Quick Six: Top stories from this weekend in the Premier League

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1. FULHAM HAS FINALLY SEEN ENOUGH

The line of succession was outlined the moment Rene Meulensteen was appointed first team coach at Craven Cottage. With hindsight, the only question is what took so long. Fulham had lost four-in-a-row ahead of Saturday’s visit to Upton Park, leaving the Cottagers with three harbingers of a coaching change: the team was trending downward; that trend appeared to be more than an aberration; and there was no reason to believe improvement was imminent.

All of which was verified in Saturday’s 3-0 loss. The Hammers had slowly sunk toward the drop and came into yesterday’s game even on points with Fulham. Instead of using the game to show he has the resourcefulness to keep Fulham up, Jol saw his team concede three times in the second half, full-time coming without the Cottagers having put a shot on goal.

At that point, new owner Shad Khan’s credibility was at stake. Jol should have been let go weeks ago, but after Fulham’s lopsided loss to another bottom-dweller, there was no argument for keeping the Dutch boss. If he wasn’t fired, fans would have every reason to doubt being competitive is high on Khan’s agenda.

So the predictable finally happened. Meulensteen’s set to take over. Whether that means improvement remains to be seen, but at least they’re trying. Having seen enough, Fulham’s no longer willing to see how bad things will get under Jol.

[MORE: West Ham 3-0 Fulham: Hammers heap more misery on Jol after emphatic win (video)]


2. THE SEASON OF RAMSEY CONTINUES

We’re running out of different ways to say this, so there’s no point in trying: Aaron Ramsey is having a great season. Through 13 rounds, he’s been the league’s best player. That nobody saw this coming makes his rise all the more irresistible.

His Man of the Match performance at Cardiff provides some natural perspective. A one-time prospect in the Bluebirds’ academy, Ramsey was the subject of a minor bidding war between Arsenal and Manchester United before moving to North London, a decision that sparked five years of uncertainty, misfortune, and scrutiny. Coming into his sixth season at the Emirates, it was unclear how much of a role he should play in Arsène Wenger’s team.

[MORE: Cardiff City 0-3 Arsenal: Aaron Ramsey fantastic against his old side (video)]

The Arsenal boss maintained his faith, loyalty that’s been rewarded with the 22-year-old’s breakout. With Saturday’s double, Ramsey moves to eight league goals in 13 games. Coming into the season, he’d only scored seven times in 91 Premier League appearances.

Beyond the numbers, he’s become the man who balances the team. Shuttling from deep next to Mikel Arteta, Ramsey’s become increasingly adept at reading his team’s rotations, often left unmarked coming into the attack from deep. His versatility also helps augment Arteta, whose holding role is complemented by Ramsey’s ability to share in the position’s dirty work.

Saturday was just another example of how far Ramsey’s come. Still writing the first chapters of his career, the Welsh international didn’t have an obvious role at the beginning of the season. Now he may be England’s best at his position, indispensable to a team that continues to validate their contenders’ credentials.


3. COMEBACK CAN’T CURTAIL VILLAS-BOAS’S OBSTINANCY

Tottenham was destroyed last week at the Etihad, a performance that not only saw the squad roundly criticized but André Villas-Boas’s tactics picked apart. He was naïve in playing a high, unprotected defensive line, and against the league’s best attack, Spurs were picked apart. According to reports, his job was being reevaluated.

Since then, Spurs collected an obligatory win in Europa League and took a point off of last year’s champions, and while you could argue the team should have gotten more from each, the last week has certainly been progress. Instead of letting that 6-0 at Manchester City capsize them, Spurs have stayed afloat, even if they’re still a bit adrift.

[MORE: Tottenham Hotspur 2-2 Manchester United: Rooney double spoils two Spurs leads]

That’s part of the reason why André Villas-Boas’s petulance is so telling. Rather than trying to gather some momentum – some positivity that can be put back into the team – he’s entertaining the darkness. On Thursday, he allowed some of his focus to go to a Tromsø fan, while after today’s game, he chose to spark a public feud with The Daily Mail’s Neil Ashton and Martin Samuel.

