Wayne Rooney, Geoff Cameron, Robin van Persie

Premier League Playback: Headers galore, Torres becomes ‘El Toro’, AVB offends

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THE ART OF HEADING RETURNS

Over the Premier League weekend, a dying art returned to strike joy and delight into the hearts of those who carried it out and their fans. Heading is back. Rejoice.

So this is my questions, is heading home still a dying art? Gladly, I’m not so sure anymore because in week 9’s ten games, eight headers, of many different varieties, accounted for the 23 PL goals scored. With over 33 percent of all goals coming off the old noggin, that’s a pretty substantial chunk of strikes that came from delightful bounces off players bonces. If you watch the video below, four of the top five goals of the weekend are headers… when was the last time that happened?

Last weekend when Sergio Aguero scored a header against West Ham, it was revealed that it was the first time the Argentine has scored with his bonnet, his previous 40 goals for Man City in the PL had all come with his feet.

The beauty of heading into the net comes in many different forms, Wayne Rooney proved that with his glancing header at the near post from Robin van Persie’s corner. Rooney’s delicate flick left Stoke City ‘keeper Asmir Begovic rooted to the spot, and it only takes the faintest of touches to send the ball into a completely different direction.

Then Luis Suarez added two headers of his own, as he nailed his first hat trick at Anfield by powerfully heading home from outside the box in the first half, before glancing home Steven Gerrard’s pacey free kick with the faintest of touches at the near post. I could go on and analyze them all, because they’re all different, and all beautiful in their own way. Time stands still when a player heads in on goal, you look for the ‘keepers reaction, a defender getting back on the line and finally the trajectory of the effort to see if it’s going on. As the ball nestles in the net, a headed goal, for me, is extremely pleasing and the skill of performing it shouldn’t be underestimated.

Premier League Schedule – Week 9

Result Recap & Highlights
Aston Villa 0-2 Everton Recap and watch here
Chelsea 2-1 Man City Recap and watch here
Crystal Palace 0-2 Arsenal Recap and watch here
Liverpool 4-1 West Brom Recap and watch here
Man Utd 3-2 Stoke City Recap and watch here
Norwich 0-0 Cardiff City Recap and watch here
Southampton 2-0 Fulham Recap and watch here
Sunderland 2-1 Newcastle Recap and watch here
Swansea 0-0 West Ham Recap and watch here
Tottenham 1-0 Hull City Recap and watch here

If you can master the art of the header, you can make it in this game. Plenty of center forwards in the lower leagues of England and back in the late 80s and early 90s did, I’d love nothing more than to see more headed goals flying in for the rest of this season, and beyond.

TOP PERFORMERS

There were some real dazzling displays this weekend, and Suarez takes the biscuit for top performer. He ripped West Brom apart at Anfield, with three goals whilst carving out plenty of other chances for strike-partner Daniel Sturridge with his tireless running. USMNT ‘keeper Tim Howard (more on him shortly) gave Everton a launchpad to beat Aston Villa with his incredible PK stop from Christian Benteke. All that came before he made his NBC Sports commentary debut for Chelsea vs. Man City on Sunday… quite a weekend for the USA’s No. 1. Wayne Rooney also gets the nod after he nodded United level and set them up for a late comeback win over Stoke, the England international is carrying United on his back. Southampton have now kept six cleans sheets in nine PL games and have conceded just three times, if right back Nathaniel Clyne isn’t called up to the England squad in a few weeks, I’d be hugely surprised after his impressive display vs. Fulham. And finally, that man Fernando Torres scored his first PL goal this season and struck a dagger into the heart of Man City fans across the globe… in fact, let’s breakdown Torres’ bullish transformation right now.

‘TORRES REBORN’ … NOT QUITE, HOW ABOUT TRANSFORMED?

When I went along to White Hart Lane to watch Chelsea take on Tottenham in September, Fernando Torres got sent off late on after terrorizing Spurs’ defense for the entire second half. I was sat just behind the benches that Saturday in North London, and after Torres was shown red Mourinho went and whispered something into his ear appreciatively. Fernando nodded and shook his head agreeably.

Slowly but surely Mourinho is getting through to Torres, and Sunday’s late winning goal against Man City proved that the endeavor and effort of his previous days at Liverpool have returned, with the Spanish forward proving a royal pain in the backside for every defense he’s coming up against of late. Against Manchester City on Sunday, Torres played like a man possessed after spurring a glorious chance early on by shinning the ball over the bar and leaving the home crowd exasperated. As he trundled back to the halfway line, Torres’ head sunk to his chest with a hint of dejection… but he kept on trucking to deliver the goods that Chelsea needed to steal a march on their title rivals.

