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Roy Hodgson’s starting XI against Italy – combinations and permutations

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In the weathered hands of England manager Roy Hodgson rests a seemingly infinite number of combinations and permutations from which to pluck a starting XI for the World Cup opener against Italy on Saturday.

Attack is where the discrepancy lives. Joe Hart will start in goal, Leighton Baines, Gary Cahill, Phil Jagielka and Glen Johnson will be the starting back four, and Steven Gerrard has locked down one of the central midfield spots.

That much we know. But from there on forward, things get sticky.

The general issue is whether Hodgson will go aggressive and deploy a diamond midfield behind two strikers or whether he’ll opt for the balance of a 4-2-3-1, utilizing two holding players behind three attacking midfielders and a lone striker. But formation is only one component of Hodgson’s prescription. A considerably larger concern is one of personnel and with a number of talented young stallions at his disposal, the England manager has some very difficult decisions to make.

So let’s take a look at a few different setups Hodgson has available to roll out against the Azzurri.

THE TASTE OF LIVERPOOL

The most talked about formation for England, the 4-4-2 diamond midfield, happens to be the same shape Liverpool used to claim second place in the past season’s Premier League. Brendan Rodgers perfected this setup with a rotating group of midfielders but always present in the bunch was Gerrard, at the fulcrum, and Raheem Sterling, in any one of the three advanced roles. Proving himself capable of opening defenses up from the left or right side, Sterling’s game rose to a new level late in the season when Rodgers inserted him into the center of the pitch where his quickness and evasive nature proved too much for stiff-legged central defenders.

source: Getty Images
Adam Lallana looks poised to exchange his Southampton shirt for a Liverpool kit.

Another key to the diamond midfield is balance, which is achieved through utilizing fit outside midfielders who have no issue playing both sides of the ball. And there’s no better man for that job than Jordan Henderson, who makes 90 minutes of sprinting look like a walk in the park.

A fellow Liverpool player, Henderson has an intimate understanding of Gerrard and Sterling as well as how to correctly use the diamond shape to his advantage. Henderson’s ability to drop deep, at times even alongside Gerrard, allows Hodgson to select a fourth member of the midfield with slightly more aggressive tendencies.

And who better for that role than Adam Lallana, the $34-42M transfer target of Liverpool, who looks primed to join the Reds by the end of July? The 26-year-old excelled on the left side for Southampton this past year, is not opposed to running himself ragged for 70 odd minutes and provides devastating trickery to compliment that of Sterling.

Opting for a four man midfield with Liverpool connections may feel biased but it’s a proven commodity that sparks goals. Factor in the Daniel Sturridge connection up top and this feels like a balanced yet aggressive lineup for Hodgson to utilize in the event he truly desires to take the game to Italy.

THE (ROONEY-LESS?) YOUTH BLITZ

If Hodgson really wants to throw a curveball at Italy he’ll unleash the youth, likely in a 4-2-3-1, which provides a bit more protection than the diamond. The youth setup would partner 22-year-old Jack Wilshere alongside Gerrard in what would be a clever pivot. Wilshere’s love for the tackle compliments that of Gerrard while the Arsenal man’s knack for creating off-the-dribble would provide a key link between the attacking midfielders and the striker.

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Many pundits feel Wayne Rooney’s starting spot could be in jeopardy. Will Hodgson pull the plug?

In front of Gerrard and Wilshere would be 19-year-old Sterling on the left wing, 20-year-old Ross Barkley in the central attacking role and, ideally, 20-year-old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right wing. The obvious issue currently facing this system is that Oxlade-Chamberlain is nursing a knee issue that may keep him out against Italy. While his speed and two directional play would devastate and provide balance to this shape he’d be well deputized by Henderson or Danny Welbeck, who would then swap sides with Sterling.