On one level, it is refreshing to see a manager speak his mind, and while doing so, Villas-Boas does a good job of articulating why he’s taken exception with The Daily Mail’s coverage. It’s direct, relatively dispassionate, and a reminder the authority that comes with a prominent byline doesn’t always meet with accord from the soccer community.

On the other hand, time and place. As Tottenham boss, he should have bigger fish to fry. His team had just come back twice to draw Manchester United, 2-2, yet they’re still in ninth place. In league, they’re still winless in four. Should confrontations with Daily Mail columnists and Tromsø season ticket holders even be on his radar?


4. HULL CITY SNARE FIRST EVER WIN OVER LIVERPOOL

Though the final score exaggerates the gap between the teams, Liverpool were less threatening than normal on Sunday, their 3-1 loss at Hull seeing their only goal come from a direct kick. With Daniel Sturridge set for a prolonged absence, Brendan Rodgers needs to find a second person to score open play goals. With nine each, Luis Suárez and Sturridge have accounted for 18 of the team’s 23 Premier League goals.

Yet on a day the Tigers recorded their first ever win over Liverpool, Hull City deserves the bulk of the stage. While two of their goals seemed pure, deflection-aided luck, their crucial second rewarded a match’s worth of persistence, the home side having out-worked their higher-ranking visitors throughout. Keeping themselves in position to lose, Liverpool allowed Hull City’s luck to pay off. David Meyler’s 72nd minute tiebreaker proved decisive.

With three points, Hull are now in 10th place, having passed the likes of Aston Villa, West Bromwich Albion, and Swansea City with their jump into the top half. While it’d be foolish to predict Steve Bruce’s side can maintain that standing, it’s not too much to ask whether 17 early points have paved their way to an unlikely survival. Now seven up on 18th place Fulham, Hull may have accumulated enough to scrape their way to survival.

[MORE: Hull City 3-1 Liverpool: David Meyler winner downs Reds at KC Stadium (video)]


 

5. CHELSEA OVERCOME EARLY GOAL, GO SECOND

Sunday gave us another reminder that Southampton have been playing a little over their heads, the Saints’ 3-1 loss at Stamford Bridge dropping Mauricio Pochettino’s team to seventh place. After back-to-back losses to Arsenal and Chelsea, we have a better idea of who Southampton really are: A very good side that’s likely to finish just inside the top half. It’d be a great step forward for a team that was struggling at the bottom of the table a year ago.

Chelsea, however, may have shown us something new on Sunday – a team capable of living up to their preseason hype. Although they went down through Jay Rodrgues just seconds into the game, the Blues controlled the final 90-plus minutes. It may have taken them 55 minutes to break through, but when full-time came with a two-goal gap, Chelsea had the win they deserved. Southampton finished the game with only one shot on target.

[MORE: Chelsea 3-1 Southampton: Stirring comeback sends Blues second]

It’s tempting to see this game as part of the Juan Mata narrative, with the restored Spaniard playing a key role on Sunday, but it’s probably best to focus on the simpler conclusions. Bouncing back from an embarrassing mid-week loss at Basel, Chelsea gave their second-straight convincing league performance. These heights at least hint the Blues are getting closer to realizing their potential.

When you see performances like today’s, you’re reminded quality isn’t a problem. Consistency, however, is. Against West Ham and Southampton, we saw a title contender, but against Basel, Chelsea looked fatally flawed. Slowly realizing who his best players are, José Mourinho will likely make the Southampton performances more relevant than the Basels.


6. FOUR-IN-A-ROW FOR SIXTH PLACE NEWCASTLE

With their win, Chelsea sit second place, but highlighting the crowd that’s cued up behind, the Blues are as close to sixth place Newcastle as they are Arsenal. At 27 points, Chelsea are four back of the league-leading Gunners, and after Newcastle’s 2-1 win over visiting West Brom, a Magpies side that’s won four-in-a-row is only one point out of a Champions League spots.

