Premier League Playback: Man City delight, Balotelli is back, Spurs for the title?

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JOVETIC RIPS LIVEROOL APART

During Manchester City’s signature early season 3-1 win over Liverpool on Monday, a Montenegrin striker many had dismissed as a failure ripped the Reds defense apart.

Stevan Jovetic bagged a brace for the Citizens as Manuel Pellegrini’s men handed out a beating to Liverpool. Watch the highlights above, as Jovetic scored twice then Sergio Aguero piled on the misery for Liverpool. This summer I got the chance to catch up with Jovetic after he scored against AC Milan on City’s tour of the U.S. He looked determined, fired up and focused as he spoke to a small gaggle of journalists after the game. He shone in America, scoring five goals in three International Champions Cup games. This dude was red hot.

However in a rather reflective and somber mood, he talked about his early struggles at City as he spent most of last season on the bench or the treatment table after arriving from Fiorentina.

“Honestly I wasn’t happy. That was obvious. I didn’t play but I never said that I shouldn’t have moved to England. I knew that I am a good player and that I can play for City. After that, when I was fit for the last three months, I played in every game and came in for 30 minutes of 45 minutes, some games I started. This year I hope I can help the guys much more.

On mentally not being able to deal with the pressure last season…

“I think the most important thing is the head, in football. There are good players but the head is the most important. In that moment that everyone was talking about me saying he is not good, he was bought for $30 million, I was quiet and working. I knew that I was going to show myself in the best light.”

Jovetic certainly showed himself in the best light on Monday as the Citizens put down an early marker for the season to show the entire league that the reigning Premier League champions aren’t messing around. They want to become just the third team in PL history to win back-to-back titles.

Premier League Schedule – Week 2

Result Recap & Highlights
Aston Villa 0-0 Newcastle Recap and watch here
Chelsea 2-0 Leicester Recap and watch here
Crystal Palace 1-3 West Ham Recap and watch here
Everton 2-2 Arsenal Recap and watch here
Hull 1-1 Stoke Recap and watch here
Manchester City 3-1 Liverpool Recap and watch here
Southampton 0-0 West Brom Recap and watch here
Sunderland 1-1 Manchester United Recap and watch here
Swansea 1-0 Burnley Recap and watch here
Tottenham 4-0 QPR Recap and watch here

With Aguero, Edin Dzeko and now Jovetic firing on all cylinders up front, plus the injured Alvaro Negredo to come back, nobody is questioning Manuel Pellegrini’s decision to not splash any cash on a striker this summer, are they? Time will tell, but Jovetic’s splendid early season form is almost like a new signing for the Citizens. The Montenegrin forward never stopped believing in himself and now, in his words, “this year, I hope I can help the guys more.”

When I saw Jovetic wheeling away in delight after scoring his second, I couldn’t help but hear this famous song by ‘Journey’ in the back of my head. “Don’t stop believing!”

Jovetic never did.

‘SUPER MARIO’ SET TO SHINE?

A player Liverpool will be hoping can help bring belief back is new signing Mario Balotelli. The enigmatic and precocious Italian international arrived at Anfield on Monday for $26 million from AC Milan and will try to help fill the void left by Luis Suarez this summer.

[Can Balotelli replace Suarez; turn Reds into PL champs?]

On Monday’s showing, Liverpool need more than Balotelli if they’re going to be serious contenders for City’s title but Balotelli brings that ‘x factor’ that they were perhaps missing without Suarez. This could go either way for Rodgers. Really, really well… or really, really bad.

Listen to my thoughts on Balotelli’s move, below, as I join Jenna Corrado on the latest edition of PST Extra.

TOTTENHAM’S FUTURE IS IN GOOD HANDS: POCHETTINO’S

Mauricio Pochettino has started his Tottenham Hotspur career in the best possible way: two wins from two.

The Argentine boss has Spurs top of the PL standings with two victories in London derbies to open up the 2014-15 campaign, plus they have yet to concede a goal. Pochettino hasn’t spent big over the summer but has instead given several of Spurs’ big money signings from last summer a huge boost.

