Reimagining Sunderland: Altidore, Fletcher, Borini and Giaccherini together could devastate

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Let’s take a brief moment to reimagine Sunderland.

After setting the record for the worst ever start in the Barclays Premier League (1 point in the first eight matches), the Black Cats grabbed their first three points of the season defeating rivals Newcastle 2-1 in the Wear-Tyne derby.

The victory seemed inspired by a number of things, not the least of which was the hiring of Gus Poyet following the dismissal of Paulo Di Canio. Yet while Poyet earned the result his side needed, the Uruguayan arguably did so without utilizing the best talent his side has to offer.

Coming out in 4-4-2 formation against Newcastle Poyet deployed a back line of Phil Bardsley, Carlos Cuellar, John O’Shea and Andrea Dossena, a midfield four of Adam Johnson, Lee Catermole, Jack Colback and Seb Larrson, with a front two of Jozy Altidore and Steven Fletcher.

Putting Altidore and Fletcher in the same side was a great play by Poyet, a move that Di Canio fooled with but never seemed convinced by. While Altidore and Fletcher both typically play as the top striker in the 10 spot, they are by no means mutually exclusive forwards.

With his size and hold up play, Altidore is able to play higher up the pitch while Flether’s skill and versatility allows him to play in the hole of a 4-2-3-1 formation. What becomes difficult, however, is involving Fabio Borini, who more than proved his worth on Sunday when he cracked an 84th minute winner into the top corner.

On that play, Borini swooped in from the left wing to collect Altidore’s layoff before unleashing from the center of the park. It was a run that left Mathieu Debuchy and the right side of Newcastle’s midfield baffled. Borini’s speed, along with his ability to create off the dribble, make him an excellent option on the wing, where he was occasionally used at Roma.

Which is why Adam Johnson needs to sit. On his day, Johnson can create and devastate but when is the last time that happened? The spring 2013 Tyne-Wear derby? Johnson’s inconsistency needs to be addressed through a benching.

Sunderland also would be a far more dangerous team with Emanuele Giaccherini on the right wing. With his pace, skill and knack for finding the back of the net, the Italian has been the Black Cats’ brightest offensive talent this season, which made Poyet’s decision to bench him in last weekend’s derby quite surprising.

Whether that omission was due to a knock or a disagreement between player and coach has not been made public. But assuming all is well with Giaccherini, he is an absolute must start for Sunderland going forward.

The fear in deploying a front four of Altidore, Borini, Fletcher and Giaccherini, is that the club would be liable defensively. But, as was evident in Debuchy’s back post goal, Johnson is rarely interested in playing defense and there’s little to suggest Borini is much worse. Giaccherini’s tackling may not be his best gift but his furious work ethic has proven more than enough to frustrate the opposition.

Bolstering the midfield defense is the holding pair of Lee Catermole and Jack Colback, who Poyet used against Newcastle. That decision suffocated the middle of the park for Newcastle as Catermole put in his best performance of the season. With these two cleaning up in front of the back four, Sunderland possess the necessary balance to unleash Altidore, Fletcher, Borini and Giaccherini as a front four.

The best decision Poyet made last weekend was to infuse his side with confidence and to urge them to take the game to Newcastle. Despite only having accumulated four points this season, the Black Cats possess some pretty impressive talent. If the Uruguayan can manage to get his best unit on the pitch at the same time, fear of relegation on Wearside could be a thing of the past.

Money from Wembley replay will “support Rochdale for 2 or 3 years”

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Worst-case scenario for Tottenham Hotspur: drawing League One side Rochdale in Sunday’s FA Cup fifth-round clash; best-case scenario for the Dale: drawing the Premier League giants and forcing a replay at Wembley Stadium.

[ MORE: Man Utd draw Brighton in FA Cup QF; Chelsea get Leicester ]

For a club the size of Rochdale — 10,200-seat stadium, and never been above the third tier of English soccer — the financial impact of raking in half of the game’s gate receipts “will support the club for the next two or three years,” according to manager Keith Hill — quotes from the Guardian:

“I don’t know how much it is worth but a lot of money has gone into the new pitch. That was a heavy investment for us. Hopefully the money we make will support the club for the next two or three years. We will cut our cloth accordingly and we won’t be in debt.”

As for Steve Davies’ 93rd-minute equalizer, Hill was adamant that it was nothing short of what they “deserved”:

“It was a feeling of reward, not relief, because the performance deserved at least the opportunity for us to go to Wembley for a replay. I’ve always wanted to do that against a Premier League team and manager. Why not take them on and try to win? It could have been football suicide but I thought we gained their respect and to score the goal we did was tremendous. The players were magnificent.”

Tottenham Hotspur, soccer philanthropists.

Try, try again: Messi seeks 1st goal vs. Chelsea in 9th attempt

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LONDON (AP) As unlikely as it sounds, Lionel Messi is still waiting to score his first goal against Chelsea after drawing a blank in eight previous Champions League matches.

The five-time World Player of the Year is likely to get another chance to break his duck this week and Chelsea manager Antonio Conte believes the past will count for little when Barcelona visits Stamford Bridge on Tuesday.

“I hope we maintain this tradition but we are speaking about a fantastic player,” Conte said ahead of the last-16, first-leg Champions League game. “The most important thing is the present.

“We must have great respect but at the same time we must be excited to play this type of game and take on this type of challenge. It won’t be easy because we know very well this player, we are talking about one of the best in the world.”