[MORE: Newcastle 2-1 West Brom: Sissoko’s sizzling strike sends Magpies fifth (video)]

Usually when a team goes on this type of run, the fixture list is providing some help. That’s not the case with Newcastle. Their November surge has featured wins over Chelsea and Tottenham, with the worst of their vanquished foes being 14th place Norwich. In that span, they’ve outscored their opposition 7-2.

Saturday featured a more controlling Newcastle that we’re used to seeing, a team that’s allowed 18 goals in 13 games holding their opponents to only one shot on target. That Chris Brunt’s shot happened to go in made the match close, though with Moussa Sissoko responding four minutes later, Newcastle had restored their lead, building on Yoann Gouffran’s opener on their way to a 2-1 win.

Considering how this team’s played since moving to a 4-4-2 formation – Alan Pardew electing to make the difficult choice of sitting Hatem Ben Arfa to opt for a more consistent, stalwart group – and there’s no reason Newcastle can’t make their mercurial 2012-13 season look like a blip. After threatening to claim a Champions League spot in 2011-13, Newcastle battled relegation, and while breaking into the league’s top four this season isn’t going to happen, the Magpies appear poised to reestablish their place among the clubs competing for Europe.

Benevento remains alone in Europe without a point

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ROME (AP) Benevento remained the only club in Europe’s top five leagues without a point after losing at basement rival Hellas Verona 1-0 in Serie A on Monday.

[ MORE: USA U-17s top Paraguay in convincing style ]

Romulo scored with a long volley to conclude a counterattack in the 74th minute.

Benevento center back Luca Antei was shown a direct red card for a sliding tackle late in the first half and Verona striker Giampaolo Pazzini nearly took advantage immediately when he hit the post.

With its first win of the season, Verona moved up to 16th place with six points.

Benevento has lost all eight of its matches.

All of the top-division squads in England, France, Germany and Spain have earned at least a point.

More AP Serie A coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/SerieA

Calls for exiled player to go to WCup stirs storm in Egypt

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CAIRO (AP) Soon after Egypt qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1990, a hashtag began trending on social media: “Aboutrika to the World Cup.”

In a country where soccer and politics often mix, and often with explosive results, the pro-government media didn’t like that.

[ MORE: Tab Ramos confirms interest in USMNT job ]

The hashtag unleashed an intense online campaign by tens of thousands of fans calling for former star midfielder Mohamed Aboutrika, who is now living in exile in Qatar, to come out of retirement and play for Egypt at the World Cup in Russia next year.

It stirred a storm in the Arab country because of Aboutrika’s alleged ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian Islamist group that has been outlawed and declared a terrorist organization by the government. The Brotherhood was outlawed after the military’s ouster of a freely elected but divisive Islamist president in 2013.

The 38-year-old Aboutrika faces a host of charges rooted in his alleged financial support for the Brotherhood and lives in exile knowing he risks arrest if he returns home. His assets have been frozen by Egyptian authorities and his name is on a terrorism list. He now makes a living as a soccer pundit on the Qatar-based sports channel beIN.

Aboutrika turned down the call to return in a message to his supporters.

“These are kind feelings for which I thank you,” he wrote on his Twitter account. “But realism is better and I don’t steal the efforts of others. Those men (on the current team) deserve to be there alone.”

Yet that gentle refusal didn’t stop the storm around him, and the unfavorable comparisons made by some between Aboutrika and Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah, the team’s current star and new darling of the pro-government media.

“Mohammed Salah is the player who stood by his country, not like the other one (Aboutrika),” said Ahmed Moussa, perhaps the most ardent government supporter among TV talk show hosts. “He (Salah) is Egypt’s only star.”

The 25-year-old Salah endeared himself to fans with both goals, including an injury-time penalty, in a 2-1 win over Republic of Congo on Oct. 8 that ensured Egypt qualified for the World Cup for just the third time, and first time in nearly 30 years.

