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Quick Six: Januzaj’s breakout, best striker tandem, and other Premier League storylines

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1. A NEW STAR IS BORN AT UNITED?

Out of the darkness came a new hero, an unlikely 18-year-old thrust to instant stardom amid the uncertainty that’d enveloped the start of David Moyes’s tenure. Can Adnan Januzaj really be the savior he’s being portrayed as after his two goals in Sunderland delivered Manchester United from   potential disaster?

Here’s teammate Michael Carrick after United’s 2-1, come-from-behind victory:

“In some ways I think he’s gone on the big stage now,” he said. “We noticed a big improvement with him [in pre-season] and he just looked a proper player. At half-time we told him to get in the box a bit more because there were chances for him.

“He’s got so much ability, he’s got a great attitude. He can be anything he wants to be – he’s that good.

“It’s just a start, I’m sure he’s not going to get carried away with it.”

Many outlets have taken the “anything he wants to be” part and ran with it. After all, narratives  have to be fueled, never mind Carrick was perfectly sanguine will delivering his player speak. Januzaj is a teammate, he’s young, and he was just coming off a two-goal performance. Of course you’re going to get some distortable quotes out of Carrick.

With Januzaj, there’s as much sizzle as steak right now. It’s impossible to miss the potential in the Belgian/Albanian/Serbian/Kosovar (he’d be eligible to represent any of those nations), but Januzaj’s new star’s also a function of United’s current plight. He’s the contract to the conflict between expectations and form.

That conflict was apparent on Saturday. For the first 45 minutes, a Sunderland team that was hard work and little else was the better side. In the second half, Manchester United woke up. In time, this will look like a good win — three points where other sides may get none — but considering what Manchester City and Arsenal showed on their trips north, United’s Black Cat test illustrated just how far behind they are.

[MORE: Sunderland 1-2 Manchester United: Januzaj’s second half double lifts Red Devils.]

2. SUÁREZ, STURRIDGE SHINE, BUT ONE PIECE MISSING FOR LIVERPOOL

Whether they maintain this level or not, Liverpool’s Luis Suárez and Daniel Sturridge are the Premier League’s best striking duo at the moment. The tandem combined for two Liverpool goals in the Reds’ 3-1 win over visiting Crystal Palace, and after the weekend’s dust settled, Liverpool sat second, with only goal difference keeping them from the top.

Brendan Rodgers seems eager to temper any undo enthusiasm, though:

“It reminded me of a performance I had when I first became a manager, when I knew it had to be about more than just winning. At Watford we beat Swansea 2-0 at Vicarage Road. Everyone was elated and it was named the performance of the week but I was so disappointed because we didn’t keep the ball well. This was like that. Our movement and combinations in the final third was good but the lack of control behind that was very disappointing.”

It’s harsh, but there were obvious weaknesses in the Reds’ side on Saturday. Against one of the league’s worst teams, Liverpool too often allowed Crystal Palace to hit their defensive line with speed, the Eagles’ lack of execution (and talent) in the final third the only thing that kept this match from turning into a shootout.

That problem gets solved to a certain extent when Lucas Leiva returns. Without their suspended ball-winner, Liverpool moved Jordan Henderson in from right-wing back, pairing him at the base of midfield with Steven Gerrard. The result was unconvincing. Thankfully, they were only playing Crystal Palace.

The issue does, however, inform the debate as to whether Liverpool are title contenders. Or Champions League contenders, for that matter. With the Reds off to a 5-1-1 start, there are a lot of discussions surrounding the team, all of which come down to quality and depth. Even if you think the Reds have the quality to compete with the preseason contenders (a tough but not impossible argument to make), Saturday illustrated how thin they are. Lose one guy and things don’t exactly fall apart (they did still win 3-1, after all), but holes start to surface.

[MORE: Liverpool 3-1 Crystal Palace: “SAS” on the scoresheet again as Reds romp.]

3. MAYBE POCHETTINO WAS RIGHT ABOUT SOUTHAMPTON

Mauricio Pochettino didn’t say he was going to get Southampton into Champions League this year, and to the extent he said it was a goal, he did so in relation to Europa League. Teams don’t really shoot for the latter, the Saints boss explained. Champions League is everybody’s ambition.

Of course, people ran with it. That’s what happens. A coach of a club like Southampton even mentions Champions League? It goes at the top of the story. Southampton must be targeting Champions League! Welcome to the soccer world.

