Midseason Reports: Arsenal, Aston Villa, Cardiff, Chelsea, Crystal Palace

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Every day this week at ProSoccerTalk we will be assessing how all 20 Premier League teams have fared so far, as we issue our midseason reports.

The second half of the season is already upon us, but that doesn’t mean we can’t reflect on what’s been a sensational start to the 2013-14 PL campaign. Here we go…

ARSENAL

Best moment: A dominant 2-0 win over Liverpool showcased exactly why the Gunners are top of the table. Giroud was the focal point and a plethora of attacking options destroyed the opponents defense.

Worst moment: A 6-3 hammering by Manchester City at the Etihad. Arsenal didn’t play that poorly and created plenty of chances, but incidents involving Mesut Ozil not applauding Arsenal’s fans and Jack Wilshere flipping the bird at City’s supporters left a sour taste in the mouth.

Top player: Aaron Ramsey. Has perhaps been the player of the season so far in the PL. 13 goals across all competitions in the opening half of the season from the flourishing Welshman has driven Arsenal to the top of the league. Hopefully he isn’t out for too long with a recent injury.

Manager: Wenger has done what he needed to do, buy a big name player that complemented his squad. Ozil has done that. Arsenal’s defense has also improved drastically.

GRADE: A-

Almost top marks for the Gunners who led the way by eight points in November. That lead at the top is down to just one point now but players returning from injury is good news.

ASTON VILLA

source: AP
Villa need to stick together, as a tough second half of the season beckons.

Best moment: One of two massive wins at the start of the season, as Villa beat Arsenal 3-1 away on the opening day and Man city at home a few weeks later.

Worst moment: A 1-0 home defeat to Crystal Palace on Boxing Day saw the Villans drop perilously close to the drop zone. A last-gasp defeat made the natives restless.

Top player: Gabriel Agbonlahor. The Villa veteran is still young and his electric pace has caused plenty of problems. Plenty of goals from him this season too.

Manager: Paul Lambert still has his hands tied behind his back, with a young squad and no money to spend. That said, there’s been no real progress.

GRADE: C

Still plenty of work to do at Villa, but some massive wins here and there have shown promise. But there’s been plenty of dismal displays, especially going forward. Given all that, their league position isn’t bad.

CARDIFF

Best moment:  Beating Man City 3-2 at home on a hot August day in South Wales definitely the highlight. Frazier Campbell scored twice late on to give the Bluebirds a famous PL win.

source: Getty Images
New boss Ole Gunnar Solksjaer must splash the cash in January if the Bluebirds are to stay up.

Worst moment: Losing 3-0 at home to Southampton on Boxing Day spelled the end for Malky Mackay, as the entire saga between Cardiff’s manager and controversial owner Vincent Tan came to a head.

Top player: Jordon Mutch. The young attacker has taken to the PL like a duck to water, four goals and three assists easily make him Cardiff’s most productive player.

Manager: Mackay was doing a good job but Tan’s involvement made it untenable. Now the Bluebirds’ hopes live with Ole Gunnar Solksjaer, as the former Manchester United boss manages in the PL for the first time.

GRADE: D+

Cardiff were so strong and solid for most of the opening weeks but as the season wore on Mackay’s personal feud with Tan took over. A decent squad who can dazzle on their day, new boss Solksjaer must buy big in January.

CHELSEA

Best moment: The 2-1 home win over Liverpool on Dec. 28 showed how Jose Mourinho’s side can defend well, are resolute and full of creative nous when needed.

source: Getty Images
Chelsea’s young attacking stars have to take center stage from here on out.

Worst moment: A 1-0 away defeat at Everton early in the season proved there was plenty of work to do, as the offense looked weak and devoid of ideas. A wake up call.

Top player: Eden Hazard. The young Belgian winger has flourished under the Special One and has scored plenty of important goals, plus he looks hungry to succeed.

Manager: Mourinho repeatedly states he’s starting a project at Chelsea, and with the exciting young attackers he has you can see that. But Chelsea look at their best with staunch defense and lightning-quick counters. So far, so good.

GRADE: B+

Chelsea have plodded along nicely, beaten the sides they should have and frustrated the top teams with tight defensive displays. The Blues are perfectly poised for a title push in the second half of the season.

