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

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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.

Aguero left off Argentina starting XI to face Bolivia

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Sao Paolo striker Lucas Pratto will receive a fantastic opportunity on Tuesday when Argentina faces Bolivia in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying.

[ PREVIEW: USMNT travels to Panama in CONCACAF WCQ ]

It just so happens that Pratto’s gain is a major letdown for one of the Premier League’s top strikers. The 28-year-old is tied for second this qualifying campaign for Argentina with two goals.

La Albiceleste have announced their starting lineup ahead of tomorrow’s clash in Bolivia, which features mainstays Lionel Messi, Angel di Maria and goalkeeper Sergio Romero.

Meanwhile, Aguero — who started in Argentina’s 1-0 win over Chile on Thursday — is the lone change from manager Edgardo Bauza.

The Copa America runners’ up are currently depleted with a combination of injuries and suspensions. Four players will miss Tuesday’s meeting in La Paz due to suspension, including Gonzalo Higuain, Nicolas Otamendi, Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia.

Elsewhere, Gabriel Mercado and Emmanuel Mas will each miss the match after sustaining respective hamstring and knee injuries.

Argentina currently sits third in the CONMEBOL table while Bolivia is in danger of elimination with a loss on Tuesday. La Verde have managed just seven points in the first 13 rounds of World Cup qualifying.

Three keys for USMNT against Panama

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Coming off of Friday night’s dominating effort against Honduras, the U.S. Men’s National Team looks for their second win in five nights when Bruce Arena and co. head to Panama.

[ PREVIEW: USMNT goes for second win in Hex on Tuesday ]

Strong performances from players like Clint Dempsey and Christian Pulisic have USMNT fans buzzing ahead of Tuesday’s clash in Panama City, but there are several questions that lie ahead for Arena as the U.S. goes for its second win in the Hexagonal.

How does Arena cope with injuries?

The only downside of the team’s 6-0 win over Panama on Friday was the aftereffects if the match. John Brooks, Sebastian Lletget, Michael Orozco and Jordan Morris are no longer with the USMNT after sustaining injuries/illnesses, leaving Arena shorthanded as the Stars and Stripes head into the Estadio Rommel Fernández.

While Clint Dempsey’s emphatic national team return will provide Arena with some assurances up front, along with the emergence of Borussia Dortmund star Christian Pulisic, there are some questions in the midfield and defense for the U.S.

Jermaine Jones is available to return from his one-match suspension and could potentially fill the void left by Sebastian Lletget after his injury on Friday. While, Alejandro Bedoya — who replaced Lletget in the Honduras match — will also be in line for a starting spot.

Defensively is where it gets a bit tricky though, as Arena has to make up for an already-depleted backline. There was no DeAndre Yedlin or Fabian Johnson coming into this round of qualifiers, and John Brooks’ release from camp leaves the defense even thinner. Tim Ream appears to be Arena’s next choice to start at centerback with Brooks unavailable, but will he stick with Omar Gonzalez in the center or slide Geoff Cameron back into the middle?

It seems like the latter choice, especially given Cameron’s experience in the central defense, but that would mean Arena has to slot somebody else into the right back position. Graham Zusi has had slight experience in that role as of late, but it could be a bit of a gamble for Arena in another high-stakes match.

Bradley must control the middle once again

Forget Michael Bradley’s superb goal, which lifted the U.S. lead to 2-0 on Friday, it was the captain’s overall performance that is exactly what should be expected from the center midfielder.

Bradley completions/MLSSoccer

In 90 minutes of play against Los Catrachos, Bradley only missed on six passes while also making several successful tackles and recoveries to limit the Honduras attack.

The loss of Lletget is definitely a significant one for the Americans, given his lively movement going both ways. However, LA Galaxy teammate will likely be in line to replace the vibrant midfielder on Tuesday as he returns from a one-match suspension.

In regards to Bradley though, the U.S. veteran is at his best when he is able to move freely throughout the midfield, but Jones’ inclusion could present more of a burden for the Toronto FC player.

Jones is still a very capable midfielder, but he simply doesn’t have the pace to match that of a Lletget, which leaves Bradley more liable for covering ground defensively in front of the backline.

On top of that, the back four will see more changes on Tuesday after Brooks’ exit from the USMNT, making Bradley’s role all the more critical when facing players like Luis Tejada and Gabriel Torres.

[ MORE: CONCACAF qualifiers resume Tuesday afternoon ]

Dempsey/Pulisic bond continues to evolve

It couldn’t have gone much better for the pair on Friday night as Clint Dempsey and Christian Pulisic were directly involved in five of the game’s six goals.

The budding relationship between the two key attackers though is an intriguing one, and will likely determine just how successful this USMNT can be down the road. At 34, Dempsey is certainly on the back end of his career, however, his effort against Honduras shows just how dangerous the Seattle Sounders man can be, even after missing significant time due to a heart problem.

Meanwhile, Pulisic continues to shine in European with giants Dortmund, appearing both in the Bundesliga and UEFA Champions League. The two likely won’t be together on the international scene for long, perhaps only until the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but the partnership is something to monitor over the next year-plus.

Not only does the duo represent a dangerous one-two punch in the attack but also a changing of the guard. Dempsey has been one of the most talented USMNT players in the nation’s history, and many believe Pulisic has the talent to match or even surpass that of the 55-time goalscorer.

We’ve seen it before when Landon Donovan was phased out of the U.S. squad and Dempsey was essentially handed the reigns of the attack, and this time Pulisic will be doing so with much more time to make an impact. The 18-year-old already has four international goals in 12 appearances, and if he improves on that goalscoring pace the U.S. will be enjoying his presence for many years to come.

At long last, Butland returns to full training with Stoke

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Stoke City’s long-coming goalkeeping dilemma will come to a head soon, as Jack Butland is back in training.

A year ago today, the Potters confirmed that star backstop Butland would miss EURO 2016 with a broken ankle. He’d need multiple surgeries as recovery dragged on and on.

[ MORE: Complete Panama-USMNT preview ]

That was more palatable thanks to the play of Lee Grant, who arrived on loan from Derby County but became a permanent Potter in January. Grant has been a key part of Stoke’s season.

Butland is contracted to Stoke through 2021, and he’ll ascend to the starting gig sooner rather than later. But Grant is in the catbird seat for now, and at least will have made himself attractive to other clubs seeking a keeper.

Report: Everton linked with $4 million swoop for Canada’s Larin

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The Sun only hits on a few of the many transfer rumors it tosses around, but this one bears a second look for fans of Everton, MLS, and Canada.

Everton is already eyeing replacements for Romelu Lukaku, according to the report, and is hunting for a bargain in Canadian national teamer Cyle Larin.

Larin, 21, was the first overall pick in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft by Orlando City SC after an electric career at UConn.

[ MORE: Complete Panama-USMNT preview ]

He’s since scored 35 goals in 63 matches for the Lions, picking up three in his first two matches of the 2017 season. The 6-foot-1 Ontario native has five goals for Canada in 19 caps.

The Sun says Larin would cost close to $4 million, a fraction of what the Toffees will get if they sell Lukaku.