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Premier League Breakdown with Robbie Mustoe: ‘Spurs are a special squad’

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Ever find yourself thinking, I need more Robbie Mustoe, Robbie Earle and Kyle Martino in my life?

Me too. Whether it’s tactics, results or analysis, few men in football have a better beat on the pulse of the Premier League than these guys.

In our new feature series “Premier League Breakdown,” I’ll sit-down with one of the NBC Sports’ Premier League analysts each week to dig deep into the most entertaining and competitive league in world football.

This week it’s Middlesbrough’s finest, Robbie Mustoe. He and I grabbed some tea and shot through all the topical issues of the week. David Moyes’ decisions in the Manchester Derby? Check. The impact of Luis Suarez’ return to Anfield? Done. The Juan Mata conundrum? We’ve got you covered.

Let’s get stuck in.

Q: Did David Moyes get his tactics wrong in Manchester United’s 4-1 loss to Manchester City last weekend?

A: No, I don’t think so. You could argue that Shinji Kagawa should have seen the pitch but given the loss of Robin Van Persie, I thought Moyes played the best team for the game.

Things were going wrong and he brought on Tom Cleverley and changed the formation to a 4-3-3. City’s domination was so strong and they were so good in the wide areas that it made sense to make the switch. I like the fact that Moyes tried to change it up. That’s what I want to see from a coach – if things are going wrong, do something.

Q: What was your major takeaway from the derby?

A: Sunday’s match was just confirmation for me that when City are playing at their best, against United playing at their best, City are better. Even if Van Persie were healthy to play, it wouldn’t have changed things. He literally wouldn’t have gotten a kick, he maybe would’ve touched the ball five times in that first half.

Think about it, the ball was constantly in United’s defensive end and City were all over them. City are the real deal.

Q: So right now, is Manchester City the favorite to win the Premier League title?

A: Absolutely. The issue for me with City – and it was the same as last year – is that they need to show the same desire, passion and application on the road that they show at home. If they do this, they have a great chance at winning the title. But if they have bad away days as they did against Cardiff City and Stoke City earlier this season, they won’t.

Q: How can David Moyes improve this squad?

A: If you look at United’s three big matches in the league thus far – Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City – they’ve only taken a single point. So in next weekend’s match, David Moyes has to make changes.

Ashley Young was non-existent against City, and combining this with his dive the week prior, he is a change that Moyes needs to make. For me, Nani and Kagawa have got to be knocking on that door saying, “Hang on a minute, it’s about time I was in the first XI.”

I think it’s time Moyes answered that call.

Q: How do you feel Moyes has coped so far?

A: There’s certainly pressure on Moyes following in the footsteps of Sir Alex Ferguson. There is just a feeling – “Is this too much for me?”

In Sunday’s post-match interview, Moyes looked like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. And the most important thing for him right now is to maintain the belief of the players and the fans. Because if they start to look at each other and think, “This is going to be tough for us,” there could be problems.

The key is to stay on the fringe players. They’re the dangerous ones. If they start talking about Moyes not being the solution as manager, a bad feeling can creep into that place. But Moyes has been around a long time so if sees this happening, I think he’ll nip it straight away.

Q: Let’s change gears a bit – what impact will we see in the return of Luis Suarez and how good can Liverpool be this season? 

A: I’m excited to see Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge reunited. Last year we saw Sturridge play with Suarez tucked in a bit and they combined very well with each other. They looked for each other. I’d be surprised if either of them played anywhere but the center of the park. I see them as a pairing and a very dangerous combination.

When you factor in Philippe Coutinho (when he’s fit) and players like Victor Moses and Raheem Sterling in front of Lucas and Steven Gerrard, that’s a pretty good offense. But is Liverpool capable of challenging for the title? No. There is no way Liverpool is going to win the league this year.

They’re missing quality. Depth. Their fullbacks are injured and this hurts them. They can absolutely compete for the Top 4 but that’s only if everything goes swimmingly for Liverpool. But I’d be shocked if two teams out of Arsenal, Spurs, City, United and Chelsea dropped out of the Top 4 for Liverpool to get in.

