Wenger

Wenger talks Zelalem, gets taste of U.S. obsession for potential international

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For a player who’s made one senior appearance with Arsenal, Gedion Zelalem is getting a lot of attention. Among hardcore United States soccer fans, the 18-year-old has evolved from a curiosity into an obsession, with the German-born prospect occupying many dreams for the next World Cup cycle.

Born in Berlin to Ethopian parents, Zelalem spent much of his adolescence in the United States, where his father is on the path of citizenship. That status would give Zelalem the option of representing the U.S., a choice that’s developed into a fixation for the national team’s most-devoted fans.

Consider the beginning of this Q&A a symptom of that fixation. Sports Illustrated, given time with Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger and executive Ivan Gazidis, began its session asking about a player who, in Wenger’s estimation, probably won’t impact his first team until next year, at the earliest.

But here in the States, the players who’ll actually compete for England and Europe take a back seat. Mr. Wenger: Given our audience, we need to talk about Zelalem first:

SI: Let’s get this one out of the way for American fans … What can you tell us about [Zelalem]?

Wenger: … he’s the kind of player who could be of use to the United States. He’s in some ways the type of player the U.S. was missing in the World Cup …

SI: Is the potential there for Gedion to play for Arsenal [first team]?

Wenger: Right now, I don’t think he’s ready. I don’t think he’s ready in the next six months. Next season, I hope to say yes … The American fans can see him play on Saturday night.

There’s much more on Zelalem and non-U.S.-centric topics in SI’s Q&A, but the first question (and, the almost embarrassed concession which precedes it) says a lot about the hopes of U.S, fandom. While the pride we saw from fans during the World Cup hinted soccer has reached a new level, tomorrow remains in focus. Scavenging for signs the future can outshine the present, fans have seized on Zelalem as if he’s the top pick in the NBA draft. Only instead of bring chosen by the Cavaliers, he’s being picked by America.

It’s not exactly fair, and given how little we’ve seen from Zelalem, it may not be accurate. For all we know, Zelalem may  be the next Josh McEachran – a technically gifted 21-year-old Chelsea midfielder who has struggled after debuting with the Blues four years ago. While Chelsea fans hoped the England U-level standout would develop into a regular, the then-17-year-old has spent the last two seasons on loan with Swansea, Middlesbrough, Watford, and Wigan.

Still, this kind of optimism is natural. Most fans regularly overestimate their team’s prospects. Add in the nationalistic angle to Zelalem (the potential to actively choose the U.S.), and the zealotry is understandable. For most fans, hope is a defining part of their arsenal.

Right now, that hope is fueling a lot of attention, from SI’s coverage, to more quotes on Major League Soccer’s site, to the updates you see here (and here, and here). In time, however, Zelalem will make news for his soccer, and while that will only stoke U.S. hopes, it will also give fans more than nationality to fuel their obsessions.

As Wenger gives him more time, Zelalem the player will finally get his chance to outshine Zelalem the hope.

Deeney, a Birmingham City fan, pleased to “stick it to Villa”

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)
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Watford’s captain Troy Deeney is a lifelong Birmingham City fan.

[ MORE: Terry to stay at Chelsea? ]

So, heading into stoppage time trailing Birmingham’s bitter rivals Aston Villa 2-1, it wasn’t going to be a good day for the English striker.

Then, Deeney struck twice in stoppage to turn the game on its head and seal a 3-2 win for Watford to secure their top-flight status for another season.

Speaking to the BBC after the game, Deeney revealed just how sweet it was to score the game-winner against a team he grew up loathing.

“It took a while for us to get going, but we got a great victory in the end,” Deeney said. “Credit to Villa, they scored two decent goals. We were poor, we can’t hide from that, but in recent weeks we have played well and not got results. I’m a firm believer in that it always works it way around again. My best friend – a Blue – would have been loving that – he told me to stick it to Villa.”

Are you sure that was your friend and not just a voice in your own head, Troy?

[ MORE: Luke Shaw close to return ]

Let’s be honest, does it get much better than scoring two late goals against a team you grew up despising?

I don’t think so. That’s a scenario entering boyhood dream status. Especially given the fact that Villa are already relegated from the PL and will play Birmingham City next season in the Championship.

Deeney, 27, also scored the game-winner at Aston Villa in a 3-2 win for Watford earlier this season, so when he does return home to Birmingham he will definitely have the bragging rights in England’s second city.

Note: Deeney also has a tattoo of Birmingham City’s badge on his calf.

Stoke 1-1 Sunderland: Defoe grabs late point for Black Cats

STOKE ON TRENT, ENGLAND - APRIL 30:  Jermain Defoe of Sunderland converts the penalty to score his team's first goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Stoke City and Sunderland at the Britannia Stadium on April 30, 2016 in Stoke on Trent, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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  • Defoe scores late PK
  • Arnautovic put Stoke up
  • Black Cats slip into bottom three
  • Stoke without a win in five

Stoke City and Sunderland drew 1-1 at the Britannia Stadium on Saturday with Jermain Defoe scoring a last-gasp equalizer to grab a big point for the Black Cats.

Stoke had taken the lead through Mark Arnautovic and went close to adding a second through Giannelli Imbula but Defoe went down in the box in stoppage time and stepped up to equalize.

