Wilshere Watch: It’s becoming an international break tradition in England

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I’m not a smoker, but every once in a while, you’ll catch me on a bar patio sharing a cigarette with a friend. Thankfully, nobody can makes selling pictures of my clandestine habit. If they did, my life would start to be as absurd as Jack Wilshere’s.

The Arsenal midfielder has become English soccer obsession (we’ve talked about it before), and when the international break hits, the nation’s media are given license to play into their own ugly habit. The second the Three Lions assemble, Wilshere starts dominating headlines, regardless of whether he’s done anything to warrant the coverage.

This week, England could qualify for the World Cup. They could also slip and be relegated to UEFA’s playoffs. Wayne Rooney’s returning to a team whose striking options are so thin Rickie Lambert’s  getting a regular call-in. Ashely Cole’s out, Joe Hart’s in crisis mode, but what’s the main talking point?

Why, it’s English Iniesta, of course. On The Guardian’s football page, Wilshere coverage is right below Gus Poyet’s appointment, a story that led the site early afternoon Eastern time. The angle? A player saying his nation has a bright future, according to the headline.

The Telegraph had a Wilshere story leading their football page. Their angle saw the midfielder reflecting on his immaturity in the face of his smoking scandal.

The Independent is more subdued in their Wilshere-philia, the smoking coverage linked half-way down their main football page, while The Daily Mail’s web page has taken a surprisingly modest route, tying the smoking incident into Wilshere’s hopes to contribute at next summer’s World Cup. The BBC chose the player’s thoughts on Rooney and Daniel Sturridge as their obligatory Wilshere-related content, featuring it under their lead story.

There’s no breaking news here, though on an international break’s Tuesday, there’s little breaking news in general. Something has to fill that void, though it’s curious that across a number of English outlets, the choice to fill the void is the same. Throw Jack Wilshere into that spot.

Wilshere did apparently speak to the media today, so his relative availability is a factor here. But given he didn’t say or do anything newsworthy today, getting so much mileage out of his quote implied anything said by a prominent athlete deserves this kind of placement. Are athletes really such discerning commentators that stating the obvious (i.e., Rooney and Sturridge are positive additions) qualifies as a story?

Perhaps not, but when it’s international break in England, the person behind the words becomes more important what’s being said. It’s always Jack Wilshere. It’s always about Arsenal’s much-hyped hope. And implicitly, it’s always about the extent to which a 21-year-old is embodying the hopes of his national team’s fans.

Which, of course, is terribly unfair. Wilshere’s just a player, one that has enough struggles to deal with beyond undo expectations being fueled by what’s becoming a media trope.  He doesn’t need one cigarette made into a scandal any more than he needs one sub-par performance in Ukraine held up as an exemplar of his career trajectory. At some point, all he needs is room to be 21 years old.

But it’s the international break. Every country has their points of interest. Just like U.S. media has their old chestnuts (remember all the Landon Donovan talk when he wasn’t even in the team), England has theirs. With David Beckham and John Terry no longer on the scene, there just aren’t as many default angles anymore.

If that means putting Jack Wilshere front-and-center based on a sneaky cigarette and some quotes, so be it. At this point, it’s standard operating procedure.

Dempsey, Sounders steal a point on wild night in Portland

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The game in 100 words (or less): An entire game can change in the blink of an eye. For the Seattle Sounders, that blink came in the 44th minute of Sunday’s 2-2 draw with the Portland Timbers. Up 1-0 by way of Joevin Jones’ opener in the 27th minute, the defending MLS Cup champs were poised to head into halftime with a one-goal advantage and every belief imaginable that they’d been the better team for the entire first half. Blink. Brad Evans wrapped his legs around Darlington Nagbe, giving away a penalty and earning himself a red card, just like that, in the blink of an eye. Fanendo Adi stepped up to convert from the spot, but it still was to be a hard-fought 1-1 scoreline from Seattle’s perspective. Then, Dairon Asprilla got loose, completely unmarked atop the six-yard box, on a corner kick, and it was 2-1 after four minutes of first-half stoppage time. 45 more minutes pass, and the Timbers… blink. Clint Dempsey, 34 years old but fresh off the bench 40 minutes earlier, out-leaps everyone in the box and heads past Jake Gleeson to steal a point for Seattle.

[ MORE: San Jose fire Kinnear after 2.5 seasons ]

Three Four moments that mattered

27′ — Jones gets two chances, puts the second away — It’s a classic case of “I dropped my controller” from Alvas Powell, who just stops as Jones cuts across the penalty area. There’s no reason Jones should get a second look on this one.

44′ — Evans brings down Nagbe in the box, sees red — Goodbye, lead. Goodbye 11 versus 11. Things would unravel very quickly for Seattle.

45+4′ — Asprilla rises above to make it 2-1 — Seattle’s marking of Asprilla was nonexistent, and the Colombian showed off some serious hops to get his head to David Guzman’s corner kick.

90+4′ — Dempsey heads home deep in stoppage time — A costly turnover by Asprilla, a hit-it-and-pray cross by Roman Torres, and Dempsey snatches a point at the death.

