Premier League Playback: Who’ll buy the title? Stunning Sherwood, Ole ready to attack

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STICK OR TWIST?

Silly season has arrived, get ready for endless column inches of transfer speculations and all of the whispers and rumors ascending towards a crescendo of activity on transfer deadline day, January 31. Between now and then, not a lot usually happens. But then managers and chairman will panic buy in the final few hours of the window just, well… because they can.

Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City have all been guilty of doing that in the past and with all three clubs embroiled in the Premier League title race this season, surely they’ll do the same…

Think again.

“The window is open and when it’s open anything can happen but we don’t think a lot is going to happen for us. I know what I’m building and what we are building at the club. We work and improve and try to bring the young players to a different level, and we are doing that quite successfully. We are not candidates to win the league, but we are always candidates to win the next match.” – Jose Mourinho on Chelsea’s transfer policy this January

Jose is playing it coy with the last part of that comment following Chelsea’s 3-0 demolition of Southampton on New Year’s Day, as  the vast and relatively young squad he’s cultivating at Chelsea will certainly see the Blues challenging at the PL’s summit come May 11 when the champion is crowned. He is trusting youngsters and has bought and nurtured players who will be around for a long-time and won’t just be flash in the pans over a season at Stamford Bridge. But surely a new striker would still be handy, Jose?

The same could be said for Arsenal and Manchester City, as both squads are well stocked and only really need one or two top caliber players to polish them off pristinely. Arsene Wenger has spoken of only buying a “special player” which he did with the summer signing of Mesut Ozil, who has helped transform Arsenal from top four hopefuls to title contenders. Another player of that ilk will be expensive, especially in January when prices are hugely inflated, but Arsenal could do with another top forward to really cement their position as a challenger for the PL crown.

As for City, they really don’t need to buy during this window.

Scoring 56 goals in the league so far, Manuel Pellegrini’s men have assembled a top quality attacking side. Even without top scorer Sergio Aguero, who should return from injury later this month, the Citizens always look like scoring three or four goals every time they step on the pitch. At the back they’re a little shaky, but that comes with being a ruthless attacking unit that first and foremost wants to attack. Maybe a classy central defender in the window would help polish off Pellegrini’s sterling work so far.

(MORE: Latest Premier League Standings)

Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City have assembled magnificent squads full of young attacking talent, but one thing could also put them off spending in the transfer window: the dreaded Financial Fair Play (FFP) rule. This is something all the top clubs will have to adhere to, or face be sanctioned heavily by UEFA.

Those new regulations will curb the spending of the big teams this winter, not that they need to spend big anyway. But the big question is, will the big teams stick with what they have through until May? Or will one side flinch first and buy big to try and seal the PL crown?

This will be interesting viewing as all three teams are good enough, as it stands, to win the league. Let’s see if they realize it.

Premier League Schedule – New Year’s Day

Result Recap & Highlights
Arsenal 2-0 Cardiff Recap and watch here
Crystal Palace 1-1 Norwich Recap and watch here
Fulham 2-1 West Ham Recap and watch here
Liverpool 2-0 Hull Recap and watch here
Man United 1-2 Tottenham Recap and watch here
Southampton 0-3 Chelsea Recap and watch here
Stoke City 1-1 Everton Recap and watch here
Sunderland 0-1 Aston Villa Recap and watch here
Swansea 2-3 Man City Recap and watch here
West Brom 1-0 Newcastle Recap and watch here

SHERWOOD’S CHARISMA LEADS THE WAY

Just before the festive period on PST Extra, myself and Mike Prindiville discussed whether or not Tim Sherwood would be the right man to replace Andre Villas-Boas at Tottenham Hotspur.

Prindi and I were pushing for Sherwood to get the job and be able to prove himself, and the former Blackburn Rovers and Tottenham skipper has done superbly well so far.