After this weekend’s action, however, Pochettino’s words took on a different context, with Southampton’s 2-0 win over Swansea vaulting the Saints into fourth place – above Manchester City, Tottenham, and Manchester United.

Seven weeks into the season, it’s too early to know whether Southampton can keep this up, even if a win at Liverpool and five clean sheets provide some reason to think this form can persist. But beyond that Liverpool win, there aren’t many eye-opening results among this year’s score lines. The schedule just hasn’t been that hard.

Don’t overlook Sunday’s result, however. Three years ago, Swansea were Southampton, albeit with a different style. They were the team whose results outstretched their stature while their methods underscored their results. They were the club giving reason to believe there was staying power behind their run.

Sunday’s game may have been a symbolic passing of that torch, with Swansea stumbling to 15th place. Then again, it might be us reading too much into early season results. Regardless, Pochettino continues to give us reason to talk about Southampton.

[MORE: Southampton 2-0 Swansea: Saints go fourth with fifth clean sheet.]

4. MARTIN JOL: STILL WAITING TO EXHALE?

If Martin Jol didn’t win, he was probably gone. We didn’t have any proof, but everything about Fulham’s situation told us the Dutch boss was in a win-or-else situation. His team was drastically under-performing, form that extended from that persisted from the end of last season. They were coming off a bad loss at home (to Cardiff City) and the new owner is coming to town with his NFL team this week. If Jol didn’t beat Stoke at home, Shahid Khan was unlikely to see a silver lining to this cloud he inherited as coach.

Thanks to Darren Bent’s 83rd minute goal, Jol’s likely to get a reprieve, his team having beaten the visiting Potters 1-0. The question is whether he should. Fulham still sit 18th and are coming off a victory that was more obligatory than convincing. A one-goal win at home to visiting Stoke with the squad Jol has? That’s seems like a minimum standard, not a reason to let up. If we had doubts about the Cottagers before, what about the Stoke result makes us believe Fulham are on the right track?

When you’re struggling, you’re thankful for every win you get, so it’s understandable Fulham and their fans have loosened their grips since Saturday. But once the international break’s over, the reality may set in. A one-goal home win over Stoke is obligatory. It’s not progress.

[MORE: Fulham 1-0 Stoke City: Cottagers snare needed win.]

5. BACK TO EARTH FOR EVERTON

How good are Everton? Now we know. Their 3-1 loss at Manchester City wasn’t just their first in league since Roberto Martínez took over. It was a reminder of the limitations he’s inherited.

Take the first goal Everton allowed, a great piece of work from David Silva to Yaya Touré to Álvaro Negredo. The speed, timing, and execution of the move was world-class. It took world-class talents to execute it, and it would have taken world-class talents to stop it. Manchester City had them. Everton did not. Goal, Citizens.

City’s second goal was a brilliant piece finish from Sergio Agüero, who beat Tim Howard far post from a sharp ankle. Everton doesn’t have the type of talent that can finish that ball, and the closest player they have is on loan from Chelsea.

Then there was the penalty that led to the third goal, with Seamus Coleman judged to have taken down Pablo Zabaleta. Coleman’s a fine player, but he didn’t have enough to stay in front of Zabaleta without leaning into him. You could argue that the penalty was soft, but another defender may have avoided that position to begin with.

Not many, though. Most defenders are going to get caught by that Zabaleta run, just as very few strikers will finish like Aguero and only a series of elite players can complete City’s first goal.

But that’s the difference between that level and Everton’s. The Toffees have very good players and a seemingly excellent coach, but sometimes, talent wins out.

[MORE: Manchester City 3-1 Everton: The last of the unbeatens fall.]

6. FOR SPURS, LACK OF GOALS WORSE THAN THE WEST HAM LOSS

The scoreline’s troubling: 0-3 at home to West Ham United. That Spurs could only put four shots on Jussi Jääskeláinen should be just as worrisome. This is a team that came into the game with six goals in six games, and on Sunday, André Villas-Boas’s squad didn’t do enough to improve that record.

Yes, be concerned about the lopsided nature of the loss, but also grasp this basic fact: Until this team starts scoring goals, they can’t be considered a serious contender for the league’s top four spots. Once it happens, we can make an assessment about this crew Levy, Baldini, and Villas-Boas have assembled. Right now, we have no idea what that end product will look like. .

In the interim, Spurs have given away three points they should have had. What are the odds they’ll want those back at year’s end? Especially if Liverpool challenges for top four? And Southampton proves as pesky as their rhetoric?

Today’s game was only one result. These things happen. Six goals in seven games? That’s the bigger problem.

