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Fernandinho discusses Guardiola’s first season, UCL and more

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Pep Guardiola‘s first season in-charge at Manchester City wasn’t always easy, but in the end the Spanish manager guided his side to a top-four finish and a spot in the UEFA Champions League.

[ MORE: Chelsea crowned champions, but more glory on club’s mind ]

One of the players concentrated at the heart of his side’s success was midfielder Fernandinho, who along with Guardiola, had his share of ups and downs during the Premier League season.

As someone not often associated with flashy play or beautiful goals, it’s easy for the Brazilian veteran to get lost in the mix at times, however, it was his solid play in front of the City back line that helped stabilize the club’s midfield throughout the 2016/17 campaign and since his arrival in 2013.

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PST had the opportunity to catch up recently with Fernandinho, where the Brazilian discussed the Premier League season, qualifying for next season’s Champions League and much more.

Fernandinho and his English side will take some time off over the next few months before gearing up for the 2017/18 season in August. Man City will take part in the fifth annual International Champions Cup in July, and Guardiola’s group will play three matches across the United States against crosstown rivals Manchester United, Real Madrid and Tottenham.

The 32-year-old finished his season strong, even closing out City’s PL finale against Watford on Championship Sunday with a goal of his own, but it wasn’t always smooth sailing.

Just after the transition to 2017, Fernandinho was handed a four-match suspension by the FA for serious foul play during a match against Burnley, but it was that experience, among others, that helped Fernandinho improve under Guardiola.

“Personally it was good because I have been playing a few different positions and learning a lot of things with him [Pep],” Fernandinho told PST. “I am happy with that. Finishing the season playing like this is good because I improved myself during the year after having a tough moment where I was suspended for several games.

“That’s why it was good for me. I learned a lot and it’s going to be giving me more experience with my football and I hope I can put my stamp on the game and help my teammates win as much as possible.”

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This season was one of finding rhythm for many teams throughout the PL, especially for those with new high-profile managers like Antonio Conte, Jose Mourinho and Ronald Koeman taking over new positions in England. However, it was Guardiola’s move to the Etihad Stadium that was easily the most noted and carefully-watched from day one.

The former Barcelona boss has always been watched — mostly because of his success while with the Spanish giants and with Bundesliga power Bayern Munich — and even though it wasn’t always easy for the Citizens with their new manager there were certainly signs of momentum as the season progressed.

“We just needed a little bit of time to know the players and for the players to know him,” Fernandinho said. “He had a new style of play and sometimes it’s not easy to adjust so quickly. It’s takes a bit of time. But I think we improved a lot since the beginning of the year, the beginning of the season. For sure for the next season it’s going to be completely different and much better.”

One area that Fernandinho and his side will need to improve upon next season is the team’s home form, which the midfielder also noted.

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While the Citizens posted 11 victories at the Etihad in 2016/17, Guardiola’s group mustered up seven draws, dropping 14 crucial points in the title race.

That’s something Fernandinho says must change next season.

“We solved some of our problems and we improved a bit on what we have to do, but of course we drew so many games, especially at home, and we lost so many points at home,” the Brazilian told PST. “Since the beginning we tried to play good football. We tried to make it attractive football, but sometimes that’s not possible. I think the way we finished the league this year was okay. For next year, for the next season, we are going to definitely be better than this year.”

The PL has proven be one of the toughest leagues to compete in for decades, making City’s recent success and consistency so impressive, even prior to Guardiola’s takeover.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Guardiola’s first season in charge with the Citizens marked the seventh straight year in which the team has finished inside the top-four of England’s top flight, while the club has also qualified for the UCL for the seventh consecutive season after not having reached the competition prior to the 2011/12 campaign.

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For Fernandinho, although there may be disappointment for not winning the league, Man City is pleased with its success given the level of competition that the club faces on a week in and week out basis in the PL.

“It’s important because we’ve got many good teams in England and we fought great players and of course it’s four positions that go through to qualify for Champions League,” Fernandinho said. “It’s not easy. We are happy for that to secure third place and we’re going to try to do our best to finish better than we finished this year in Champions League as well.

“We have to be proud because the Premier League isn’t easy to finish in the top four. We play against good players and good teams, so we have to be proud to play in the Champions League every year.”

Key newcomers for USMNT friendly

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While the excitement potential is high amongst big club USMNT call-ups like PSG’s Tim Weah and Everton’s Antonee Robinson, there are several other relative newcomers who are facing a more acute focus.

So yes, of course, we’re most excited to see the young guns fire away, but a few others will be under the microscope for different reasons.

[ MORE: Best PL summer buys ]

Paraguay is leaving some big names behind — Dario Lezcano, Jesus Medina, Edgar Benítez — but won’t be using as “B” or “C” of a squad as the USMNT. Key defenders Junior Alonso (Lille) and Gustavo Gomez (AC Milan) will be staring down the U.S. attack, while Atlanta United star Miguel Almiron will try his luck against the Yanks’ backs.

