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.

source: Getty Images
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)

source: Getty Images
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?

Report: Ola Kamara wanted by mid-table La Liga outfit

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Columbus Crew star Ola Kamara is ready to leave the side, but he may not be moving inside of Major League Soccer.

[ MORE: FA Cup replay roundup ]

Metro.Us reporter Kristian Dyer says the Norwegian star is subject to a bid from a mid-table La Liga club. He’d been linked with a trade to Colorado as well.

Kamara, 28, came to MLS from Austria Wien and has since scored 34 goals in two seasons, a year after bagging 21 goals on loan for Molde in Norway.

Seventh place and 15th are separated by just four points in Spain’s top flight. Leganes and Espanyol are having the hardest time scoring goals, in terms of mildly educated speculation.

Transfer rumor roundup: Fred to Man City; Aubameyang wanted

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Could this January transfer window rival last season’s in terms of activity?

[ MORE: FA Cup replay roundup ]

Last season saw Crystal Palace save its season and Hull City nearly do the same, Morgan Schneiderlin head to Everton, Leicester find a decent N'Golo Kante replacement, and much, much more.

This season has been less active, though Ross Barkley has headed to Chelsea while former club Everton nabbed Cenk Tosun and Liverpool added Virgil Van Dijk.

The BBC has news involving Napoli which could affect two Premier League clubs. The Neapolitans apparently want Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, who wants to be an every week starter, to be a prime part of their push to end Juventus’ Serie A stranglehold.

That would unseat Pepe Reina, who’s been long linked with a reunion with former boss Pepe Reina at Newcastle United. Napoli currently has Luigi Sepe as a No. 2 to Reina, though UEFA Europa League fixtures mean it’s no guarantee Mignolet’s arrival would allow Reina to leave town.

Sky Sports says Manchester City would like to see Fred as a long-term replacement for Fernandinho. Fred went 90 minutes for Shakhtar Donetsk in a pair of UEFA Champions League contests against City, including the 2-1 home win over the Premier League leaders’ B-squad on Dec. 6. The 24-year-old has two goals and two assists in league play, and could cost more than $25 million.

Don Balon proffers news that could unsettle Arsenal fans, as Real Madrid is apparently entering the bidding for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Florentino Perez would like an upgrade to Karim Benzema for his struggling La Liga super powers, and goodness knows Real will tempt Borussia Dortmund’s bank account.

One liners:

— The BBC also says Besiktas want Islam Slimani to join the club from Leicester City.

— Ola Kamara’s move from Columbus to another MLS team may be hijacked by La Liga.

Mourinho reportedly close to Man Utd contract extension

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Jose Mourinho is scheduling an extended stay at Manchester United.

[ MORE: Donovan unveiled by Leon ]

The 54-year-old has a contract through the end of next season, the dreaded third at a club for Mourinho, but reports say United is keen to keep him around through 2021.

Mourinho has not tasted a fourth season with a club despite winning league titles at Porto, Chelsea, Inter Milan, and Real Madrid.

The 2019-20 season at Old Trafford would be Mourinho’s fourth. According to the BBC:

Talks have progressed well and it is now just a matter of time before Mourinho commits to remain at Old Trafford beyond the expiry of his present deal in 2019.

Somehow, this feels it should be deemed another loss for Antonio Conte.

Barkley ineligible to make Chelsea debut in FA Cup replay

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Ross Barkley was expected — and himself expected — to make his Chelsea debut on Wednesday, when the Blues host Championship side Norwich City in a third-round FA Cup replay at Stamford Bridge.

Alas, the 24-year-old English midfielder has been ruled ineligible due to a lesser-known and -applied rules surrounding transfers and player registration.

[ MORE: Tuesday’s 3rd-round replay roundup | Wednesday preview ]

Barkley completed his move from Everton to Chelsea, for $20 million, on Jan. 5, the day before Chelsea and Norwich drew 0-0 at Carrow Road. In order to be eligible for Wednesday’s replay, Barkley is required to have completed his transfer prior to the noon cut-off the day prior to the original tie. While the time of official approval is unknown, Barkley’s move wasn’t announced by the club until after 5 p.m. in the UK.

As such, Chelsea will attempt to set up a behind-closed-doors friendly this week, in order to provide Barkley a bit of game action as he builds fitness and sharpness ahead of a potential debut against Brighton & Hove Albion on Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com). Barkley hasn’t seen a single minute of first-team action this season after suffering a serious hamstring injury in the summer.