[MORE: Tottenham 0-3 West Ham: Three second half goals give Hammer upset.]

Kaka hoping to stay in Orlando beyond 2017

ORLANDO, FL - MARCH 08:  Kaka #10 of Orlando City SC dribbles the ball during an MLS soccer match between the New York City FC and the Orlando City SC at the Orlando Citrus Bowl on March 8, 2015 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images)
Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images)
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Kaka is enjoying life in Florida.

The former Ballon d’Or winner is hoping to stay with Orlando City SC beyond the end of his contract, which runs its course after the 2017 season.

[ MORE: Real Madrid now winless in three ]

Kaka has been very good for the Lions, scoring 19 goals and 15 assists in 53 total matches. Reports had said he’s skip town after the third year of the deal, but Kaka refutes that idea.

From MLSSoccer.com:

“A misunderstanding because I am very happy here,” Kaká told reporters at MLS Media Day on Tuesday. “I had a three year contract, so this is the last year under this contract, but my idea is to stay here.

“Of course we never know what can happen at the end of the season or during the season, but my idea for now is to stay in Orlando and stay in the league.”

Kaka turns 35 in April, but has been consistently good even if injuries kept him to 24 MLS contests last season. If he puts forth a similar season, there’s little reason for Orlando — or another team — not to take a chance on Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite.

Gabriel Jesus cleared, could make Man City debut

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - NOVEMBER 20:  Gabriel Jesus of Palmeiras runs with the ball during the match between Palmeiras and Botafogo for the Brazilian Series A 2016 at Allianz Parque on November 20, 2016 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  (Photo by Friedemann Vogel/Getty Images)
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Gabriel Jesus could go straight into Manchester City’s starting lineup.

The 19-year-old Brazilian has finally been cleared to suit up for the English side after finishing a title-winning campaign with Palmeiras.

With four goals in six caps for the Brazil national team and an Olympic gold medal with their U-23 side, Jesus is among the hottest prospects in the world.

[ MORE: City fifth in “Money League” ]

City is struggling, and the fresh injection of attacking talent could be music to the ears of boss Pep Guardiola (who, fun fact, celebrates his 46th birthday today).

From the Manchester Evening News:

“He’s a great player. Going to Europe is a good thing for a player. He will grow quicker, he will start to understand football in another way and also be respected inside the football scene.

“I guess that for Gabriel Jesus it was a good thing to leave Brazilian soccer, he did everything he had could in [Brazil]. He’s going to a very difficult, competitive [type of football] but I think that he can be successful.”

Jesus had 21 goals in 46 matches this season with Palmeiras.

Casemiro: “Real Madrid aren’t ever allowed to lose”

MADRID, SPAIN - JANUARY 18:  Henrique Casemiro of Real Madrid heads the ball against Daniel Wass of Celta de Vigo during the Copa del Rey Quarter Final, First Leg match between Real Madrid CF and  Celta Vigo at Bernabeu on January 18, 2017 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
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The pressure at Real Madrid can be overwhelming, and the players who thrive there generally have thick skin and short memories.

They also take losses pretty seriously.

That goes for the manager as well, as both Real Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane and Casemiro have reacted to Real’s third-straight non-win in serious fashion.

[ MORE: Real no longer No. 1 in money ]

Remember, this is coming after the first match of the “slump” — a 3-3 draw with Sevilla — was the final match of a world record 40-match unbeaten run.

Casemiro, whose record in the Real Madrid lineup is as good as anyone’s, said this (via Marca):

“Yes, it’s worrying to lose again,” he said just after the full-time whistle. “Real Madrid aren’t ever allowed to lose. The defeat against Sevilla has hurt us.”

And if you want to tell Casemiro to relax, that only one of those matches was in league play and the club still leads the table by a point with a match-in-hand on nearly everyone… well… enter Zidane.

“I’m the one responsible and I must find the solution,” he said in his post-match press conference. “I wasn’t surprised by the way Celta played, as we knew that they’re a team that can really hurt you. I’m not worried, although it’s a bad moment. We know that we can overcome it and we are going to overcome it.”

I’m far from a Real Madrid fan, and you can credit Florentino Perez’s ideas and the hanky-waving fans for a lot of that, but it’s impossible not admire how seriously Real takes the business of winning. And maybe, just maybe, the fan and board expectations occasionally help the squad.

