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.

VIDEO: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago Fire can win World Cup

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Big press conferences bring unusual media members out of the woodwork, and this can be pretty embarrassing when it comes to sports.

I remember a few years ago in Buffalo, when the NHL’s Sabres had not resigned Chris Drury and Daniel Briere. A TV newsman, not known for his sports coverage, asked the general manager what they would say to fans who bought Drury and Briere jerseys.

The awkward reply: “Sorry?”

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

There was no exception when the Chicago Fire unveiled Bastian Schweinsteiger on Wednesday. The World Cup winning midfielder faced the press and was asked if his arrival would help Chicago win the World Cup.

You read that right. Here’s the video, even as the communications man jumped in to try and save the reporter by suggesting he meant the FIFA Club World Cup.

Woof. The media overseas are having a field day with this one, but it doesn’t have anything to do with American soccer fans, perhaps even sports media. I’d be stunned if the reporter spent a ton of time around the game.

But man, oh man.

Celtic’s dominance under Rodgers reaching new levels

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They’re unbeaten in 29 games, winning 27 of them. They hold a 25-point lead. They’re about to clinch a sixth straight league title this weekend and it’s still not even April.

Celtic’s players have taken their supremacy of Scottish soccer to a new level this season, putting the storied club from Glasgow in the conversation when discussing the most dominant sides in Europe’s domestic leagues in the 21st century.

Celtic will be the Scottish champion again as early as Friday if its closest rival, Aberdeen, loses to Dundee. If Aberdeen wins, Celtic will take an unassailable lead in the Scottish Premiership by beating Hearts on Sunday.

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

There’s been a sense of inevitability about the whole thing since the turn of the year, by which time Celtic had jumped into a 19-point lead. It’s long stopped being called a “title race” in Scotland, more a procession.

Meanwhile, the team coached by former Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers won the Scottish League Cup in late November and is also through to the semifinals of the Scottish Cup.

With Celtic’s unbeaten run across three domestic competitions currently at 36 games, this might be the most dominant season by any club in the history of Scotland’s top flight.

A glance around Europe shows a few other examples of title monopolies.

Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia) and BATE Borisov (Belarus) are currently on a streak of 11 domestic leagues titles in a row since 2006. Olympiakos is on course for a seventh straight Greek league title, which would be its 12th in the last 13 years, and Sheriff Tiraspol has won the Moldovan league every year except one since 2000. Basel leads the Swiss league by 17 points and is about to seal a ninth title in 10 years.

[ MORE: Zlatan to stay at United?

In these lesser-profile leagues, teams can dominate because of the cash they receive from participating in UEFA competitions, which often allow them to outspend their domestic rivals.

Last week, UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin, attending a conference in Lisbon, spoke of the threats to European soccer in the coming years, including the “decrease in competitive balance within European club competitions and secondary effects affecting domestic competitions.”

There are examples of lopsided championships in Europe’s big leagues, too: Juventus is closing on an unprecedented sixth straight Serie A title in Italy and on course for a third straight Serie A-Coppa Italia double; Bayern Munich is on course for a fifth straight Bundesliga title in Germany, which included winning one championship after 27 matches of a 34-round league; Lyon won the French league title seven times in succession from 2002; and Ajax won four straight titles in the Netherlands from 2011-14.

Scotland is widely regarded as a backwater in European soccer these days, mainly because of the uncompetitive nature of its league and an increasing lack of exposure and coverage outside Britain.

What didn’t help was Rangers – Celtic’s fierce crosstown rival and winner of a record 54 league titles – getting demoted to the fourth tier of the Scottish game in 2012 because of financial irregularities.

This is Rangers’ first season back in the Premiership, but it hasn’t been able to challenge Celtic and currently sits 33 points behind in third place. There used to be constant talk of the two “Old Firm” clubs crossing the border to join the English league but that has cooled.

“I want to win (the league) by 50 points,” Rodgers, who is in his first season at Celtic, said last month.

[ MORE: RSL hires Petke ]

In any other league, that would be a preposterous comment, but perhaps no longer in Scotland.

The season started so embarrassingly for Celtic and Rodgers, a 1-0 loss to Gibraltarian part-timer Lincoln Red Imps in a Champions League qualifier in July described by some pundits as the club’s worst defeat in its 130-year history.

Now, they are about to lift the league title with eight matches to spare and potentially in the month of March for the second time in four years.

“We want to continue winning, continue the run that we’re on,” Celtic goalkeeper Craig Gordon said, “and make sure we do that for as long as we can.”

AP Sports Writers Graham Dunbar in Geneva and James Ellingworth in Moscow, and Associated Press writers Ciaran Fahey in Berlin, Daniella Matar in Milan, Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, and Raf Casert in Brussels, Belgium, contributed to this report.

Steve Douglas is at http://www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

Mourinho: Midseason international friendlies don’t make sense

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Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United has a big challenge thanks to injuries and a club with far more international participants than the weekend’s Premier League rival.

It has the manager asking, frankly, why the friendlies?

While Phil Jones and Chris Smalling were injured in England training, not the friendly against Germany nor the World Cup qualifier versus Lithuania, Mourinho wonders why the national teams need to play relatively meaningless matches in the middle of club season.

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

Mourinho says he is being careful not to be too vocal about his disappointment given that he’ll probably one day need those friendlies as an international boss. From Sky Sports:

“A couple of weeks before the Euros or a couple of weeks before the World Cup makes sense. But mid-season friendly matches mixed with qualification matches, I don’t think that makes sense.

“On top of that the matches are not really big matches so I am not a big fan. But I think one day I will be there so I cannot be very critical.”

Mourinho will be without Jones, Smalling, and Paul Pogba this weekend. He also has several internationals who won’t arrive back at Old Trafford until Thursday. United hosts West Brom on Saturday.

Lamela needs hip surgery, out for rest of Spurs season

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Tottenham Hotspur won’t be getting an Erik Lamela boost any time soon.

The 25-year-old winger will undergo surgery on his ailing hip this Saturday, costing him availability for Spurs’ stretch run and Argentina duty.

[ MORE: RSL hires Petke ]

Lamela has been missing since Oct. 29, and left Spurs lineup with the team unbeaten in the Premier League (5W-4D).

He registered a goal and an assist in PL play, adding a goal and four helpers in the side’s first two rounds of the EFL Cup and two assists in three Champions League matches.