Bony, Gervinho goals see Ivory Coast come back to down Japan, 2-1

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Two goals in 100 seconds during Saturday’s second half saw the Ivory Coast overcome its slow start to claim what could prove a crucial result. Reversing a deficit Japan handed them after 15 minutes, les Elephants earned a 2-1 win at Recife’s Arena Pernambuco, defeating the team that’s expected to be their main competition for a knockout round spot. In the process, the Ivorians joined Colombia at the top of Group C, taking a huge step toward progressing for the first time at a World Cup.

Keisuke Honda gave the Japanese an early lead after he finished from 12 yards out inside Boubacar Barry’s right post. For the next 58 minutes, a Japanese defense that easily receded into its own half tempted the Ivory Coast to break them own. Just after star striker Didier Drogba was introduced, the Ivorians made them pay, with crosses from Serge Aurier in the 64th and 66th minutes allowing Wilfried Bony and Gervinho to claim full points for their star-studed squad.

Group C continues on Tuesday when the Ivory Coast travel to Brasília to face Colombia, who sit alongside the Ivorians atop the group. Later that day, Japan will face Greece in Natal, with each team seeking their first points of the competition.

At the match’s onset, Japan elected to ceded possession to the Ivorians, daring Les Elephants to break down a defense that only engaged once the ball was in the attacking half. Through most of the first half, that approach resulted in a series of turnovers, with poor execution from the Ivorians rewarding Albert Zaccheroni’s conservative approach. It would be 35 minutes before the Ivory Coast put a shot on goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima.

In the interim, Japan struck first. After a quick throw-in deep on the left flank the Ivorians off-balance, left back Yuto Nagatomo was able to roll a ball into the area for Keisuke Honda, who had pulled away from the Ivorian defense. Taking a touch to evade Yaya Touré, Honda blasted a shot inside Boubacar Barry’s right post, giving the Ivorian keeper little time to react to the 15th minute opening goal.

As the half progressed, the Ivorians began penetrating Japan’s defense, proving more patient in their buildup as they pushed their opponents deep into the final third. In the 35th minute, that resulted in a long shot from Arthur Boka the Kawashima was forced to parry away – the Ivorians’ first ball on target. Four minutes later, Touré created a chance through the left of the area only to see Gervinho’s shot blocked. Les Elephants would go into halftime scoreless.

The second half initially saw a more aggression from Japan, taking advantage of careless play in the Ivory Coast’s half to generate shots for Makoto Hasebe and Hotaru Yamaguchi. By the hour mark, however, the game resumed its original pose. Though Japan enjoyed spells of position that exposed problems in the Ivorian defense, the team proved willing to regress into two banks of four, showing little urgency to win the ball.

In the 62nd minute, that forced the Ivory Coast to change approach, with Sabri Lamouchi turning to his team’s most famous star. Joining Wilfried Bony up top, Didier Drogba’s inclusion saw the Ivorians leverage the full force of their attacking talents, something that immediately produced a close-range chance in the right of the box.

Two minutes later, the Ivorians had more than a mere chance. They had their equalizer. On a Aurier cross from the right, Bony was able to isolate center back Masato Morishige. Cutting in front of his mark, the Swansea City striker redirected his header past Kawashima, drawing les Elephants even at one.

That scoreline lasted all of two minutes. Off another cross from Aurier, Gervinho headed home from just outside the six yard box, his redirection of a near-post ball bouncing through Kawashima’s hands as the keeper drove to his left post.

Over the match’s final 28 minutes, Japan’s response never came. The Samurai Blue would go the final 70 minutes without a shot on target, with the Ivorians continuing to control possession even after taking the lead.

Though Zaccheroni’s initial plan looked prudent as the Ivorians struggled, his team failed to adjust its opposition was awaken. The Japan we saw at 0-0 and up 1-0 failed to change when they went down 2-1.

The Ivorians, on the other hand, saw their adjustments pay off. Once their famous extra attacker came on, Japan immediately looked light in defense – unable to find the bodies to make all of les Elephants’ stars. Drogba didn’t play a direct part in either goal, but the presence of a second striker helped the Ivory Coast finally get at a suspect Japanese defense.

As a result, a team that reached the final 16 in South Africa lost what could prove their most important match in Brazil. The Ivory Coast, on the other hand, is one step closer to its first knockout round.