Unbeaten in four PL games, winning three of them, Spurs are now well back in the hunt for the top four. And Tottenham’s 2-1 win at Old Trafford against Manchester United on New Year’s Day showed the grit and determination needed to succeed in the PL, plus they have game changers in Christian Eriksen, Aaron Lennon, Roberto Soldado and Emmanuel Adebayor, plus plenty of others in reserve.

One of Sherwood’s best qualities has been to give everyone a second chance. So often players are cast aside at clubs because one manager doesn’t appreciate their attitude, qualities or they simply don’t fit into a certain style of play. Case in point, Spurs’ Adebayor who has scored four goals in five games since Sherwood took over first on an interim basis and now permanently.

Scoring goals for Arsenal, Manchester City and Real Madrid in the past, in Sherwood’s words Adebayor is “obviously a top player.” But he just wasn’t getting the chance to shine at White Hart Lane.

Another player who was cast aside by AVB is left back Benoit Assou-Ekotto, who is currently out on loan at Championship club Queens Park Rangers. Ekotto had the following to say about Adebayor’s sizzling form and had a subtle dig at AVB on Twitter.

Assou-Ekotto likes Sherwood, he said it in the Tweet so it must be true… But Spurs’ 44-year-old boss is a hugely affable character and has also won plenty more friends for his honest and forthright opinions on the game. His tactics of playing an attacking 4-4-2 formation with bold wingers and two out-and-out forwards is paying dividends for Sherwood, and long may that continue. It’s refreshing to see a young English manager given a chance in England’s top-flight and Sherwood’s charisma and character is creating an ‘us against them mentality’ with the Tottenham players as they dig deep for their new leader. Sherwood’s already stated his ambition to not bring players in during the transfer window, as he wants to give Spurs’ youngsters the chance to shine on the biggest stage of all and also believe sin the current crop of stars at his disposal.

Old fashioned tactics and methods are frowned upon by many, but Sherwood may be on to something with his ‘keep it simple’ mindset at Spurs. They helped them beat United on New Year’s Day, watch below, as 2014 began in style.

PENALTY DECISIONS GO AGAINST THE BIG BOYS FOR ONCE

Just a few days ago the likes of Southampton and Stoke City were complaining that the little guys do not get any of the key decisions from referees.

A few of the bigger teams are now moaning about the officiating, after some massive decisions went against them on New Year’s Day. First of all David Moyes is feeling very hard done by after Spurs beat his Manchester United side 2-1 and Howard Webb denied first Danny Welbeck and then Ashley Young penalties in the second half as the Red Devils pushed for an equalizer.

About the decision to not award a penalty for Hugo Lloris’ clumsy sliding challenge on Young, Red Devils boss Moyes had this to say.

“It’s an incredible decision, in fact probably one of the worst I think I saw. The goalkeeper comes out, Ashley Young gets the ball before him and he follows through.  If you follow through on a player anywhere else on the pitch with your foot high, it would be a sending-off and a red card. I find it incredible, but the people who employ the referees are going to have to look at that and see if they get that right.” Oh dear, not a happy bunny.

While elsewhere, Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho had no complaints as Brazilian attacker Oscar went clean through on goal against Southampton with his side drawing 0-0 and the entire goal gaping at the young prodigy. But instead of tapping the ball past the advancing Kelvin Davis in goal for Saints, Oscar took and almighty tumble and instead of getting a penalty and Davis a red card (which the smaller clubs argue would usually happens when incidents like this occur vs. Chelsea or United) referee Martin Atkinson correctly gave Oscar a yellow card for diving.

Officiating decisions going against Chelsea and United… surely not? Some of the smaller teams can stop moaning now too, poor decisions happen to any side whether or not you’re the biggest or smallest team in the league. That was proven unequivocally this weekend.

OLE GUNNAR… BE THE RIGHT MAN?

On Thursday morning Cardiff City appointed Norwegian Ole Gunnar Solksjaer as their new manager, you may remember him as the man who won Manchester United the UEFA Champions League with a last-gasp winner against Bayern Munich in ’99. Yeah, that guy.