Premier League Star Performers – Week 2

Player Reason
1. Stevan Jovetic (Man C) 2 goals, clinical finishes
2. Nacer Chadli (Spurs) 2 goals, reborn at WHL
3. David Silva (Man C) Silky Spaniard shone in big win
4. Olivier Giroud (Arsenal) 1 goal, sub, changed the game
5. Thibaut Courtois (Che) Superb saves from new no. 1

His training methods involve running, lots of it, as he forces his sides to press high up the pitch and play at an unbelievably high tempo. Last season he led Southampton, in just their second season back into the PL, to an eighth place finish and his stylish brand of soccer was revered across Europe. His coaching staff go everywhere with him. They travel together, eat together and are a real family unit. That emanates to his players and you can already see Spurs’ hugely talented players playing with freedom but reaping from the benefits of a “Pochettino pre-season” which makes even the most senior pros shudder. One of Poch’s former players, Dani Osvaldo, once said of his manager’s intense training methods.

“He makes you work like a dog. Sometimes you feel like killing him, but it works.”

As a man-manager, Pochettino is phenomenal. Erik Lamela, Roberto Soldado and Nacer Chadli all arrived for big money last summer and were labelled flops by the fans and cast aside by interim boss Tim Sherwood. Now they are integral to Pochettino’s early success as the former Espanyol and Southampton boss works his magic at White Hart Lane. Pochettino was asked about Spurs challenging for the title following Sunday’s 4-0 shellacking of QPR. He was quick to cool that talk but if Tottenham carry this form on, a top four finish isn’t out of the question. Spurs fans would take that, right?

TOFFEES CRUMBLE AS GUNNERS FIRE LATE ON

For the first 83 minutes at Goodison Park on Saturday, Everton were cruising to a 2-0 victory and Roberto Martinez looked to be the master tactician over Arsene Wenger once again. Then, crash, bang, wallop… 2-2. Arsenal snatched a point from the jaws of defeat as a deflated Goodison Park crowd marched home forlornly wishing the Merseyside dusk would swallow them up.

Arsenal had looked jaded, off the pace and stagnant in possession throughout, as the clash between last seasons’ fourth and fifth place team was a one-sided affair. Leading 2-0 at half time, thanks to goals from Seamus Coleman and Steven Naismith, Everton slowly stepped off the gas and didn’t look to be in much trouble. However Wenger, the longest serving manager in the PL, proved he’s still got it. Olivier Giroud jumped off the bench and replaced $60 million man Alexis Sanchez, who looked lost in the lone forward role, at half time. Giroud went close on three occasions and gave Everton’s defense a headache. Aaron Ramsey equalized in the 83rd minute when another Wenger sub, Santi Cazorla, played in Ramsey to make it 2-1. Then Giroud bagged the equalizer in the 90th minute as a tiny corner of Goodison erupted.

The Gunners had bagged a point but the manner in which they ground out a result at one of the toughest away stadiums to visit in the PL was impressive. The old adage is that you are a good team if “you get something when you don’t play well.” Arsenal did that. Everton played well early on but for the second week in a row chucked away two points at the death. Martinez’s men will be just fine this season but their inability to shut games down and a leaky defense is something their Spanish manager must address sooner rather than later. Martinez will see this disappointing draw as an opportunity missed to lay down an early claim for a top four finish this season.

See Everton and Arsenal’s exhilarating draw in the video above which includes all of Saturday’s games, while Sunday’s video recap is below.

TRANSFER WINDOW SLAMMING SHUT

“Sources have confirmed.” “Reports suggest.” “Reportedly.”

Only one more week until those words don’t totally invade your vocabulary until January, I promise. With the long summer transfer window slamming shut on September 1 at 7 p.m. ET, the speculation about potential new signings will stop and we will then begin to analyze how teams across the PL fared after all the wheeling and dealing. Here are 10 players to look out for this week as the window shuts. Plenty of top players are still rumored to be on the move, so this is just a small sample of those who could be transferring.

We will have plenty more transfer deadline news coming your way. So stay logged on to PST …

USMNT UPDATE – FOR NOW, WE WILL STILL INCLUDE TIMMY

It has been an eventful few days for the Americans plying their trade in the Premier League. Brad Guzan put in a stellar display, especially with a stunning late stop, to help Aston Villa record their second-straight shutout to begin the campaign. The new U.S. number one, (yes, we will get to that shortly) praised his new-look Villa defense. All of whom look, well, rather alike with their buzz cuts. Including Guzan.

