Finding Arsenal’s Next Striker: Benzema, Benteke, Reus lead list

2 Comments

They’re top of the league and a squad that most agree will challenge for the Premier League title, and – dare I say it – the Champions League crown.

A large reason for those possibilities – Olivier Giroud.

The French striker, who so many cast aside last year as being slow and unimpactful, has been a revelation this season scoring 8 goals and handing out five assists.

He’s lead the offense as the only striker, doing wonders holding the ball up to allow the attack to build, while also dropping deep to join in on oil-slick interchange that is the Arsenal midfield.

He’s shown us skill (recall his role as the centerpiece of the ‘Jack Wilshere goal’), pace on the counter-attack, strength, creativity and an eye for goal, especially on first-time shots off the run.

But now, Giroud is beginning to show what Laurent Koscielny describes as “a bit of fatigue.” Playing in all 19 of Arsenal’s matches this season – as well as two international contests for France – in 89 days will do that to a man.

source: AP
Having played 21 games in 89 days, Olivier Giroud is “a bit fatigued”, says Laurent Koscielny.

And therein lies the most pressing issue for the Arsenal: Buying a new striker to provide Giroud with a bit of a rest so he doesn’t tucker himself out before the key late winter/early spring stretch.

If Arsenal are to charge forward and claim their first piece of silverware in eight years, a move for a striker in January is a must.

But don’t the Gunners already have players who could do the business up top?

Of course. Besides the lump that is Nicklas Bendtner and the inexperienced Yaya Sanogo, the Gunners could use Theo Walcott or Lukas Podolski in that role, if either of them could get healthy.

The problem, however, is two-fold. First, when Walcott and Podolski do return to the squad it will be coming off an extended injury absence. So putting them into the bruising role up front – opposed to a less confrontational role on the wing – isn’t the brightest idea. Second, both are better equipped to join the attack from wide positions rather than operate alone in a central one.

Ideally, the Gunners need a player who, like Giroud, can handle the physicality of the striker role. By putting a big man up top, opposing defenses focus on putting bodies on him, which in turn releases pressure on Arsene Wenger’s more diminutive midfielders. This is a key component to the Gunners attack.

Finding that kind of player, of course, is easier said than done. The market for big men with skills is limited and those who do qualify are in the midst of helping their current clubs in Europe, meaning they’re unlikely to move.

The most talked about player who could fill the role is Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema, who is believed to be more open to a move to the Emirates after snubbing Arsenal’s advances last summer. The success Mesut Ozil has enjoyed in North London has apparently swayed Benzema.

The issue is that Benzema has 18 months left on his contract meaning it’s unlikely Real Madrid would sell the striker in January. The more likely scenario would be for the Spanish giants to wait until the summer when they are expected to move for Liverpool star Luis Suarez.

Juventus striker Fernando Llorente is another player who could fit the bill. The Basque behemoth struggled upon moving to Juventus last summer but is now playing more regularly and scoring goals.

source: AP
Seeing Christian Benteke in Arsenal red – something most Goonah’s wouldn’t mind.

Other big man options include a Premier League move for Demba Ba or Christian Benteke.

Ba has been used sparingly by Jose Mourinho but may see more time now that Fernando Torres is injured. Selling the Sengalese striker to a fellow title-contender, however, is a mistake Mourinho looks unlikely to make.

Despite re-signing with Paul Lambert’s side this summer, Benteke’s days at Villa Park inevitably feel numbered. Lambert will try hard to hold onto his prized asset, especially since Aston Villa’s up-and-down form this season means they aren’t entirely assured of staying in the top-flight.

On the other hand, the money Lambert could command for Benteke in January would arguably be higher than what he could ask for this summer, as the Belgian striker has the unique feature of not being cup-tied for the Champions League.

While going big seems the more likely scenario, Arsenal could foreseeably go small if Wenger deems that to be the best option.

There’s been a lot of talk that Javier Hernandez is looking to move away from Old Trafford but David Moyes, fearful of making a decision that could come back to haunt him, seems unlikely to sell within the league.