Mourinho prefers a central striker that can strike fear into the hearts of the oppositions central defenders by running at them with pace and being a muscular, physical fulcrum for the rest of the ream to work off. In his first spell at Chelsea he had Didier Drogba, at Real Madrid he used Cristiano Ronaldo in the central role. And now a brooding Torres is fired up and facets of his game that made him so successful at Liverpool and Atletico Madrid are returning. He’s bulked up, looks pacey and has got the confidence and verve back that proves he’s on the cusp of breaking out once again.

Torres is gradually shaking off his ‘El Nino’ nickname, as Mourinho aims to make the striker into his hard-hitting forward that bullies opposition defenses with relentless running and that direct nature is finally bearing fruit.

(MORE: Check out the latest Premier League Standings)

As Torres walked off the pitch on Sunday, Stamford Bridge erupted into a throaty chant of “Torres, Torres” and the Spaniard stood alone to applaud the fans who appreciated not only his winning-goal, but seeing him rise from the depths of missing a sitter early on, to setting up Andre Schurrle’s goal, smashing a wonder strike against the bar and then chasing down a lost cause in second half stoppage time to score just his second PL goal since last Christmas.

Premier League Star Performers

Player Reason
1. Luis Suarez (Liverpool) 3 goals, best striker in PL
2. Tim Howard (Everton) PK save, Toffees hero
3. F. Torres (Chelsea) 1 goal, constant threat
4. Nathaniel Clyne (Saints) Epic for leagues best defense
5. Wayne Rooney (Man Utd) 1 goal, United’s talisman

I saw something in Torres’ eyes and demeanor against Spurs in late September. He’s hungry to succeed with the Blues, and he’s now elevated himself as Mourinho’s main striker. Perhaps that knowledge has given Torres the confidence he needs to kick on and if Chelsea are going to win the title, they will need Torres to keep on delivering damaging displays. Five goals in six starts across all competitions this season shows his goalscoring touch and belief is returning, but even if the goals don’t flow, Torres’ impact for Chelsea is huge.

Forget ‘El Nino’ how about ‘El Toro?’ As the marauding Spaniard is now making a name for himself as an absolute bullish pest up front.

U.S. KEEPERS PREVAIL

All hail the U.S. goalkeeper. On Saturday Tim Howard and Brad Guzan showed exactly why the USA is known across the globe for producing top, top ‘keepers. First Howard saved superbly stopped Benteke’s penalty kick, then at the other end Brad Guzan kept out Romelu Lukaku with a superb reflex stop. Back and forth went the goalkeeping battle, as both USMNT stars put on a fine display of shot-stopping to wow the Villa Park crowd. Chants of ‘USA, USA, USA’ were audible all afternoon… Jurgen Klinsmann has one heck of a decision to make next summer.

AVB WRONG TO BASH SPURS’ FANS

Tottenham manager Andre Vilas-Boas called out Spurs’ fans for “negativity” inside White Hart Lane during the nervy 1-0 win against Hull City. Hang on a minute Andre… can you blame them?

After yet another 1-0 win and yet another dubious penalty decision converted by Roberto Soldado (the third time the Spaniard has handed Spurs a slender victory with a PK this campaign) to give them all three points, Tottenham’s fans can be forgiven for feeling a little underwhelmed by some of Spurs’ recent displays. Surely they should be allowed to air their anxiety? AVB doesn’t think so.

“I compliment the boys for what they did – great work rate. Not only that but we played away from home. We didn’t have the support that we should have had in a game that we needed a win. We did it with no help today.”

Far be it from me to judge AVB as Spurs sit fourth in the league, but after all the excitement last seasons soccer produced, can’t he understand that a complete rebrand of the way they play isn’t exactly tearing up any trees in the PL? Two holding midfielders protecting a solid back four is all well and good, but when Spurs come up against the better teams I worry where their goals will come from. Seems like Spurs’ fans do too.

FAIR FROM FER?

When Norwich City midfielder Alex Tettey went down injured in stoppage time of Norwich’s 0-0 draw with Cardiff City at Carrow Road, Cardiff ‘keeper David Marshall did the sporting thing by throwing the ball out of play so he could receive treatment.

As Ricky van Wolfswinkel took the throw-in to give it back to Cardiff, he threw the ball to Norwich’s Leroy Fer who slotted the ball into an empty net and thought he’d given the Canaries a shocking and hugely controversial late win. But referee Mike Jones wasn’t having any of it, he pulled play back as a minor fracas erupted between the two sets of players and said he hadn’t blown his whistle to restart play. I’m not sure if the ref was in-line with the laws of the game, but I applaud his decision to defuse the situation.

