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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.

LIVE: UCL last 16 – Leicester face Sevilla; Juve head to Porto

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 05:  Jamie Vardy of Leicester City applauds the crowd in defeat after the Premier League match between Leicester City and Manchester United at The King Power Stadium on February 5, 2017 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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Two more UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first legs take place on Wednesday.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores

Leicester City of the Premier League head to Spain to face Sevilla in the UCL last 16 despite Claudio Ranieri‘s men battling for survival in the Premier League. The Foxes, as always, are the big underdogs in Spain as Sevilla have won the UEFA Europa League in each of the past three seasons and Jorge Sampaoli’s side are battling for the title in La Liga.

As for Leicester, they’re just two points off the bottom of the PL as they haven’t scored in their last six outings and have lost five on the spin as well as being dumped out of the FA Cup by third-tier Millwall at the weekend. So yeah, Sevilla head into this game as the heavy favorites and will hope to take a healthy lead to the King Power Stadium with them in two weeks time.

In the other UCL clash on Wednesday FC Porto host Juventus as the Portuguese and Italian giants collide at the Estadio do Dragao. Porto finished behind Leicester in the group stage, while Juv battled it out with Sevilla and clinched top spot. Massimiliano Allegri’s men remain top of Serie A and will look to Gonzalo Higuain to deliver the goals away from home. It promises to be an intriguing tactical battle in northern Portugal.

Click on the link above to follow live commentary on both games, while we will have reaction and analysis on all of the UCL knockout games here at Pro Soccer Talk.


Wednesday’s UCL Round of 16, first legs

Sevilla vs. Leicester City – 2:45 p.m. ET
FC Porto vs. Juventus – 2:45 p.m. ET

Man United’s stroll at Saint-Etienne comes at a cost

SAINT-ETIENNE, FRANCE - FEBRUARY 22:  Jose Mourinho, manager of Manchester United looks on before the UEFA Europa League Round of 32 second leg match between AS Saint-Etienne and Manchester United at Stade Geoffroy-Guichard on February 22, 2017 in Saint-Etienne, France.  (Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images)
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Manchester United beat Saint-Etienne 1-0 in their UEFA Europa League Round of 32 second leg clash on Wednesday, but Jose Mourinho will be more concerned by injuries picked up ahead of the EFL Cup final on Sunday.

[ MORE: Mkhitaryan, Carrick injury updates ] 

The Red Devils advanced to the last 16 of Europe’s second-tier club competition after a resounding 4-0 win on aggregate against the Ligue 1 side but with goalscorer Henrikh Mkhitaryan hobbling off in the first half and Michael Carrick removed in the second half, Mourinho will have some injury problems to sort out ahead of this weekends final against Southampton at Wembley.

Eric Bailly was sent off for two quick yellow cards in the second half but that didn’t impact the outcome as United cruised into the Round of 16 which will be drawn on Friday.

United have now lost just one of their last 25 games in all competitions. They are well and truly on a roll.

[ MORE: Europa League scoreboard ] 

United controlled the early stages and went ahead after 15 minutes when Juan Mata picked the ball up on the left flank, drifted inside and picked out Mkhitaryan’s run as the Armenian playmaker flicked home. 1-0 to United on the night as the Red Devils led 4-0 on aggregate.

Mata again got free down the left in the first half and his cross hit two Saint-Etienne defenders and almost went in, while Mkhitaryan hobbled off soon after clutching his hamstring.

With Marcus Rashford coming on for Mkhitaryan, he almost made it 2-0 as Ashley Young‘s cross just evaded him. At the other end Saint-Etienne barely threatened as Loic Perrin sent a tame header in on goal which Sergio Romero saved easily.

In the second half United spurned good chances as Marouane Fellaini fired into the side-netting with teammates wide-open and then Paul Pogba went down in the box easily under a challenge. Zlatan Ibrahimovic then fired a shot just wide after another good break from Rashford as United dominated proceedings with link-up play between Pogba and Ibrahimovic imperious.

Carrick was then taken off with Bastian Schweinsteiger coming on in his place as it appeared that United’s veteran midfielder had a calf issue.

Bailly was then shown two quick yellow cards around the hour mark (he will miss their next European game) which saw United play out the game with 10-men and that buoyed the home side slightly.

However, United coasted through to the last 16 with Rashford and Ibrahimovic going close to doubling their lead late on in front of a raucous home crowd.

Vietnamese players banned for two years after penalty protest

INCHEON, SOUTH KOREA - SEPTEMBER 19:  Flag bearer, Hoang Quy Phuoc of Vietnam arrives during the Opening Ceremony ahead of the 2014 Asian Games at Incheon Asiad Main Stadium on September 19, 2014 in Incheon, South Korea.  (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)
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The Vietnamese Football Federation has imposed two-year bans on two players and suspended a coach for three years after their team was involved in a bizarre penalty protest during a league match on the weekend.

[ MORE: China or MLS for Rooney? ]

Long An players were furious at a late penalty awarded by referee Nguyen Tr?ng Thu to Ho Chi Minh City when the score was locked 2-2 late Sunday.

After initially walking off the pitch, the players returned to the field but goalkeeper Nguyen Minh Nhut turned his back as the penalty was taken, conceding a goal.

The whole team then stood motionless and allowed Ho Chi Minh City to score two more goals as the margin blew out to 5-2.

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In a statement, the VFF said that Mimh Nhut and captain Huynh Quang Thanh would banned for 24 months, “Due to disrupting the match, not respecting the decision of the referee and causing damage to the reputation and honor of the Vietnam Football Federation.”

Coach Ngo Quang Sang has been banned for three years, as has club chairman Vo Thanh Nhiem, who quit following the game.

Zaza scores stunning goal for Valencia vs. Real Madrid

TURIN, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 23:  Simone Zaza (C) of Juventus FC celebrates after scring the opening goal during the Serie A match between Juventus FC and Frosinone Calcio at Juventus Arena on September 23, 2015 in Turin, Italy.  (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)
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Simone Zaza scored a stunner for Valencia against Real Madrid in La Liga.

Yes, that Simone Zaza.

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The Italian international striker, 25, spent the best part of six months on loan at West Ham United this season and just didn’t look interested as he failed to score in 11 appearances in all competitions. That prompted Slaven Bilic and the Hammers to cancel his loan deal from Juventus and the forward then joined Valencia in La Liga in January.

Fans of West Ham will be scratching their heads when watching the video below as Zaza swiveled and smashed home a perfect volley to put Valencia 1-0 up against Real at the Mestalla on Wednesday.

Simply sublime.