And then there’s today’s news of Marco Reus‘ $46.7 million (£29.4m) release clause. The Dortmund winger/striker/attacking midfield hybrid possesses the speed, skill and guile that seems tailor-made for Arsenal’s style but – is Wenger is ready to drop that kind of coin for the second time in six months?

Given the frugal nature of the Arsenal, most would say ‘no’.

But, if Arsenal do win the race for Reus (Barcelona, Manchester United and Paris Saint Germain are all rumored to be interested) what a massive statement of intent that would be from Wenger that this is the year his club returns to greatness.

Barkley ineligible to make Chelsea debut in FA Cup replay

Photo credit: Chelsea FC / Twitter: @chelseafc
Leave a comment

Ross Barkley was expected — and himself expected — to make his Chelsea debut on Wednesday, when the Blues host Championship side Norwich City in a third-round FA Cup replay at Stamford Bridge.

Alas, the 24-year-old English midfielder has been ruled ineligible due to a lesser-known and -applied rules surrounding transfers and player registration.

[ MORE: Tuesday’s 3rd-round replay roundup | Wednesday preview ]

Barkley completed his move from Everton to Chelsea, for $20 million, on Jan. 5, the day before Chelsea and Norwich drew 0-0 at Carrow Road. In order to be eligible for Wednesday’s replay, Barkley is required to have completed his transfer prior to the noon cut-off the day prior to the original tie. While the time of official approval is unknown, Barkley’s move wasn’t announced by the club until after 5 p.m. in the UK.

As such, Chelsea will attempt to set up a behind-closed-doors friendly this week, in order to provide Barkley a bit of game action as he builds fitness and sharpness ahead of a potential debut against Brighton & Hove Albion on Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com). Barkley hasn’t seen a single minute of first-team action this season after suffering a serious hamstring injury in the summer.

FA Cup preview: Three more PL sides face 3rd-round replays

Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Three more Premier League sides, including a top-four fighter, attempt to join a dozen of their top-flight contemporaries in the fourth round of the FA Cup on Wednesday…

[ MORE: Tuesday’s 3rd-round replay roundup ]

Chelsea and Swansea City host Championship opposition in the form of Norwich City and Wolverhampton Wanderers, respectively, while Bournemouth will make the 500-mile roundtrip to take on League One side Wigan Athletic.

The Blues, who now sit fourth in the PL after their disappointing 0-0 draw with Leicester City, could manage only a scoreless draw with the Canaries at Carrow Road earlier this month. They are winless in their last four games across all competitions — all draws — including their League Cup semifinal first-leg draw with Arsenal last week; the last three of those all finished without a single goal scored. Chelsea, who are tied with Liverpool with the fourth-most FA Cups in their history (7), lost out to Arsenal in last season’s final at Wembley Stadium.

Swansea are undoubtedly the side on highest Cupset alert, as Wolves are the runaway leaders and champions-elect in the Championship (10 points clear after 27 of 46 rounds played), thus able to devote more attention to the FA Cup than the typical second-division side. With the two sides separated by just a single place in the English footballing pyramid (Swansea, 20th in the PL; Wolves, 1st in the Championship), they appear destined to swap places by the end of May.

Meanwhile, Bournemouth’s punishment for conceding a pair of early goals to a side currently 32 places below them in the pyramid, is the long, midweek trip from the south coast to the DW Stadium in the northwest of England. It was the Premier Leaguers who needed a two second-half goals, including Steve Cook‘s 90th-minute equalizer, to draw level at home in the first meeting.

Tuesday’s FA Cup replay actionFULL ROUNDUP

Leicester City 2-0 Fleetwood Town
West Ham United 1-0 (AET) Shrewsbury Town
Mansfield Town 1-4 Cardiff City
Sheffield Wednesday 2-0 Carlisle United
Reading 3-0 Stevenage

Agent: 37-year-old Ronaldinho has retired

Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images
Leave a comment

SAO PAULO (AP) The brother and agent of 2005 Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldinho announced Tuesday that the former Brazil and Barcelona playmaker has retired from football.

