Premier League Playback: Title tussle intensifies, while Jack Wilshere has the cigars out

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UNPREDICTABILITY PROVING A TREAT

The start to this Premier League season has been the most topsy-turvy, enthralling and nerve-wracking start to a campaign since the league began. So many shock results, intense storylines and drama have already consumed the opening seven weeks of play. With 70 games played, the average goal per game ratio is 2.31. Not bad, but not great. However, a distinct lack of goals in the opening few games hasn’t stopped the intrigue, if anything it’s fueled it.

With so many managerial and philosophical changes over the summer, teams are delicately testing each other out. Dissecting the weaknesses, and finding out as they feel their way through games tentatively. Oh, the pressure. Plenty of the bigger teams are frail, and as we’ve already seen, hugely susceptible to shock defeats.

But here comes the kicker, teams like Chelsea, United and City don’t have the ‘new manager’ veil to hide behind anymore. A few bad results in the opening weeks are expected by some when a club goes through a transitional period but after this international break, there’s no room for error. Think of this PL title race like the Kentucky Derby, the thoroughbreds have gone round the first bend and a few have made slip ups and fallen back in the field. Between now and January it’s time to burrow on mercifully and position yourself perfectly for the final bend. Believe it or not, with 31 games to go, the next five matches can make or break a season. An effortless fall from title contenders to Champions League hopefuls is staring a dozen teams in the face. That, right there, shows you how open this PL season is. Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool are all gearing up to take the crown after an incredible even opening.

There are now runaway leaders this season… so, who you got?

MORRISON AND JANUZAJ – ENGLAND INTERNATIONALS IN THE MAKING… NOT SO FAST

Premier League Schedule – Week 7

Result Recap & Highlights
Cardiff 1-2 Newcastle United Recap and watch here
Fulham 1-0 Stoke City Recap and watch here
Hull City 0-0 Aston Villa Recap and watch here
Liverpool 3-1 Crystal Palace Recap and watch here
Manchester City 3-1 Everton Recap and watch here
Norwich 1-3 Chelsea Recap and watch here
Southampton 2-0 Swansea Recap and watch here
Sunderland 1-2 Manchester Utd Recap and watch here
Tottenham 0-3 West Ham Recap and watch here
West Brom 1-1 Arsenal Recap and watch here

Following their sparkling performances on Sunday, Ravel Morrison and Adnan Januzaj are pushing their stock high in the opening months of the Premier League season. Morrison celebrated being called up to England’s U-21 squad by getting the ball in his own half against Tottenham and running past three players before beating Hugo Lloris with a cheeky dink, while Januzaj scored two stunners on his full-debut for Manchester United to grab a crucial comeback win against Sunderland. Those two are being touted as potential England stars for the future, both have their complications.

To say Morrison has a checkered past is an understatement, in and out of courtrooms in Manchester during his days in United’s academy, Sir Alex Ferguson finally sold Morrison to West Ham last January after insisting a move away from his hometown, and trouble, was best for his career.  Sam Allardyce told this story after Morrison scored his wonder goal against Spurs on Sunday. “Sir Alex told me ‘I hope you sort him out because you will have a top-class player.'” It seems as though the penny has dropped. As for Januzaj, no attitude or off field problems there, just an incredibly complicated ethnic identity. He was born in Belgium, his parents are from Kosovo (meaning he could also play for Serbia) and Albania, and his grandparents are Turkish. Rumors that England could cap tie him look to be unfounded, but the skinny, young winger is a tremendous talent. Just watch below.

GRINDING OUT A WIN

Manchester City, Manchester United, and to a certain extent Chelsea… you know who you are. And you know what to do when you face a tricky game. United went behind early against Sunderland, City did the same against Everton (watch below), and Chelsea were pegged back in the second half by Norwich. But all three got the job done. Plenty of top teams have dropped points this season, and as we said, the unpredictability of the Premier League really is making it irresistible this term. But the three aforementioned winners will all want mundane, mediocre, 2-1, 1-0 wins vs. the leagues also-rans to become common place between now and May. Whichever club makes that beautiful mediocrity a reality, wins the title. Simple.

TOP PERFORMERS

Coming up big, once again, Artur Boruc made two tremendous saves from Michu and Wilfried Bony in Saints’ 2-0 win over Swansea. England fans will be hoping the big Pole isn’t in that kind of form at Wembley next Tuesday. Daniel Sturridge was sensational for Liverpool in their first half rout of Crystal Palace. He spun Palace’s defense inside out and struck home a beauty, the striker is in the form of his life. We’ve already discussed his heroics, but 18-year-old Januzaj’s two goals seem him a shoe in for team of the week. Elsewhere, Loic Remy struck twice in Newcastle’s 2-1 win at Cardiff, the Frenchman has five already this season and is coolness personified in front of goal. So is Chelsea’s Brazilian star Oscar, who netted the Blues’ opener and looked in control throughout the win vs. Norwich.

MOURINHO PROVES TACTICAL NOUS

Premier League Star Performers

Player Reason
1. Adnan Januzaj (Man Utd) 2 goals, incredible debut
2. Loic Remy (Newcastle) 2 goals, difference maker
3. Dan Sturridge (Liverpool) 1 goal, sublime first half
4. Oscar (Chelsea) 1 goal, cool as a cucumber
5. Artur Boruc (Saints) 2 great saves, 5 shutouts in 7

Speaking of that, once again Jose Mourinho proved that, no matter what everyone else thinks, he knows best. A tricky trip away to Norwich was handled remarkably well, as the Portuguese manager shuffled his squad superbly and used three key substitutions to land Chelsea the win. In the second half the Canaries drew level through Anthony Pilkington, and Chelsea’s comfortable looking afternoon was in danger of unraveling. Mourinho sparked into life, bringing on attackers Willian, Eden Hazard and Samuel Eto’o to force the issue, and it worked, magnificently.

Hazard and Willian both scored late to seal a superb 3-1 win at Carrow Road. Following Mourinho’s half time switch at Tottenham last week to change the game, bringing Juan Mata on for John Obi Mikel, his decisiveness seems to be coming back. The sharp ruthlessness of his tactical changes are mirroring his first, hugely successful, spell in charge at Chelsea. He’d often make changes in the first half or at the interval if things weren’t working out, and now he’s doing it again. After many doubters have already spun webs of discontent towards Chelsea’s boss, Mourinho is finally showing us why he’s the best coach in the game.

WORST REFEREEING PERFORMANCE? THIS ONE’S UP THERE

Sometimes I really don’t get how the English Football Association decides which referee to send to what game. But it was clear right from the start of Fulham vs. Stoke that referee Roger East was out of his depth. Refs have a hard job, I get it. But I’ve never seen so many pivotal decisions given incorrectly, East was frozen to the spot on four key moments in the opening 45 minutes.

First, he missed Patjim Kasami pushing Erik Pieters in the face in front of the benches. Then, Stoke had two “stonewall penalties” turned down, those are not my words, but Potters manager Mark Hughes. And I have to endorse them. I was sitting in the famous wooden Johnny Haynes Stand on Saturday, with home fans taking deep breaths on two occasions in the first half, as Phillipe Senderos scythed down Stephen Ireland in the box, then Fernando Amorebieta clumsily clambered all over Jonathan Walters. Somehow, Stoke were denied penalties on both occasions. Then Fulham’s Bryan Ruiz was hacked down my Marc Wilson as he tried to wriggle away from the Irishman in the box, East again waved away the PK appeals. The ref struggled to keep control of the match throughout, as the tense affair resulted in tough challenges flying in. He dished out five bookings, there should’ve been more.

Marin Jol’s mammoth man hug on the sidelines when Darren Bent scored the winner said it all, the relief was evident because Stoke should’ve won. Afterwards, Jol was man enough to admit his side struggled but the Cottagers needed a win desperately, and they got it, thanks to a lucky deflection and the ineptitude of East.

SAINTS THE REAL DEAL?

Last Thursday I spoke with Southampton manager Mauricio Pochettino and captain Adam Lallana in the build up to Sunday’s clash with Swansea. Pochettino said that he wasn’t keen on the Europa League, and that Saints are aiming for the Champions League.

“The work that’s been happening for the last four years, started with the Chairman,” Pochettino said. “His vision for the club and the way he started building the future of the club, the ideas, the philosophy. The basic idea is to take the club to the top of the league and Europe. That’s our ambition.”

That’s a bold statement for a club that was struggling in League One two years ago. But the South Coast club sit fourth in the PL after seven games — following their 2-0 win over Swansea thanks to Lallana and Rodriguez — conceding just twice and winning three in a row. Granted, their schedule hasn’t been too tough so far, but a trip to Manchester United after the international break will be a true reflection of how they’ll get on this season. Pochettino was nominated for manager of the month, and Polish ‘keeper Artur Boruc for player of the month with five clean sheets from seven. Both believe Southampton can effortlessly climb into the upper echelons. Most Saints fans will be hoping to hit the magic 40-point mark ASAP, then anything else is a bonus.

