Championship Sunday focus: Sunderland

Leave a comment

Story so far…wow. What a roller-coaster of a season for Sunderland. Less than a month ago, Gus Poyet said his side would need a miracle to survive. On Wednesday, playing host to West Brom, the Black Cats made that miracle happen.

Sunderland’s season started miserably, and seemed destined to end the same way. Paolo Di Canio was shown the door after just five league games, only one of which, a 1-1 draw with Southampton, produced a point. When Poyet was appointed, Sunderland were still last, with just a point to their name. The first win came against Newcastle, which always produces bragging rights, but only two more came before January, leaving the Black Cats last in the table.

MORE: Head here for all things Championship Sunday

Cup competition, however, gave suffering Sunderland fans some comfort. In addition to their commendable FA Cup performance in which Sunderland made it to the quarterfinals, the Black Cats made it to Wembley, taking on, and eventually losing to, Manchester City after knocking out Chelsea and Manchester United.

But a Cup run, particularly one without a trophy lifted at the conclusion, is no compensation for slipping out of the Premier League. And when April began with Sunderland losing to Spurs, 5-1, it looked like that was exactly what would happen. They were seven points from safety and expecting a visit from Everton – who won thanks to yet another own goal from Wes Brown.

Then the miracle began. A 2-2 draw at the Etihad. A win over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. 4-0 at home to Cardiff, then 1-0 over Manchester United – Sunderland’s first win at Old Trafford since 1968. Everything culminated in a relatively easy victory over West Brom, giving the Black Cats 13 points from their last five matches. But more importantly, giving them another season in the Premier League.

Who do they play and where can I watch it?
Along with over 40,000 Sunderland fans expected to be cheering their side on at the Stadium of Light, you, too, can tune in to see if the season ends on a high note, with a win over Swansea.  Watch the game at 10am ET on Esquire or live online via NBC Sports Live Extra.

Form guide:

April 12 vs Everton, L 0-1
April 16 at Manchester City, D 2-2
April 19 at Chelsea, W 1-2
April 27 vs. Cardiff City, W 4-0
May 3 at Manchester United, W 0-1
May 7 vs. West Bromwich Albion, W 2-0

What’s at stake?
Nothing! Yay for Sunderland! Seriously, those at the Stadium of Light deserve to enjoy this party. This is one roller-coaster everyone thought would end in a final drop of terror. The Black Cats’ rise should be celebrated.

When the final whistle blows…enjoy. Yes, this is getting repetitive. But some Sunderland fans are already questioning the state of the squad, the chaos of the season and whether Poyet is fit to remain in charge. While those questions deserve to be raised, they can wait until Monday, at least. Next week, the questions of how many on-loan players will remain, or what should happen with Jozy Altidore, or how to keep Seb Larsson or Jack Colback – next week, those questions will still be around, and there’s still a free month before the World Cup begins. So enjoy. 

On This Day: The Battle of Old Trafford

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Fourteen years ago today, Arsenal headed north to Manchester for a famous matchup with Manchester United.

Taking the field at Old Trafford, Arsenal were unbeaten to start the season, having won its first four Premier League matches before drawing a week prior at home against Portsmouth. Manchester United meanwhile had four wins and one loss in that span.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

By way of Arsenal’s FA Cup title and Man United’s Premier League title the year before, the two teams met for the annual Community Shield a month earlier, and the game descended into a physical battle. Five yellow cards were shown, Arsenal substitute Francis Jeffers was shown a red card and defender Sol Campbell was later banned for kicking at an opponent, and Man United – backed by a young Tim Howard in goal – won 4-3 on penalty kicks after the score was tied at 1-1 after extra time.

With numerous physical encounters over the years, the September 21 encounter was shaping up to be another monumental showdown, and in terms of physicality, it didn’t disappoint.

Each team were shown four yellow cards and there was a combined 31 fouls. The match took a turn when Patrick Vieira was shown a second yellow card and subsequent red card for kicking out at Man United’s Ruud Van Nistelrooy after Van Nistelrooy had fouled Vieira going for a header. The decision set off a scrum in the middle of the field.

Despite being down to ten men, Arsenal held on until the final minutes, when Martin Keown was whistled for a foul in the box on Diego Forlan, giving Man United a penalty kick. But whether it was karma or lady luck, Van Nistelrooy’s penalty clanged off the crossbar and away to safety. Arsenal held on for a goalless draw, which helped boost the team’s belief in itself.

The Gunners went on to finish the 2013-2014 season undefeated, the only team to finish a Premier League season without a defeat. Man United wound up taking the FA Cup crown, settling for third place in the Premier League.

Watch some highlights from the match below.