One downside of a youth blitz in a 4-2-3-1 is that Wayne Rooney may be the odd man out. It’s a predicament many pundits believe Hodgson may be inclined to move forward with given the United man’s sub-par Premier League season and poor World Cup history. That said, charging forward without Rooney in the starting lineup feels like a titanic miss and one that Hodgson would be wise to avoid risking. Instead, Hodgson could push forward with a youth blitz and Rooney, who could partner with Sturridge in front of a diamond midfield made up of Gerrard, Sterling, Barkley and Ox/Henderson/Welbeck/Wilshere.

Regardless of using a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2 diamond, the key to the youth blitz would be giving England fans that which they fiend for the most: Sterling alongside Barkley in what would be a freakishly athletic, skillful and audacious pair that few opposing defenses, including the Italians, would be equipped to handle.

THE RUNNING MAN

As we know by now, heat and humidity will play a large role in this World Cup meaning many a match will come down to a battle of the fittest. And no venue will provide a greater challenge of the conditions than the sweltering jungle of Manaus, where England faces Italy. To hedge against those conditions, don’t be surprised if Hodgson opts for an attacking group of running men, which means James Milner becomes a real possibility to start.

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James Milner’s third lung may be enough to get him into Roy Hodgson’s starting XI.

The City man is as fit as the come. Inserting him on the right side along with Gerrard in the fulcrum, the inexhaustible Henderson on the left, and Sterling at the point of a diamond midfield could prove a very wise play.

If Hodgson opts for a 4-2-3-1, Rooney could drop into the attacking midfield role, Sterling to the bench and Wilshere alongside Gerrard.

It’s a lineup that would allow England to put Italy under pressure and bring veteran leadership into the side. While not the most exciting play, Milner’s work rate could break down Italy’s left side for a sub like Sterling or Oxlade-Chamberlain to then capitalize.

THE OLD GUARD

The most conservative and downright uninspiring attack Hodgson could play would be to pair Gerrard with Milner and Frank Lampard.

source: Getty Images
Frank Lampard can play a role for England in the World Cup, hopefully just not as a starter.

Whether in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2 and regardless of who is played on the left side, such a lineup would reek of a lack of ambition and spell doom for England.

Fortunately, while such a makeup could have been foreseeable under Fabio Capello’s tenure as manager, it seems unlikely that Hodgson would revert to such a level of conservative tactics. There is a freshness about this England squad that is just begging to be unleashed on the world.

What better stage to make it happen than to kickoff Brazil 2014?

 

 

 

PL Sunday preview: The day Leicester are crowned champions?

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - APRIL 24:  Riyad Mahrez of Leicester City (top) celebrates with team mates as he scores their first goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Leicester City and Swansea City at The King Power Stadium on April 24, 2016 in Leicester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
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The race for the 2015-16 Premier League title could be officially over by this time tomorrow. The biggest day in the history of Leicester City Football Club awaits…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Swansea City vs. Liverpool — 7 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and Live Extra

Swansea City (40 points – 15th place) are ever so close to guaranteeing their status as a Premier League club for another season, and a win over Liverpool at the Liberty Stadium would do the mathematical trick for the Swans. Three points would also vault them into 13th place with two games remaining on the season, a dream-land finish to the campaign that months ago looked destined to end in a relegation scrap.

As for Liverpool, the’re 10 points back of Manchester City for fourth place and UEFA Champions League qualification, so don’t be surprised if Jurgen rests a handful of key contributors with both eyes focused on Thursday’s UEFA Europa League semifinal second leg against Villarreal (Liverpool trail 1-0 after the first leg). Winning the UEL is the Reds’ last avenue for Champions League qualification next season, and the kind of recruiting tool Klopp will so desperately need to build his own squad in the summer transfer window.