SMOKING HOT… JACK WILSHERE SCORES EQUALIZER, APOLOGIZES FOR HAVING A CIG

Against West Brom, Arsenal were against the ropes and needed someone to come up with the goods. Cue Mr. Marlboro himself, Jack Wilshere, to coolly slot home a wonderfully flowing move to snatch the Gunners a point. All afternoon Arsenal’s fans had sung, “He smokes when he wants, he smokes when he wants,” following Wilshere’s poor judgement and getting snapped by the British paparazzi smoking outside a London club in midweek. Wilshere said sorry afterwards and insisted he doesn’t smoke. If he keeps scoring goals like the one below, and playing the way he is, I’m not sure Arsenal’s fan will care if he’s on 20 a day.

MLS Snapshot: 10-man NYCFC too much for McCarty-less Fire

Photo credit: @NYCFC
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The game in 100 words (or less): New York City FC spent 78 minutes at a man disadvantage, fewer than 72 hours after drawing MLS-leading Toronto FC midweek, against the second-place Chicago Fire on Saturday. It the end, this week shall go down as the back-to-back which put to bed any lingering questions regarding NYCFC’s MLS Cup-contending credentials. Four points from two games against the league’s top-two teams — Patrick Vieira’s side (37 points) now sits a single point back of Chicago, two back of Toronto. As is typically the case, David Villa’s fingerprints were all over Saturday’s win at Yankee Stadium, as the reigning MVP scored the opening goal (in typically stunning fashion) before so nearly setting up one or two more as the back-and-forth, frantic second half wore on. Frederic Brilliant scored what turned out to be the winner just three minutes later, as David Accam canceled out Villa’s opener to make it three goals scored in seven minutes.

[ MORE: Clint Dempsey goes for USMNT goals record, back home ]

Three Four Five moments that mattered

4′ — Kappelhof slides through Herrera, no penalty given — Maybe VAR will be good?

12′ — Herrera sees yellow again, and he’s gone — Herrera’s first yellow was questionable, but there’s no doubt about the second, just four minutes later.

47′ — Villa smashes on the full volley for 1-0 — This is approximately the 197th time I’ve written the phrase, “David Villa, take a bow,” since Spain’s all-time leading scorer came to MLS.

50′ — Brilliant heads home in traffic for 2-0 — It takes guts to put your head into a sea of flying feet the Brilliant does here. Fortunately, his face is intact and the Frenchman was duly rewarded.

54′ — Accam hits and prays, makes it 2-1 — Don’t think; just hit it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: David Villa

Goalscorers: Villa (47′), Brilliant (50′), Accam (54′)

Pele’s son’s in jail on drug trafficking charges in Brazil

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SAO PAULO (AP) A son of Brazilian soccer legend Pele has returned to jail to serve a sentence of more than 12 years on drug trafficking and money laundering charges.

A Brazilian court Friday ordered Edson Cholbi do Nascimento returned to jail after turning down his appeal.

He is a former goalkeeper with Pele’s old club Santos and was first arrested in 2005, though he remained free pending the outcome of his appeals.

In 2014 a court convicted him to 33 years in prison. That sentence was later reduced to 12 years, 10 months.

In late February he turned himself in to complete his sentence and in early March a court ordered his release and allowed him to remain free while fighting the sentence.

He has denied any wrongdoing.

Texas-born Dempsey at home 1 goal from record, 1 win from Final

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ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) Clint Dempsey is back in his home state of Texas, one goal away from a national scoring record for the United States team that is one win from playing in another CONCACAF Gold Cup final.

The Americans play a semifinal game Saturday night against Costa Rica in a stadium synonymous with American football – the home of the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys, the Cotton Bowl and where the first College Football Playoff championship game was played three seasons ago.

That is only about 180 miles from Dempsey’s hometown of Nacogdoches.

[ EXCLUSIVE: Strootman talks Roma w/ PST ]

“It’s always great to be home and play in front of family and friends, especially for a big game,” Dempsey said Friday. “I have a lot of great memories of playing in Dallas as a kid, and I’m proud to represent Nacogdoches. Being from there made me who I am today.”

Dempsey, one goal from matching Landon Donovan’s American record of 57 national team goals, wasn’t part of soccer’s only Gold Cup games at the $1.2 billion AT&T Stadium.