Run-up shootouts, per-player match limits on FIFA’s agenda

Marco van Basten, Dutch football manager and former football player, poses for a photo on the green carpet while arriving prior to the The Best - FIFA Football Awards 2016 ceremony held at the Swiss TV studio in Zurich, Switzerland, Monday, Jan. 9, 2017.  (Walter Bieri/Keystone via AP)
Walter Bieri/Keystone via AP
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Restricting players to 60 games a year. Replacing penalty shootouts with eight-second run-ups. Introducing orange cards to send players off for 10 minutes. Scrapping offside.

Former AC Milan and Netherlands forward Marco van Basten is using his role as technical director at FIFA to propose a series of changes to soccer to stir a debate.

[ MORE: Costa back for Chelsea ]

Rather than using his job to meddle, Van Basten highlights the need to preserve soccer as the world’s most popular sport.

“I have spoken to a lot of coaches and players,” Van Basten said in an interview with The Associated Press. “We have to promote quality instead of quantity. We are playing too much football now. We have to defend players because they have to play so much and are not fresh or fit anymore.

“That’s bad for the quality of the game. Even in June when the big tournaments are played players cannot perform to their maximum because now if players are really successful they can play up to 75 official games in the year. I think that’s a bit too much and maybe they should stop at 55 or 60.”

Although FIFA will expand the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams from 2026, that won’t burden players with any additional games. Instead, clubs sides would have to explore reducing the number of fixtures, potentially by reducing the number of lucrative friendly games played on tours.

[ MORE: Real Madrid now winless in three ]

“That’s all for money but we have to think about football and not money,” said Van Basten, who was hired by FIFA in September. “For a lot of clubs that’s not easy. But there is enough money in football.

“(Cristiano) Ronaldo and (Lionel) Messi are earning so much money. If they are earning a little bit less but performing better that’s good for football.”

Asked about countries like England or France no longer playing two cup competitions alongside their league fixtures, Van Basten said: “In my opinion that should be an interesting discussion.”

Van Basten knows some of radical changes he proposed to the AP could make traditionalists uneasy. But the 1992 FIFA world player of the year wants to ensure the global game has a say on its future.

“We should not just let the game be organized by those with the money,” he said from FIFA HQ in Zurich. “The big clubs like Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City and Real Madrid who have everything.”

“In football you need opponents, competition because if you are alone with two or three clubs controlling everything you don’t have any competition.”

Here are some potential changes to soccer proposed by Van Basten:

PENALTY SHOOTOUTS

Rather than burdening players with an additional 30 minutes of action when cup games are level after 90 minutes, Van Basten is suggesting going straight to penalties.

“I think everybody is pretty tired after 120 minutes,” Van Basten said.

Now penalties are a test of nerves with players having one chance to beat the goalkeeper from the penalty spot.

“Maybe the player should start 25 meters from goal and then you can dribble the goalkeeper or shoot early,” he said. “But you have to make a goal within eight seconds. It’s more skill and less luck. It’s maybe a bit more spectacular. It’s more football but it’s still nervous for the player.”

NO OFFSIDE

Scrapping the offside rule could make soccer more visually appealing, Van Basten advises.

“I think it can be very interesting watching a game without offside,” he said. “Football now is already looking a lot like handball with nine or ten defenders in front of the goal. It’s difficult for the opposition to score a goal as it’s very difficult to create something in the small pieces of space they give you.

“So if you play without offside you get more possibilities to score a goal.”

FOUR QUARTERS

Soccer is increasingly intense and grueling, with a single 15-minute break between 45-minute halves.

“We are trying to help the game, to let the game develop in a good way,” Van Basten said. “We want to have a game which is honest, which is dynamic, a nice spectacle so we should try to do everything to help that process.”

Introducing four quarters could be advantageous.

“The coach can have three times with his players during the game,” Van Basten said.

SINBINS

Now there is no middle ground between players being shown a yellow card and receiving a red card and then being removed for the rest of the game.

“Maybe an orange card could be shown that sees a player go out of the game for 10 minutes for incidents that are not heavy enough for a red card,” Van Basten said.

Such an instance could be when a player commits repeat fouls that didn’t warrant yellow cards or obstruct opponents. Five misdemeanors could earn a player a place in a sin bin for 10 minutes, Van Basten said.

NEXT STEPS

Any changes to the laws of the game cannot be forced through by Van Basten, however close he is to FIFA President Gianni Infantino. He said he wants to listen to the views of world before any proposals are taken to the game’s law-making body, The International Football Association Board. FIFA controls half of the eight votes on IFAB, with the other four retained by the British associations.

Rob Harris is at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports