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Ragnar Klavan has neutralized Liverpool’s defensive woes

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Liverpool looked a title contender from the very start of the season, but one major flaw threatened to bring them down before they could mount a serious challenge to the Premier League crown.

The Reds conceded goals in bunches. At first, it didn’t cause a problem; two late goals in a 4-3 win over Arsenal on Opening Day, a goal past the hour mark in a 2-1 win over Chelsea, blowing two leads to Crystal Palace before putting them away late. But that trend wasn’t sustainable. Eventually, the defense would cost them points, and it began to.

Dejan Lovren lost Harry Kane, and lost two points against Spurs. The epic loss to Bournemouth featured a comedy of defensive errors that led to a historic collapse after holding a 3-1 lead with 20 minutes to go. They went up 1-0 to West Ham, only to conceded a pair, requiring a comeback to earn a point.

[ MORE: JPW’s Premier League picks for Matchweek 20 ]

After the Reds went down 2-1 to West Ham, Jurgen Klopp brought in Ragnar Klavan as a halftime substitute for Lovren.

The Estonian defender joined Liverpool this summer from FC Augsburg for $6 million, with Klopp using his intimate knowledge of the Bundesliga to pluck a value buy from a mid-table German side. Klavan rode the bench for much of October and November, as Lovren, Joel Matip, and occasionally Lucas stumbled their way around the defensive half.

Before Klavan entered against West Ham, Liverpool had three clean sheets in 14-1/2 matches. Since, they’ve conceded a single goal in 405 minutes. With opponents like Middlesbrough, Everton, and Stoke City, that streak wasn’t all that impressive.

Then Klavan and Liverpool shut out Manchester City and the Premier League took notice.

In that match, Pep Guardiola‘s bunch held 57% possession, out-passing Liverpool 461-306. But they were feeble in the attacking third, mustering just three successful passes in the Liverpool penalty area, with Klavan making seven clearances, completing three of four tackles, and man-marking Sergio Aguero on several occasions, holding the Argentinian without a touch in the penalty area.

Evaluating a single defender over a small sample size is difficult, and an uptick in form by Lovren has partially contributed, but it’s obvious that Klavan’s inclusion has made an enormous difference. With Matip out injured but expected to return shortly, it will be difficult for the Cameroonian to find his way back into a defensive line performing at a title-winning level.

Former Spurs midfielder Paulinho scores thunderbolt for Brazil

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Brazil topped Uruguay 4-1 to move on the verge of World Cup qualification, but there was much more to the first half of this match than meets the eye.

Uruguay went ahead 1-0 on a 9th-minute penalty won and scored by Edinson Cavani, and for a moment it seemed like the home side might find its way to pull within a point of Brazil at the top of the CONMEBOL standings. That would not last very long.

[ MORE: Full roundup of CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying action ]

Just 10 minutes later, a bad giveaway near the midfield stripe saw Neymar casually feed Paulinho a good 50 yards from goal. The former Spurs man took matters into his own hands, charging forward and unleashing a vicious strike that continued to rise until it ripped the chords in the top-right corner.

 

Not only was the goal a sight to behold, it was an important moment in the match. Brazil was back level at 1-1, and Paulinho would be on his way to an eventual hat-trick with a pair in the second half. Neymar scored once as well to complete the 4-1 final scoreline, and the three points for Brazil saw them remain perfect in the World Cup qualifying round as they march seven clear of Uruguay at the top of the standings.

For Paulinho, the hat-trick brings him to four goals in the World Cup qualifying round, adding to his score in the 3-0 win over Argentina. They also mark an important moment for the Chinese Super League, where Paulinho now plays, having moved from Spurs in July of 2015. Some national team coaches have left players on the outside of the squad for moving to leagues such as the Chinese League or Major League Soccer, but Paulinho has clearly been an asset to Brazil despite his club situation. In fact, in China, Paulinho has scored four goals in his four league matches for Guangzhou Evergrande this season plus another in the Asian Champions League, leaving him in top goalscoring form coming into this international break, something which has clearly translated directly to international play.

The 28-year-old had lost his place in the national team squad in 2014, going over two years without a single international appearance, but has been a mainstay in the Brazilian side during this World Cup qualification cycle.

Dele Alli banned three European games for straight red card

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Spurs may be out of the Europa League this season, but should they end up qualifying for the Champions League next season, they will start the campaign short-handed.

Tottenham will be without midfielder Dele Alli for the first half of the group stage after his horrifying tackle on Brecht Dejaegere of KAA Gent in their 2-2 draw which saw Spurs out of the competition on aggregate in the Round of 32.