[More: Cameron lined up by Italian giants Lazio, several PL clubs]

So, yeah, Tim Howard has been in the news a lot in the past few days. Last week it was announced he will step down for U.S. national team duty for 2015 as he focuses on spending more time with his young family and just playing for Everton. That opens up a slot for Guzan to become a regular in goal for the USA and stake his claim to be in net for the 2018 World Cup. Howard will return but Jurgen Klinsmann insisted he will have to earn his place back in the squad. A sabbatical for a top USMNT player, sound familiar? Ahem, Donovan… Anyway Howard, as aforementioned was busy at the weekend as Everton chucked away a 2-0 lead late on against Arsenal. And oh yeah, he will also be releasing a book on December 9 titled “The Goalkeeper” in what should be a lovely “stocking filler” and he was on site at the Etihad for NBC Sports on Monday to analyze Man City vs. Liverpool. Phew, Tim’s a busy boy. No wonder he’s taking a break. Here’s a Tweet of him in action at the Etihad.

As for the other American in the PL, Geoff Cameron could be on his way out of Stoke City as PST exclusively found out that the versatile USMNT man has Lazio, Sunderland, Southampton, Hull City and Leicester City chasing him. Cameron was on the bench, but didn’t play for the Potters in their 1-1 draw away at Hull on Sunday. Time will tell how that plays out, but is seems like the Bostonian could be on his way out of the Britannia Stadium. As for Jozy Altidore, he came on as a late sub in Sunderland’s 1-1 draw with Manchester United but despite a few promising runs he had no chances to bag a game-winner. Still, Altidore is recovering well from his hamstring injury at the World Cup. A mixed weekend for the Americans Abroad.

Premier League Playback comes out every Monday as PST’s Editor and Lead Writer takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here

Arsenal sends Gabriel Paulista to Valencia

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Arsenal has a thin defense, but that hasn’t stopped Arsene Wenger from thinning the squad even further.

Gabriel Paulista is headed back to the Spanish top flight after the completion of his transfer to Valencia. The Brazilian was sold for a reported $12.8 million, just below the $14 million price tag Arsenal coughed up to Villareal back in January, 2015. He will partner with Manchester City loanee Eliaquim Mangala at Valencia.

The 26-year-old made 64 appearances for the Gunners across all competitions, including 46 in the Premier League. His only goal for the club was Arsenal’s first of a 2-0 win over Bournemouth in December, 2015. His high-water mark with the club was a 120-minute performance against Manchester City in the FA Cup semifinals where Arsenal came back to win 2-1 on an Alexis Sanchez goal in extra time.

“We would like to thank Gabriel for his contribution to the club and to wish him well for his return to La Liga with Valencia,” Arsenal said in its confirmation of the deal.

Paulista was utilized more than expected last season thanks to an injury crisis at the back, and still the Arsenal squad doesn’t seem fat enough to offload defenders, but Gabriel’s over-aggressive nature and tackling inaccuracy led him to an early exit.

With Arsene Wenger now deploying a back-three, the only natural central defenders currently on the roster are Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker, Shkodran Mustafi, and Rob Holding. Koscielny is suspended from a red card at the end of last season, and Mertesacker is battling a head injury. Sead Kolasinac, Nacho Monreal, and Calum Chambers have played CB for the Gunners in the recent past, but it is not their natural position.

Fabian Johnson misses Gladbach training with injury

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With John Brooks already out long-term due to a thigh injury, the United States may have another key injury to work around.

According to Borussia Monchengladbach manager Dieter Hecking, full-back/winger Fabian Johnson missed training on Friday due to an unspecified injury, and is now a question mark for Gladbach’s home match on Sunday against FC Koln. It could be nothing, but even the scare is cause for concern among U.S. fans.

Johnson has battled a few injuries the past couple of seasons, including a hamstring problem last spring that kept him out for nearly two months, including a pair of World Cup qualifiers in March.

Johnson’s absence would leave a hole at right-back for the United States. The 29-year-old has been deployed some at right wing for the USMNT, but he has been relatively poor at that position in the national setup, looking better when pushed further back where he is given more defensive duties, roaming forward with less frequency but more intent.

In place of Johnson, another converted winger in Graham Zusi has been seeing more time at right-back, but he offers less in the attack and lacks Johnson’s recovery speed, meaning mistakes by the Sporting KC veteran are punished more often.

