Arsenal could be own worst enemy as title challenge sees tension rise

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LONDON — Following their 1-1 draw with Everton on Arsenal, one thing is clear as we enter the cold winter months of the long Premier League season and teams at the top of the table continue to drop points.

Arsenal only have one main competitor for the title… themselves.

After their slightly nervous display on Sunday, Arsene Wenger revealed that his side must stay focused on the matter on hand as they’re five points clear at the summit. Despite all the hype and hubbub from many speculating a first Premier League title since 2004 will arrive at the Emirates this season, their long-time French manager is urging caution but believes his team are much stronger than they have been in recent years.

“We have shown consistency up until now and an absolutely fantastic attitude,” Wenger said. “That’s why we are different to last season. We are a better team too and more stable defensively and better offensively. Overall, you could see today with the toughness of the game we have to prepare ourselves for every single game.”

The weight of expectancy on Arsenal’s shoulder was palpable from the offset in an entertaining end-to-end game, as Everton put in an impressive display that pushed the league leaders to their limits.

(MORE: Arsenal 1-1 Everton – Late breakthroughs cancel as Deulofeu denies Arsenal all 3 points)

When Mesut Ozil put Arsenal 1-0 up in the 80th minute, the relief was obvious amongst the home fans as they celebrated the strike with thunderous chants of “1-0 to the Arsenal” and they believed, that was that. Many times this season it has been, as five shutout wins from their last seven league games prove, but that huge sigh of relief following Ozil’s goal turned into groans of discontent four minutes later as Gerard Deulofeu scored a stunning late equalizer to send Arsenal’s fans into silence.

Ozil’s opener should have kicked Arsenal on but they sat back, looked edgy and failure to clear several crosses late on cost them all three points. Wenger was left scratching his head.

“The regret I have is that we were pulled back after being 1-0 up with seven minutes to go,” Wenger said. “You have to give credit to Everton, they continue to play well and they always looked dangerous. We played against a very good side we are disappointed to get caught with one at the end, but it’s still a point.”

Throughout the draw with the Toffees, especially early on, Arsenal’s fans were getting on their sides back as their team gave the ball away needlessly and the away side were pressing the Gunners high up the pitch to great success. Negativity reigned supreme around the Emirates as large spells of prominent silence from the home fans was telling. U.S. international ‘keeper Tim Howard put in an inspired performance in goal for Everton, pulling off three fantastic stops to thwart the league leaders as anxiety levels rose in the Emirates as the pulsating clash wore on.

source: Reuters
Deulofeu’s late goal stunned the Gunners as their mental toughness in the tough moment coming up will be key.

“We took time to get into the game, Everton started stronger,” Wenger said. “After that we had three one-on-one’s against the ‘keeper in the first half. But we didn’t our chances very well.”

Wenger was right, plenty of players like Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla weren’t quite at the races as needless giveaways were greeted with endless sighs and cries of disbelief from the home fans. You can’t blame the players for feeling a bit under pressure, Arsenal’s fans are desperate for some silverware after eight barren years and reminders of that are all around the Gunners stars as they continue to stay on top of the PL.

Emblazoned on the balconies splitting up the four tiers of the vast 60,000 plus Emirates Stadium are the outlines of which trophies they’ve won and which year they’ve won them in. FA Cups, Premier League titles, League Cups… they all hang over the pitch as an ominous reminder, to the players at least, of Arsenal’s great history and level of success spanning decades.

Asked afterwards if Arsenal were serious title contenders this season, Wenger kept his cards close to his chest.

“It depends what you call serious,” Wenger said. “As long as we are five points ahead we cannot rule ourselves out. So, let’s keep that going. It shows you that it will be a tough a Premier League and consistency, in the end, will be a reward. Consistency if of course down to us to keep this attitude going from now until the end of the season.”

This season many expect them to break that duck of no trophies since switching from their historic Highbury Stadium for the Emirates back in 2006. But as the nervy atmosphere on Sunday suggested, that huge level of expectancy could bring the walls crumbling down around them.

Against Everton, some cracks were starting to show.

Their next two games against Manchester City and Chelsea may reveal further blemishes but the toughest task will be how to deal with their own demons that have robbed them of success in recent campaigns. Mental toughness is key and Wenger believe his sides attitude is spot on, as Arsenal have rolled teams over all season and deservedly sit top of the standings.

