Arsenal’s makeshift forwards run Spurs ragged, as Walcott and Gnabry dazzle in FA Cup win

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LONDON – With Arsenal’s two recognized strikers missing for Saturday’s FA Cup tie against North London rivals Tottenham, you would’ve expected an air of panic around the Emirates.

If there was an ounce of nervousness, that quickly dissipated.

From the start of Arsenal’s 2-0 win over Spurs, the Gunners new attack flourished as Theo Walcott was deployed as the lone forward with German teenager Serge Gnabry and Spaniard Santi Cazorla coming in off the wings.

On this showing, Arsenal should be fine if Olivier Giroud and Nicklas Bendtner are missing again in the future, as Walcott took the bull by the horns and put in a dominant forward display.

“I liked what he did today,” Arsene Wenger tole me after the game. “He has played before in that role, but today he added purpose, commitment and more decisiveness to his game. He had more of a fighting attitude. With that, he looks like he improves every time in that position. With that and the quality of the players behind him he can be dangerous in that position.”

Much has been made of Arsenal’s lack of depth this season, especially up front, but when it comes down to it they have a whole host of players who can interchange fluently between attack and midfield. Wenger was dubbed the ‘professor’ for a reason back when he arrived in England in the mid 90’s.

(MORE: FA Cup roundup – Plenty of upsets dot third-round slate)

Arsenal’s current team are set up to only need one central striker, who can run in behind or hold the ball up and Walcott did that marvelously well. He timed his runs patiently to give Spurs’ center half pairing of Michael Dawson and Vlad Chiriches a torrid time on Saturday.

While those two were in a spin over who was marking Walcott, Gnabry and Cazorla slid off the wings secretively and that’s how the first goal came about. In the 31st minute Gnabry fed Cazorla to finish, after Walcott’s run took two Spurs defenders away. Gnabry excelled in supporting the excellent Walcott and Wenger was especially pleased with the 18-year-old German.

Although Wenger was reluctant to heap too much praise on his shoulder, just yet.

“Today again he has shown that he’s quality,” Wenger said. “He had a very good game. He is a very young boy but is very bright. He has a really good football brain. I’m a strong believer in Serge Gnabry because I integrated him last year at the beginning of the season. But let’s not make superstars with one game.”

Going back to Gnabry’s partner in crime, Walcott is regularly described as being “too quick for his own good” as his electric pace sometimes sees his body move before his brain has time to react. But in the 11th minute Walcott latched onto a central ball superbly, took it in his stride and balanced himself before hitting a low shot towards goal that Spurs’ Hugo Lloris had to tip wide. He looked at home as center forward.

Next, again from a central area, Walcott’s sweeping effort from the edge of the box was deflected wide as his deft-touch and composure was again on show. Walcott is no stranger to the central role, after seeing him star in that position for Southampton as a 16-year-old when he first burst on the scene, I can vouch for that. Even going back to his days in the youth team at Saints, many believed he would flourish centrally in the future.

On Saturday against Spurs he certainly did.

To go alongside Walcott’s first half attempts Gnabry and Cazorla also went close as the German youngster smashed an effort over the bar, then Cazorla’s curler just went wide of Lloris’ left hand post. Arsenal were rampant early on, as they bamboozled Spurs with their inter-changing trio of attackers.

Pace, ingenuity and composure was shown in abundance by Gnabry, Cazorla and Walcott.

After the break Walcott popped up on the right and Gnabry drifted inside to play centrally and the killer second goal came courtesy of Tomas Rosicky’s pressing on Spurs left back Danny Rose. Game over.

source: Getty Images
Theo Walcott reacted to coins being thrown at him, as he used his fingers to make a 2-0 score line. Walcott excelled in Arsenal’s win.

But with only a 2-0 score line sealing the Gunners passage into the FA Cup Fourth Round, Walcott alone could have easily had a hat trick as Arsenal spurned several gilt-edged chances as the game closed out. Throughout the course of the season, that wastefulness may cost them but for now their defense is holding firm, so one or two goals is enough to win them a game.

Late on Walcott fell awkwardly and had to be stretchered off with what looked like an injury to his left knee. As he left the field, he reminded Spurs’ fans of the score line (pictured, left) and then as he passed them in the stands, bottles and coins rained down on the England international.

“The doctor said to me that the coins were coming down over Walcott’s head and they had to protect him, that’s maybe why he did that,” Wenger said. “After that, it was not offensive what he did.”

On a more serious note, that’s two central strikers and a converted one (depending on the diagnosis of Walcott’s injury) down for Arsenal before they face Aston Villa on January 13 in their next Premier League game. That leaves only Gnabry and Lukas Podolski left at the moment, both of whom aren’t too comfortable in central roles and are much better suited out wide.

So does Wenger have to buy a new striker in January?

“We still had Podolski and Ozil on the bench today,” Wenger said. “Giroud was sick, he was not injured but was available if he wasn’t sick. So for the next game he should be available. Of course if you lose Theo for a longer period it is a problem. While Nicklas Bendtner is out for a month, but it could’ve been more so we got some good news on him. I am waiting to see who walks out there [new signings] and wants to knock at the door and come in, but honestly it is hard to find better than the players we have.”

FIFA subjects 2026 Morocco World Cup bid to fresh scrutiny

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Morocco’s World Cup bid is facing fresh scrutiny this week with the arrival of another delegation from FIFA after an initial task force found deficiencies in the proposals for the 2026 tournament.

