Manchester City reunites Caballero with Pellegrini, brings in challenger for Hart

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Say you haven’t seen Málaga play over the last few years. You not only managed to avoid their UEFA Champions League run two years ago, but after their financial mishaps led them out of Europe last season, you didn’t bother digging into La Liga’s depths to follow their post-Manuel Pellegrini progress. With Isco, Joaquin, and Javier Saviola following the now-Manchester City manager out the door, Málaga remained irrelevant to you.

If that’s the case, you’ll probably see City’s $10.2 million signing of goalkeeper Willy Caballero as a depth purchase, but more likely, this is Martín Demichelis all over again. The veteran Argentine defender, who was so important for Pellegrini at Málaga, was brought in last season despite the presence of Vincent Kompany, Matija Nastasic, and Joleon Lescott in central defense. He ended up being of the team’s starting center backs shortly after his arrival.

Caballero’s acquisition could play out the same way. While there may be the perception that Joe Hart will retain the starting spot, a number of circumstantial factors hint Caballero could get a chance. Given Hart’s performance, Pellegrini’s history with the Argentine, and the manager’s willingness to bench Hart last season, Manchester City’s newest goalkeeper could be given every opportunity to win the starting job.

While luring Caballero to Manchester, Pellegrini wasn’t ready to go that far. He did, however, say that should Hart slip again, the job is his. From The Guardian:

Caballero was initially reluctant to join City as he did not want to see his chances of first-team football limited … But the City manager has offered Caballero assurances that he would be given a fair chance to establish himself should Hart slip up once more and the size of the fee – which could rise to around £9m due to appearances and other clauses – reflects the role Pellegrini wants him to occupy.

That price is more than you’d pay for a mere safety net, though given how Caballero played for Málaga after Pellegrini signed him from Elche, the fee makes sense. Over the last three years, the now 32-year-old has been one of the best goalkeepers in Spain, with his shot-stopping helping an often over-matched Málaga maintain a solid defense (46 in 38 games) while finishing in 11th place. Though Bernd Schuster’s team barely eclipsed one goal-per-game (1.02), Caballero made Málaga into an average side.

To me, Caballero’s been clearly better than Hart over the last three years. Whereas the Englishman has been decent if erratic, Caballero has been borderline elite. Perhaps he’ll have some David de Gea-esque troubles adjusting to the Premier League, but it’s also possible he’ll be the better goalkeeper from day one.

Given Hart’s reputation in England, Manchester City could sell him and make a profit on what they paid for Caballero. With Costel Pantilimon having departed for Sunderland, that probably won’t happen, but today’s move does provide an alternative. If Hart has another bad spell, Pellegrini’s probably won’t hesitate to turn to the alternative.

Premier League notes: Wanyama, Bolasie return after long layoffs, Sakho injured

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Two Premier League clubs saw a pair of players return to the field after long spells on the sidelines.

Tottenham revealed that Victor Wanyama took part in training on Monday for the first time since suffering a knee injury in late August, which has kept him off the field since then. Wanyama started in both of Tottenham’s first two fixtures of the season before the injury.

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At the same time in the northwest of England, Yannick Bolasie returned to the field for Everton’s reserves for the first time since suffering a torn ACL last December against Manchester United. Everton manager Sam Allardyce hinted recently that Bolasie could even make the first team subs bench before the end of the calendar year as he continues his rehab.

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Report: Sporting KC on verge of signing French midfielder Croizet

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Sporting Kansas City could be adding some European flair to its midfield this offseason.

According to multiple reports, the MLS club is in negotiations to sign French midfielder Yohan Croizet, who currently plays for Belgian first division side KV Mechelen. Croizet, who reportedly cost Mechelen a transfer fee worth more than $1 million, has started all 15 games he’s played for his side this season but has been substituted off on seven occasions and Mechelen are currently struggling in the league, sitting in 13th place with 18 points from 18 games.

Croizet hasn’t played since November 17, and appears on his way out.

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Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes, a Hungarian-American, is no stranger to the European market and has brought over plenty of diamonds in the rough from Europe to star with Sporting KC. Some previous examples, though in different positions from Croizet, include current winger Gerso, Krisztián Németh, Uri Rosell, and Aurelien Collin.

It will be interesting to see where Croizet plays in the Sporting KC side should it sign him, and how he works with Benny Feilhaber, who is turning 33-years old in January.

Arsenal lands Ostersunds in Europa League draw

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Arsenal will face a team with an English connection in the UEFA Europa League Round of 32.

The Gunners were paired with Swedish side Ostersunds in the Europa League knockout stage draw Monday, with matches set to be played on February 15 and February 22. Ostersund are managed by Englishman Graham Potter, who played in the Championship and lower in England before starting his managerial career with Ostersunds in 2010 in the fourth tier of Swedish soccer.

[READ: UCL draw+analysis]

Ostersunds surprised many earlier this year winning the Swedish Cup to qualify for the Europa League, and then advanced out of a group that included Hertha Berlin and Athletic Bilbao.

It represents an interesting draw for Arsenal, which will have to balance the squad during a tough February. The weekend prior to the first-leg match is the second leg of the North London derby against Tottenham, and following the second match with Ostersunds is a showdown with Manchester City.

Here’s a look at how the rest of the draw shook out:

Champions League last 16 draw sets up huge clashes

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The Round of 16 draw for the UEFA Champions League did not disappoint.

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We have some monster clashes with Chelsea facing Barcelona, once again, and the reigning champs Real Madrid paired with the favorites Paris Saint-Germain.

With five Premier League teams remaining, Tottenham have been handed a tough draw against Italian champions Juventus who were also runners up in the UCL last season, while Manchester City, Manchester United and Liverpool will all be rather happy with their draws.

United have been drawn against Spanish side Sevilla, Liverpool will face FC Porto and Man City clash with Basel.

Below is the draw in full, while UEFA has also released the schedule for the games with Man City, Spurs, Liverpool and Man United all playing their second legs at home.