Salah has also been embraced by the government of general-turned-president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and its supporters in the media as a patriot. A donation of 5 million Egyptian pounds (nearly $300,000) Salah made in December to a development fund founded by el-Sissi has gone a long way to endear him to them.

In the week since qualification, Salah has been branded “golden boy,” “legend” and “genius.”

One media commentator, Dandarawy el-Hawary of the daily “Seventh Day,” wrote of Salah’s decisive goal against Republic of Congo: “It touched off the volcanoes of patriotism, sense of belonging and love of one’s country.”

Not long ago Aboutrika was the national hero – he still is to many – after playing a central role in Egypt’s three straight African Cup of Nations titles in 2006, 2008 and 2010. Those triumphs made Egypt Africa’s most successful team with a record seven titles.

Now, the pro-government media refers to him as a traitor.

Another talk show host, Amr Adeeb, suggested the campaign to bring Aboutrika out of retirement was the work of government critics and berated him for his failure to lead Egypt to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Aboutrika has been labeled a mercenary, with his job with the Qatar-based beIN used as evidence of his lack of patriotism because of Egypt’s diplomatic spat with Qatar over the tiny Gulf nation’s alleged support of terrorism.

[ MORE: Mike Ashley puts Newcastle up for sale ]

Aboutrika’s supporters argue that to have him back on the team would be a just reward for his dedication to Egypt and compensation for his failed efforts to get the team to previous World Cups. They point out that Argentina great Diego Maradona and Cameroon’s Roger Milla both came out of retirement to play for their countries at the World Cup.

Responding to the criticism from government supporters, Aboutrika’s fans have also been posting videos of him scoring goals for club and country in years past, with commentators lavishly praising him for his skill and passion.

MLS playoff scenarios heading into the final weekend

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Time certainly has flown by, and just like that the MLS Cup playoffs are well within sight.

While the Eastern Conference is all locked up in terms of which teams will be in the postseason, seeding can change drastically on the final weekend.

[ MORE: Tab Ramos confirms interest in USMNT job ]

Meanwhile, the West sees three clubs vying for one final spot in what has proven to be a very intriguing battle over the last several weeks.

All eyes will be on three teams in the Western Conference as the San Jose Earthquakes, FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake all have an opportunity to move into the sixth spot.

Below, PST takes a look at where clubs can finish in relation to the playoff race.

Eastern Conference

#1 seed: Toronto FC is locked into the top spot

#2 seed: NYCFC — clinches the two seed with a win; Chicago Fire — clinches two with win and NYCFC draw or loss; Atlanta takes two with win plus NYCFC loss/draw and Fire loss/draw

#3 seed: Fire — finishes third with win; NYCFC — takes third with loss to Crew and Fire win; Atlanta — third with win and Fire loss; Crew — finish third with win over NYCFC and don’t overtake NYCFC on GD, plus losses by Fire and Atlanta

#4 seed: NYCFC — fourth with loss to Crew and overtaken on GD, plus Fire win; Fire — finish fourth with loss and Atlanta win, plus NYCFC win or draw; Atlanta — takes fourth with loss and NYCFC/Fire wins; Crew — fourth with win over NYCFC, Fire win and Atlanta loss/draw

#5 seed: Crew — finish fifth with loss/draw; Atlanta — finishes fifth with loss and Crew win; Fire — takes fifth with loss and Atlanta/Crew victories; NYCFC — drops with loss to Crew, Atlanta win and Fire win/draw

#6 seed: New York Red Bulls are locked into sixth spot

Western Conference

#1 seed: Whitecaps — clinch top spot with win; Timbers — finish first with win and Whitecaps loss

#2 seed: Whitecaps — finish second with loss to Timbers; Timbers — second with loss/draw and Sounders/Sporting KC losses; Sounders — finish second with win and Whitecaps win

#3 seed: Timbers — third with loss and Sounders win; Sounders — loss to Rapids and Sporting KC/Dynamo losses; Sporting KC — finish third with win, Sounders loss and Whitecaps/Timbers draw; Dynamo — third with win, Sporting KC loss and Sounders loss

