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Aaron Ramsey: In form and leading the way at the Emirates

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Arsenal are on top of the Barclays Premier League table.  The Gunners also currently lead their Champions League Group of Death.

Everything is clicking at the Emirates this season, and somehow, some way, the most improbable of players is at the forefront of their early-season charge.

It’s not Olivier Giroud, the in-form French striker who has earned himself – for now – a stay in the French national side with fantastic play in front of goal.

It’s not Mesut Ozil, the prolific German who Arsenal paid £44 million ($70.7 million) for in one of the highest-profile transfers of the summer.

No, it’s Aaron Ramsey, scorer of just 11 goals in his 150 games before this season.  Recipient of a horrific broken leg three seasons ago that left him wondering if he’ll ever play again.  Emergency purveyor of right-back in the first half of last year when things were going from bad to worse in North London.

Aaron Ramsey this season, however, is the proud owner of 11 goals this year – most of any Gunner – including the winner against Borussia Dortmund on Wednesday in one of the most meaningful European victories in Arsenal history.

(MORE: Aaron Ramsey’s latest big moment gives Arsenal a huge 1-0 Champions League win at Dortmund)

The 22-year-old holding midfielder is having a season for the ages, a stunner that has graced us from the depths of Douglas Adams’ Infinite Improbability Drive, and it’s captivating.

His work rate has been astonishing.  Of Arsenal’s 1620 minutes played so far this season, Ramsey has played 1,444 of them, second on the team only to defender Per Mertesacker. His 11 goals leads the Arsenal squad this season, and he’s contributed five assists and created 13 chances.

Manager Arsene Wenger has been an admirer of Ramsey from the beginning.  While courting the youngster back in 2008, Wenger fought off Manchester United and Liverpool for Ramsey’s signature by flying the player out in a private jet to Austria and Switzerland to watch Euro 2008 while the manager made his pitch.

source: Getty ImagesIn September, when Ramsey’s stellar season was still just a protostar, Wenger saw what was coming.  “There’s still a lot of improvement to come from him,” the Frenchman declared following a 2-1 win at Swansea.  Prophetic.

But don’t just go labeling Ramsey just a goal-scorer all of a sudden. According to Squawka statistics, the Welsh kid leads the Barclays Premier League with 40 successful tackles, proving he plays his role as a holding midfielder just as well, something that makes his manager smile even more than finishing goals.

“I didn’t expect him to score so many goals but he has improved in his passing, his technical quality,” Wenger told the Daily Mail just over a month ago. “He was always in good positions in the box…For me the most important thing is the quality of his game. Aaron is playing well and that is most important, that he continues to improve.”

However, in the past Ramsey was just a role player, a cog in the greater whole.  This year, he’s breaking out. “This season he has the confidence and he has an unbelievable engine to get from box to box,” said Wenger. “His ability makes him a dangerous player.”

And what an asset it is for Arsenal to have such a dangerous player.  While teams are preparing to defend the likes of Giroud and Ozil, Ramsey is there to pick up the pieces.

A player who once scored so rarely it was commonly joked that he murdered celebrities with his goals is now bagging them at a regular pace.  But more importantly, he’s led his team to the top early on with every intention of keeping them there. And he’s got his whole career in front of him.

WATCH: Chelsea’s Chalobah nutmegs two Manchester United players in seconds

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 23:  Nathaniel Chalobah of Chelsea is closed down by Paul Pogba of Manchester United during the Premier League match between Chelsea and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge on October 23, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
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For the first time since the 2011-12 season, Nathaniel Chalobah is not on loan and getting the chance to show what he can do for Chelsea.

At the very least, the 21-year-old midfielder has given the club a viral video.

[ MORE: Manchester Derby “a final” ]

Chelsea uploaded a video of Chalobah going double nutmeg on Manchester United’s Anthony Martial and Ander Herrera.

Given the opposition, it’s gone quite well to the tune of several hundred thousand views inside of four hours.

Watch the ex-Watford, Nottingham Forest, Middlesbrough, Burnley, Reading, and Napoli man go.

BVB boss Tuchel not worried about Real Madrid links

SHENZHEN, CHINA - JULY 27:  Thomas Tuchel, head coach of Dortmund looks on during team training session for 2016 International Champions Cup match between Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund at Shenzhen Universiade Stadium on July 27, 2016 in Shenzhen, China.  (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)
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Less than five months have passed since Real Madrid won the Champions League final, yet in Florentino Perez’s mind that’s a lifetime. ()

Real’s president is anything but patient with managers, the latest example being Carlo Ancelotti. The Italian was fired a year after winning the club’s long-desired Decima and losing a whopping 19 of 119 matches in charge.

[ MORE: Manchester Derby “a final” ]

So even though Real Madrid leads La Liga under Zinedine Zidane and won the UCL last season, people are always imagining the future.

Borussia Dortmund boss Thomas Tuchel’s style of play has captured the imaginations of so many supporters. And with BVB president Hans-Joachim Watzke claiming that Real is tracking the German, the questions are heading for Tuchel.


“It’s dangerous if you are flattered as a coach.You lose focus on the important things. I read it as a rumour before our game in Ingolstadt and so I already said back then that it’s dangerous to admit it and to think about it because it takes on too much importance.”

There’s no reason for Tuchel to have to ask those questions. Perez has called Zidane’s appointment one of his proudest moments, and that was just three days ago. Even in Perez’s world, that’s only a solid month, maybe two. %tags%

“It is a final” — Manchester Derby day finds both City, United craving win

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 10:  Images of Pep Guardiola the manager of Manchester City and Jose Mourinho of Manchester United are seen on a scarf ahead of the Premier League match between Manchester United and Manchester City at Old Trafford on September 10, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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It’s bonus Manchester Derby Day thanks to the EFL Cup, and so many eyes will be trained on Old Trafford come 3 p.m. ET.

