Sunderland v Arsenal - Premier League

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?

Bremen beats Wolfsburg to leave Bundesliga relegation zone

BELO HORIZONTE, BRAZIL - AUGUST 10:  Serge Gnabry of Germany reacts during the Men's First Round Football Group C match between Germany and Fiji at Mineirao Stadium on August 10, 2016 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.  (Photo by Pedro Vilela/Getty Images)
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WOLFSBURG, Germany (AP) — Midfielder Serge Gnabry scored twice as Werder Bremen moved away from the Bundesliga’s relegation zone with a 2-1 win at fellow struggler Wolfsburg on Friday.

Bremen and Wolfsburg are level on points and two above Hamburger SV, which is in 18th place and in the relegation zone.

It was a fifth defeat in six games for Wolfsburg coach Valerien Ismael, who won the league and cup double as a player with Bremen in 2004.

Gnabry fired the visitors ahead with a deflected shot in the 10th minute and made it 2-0 eight minutes later, controlling the ball with his chest before prodding home on the volley.

Striker Borja Mayoral, who is on loan from Real Madrid, scored with his chest following a Wolfsburg corner as Wolfsburg hit back moments later.

Midfielder Daniel Didavi struck the post with a free kick as Wolfsburg kept pushing for an equalizer.

Mancini reportedly not interested in Leicester City, De Boer says no

GENOA, ITALY - APRIL 20:  Head Coach of FC Internazionale Roberto Mancini looks during the Serie A match between Genoa CFC and FC Internazionale Milano at Stadio Luigi Ferraris on April 20, 2016 in Genoa, Italy.  (Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)
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Two top candidates to replace Claudio Ranieri at Leicester City have reportedly turned down any interest in the job.

Roberto Mancini, the heavy favorite out of the gates after Ranieri’s dismissal, tweeted his support for Ranieri after the news broke. “I am sorry for my friend Ranieri,” Mancini said. “He will be in the history of LCFC, in the hearts of Leicester fans and all football lovers.”

However, the fellow Italian has rebuffed Leicester’s informal advances towards his services. According to Sky Sports, Leicester sent “intermediaries” to “sound out” Mancini’s feelings towards the position, but came back empty-handed. The report states Mancini was turned off to the club after a short and unsuccessful spell there as a player in 2001.

That leaves a host of other names who have been linked to the job, with no clear favorite. One person mentioned was Dutch legend Frank de Boer, who is unemployed after an unusually short stint in charge of Inter Milan. However, De Boer’s agent went public to say he was not ever in the running.

“There is zero possibility that Frank could go to Leicester,” agent Guido Albers told Italian publication Tuttomercatoweb. “I too heard these rumors, but that’s all they are – rumors. I can affirm without doubt that Frank will not become the Leicester City manager. This will 100 per cent not happen.”

Albers explained that De Boer is only interested in joining a club in the offseason, preferring to enter a project with a blank slate rather than joining midseason with particular goals already clearly laid out. With Leicester, it seems De Boer is turned off by the notion of a relegation battle.

Win over Las Palmas again has La Real on edge of CL spot

GETAFE, SPAIN - DECEMBER 11:  Xavi Prieto of Real Sociedad in action during the La Liga match between Getafe CF and Real Sociedad de Futbol at Coliseum Alfonso Perez stadium on December 11, 2015 in Getafe, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
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All it took was one mistake. Real Sociedad’s Xabi Prieto capitalized, and has La Real once again on the verge of next year’s Champions League.

La Real finished 7th in 2013/14, and 9th in 2015/16, and this year, they’re closer than ever. Preito’s goal on the mistake by Las Palmas goalkeeper Javi Varas gave Real Sociedad the 1-0 road win and has them just a point off a Champions League place.

[ MORE: Antonio Conte pulling from experience to keep Chelsea on top ]

That could be even closer next week, as fourth-placed Atletico Madrid has to welcome Barcelona to the Calderon tomorrow, leaving the door open for La Real to make another move next weekend.

The goal down the stretch is not just to win the games they should, but make the teams above them work. La Real has won seven of their last ten matches, but the three losses came to Real Madrid, Villareal, and Sevilla, all teams fighting at the top of the table. They still have chances down the stretch, with matches against Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Sevilla, and Eibar coming up, with the latter on the docket next weekend.

Conte pulling from prior experience as title race pushes on

WOLVERHAMPTON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 18: Antonio Conte, Manager of Chelsea looks on during The Emirates FA Cup Fifth Round match between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Chelsea at Molineux on February 18, 2017 in Wolverhampton, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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Antonio Conte has recalled some painful memories to push himself and his players forward despite their commanding lead at the top of the Premier League table.

Chelsea sits eight points clear of Manchester City, and has the chance to go even further in front with many of the top teams off this weekend, but that won’t give the Italian any better sleep at night.

In the 1999/2000 season, Conte was nearing the end of his 13-year Juventus tenure. He’d won three league titles already, plus two league cup trophies and a Champions League title with the Serie A giants. With a comfortable nine point lead after 26 matches, the club became complacent. They would lose four of their final eight matches, collapsing on the final day in the pouring rain, allowing Lazio to come roaring back to win the title.

[ MORE: JPW’s Premier League picks for Week 26 ]

“I was captain of the team,” Conte said. “I remember after this game I must go to the European Championships with the national team. I didn’t sleep for six days because it was a shock for me to lose the title.”

Clearly, that still haunts him. “I have experienced this,” Conte continued. “When I continue to repeat that there are 13 games, there are 39 points… there is a long time before we can say we won the title. We must be focused, we must go step by step.”

The Blues host Swansea City at Stamford Bridge on Saturday before a trip to West Ham next weekend. If anyone believes the Chelsea players are complacent holding such a significant lead with 13 matches to go, it’s clear that’s not nearly the case. Anything can happen in three months.