Lineups

Ivory Coast: Barry; Aurier, Zokora, Bamba, Boka (Djakpa 75′); Serey (Drogba 62′), Tioté, Touré; Kalou, Bony (Ya Konan 78′), Gervinho

Goals: Bony 64′, Gervinho 66′

Japan: Kawashima; Uchida, Yoshida, Morishige, Nagatomo; Yamaguchi, Hasebe (Endo 54′); Osako (Okubo), Honda, Kagawa (Kakitani 86′); Okazaki

Goals: Honda 15′

Liverpool holds all the cards in Coutinho saga

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In a time of heightening player control in a rapidly expanding transfer market, one club sticks out as grasping a clear understanding of the shifting business landscape and how to retain its grip on its most valuable assets.

Following the sudden departure of superstar playmaker Neymar, Barcelona is trying desperately to pry Philippe Coutinho from Liverpool. On Friday, numerous reports in England claimed that Barcelona had gone in with a third bid, one even more ridiculous than the previous two. But they’re fighting a losing battle.

For a number of reasons, the Reds hold complete control over Philippe Coutinho’s transfer saga, a saga that will likely end with no transfer having been completed.

First and foremost, Coutinho just recently signed a contract extension in January that runs through 2022. As far as we know, there is no release clause in the deal, meaning at the most basic of levels, Liverpool maintains contractual control. However, as we’ve seen the past few years, that alone hasn’t stopped a number of players forcing their way out.

Yet this time, Liverpool finds itself in an advantageous position outside of just the contract. With the 2018 World Cup right around the corner, the Reds know that should they force Coutinho to stay, he is obligated to play at his best, knowing that any less would see him miss out on a spot in the packed Brazil roster, or at the least a starting position. Thus, Liverpool can be sure that even if their denial of his departure renders him despondent, he will likely remain the quality player he has proven to be.

The money Barcelona is offering – a whopping $151 million according to the most recent reports – is indeed a ludicrous amount for a player who, while quality, does not have nearly the marketability of his countrymate now residing in Paris. On talent alone, Coutinho likely isn’t worth that total, meaning Liverpool should sell. And yet, even with that cash in hand, in this hyper-inflated market where more is less, could it really do justice in replacing his impact in the club? This late in the transfer window, there’s no chance they could replace the 25-year-old, meaning they’d likely be torpedoing their entire season – Champions League included – to feel the warmth of $151 million burning a hole in their pocket until January, or even next summer.

Liverpool has built its entire roster around Coutinho. The arrival of Salah, the use of Firmino, the wide deployment of Mane, the makeup of the midfield. He’s good enough and young enough to be considered a “franchise player.” In two games without Coutinho this season, they’ve scored five goals, but that is a poor metric to describe the 180 wild minutes. The money alone isn’t worth the cost of his departure.

It’s quite possible that Barcelona’s stubbornness, brought on by the sudden loss of a beloved player and the meteoric rise of their rivals to all-time greatness, could see the Catalans come back with an even more preposterous bid. It’s true every player has a value, and at some point, should Barcelona’s blind rage see them flail wildly into the transfer window, the Reds should sell, and will. But with Fenway Sports Group not in dire need of cash and in an advantageous position, in all likelihood they won’t. Barcelona can throw all the Neymar money at Liverpool their heart desires, but nothing will force the Reds to budge.

Top 25 moments in Premier League history: 19-21

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To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Premier League we thought it would be great to count down our top 25 moments from a quarter of a century of action.

[ VIDEO: Top 25 moments in PL history ]

Each week we will release our best moments and you can keep track of the full list here.

Below are numbers 19-21 to as we continue our list.

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Premier League Preview: Stoke City vs. Arsenal

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  • Shkodran Mustafi, Francis Coquelin, Per Mertesacker all in line for season debuts.
  • The game will likely come too soon for Alexis Sanchez, who is still working to get to match fitness.
  • Stoke City have lost only one of their last seven home matches against Arsenal (W3 D3 L1).
  • Stoke City forward Jese Rodriguez could make his debut following his season-long loan move from Paris Saint-Germain.
  • Alexandre Lacazette could become the first Arsenal player to score in both of his opening two PL appearances for the club.

