Jozy Altidore and Steven Fletcher; a partnership Sunderland are relying on

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SUNDERLAND — Following Sunderland’s spirited defeat to Arsenal at the Stadium of Light on Saturday, I asked manager Paolo Di Canio a pretty straightforward question after the game.

And, as is often the case with the fiery Italian manager, a long-winded, passionate and positive response came back at me.

The topic I was interested in was the form of U.S. national team striker Jozy Altidore and his partnership with recently fit-again Steven Fletcher, as the duo were paired up front together for the first-time against the Gunners.

How does Di Canio think they will fare?

“I tell you this because I have to work in a psychological way,” Di Canio said, almost whispering. “Both [Altidore and Flecther] probably are thinking that they’re the main man up front. Same reason… but different reason. One has already been here, scored twelve goals and one came from abroad but scored many goals last year.”

So with a battle to be the top striker heating up across the Black Cats’ forward line, Di Canio has a solution that will make both players better.

(MORE: Paolo Di Canio blasts ref after Altidore goal controversially disallowed)

And he also believes Altidore and Fletcher can become one of the best partnerships in the Premier League.

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Fletcher has been playing the provider for Altidore. Can their partnership take off?

“If they don’t turn their face but the encourage each other, they can start that togetherness,” Di Canio said. “They can be one of the best couple up front because they have quality and intelligence.”

He has a point.

On Saturday during a second half barrage of chances for Sunderland that saw both Altidore and Fletcher scored disallowed goals, the duo looked at each other just before a corner kick came in. ‘Fletch’ and Jozy embraced and then high-fived one another, the makings of a partnership is already visible. The Scottish and American double act do compliment each other very well. 23-year-old Altidore is the hold up man, with his brute strength and raw pace, he can get in behind defenses and cause problems. Sunderland top scorer last season, Fletcher has the creative nature and ingenuity to produce the passes Altidore needs to thrive.

Sunderland’s Italian manager believes that the more the duo work together, the better they will become.

“One is more powerful, one is more clever in some way,” Di Canio said. “They can be two very good players who play together  up front. It’s important that they have to start to share the moment. The fatigue, the sadness, the happiness together. Together. And then we are going to have two very good players. Very important players.”

But can the two international strikers become the best partnership in the Premier League? I have my doubts. Yet it would be great to be proved wrong. Altidore is still searching for his first PL goal in a Sunderland jersey, although he was cruelly denied by a wrong decision on Saturday, and Fletcher is feeling his way back in.

(MORE: Sunderland 1-3 Arsenal; Ramsey double puts Gunners top)

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Can Altidore flourish as the lone target man, as Sunderland struggle to gel?

Fletcher is recovering from a long-term injury and many believed that when he returned, Altidore could find himself playing second-fiddle to the bearded Scotsman. However it seems as if Di Canio wants to play a two man front-line, with Fletcher slightly behind Altidore. But the Italian, looking my way in a calm manner, thinks they need to accept their roles in order for the partnership to pay dividends.

“They have to understand — they combined well two or three times in the second half — that they have to work together,” Di Canio said. “I tell you not because it happened already, but they did not put up a wall [stop the partnership from working]. But they have to decide who is going to work harder off the ball, who is going to play deeper, because we play 4-4-1-1, and one has to play deeper and work harder off the other and near the opponents central midfielder.”

It seems as if the Altidore-Fletcher combo is a work in progress, but Di Canio believes it can flourish and produce the goals Sunderland need to move up the Premier League standings.

Currently the Black Cats are bottom of the table and have yet to win a game from their first four outings. Can Altidore and Fletcher come to the rescue this season?

Spanish police dismantle match-fixing scheme in 3rd, 4th tiers

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MADRID (AP) Spanish police have dismantled a match-fixing scheme involving players and clubs in the country’s lower divisions.

Authorities said more than 20 people have been detained as part of the police operation launched on Monday, including players, although no names were immediately disclosed.

The matches under suspicion were in the third and fourth divisions this season and last season.

The match-fixing scheme reportedly involved Chinese betting sites.

The Spanish league said the operation was based on information collected by its analysts about suspicious activities.

UCL preview: Chelsea host Barcelona; Bayern vs. Besiktas

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  • Chelsea vs. Barcelona, at Stamford Bridge
  • Bayern Munich vs. Besiktas, at Allianz Arena
  • Champions League round of 16 resumes on Tuesday

[ UCL: Spurs fight back to draw Juventus | Liverpool thrash Porto in leg 1 ]

Chelsea, mired in some of their worst form since the disastrous 2015-16 season, welcome a Barcelona side enjoying one of the best six-month runs of results in the famed club’s entire history. The Blues have won just four of their last 12 games across all competitions, while the Blaugrana have lost once in 38 games.

