Fulham steal Deadline Day spotlight with total squad overhaul

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While top clubs like Manchester United, Liverpool, and Arsenal sat twiddling their thumbs, the bottom of the table was scrambling to save their seasons.

Of all the teams near the relegation zone, Fulham soared above and beyond on Deadline Day, giving supporters hope for the rest of the season.

The beginning of the Rene Meulensteen era providing a few results but nothing earth shattering, and losses such as 6-0 to Hull and 4-1 to Sunderland left the club broken and in serious trouble.

The situation is dire. The Cottagers sit in 19th position, two points deep in the relegation zone, and matches with Manchester United, Liverpool, and Chelsea dotting their next five fixtures.

So instead of allowing the season to come to them and deal with the consequences, Meulensteen and CEO Alistair Mackintosh – aided by new front office additions Alan Curbishley and Ray Wilkins – took the bull by the horns, armed with an arsenal of cash from new owner Shad Khan.

Mackintosh had come under fire from Fulham fans in recent times, taking the brunt of the blame for a squad that had suddenly become old and decrepit under former manager Martin Jol, filled with players who should probably no longer be starting in the Premier League.

First Mackintosh sealed a move for a relative unknown in Danish midfielder William Kvist, owner of 44 caps at the international level. The deal is a low risk one as a loan, but also leaves open the chance for a purchase should the 28-year-old impress.

A look at Kvist’s numbers show the shrewd nature of the purchase.  At just 81% passing on the Bundesliga season, there appears to be a problem there at first glance.  However, after some digging, it would appear that a poor record heading the ball and lumping it forward seriously depleted his passing number, and his short- and mid-range accuracy actually impresses in the 90% range, according to Squawka statistics.

But the pair left the big guns for deadline day. First, Mackintosh convinced Daniel Levy to part ways with promising midfielder Lewis Holtby. Currently excess to requirements at White Hart Lane, Holtby provides a starving Fulham midfield with plenty of nourishment, and between Kvist and Holtby the creativity department should see itself improve exponentially.

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Lewis Holtby’s passing and creativity is just what the doctor ordered for Fulham’s midfield.

The Holtby deal, while just a loan, also presents itself with promising future prospects. Should the Cottagers save their Premier League status this year – still a very iffy possibility – they may be able to convince Holtby that he can ply his trade best at Craven Cottage and that going back to Tottenham would only mean being stuck back out on the wing, a place the 23-year-old has publicly despised.

Finally, the Deadline Day roast beef to Fulham’s sandwich. After a scare thanks to Big Sam and West Ham (or so it was reported), Fulham secured the services of imposing Greek striker Kostas Mitroglou on a club record fee, brokered by the infamous Mino Raiola.

An outstanding goalscoring record at both Borussia Monchengladbach and Olympiakos (with flair and strength), the gritty Mitroglou is the perfect fit for a relegation battle, replacing the luxurious Dimitar Berbatov at the head of the Fulham attack.

While the Bulgarian provided Fulham fans with many moments to remember, he unfortunately was more of a burden in his second season at Craven Cottage, and the replacement is for sure an upgrade. Mitroglou, at 25 years old, also presents a wonderful chance for the club to make a profit should he impress in around 18 months time.

With a defense that has conceded a league-leading 50 goals thus far – 10 more than any other team – the front office pair knew they had to improve the back line. While the biggest hole remains unsolved at left-back, Fulham did bring in Johnny Heitinga on a free transfer, another quality signing. Everton’s former Player of the Year just two seasons ago, Heitinga has fallen behind

But the two weren’t done. Meulensteen used his Manchester United connections to convince the Old Trafford brass that bright young prospects Ryan Tunnicliffe and Larnell Cole were better served in London.  The icing on the Deadline Day cake (we’re making a full three course meal here), the youth squad duo provide Fulham with talented young options moving forward, whether they stay up or not.

With all these additions, changes had to be made, and ties had to be severed to create roster space.  Adel Taarabt left for AC Milan, clearing one of the two domestic loan slots given to Premier League teams (Darren Bent occupies the other).

Central defenders Philippe Senderos and Aaron Hughes departed for Valencia and Queens Park Rangers respectively, ending an era of frustration for fans forced to watch Senderos destroy a solid 89 minutes with one infuriating mistake.  Hughes leaving is bittersweet, with many remembering his days partnering with Brede Hangeland en route to a Europa League final and 250 club appearances.

The transfer window is a fragile one – drop one domino and the whole plan falls out of whack. But the CEO and manager navigated the treacherous waters successfully, and while Fulham still have a serious bit of work to do on the pitch, the intention is clear – stay up at all costs.

Kevin de Bruyne questionable for injury-laden Belgium

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Belgium, already without superstar Eden Hazard for the upcoming World Cup qualifier against Greece, will now be without playmaker Kevin De Bruyne, who picked up an injury in training on Friday and will miss both the match against Greece and the subsequent friendly against Russia three days later…maybe.

The Belgian National Team official Twitter account sent out a quote from manager Roberto Martinez that confirmed De Bruyne would miss the pair of matches, but the tweet was quickly deleted.