CRYSTAL PALACE

Best moment: A 2-0 win against Cardiff City at home completed a great run for Palace as their fans began to believe they could survive in the PL.

source: AP
Tony Pulis has brought belief to Palace. But the Eagles are still fighting for their PL lives.

Worst moment: A 4-1 hammering by struggling Fulham, as Ian Holloway knew his time was up at Selhurst Park and left soon after.

Top player: Mile Jedinak. Doesn’t grab many goals but captain Jedinak has been superb in the midfield engine room. The Aussie is powerful, keeps the ball and thwarts the opposition.

Manager: Holloway stepped aside as he thought someone else could save Palace… turns out he could be right. Tony Pulis has arrived and the Eagles have been soaring.

GRADE: C

Nobody expected great things from Palace but they’ve given themselves a fighting chance of staying up with four wins since November. Some shrewd signings in the transfer window could see them just beat the drop.  

While PSG has won the title, Areola’s playing for his future

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PARIS (AP) Although Paris Saint-Germain has easily won the French title, Alphonse Areola still has plenty to play for.

The next four games could be crucial in deciding whether PSG keeps the goalkeeper or tries to sign a big name in the transfer window, possibly Thibaut Courtois. The 25-year-old Areola is the same age as Courtois, but has nowhere near the international standing of the Chelsea keeper.

[ MORE: Turkey hands bid plans to UEFA for EURO 2024 ]

It is hard for Areola to stand out, however, in a team noted almost singularly for its attacking prowess. While PSG has already scored more than 100 league goals, and remains on course to reach 100 points this season, Areola has rarely been talked about.

The common perception is that PSG will thrash teams in the French league, so letting in a goal or two is irrelevant.

However, Areola has been one of PSG’s most consistent players this season, and last Sunday he made a personal record of eight saves in a 1-0 win at Bordeaux.

He was also one of the few PSG players to come through the loss to Real Madrid in the last 16 of the Champions League with any credit. Without Areola’s shot-stopping, and particularly his bravery rushing off his line, the 5-2 aggregate loss would have been bigger.

With 104 goals, PSG’s attack is the best in the league by far and has netted 25 more than deposed champion Monaco.

But PSG’s defense is also the best and Areola has conceded only 21 goals in the 31 he has played. Although PSG has dominated most of those, losing only twice all season, he has still made on average four saves per game.

Having replaced Kevin Trapp as No. 1, Areola has missed only three league games all season. It represents a reversal for both.

When Trapp was signed by former coach Laurent Blanc in 2015-16, Areola went on loan to Spanish club Villarreal. He established himself as regular in Villarreal’s side and gained further experience in the Europa League. Spanish media were largely impressed by his consistency and his agility on the goal-line.

He returned to PSG and battled with Trapp for the starting position last season. But coach Unai Emery seemed unsure who he really preferred, with Trapp starting 24 games to Areola’s 14. PSG ended up losing the title to Monaco.

But the hierarchy is much clearer now and the error-prone Trapp, once hailed by Blanc for his passing out from goal, is the one expected to leave.

Areola has further incentive to do well with the World Cup coming up. He is challenging Marseille goalkeeper Steve Mandanda to be France’s No. 2 behind Hugo Lloris in Russia. For now, Areola is a squad member but has yet to make an international appearance under coach Didier Deschamps.

But he has done well at every level for France, starting with the under-16s a decade ago. He got his first taste of international success when he helped France win the Under-20 World Cup in 2013.

While Paul Pogba was one of the stars of the tournament, Areola’s crowning moment came in the final itself. France drew 0-0 with Uruguay and he saved two shots in the penalty shootout. Prior to the shootout he had a word with France’s designated penalty takers, confidently telling them “do your job and I’ll do mine.”

With Emery almost certain to be replaced next season, it promises to be a frenetic offseason of buying and selling at the club.

But whoever replaces Emery should perhaps think twice before letting Areola leave. The Parisian-born Areola came through the youth ranks at PSG, as did center half Presnel Kimpembe and midfielder Adrien Rabiot.

Star-studded sides like PSG often import their best players and fans are happy to see them arrive, because it shows ambition. But they nevertheless identify more closely with homegrown talents such as Areola.