  1. The goalkeepers — With full respect to Bill Hamid and his five caps, the trio of backstops who could play against Paraguay are unknown entities on the senior international level. There are reasons to be excited about Alex Bono (Toronto FC) and Zack Steffen (Columbus Crew) going against Los Guaraníes — and Hamid, too — and standing behind a young and untested group of center backs should give plenty of chances to make a name for whoever is chosen (If Sarachan is more “woke” this go-round, it’ll be multiple keepers).
  2. Andriya Novakovich — The Telstar striker is checking all the boxes: 6-foot-4, productive on the youth level, and now succeeding overseas. The 21-year-old has 17 goals on loan from Reading in the Dutch second tier. While that’s far from a “Woah” figure considering the top-tier in the Netherlands isn’t exactly a defensive hot bed, it’s intriguing for Tuesday in North Carolina.
  3. Rubio Rubin — We’re hopeful Sarachan goes with a 4-4-2, which would allow both Rubin and Novakovich to get runs next to Bobby Wood. Rubin is seeing some time at Liga MX side Club Tijuana after his European adventure stalled following a hot start for Utrecht. He had an assist in CONCACAF Champions League play against Red Bulls this month.
  4. Tyler Adams — Speaking of that match, the Red Bulls got a goal from Adams. It’s fair to say he’s got the chance to be as special a player as Schalke youngster Weston McKennie (and would apparently like to join his USMNT teammate overseas). Adams and McKennie together could legit be an engine room for years. Will that begin on Tuesday?
  5. Cameron Carter-Vickers — The 20-year-old center back has shown resilience in England. His hot start to life at Sheffield United, on loan from Tottenham, cooled enough to have him sent back to North London, but Carter-Vickers has rebounded to become a key part of Ipswich Town’s back line. With 22-year-old Matt Miazga the only clear center back on the roster and older than him, CCV can quiet a lot of doubters.
  6. Kenny Saief — This guy has excited at nearly every turn since bursting onto the scene with Gent via the Israeli national team, and an injury cost him some momentum with the USMNT. Now healthy and on loan with Anderlecht, the same side which refined the fire of Sacha Kljestan, the once-capped Florida-born man is as intriguing as ever.

Season strugglers: Some ignominious PL performances

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Tuesday found us breaking ties on our “Most Impactful Premier League Summer Buys” rankings by digging through some advanced statistics sites.

In doing so, something struck us: We rarely if ever check out which players are faring the worst when it comes to those next level numbers.

Ah, the international break: Good for off-the-wall posts.

[ MORE: Alonso, Pedro have Morata’s back]

At the risk of kicking a player while he’s down, here are some negative numbers that stand out from the pack.

Of the 358 players who’ve played at least 10 Premier League matches, Joe Hart is having the worst season of the bunch according to Squawka. That’s a bit misleading due to how the site’s metrics operate, considering eight of the bottom 20 players are goalkeepers (and several, like Jonas Lossl and Jordan Pickford, are having outstanding campaigns).

So the unfortunate honor goes to Swansea defender Martin Olsson, who edges James McClean of West Brom for the infamy. Since the site does heap numbers on players by action accumulated, perhaps it’s better to single out the per-game and per-90 strugglers. Olsson and McClean are still very much near the bottom, but surprisingly Yannick Bolasie is the worst per game, and Swansea’s Wayne Routledge is having the least effective season per 90 minutes.

As for WhoScored, its metrics are hammering forwards, with Lys Mousset, Andre Gray, and Benik Afobe at the back of the back (ahead of McClean, again, who is a multi-site struggler).

These stats aren’t perfect, of course, and I like the idea of having McClean on my squad. But there are some other odds stats in the pack.

 These players might want to pass their next opportunity to the keeper. Of players with 10 or more shot attempts this season, Adam Lallana (11), Renato Sanches (12), Lewis Cook (14), and Dale Stephens (15) have failed to put a single shot on target.

— Of the 81 players who’ve tried their luck 30 times or more, these are the worst accuracy rates

— For perspective, Harry Kane has put 56 percent of his league-leading 162 shots on target, while second place man Mohamed Salah is 61 percent of 118.

— Defensive errors also can be increased significantly by the times a player is put under pressure by his team, which is why goalkeepers are high on Squawka’s list. Take them out, and you get a list with Spurs’ Eric Dier up top. Two of his six errors have led to goals against Tottenham, with Zanka (Huddersfield Town), Alfie Mawson (Swans), Andreas Christensen (Chelsea), and Shane Duffy (Brighton) next with four errors.

Xabi Alonso denies Spanish accusations of tax fraud

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The list of players pursued by Spanish authorities crying tax fraud is starting to resemble a pretty good team,

Call it The Longest Yard: La Liga.

[ MORE: Alonso, Pedro support Morata ]

Xabi Alonso is being accused of not paying taxes on his image rights while a player at Real Madrid, joining Radamel Falcao, Neymar, Lionel Messi, Luka Modric, and Cristiano Ronaldo as World XI-caliber players who’ve faced legal troubles in Spain.

Jose Mourinho even had to travel to Spain earlier this season to face accusations from a Spanish court. Those found guilty have found punishment other than jail time.

Alonso denies any wrongdoing, according to Sky Sports:

Prosecutors say he defrauded the Spanish state of £1.75m between 2010 and 2012 and called for the same sentence to be applied to Alonso’s financial advisor Ivan Zaldua Azcuenaga and the administrator of consultancy shell company, Ignasi Maestre Casanova.

Iraq hosts friendly tournament after 3-decade FIFA ban

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BAGHDAD (AP) Iraq is hosting a friendly soccer tournament this week, with Syria and Qatar.

It comes just days after FIFA lifted a three-decade-long ban on Iraq hosting international competitions.

[ MORE: Best PL summer buys ]

An Iraq-Qatar match is to start Wednesday evening in the southern city of Basra.

FIFA lifted the ban on Monday for Iraqi cities of Basra, Karbala and Irbil, considered to be the safest in Iraq – but not the capital, Baghdad, which still sees frequent militant attacks.

Iraq’s minister of youth and sports, Abdul-Hussein Abtan, congratulated the Iraqi people following FIFA’s move and said it would change how Iraq is viewed in the region and beyond.

While the ban was in place, Iraq was still able to host friendly games and tournaments.