Coming off an exciting 4-3 comeback victory at home against Leicester City, Arsenal travel to what’s been in the past a house of horrors, visiting the bet365 Stadium to face Stoke City. (Watch live at 12:30 p.m. ET Friday on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

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Three months ago, Arsenal ended some of the bad voodoo on them in Stoke with a 4-1 win on the road. This time around, the Gunners have even more firepower, with Alexandre Lacazette off to a strong start in the Premier League.

Stoke City, like Arsenal, are still getting comfortable in the in-vogue 3-4-3 formation, as well as getting used to life without Marko Arnautovic. Spanish forward Jese, a Real Madrid academy graduate, could make his season debut for Stoke on Saturday and summer signings Kurt Zouma, Bruno Martins Indi and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting will push American Geoff Cameron for a place in the team each week.

What they’re saying

Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger on last year’s win at Stoke: “We were well-organized, efficient and under pressure to win the game. We were on a strong run as well. We had a convincing win there and that should inspire us. Traditionally it’s always been a difficult place to go for everybody, but of course we continue in a strong way our start to the season.

“I don’t believe in bogey teams too much. What is important is the performance on the day. We had a good performance last season and we have to focus on that, just to deal with the same performance. Stoke have a good record at home against many teams and I’m convinced that if we play our game, we have a good chance of winning.”

Stoke City manager Mark Hughes on this season’s new signings: “We are hoping to involve all the guys we have signed this summer, some will be on the bench, others won’t. We are very excited by the group that we are assembling to be honest.”

“We always aim to be stronger at the end of the window than we were at the beginning, and I would argue that of all the players that have left only one would have been considered as a regular starter. We have replaced those guys with players who I see as potential regular starters.”

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Prediction

Arsenal are clearly still a work in progress, but offensively they’re improved from a year ago. Stoke City on the other hand fell by a slim margin to Everton last week but have greatly improved defensively. We think it will be another defensive struggle, ending in a draw. Stoke City 1-1 Arsenal

Premier League Preview: Liverpool vs. Crystal Palace

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  • Liverpool will still be without Philippe Coutinho due to a back injury.
  • Adam Lallana, Nathaniel Clyne also miss out, but Daniel Sturridge is fit.
  • Crystal Palace has won three-straight games against Liverpool in the Premier League.
  • Both teams have scored in each of the last 10 meetings in all competitions between Liverpool and Crystal Palace, averaging 3.9 goals per match.

For the second-consecutive week, Liverpool will have to play without Philippe Coutinho, who is still missing with a back injury.

However, that didn’t seem to be an issue last week against Watford as Liverpool scored three goals, but it was the leaky defense that allowed Watford to score three goals themselves. (Watch live at 10:00 a.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

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Crystal Palace meanwhile also allowed three goals last week but couldn’t score any of its own as it was humbled, 3-0 to Huddersfield. Crystal Palace’s squad is still struggling to adjust to manager Frank De Boer‘s free-flowing style of play and Wilfried Zaha will miss Saturday’s encounter.

But working in Crystal Palace’s favor is Christian Benteke and the club’s three straight wins over Liverpool. It will surely be an open and exciting match at Anfield.

What they’re saying

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp on Crystal Palace: “We played Crystal Palace a few weeks ago. I’m not 100 per cent sure about the line-ups in that game, but Phil and Zaha were on the pitch and they will not be [this weekend]. I’m not sure if Adam played in this game, but that’s how it is…The only thing we know is it’s a tough game, probably both teams were not overly happy – we were not really disappointed about our first game, but it was how a first game can be, there are things to improve and it’s always like this, but even then we could’ve won which I think everybody knows.”

Crystal Palace manager Frank De Boer on his system of play: “I am not a manager who suddenly after a defeat decides to change things around and as I say I did see some very positive points so I am not going to change the system. We don’t need to use adapting to a change in style of our play as an excuse, it’s not so difficult and quite easy to play. The Premier League is so competitive that you have to work hard as a team to get a result because if you don’t you get punished. The players don’t want to use the new system as an excuse and I think everybody understands what we want but we have to execute it better.”

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Prediction

Liverpool’s centerback pair of Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren looked better midweek in the UEFA Champions League against Hoffenheim, but it’s another challenge to face Benteke and a motivated Crystal Palace team. Still, the speed of thought and pace on the field of Mo Salah and Sadio Mane should prove to be the difference. Liverpool 3-2 Crystal Palace