Injuries: Swansea — OUT: Leroy Fer (hamstring), Alberto Paloschi (hamstring) | Liverpool — OUT: Divock Origi (ankle), Emre Can (ankle), Jordan Henderson (knee), Mamadou Sakho (suspension); QUESTIONABLE: Philippe Coutinho (illness)

[ MORE: PL roundup — Newcastle get massive win in relegation fight ]

Manchester United vs. Leicester City — 9 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and Live Extra

The last nine months have merely been building up to this day, this game, for this team — the soon-to-be Premier League champions, Manchester United Leicester City. Are you prepared to live in a world where, for 12 full months, the tag of “defending Premier League champions” will precede any mention of the Foxes? You better be, because it’s happening, perhaps on Sunday.

Louis Van Gaal has challenged his Man United side to not be the foes against which Leicester win the title, but that’ll be easier said than done against the side with the best points tally from away games (37 points from 17 games) in the league this season, including away triumphs over Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City and West Ham United already. When these sides met back in November, it was United who grabbed a second-half equalizer for a 1-1 draw, canceling out Jamie Vardy‘s opener which set a new Premier League record for consecutive games with a game (11). The math is simple: a win for Leicester, and they’re PL champions; a draw for Leicester and a draw or loss for Tottenham at Chelsea on Monday, and Leicester are champions; a loss for Leicester and a loss for Tottenham, and Leicester are champions.

Injuries: Man United — OUT: Bastian Schweinsteiger (knee), Luke Shaw (leg)| Leicester — OUT: Jamie Vardy (suspension); QUESTIONABLE: Leonardo Ulloa (back)

[ MORE: PHOTOS — Arsenal fans hold another protest of club, Wenger ]

Southampton vs. Manchester City — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and Live Extra

West Ham’s thrashing of West Bromwich Albion on Saturday (plus a possible result for Man United on Sunday) at least makes the race for a top-four finish interesting for Man City, inasmuch as they need to win away to Southampton in order to maintain a five point gap between themselves and fifth place (a win would see them go back above Arsenal for third, based on goal differential).

As for Southampton, a win would secure their third straight top-eight finish in the PL, with a decent shot at leapfrogging Liverpool for seventh. When Saints and City met back in November, it was the latter side who took all three points in a 3-1 home victory.

Injuries: Southampton — QUESTIONABLE: Charlie Austin (knee) | Man City — OUT: David Silva (hamstring); QUESTIONABLE: Yaya Toure (thigh), Samir Nasri (hamstring)

Bundesliga wrap: Auba the super sub for BVB; Bayern fails to clinch

Dortmund's Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang celebrates after scoring during the German Bundesliga soccer match between Borussia Dortmund and VfL Wolfsburg in Dortmund, Germany, Saturday, April 30, 2016. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
AP Photo/Martin Meissner
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Saturday’s results mean we’re not much closer to sorting the mess near both the European places and relegation zone in Germany.

[ MORE: Premier League roundup ]

Borussia Dortmund 5-1 Wolfsburg

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had one heck of a 21-minute cameo, scoring twice in two minutes to pour misery on the visitors, as Borussia Dortmund already had a heck of an advantage when the big scoring forward hit the pitch. Shinji Kagawa, Adrian Ramos and Marco Reus scored to stake BVB to a 3-0, and Andre Schurrle‘s 86th minute goal only served to spoil the shutout. USMNT 17-year-old Christian Pulisic was an unused sub.

Bayern Munich 1-1 Borussia Monchengladbach

The Allianz Arena faithful had seen 14 wins in 15 matches heading into Saturday’s match, only to watch over its first draw. Thomas Muller’s sixth minute goal looked like Bayern could cruise to a title-clinching win, but ‘Gladbach hung tight in an even affair that saw its final score line courtesy of Andre Hahn’s 72nd minute tally.

Darmstadt 1-2 Eintracht Frankfurt

A massive comeback win has put Niko Kovac’s hosts on the verge of avoiding a relegation playoff against the 2.Bundesliga’s third-placed side. Mario Vrancic gave Darmstadt a halftime lead, but Makoto Hasebe equalized in the 56th minute before inspired substitute Stefan Aigner claimed a winner. Eintracht is level on points with 15th place Stuttgart, which places 17th place Werder Bremen on Monday, and is within a win and help of passing the visitors.

