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.

Hernandez, Araujo score in 1st half, Mexico beats Costa Rica

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MEXICO CITY (AP) Javier Hernandez and Nestor Araujo scored in the first half, and Mexico overcame the absence of half a dozen players to beat Costa Rica 2-0 on Friday night in a World Cup qualifying match.

Hernandez scored on a cross from Carlos Vela to open the score in the seventh and Araujo added a goal on a header in the 45th.

[ USMNT: Recap & videoPlayer ratings ]

Hernandez scored his 46th goal with the Mexican team and tied Jared Borgetti as the all-time leading scorer.

With the win, Mexico remains undefeated and has seven points after three rounds to take sole command in the six-nation tournament. Costa Rica stays on six points and is second and Panama is third with four.

The top three teams qualified for the Russia 2018 World Cup.

Mexico beat Costa Rica for the first time since September 11, 2012, when they prevailed 1-0.

Running Away With It

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Christian Pulisic scored and played a part in three other goals as the United States rained goals down on Honduras in a 6-0 win at Avaya Stadium in San Jose early Saturday morning.

Clint Dempsey scored two goals, and Michael Bradley and Sebastian Lletget also scored as the U.S. moved into fourth place in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. Their next match is Tuesday in Panama.

[ MORE: Player ratings | Three things ]

The United States men’s national team’s bid to recover their 2018 World Cup hopes got off to a flying start.

Sloppy Honduran defending caused a turnover outside the 18, and Jozy Altidore played Christian Pulisic in on goal. Keeper Donis Escober got a piece of Pulisic’s shot, but no one followed Lletget to the back post and the ex-West Ham and current LA Galaxy man quickly put the Yanks up 1-0.

The Yanks didn’t stop, and Lletget drew a yellow card when he beat Ever Alvarado down the right flank and forced a take down from the Honduran defender.

Alberth Elis slipped John Brooks’ mark, and the Houston Dynamo man turned to fire on goal. Tim Howard was well positioned to scoop it up.

Lletget turned out to be injured by the Alvarado foul, and Bruce Arena turned to Alejandro Bedoya in the 17th minute.

Geoff Cameron was given a yellow card in the 25th minute for a foul on Roger Espinoza. That gave a free kick to Honduras from 30 yards out, and Romell Quioto fired right at Tim Howard.

Then it was the captain who doubled the lead, as Honduras inexplicably gave him the room to walk across the arc of the 18 to rip a shot across goal. 2-0.

It was Clint Dempsey’s turn in the 33rd minute, after an otherworldly scooped pass from Pulisic.

What. A. Pass. Kid.

Honduras then took a bigger hit: the loss of star attacker Romell Quioto (Houston Dynamo) to an apparent shoulder injury.

Brooks bailed out an out-of-position Gonzalez just before halftime to keep the lead 3-0.

The Yanks needed 15 seconds to make it 4-0, with Dempsey winning a 50-50 tussle and finding Altidore for a flick to Pulisic. He netted his fourth USMNT goal. He’s 18.

Pulisic then won a free kick 25 yards out from goal by embellishing a foul, and Dempsey’s free kick tricked Escober. 6-0. For real.

A scary moment late as a dazed and wobbly John Brooks was forced off despite no apparent injury. Fox’s Jenny Taft said he was dehydrated, which is a relief.

LINEUP

USMNT: Howard; Villafana, Gonzalez, Brooks (Ream, 70′), Cameron (Zusi, 58′); Bradley, Lletget (Bedoya, 18′), Nagbe; Pulisic, Dempsey, Altidore.

Goals: Lletget (5′), Bradley (27′), Dempsey (33′, 49′, 54′), Pulisic (46′)

 

Player ratings from USMNT’s pounding of Honduras

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Battered. Throttled. Eviscerated.

Pick your verb of dominance, the United States likely fit it well in a 6-0 destruction of Honduras at Avaya Stadium in San Jose.

[ MORE: Recap + video | Three things ]

The win boosts the U.S. in World Cup qualifying after their 0-2 start, but how did the individuals fare? Obviously well.

Starting XI

Tim Howard — 7 — The team just feels in a safer place with the veteran back there. If the U.S. goes to the 2018 World Cup, Howard remains their No. 1 (and there probably never should have been a question. Sorry Brad).

