Three Premier League surprise teams for the season… and three flops

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Every year has its big surprises, and it’s just as true that each Premier League season features a team or two that drastically underperforms.

Sometimes this occurs during a season — recall Newcastle pre- and post-Yohan Cabaye last season, and Crystal Palace pre- and post-Tony Pulis — while other times clubs use the entire season in unforeseen ways (last season’s Norwich City disaster).

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So how about 2014/15? Who can we peg to defy expectations? Who can we guess will fall further down the table than many guessed?

Three surprise teams

source: Getty ImagesNewcastle United – Remember December of last season, when the Magpies shot into European contention after barely surviving the drop in 2013? The club sold Yohan Cabaye and everything fell apart. This summer  Alan Pardew has brought in a wealth of attack options to help fill the Cabaye void, while replacing the other notable departure — Mathieu Debuchy — with a younger, cheaper and perhaps as effective Daryl Janmaat.

Stoke City – Manager Mark Hughes quietly put together a top-half side last season, with goalkeeper Asmir Begovic bailing the club out a few times when needed. Now he’s added steady defender Phil Bardsley and electric Barcelona talent Bojan Krkic to a club that already had promise.

Swansea City — Perhaps Michael Laudrup’s sights were set too high, but Garry Monk can bring the Welsh side into a new era of responsible play. That’s because he has forward Bafetimbi Gomis to take defenders’ focus away from the deadly Wilfried Bony. Gylfi Sigurdsson and Jefferson Montero could combine to make Swans dance past the bottom of the table and dare to shoot higher.

Three teams to flop

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Queens Park Rangers — Maybe the addition of Glenn Hoddle will make Harry Redknapp’s 3-5-2 soar, but it’s still an aging squad that is relying on a bunch of questions: Can striker Charlie Austin succeed at this level? Will Mauricio Isla adapt to the English style quickly? Is Redknapp actually a decent manager? All are tough questions.

Aston Villa — Paul Lambert would become the first Villans boss to oversee the club’s fall out of the Premier League if they were to be relegated, but it seems possible. The addition of defenders Philippe Senderos and Aly Cissokho to Ron Vlaar’s back line should help, but there are a lot of questions in attack, including whether Christian Benteke will return from injury the same dominant force he was to start last season.

Sunderland — Poor Gus Poyet seems like a strong manager, having guided the Black Cats to a League Cup final, but cannot attract players to the Northeast. He has perhaps more questions to answer than QPR, a club that was just promoted. Can Will Buckley transition from the Championship? Will Patrick van Aanholt and Jack Rodwell be too rusty to thrive? Is Jozy Altidore going to find his national team or Eredivisie form? Could be plenty of trouble for a team that barely survived last season.

Referee leaders want on-field official to see video replays

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LONDON (AP) Antoine Griezmann headed the ball into the net and was in full celebration mode with his France teammates when referee Felix Swayer pinned a finger into his left ear to block out the stadium noise.

[ VIDEO: VAR system used correctly

An assistant in front of a bank of monitors was assessing replays and had some bad news for Griezmann. Swayer was told through his earpiece that a player was offside in the buildup.

The goal was then ruled out, without Swayer seeing a replay. But that won’t necessarily be the case by the time video replays are fully approved to be rolled out across soccer.

For now, the experimental phase is still in full flow but if refereeing leaders get their way officials should always have access to the footage themselves around the field.

“The subjective decisions should be made by the on-field referee because they have got the feel for the game,” Mike Riley, general manager of English refereeing organization, told The Associated Press. “They can put it in the context of everything else. So as part of the process we have got to work out how we can do that as effectively as possible … without interrupting the flow of the game.”

The International Football Association Board, the game’s lawmaking body, is in its second year of trials with various versions of video assistant referees (VAR). Some games, like the France-Spain friendly, do not allow the referee to evaluate incidents and instead by rely on the VAR.

But VAR could end up only ruling on what Riley describes as “decisions of fact,” such as whether a ball was inside or outside the penalty area.

Ultimately, if you are appointing one of the top referees to preside over a major game, that person is seen as ideal for making the big calls, according to IFAB.