Bayer Leverkusen 2-1 Hertha Berlin

Hertha’s dream season has hit a rough patch, and a rough first 16 minutes resulted in it dropping into fifth place. Julian Brandt and Lars Bender scored early to lift Bayer eight points clear of fourth place, while Hertha is now tied with fourth-place Gladbach on points.

Elsewhere
Augsburg 0-0 Koln
Hoffenheim 2-1 Ingolstadt — Hosts now four points clear.
Hannover 1-3 Schalke — Hosts outshoot visitors 21-10, lose.
Mainz 0-0 Hamburger
Werder Bremen vs. Stuttgart — Monday

Standings

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Bayern Munich 32 26 4 2 75 15 60 14-1-1 12-3-1 82
Borussia Dortmund 32 24 5 3 80 31 49 14-2-0 10-3-3 77
Bayer Leverkusen 32 17 6 9 52 36 16 9-3-4 8-3-5 57
Mönchengladbach 32 15 4 13 63 49 14 12-1-3 3-3-10 49
Hertha BSC Berlin 32 14 7 11 41 40 1 9-5-2 5-2-9 49
FC Schalke 04 32 14 6 12 46 47 -1 8-4-4 6-2-8 48
FSV Mainz 05 32 13 7 12 43 41 2 8-3-5 5-4-7 46
1. FC Köln 32 10 11 11 36 40 -4 5-4-7 5-7-4 41
FC Ingolstadt 04 32 10 10 12 30 37 -7 7-5-4 3-5-8 40
VfL Wolfsburg 32 10 9 13 43 48 -5 8-5-3 2-4-10 39
Hamburger SV 32 10 8 14 37 44 -7 5-4-7 5-4-7 38
FC Augsburg 32 9 10 13 40 48 -8 3-6-7 6-4-6 37
1899 Hoffenheim 32 9 10 13 38 49 -11 6-6-4 3-4-9 37
Darmstadt 32 8 11 13 36 50 -14 2-6-8 6-5-5 35
VfB Stuttgart 31 9 6 16 46 63 -17 6-1-9 3-5-7 33
Eintracht Frankfurt 32 8 9 15 33 51 -18 5-6-5 3-3-10 33
Werder Bremen 31 8 7 16 43 63 -20 3-5-7 5-2-9 31
Hannover 96 32 6 4 22 29 59 -30 3-0-13 3-4-9 22

Premier League roundup: Newcastle shakes up Bottom Three; Arsenal wins

NEWCASTLE, ENGLAND - APRIL 30:  Jamaal Lascelles of Newcastle United reacts at full time during the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle United and Crystal Palace at St James Park on April 30, 2016 in Newcastle, England. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty images)
Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty images
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Newcastle United has blown the race to escape the drop zone wide open, while Sunderland still controls its own destiny and Norwich City is angling for a lifeline.

[ MORE: Examining the relegation picture ]

Those are the lessons from a busy day in the Premier League with very little action, let alone movement, in the top half of the table.

Arsenal 1-0 Norwich CityRECAP

There were anti-Arsene Wenger protests before and after the Gunners defeated relegation-threatened Norwich on a Danny Welbeck goal, and Arsenal’s performance did little to quell the embattled manager’s critics. That said, the Gooners’ club remains in the Top Three while Norwich sits 19th place.

Newcastle United 1-0 Crystal PalaceRECAP

Andros Townsend curled home a gorgeous free kick, and Karl Darlow made a tremendous penalty stop on ex-Magpies star Yohan Cabaye as Newcastle rose out of the relegation zone for the first time since Valentine’s Day by defeating former manager Alan Pardew‘s Eagles. Palace continues its Premier League woes in 2016, and sits 7 points clear of the drop.