In a downbeat conclusion to the visit by the FIFA inspectors last week, Morocco’s bid leader acknowledged it had to improve the quality of the submission made to FIFA in March because inadequacies were identified by football’s governing body.

[ MORE: UCL semifinals predictions ]

The previously unplanned second inspection of Morocco is an indication of the more rigorous process introduced by FIFA following criticism in 2010 that World Cups were awarded to the riskiest nations in 2018 (Russia) and 2022 (Qatar).

There will also be closer scrutiny of human rights of the bidders before the vote on June 13 when Morocco is currently due to be taking on a joint challenge from the United States, Canada and Mexico.

The Associated Press revealed last week Morocco did not declare its anti-LGBT law to FIFA in the human rights risk assessment included in the bid book. The documents – along with the North American submission – will now be scrutinized for any gaps by human rights experts.

“That process involves an expert third-party assessment of the robustness of the human rights content of both bids that will directly inform the administration’s own evaluation,” Rachel Davis, who sits on FIFA’s human rights advisory board, told the AP.

“We are confident that the process will result in a fair assessment of the human rights situation in all four countries involved in the bids, and a roadmap for how to deal with any deficiencies that FIFA will then require the successful bidder to commit to.”

Davis, who is managing director of the Shift human rights organization, said an evaluation of the human rights in the bidding nations will be included in a report to the FIFA Council, which will also assess the verdict of the evaluation task force. A bid with low scores can be blocked by the council from advancing to a vote of up to 207 football nations at the FIFA Congress on June 13.

While Morocco has said it needs to spend almost $16 billion on infrastructure for the 48-team World Cup, including building or renovating all 14 stadiums, North American does not require any tournament-specific building work. Morocco bid president Moulay Hafid Elalamy said at the end of the FIFA inspection that officials “made some remarks on the conditions of some of the stadiums.”

The new batch of technical staff being deployed from FIFA HQ to Morocco did not make a similar follow-up visit to North America after the task force inspected the rival bid’s facilities this month.

“Following the visit of the 2026 bid evaluation task force to Morocco last week, it was decided to have an additional working visit this week to complement the initial analysis of the task force and clarify some aspects of the bid,” FIFA told the AP.

Rob Harris is at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

More AP World Cup coverage: http://www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup

Watch Live: Everton v. Newcastle

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Everton host Newcastle United on Monday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) with the Toffees and Magpies both sitting pretty in midtable.

[ LIVE: Stream Everton-Newcastle ]

Sam Allardyce and Rafael Benitez have both been around the block a few times but at the moment Allardyce is under pressure and Benitez is working miracles with four wins on the spin as the newly-promoted Magpies have stayed solid defensively all season.

In team news Everton start Tosun, Walcott and Bolasie in attack with Wayne Rooney in midfield.

Newcastle make one change with Islam Slimani making his first start for the Magpies as he comes in for Dwight Gayle.

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UEFA Champions League semifinal predictions

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With the semifinals of the UEFA Champions League to kick off over the next few days, let’s take a look at both games and predict which teams will make it to the final in Kiev on May 26.

[ MORE: Champions League scores

Liverpool or Roma? Real Madrid or Bayern Munich?

Here’s the lowdown as two eagerly anticipated games take center stage across Europe.


Liverpool vs. AS Roma
First leg: Apr. 24, 2:45 p.m. ET at Anfield
Second leg: May 2, 2:45 p.m. ET at Stadio Olimpico

This should be one heck of a tie with defending optional for both teams but both have very different ways of playing. Jurgen Klopp will unleash the fluid trio of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino on an often brittle Roma defense but the Italian giants have a giant in their own up top in the shape of Edin Dzeko. How Virgil Van Dijk and Liverpool’s defense deal with the threat of Dzeko will likely decide the outcome of this game. Liverpool will look to feed off the famous Anfield atmosphere to wrack up a big first leg lead before they head to Roma for Leg 2, and I fancy Salah to blow his old team away in the first leg. Liverpool to advance 4-2 on aggregate.

Bayern Munich vs. Real Madrid
First leg: Apr. 25, 2:45 p.m. ET at Allianz Arena
Second leg: May 1, 2:45 p.m. ET at Santiago Bernabeu

A proper heavyweight clash as Bayern and Real do battle knowing that whoever wins will be the favorites in the final. Cristiano Ronaldo is in the form of his life (again) after a slow start to this season and Zinedine Zidane’s side made hard work of it against Juventus in the last round but are on course for a third-straight UCL trophy. As for Bayern, they have been in imperious form and you feel like Robert Lewandowski can get the better of Real’s center backs. Expect this to be a tight game with extremely high quality from both teams. Real being at home in the second leg is a big advantage. Real Madrid to advance 3-2 on aggregate. 

Cologne’s Hector extends contract despite likely relegation

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COLOGNE, Germany (AP) Germany defender Jonas Hector has shunned reported interest from Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund by extending his contract with Cologne – despite the club’s almost certain relegation from the Bundesliga.

Cologne, eight points from safety with three games remaining, says its 27-year-old captain has signed a two-year extension to 2023 instead of using a release clause in his contract.

Hector, who has been at the club since 2010, says, “It wouldn’t have been a problem to switch to another club after this season but it didn’t feel right for me. I belong to Cologne and want to tackle the new season with the team and the fans behind us.”

Cologne sporting director Armin Veh says Hector’s decision is, “a great signal for the team, the club and our fans.”