Former Sunderland forward Scocco scores five goals for River Plate

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Veteran forward Ignacio “Nacho” Scocco is quickly endearing himself to the River Plate faithful.

Nearly three months since joining River, Scocco scored an incredible five goals in the second leg of his team’s Copa Libertadores quarterfinal matchup with Bolivian side Jorge Wilstermann. Scocco scored a first half hat-trick and added two more in the second half as River turned around a 3-0 deficit heading into the second leg.

Scocco had a mostly frustrating spell in 2014 ahead of the World Cup with Sunderland, joining the club as they staved off relegation by one point. Scocco failed to score for Sunderland in eight appearances, all off the bench.

However, since then, he returned to his native Argentina and starred for his hometown club Newell’s Old Boys before moving this summer to River as a replacement for Sebastián Driussi, who completed a transfer to Zenit St. Petersburg.

Here’s a look at all of Scocco’s goals Thursday evening.

Tammy Abraham denies switching national teams

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Fans of the England National Team may still have a chance to see Tammy Abraham don the Three Lions crest one day.

Abraham refuted reports from earlier Thursday that he was in the process of switching his national team to Nigeria from England. The 19-year-old Swansea City forward on-loan from Chelsea has played as high as the England Under-21 Men’s National Team but because of his Nigerian father, he’s eligible for the African nation.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Abraham confirmed that he had met with Nigeria Football Federation chief Amaju Pinnick after Swansea’s last game, but denied that he was looking to play for the Super Eagles.

“I have informed The FA that I remain available for selection for England,” Abraham said, via the BBC. “Contrary to reports in the media I would like to clarify that I have not agreed to switch my national team allegiance. I can confirm I met the President of the NFF after our last game against Tottenham at Wembley on Saturday given he is a friend of my father. However, any suggestion that I have made a decision to change my international representation is incorrect and wide of the mark.”

Earlier in the day, reports emerged that Pinnick said the process was underway for Abraham to switch his international allegiance.

Abraham’s apparently decision to remain with the England set-up is good news for his club Swansea City, who will get to keep him closer to Wales on a regular basis, but Abraham may be missing a chance to play senior national team soccer at a young age.

Paulinho has silenced his critics at Barcelona

Getty Images
Leave a comment

MADRID (AP) Brazil midfielder Paulinho wasn’t greeted with the warmest of welcomes when he arrived in Barcelona.

Fans made it clear they were not too thrilled to see the club spend 40 million euros ($48 million) on a defensive midfielder who was playing in the Chinese league.

[ MORE: La Liga scores, schedule ]

They were expecting a blockbuster signing after Neymar’s departure and ended up getting a player they knew very little about.

Paulinho didn’t have any links to the club’s youth academy and his style apparently didn’t suit the team’s traditional ball-possession game.

A video of Paulinho struggling to juggle the ball during his presentation at Camp Nou Stadium didn’t help, going viral and igniting even more criticism against the player and the club.

But things have changed quickly in favor of the low-key, hard-working Brazilian.

After five Spanish league games, Paulinho has done enough to mollify the critics.

He has two goals, including a late winner against Getafe last weekend, and showed some of the prowess that led him to success in Brazil and made him an indisputable starter for his national team.

He thrived after coming off the bench in his first four matches, and eventually earned a start on Tuesday against Eibar.

“I’m happy with how things have gone for me,” Paulinho said. “I’m glad that I’m playing well, it helps me get adapted to the club. I’m playing alongside some great players and they have all been supporting me a lot.”

The 29-year-old Paulinho has added versatility to the midfield. He is solid as a defensive midfielder but also excels with attacking runs that often surprise defenders.

That’s how he scored the decisive goal in the 2-1 win against Getafe, making a run between defenders and entering the area to fire a firm shot into the far corner. His second goal was a header in a 6-1 rout of Eibar.

“He will end up being a cheap signing,” Brazil teammate and former Barcelona player Dani Alves said.

Paulinho has a lot more presence in the area than some of the team’s other midfielders, including Ivan Rakitic and even Andres Iniesta.

It was this that made Paulinho a key player in the Corinthians team that won Club World Cup in 2012. His success with the Brazilian club prompted a move in 2013 to Tottenham, where he disappointed in his two seasons before moving to Guangzhou Evergrande.

Paulinho, who signed a four-year contract with Barcelona, said he had regained his confidence while playing in China. And his good performances with Brazil also helped.

“He gives us a lot of versatility. He can help us in many different ways,” Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde said.

Barcelona’s next game is on Saturday at Girona. The Catalan club has won its first five Spanish league games and has a two-point lead over second-place Sevilla.

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

Follow Tales Azzoni on http://twitter.com/tazzoni