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Man of the match: Cristian Roldan

Goalscorers: Jones (27′), Adi (45′ – PK), Asprilla (45+4′), Dempsey (90+4′)

Russia has reasons for optimism despite Confed Cup exit

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MOSCOW (AP) When the anger subsides after another group stage exit and another goalkeeping blunder, Russian fans might find they can be proud of their team at the Confederations Cup.

Russia failed to reach the knockout rounds of a fourth major tournament in a row, but there’s no shame in losing by one goal to European champion Portugal and North American champion Mexico.

“We will move on,” coach Stanislav Cherchesov said after Saturday’s 2-1 loss to Mexico. “We have won (the fans’) hearts and minds to a certain extent in this month that we have been together … I think that we have given some reasons to feel optimistic about us.”

If Russia’s fans agreed with Cherchesov that Russia had done well to limit Portugal to a single Cristiano Ronaldo goal, there was frustration that Russia hadn’t done better against a poor Mexican side.

Russia wasted chances to exploit Mexico’s ragged defending and add to Alexander Samedov’s opener, while goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev performed an inexplicable lunge which allowed Hirving Lozano to head in the winner. Akinfeev was lucky not to be red-carded, too, after his foot caught Lozano in the chest.

Akinfeev was the immediate scapegoat for Russia’s exit, with fans and newspapers calling for his removal.

The most-capped player in the squad – the Mexico game was his 101st international appearance – Akinfeev’s bulletproof consistency in the Russian Premier League has kept him the undisputed national-team No. 1 for years.

When the world is watching, though, he gets flustered and makes mistakes.

Against South Korea at the 2014 World Cup, an innocuous long shot slipped from his grasp and went in, paving the way for another early Russian exit from the tournament. There have been more than a few blunders in the 43 games since Akinfeev last kept a clean sheet for CSKA in the Champions League, too.

But it’s hard to see who could replace him. The naturalized Brazilian reserve keeper Guilheme is agile but injury prone, while Vladimir Gabulov is a solid but unspectacular veteran. Zenit St. Petersburg’s Yuri Lodygin challenged Akinfeev for a while, but was brought low by his own tendency for embarrassing errors.

On the positive side for Russia, defender Georgy Dzhikiya was solid in all three group games after having only made his debut on June 5, and Cherchesov’s three-man back line was mostly reliable.

Less successful was Cherchesov’s attempt to bolster the midfield by starting Roman Shishkin – usually a defender – in a defensive midfield role against Portugal and Mexico, while 33-year-old ex-Chelsea winger Yuri Zhirkov did his World Cup hopes no favors with a red card Saturday.

Russia’s run of injuries before the tournament weakened the midfield in particular, with Alan Dzagoev and the promising Roman Zobnin both missing out. Forward Artyom Dzyuba’s absence left Cherchesov relying heavily on Fyodor Smolov, who showed touches of class but missed a good chance against Portugal.

Perhaps the biggest damage from Russia’s Confederations Cup exit will be to Russian pride.

Officials have often bragged that the home advantage for next year’s World Cup could drive Russia to new heights, perhaps a repeat of South Korea’s charge to the semifinals in 2002. Those expectations are now being reviewed.

Just one World Cup host in history – South Africa in 2010 – has failed to get out of the group stage. Avoiding a repeat may be the most Russia can hope for.

FOLLOW LIVE: Timbers host Sounders in PNW showdown

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They don’t get much bigger, or more heated, than this one in MLS — it’s Portland versus Seattle, the Timbers versus the Sounders, tonight at Providence Park (10 p.m. ET).

[ FOLLOW LIVE: Timbers vs. Sounders ]

To keep up-to-the-second informed on proceedings in Portland this evening, hit the above link, or click right here.

Seattle won the first meeting between these sides, 1-0 back on May 27, on their home turf at CenturyLink Field. Cristian Roldan, who’ll depart for U.S. national team camp following Sunday’s game, scored the only goal that afternoon in Seattle, a 4th-minute header from three yards out.

Mustafi: Arsenal players powerless, hope “brilliant” Sanchez will stay

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Shkodran Mustafi admits that he, along with his Arsenal teammates, feels helpless with over the ongoing transfer saga of Alexis Sanchez.

[ MORE: Sunday’s transfer rumor roundup | Saturday | Friday ]

The Chilean superstar is linked with a move away from Arsenal this summer, as the Gunners fell out of the Premier League’s top-four and the 28-year-old’s contract is set to expire next summer. Perhaps most importantly, Sanchez hasn’t so much as publicly stated a desire to remain at the club, which, from the outside, appears to have left his future in even greater doubt.

Mustafi admits he hasn’t a clue how things will shake out in the coming weeks, but he’s quick with a pleading sales pitch for Sanchez to stay — quotes from Goal.com:

“I have no idea. Obviously the other players cannot make that decision, he has to make that decision.

“I’m not too much involved. I hope he stays because he is a really brilliant football player but there’s nothing in my hands that I can do.”

[ MORE: De Boer set to be named new Crystal Palace boss ]

Arsenal would likely have to double (if not more) Sanchez’s current $180,000 weekly wages in order to convince him to forego a season in the UEFA Champions League and commit his long-term future to a club presently trending in the wrong direction.