But since his playing days for the Red Devils ended, Solksjaer has excelled in the managerial realm after leading Manchester United’s reserve side to glory over a three year spell, then doing the same with Molde in Norway’s top-flight. Known as the ‘baby-faced assassin’ for his boyish good looks and clinical finishing during his iconic playing spell at Old Trafford — Roy Keane once thought Ole was a “12-year-old kid who’d won a competition to train with United” when he arrived — Solksjaer is hugely respected in the game for his talents on the field and is a national hero in Norway. But all this aside, how will he fare as a Premier League manager?

With Vincent Tan around, who knows. The likelihood is that the 40-year-old boss will be handed a substantial amount of money in the January transfer window to give the Bluebirds a chance of staying up. It’s also likely most of that loot will be spent on attackers. Plus with Solksjaer’s close links with United, expect a few of the Red Devils promising youngsters to pop up at the Cardiff City Stadium if Ole so chooses.

As manager of Molde his side played an exciting brand of attacking soccer and on average during his three season in charge, two of which resulted in league titles, the northern Norwegian side scored 50.6 goals per campaign. This year Cardiff have scored just 15 goals in 20 PL games, only Crystal Palace have a leaner offense. And who better to help their goal scoring issues than the greatest natural finisher the Premier League has ever seen? After speaking during his unveiling as manager, it seems like Ole is going to go all-out attack to keep the Bluebirds in the top flight.

“My brand of football will hopefully make Cardiff’s fans proud of the way we play football. My brand is forward-minded. Forward passing, forward running. I want to attack. I want the players to express themselves.”

Premier League Playback takes an alternative look at all the weekends actions from the PL, it comes out every week.

UEFA playoff draw sets up intriguing battles

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The fight for the final four 2018 World Cup spots from UEFA is well and truly on.

On Tuesday in Zurich, Switzerland the draw for the two-legged playoffs was made as the eight best runners up from the UEFA qualifying group stages found out their fate.

[ MORE: Latest World Cup rankings released ]

The Republic of Ireland will face Denmark over two games, while Northern Ireland face Switzerland and two monster clashes have been set up as Sweden and Italy will lock horns and Croatia and Greece will do battle.

A spot at the World Cup in Russia next summer is the prize for the four winners of these home and away playoffs.

The Republic of Ireland seem to have got the better draw, especially as they will play at home in the second leg in Dublin. Northern Ireland will also be okay with having Switzerland but are slightly hampered by playing the first leg in Belfast. Italy against Sweden will be a tight game and one neither nation will relish, and the same can be said for Croatia vs. Greece with their intense local rivalry.

First leg matches will take place on November 9-11, while the second leg will take place on November 12-14.

Below is the full schedule for the two playoff games.


UEFA playoff schedule

First leg

Northern Ireland vs. Switzerland
Croatia vs. Greece
Denmark vs. Republic of Ireland
Sweden vs. Italy

Second leg

Switzerland vs. Northern Ireland
Greece vs. Croatia
Republic of Ireland vs. Denmark
Italy vs. Sweden

Watch Live: England, Mexico, Spain, France in U-17 World Cup action

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It is a busy day at the U-17 World Cup in India as four Round of 16 games take place.

[ LIVE: Stream U-17 World Cup ] 

Red-hot England play Japan, while France and Spain collide and Mexico clash with a very impressive Iran side who won all of their group games. Mali and Iraq complete the Round of 16 games on Tuesday.

The winners of the England v. Japan game will face the U.S. on Saturday after they blew away Paraguay 5-0 on Monday.

Below is the full schedule for Tuesday’s four games, while you can click on the link above to watch all four games live.

Tuesday’s U-17 World Cup Round of 16 games

Iran vs. Mexico – 7:30 a.m. ET
France vs. Spain – 7:30 a.m. ET
England vs. Japan – 10:30 a.m. ET
Mali vs. Iraq – 10:30 a.m. ET

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.