Adam Johnson

After fifth goal in four games, perspective still needed on Adam Johnson-for-England

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His goal wasn’t a spectacular one. It was a chance almost any other attacker in the Premier League would have converted, given the chance. After Asmir Begovic spilled Fabio Borini’s shot into the right of the six-yard box, Johnson was given an open goal in the 17th minute against Stoke. One touch, a tap, and the Sunderland winger converted one of the easiest chances of the round, scoring the only goal as the Black Cats climbed out of the bottom three.

Never mind the goal didn’t show any extraordinary ability. Put aside the fact the tap in from a few yards out should say little about Johnson’s place among his country’s best attackers. With five goals in four games, the talk putting Adam Johnson in the conversation for Brazil is going to continue. If he maintains anything close to this form — if he continues playing with the confidence he’s gained since Gus Poyet arrived at Sunderland — it will be impossible for Roy Hodgson to keep him out of England 23 for this summer’s World Cup.

Before diving into that, let’s stop and consider our undo obsession with the English national team. This isn’t an English site. A huge majority of our reader base is American. The team’s not transcendently good, and there isn’t an overwhelming demand for discussion about it. Why we should be that concerned with the English national team, let alone somebody fighting for a spot on the back-end of the roster? Why should we care?

We can because discussion of the Three Lions is part of English soccer, just as La Roja is woven into La Liga, the Nationalmannschaft helps defined discussions of the Bundesliga, and the Azzurri is always relevant to Italy’s Serie A. In choosing to become Premier League follower, we’re also choosing to expose ourselves to the England national team. There’s unbreakable link with which discussion of Adam Johnson’s international future becomes no less obscure than debates about David Moyes’ performance. It’s just part of the deal.

Still, it might help if we applied some perspective on Johnson’s rise. Before this hot stretch (which started on Jan. 11), Johnson had one league goal in 18 games. Since he’s established his place in the Black Cats team, becoming the team’s leading scorer in the process, but to dwell on the last three league games while ignoring the previous 18 is just bad process. As hot as he’s been over the last two-plus weeks, the rest of Johnson’s 2013-14 tells us more about the player’s value.

That value’s remained relatively unchanged ever since Johnson first garnered attention with Middlesbrough. Fast, capable of beating a left back one-on-one, the former Manchester City winger provides game breaking ability. Occasionally you’ll encounter a team that can’t match up with a quick right wing. Against those sides, Johnson can define games.

source: AP
After his 17th minute goal against Stoke City, Adam Johnson’s up to six league goals this season, twice as many as anybody else in the Sunderland squad. (Photo credit: AP.)

Unfortunately, at the highest levels, those teams are pretty rare – part of the reason why Johnson’s no longer at the Etihad. The one elite skill he has isn’t enough to keep him in teams with more well-rounded talents.

For a team like Sunderland, however — a team unlikely to lure the likes to David Silva and Jésus Návas to the northwest — Johnson can be a very nice piece. Keep throwing him out there, and he’ll give you a couple of stellar performances per season, maybe even lead your team in goals. Against the right opposition, he’ll look like an England international.

We might be in the middle of one of those hot stretches now, something to keep in mind as Johnson’s England credentials are lauded. But for a better test of his international viability, we should expand our scope beyond four games. We should check back in spring. If Johnson really has become a consistent goal scoring threat, his numbers in March will say so. And if they do, we should consider the possibility Johnson’s now a different player than the one that’s been on the fringes of England squad since 2010.

Until then, Sunderland get to enjoy the benefits of Johnson’s unexpected surge. England-caliber or not, Johnson’s scored as many league goals as Steven Fletcher, Fabio Borini, and Jozy Altidore combined. Without him, the Black Cats would still be in the drop.

Premier League Preview: Sunderland vs. Manchester United

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  • United 6 points outside the top four
  • Sunderland winless in four
  • MUFC has one loss in 27 vs. SAFC (W20, D6, L1)

Manchester United’s uphill battle for a top-four finish continues on Saturday when the Red Devils travel to the Stadium of Light to face Sunderland (Watch live, 7:45 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra).

United won this fixture in September 3-0 behind goals from Memphis, Wayne Rooney, and Juan Mata.

[ WATCH LIVE: Stream every PL game via Live Extra ]

Sunderland sit 19th on the table four points from safety as the time has come for Sam Allardyce‘s side to start getting results. Without a win in their last four matches, the Black Cats must turn things around if they want to stay up in the Premier League. Jermain Defoe scored last time out in a draw at Liverpool, and he’ll once again be tasked with finding the back of the net if Sunderland are to win.