Stoke City 1-1 SunderlandRECAP

The Black Cats have a right to feel aggrieved after picking up just a single point from the Britannia Stadium. Sunderland did not get a penalty called when Geoff Cameron may’ve handled a cross, and then Peter Crouch picked up a headed assist by boosting himself off Younes Kaboul. But Jermain Defoe earned and converted a penalty kick that was just as suspect, and Sunderland remains a point back of Newcastle.

Watford 3-2 Aston VillaRECAP

WATFORD, ENGLAND - APRIL 30: Troy Deeney of Watford celebrates scoring his team's second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Watford and Aston Villa at Vicarage Road on April 30, 2016 in Watford, England. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
(Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Troy Deeney grew up a Birmingham City fan, and my did he enjoy sticking the knife in the relegated enemy of his younger days. The Watford captain scored twice in stoppage time to avenge a 2-1 deficit and rise above 10-man Villa. Ciaran Clark scored early for Villa, but Almen Abdi scored a free kick for Watford, its first in PL history, to make it 1-1. Jordan Ayew put Villa ahead, but Aly Cissokho drew straight red with 16 minutes to play. That’s when Deeney went to work, and Watford went into the win column.

Everton 2-1 BournemouthRECAP

What began with an emotional tribute to the Hillsborough 96 and their families ended with a much-needed win for Roberto Martinez. Leighton Baines scored his first goal from the run of play since 2013, while Tom Cleverley also scored for the Toffees. Marc Pugh scored for Bournemouth.

West Bromwich Albion 0-3 West Ham UnitedRECAP

Slaven Bilic‘s Hammers aren’t giving up in their quest to reach the Top Four, as industrious Mark Noble grabbed two goals in leading West Ham to a big road win. Tony Pulis‘ dogged defense couldn’t hold serve against the Irons, who pull into fifth pending the result of Manchester United’s Sunday match against Leicester City.

Relegation picture: The situation for Newcastle, Sunderland, Norwich

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This is tight, tense and getting horrible for the three teams battling it out at the bottom.

We know Aston Villa has already been relegated but three teams — Norwich City, Sunderland and Newcastle United — are in a dogfight to avoid relegation.

Three into two doesn’t go.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Just two points separates the three aforementioned teams going into the final two weeks of the season. Plus, Crystal Palace isn’t out of the picture either as they have 39 points but Alan Pardew‘s side should be fine. Just.

Newcastle United is the form team as Rafael Benitez’s side is now unbeaten in four games and grabbed a huge 1-0 win against Palace on Saturday, while Sunderland is solid under Sam Allardyce and have lost just once in eight games but have six draws in that span.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule | standings

Norwich is reeling after three defeats on the spin and Alex Neil‘s side is running out of time as they lost 1-0 at Arsenal on Saturday despite a brave, battling display.

Below is a look at the relegation picture, plus the remaining fixtures for all three teams as Newcastle have just two games left, while both Sunderland and Norwich have three.

Who do you think will survive out of these three teams?


Newcastle United – 17th place, 33 points

May 7 – Aston Villa (A)
May 15 – Tottenham Hotspur (H)

Sunderland – 18th place, 32 points

May 7 – Chelsea (H)
May 11 – Everton (H)
May 15 – Watford (A)

Norwich City – 19th place, 31 points

May 7 – Manchester United (H)
May 11 – Watford (H)
May 15 – Everton (A)


Looking at the schedules above, Newcastle has a great chance of getting at least three points from their remaining two games with an away trip to Aston Villa up next, plus if Tottenham is out of the title race heading into the final game then it may be a great chance to pick up another three points at home.

Sunderland will find it tough going against Chelsea and Everton but home advantage will be key, while the final game away at Watford, a team who has nothing to play for, could be the crucial one. They hold their own destiny in their hands. Win all three and they will stay up.

As for Norwich, they won’t expect much against Manchester United next up but they will fancy their chances of picking up at least four points against Watford and Everton in their final two games. Simply put, nobody knows which of these two teams will go down and it’s likely to stay that way until the final minutes of the season.