And it sounds kind of cruel, but they’re still making progression. They’ve made great acquisitions with Victor Moses and Mamadou Sakho, so the progression is there. But there’s no reason Brendan Rodgers would’ve thought coming into the season that they would be competing for the title.

source: Reuters
If Juan Mata doesn’t feature regularly for Chelsea, being sold this January is a real possibility.

Q: Does Juan Mata need to change his style of play to appease Jose Mourinho?

A: Yes, he does. I can’t imagine another manager in the world having him do so but Mourinho has a checklist in what he wants in a player and it seems Mata must comply. It’s so odd to me because I’ve followed Mourinho closely at Chelsea, Inter Milan and Real Madrid and everywhere he’s been he’s had players that have been lazy. Wesley Sneijder, for example, played in the hole at Inter and never did anything defensively. So I feel for Mata.

Q: If Mata doesn’t see regular playing time by January what happens? 

A: If he hasn’t played much by January then he could be out. I could absolutely see Mourinho telling the Chelsea board that Mata is not his kind of guy, they could make a lot of money on him and they should sell.

Q: It’s hard to see Arsenal playing anyone else at striker besides Olivier Giroud and maybe Theo Walcott. But they have a ton of talented midfielders. If Giroud were to go down, might Arsenal be able to pull off the same 4-6-0 formation that we’ve seen Vincente del Bosque use with Spain?

A: If something went wrong up top with Giroud, I suppose they could use a False 9. I think before you see that Arsene Wenger would use Lukas Podolski or Theo Walcott and have him just play on the shoulder of the last defender.

A False 9 literally goes anywhere so in that sense he plays more like a 10. For a False 9 on Arsenal you could look at someone like Mesut Ozil who could float around and cause trouble. It’s certainly a move that their style of play could support. But ultimately, when I think of a False 9 it’s a player like Lionel Messi and suffice to say, Arsenal just don’t have a player like that right now.

source: AP
Christian Eriksen scores against Tromso in last week’s Europa League match.

Q: Talk about Christian Eriksen and what he brings to Spurs.

A: Perfect player. Perfect player to bring into the squad right at the end of the transfer window.

At the end of the summer Tottenham had a lot of physical power with Sandro, Etieene Capoue, Moussa Dembele and Paulinho. But they were just lacking that little playmaker and Eriksen is the man to do it. He looks like he’s totally at home at Spurs. He’s the perfect link between the defense and Roberto Soldado.

I’m excited about Spurs. You’ve just lost your best player in Gareth Bale, managed the entire process immaculately and strengthened the team with new signings. They’ve got it going on all over the park and they’re going to score plenty of goals.

I just think Spurs are pretty special squad and something good could be happening at White Hart Lane.

Q: Okay, let’s finish up with a bit of fun. I’ll give a one-liner and you provide single word answers. 

Christian Benteke’s injury leaves Aston Villa . . . BARREN.

Serge Gnabry’s Premier League debut was . . . OK.

Aaron Ramsey’s current form is . . . SHOCKING.

Leighton Baines’ two free-kicks into opposite corners was . . . SPECIAL.

Romelu Lukaku’s playing after getting knocked out was . . . BRAVE.

Geoff Cameron’s first Premier League goal was . . . UNEXPECTED.

China plans for 50,000 soccer academies by 2025

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 23:  China's President Xi Jinping addresses an audience of dignitaries including the British Prime Minister David Cameron (not seen) at Manchester airport on October 23, 2015 in Manchester, England. The President of the People's Republic of China, Mr Xi Jinping and his wife, Madame Peng Liyuan, are paying a State Visit to the United Kingdom as guests of The Queen.  They will stay at Buckingham Palace and undertake engagements in London and Manchester. The last state visit paid by a Chinese President to the UK was Hu Jintao in 2005.  (Photo by Oli Scarff - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
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BEIJING (AP) China plans to have 50,000 football academies by 2025 as part of an ambitious blueprint to grow into a soccer superpower.

The announcement, made by China’s football association Vice President Wang Dengfeng, more than doubles the earlier target of 20,000 academies by 2020.

