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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.

FIFA candidate Prince Ali claims voting pledge from Liberia

Jordan's Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, flanked by school-age soccer players in uniforms, speaks before about 300 guests during an event at a Roman amphitheater in Amman, Jordan, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015. The prince is running for FIFA president, saying Wednesday he will fight "deep-seated corruption and political deal-making" and make soccer's scandal-scarred governing body more transparent. (AP Photo/Raad Adayleh)
AP Photo/Raad Adayleh
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AMMAN, Jordan (AP) FIFA presidential candidate Prince Ali of Jordan says the Liberia soccer federation has pledged its vote to him.

Liberia follows Egypt as the second African voter claimed by Prince Ali since the Confederation of African Football’s leadership endorsed Asian confederation president Sheikh Salman of Bahrain on Friday.

The CAF executive committee urged the 54 African voters among FIFA’s 209-strong membership to back the sheikh in the Feb. 26 election.

Prince Ali’s campaign team on Saturday published a three-page letter of endorsement signed by Liberia federation president Musa Bility.

Bility writes that Prince Ali “represents real change” while other candidates are “not even prepared to criticize” the FIFA system.

Bility was himself an applicant in the presidential contest, then failed an integrity test judged by FIFA’s election monitoring committee.

LVG says Mourinho speculation is false, calls the whole thing “nonsense”

Chelsea's manager Jose Mourinho, center left, makes his way from the opposition dugout after greeting Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal, centre right, during their English Premier League soccer match between Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford Stadium, Manchester, England, Sunday Oct. 26, 2014. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
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Louis Van Gaal is sick and tired of the media speculating about his employment (or potential lack thereof), as well as reports linking the presently unemployed Jose Mourinho to his job, so what we’re going to do now is speculate on those reports a bit more.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

But first, we’ll give Van Gaal the chance to tell his side of the story. Who better to explain what’s going on at Manchester United than the manager of Man United, right? OK, Louis, take it away, mate — quotes from the Guardian:

“The last two months have been very difficult for my wife, my kids, my grandchildren and my friends to cope with. For me too, but I can cope. In the Netherlands they know I am too arrogant to doubt myself, but I also know that such a nonsense is being created about me. I do not believe that there is already a relationship between José Mourinho and Manchester United.”

“It is logical when you have lost four matches in a row, people are bound to be doubting. … I criticize the media for inventing stories. I never hired security. Never ever. And I am walking on the streets without security and all the people I meet are very positive.”

OK, now that that’s out of the way, Jose Mourinho is definitely talking to Manchester United, or someone is doing so on his behalf. There’s arguably never been a more sitting-duck manager in world football than Van Gaal is right now — not only have the results been extremely “meh” for nearly two seasons now, but he’s also got less than 18 months left on his contract, which means it would cost the club considerably less to make him go away than, say, David Moyes, who still had more than five years(!!!) left on his deal when he was fired in April of his first season.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL preview — Leicester hammer Man City, Spurs go 2nd ]

Also, they were totally in for Pep Guardiola, too, and since they didn’t get him, they’ll have to respond thusly, and since Carlo Ancelotti has already been named Guardiola’s successor at Bayern Munich, Mourinho is the last “big name” out there right now. Unless, of course, they wanted to tap up Manuel Pellegrini, who’s on his way out to make room for Guardiola. Could be fun. But not as fun as Jose back in the Premier League, at Man United, in the same city with Pep. Remember the last time those two were employed on opposite sides of a heated rivalry?

As spectacular as this year’s PL season has been — and it’s bordering on the best of all time, still with 13 weeks to go — think about what that means for next season. It’s going to have be even more bonkers, so as not to seem boring by comparison. Louis van Gaal seems like a nice enough guy, but his team’s football isn’t that exciting on the field, and he offers little more off it. Mourinho isn’t the hero we deserve, but he’s certainly the one we need.

Another one: Lavezzi the latest star set for the riches of China

Paris Saint Germain's Ezequiel Lavezzi form Argentina, celebrates the opening goal during a French league one soccer match between Paris-Saint-Germain and Rennes at Parc des Princes stadium in Paris, Wednesday, May 7, 2014. Paris Saint Germain clinhed its second straight French league title on Wednesday after rival Monaco drew 1-1 against French Cup holder Guingamp. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)
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The list just keeps growing; Ezequiel Lavezzi, he of Paris Saint-Germain and Argentine national team fame, is the latest star leaving Europe behind with the Chinese Super League his next stop, according to multiple reports Saturday night.