But now the biggest battle of all is coming up, a battle against themselves.

Wolfsburg holds off Braunschweig with Vieirinha blast (video)

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Outworked and outperformed in the first half of their playoff second leg at Eintracht Braunschweig, Wolfsburg needed a wake-up call to steady its hopes of staying in the Bundesliga.

That came off the boot of longtime right back Vieirinha, as the Portuguese veteran ran onto a rebound and fired a 17-yard arrow into the goal to boost Wolfsburg aggregate lead to 2-0.

[ MORE: Barcelona names new manager ]

That would mean the 2.Bundesliga hosts would need three goals to give the second tier a third promotion this season. An 82nd minute red card to Braunschweig’s Maximilian Sauer effectively ended those far-off dreams.

Ingolstadt and Darmstadt were relegated in the season, and Stuttgart and Hannover were promoted from 2.Bundesliga.

Barcelona announces Valverde as next manager

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Six days after leaving his post at Athletic Bilbao, another dream job has been signed, sealed, and delivered to Ernesto Valverde.

The ex-Barcelona striker is joining the Blaugranas as the replacement for accolade-winning coach Luis Enrique, who stepped away from the position after Saturday’s Copa del Rey victory.

[ JPW: Huddersfield completes the dream ]

Valverde, 53, played two seasons with Barca in the late 1980s, and previously coached Espanyol, Olympiakos, Villarreal and Valencia. His spent most of his playing career at Athletic and began as their manager in 2013.

Here’s what Barca president Josep Maria Bartomeu said about Valverde:

“Valverde has the ability, the knowledge and the experience. He promotes players from the youth teams and he has a style and a way of working like ours. He has a philosophy of the game that is very Barça and he is a hard worker. Also, he is passionate about applying technology to both training and matches.”

Valverde becomes the fourth manager to take charge of Barcelona since Pep Guardiola left in 2012 (Tito Vilanova, Gerardo Martino, and Enrique are the others).

Huddersfield seal fairytale promotion to Premier League

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LONDON — Huddersfield Town have been promoted to the Premier League.

Let that sink in.

[ MORE: Wagner reacts to “fairytale” ]

The Terriers, for the first time in their history, will play in the PL and for the first time since 1972 they will be in the top-flight of English soccer.

German-American manager David Wagner has worked a miracle to turnaround a team who finished in 19th place in the Championship last season. They beat Reading 4-3 on penalty kicks on Monday after a tight, tense 120 minutes of action at Wembley Stadium, holding their nerve to seal an estimated windfall of $218 million next season and up to $372 million if they survive in the PL for another season.

All day long, and perhaps all season long, it has felt like Huddersfield were destined for promotion.

Huddersfield sold out their full allocation of tickets, 39,150, and their fans made the most noise all day long. There was no contest.

In central London Huddersfield’s fans piled on to the tube heading to Wembley for their day of reckoning.

“It’s his first full season as a fan!” said a proud mother decked out in a Huddersfield shirt as she hugged her five-year-old son proudly. “What a time to start!” replied a stranger, also a Huddersfield fan.

Excited chatter filled the 15 minute tube ride from Baker Street to Wembley Park as fans “I can’t believe it,” said one fan to another, quietly. “It will hit home when we get into the stadium,” his friend replied.

Steven Sunderland stood outside Wembley with his wife Melanie and their daughter Megan.

He summed up the surprise that Huddersfield were even one game away from the Premier League to start with.

“It would be amazing to play all of the big clubs, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, clubs like that,” Sunderland said. “I never thought we would make it. No chance. I just thought if we make midtable, it would be an improvement on last season because we’ve been struggling with relegation the last few seasons. This season, David Wagner has got the team playing really well, best team spirit I’ve ever seen for a long, long time. The fans are really connected. It shows today, there are nearly 40,000 Huddersfield fans here today and they are up for it.”

Oh yes. Yes they were.

Amid dissecting the struggles of Yorkshire rivals Leeds United, talk of just going up to the PL for one year and then enjoying it “no matter how we do” was rife among the Huddersfield fans. One Terriers supporter puffed out his cheeks, gripping his can of cider nervously as he walked up Wembley Way.

Tense was the word of the day.