Wang was quoted by state media on Wednesday as saying that each school would be able to train 1,000 young players on average, fulfilling the goal laid out in a plan announced last April of having 50 million competent players.

“This is a solid way to select football talent for our future reserves. Improving Chinese football is no longer just a dream,” Wang was quoted as saying on the website of the ruling Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily.

China’s men have only qualified for one World Cup and President Xi Jinping has made boosting China’s football fortunes a national priority. Plans call for again qualifying for the sport’s marquee event, hosting it and winning the title by 2050.

To that end, China last year signed Brazil’s World Cup-winning manager Marcello Lippi to take over the national men’s team. The government has also ordered the creation of 70,000 football fields to fill gaps in its youth program.

Teams in China’s professional leagues, meanwhile, have recruited international stars such as Alex Teixeira and Jackson Martinez on highly paid contracts, raising concerns that they are neglecting home-grown talent.

In response, China’s football association last month said it plans a series of measures in response to “irrational” spending by clubs. It also reduced the number of foreigners who can play per club at any given time from four to three and required that each team’s starting list must include at least two Chinese players under age 23.

UEL: Saint-Etienne hope Beric comes to the rescue vs. Man United

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 16:  Paul Pogba of Manchester United and Kevin Monnet-Paquet of Saint-Etienne in action during the UEFA Europa  League Round of 32 first leg match between Manchester United and AS Saint-Etienne at Old Trafford on February 16, 2017 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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PARIS (AP) While Zlatan Ibrahimovic was scoring a hat trick in Manchester United’s win over Saint-Etienne in the Europa League last week, Robert Beric’s 11-minute substitute appearance at Old Trafford was barely noticed.

Still reeling from a hamstring injury, Beric’s cameo had little impact as Ibrahimovic ended Saint-Etienne’s 10-game unbeaten run in Europe by 3-0.

[ MORE: Man City win in epic comeback vs. Monaco | Atleti blitz Bayer ]

Beric’s condition has improved since the heavy loss, and he featured in a French league game in Montpellier last weekend. The 1976 European Cup runner-up is hoping that’s enough for Beric to help it overturn their deficit against United on Wednesday in the last-32 return leg.

Beric, a versatile center-forward capable of playing with his back to goal and creating, joined Saint-Etienne last season. He’d scored 27 goals in 34 matches in his final season with Rapid Vienna, but was unable to replicate the feat in the French league because his progression was abruptly stopped by a serious right knee injury.

He is expected to start at Geoffroy Guichard Stadium after his teammates managed to force United goalkeeper Sergio Romero into only a single save from 14 shots last week.

“Beric is so skillful and astute in front of goal that we all want to give him a starting nod,” former Saint-Etienne striker Herve Revelli, now a club ambassador, told L’Equipe.

[ MORE: Rooney left out of Man United’s Europa League squad (again) ]

United was carved open at times, but the French club was made to pay for its blatant lack of efficiency. Revelli insisted Beric can make a difference.

“He is likely to put our chances into the back of the net,” Revelli said.

With an estimated budget of close to 70 million euros, Saint-Etienne simply can’t afford the services of a world-class striker. When he joined the 10-time French champion for a reported six million euros, Beric became the third most expensive player signed by the club.

A humble player and a man of few words, Beric is somewhat the opposite of the self-infatuated Ibrahimovic.

Unlike Ibrahimovic, who once said he will be “God of Manchester,” Beric rarely speaks about himself and his rare comments on social networks are limited to praise of his teammates and Saint-Etienne fans.

Beric, who scored the last of his three league goals this season back in September, is not yet fully fit and should not be able to last the whole match. But Revelli is counting on his instinct for goals.

[ MORE: Guardiola “so happy” to see Man City “achieve another step” ]

“With him in a finisher role, I firmly believe in our chances,” said Revelli, Saint-Etienne’s all-time best scorer.

Saint-Etienne needs to find a way to stop Ibrahimovic, but history does not favor the home side.

During his time in France with Paris Saint-Gernain, Ibrahimovic was the scourge of Saint-Etienne, scoring 14 goals in 13 games in all competitions. He now has 17, including three hat tricks.