Alli went to ground on the 39th-minute challenge, and made contact on high up on Dejaegere’s leg with both his studs, finishing with a scissior-whip motion. It was a blatant red card, and now UEFA’s disciplinary committee has handed down the three-match ban. Straight-red cards for violent conduct only carry a minimum penalty of one match in UEFA tournament play, but the disciplinary committee clearly thought a longer punishment was necessary, with the ability to sentence anyone up to five matches.

The straight red was the first of Alli’s professional career. Alli apologized to Dejaejere after the match, according to the Gent midfielder. He’s since scored in four straight matches, and when asked on Sunday if that moment was still in his mind, he said, “I’m never going to say sorry for wanting to win or trying as hard as I can but things happen and you have to learn from them.”

Spurs currently sit in second place in the Premier League table with 59 points and look to be in a strong position for Champions League qualification, with a seven-point cushion on fifth-placed Manchester United.

Lippi leads China over SKorea 1-0 in World Cup qualifier

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) Marcello Lippi earned his biggest victory since taking over as coach of China’s national soccer team, leading his squad to a 1-0 victory over South Korea on Thursday in a World Cup qualifier.

[ MORE: Shorthanded USMNT hosts Honduras as WCQ resumes ]

The coach, who led his native Italy to the World Cup title in 2006, was hired by China in October.

Yu Dabao scored the lone goal at Helong Stadium in Changsha with a header in the 34th minute, giving China only its second victory over South Korea in 32 matches.

China spent much of the second half defending with the visitors piling on the pressure. Ki Seung-yeung and Ji Dong-won both went close for South Korea but could not find a way past China goalkeeper Zeng Cheng.

South Korea has 10 points from six matches in Group A and is still on course to qualify for the World Cup in Russia. China, which last qualified for the World Cup in 2002, has five points.

Only the top two teams from the six-nation group qualify automatically. The third-place team will head to the playoffs.

CONMEBOL wrap: Brazil routs Uruguay, Messi guides Argentina past Chile

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A roundup of Thursday’s action from around CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying…

[ MORE: USMNT looks to build momentum against Honduras in WCQ ]

Paulinho‘s hat-trick helped bring Brazil back from an early deficit as the Selecao topped Uruguay, 4-1. Edinson Cavani put the hosts ahead after nine minutes from the penalty spot, but it was Paulinho that answered 10 minutes later for his first of the night. Neymar also tallied for the Brazilians, who continue to lead CONMEBOL qualifying with 30 points.

Lionel Messi scored in the first half to help lift Argentina over Chile, 1-0. The Barcelona attacker scored after 16 minutes when Angel di Maria was taken down inside the Chilean area by José Fuenzalida. Chile was held to just one shot on target throughout, and the loss leaves the reigning Copa America winners on the outside looking in at the top five.

James Rodriguez rescued Colombia on Thursday as the Real Madrid winger capitalized off of his penalty-kick rebound to give Los Cafeteros a 1-0 win over Bolivia. Goalkeeper Carlos Lampe did his best to preserve a draw for the visitors, recording six saves on the afternoon, however, it wasn’t enough to tame Colombia.

Meanwhile, Paraguay knocked off Ecuador, 2-1, behind goals from Bruno Valdez and Junior Alonso. The visitors pulled a goal back in the 70th minute when Felipe Caicedo converted from the penalty spot, but it wasn’t enough for Ecuador.

Peru battled back with two second-half goals to preserve a 2-2 draw against Venezuela on the road. The hosts got out to a 2-0 advantage before halftime when Mikel Villanueva and Romulu Otero scored for Venezuela, however, the Peruvians struck back in the second stanza to knick a point. Andre Carrillo and Paolo Guerrero scored in the 46th and 64th minutes, respectively, for Peru.


Thursday’s results

Colombia 1-0 Bolivia
Paraguay 2-1 Ecuador
Uruguay 1-4 Brazil
Argentina 1-0 Chile
Venezuela 2-2 Peru


Updated CONMEBOL table

  1. Brazil — 9-3-1 — 30 pts.
  2. Uruguay — 7-2-4 — 23 pts.
  3. Argentina — 6-4-3 — 22 pts.
  4. Colombia — 6-3-4 — 21 pts.
  5. Ecuador — 6-2-4 — 20 pts.
  6. Chile — 6-2-5 — 20 pts.
  7. Paraguay — 5-3-5 — 18 pts.
  8. Peru — 4-3-6 — 15 pts.
  9. Bolivia — 2-1-9 — 7 pts.
  10. Venezuela — 1-3-9 — 6 pts.