More AP Ligue 1 coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/Ligue1

Jerome Pugmire on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/jeromepugmire

Infantino has ‘full confidence’ in Samoura amid ethics issue

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ZURICH (AP) FIFA President Gianni Infantino says he retains “full confidence” in secretary general Fatma Samoura after an attempt to embroil her in an ethics investigation.

[ MORE: Turkey hands in bid plans to UEFA for 2024 EUROs ]

Samoura has expressed irritation at “totally ridiculous and baseless” claims she broke FIFA rules by not declaring an alleged conflict of interest in the 2026 World Cup bidding contest.

FIFA has not specified the exact nature of the complaint or the progress of any ethics investigation after it was alleged she was a relative of former Senegal player El Hadji Diouf, who is an ambassador for Morocco’s bid.

Samoura insisted on Wednesday the former Liverpool forward “is not a member of my family and therefore everything is crystal clear.”

FIFA’s top administrator received a public show of support from Infantino.

“I can confirm my full confidence in Fatma Samoura to lead the FIFA administration,” Infantino said in a statement to The Associated Press on Thursday.

The former United Nations official was hired by Infantino in 2016 months after he was elected as Sepp Blatter’s successor.

Morocco is due to take on a joint bid from the United States, Canada and Mexico in the June 13 vote for the 2026 World Cup host.

Photo: Flamengo supporter tattoos club jersey on body

MAURÍCIO DOS ANJOS VIA VICE
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A supporter in Brazil has taken fandom to a whole new level with a piece of body art that shows his devotion to the club.

[ MORE: Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks ]

Maurício dos Anjos, a passionate Flamengo fan, has been a life-long supporter of the Rio de Janeiro-based club, and has the tattoo to prove it.

While it may look like body paint, Dos Anjos has a tattoo on the upper-half of his body depicting the Flamengo jersey, and it’s pretty awesome.

“People ask me if I don’t find it strange that I’m always wearing a Flamengo shirt. And I just don’t,” dos Anjos told VICE. “To me, it’s normal. But it doesn’t seem like anyone I talk to about it actually dislikes my tattoo.”

In total, Dos Anjos says the body work took over 90 hours and 30 sessions to complete the tattoo.

Has the perception of MLS really changed?

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When David Beckham arrived in Los Angeles back in 2007 his presence changed the complexion of Major League Soccer for all the right reasons, and the perception of the growing league changed.

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Over the years, MLS has strived to move into the upper-echelon of the global game, in an attempt to compete with the likes of the Premier League, Bundesliga and La Liga, but naysayers still indicate to this day that the United States’ top flight lacks the quality of the aforementioned.

Phrases like “retirement league” and “uninspired” have been used to describe MLS in the past, particularly when it comes to the league’s willingness to spend boatloads of cash on notable players well past their prime.

Examples such as Andrea Pirlo, Steven Gerrard and Rafael Marquez have at times dampened the perception of MLS due to the lack of quality on the pitch from those players, along with several others that had previously boasted extensive resumes.

Now, we’re at a time where MLS has picked up its scouting, with clubs focused more on younger, more skilled talents from South America and Europe.

That has led to major signings over the past several years, such as Ezequiel Barco, Miguel Almiron, Diego Rossi and Jesus Medina, to name a few.

Has that changed the overall complexion of MLS though?

On Thursday, Kevin De Bruyne‘s agent, Patrick de Koster, suggested in an interview that the Belgium international would likely “finish” his career in MLS.

“For now, he’s very happy at this club,” De Koster said. “We always look what the best solution for the player, both financially and football wise. Kevin’s future? I can see him finish at Los Angeles.”

This comes on the heels of a 36-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic joining the LA Galaxy in a move that has sent shockwaves across the league and the world because of the Swede’s great presence on a global scale.

It’s not to say that players like Ibrahimovic, or previous signings like David Villa and Didier Drogba cannot help the overall growth of MLS, because they certainly bring an awareness to the matches and draw attention to their respective clubs.

However, the long-term viability of MLS has been and will continue to be sustained on youth players succeeding in the league, as well as being able to draw promising young talents into the top flight of the U.S.