In a 2013 semifinal game there when the Americans were on the way to their fifth Gold Cup championship, they beat Honduras 3-1. Donovan scored twice in that game – his 55th and 56th goals for the national team – and assisted on the other goal. About two months later, Donovan scored his final goal in a World Cup qualifier win over Mexico.

Within a week after Costa Rica beat the U.S. team 4-0 in World Cup qualifying last November, Jurgen Klinsmann was out as the U.S. coach and Bruce Arena was rehired to the position he had been fired from a decade earlier.

[ WATCH: Coutinho’s super goal vs. Leicester ]

Costa Rica coach Oscar Ramirez said Friday that Arena has seemingly had a positive impact on the U.S. team.

“They look more relaxed in terms of what they’re doing on the field,” Ramirez said through an interpreter.

This U.S. roster for the Gold Cup knockout rounds also is much different than the one that played in Costa Rica eight months ago – not just the change at coach. Only five players from that game that are set for this semifinal game – Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez and Graham Zusi.

“That’s in the past,” Gonzalez said. “I don’t think about that game. … This is just another game. It’s another opportunity for us to see what we’re made out of.”

Altidore, Dempsey, Bradley, Darlington Nagbe, and goalkeeper Tim Howard were all added to the lineup before a 2-0 win over El Salvador in the quarterfinal on Wednesday night in Philadelphia.

Dempsey set up Eric Lichaj‘s goal in extra time before halftime to make it 2-0 against El Salvador. Dempsey also fed Gyasi Zardes for a breakaway, though that apparent goal didn’t count after he was ruled offside.

That game was Dempsey’s 135th appearance for the national team, trailing only Cobi Jones (164) and Landon Donovan (157) on the U.S. list.

[ MORE: Why PSG’s Alexis-Neymar pursuit makes (relative) sense ]

Dempsey isn’t the only player with Texas ties with the U.S. team. Three players from FC Dallas, the MLS team that plays its home games about 40 miles away from the big stadium in Frisco, are on the roster: Kellyn Acosta, Matt Hedges and Jesse Gonzalez.

Acosta, the homegrown midfielder who turns 22 next week, was recently named to the MLS All-Star team. He was born in nearby Plano, Texas, and signed by FC Dallas five years ago.

“It’s definitely a proud moment, to get to represent my community, play before my friends and family,” Acosta said. “To be back in my hometown, I’m definitely excited about it.”

Notes: Costa Rica is trying to get to its first Gold Cup final since 2002, when it lost 2-0 to the Americans. “Obviously, we want to look for that reward, that happiness, and go after that,” Ramirez said. “We have a difficult team in front of us.” … The United States’ nine goals are the most in this Gold Cup, while Costa Rica has allowed only one in its four games.

Why PSG’s Alexis, Neymar pursuit fits in a (relatively) smart space

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Paris Saint-Germain’s run of four Ligue 1 titles ended last season, a campaign which also saw exciting league-winners Monaco go two rounds further into the UEFA Champions League.

Monaco looks set for a step back this season, with Bernardo Silva off to Man City and Tiemoue Bakayoko signing for Chelsea. Kylian Mbappe could join Monaco’s list of departures, and reports say Man City had a bid accepted for Benjamin Mendy.

[ EXCLUSIVE: Strootman talks Roma w/ PST ]

While Monaco is loading up on young talent again, PSG clearly sees its chance to surge back into the title seat and Les Parisiens may just make themselves European favorites as well if they can pry Alexis Sanchez from Arsenal and Neymar from Barcelona.

That would be a South American trident nearly as potent as the one Neymar current shares with Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi at Barcelona, and the Brazilian would not be second or third fiddle.

PSG has so far been relatively quiet this summer, with the addition of Dani Alves the lone new buy. Aside from money, how was Alves lured to Paris over Man City and a reunion with Pep Guardiola? The idea of a reunion with Neymar and several Brazilian mates — Marquinhos, Thiago Silva, Lucas Moura — may’ve been enough and surely that conversation would’ve happened between the two Barca stars.

The French side has to make a big chance at some point soon, unless they’ve been able to unload their money bags and actually buy a fountain of youth. Thiago Motta is 34, Blaise Matuidi 30, Silva 32, and Edinson Cavani 30.

It’s calculated aggression from PSG to splash cash in hopes of rivaling Real Madrid, Juventus, and Barca in pursuit of the UCL title. The Neymar move weakens one of those rivals. If Marco Verratti isn’t part of a swap deal, the signings of Sanchez and Neymar would meet the Italian star’s ambitions well up the road.