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.

Championship Focus: Bluebirds flying, Villa second-last

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The wild 46-game slate that is the Football League Championship is already howling, with all 24 teams three matches deep into their campaigns toward Premier League promotion (or avoiding relegation to League One).

The three clubs relegated from the Premier League last season all sit within the Top 8 after three match days. Sunderland is unbeaten with a win and two draws, while Hull City is 1-1-1.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

Middlesbrough has two wins from three matches, three points behind three sides who’ve started a perfect 3-0.

Wolves and Ipswich Town are two of the three, and Cardiff City leads the way. Owner Vincent Tan has seen his club score six goals without conceding once in defeats of Burton Albion, Aston Villa, and Sheffield United.

Burton is 0-3, while Steve Bruce‘s Villa is just one point better and sits 23rd.

As for individual superlatives, Bristol City’s Bobby Reid has four goals to lead the league while familiar names Lewis Grabban (Sunderland) and Abel Hernandez (Hull City) are among a quartet of players to score thrice.

Meanwhile, PL transfer target Jota of Brentford continues to impress with three assists through three matches. Will he remain in the second tier by the close of the transfer window?

MLS Snapshot: Montreal Impact 3-0 Chicago Fire

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The game in 100 words (or less)Ignacio Piatti is very good at soccer, and Chicago backstop Matt Lampson is going to see him deep into his dreams. Piatti beat Lampson up close on a turnover and then, with Montreal ahead 2-0 off a PK, the Argentine curled a surprise shot from distance around the keeper. Game, set, match, and it wasn’t even halftime. The loss keeps Chicago from using its match-in-hand to catch second place New York City FC, while the three points move Montreal to within two points of the East’s final playoff position.

Three moments that mattered

6′ — Piatti starts the party — Gifted a chance with the keeper by a sloppy missed clearing attempt, the Argentine deftly pops the ball over Fire keeper Matt Lampson.

36′ — Lampson hurts his cause — Chicago’s backstop wasn’t at fault on the opening goal, but he was for the second. After chopping down Matteo Mancosu in the box, Lampson guessed wrong on the striker’s penalty kick and the Fire went down 2-0.

38′ — It’s not your night, Lamps — Pretty sure you can anyone named Lampson, Lamps. Anyway, this time it was one of MLS’ top newcomers who set up Piatti for a goal. “Nacho” has his 12th of the season thanks to Blerim Dzemaili, and my goodness did Piatti do well here.

Man of the Match: Piatti.

Forbes ranks the top supporters in Major League Soccer

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Forbes claims the shared honor will give two Cascadia Cup rivals one less thing to argue about, but we completely disagree.

The celebrated magazine says their metrics show the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders tied for the honor of who has the best fans in Major League Soccer.

The post says the determination was made through four factors: attendance, local TV ratings, merchandise sales, and social media followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Attendance was weighted heaviest, which certainly gives Atlanta United hope to go charging up the rankings in the future. For now, the “Five Stripes” are not included in the list.

The Galaxy finish third in the rankings, while the sixth-place New York Red Bulls edge New York City FC by one spot.

For the report and full explanation, head here.

Europa League preview: Everton, Milan, Marseille take next steps

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The UEFA Europa League playoff round takes full flight Thursday, a day after Utrecht struck a blow for the Eredivisie with a 1-0 win over Zenit Saint-Petersburg in a Wednesday first leg.

Premier League participants Everton will be seeking a result at home against Hajduk Split, the third-place team from Croatia’s top flight.

Gylfi Sigurdsson passed his medical at Goodison Park but will not be available for Everton on Thursday.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

As for the match, manager Ronald Koeman knows the Thursday matchdays for the UEL will try his club’s endurance and depth. From EvertonFC.com:

“We know English teams have some problems. I think it is more mental than physical because if you play in the Champions League – so Wednesday and Saturday – you have the same amount of days to recover. I try to put out the strongest team to start the game. That will take into account the tactical aspects of each game. That will mean different players start and different options in terms of substitutions.”

Captained by Zoran Nizic and managed by Joan Carrillo, Hajduk has a young star in the making in the form of 19-year-old attacking midfielder Nikola Vlasic, but Everton is heavily favored at home with Hajduk given 12:1 odds by bookmakers.

[ MORE: Barca GM says Coutinho, Dembele “close” ]

Those numbers are a relative sure thing compared to AC Milan’s visitors. Macedonia club Shkendija are a 33:1 underdog for its trip to Italy.

Elsewhere, Slovenian side Domzale is a longshot at home to visiting Marseille.

Speaking of bookmakers, Arsenal won’t enter the competition until the group stage but is considered the favorite to win the UEL by a hair over Milan. Everton, Villarreal, and Athletic Bilbao are level with third-best odds.

UEFA Europa League playoff first legs
Utrecht 1-0 Zenit — Weds.
BATE Borisov vs. Oleksandriya — 1 p.m. ET Thursday
Apollon Limassol vs. Midtjylland — 1 p.m.
Krasnodar vs. Red Star Belgrade — 1 p.m.
Dinamo Zagreb vs. Skenderbeu — 1 p.m.
FH vs. Braga — 1:45 p.m. ET Thursday
PAOK vs. Ostersund — 2 p.m. ET Thursday
Vardar vs. Fenerbahce — 2 p.m.
Plzen vs. AEK Lamaca — 2:15 p.m. ET Thursday
Altach vs. Maccabi Tel-Aviv — 2:30 p.m. ET Thursday
Ludogorets Razgrad vs. Suduva — 2:30 p.m.
Panathinaikos vs. Athletic Bilbao — 2:30 p.m.
Domzale vs. Marseille — 2:45 p.m. ET Thursday
Osijek vs. Austria Wien — 2:45 p.m.
Viitorul vs. Red Bull Salzburg — 2:45 p.m.
Ajax vs. Rosenborg — 2:45 p.m.
Legia Warsaw vs. Sheriff — 2:45 p.m.
AC Milan vs. Shkendija — 2:45 p.m.
Club Brugge vs. AEK — 2:45 p.m.
Partizan vs. Videoton — 3 p.m. ET Thursday
Everton vs. Hajduk Split — 3:05 p.m. ET Thursday
Maritimo vs. Dynamo Kyiv — 3:30 p.m. ET Thursday