[ MORE: The latest transfer news and gossip ]

Linked with a move to Premier League side Chelsea during the recently completed January transfer window, a move away from PSG never materialized for the 30-year-old. Not on the European continent, at least.

Now, the former Napoli, San Lorenzo and Estudiantes (Argentina) attacker is set for Shanghai Shenhua, where he’ll reportedly take home something in the $11-to-15-million-per-year ballpark. When you can somehow get a raise from your current deal with a Qatar Sports Investments-owned club… well, I guess you’d be dumb not to do it.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Leicester hammer Man City, Spurs go 2nd ]

It was already pretty well known Lavezzi would be leaving the French capital in 2016, but when his tenure survived through much of Europe’s winter window, it seemed he would hang around until the expiration of his current contract before moving elsewhere on a free transfer.

Then came the monstrous windfall of cash into and subsequent spending by CSL clubs over the last two weeks; Lavezzi joins the likes of Ramires, Gervinho, Jackson Martinez, Alex Teixeira, Demba Ba and Fredy Guarin, among others, to move to China for massive annual salaries. At Shenhua, Lavezzi will play alongside Ba and Guarin, as well as former Everton and New York Red Bulls man Tim Cahill, who made the move to China last year.

The CSL’s transfer window doesn’t close until Feb. 26, so the spending spree may well go on a little while long.

La Liga & Serie A roundup: Atleti bounce back to keep pressure on Barca

Atletico's Jose Maria Gimenez, right, celebrates after scoring a goal during a Spanish La Liga soccer match between Atletico de Madrid and Eibar at the Vicente Calderon stadium in Madrid, Spain, Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza)
AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza
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A roundup of Saturday’s action in Spain and Italy’s top flights:

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s La Liga coverage ]

Atletico Madrid 3-1 Eibar

The race for the La Liga title isn’t over quite yet — though Barcelona are overwhelmingly favorites at the moment — and Atletico Madrid will have to keep winning, with just about no room for error, to keep it that way. On Saturday, they did just that by defending their home turf, to the tune of a 3-1 victory over Eibar.

Keko put the visitors ahead in the 46th minute, but Jose Gimenez quickly opened the scoring for Atleti and equalized on 56 minutes. Saul Niguez made it 2-1 to Atleti seven minutes later, and Fernando Torres’ 100th career goal (below video) gave Los Rojiblancos a bit of insurance in the first minute of second-half stoppage time. With the victory, Atleti are level on 51 points with Barca, but the Catalan giants have two games in hand on Madrid’s “other” team, the first of which they’ll play on Sunday.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Rayo Vallecano 2-0 Las Palmas
Athletic Bilbao 0-0 Villarreal
Sporting Gijon 1-1 Deportivo La Coruña

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Levante vs. Barcelona (6 a.m. ET)
Real Betis vs. Valencia (10 a.m. ET)
Celta Vigo vs. Sevilla (12:15 p.m. ET)
Granada vs. Real Madrid (2:30 p.m. ET)


Bologna 1-1 Fiorentina

Fiorentina have left the door wide open for Inter Milan to re-enter the top three — and UEFA Champions League-qualifying — places with a 1-1 draw away to Bologna. The Viola finished the game with 10 men after Matias Fernandez was sent off for two yellow cards 10 minutes apart either side of halftime.

Their opening goal, which gave them the lead in the 59th minute, was beautifully worked and wonderfully taken by Federico Bernardeschi (below video). It was quickly canceled out, though, as Emanuele Giaccherini equalized four minutes later to earn a point and strengthen Bologna’s hold on 10th place in the league table.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Genoa 0-0 Lazio

Sunday’s Serie A schedule

Hellas Verona vs. Inter Milan (6:30 a.m. ET)
Napoli vs. Carpi (9 a.m. ET)
Torino vs. Chievo (9 a.m. ET)
Frosinone vs. Juventus (9 a.m. ET)
Sassuolo vs. Palermo (9 a.m. ET)
AC Milan vs. Udinese (9 a.m. ET)
Atalanta vs. Empoli (12 p.m. ET)
Roma vs. Sampdoria (2:45 p.m. ET)