#4 seed: Whitecaps — finish fourth with loss to Timbers, Sounders/Sporting KC wins; Timbers — loss to Whitecaps, plus Sounders/Sporting KC victories; Sounders — finish fourth with loss/draw and Sporting KC win; Sporting KC — fourth with loss and Dynamo loss/draw; Dynamo — finish fourth with win and Sporting KC loss

#5 seed: Timbers — fifth with loss to Whitecaps and Sounders/Sporting KC/Dynamo wins; Sounders — loss to Rapids, plus Sporting KC/Dynamo victories; Dynamo — finish fifth with loss; Sporting KC — fifth place with loss and Dynamo win

#6 seed: San Jose Earthquakes clinch with win; FC Dallas takes sixth with win/draw and Earthquakes loss/draw; Real Salt Lake clinch with win/draw, Earthquakes loss and Dallas loss/draw

The next Pulisic? A 10-year-old American is heading to AS Roma

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With everything that has transpired since last week’s U.S. Men’s National Team debacle, American soccer fans can use a pick-me-up.

What better could there be than perhaps another young star-in-the-making? Dare I say, the next Christian Pulisic?

[ MORE: Bruce Arena is out as USMNT manager ]

Perhaps, but it’s way too early to say that.

His name is Alessandro Cupini, a 10-year-old from Kansas City, Missouri that is about to complete a dream that a soccer player of any age would be thrilled to achieve.

Less than two weeks ago, Cupini and his family announced that the Kansas City Fusion midfielder/striker would be accepting a spot in the AS Roma academy starting in the Spring 2018, after having trained with the club for the better part of two years off and on.

Pro Soccer Talk had the opportunity to speak with Cupini’s father, Eddie, ahead of his son’s big move to Italy.

“This is something that Alessandro has worked really hard for,” Eddie Cupini told PST. “There are times where I tell him that he needs to take a step back and be a normal kid, but he doesn’t have any of that. He’s an incredibly hard-working and driven kid that does more than most people regardless of his age.”

Alessandro — who recently turned 10 years old — isn’t the typically American youngster though, according to his father.

“There are times where I wish Alessandro would take a break and be a kid, but that’s just not in his desire,” Cupini said. “We built him a mini stadium downstairs where he trains basically every day after school. As soon as he gets home from school he’s doing work down there and always looking for other kids to come over to practice with.”

That’s where the comparisons to Pulisic can be worked into the conversation.

Pulisic followed a very similar path to the professional level when he left his hometown of Hershey, Pennsylvania at the age of 16 to sign with Borussia Dortmund. Now, he’s U.S. Soccer’s most promising star as the USMNT looks to rebuild.

“We’re very familiar with Christian’s story, and he’s certainly somebody that Alessandro looks up to,” Cupini said.

Cupini is already on the radar of U.S. Soccer and the Olympic Development Program (ODP), which helps identify young talent in the United States starting at the Under-12 level.

However, because of Cupini’s Italian heritage and his unique opportunity to move to Italy next year, Alessandro could potentially have the chance to represent either the USMNT or the Azzurri in the future.

“It’s a long ways away and we’re taking things slow in that regard,” Cupini said in regards to his son’s international plans. “We’d certainly be willing to explore our options, but I think it would be a real dream and his main goal to play for Italy.”

New Jersey-native and former Italy international Giuseppe Rossi made a similar career choice when it came down to choosing a national team. Despite living in the United States for much of his youth years, Rossi appeared for a number of Italy’s youth teams before holding a stint with the senior side from 2008 to 2014.

Prior to making the announcement that Roma would be where Cupini will ply his trade next year, the young American also had the opportunity to train with Italian academies Empoli and Atalanta.

“My father is from Rome, so for Alessandro to have the opportunity to play for his hometown club it was almost a no-brainer,” Cupini said. “We were very grateful to the other clubs for the chance Alessandro had to train with them, but Roma is a club that is very close to our family.