With the future of both clubs on the line, the game itself didn’t deliver end-to-end excitement. With an estimated $218 million on the line for next season and $370 million if they manage to stay up one year in the PL, the economic benefit for Huddersfield the club, and the town, will be huge.

When Michael Hefele headed wide and Isaiah Brown missed a glorious chance early on, you began to wonder if it was Huddersfield’s day. In the end none of that mattered.

Christopher Schindler stepped up and slotted home the winning penalty kick after Danny Ward saved from Jordan Obita as Huddersfield had reached the promised land.

Huddersfield chairman Dean Hoyle summed up his emotions after taking over the club and putting in a prudent plan for promotion involving loan players and a budget less than $12 million this season.

“I’m so emotional. To say I’ve been supporting this club since 1969, to be a Premier League team now – dreams come true,” Hoyle said. “It’s huge what it means for Huddersfield, we’re on the big stage. It proves you don’t have to blow your brains to get promoted. We’ve done it the right way.”

What impact will this have on the Yorkshire town?

Sunderland and his family summed it up perfectly as yet another underdog, just like Bournemouth, Blackpool and Burnley before them, has risen to the promised land.

“It is massive. It is the land of milk and honey if you like, the place where everybody wants to be,” Sunderland said. “It will be brilliant, for the town. Just that little bit of success makes a big difference. We’ve been on TV this season more times than we have been the last 10 seasons. Next year it will be high profile very week. Match of the Day, on TV… Champions League the year after!? You never know.”

What did Wagner have to say? He told ProSoccerTalk he wants Huddersfield to keep the identity he has helped build and nurture.

“We have to be focused on ourselves and this football club has to be focused on themselves. This football club has created an identity and this was always our target, that we create an identity and a style of football where even if we wear neutral jerseys people from outside are able to say ‘okay, that could be Huddersfield.’ I think it makes no sense to compare ourselves with other small clubs. This football club has its own story and I think, we are on the way.”

They certainly are. Even if their fans can’t quite believe it.

As some posed for photos outside the electronic board at Wembley which said “congratulations Huddersfield!” others stood around in disbelief.

A group of three young Yorkshiremen sat on the tube back to Baker Street in stunned silence.

“We are going to be on Match of the Day!” said one fan, rubbing his hands in glee as he recites an intro to next years show which, of course, features Huddersfield top of the bill.

Discussion then switches to which games they’re most looking forward to. Arsenal, Liverpool and Man United away tops the list.

“We can’t believe it. It hasn’t sunk in yet,” said one fan as they looked at each other with dropped jaws.

Believe it, lads.

Watch out, Premier League. Huddersfield are on their way.

David Wagner reacts to Huddersfield’s promotion

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LONDON — There will be an American coach in the Premier League next season.

David Wagner, 45, led Huddersfield Town to its first-ever promotion to the Premier League as the Terriers beat Reading 4-3 on penalty kicks after a tense Championship Playoff Final at Wembley which ended 0-0 after 120 minutes.

Speaking after the nail-biting win, Wagner was delighted that his team proved everyone wrong and came from nowhere to reach the top-flight for the first time since 1972.

“A lot of the pundits wrote us off before the season,” Wagner told Sky Sports. “Over the season I thought we could do a little bit more, I thought around Christmas when we’d played everyone we had a chance. What happened is an unbelievable story – a fairytale.”

The former U.S. national team forward has galvanized the club, linking the team and fans together with passion and a plethora of loan players from the likes of Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea.

What he has achieved this season has left Huddersfield fans stunned as the former Borussia Dortmund II boss, who left the German giants in November 2015, has built a hardworking, organized team.

ProSoccerTalk asked Wagner if he will look at any of the smaller teams who have been recently promoted to the PL — the likes of Bournemouth, Burnley et al. — to follow a blueprint of how to plan ahead.

“We have to be focused on ourselves and this football club has to be focused on themselves,” Wagner said. “This football club has created an identity and this was always our target, that we create an identity and a style of football where even if we wear neutral jerseys people from outside are able to say ‘okay, that could be Huddersfield.’ I think it makes no sense to compare ourselves with other small clubs. This football club has its own story and I think, we are on the way.”

They are certainly on their way and we will be hearing a lot about the Terriers in the days and weeks to come.