Instead, this one was pushed out in its place, correcting his availability and also updating the type of injury:

Should De Bruyne miss out, it means Belgium would likely rely heavily on Dries Mertens and Kevin Mirallas for the playmaking duties, with midfielder Radja Nainggolan potentially taking on a more attacking role as well.

Belgium and Martinez also confirmed that right-back Thomas Meunier will miss out after failing to recover from an ankle injury, while Marouane Fellaini‘s status is unknown after he was held out of Thursday’s training session.

The injury also leaves De Bruyne’s status for Manchester City up in the air, with a pair of massive games in London in quick succession after the injury break. City visits Arsenal next Sunday, followed by a hop over to Stanford Bridge on Wednesday.

Landon Donovan retires again, this time for good

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After coming out of retirement last fall to join the LA Galaxy for one more shot at an MLS Cup, Landon Donovan has once again called time on his career, saying he’s certain he will not play again.

With a number of other ventures on his plate, the USMNT all-time leading scorer is looking forward to spending his time elsewhere.

“Yeah, I’m done,” Donovan said. “I’m done. No more playing for me. I have not [gone public with it yet]. But that is definitely the case.”

Donovan scored one goal in nine games for the LA Galaxy in his comeback bid, with the club ravaged by injuries and still gunning for the Cup. However, after the season was over with a loss to Colorado in the Conference Semifinals, the Galaxy confirmed it was nothing more than a short-term stopgap.

“With Landon, when he came back, it was always going to be a short-term thing,”team president Chris Klein said to the L.A. Times in December. “He’s enjoying what he’s doing and we see we’re comfortable in the direction that we’re headed.”

In January, reports claimed Real Salt Lake had offered Donovan a Designated Player contract, but it appears he’s turned it down, and will now have time to concentrate on his other ventures. Off the field, Donovan is an analyst on Fox’s soccer coverage, is on the advisory committee for the Los Angeles 2024 Olympics bid, and has joined the ownership group attempting to bring an expansion MLS team to San Diego.

Former Spurs midfielder Paulinho scores thunderbolt for Brazil

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Brazil topped Uruguay 4-1 to move on the verge of World Cup qualification, but there was much more to the first half of this match than meets the eye.

Uruguay went ahead 1-0 on a 9th-minute penalty won and scored by Edinson Cavani, and for a moment it seemed like the home side might find its way to pull within a point of Brazil at the top of the CONMEBOL standings. That would not last very long.

[ MORE: Full roundup of CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying action ]

Just 10 minutes later, a bad giveaway near the midfield stripe saw Neymar casually feed Paulinho a good 50 yards from goal. The former Spurs man took matters into his own hands, charging forward and unleashing a vicious strike that continued to rise until it ripped the chords in the top-right corner.

 

Not only was the goal a sight to behold, it was an important moment in the match. Brazil was back level at 1-1, and Paulinho would be on his way to an eventual hat-trick with a pair in the second half. Neymar scored once as well to complete the 4-1 final scoreline, and the three points for Brazil saw them remain perfect in the World Cup qualifying round as they march seven clear of Uruguay at the top of the standings.

For Paulinho, the hat-trick brings him to four goals in the World Cup qualifying round, adding to his score in the 3-0 win over Argentina. They also mark an important moment for the Chinese Super League, where Paulinho now plays, having moved from Spurs in July of 2015. Some national team coaches have left players on the outside of the squad for moving to leagues such as the Chinese League or Major League Soccer, but Paulinho has clearly been an asset to Brazil despite his club situation. In fact, in China, Paulinho has scored four goals in his four league matches for Guangzhou Evergrande this season plus another in the Asian Champions League, leaving him in top goalscoring form coming into this international break, something which has clearly translated directly to international play.

The 28-year-old had lost his place in the national team squad in 2014, going over two years without a single international appearance, but has been a mainstay in the Brazilian side during this World Cup qualification cycle.

Dele Alli banned three European games for straight red card

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Spurs may be out of the Europa League this season, but should they end up qualifying for the Champions League next season, they will start the campaign short-handed.

Tottenham will be without midfielder Dele Alli for the first half of the group stage after his horrifying tackle on Brecht Dejaegere of KAA Gent in their 2-2 draw which saw Spurs out of the competition on aggregate in the Round of 32.

Alli went to ground on the 39th-minute challenge, and made contact on high up on Dejaegere’s leg with both his studs, finishing with a scissior-whip motion. It was a blatant red card, and now UEFA’s disciplinary committee has handed down the three-match ban. Straight-red cards for violent conduct only carry a minimum penalty of one match in UEFA tournament play, but the disciplinary committee clearly thought a longer punishment was necessary, with the ability to sentence anyone up to five matches.

The straight red was the first of Alli’s professional career. Alli apologized to Dejaejere after the match, according to the Gent midfielder. He’s since scored in four straight matches, and when asked on Sunday if that moment was still in his mind, he said, “I’m never going to say sorry for wanting to win or trying as hard as I can but things happen and you have to learn from them.”

Spurs currently sit in second place in the Premier League table with 59 points and look to be in a strong position for Champions League qualification, with a seven-point cushion on fifth-placed Manchester United.