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.

Dempsey returns to training after second heart procedure

SAN JOSE, CA - JULY 28:  Clint Dempsey #2 of MLS All-Stars chases after the ball up field against the Arsenal FC during the second half of the AT&T MLS All-Star Game at Avaya Stadium on July 28, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
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Many were concerned about USMNT and Seattle Sounders attacker Clint Dempsey‘s future when he underwent a pair of heart procedures in 2016.

The 33-year-old Dempsey took another step to allay those fears when he hit the pitch for Seattle’s first day of preseason camp.

[ MORE: How will U.S. line up vs. Serbia? ]

The Sounders won the 2016 MLS Cup despite the absence of Dempsey, and his return would further strengthen the side. General manager Garth Lagerwey said Dempsey won’t be rushed, but could be nearing a return.

EFL Cup second legs preview: Liverpool, Hull City aim for comebacks

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 11:  Divock Origi of Liverpool battles with Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg (L) and Ryan Bertrand of Southampton during the EFL Cup semi-final first leg match between Southampton and Liverpool at St Mary's Stadium on January 11, 2017 in Southampton, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images
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Manchester United and Southampton are 90 minutes from Wembley Stadium.

Hull City and Liverpool would prefer to change that.

After first legs a fortnight ago, the EFL Cup semifinals play out on Wednesday and Thursday ahead of Feb. 26’s final at Wembley.

[ MORE: How will U.S. line up vs. Serbia? ]

First up is Southampton‘s trip to Liverpool, with the Saints nursing a 1-0 lead from the first leg at St. Mary’s. The Wednesday kickoff sees Saints hoping the Reds’ poor run of form will continue at Anfield. Liverpool has one win 2017, and that was an FA Cup replay victory over Plymouth Argyle.

Southampton boss Claude Puel knows the Reds will be ornery:

“We know Liverpool. They lost against Swansea at home, and I am sure they will want to react against us, but it’s important to keep all of our focus about our play.

“We know they are fantastic, a great team, with great players, but you saw in the first leg we have the ability to produce a strong game against them. It will be important to make a strong game – a perfect game – I think.”

Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United got a terrific result in the first leg at Old Trafford, scoring twice and holding Hull City from scooping up a valuable road goal. Juan Mata and Marouane Fellaini scored the goals in the 2-0 win, but the KC Stadium will be rocking on Thursday as the Tigers look to reverse the result.

United midfielder Michael Carrick says the Red Devils will play as if they are starting from scratch:

“It’s definitely not over, we all know that. We are telling ourselves that. I think we’ll be pretty much full strength and will approach the game like it’s a 0-0 and starting from scratch.

“It’s dangerous when you go in there defending a lead to tell yourself this result will do or that result will do, or we can afford to do this or that.”

Report: China tempting TFC’s Giovinco with big offer

Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco celebrates his goal against the Philadelphia Union during the first half of an MLS soccer playoff match in Toronto, Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)
Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP
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Could Sebastian Giovinco’s chances of another MVP award be diminishing?

It wouldn’t be on account of a lack of production, rather massive money coming his way from the Chinese Soccer League.

[ MORE: How will U.S. line up vs. Serbia? ]

Great, and right when we were daydreaming about how Toronto FC’s Italian attacker could run a revenge tour on the folks who somehow left him out of the MVP finalists last year.

Giovinco turns 30 on Thursday.

From The Toronto Sun’s Kurtis Larsson:

“The Chinese club seems to be very interested, but I don’t think it’ll be easy to take him away from Toronto,” Giovinco’s agent, Andrea D’Amico, told the broadcaster.

“We received an important offer from China and we’ll talk to Toronto to decide, along with Sebastian, what to do.”

Giovinco is with Toronto FC for preseason training camp, and both the club and player have shown no interest in moving on from the diminutive winger and 2015 MVP.

But if China comes calling with crazy money, say a $25-30 million transfer fee, shouldn’t TFC think twice? Any figure above $25 million would be more than the sum of the three biggest incoming transfer fees in MLS history (Miguel Almiron, Michael Bradley, Jermain Defoe).

AFCON wrap: Ivory Coast bounced, DR Congo wins Group C

Congo's soccer players celebrate after scoring a goal against Togo during the African Cup of Nations Group C soccer match between Congo and Togo at the Stade de Port-Gentil, Gabon, Tuesday Jan. 24, 2017. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)
AP Photo/Sunday Alamba
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Down went another knockout round mainstay from the Africa Cup of Nations, as the Ivory Coast failed to capture one of the top two spots in Group C.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Morocco 1-0 Ivory Coast

Needing a win to move on, the Ivory Coast fell in its final group match. Rachid Alioui scored a 64th minute goal that meant the Ivory Coast needed two to advance to the quarterfinals. The goals didn’t come, and Morocco will face the Group D winner next.

Togo 1-3 DR Congo

Junior Kabananga, Paul-Jose M’Poku, and Ndombe Mubele scored as the Leopards finished the group stage with an unbeaten record of 2-1. DR Congo will face the runner-up of Group D in the quarterfinals.

Wednesday’s matches

Ghana is through with six points, while Uganda is out. Egypt will go through with a result against Ghana, while Mali needs a win and an Egypt loss to get to tiebreakers.

Egypt vs. Ghana — 2 p.m. ET
Uganda vs. Mali — 2 p.m. ET