That averted a bizarre win and a very unsportsmanlike one at that. Afterwards it was revealed that Norwich would have allowed Cardiff to score straight from the kick off to tie things back up. Bravo. But in a staunch belief of the saying ‘honest if the best policy’ Norwich’s Dutch midfielder Fer revealed he scored on purpose and there was no mix up that saw him knock the ball into the empty net.

“I just looked at the referee and he did ‘play on’ with his hands so I think the goal had to count,” Fer said. “I’m a little bit confused on that one. I meant to put it in because I wanted to win the game. I want to win every game, so that’s why I did it.”

Fer’s attitude stinks, there’s no place for that in the PL and I’m sure his manager had a quite word with the promising Dutch midfielder after the game. Watch below to see what you think should’ve happened.

Premier League Preview: Sunderland vs. Manchester United

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  • United 6 points outside the top four
  • Sunderland winless in four
  • MUFC has one loss in 27 vs. SAFC (W20, D6, L1)

Manchester United’s uphill battle for a top-four finish continues on Saturday when the Red Devils travel to the Stadium of Light to face Sunderland (Watch live, 7:45 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra).

United won this fixture in September 3-0 behind goals from Memphis, Wayne Rooney, and Juan Mata.

[ WATCH LIVE: Stream every PL game via Live Extra ]

Sunderland sit 19th on the table four points from safety as the time has come for Sam Allardyce‘s side to start getting results. Without a win in their last four matches, the Black Cats must turn things around if they want to stay up in the Premier League. Jermain Defoe scored last time out in a draw at Liverpool, and he’ll once again be tasked with finding the back of the net if Sunderland are to win.

[ MORE: Prince-Wright’s Premier League Picks for Week 26 ]

For Manchester United, the pressure is still on Louis Van Gaal as rumors and reports circle linking Jose Mourinho to the job. Fifth on the table and six points behind Manchester City, a top-four finish is slipping away from United if they don’t rattle off a few wins. A late goal at Chelsea last weekend cost the Red Devils all three points, but they’ll look at this matchup against Sunderland as a good opportunity to get a positive result.

What they’re saying

Sunderland boss Sam Allardyce: “Providing chances for Jermain Defoe is critical for us. But our first major problem is that we haven’t kept a clean sheet in nine matches. We need to start putting a zero against us in games and if we start doing that we’ll win more matches. If we win more matches, we’ll get out of trouble.”

United manager Louis van Gaal: “We had lost four matches in a row in December and you see us now. You can only say that we are mentally very strong and that we can cope with the pressure. That is not enough as we have to improve our results and consistency to win a lot of matches in a row. We have to minimize the gap to our competitors.”

Prediction

Sunderland need all the points they can get to try and stay up, but United always seem to cause the Black Cats problems. Jermain Defoe is kept off the board as Louis van Gaal takes the win. Sunderland 0-2 Manchester United.

Costa breaks nose, will be fit to play for “Zorro team” vs. Newcastle

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 07:  Diego Costa of Chelsea reacts during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge on February 7, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
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Chelsea striker Diego Costa broke his nose in training after a clash of heads, but should be fit to play in Saturday’s match against Newcastle (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra).

Costa has six goals in his past seven Premier League games as Chelsea are unbeaten in their last 11 in all competitions.

[ MORE: Top 5 PL storylines ]

Manager Guus Hiddink spoke about the injury in his press conference on Friday, saying Costa collided with an Academy player in training. Hiddink said he believes Costa will be ready to play this weekend for his “Zorro team” as Costa joins Gary Cahill, Nemanja Matic, and Cesar Azpilicueta as Chelsea players to wear a mask this season.

It was not a tough duel but he put his nose on the back of the head of one of the youngsters from the Academy that we like to participate in our training games. He was very unlucky.

They are putting a mask on Diego as well, we are the team with a lot of masks, a Zorro team, and he will come back do some light training this afternoon as he must experience how he is dealing with the form and the fitting of the mask.

Costa scored a stoppage-time equalizer against Manchester United last weekend as Chelsea continue to get results under Guus Hiddink. The Blues are up to 13th on the table, just three points outside the top half.

[ RELATED: Frank Lampard urges Chelsea to sign John Terry ]

Chelsea will look to extend their unbeaten run to 12 matches on Saturday against a Newcastle side that is just one point above the drop and in need of a result.

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)
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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 ]