On the plus side, Chelsea enter Tuesday’s colossal clash as winners of their last two games — back-to-back wins for the first time in 2018 — having outscored the likes of West Bromwich Albion and Hull City by a combined 7-0. Star striker Alvaro Morata returned to action against Hull after five weeks out with a back injury, thus Antonio Conte has something of a selection dilemma on his hands with the Spaniard perhaps only partially fit, and Olivier Giroud racking up a goal and three assists in the last two games, his first starts for the club.

Barcelona, meanwhile, have conceded just two goals in their last nine games (all competitions) and even managed to overturn their lone defeat, to Espanyol, and advance to the Copa del Rey semifinals (and eventually final). Despite losing Neymar in the summer, Barca mostly cruised through their Champions League group, only dropping points in draws away to Juventus and Olympiacos. Lionel Messi has, strangely, never scored a goal in his eight career appearances against Chelsea, a record which has been spoken about at length in the build-up to Tuesday — similarly to the goal-less record which plagued him against Juve goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, whom he finally bested back in September.

[ MORE: Man City win big away to Basel | Real Madrid 3-1 PSG ]

In the other round-of-16 first-leg matchup on Tuesday, five-time (soon-to-be six) defending Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich host surprise winners of Group G, Besiktas, ahead of the likes of Monaco, RB Leipzig and Porto.

Since taking over on an interim basis (through the end of the season), Bayern boss Jupp Heynckes has won 21 of 22 games of which he’s been in charge, including four of six games during the group stage en route to finish second behind Paris Saint-Germain, while also racing out to a 19-point lead back home in Germany.

Aguero involved in clash with Wigan fan after FA Cupset

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MANCHESTER, England (AP) Sergio Aguero was involved in a confrontation with a Wigan fan as ugly scenes marred the end of the third-division side’s shock FA Cup win over Manchester City on Monday.

[ MORE: Wigan shock Man City, the world and themselves ]

Fans spilled on to the pitch at DW Stadium as the host celebrated its 1-0 fifth-round win against the runaway English Premier League leader.

Supporters from both clubs were involved in disturbances, while television pictures appeared to show a home supporter and striker Aguero involved in a physical exchange.

Aguero appeared to hit the supporter after the fan said something to the player, and Aguero had to be held back by his City teammates.

[ MORE: Money from Wembley replay “will support Rochdale for 2 or 3 years” ]

Advertising hoardings were also ripped out and thrown as a pitch invasion by Wigan fans got out of hand while the defeated City players were being escorted off the pitch.

Footage also appeared to show objects, including an advertising board, being thrown at police officers by fans in the City end.

Wigan shock themselves: “Not sure how it feels, hasn’t sunk in yet”

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Wigan Athletic didn’t just shock Manchester City with their FA Cup fifth-round slaying of the runaway Premier League leaders; nor did they merely shock the rest of the footballing world; they also shocked themselves into disbelief, according to defender Dan Burn.

[ MORE: Goodbye, quadruple! Wigan bounce 10-man City from FA Cup ]

Speaking following Monday’s triumph over Pep Guardiola‘s quadruple-chasing side at the DW Stadium, Burn admitted he himself didn’t know what to make of the night that would undoubtedly highlight and change his own professional career — quotes from the BBC:

“Not sure how it feels, hasn’t sunk in yet. It was a really tough game. The belief was always there. We’ve got Will Grigg, who does what he keeps doing.

“We pride ourselves on our clean sheets. We had a couple bad results before, so we wanted to prove ourselves, so a clean sheet against the best team in England is great.

“Once we scored, the fans really got behind us, just knew we needed to hang on. It was the longest 10 minutes of my life.”

[ MORE: Money from Wembley replay “will support Rochdale for 2 or 3 years” ]

Manager Paul Cook was able to articulate his happiness and pride only slightly better — “It feels great” — but offered the highest of praises to his players, whom “had to ride [their] luck at times” during the game, and gave everything they had to the cause, because that’s the only way you beat a team like Man City:

“It feels great. It’s such a severe test. They’re such a strong side and move the ball so well. We had to ride our luck at times and the sending off is always a big incident.

“Our lads deserve credit for their work and some of the blocks they made were outstanding, and to beat Man City you have to do that.”