never felt we could concede a goal and were solid defensively. Sometime I feel being good defensively is a crime, but that is a way of getting results.”

Chelsea 3-3 Roma – Thrills at the Bridge

AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth
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  • Luiz, Hazard put Chelsea up 2-0
  • Kolarov, Dzeko brace flip lead
  • Hazard nabs equalizer
  • U.S. U-20 mid Scott on bench for Chelsea

Eden Hazard scored twice as Chelsea overcame the sacrifice of a 2-0 lead and the Blues drew AS Roma 3-3 at Stamford Bridge in UEFA Champions League action on Wednesday.

David Luiz also scored for Chelsea. Ex-Man City men Edin Dzeko and Aleksandar Kolarov starred for Roma, with Dzeko scoring twice and Kolarov adding a goal and an assist.

Chelsea has seven points to lead Group C, two more than Roma and five ahead of third-placed Atletico Madrid. The sides will meet again in Rome on Halloween.

[ MORE: Landon Donovan, USSF prez? ]

Luiz started the scoring with a delightful strike. Call it a second bite at the proverbial apple if you must, but then admit he sunk his teeth into it.

Eden Hazard made a darting run to double Chelsea’s lead, but Kolarov pulled Roma within one with a deflected strike past Thibaut Courtois.

Diego Perotti curled a shot that hardly troubled Courtois in the 63rd minute, the Chelsea keeper just leaving his feet collect it.

Dzeko and Chelsea’s Andreas Christensen (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

Then the former Man City striker struck again, seeing a long diagonal ball over his shoulder and whizzing a perfect left-footed volley through the flailing arms of Courtois.

Dzeko then made a late move before a Kolarov free kick to lose his mark and nod home a go-ahead goal.

It wasn’t over, as Hazard found his way to space and a cross from Pedro.

The Belgian headed his chance beyond a diving Alisson, and it was 3-3 with 15 minutes to play.

American-English midfielder Kyle Scott did not make his Chelsea bow. The 19-year-old has represented England at the U-16 level and the U.S. at the U-18 and U-20 levels.