Roberto Assis made the announcement to Brazilian media on behalf of the 37-year-old midfielder, who played his last professional match in 2015 for Brazil’s Fluminense.

“Ronnie’s professional career is over. He wants to be a football ambassador, do charity, and work with his friends in music from now on,” Assis told The Associated Press.

Assis hopes to schedule some farewell matches for Ronaldinho after the World Cup in Russia, which ends July 15. The initial plan is to play games in Brazil, Europe and Asia and to also get Brazil’s national team involved, Assis said.

Last July, Ronaldinho said on the sidelines of a friendly in Chechnya that was he was “too old” to return to action.

The Brazilian’s decorated career also includes one World Cup title (2002), one Champions League victory (2006) and two Spanish league titles with Barcelona, and two FIFA world player of the year awards (2004 and 2005).

Ronaldinho started his professional career at Gremio in southern Brazil in 1998. He left for Paris Saint-Germain in 2001 and was signed by Barcelona two seasons later.

At the Camp Nou, he was the engine of a team that took Barca back to the limelight. However, after a series of club trophies, Ronaldinho’s career took a downturn. He was often accused by Brazilian and Spanish media of lacking professionalism, despite his mentoring of a then youthful Lionel Messi.

In 2008, with Messi then leading Barcelona, Ronaldinho left for AC Milan. Despite being part of a team that won Serie A in 2011, he failed to reach his previous heights as a player.

When returning home became a real option, Ronaldinho frustrated Gremio’s efforts to re-sign him and joined Flamengo instead.

Disappointing performances in Rio de Janeiro took him to Atletico Mineiro, a club that then was more often fighting against relegation than for titles.

Yet a more mature Ronaldinho took Atletico to a different level.

In his last great run, Ronaldinho carried Atletico with his superb passes and dazzling dribbles to second place in the 2012 Brazilian Championship.

A year later, he was the key to his club lifting its first Copa Libertadores, South America’s most prestigious club trophy, but his hopes of playing at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil were dashed.

Ronaldinho left to play for Mexico’s Queretaro in 2014-15, but was mostly on the bench.

He played his last seven matches as a professional for Fluminense, though his performances were a far cry from his best days in Spain.

Now living in Rio, he has appeared in advertisements all over the world since leaving Fluminense.

USL granted 2018 2nd-division sanctioning by U.S. Soccer

Photo credit: USL / Twitter: @USL
Leave a comment

U.S. Soccer has officially granted the United Soccer League second-division sanctioning, behind first-division Major League Soccer, for the upcoming 2018 season, as well as first-division status for the National Women’s Soccer League.

[ MORE: Landon Donovan unveiled by Liga MX side Club Leon ]

USL, which will feature 33 teams in 2018, had been granted temporary second-division sanctioning, alongside the North American Soccer League, in 2017. As NASL’s demise continued and accelerated — the league will not begin play this spring, opting instead for a late-summer kickoff, after a number of its teams either folded or jumped ship to USL — USL, with the help of MLS, quickly pounced to capitalize — from U.S. Soccer’s statement:

Sanctioning allows NWSL and USL to operate a Division I and II league, respectively, during the 2018 season and includes a two-year pathway to full compliance with the Professional League Standards. USL has demonstrated substantial progress toward reaching full compliance since being granted provisional Division II sanctioning in 2017.

Conspiracy theorist’s take: USL supplanted NASL as the U.S.’s second-most viable professional men’s league — and more importantly, being granted official second-division status — paves the way for MLS to, at some point well down the line — say, 2030 or so — implement its own multi-tiered system of promotion and relegation, featuring anywhere between 60 and 80 teams, while still remaining a single-entity structure closed to the lower reaches of the sport in America, as the lines separating MLS and USL have only become more and more blurred in recent years.

[ MORE: Donovan ready to “win championships” after ending retirement ]

MLS realizes that public demand for promotion and relegation in the U.S. has grown significantly louder in recent years — particularly given the climate of the sport after the men’s national team failed to qualify for the World Cup, and subsequent ongoing presidential-election campaign — thus an open-but-not-really-open system which satisfies neither side will eventually be the end result.