There’s plenty at stake on the day, as both Manchester United and Manchester City have undergone a run of disappointing play in recent weeks.

[ MORE: Tues’ EFL Cup roundup ]

United was spanked 4-0 by Chelsea on Sunday, bringing their Premier League run to 1W-2D-1L over four games. City’s had it far worse, winless in five with a trio of draws in the mix.

For those considering that this derby could take on any lesser feel, rest assured that longtime rival bosses Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola will not be operating at full blast (even with rumors of youth-heavy teams on Wednesday).

Here’s Guardiola, from Sky Sports:

“I think everyone can believe this competition is not the big one but I am going to prepare to win the game.

“For the players who play, we’ll be depending on them to make the best performance possible. It is a final.”

Mourinho seems under special pressure given the losses against Man City and Chelsea in the Premier League, ones in which the genius was clearly outfoxed. He was talking about the PL when he said Tuesday that Man Utd needed wins, but there’s little doubt he’ll want to lose to City at home in any competition.

Get your proverbial and actual popcorn ready.

‘Ravens’ challenge soccer orthodoxy in Belarus

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MINSK, Belarus (AP) Less than three years ago, Alexander Skshinetsky’s soccer career seemed over.

The former under-21 international found himself unemployed after his career stalled, and was working on construction sites when an offer came. Would he consider joining an amateur team that had been playing seven-a-side soccer but now wanted to go pro, founded by a small group of fans staking thousands of dollars of their own money to build a club from scratch?

Two seasons and two promotions later, the 26-year-old midfielder is a key player in one of European soccer’s most unlikely success stories. In only its third professional season, Krumkachy Minsk is playing top-flight soccer, beating established names and challenging the economic orthodoxy in one of Europe’s most closed-off countries.

[ MORE: Nyarko says DC can aim high in MLS Playoffs ]

Krumkachy – “Ravens” in Belarusian – has soared into the country’s top league with a shoestring budget but an enthusiastic and growing fan base of hipsters, families and others turned off by the stagnation of soccer in the ex-Soviet nation. Before a recent run of losses, it was even challenging for Europa League qualification.

The secret has been finding talented players on the verge of leaving the game, or even those who have already quit, “people who have been underestimated and put down,” in the words of co-founder Denis Shunto, who set up Krumkachy with friends in 2011. “We get those guys and we can really make them into a team.”

After starting out in recreational competitions, Shunto and his friends decided to aim higher. Belarusian soccer has a three-tier league system packed with clubs backed by various government agencies and state-run factories in the country’s Soviet-style economy, a set-up which prefers predictability over ambition and can give rise to conflicts of interest. With a spot open in the third tier, but without a state patron, Krumkachy scraped together a few thousand dollars to apply. Each subsequent step up the pyramid brought predictions of imminent financial collapse.

“Everyone said we wouldn’t have the money, we couldn’t take part,” said Skshinetsky, the midfielder. “We played for free in the second division, and in the first division it wasn’t much. Maybe $100 for a win in the first division and salaries maybe $150 (a month).”

[ MORE: MLS Cup predictions ]

On a freezing Friday night in Minsk, the crowd was small and the game scrappy. Goalkeeping errors helped to hand Krumkachy a 2-1 win which all but ensured the club’s top-flight survival for 2017 in the Belarusian league’s calendar-year system. Financial survival is always a trickier question.

“We’ve got the smallest budget (in the league) and we’re still putting money in ourselves,” said Shunto, who wonders if the approach of going without government funding may be “too romantic.”

At Friday’s game, commercial tie-ups were prominent and Krumkachy’s shirts were covered in a myriad of small logos from various businesses which have chipped in as sponsors, while opposition Granit Mikashevichi bore only the logo of its backer, a state-run quarry. Consumerism may be the norm in most European leagues, but in Belarus’ state-dominated economy, it’s the mark of the plucky underdog.

After ending a nine-game wait for victory, the players came over to celebrate with the sparse crowd. An hour later, the reserve players were still sharing the field with fans and their children having a kickabout.

“It’s an atmosphere like home, very warm. It’s been helping the guys not to give up,” said Vasily Khomutovsky, one of Krumkachy’s two co-coaches.

At a recent away game, “a woman with two children who went there, with two small kids 7 and 10 years old, she made each player a little souvenir by hand and signed it, something different for each player,” Khomutovsky said.

There’s a family atmosphere within the club, too, with Shunto’s brother serving as a backup goalkeeper and Skshinetsky’s wife in charge of fitness training.

[ MORE: Power rankings — Going to the playoffs edition ]

Vladimir Harlach, one of the team’s supporters, said Krumkachy reminds him of AFC Wimbledon, the English club founded by fans after owners relocated its previous incarnation to another town, and which has since shot up several divisions.

“That’s a bit different, there was history,” Harlach said. “Here, it’s from scratch. History is being written in front of our eyes. You could compare it to other countries 100 years ago, when (soccer) was all being created.”

Krumkachy’s average home attendance of about 1,500 is tiny by European standards, but enough to put it comfortably above all but the biggest clubs in Belarus, as well as higher than that of FC Minsk, the city government-run club whose stadium Krumkachy is using.

Some at the club wonder whether European qualification might be possible next year, another improbable step up, but the top spot in Belarus appears far out of reach. Able to outspend rivals with cash from occasional Champions League appearances, BATE Borisov has just sewn up its 11th straight title.

Khomutovsky welcomes the comparison to Leicester, a team which was promoted to top division in England, survived one season, then won a wildly unlikely title the following year.

“I hope next year,” Khomutovsky said, “we do what we can to become the Belarusian Leicester.”