The teams have produced some epic games in the past although they have not met in the Champions League since Chelsea pulled off a remarkable backs-to-the-wall semifinal victory over Barcelona on the way to winning the trophy in 2012.

Messi missed a penalty in the second leg at the Nou Camp as the London club overcame the first-half dismissal of captain John Terry, and a 2-0 deficit, to draw the game 2-2 and secure an unforgettable 3-2 aggregate win.

Bayern Munich hosts Besiktas in Tuesday’s other game while the following day sees Manchester United traveling to Sevilla, and Shakhtar Donetsk playing host to Roma.

Two weeks ago, the prospect of a Chelsea win over Barca would have been unthinkable after Conte’s men had slumped to successive defeats by two of the Premier League’s lesser lights.

The London club was still smarting from a 3-0 home loss against Bournemouth when it traveled to Watford and succumbed to an embarrassing 4-1 reverse.

Chelsea has got back on track since then, though, easing past West Bromwich Albion 3-0 in the league last Monday before swatting aside second-tier Hull 4-0 in the FA Cup four days later.

Conte has several selection dilemmas. He must choose between captain Gary Cahill and Antonio Rudiger for a place at the back, and between Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud up front.

Cesc Fabregas will also be desperate to play against his former team but may have to settle for a spot on the bench.

Barca has lost only once in 38 matches this season since falling in the Spanish Super Cup to Real Madrid in August. It has a seven-point lead at the top of La Liga and has reached the final of the Copa del Rey.

Messi is having another stellar campaign, scoring 27 times in all competitions, and he helped set up two goals in Saturday’s 2-0 win at Eibar.

Philippe Coutinho is ineligible for Barca following his move from Liverpool.

Mourinho claiming injury crisis ahead of CL showdown

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The next three weeks will go a long way toward defining Jose Mourinho’s second season at Manchester United, with the Red Devils facing not only fellow top-four aspirers Chelsea and Liverpool, but also contesting their Champions League round-of-16 tie with Sevilla.

[ MORE: VAR provider admits incorrect graphic displayed on TV ]

Thus, it’s not exactly the most convenient time for the words “injury crisis” to rear their ugly heads yet again, but that’s the challenge Mourinho claims he faces ahead of Wednesday’s CL clash.

Paul Pogba missed Saturday’s FA Cup victory with a last-minute illness; Marcus Rashford is dealing with a leg injury and remains questionable, as are Ander Herrera and Antonio Valencia; Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones and Marouane Fellaini are all but officially out, according to Mourinho — quotes from ESPN.co.uk:

“I didn’t rest one single player so we had today every player available here. I didn’t rest anyone. I brought two kids that played on Friday 90 minutes [for the under-23s] because I don’t have another player, so we arrive at this crucial moment with some problems.”

“Can we recover some of them to Wednesday? I believe so. I think Rashford, Herrera, Valencia — I think they have a chance.

“Paul, I don’t know. Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones, Marouane, Zlatan — I don’t think they have any chance.”

Mourinho dealt with a similar rash of injuries very late on last season, as his side barreled its way into, and eventually won, the Europa League final, securing a place in the CL this season. With a top-four finish all but out of reach at the time, Mourinho opted to rest his bare-bones group of first-team regulars in Premier League action and prioritize Europe’s “other” competition.

[ MORE: Man Utd draw Brighton in FA Cup QF; Chelsea get Leicester ]

This time around, United sit second in the PL table, just four points clear of fifth-place Tottenham Hotspur, and the path to winning the CL will prove far more difficult than taking on the likes of Saint-Etienne, Rostov, Anderlecht, Celta Vigo and Ajax.

Serie A: Napoli, Juve hold serve in 1-point title race

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A roundup of all of Sunday’s action in Italy’s top flight…

[ MORE: Barcelona now 31 games unbeaten | Real Madrid 17 points behind ]

Napoli 1-0 SPAL 2013

The battle for Serie A supremacy isn’t ending anytime soon, as Napoli and Juventus continue to match one another (nine straight wins for each side) in Europe’s only remaining major title race.

On Sunday, they even traded 1-0 victories — Napoli at home to SPAL 2013, with Juve triumphing over Torino in the Turin derby.

Brazilian midfielder Allan bagged the only goal for Napoli after just six minutes, finishing off a mesmerizing, free-flowing move that’s become synonymous with Napoli this season. The video-assisting referee came into play just after the hour mark, when Marek Hamsik headed home to make it 2-0 before the VAR wiped it away for offside.

Napoli’s current nine-game winning streak is the longest in club history.

Torino 0-1 Juventus

Juve’s victory came at something of a cost, though, as star striker Gonzalo Higuain was lost to an ankle injury after just a quarter-hour (the injury occurred after just three minutes), followed by a potentially serious knee injury for Federico Bernardeschi, who replaced Higuain, in second-half stoppage time. Higuain isn’t expected to miss significant time, with the club calling it a twisted ankle.

In between the injuries came Alex Sandro‘s 33rd-minute winner, a tap-in from close range masterfully set up by Bernardeschi. One additional positive for Juve: Sunday also saw Paulo Dybala return after missing five weeks with a hamstring injury. The Argentine star entered as a second-half substitute.

“Paulo played 30 minutes at a good level,” Juve manager Massimiliano Allegri said. “I’m pleased with his and everyone else’s performance. This is a good result against a well-organized Torino side.”

Elsewhere in Serie A

AC Milan 1-0 Sampdoria
Atalanta 1-1 Fiorentina
Bologna 2-1 Sassuolo
Benevento 3-2 Crotone