“It’s difficult to neutralize him. There is a possibility that we will set up an anti-Ibra plan,” Saint-Etienne coach Chirstophe Galtier said. “I don’t know what’s inside Zlatan, but for sure he likes to play against us. It’s not easy to score a hat trick in a European Cup game.”

Champions League Wednesday: Leicester’s last stand; Porto-Juve

SEVILLE, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 21:  Claudio Ranieri, manager of Leicester City looks on during a press conference ahead of the UEFA Champions League round-of-16 first leg against Sevilla FC at Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan on February 21, 2017 in Seville, Spain.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Previewing Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League round-of-16 action…

[ MORE: Man City win in epic comeback vs. Monaco | Atleti blitz Bayer ]

Leicester City vs. Sevilla

There’s no two ways about it: Leicester’s season — and perhaps their status as a Premier League club — is quickly spiraling out of control. The Foxes, just nine months after winning the PL title, sit 17th in the league table, one point clear of relegation, with 13 games still to play. Chances are, they won’t be back in the Champions League anytime soon, making Wednesday’s round-of-16 first-leg clash away to Sevilla all the more a monumental moment in the club’s history.

Where has hasn’t it gone wrong for Claudio Ranieri‘s side this season? If you’re of the mind that one player — N'Golo Kante in Leicester’s case — doesn’t make a team himself, then we’ll have to go one step further in diagnosing the stunning regression seen at the King Power Stadium this season: Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, who combined to score 41 goals in the PL last season, have managed all of eight together in 2016-17. It’s the loss of Kante, though, that has left the defense forever exposed (43 goals conceded in 25 PL games, after conceding 36 in 38 all of last season), and the goal-getters forever feeding on scraps (24 goals scored, compared to 68 last season).

[ MORE: Rooney left out of Man United’s Europa League squad (again) ]


Porto vs. Juventusfrom the AP

Juventus defender Leonardo Bonucci will be left in the stands for Wednesday’s Champions League match against Porto as punishment for his outburst aimed at coach Massimiliano Allegri.

Allegri announced the move on Tuesday at the pre-match news conference, saying he had agreed it with club officials as “a fair decision, out of respect for the squad, the fans and the club.”

Bonucci became embroiled in a heated argument over substitutions with Allegri after a 4-1 win over Palermo on Friday.

Allegri also will punish himself for his angry reaction to Bonucci, announcing a donation to charity.

U.S. U-20s awaken in 2nd half vs. Haiti, keep WCQ hopes alive

USMNT U-20 team (Photo credit: U.S. Soccer)
Photo credit: U.S. Soccer
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With many thanks to the hat trick scored by Brooks Lennon (Real Salt Lake, on loan from Liverpool), the U.S. U-20 national team’s hopes of qualifying for the 2017 U-20 World Cup remain intact.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage | MLS ]

After dropping all three points in their opening group-stage game against Panama on Saturday, Tab Ramos’ young Yanks faced elimination from CONCACAF’s U-20 Championship in Costa Rica with a defeat to Haiti on Tuesday. After 15 minutes, the Americans found themselves a goal down, the prospect of winning zero points from their first two games a terrifying possibility.

Then, Lennon struck from the penalty spot. A draw wouldn’t be enough, realistically, though, as they’d still trail Haiti by three points ahead of the final group game, against Saint Kitts and Nevis, with the top two sides from each team advancing to the classification stage.

The score remained 1-1 until halftime, after which point the Yanks roared to life with three goals in a seven-minute span. Luca de la Torre (Fulham) scored the first of the bunch, an empty-net finish after a failed punch by the goalkeeper. Lennon quickly followed suit with two more to make it 4-1.

With three points from two games and a goal differential that now sits at +2, the Yanks are second in Group B, just ahead of Haiti on goal differential (+1). Panama sit atop the group with six points and a +5 goal differential. A U.S. victory over Saint Kitts and Nevis, to go with a Haitian upset of Panama, would see the Americans finish top of the group go into Group E in the classification stage, which would see them accompanied by a pair of second-place sides. The first-place side in each classification group qualifies for May’s tournament in South Korea.