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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.

Messi named La Liga Player of the Month for first time in career

BARCELONA, SPAIN - JANUARY 06:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona celebrates after scoring his team's second goal during the Copa del Rey Round of 16 first leg match between FC Barcelona and RCD Espanyol at Camp Nou on January 6, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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Lionel Messi has won every individual award imaginable, but now he can add another trophy to his shelf.

For the first time in his career, Messi was named La Liga’s Player of the Month for January.

[ MORE: PL Power Rankings, Vol. VIII ]

It’s hard to believe, but somehow the Barcelona superstar had never won this honor before. Despite winning a record five Ballon D’or trophies as the best player in the world, this trophy had eluded Messi since its inception in 2013.

Messi scored six goals in six January matches as Barcelona sit atop the La Liga table, currently holding a three-point lead over Atletico Madrid.

Despite their dominance in La Liga, this is only the second time a Barcelona player has won this monthly award, as Neymar took home the honor in November of 2015.

USWNT-Mexico preview: Energized Yanks look to keep rolling toward Rio

FRISCO, TX - FEBRUARY 10:  Team USA poses for a photo before play against Costa Rica during 2016 CONCACAF Women's Olympic Qualifying at Toyota Stadium on February 10, 2016 in Frisco, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
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The United States women’s national team looks to keep rolling through CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying with a match with Mexico on Saturday.

Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, is again the scene after the Yanks battered Costa Rica 5-0 on Wednesday.

[ MUST WATCH: Christen Press’ dazzling first touch, spin, goal ]

A win over Mexico would move the USWNT into the all-important semifinal, where a win would gain them entry into this Summer’s Olympic Games.

Mexico staged a blowout of its own on Wednesday, cruising past Puerto Rico 6-0 thanks in large part to a hat trick from Maribel Dominguez.

[ VIDEO: Alex Morgan caps off a 12-second, six-pass goal ]

Mexico has only beaten the USWNT twice in history, and only the 2010 Gold Cup semifinal is considered official.

In recent history, the USWNT beat up Mexico 5-1 last year, and thrice in 2014 by a combined score of 15-0. Expect very little to change with an energized, impressive U.S. side on Saturday.

[ SATURDAY: Watch USWNT vs Mexico live online on NBC Sports Live Extra ]

Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks: Big boys to turn up

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Week 26 of the Premier League season is here. This will be a lot of fun with massive games at both ends of the table.

If you, like me, love to dissect all the games and predict what the score will be and which team will win, I encourage you to get involved in the comments section below. Let’s have a bit of fun.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live online ]

Okay, so I’ve consulted my crystal ball and here’s how we see things panning out.

With the first section labelled “basically, free money” for the picks I think are dead certs. The section labelled “don’t touch this” means if you’re betting I advise you to stay clear, while the “so you’re telling me there’s a chance” section are the longshots. If it is better odds you are after, those are the picks to go for.

BASICALLY, FREE MONEY

Arsenal 3-2 Leicester City – (Sunday, 7 a.m. ET, NBCSN) –  [STREAM]

Norwich City 0-2 West Ham – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, USA) –  [STREAM]

Man City 3-1 Tottenham Hotspur – (Sunday 11:15 a.m. ET, NBCSN) –  [STREAM]

Sunderland 0-2 Manchester United – (Saturday, 7:45 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

DON’T TOUCH THIS…

Everton 2-1 West Brom  – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBCSN) –  [STREAM]

Swansea 1-1 Southampton – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) –  [STREAM] 

Crystal Palace 2-1 Watford – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) –  [STREAM]

Chelsea 3-2 Newcastle – (Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM

“SO YOU’RE TELLING ME THERE’S A CHANCE…”

Bournemouth 2-1 Stoke City – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) –  [STREAM]

Aston Villa 2-1 Liverpool – (Sunday, 9:05 a.m. ET, NBCSN) –  [STREAM]

Ranieri on Leicester City’s dream season: “Nobody wake us up please!”

during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Leicester City at the Etihad Stadium on February 6, 2016 in Manchester, England.
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There’s plenty to like about Leicester City’s run to the top of the Premier League, but perhaps nothing is more enjoyable that its manager’s musings.

Claudio Ranieri, the Tinkerman himself, has provided some of the best quips of the season.

[ MORE: Top 5 storylines to look for in PL ]

From “I want to be the crazy man in the Premier League” to “It’s like nobody wants to win the league“, the 64-year-old Italian has offered plenty of beauties.

Make way for some more gems, from LCFC.com:

“I think we work so hard to achieve this level. We want to stay at this level. It’s no pressure for us. The pressure was at the beginning to start well, to carry on and maintain the standard of our performance.
“Now we are safe and we want to fight with respect with all our opponents. Face to face, we play with our strength and they play with theirs. If we win, fantastic. If we lose, next match.
“I think the pressure is on the other teams. We have pressure for our little gap. We continue to dream with our fans and we want to continue to dream. Nobody wake us up please!”
We love this man. To go from a short-lived run in Euro qualifying with Greece to this remarkable roll with Leicester has to be a bit dream-like. We get it. And we love that he’s going with it.