“Fundamentally we are told very much by players and coaches they want the referee to be making the most important decisions,” IFAB technical director David Elleray said, referencing England’s top referee. “They don’t know who is in a van out in the car park or 300 miles away in a match center.”

Soccer’s lawmakers only envisage video replays being used to correct game-changing decisions involving four situations: penalties being awarded, red cards, cases of mistaken identity and goals being scored.

That situation arose twice in the Stade de France on Tuesday as France lost 2-0 to Spain. After Griezmann’s goal was disallowed, video replays worked against France again but in Spain’s favor when an incorrect offside call against Gerard Deulofeu was overturned and his goal stood.

Swayer again relied on the information from a colleague benefiting from replays.

“Nicola Rizzoli was appointed to referee the last World Cup final because he is the best referee,” Elleray said. “But if actually the two most important decisions in the match are made by somebody watching a TV screen … the most important person is the man you put behind the TV screen not the man on the field.”

The challenges are how referees are able to view replays without lengthening the delay. For now the technology isn’t satisfactory for officials to use wearable devices and receive footage in real time. That means going to the side of the field to watch incidents with the eyes of thousands of fans in the stands on them. The screens are likely to be on the opposite side to the technical area to avoid coaches being able to surround and harangue the referee.

“Some of our stadiums don’t lend themselves to monitors by the side of the pitch because they are really tight,” said Riley, a former Premier League referee who is now in charge of appointments for games in the world’s richest soccer competition. “Is it right for referees to have to run 30 yards to go and look? Can you get the footage to the referee on the field somehow? All these things have to be explored through the experiment and come out with a solution that works for football.”

Live experiments are taking place in about 20 competitions this year, including the Confederations Cup in Russia in June and July that will serves as a World Cup test event.

Once IFAB adds video replays to the laws of the game, any competition meeting the requirements will be able to use them.

For Riley, permitting replays is “the most significant change in refereeing in the game for generations,” far more significant than the 2012 decision to allow technology that simply determines whether the ball crossed the goal line.

“If you are making such a significant change,” Riley said, “you need to really explore and understand all the potential implications.”

Rob Harris can be followed at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

Amid fanfare, Bastian Schweinsteiger arrives in Chicago

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Arriving at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, it is clear Bastian Schweinsteiger is kind of a big deal…

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Posing for photos with fans as he stepped off the flight with his wife, former Serbian tennis star Ana Ivanovic, the former Bayern Munich midfielder was mobbed by Chicago Fire fans who are delighted he has arrived in Major League Soccer as the newest Designated Player.

The German legend has completed his move from Manchester United to the Fire and will be officially unveiled to the media on Wednesday after signing a one-year deal.

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Schweinsteiger, 32, has already had a training session in the books and the World Cup winner is expected to make his debut in Chicago’s home clash with the Montreal Impact on Saturday at Toyota Park.

Below is a video of Schweinsteiger’s arrival in Chicago, his first training session and a collection of photos he took with ecstatic Fire fans.


Liverpool’s Emre Can scores stunning goal in training

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Emre Can, take a bow.

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Alongside Sadio Mane and Georginio Wijnaldum, the German international stole the show as BT Sport rocked up for an episode of “Goals Recreated” at Melwood.

The premise is simple: can current day PL players recreate sensational goals of the past?

On this occasion each player had four attempts to mirror Papiss Cisse‘s stunning goal for Newcastle United against Chelsea, and although Mane came close Can was the man of the moment.

Click play on the video below to see the stunning effort.


Barcelona defends Messi over “unfair” suspension

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says Lionel Messi’s four-match international suspension for insulting a linesman was “unfair and totally disproportionate.”

[ MORE: Messi handed ban by FIFA ]

Barcelona released a statement Wednesday expressing “its surprise and indignation” with FIFA’s decision to sideline the playmaker for so long following the incident in Argentina’s win over Chile in World Cup qualifying last week.

The punishment was announced before Argentina lost at Bolivia 2-0 Tuesday, a result that left the two-time champions at risk of not qualifying for next year’s World Cup in Russia.

Barcelona says it “wishes to reiterate its support for Leo Messi, an exemplary player in terms of conduct both on and off the field.”

Pending an appeal, Messi will only be available to play in Argentina’s final qualifier, on Oct. 10 against Ecuador.