With the point Sunderland now have 32 points with three games to go, while Stoke have 48 points.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Stoke started brightly and Peter Crouch‘s header just missed Arnautovic and Vito Mannone tipped the ball wide for a corner.

Sunderland threatened on the break and Patrick Van Aanholt hit a low drive which Jakob Haugaard gathered comfortably.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

An even first half played out at the Britannia with Arnautovic whipping in a great ball from the left which just missed everyone, while Sunderland failed to pour forward.

Crouch went close again with another header after Phil Bardsely’s deep cross found him but his effort was inches away from creeping into the far bottom corner.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Arnautovic smashed an effort over after getting free in the box and Defoe forced Haugaard into a save down low but the first half ended 0-0.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Five minutes into the second half Arnautovic put Stoke in the lead with a cool finish as the Austrian has now scored 11 goals for the Potters in the PL this season.

Sunderland pushed for an equalizer and Defoe sent an overhead kick over the bar after Jan Kirchhoff‘s cross and the Black Cats pinned Stoke back in their own half for the closing stages. A rare break forward from Stoke saw Imbula go clear but he missed a golden chance to wrap the three points up for Mark Hughes‘ side and they were punished late on.

In stoppage time U.S. national team defender Geoff Cameron tripped Defoe in the box and the predatory forward picked himself and scored the spot kick. 1-1.

Sunderland’s players and fans celebrated like they’d won but coupled with Newcastle’s victory, they slip into the relegation zone. However, crucially, Sunderland have a game in hand.

Watford 3-2 Aston Villa: Late surge wins it for Hornets

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)
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  • Two late goals from Deeney
  • Villa led twice
  • Cissokho sent off
  • Villa now lost 11-straight

Watford beat 10-man Aston Villa 3-2 at Vicarage Road on Saturday in a wild encounter in Hertfordshire.

Aston Villa twice took the lead twice through Ciaran Clark and Jordan Ayew but Watford’s Almen Abdi had equalized right on half time. Until Aly Cissokho was sent off in the second half things were looking pretty for Villa but two late Troy Deeney goals — Deeney is a fan of Villa’s arch-rivals, Birmingham City — turned the game on its head.

Watford have now secured their Premier League status for another season and sit on 44 points, while Villa remain bottom on 16 points and have now lost a club record 26 games this season.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Watford started the better of the two teams and pinned Villa back into their own half.

Odion Ighalo cut inside and had his effort saved by Mark Bunn and then the Hornets came agonizingly close to taking the lead.

Ben Watson controlled the ball and sent a magnificent volley towards the top corner but it hit the crossbar and bounced out. So close.

Moments later, though, dominant Watford were behind. An Ashley Westwood corner from the left found Clark and he headed home. 1-0 to Villa as they converted their first chance of the game.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Villa nearly doubled their lead just before the break but Jordan Ayew sent his stooping ahead against the post and moments later it was 1-1. A free kick right on half time saw Abdi step up and curl the ball up and over the wall and into the bottom corner. Hornets level.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

At the start of the second half Villa came flying out of the traps and Ayew put them back ahead with a fine finish. 2-1.

Rudy Gestede then went close as Villa closed in on just a fourth win of the season but then a potential second away win of the season was thrown into jeopardy.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Ikechi Anya raced free and last man Cissokho was adjudged to have fouled him and received a straight red card. Cissokho looked to have got a little on the ball and Villa could feel hard done by to be down to 10-men.

It took Watford until the 90th minute to make that advantage count as Deeney scored twice in three minutes to spark wild scenes at Vicarage Road and hand the Hornets a win which secured their PL status for another season.

Everton 2-1 Bournemouth: Cleverley, Baines gets USMNT’s Howard a win

LIVERPOOL, UNITED KINGDOM - APRIL 30: Tom Cleverley (C) of Everton celebrates scoring his team's first goal with his team mates during the Barclays Premier League match between Everton and A.F.C. Bournemouth at Goodison Park on April 30, 2016 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images)
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  • Goals traded in 1st 10 mins
  • Baines wins it with tidy finish
  • Howard nabs win in “tribute”

After a moving tribute to the Hillsborough 96, Tom Cleverley and Leighton Baines handed Everton boss Roberto Martinez a much-needed win.

Marc Pugh scored for Bournemouth, which fell 2-1 to the Toffees at Goodison Park on Saturday.

USMNT keeper Tim Howard, off to Colorado after the season, was given a rare start and the captain’s armband in what could be the start of a fitting send-off for the Everton veteran.

Everton is in 11th with 44 points, while Bournemouth’s 41 peg them 14th.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

The fireworks were early, and controversy was in the house as well.

Cleverley collected the last pass of a neat bit of Everton possession, and cut neatly to give the Toffees the lead with a left-footed shot in the 7th minute.

But minutes later, Everton defender Matt Pennington was shoved aside by Callum Wilson on the left side. No call came, and Pennington stopped to remonstrate for a second as Wilson shouldered the ball forward. The move ended with Pugh beating Howard, and it was 1-1.

The second half saw chances sprinkled to both sides before Aaron Lennon‘s cutback carried through the 18 to Baines, who popped a clever high shot past Artur Boruc. 2-1.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]