Romelu Lukaku set to return from injury; Steven Naismith the silver-lining

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For Everton fans it was bad when Steven Gerrard thumped home Liverpool’s opener in the January 28th Merseyside derby but it was doubly painful when Romelu Lukaku collapsed to the ground holding his ankle.

Initially it looked like ligament damage but those fears were later removed when it was diagnosed as a bad sprain. And now, after three weeks of care, the Belgian striker is healthy and ready to go.

“Romelu Lukaku is fully fit now and it’s just a matter of making sure that we get him back to his level of match fitness that he needs,” Everton manager Roberto Martinez explained on Tuesday.

While the Toffees will be without Lukaku this Saturday when they face off against the striker’s parent club, Chelsea, the loan star is set to return on March 1st against West Ham United.

“It helps in a way that he’s not available for this weekend because this game may have been a little bit too early for him to be involved with the team. But now we’ve got nearly two weeks to make sure that he’s fully fit for the next home game and that’s very much a realistic target.”

In Lukaku’s absence Everton defeated Aston Villa 2-1 and lost to Spurs 0-1 in the league, while also defeating Swansea City 3-1 in last weekend’s FA Cup.

The silver-lining from Lukaku’s injury is that an unlikely hero has emerged among the Toffees in Steven Naismith. The plucky Scot scored the game-winner against Villa just four minutes after being substituted into the match, a move he replicated against Swansea when he came on in the 61st minute and put away the match-winner in the 65th.

Naismith is one of those players who, given his look and lack of size, takes an unfair amount of grief. But the winger-come-striker has the uncanny ability to score big goals (see his history in the Merseyside derby) and is a constant menace to opponents. A religious hustler with a decent touch, clever ideas and the will to insert himself into the most dangerous situations, Naismith is the archetypal ‘super sub’.

On Sunday, Naismith suffered a concussion after taking a strong blow to the head from Swansea’s Jordi Amat. After the first replay was shown on TV, there was little question Naismith was in trouble. His eyes rolled back into his head and he collapsed to the ground. It was yet another incident of a Premier League club failing to immediately remove a head injured player but Naismith, ever the warrior, continued on for a few minutes before becoming so out-of-sorts that he just plumped down on the turf.

If healthy enough to go on Saturday, Naismith may lead the line for the Toffees. More likely he’ll provide that pest-like punch off the bench when 6’8″ Lacina Traore needs a breather.

MLS Snapshot: New York City FC 2-1 New England Revolution (video)

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The game in 100 words (or less): For nearly 75 minutes, NYCFC couldn’t muster up any chances in the attacking third, but thankfully their captain did what he does best. David Villa scored his 19th goal of the season on Sunday night to pull out a 2-1 win against the New England Revolution, but it was rookie Jonathan Lewis that notched the winner. The visitors took the lead 20 minutes prior after Sean Johnson spilled a shot in front of his own goal, allowing Teal Bunbury to pounce on the rebound. NYCFC now moves to within four points of Eastern Conference leaders Toronto FC with nine matches remaining in the regular season.

Three four moments that mattered

16′ — Harrison breaks ankles, but Villa can’t finish — This might be the only time all see you’ll see David Villa miss a chance like this…

38′ — Johnson gets a finger tip to Rowe’s blast — Sean Johnson had no work to do in the first half, at least until Kelyn Rowe decided to rip a shot from distance just before halftime.

57′ — Johnson’s error grants Bunbury, Revs the lead — Look away, NYCFC fans.

77′ — Villa find the back of the net — When you need a goal, who you gonna call? That’s right. David Villa. The NYCFC captain is now up to 19 this season.

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Man of the match: David Villa

Goalscorers: Teal Bunbury (57′), David Villa (77′), Jonathan Lewis (90+4′)

Honoring victims of attacks, Barcelona wins league opener

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Wearing shirts honoring victims of the recent attacks in Spain, Barcelona opened its Spanish league season with a comfortable 2-0 win over Real Betis on Sunday.

[ MORE: Neymar double helps PSG cruise past Toulouse ]

Players had the word “Barcelona” instead of their names on the back of their shirts, and the Catalan hashtag “TOTSSOMBARCELONA” (We are all Barcelona) was on display around the Camp Nou stadium. The message was also shown on the stadium’s large screens, as well as on many banners carried by fans.

An emotional minute’s silence was held before the game as the music of Catalan cellist Pau Casals played in the background.

Before the minute was up, the more than 55,000 fans at the stadium broke into a round of applause and began chanting “No tinc por” (I’m not afraid), a chant which has become a symbol of people’s reactions to the attacks that killed 14 people and injured more than 120 in Barcelona and the nearby seaside resort of Cambrils.

Extra security was implemented in and around Camp Nou.

There was a minute’s silence before every Spanish league match this weekend.

Without Neymar and the injured Luis Suarez, Barcelona got off to a winning start in the league after consecutive losses to rival Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup final.

It scored two goals three minutes apart near the end of the first half – an own-goal by Betis defender Alin Tosca and a close-range shot by Sergi Roberto. Both goals came after plays started by Gerard Deulofeu, one of the players expected to try to replace Neymar after his world record transfer to Paris Saint-Germain.

“We lost depth with Neymar’s departure and we have to find a way to overcome that,” Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde said.

Lionel Messi looked lively but wasn’t able to score his 350th goal in La Liga. He came close, though, being denied by the woodwork three different times.

AP Sports Writer Tales Azzoni contributed to this report.

More AP Spanish soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/LaLiga

Brighton breaks club record with signing of winger Jose Izquierdo

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Brighton hasn’t gotten off to the ideal start in its debut season in the Premier League, but a key reinforcement is on the way.

[ MORE: Chelsea tops Spurs at Wembley behind Alonso’s brace ]

After starting the 2017/18 campaign with back-to-back defeats, the Seagulls announced on Sunday the signing of Colombian winger Jose Izquierdo from Club Brugge in Belgium for a record fee.

The 25-year-old spent three seasons in Belgium’s top flight and totaled 38 goals across all competitions for Brugge, prior to making the move to England.

Additionally, Izquierdo has worked his way into the Colombia squad as of late, and scored his first international goal for his country in June 2017 in a friendly against Cameroon.

MLS Follow Live — NYCFC hosts Revs, Minnesota meets Sounders

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Only two matches will feature on the MLS docket Sunday evening, but luckily two of the league’s most exciting teams will take to the pitch.

[ MORE: Toronto tops Fire as East leaders reach 50 points on season ]

First, New York City FC will attempt to continue its ascent up the Eastern Conference ladder when they host Kei Kamara and the New England Revolution.

In the night cap, the Seattle Sounders look to extend their unbeaten streak to nine matches when they welcome newcomers Minnesota United to CenturyLink Field.

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Here’s the schedule and kick-off times for Sunday’s two MLS fixtures.

New York City FC vs. New England Revolution — 6 p.m. ET
Seattle Sounders vs. Minnesota United — 10 p.m. ET