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?

Luis Enrique leaves with feeling of mission accomplished

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MADRID (AP) Luis Enrique leaves Barcelona with no regrets and the feeling of mission accomplished.

[ MORE: Arsenal edges Chelsea to earn FA Cup crown ]

The coach capped his three-year stint with the Catalan club by winning the Copa del Rey title with a 3-1 win over Alaves on Saturday.

Now it’s time to enjoy some much-needed time off after three “intense” seasons, and let the club move on under fresh leadership.

“There is no sadness at all, just happiness,” Luis Enrique said. “I’m the one who decided to stop, and I think that it was a wonderful decision for me, for the players and for the team as well. The intensity of this profession demands maximum dedication every single day and there is a natural wear out.”

He said players always need new challenges and will benefit from a change in leadership, and the club will certainly keep winning despite his departure.

After missing out on the league this season, the Copa del Rey was Barcelona’s second title of the campaign to go along with the Spanish Super Cup, but Luis Enrique has won nearly everything since replacing Gerard Martino in 2014. The former midfielder led Barcelona to the treble of the Spanish league, Copa del Rey and Champions League in 2015. He also managed the league-Copa double in 2016, and also won the European Super Cup and the Club World Cup in 2015.

He said he was “proud” to have helped Barcelona fans celebrate so many accomplishments during his time at the helm.

“If someone had told me when I arrived that I would have the opportunity to help my team win nine titles out of 13 that we played, I’d say that these would be good numbers,” he said. “It would have been nice to have won La Liga and contended for the Champions League title this season, but it just wasn’t meant to be. I believe that the fans recognized the effort and the sacrifice of all the players throughout the season. I have enjoyed the opportunity to make them happy.”

Luis Enrique said he was also lucky to have had the chance to coach a player like Lionel Messi.

“He is extraordinary, extraterrestrial,” Luis Enrique said about the Argentina forward, who scored the team’s first goal on Saturday. “I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy Messi at his best, performing at the highest level. He is the very best, without a doubt.”

Neymar and Paco Alcacer also scored at the Vicente Calderon Stadium to help Barcelona win its third straight Copa del Rey title, and 29th all-time.

Luis Enrique celebrated with his seven-year-old daughter by his side, waving his winner’s trophy and singing the club’s anthem in front of the Barcelona fans who traveled to Madrid.

Barcelona is expected to announce this week that its new coach will be Ernesto Valverde, who left Athletic Bilbao a few days ago.

Luis Enrique’s future remains up in the air.

“I don’t know what I’ll be doing, really. I’m open to every possibility, including changing sports,” the 47-year-old Luis Enrique said, with a smile on his face. “I do know that I’m very competitive and it’s been like this since I was born. Right now I’m looking forward to the opportunity of enjoying my friends and my family.”

Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni

Report: Reus could miss six months after sustaining knee damage

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Marco Reus missed much of the 2016/17 season with injuries, and the Borussia Dortmund attacker had that unfortunate spell continue on Saturday.

[ MORE: USMNT tops Group F and more from the U-20 World Cup ]

The 27-year-old exited the club’s DFB Pokal final win against Eintracht Frankfurt at halftime after suffering a knee injury.

According to German outlet Bild, Reus will miss at least six months as he rehabs and prepares to make a comeback.

Despite the bad news for Dortmund, Thomas Tuchel’s men captured the title behind goals from Ousmane Dembélé and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

Day 9: USMNT tops Group F and more from the U20 World Cup

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Five teams booked their place in the knockout phase at the FIFA Under-20 World Cup on Sunday, including Tab Ramos and the U.S. after the Americans picked up a valuable point to finish atop Group F.

[ MORE: Allardyce steps down at Palace ]

USMNT U-20s 1-1 Saudi Arabia

An unbeaten record in group play has Ramos and Co. moving on to the Round of 16, where the U.S. will meet New Zealand. Brooks Lennon inked his name on the scoresheet for the first time at this month’s World Cup just prior to halftime, before Abdulelah Alamri equalized with almost a quarter hour left to play.

Senegal 0-0 Ecuador

A draw was all Senegal needed to ensure it would continue its run at the World Cup, while Ecuador fell short of a final 16 bid after only managing two draws during Group F play.

New Zealand 0-2 France

With nine goals for and none conceded during Group E play, France remains one of the heavy hitters at the conclusion of the group phase. Les Bleus received a strong contribution from Bastia winger Allan Saint-Maximin, who netted twice in the first half.

Honduras 2-0 Vietnam

Honduras scored twice in the final 14 minutes-plus added time but neither nation reaches the Round of 16 with Sunday’s result.

Daly collapses during match, treated for heat illness

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HOUSTON (AP) Houston Dash forward Rachel Daly collapsed during the final minute of a National Women’s Soccer League match against the Seattle Reign as temperatures climbed into the 90s.

The 25-year-old Daly was stretchered off the field and taken to the hospital, where the team said she was being treated for heat illness.

The temperature at BBVA Compass Stadium was 92 degrees at the 3 p.m. kickoff. The Reign won 2-0.

[ MORE: Perisic talking with Man Utd? ]

The NWSL issued a statement that said the league had worked with the Dash before the season to schedule any afternoon games early in the year to help avoid heat issues. The teams took a hydration break late in the match.

“We will immediately review these measures to prevent this situation from occurring in the future,” the statement said.

Reign coach Laura Harvey posted to Twitter: “Proud of the team today. Some of the hottest conditions I’ve seen. Road games are tough but that was crazy.”