Jorge Villafana — 7 — Tidy passing and a low-risk game from the Santos Laguna man.

John Brooks (Off 70′) — 7 — An early error before recovering to be his usual free-clearing, athletic self. Scary injury took him out late, as he looked dazed. Fox’s Jenny Taft said he was dehydrated, which is a relief.

Omar Gonzalez — 5  — He wasn’t bad, but Gonzalez is still a positional question mark. Bailed out a couple times by Brooks.

Geoff Cameron (Off 59′) — 6 — Out of position and a bit hobbled, he wasn’t at his best.

Michael Bradley — 7 — One of his better USMNT games in a long time.

Sebastian Lletget (Off 17′) — 8 — Scored, then got hurt on a roasting run down the right.

Darlington Nagbe — 6 — One or two electric moments in the first half, but overall a quiet enough night for the Timbers man.

Christian Pulisic — 9 — Hard to not to hand the kid a 10. He’s quite frankly the most exciting American talent in the history of the program.

Clint Dempsey — 10 — Along with Howard, the sort of player you knew would make sure this game ended with three points. The fact that he nabbed three goals, too, is just a bonus.

Jozy Altidore — 7  — Pretty darn good night holding up the ball, and passed as well as ever, but did he drop a bit too deep too often? The answer is probably, “Who cares? They won 6-0, dude.”

Subs

Alejandro Bedoya (On 18′)  — 6 — Typical high energy, space eating job in the middle of the park from the Union man.

Graham Zusi (On 58′)  — 6 — Good late clearance preserved the shutout.

Tim Ream (On 70′)  — 6 — Interesting to note that Arena went to him over Walker Zimmerman or Matt Besler.

Three things to take away from USMNT 6-0 Honduras

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The United States men’s national team pulled a Leicester City.

[ MORE: Recap & videoPlayer ratings ]

That’s a joke with truth wrapped around it, because the Yanks have had plenty of time and even a pair of friendlies to respond from the firing of Jurgen Klinsmann.

But in their first serious match without their old coach, the U.S. looked a team renewed and unleashed. Now the Americans may find themselves back in an automatic World Cup qualifying spot with a win on Tuesday in Panama.

Things change.

Vindicated

U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati and all of the USMNT players waited months and months to get the chance to answer their critics following a pair of embarrassing losses to open the final round of World Cup qualifying.

Sure, having Clint Dempsey, Geoff Cameron, and Tim Howard back helped a whole lot, and the seasoning Christian Pulisic is getting at Borussia Dortmund is unquestionably good for an 18-year-old.

But there’s little doubt Michael Bradley and Co. were fired up to silence their critics. Whether they admit it or not, this is a bunch that was stung by those who said they failed their old coach.

Most expected the U.S. to get a point or better against Honduras, but to do it the way they did is an unexpected bonus. A win in Panama on Tuesday would boost them into the Top Three.

And don’t worry, the old boss was pleased for his former charges.


The future is now…

I Tweeted the following after a late second half pass from Pulisic, and there was little disagreement.

Pulisic won’t be credited with an assist for his shot which rebounded to Sebastian Lletget for the opener, but he will walk away with his fourth international goal and two proper assists.

One was an absurd scoop to Clint Dempsey’s chest, and the other was a long avenue that shouldn’t have existed. Still, Pulisic found that street and provided an absolutely dynamic force all over the park.

There have been U.S. teens at big European clubs, and U.S. teens who’ve made impacts on the national team, but never both at the same time and never both at this level. Pulisic is for real, and finding his ceiling is an adventure we’re all undertaking with great enjoyment.


…But the legends sure helped

Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard will go down as two of the most important players in United States men’s national team history.

Actually, they may be duking it out for Nos. 1 and 2 when it’s all said and done.

Dempsey’s hat trick was his career in a nutshell. The first saw him body off a defender while collecting a Pulisic pass off his chest, then lashing a shot with power despite said defender dragging him down.

The second was a burst of speed to run onto Pulisic’s through ball and classic calm in the face of an onrushing keeper, holding onto the ball before sliding it home from an acute angle.

The third was this free kick. A bit aided by goalkeeper Donis Escober, but such is life.

And don’t sleep on Howard’s early performance as Honduras tried to find some sort of foothold in the match. Always well-positioned, the team just feels safer with the Colorado Rapids man between the sticks.