[ MORE: Prince-Wright’s Premier League Picks for Week 26 ]

For Manchester United, the pressure is still on Louis Van Gaal as rumors and reports circle linking Jose Mourinho to the job. Fifth on the table and six points behind Manchester City, a top-four finish is slipping away from United if they don’t rattle off a few wins. A late goal at Chelsea last weekend cost the Red Devils all three points, but they’ll look at this matchup against Sunderland as a good opportunity to get a positive result.

What they’re saying

Sunderland boss Sam Allardyce: “Providing chances for Jermain Defoe is critical for us. But our first major problem is that we haven’t kept a clean sheet in nine matches. We need to start putting a zero against us in games and if we start doing that we’ll win more matches. If we win more matches, we’ll get out of trouble.”

United manager Louis van Gaal: “We had lost four matches in a row in December and you see us now. You can only say that we are mentally very strong and that we can cope with the pressure. That is not enough as we have to improve our results and consistency to win a lot of matches in a row. We have to minimize the gap to our competitors.”

Prediction

Sunderland need all the points they can get to try and stay up, but United always seem to cause the Black Cats problems. Jermain Defoe is kept off the board as Louis van Gaal takes the win. Sunderland 0-2 Manchester United.

Costa breaks nose, will be fit to play for “Zorro team” vs. Newcastle

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 07:  Diego Costa of Chelsea reacts during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge on February 7, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
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Chelsea striker Diego Costa broke his nose in training after a clash of heads, but should be fit to play in Saturday’s match against Newcastle (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra).

Costa has six goals in his past seven Premier League games as Chelsea are unbeaten in their last 11 in all competitions.

[ MORE: Top 5 PL storylines ]

Manager Guus Hiddink spoke about the injury in his press conference on Friday, saying Costa collided with an Academy player in training. Hiddink said he believes Costa will be ready to play this weekend for his “Zorro team” as Costa joins Gary Cahill, Nemanja Matic, and Cesar Azpilicueta as Chelsea players to wear a mask this season.

It was not a tough duel but he put his nose on the back of the head of one of the youngsters from the Academy that we like to participate in our training games. He was very unlucky.

They are putting a mask on Diego as well, we are the team with a lot of masks, a Zorro team, and he will come back do some light training this afternoon as he must experience how he is dealing with the form and the fitting of the mask.

Costa scored a stoppage-time equalizer against Manchester United last weekend as Chelsea continue to get results under Guus Hiddink. The Blues are up to 13th on the table, just three points outside the top half.

[ RELATED: Frank Lampard urges Chelsea to sign John Terry ]

Chelsea will look to extend their unbeaten run to 12 matches on Saturday against a Newcastle side that is just one point above the drop and in need of a result.

Messi named La Liga Player of the Month for first time in career

BARCELONA, SPAIN - JANUARY 06:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona celebrates after scoring his team's second goal during the Copa del Rey Round of 16 first leg match between FC Barcelona and RCD Espanyol at Camp Nou on January 6, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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Lionel Messi has won every individual award imaginable, but now he can add another trophy to his shelf.

For the first time in his career, Messi was named La Liga’s Player of the Month for January.

[ MORE: PL Power Rankings, Vol. VIII ]

It’s hard to believe, but somehow the Barcelona superstar had never won this honor before. Despite winning a record five Ballon D’or trophies as the best player in the world, this trophy had eluded Messi since its inception in 2013.

Messi scored six goals in six January matches as Barcelona sit atop the La Liga table, currently holding a three-point lead over Atletico Madrid.

Despite their dominance in La Liga, this is only the second time a Barcelona player has won this monthly award, as Neymar took home the honor in November of 2015.

USWNT-Mexico preview: Energized Yanks look to keep rolling toward Rio

FRISCO, TX - FEBRUARY 10:  Team USA poses for a photo before play against Costa Rica during 2016 CONCACAF Women's Olympic Qualifying at Toyota Stadium on February 10, 2016 in Frisco, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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The United States women’s national team looks to keep rolling through CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying with a match with Mexico on Saturday.

Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, is again the scene after the Yanks battered Costa Rica 5-0 on Wednesday.

[ MUST WATCH: Christen Press’ dazzling first touch, spin, goal ]

A win over Mexico would move the USWNT into the all-important semifinal, where a win would gain them entry into this Summer’s Olympic Games.

Mexico staged a blowout of its own on Wednesday, cruising past Puerto Rico 6-0 thanks in large part to a hat trick from Maribel Dominguez.

[ VIDEO: Alex Morgan caps off a 12-second, six-pass goal ]

Mexico has only beaten the USWNT twice in history, and only the 2010 Gold Cup semifinal is considered official.

In recent history, the USWNT beat up Mexico 5-1 last year, and thrice in 2014 by a combined score of 15-0. Expect very little to change with an energized, impressive U.S. side on Saturday.

[ SATURDAY: Watch USWNT vs Mexico live online on NBC Sports Live Extra ]