Falcao scores again to extend red hot start

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Monaco is hoping to ride out the final two weeks of the transfer window with 18-year-old wonderkid Kylian Mbappe still in tow.

While they wait, they aren’t missing a beat.

With Mbappe out of the squad, Radamel Falcao has begun the 2017/18 Ligue 1 season as Europe’s hottest goalscorer. He bagged a hat-trick last weekend with Mbappe on the bench to give him four goals in the first two league matches. Then, with Mbappe out of the squad entirely, Falcao netted the winner in a 1-0 road win over FC Metz.

Falcao has scored five goals so far this year, and his club has a +5 goal differential. In a way, Falcao has already been worth six points thus far.

Thanks in part to Ligue 1’s early start, Falcao’s five league goals are by far more than anyone else in the major European leagues. Four players have scored a pair of Premier League goals, nobody in La Liga or the Bundesliga have scored more than one, and the Serie A season has yet to start.

The Colombian did the same thing last season. After eventually coming off the shelf from to hamstring and concussion problems to start the season, Falcao scored 10 goals in 10 Ligue 1 matches leading up to the new calendar year.

At 31 years old, Falcao isn’t a long-term solution and the club will clearly look to retain Mbappe despite Falcao’s hot start, but should they lose the young Frenchman, the club will be in good hands while they search for a replacement over the next year.

Arena should give Ream a look in Brooks’ absence

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With John Brooks out three months thanks to a horribly timed thigh injury, the United States yet again has to scramble to fill a void at the back. It’s not the first time an injury to Brooks has left the USMNT scrambling for cover at a thin position.

In the successful Gold Cup this past summer, with a largely domestic squad in place, Omar Gonzalez saw the bulk of the time at central defender, with Matt Besler his partner through the final two matches. However, with European-based players now in contention for spots with the early September international break, those two are unlikely to continue, at least not together.

[ MORE: Liverpool holds all the cards in Coutinho transfer ]

The most obvious choice to start September 1st against Costa Rica and likely shoo-in should he remain healthy for the next two weeks is Geoff Cameron. The 32-year-old has been back and forth between defense and midfield with club and country, and although he has publicly acknowledged his preference for a spot higher up the pitch, he was used in a back-three in Stoke City’s Premier League opener last weekend and is steadiest at the back.

But with a spot next to Cameron up for grabs in Brooks’ absence, a player who should get serious consideration is United States fill-in extraordinaire Tim Ream.

Ream has had to work hard to earn his place with the U.S., and while he’s seen time of late, he’s not been a first-choice pick. The 29-year-old has four caps so far in 2017, with two of those starts, including one in the impressive 1-1 draw against Mexico at the Azteca with the US still clawing its way back up the Hex standings. Even then, Ream would likely not have earned that spot had Arena not chosen to rotate nearly the entire squad between the pair of qualifiers in that window. His other start this year, the 1-1 draw at Panama, only came after Cameron pulled out of the squad the day of the game with a late injury. The last time Ream started back-to-back matches for the U.S. came back in 2015 when he was somewhat of a regular through the second half of the calendar year.

[ MORE: LA Galaxy send Van Damme back to Belgium ]

But now, with Brooks out, Ream looks like the perfect man to fill in again. The 29-year-old defender finished last season in top form as Fulham narrowly missed out on promotion, earning the official website’s Man of the Match award in a May 2nd draw with Brentford, and won it again in the club’s final match of the season.

Without missing a beat, Ream has picked up where he left off last campaign in the first few matches this month. Last weekend against Reading at the Madjeski Stadium, Ream’s center-back partner Tomas Kalas was sent off 36 seconds into the match, forcing Fulham to play a man down for 89 minutes. Ream and company solidified the back, conceding just once in the 61st minute en route to a 1-1 draw.

The club still likely requires reinforcements at the CB position – Ream was forced to partner with right-back Denis Odoi against Reading with Kalas suspended and Michael Madl injured – meaning Ream could see an influx of competition in the coming weeks. However, as it stands, the American is far and away the best (and most improved) central defender on a club favored for promotion.

Gonzalez performed well in the Gold Cup, and Matt Besler was serviceable, but with few other options in the heart of defense to take Brooks’ place, Bruce Arena could yet again look to Ream for an in-form replacement.