Olivier Giroud

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World Cup qualifiers: Dutch disaster persists; Greece hold Belgium

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A roundup of all of Saturday’s World Cup qualifying fixtures, as Groups A, B and H hit the halfway point in Europe…

[ MORE: USA 6-0 Honduras | Three things we learned | Player ratings ]

Bulgaria 2-0 Netherlands

Spas Delev scored both Bulgarian goals (5th and 20th minutes) to secure all three points and send Danny Blind’s Netherlands side (7 points) into fourth place in Group A, six points back of leaders France and three back of second-place (qualifying playoffs) Sweden.

17-year-old Matthijs de Ligt was handed his international debut for the Dutch; he was ultimately at fault for both of Delev’s goals; he was subbed off at halftime (as was Georginio Wijnaldum).

Luxembourg 1-3 France

Olivier Giroud scored twice (28th and 77th minutes) for France, and Antoine Griezmann added the other (37th minute – penalty kick), as Les Bleus maintained their three-point lead in Group A. Kylian Mbappe, Monaco’s 18-year-old rising star, made his international debut in the 78th minute, when he replaced Dimitri Payet.

Portugal 3-0 Hungary

Cristiano Ronaldo bagged the 69th and 70th goals of his international career (36th and 65th minutes), as Portugal (12 points) kept pace with an unbeaten Switzerland side (15 points) which managed a 1-0 victory over Latvia to keep their 100-percent record intact. Andre Silva scored the opener (32nd minute) for Portugal, the 21-year-old Porto striker’s fifth goal in six international appearances.

Belgium 1-1 Greece

Romelu Lukaku‘s 89th-minute rescued a point for Group H leaders Belgium (13 points), but it did little to mask an otherwise uninspiring performance from Roberto Martinez’s side. Kostas Mitroglu put Greece ahead in the first minute of the second half, but Panagiotis Tachtsidis saw his second yellow of the game in the 65th minute, and that was the start of Greece’s unraveling. The draw was just enough to keep Greece (11 points) in second, ahead of Bosnia-Herzegovina, whose 5-0 thrashing of Gibraltar moved them to 10 points with a superior goal differential.

Elsewhere in UEFA’s World Cup qualifying

Group A

Sweden 4-0 Belarus

Group B

Switzerland 1-0 Latvia
Andorra 0-0 Faroe Islands

Group H

Bosnia-Herzegovina 5-0 Gibraltar
Cyprus 0-0 Estonia

Giroud says Arsenal players “want Wenger to renew his contract”

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As if you needed further proof that no one associated with Arsenal is on the same page, Olivier Giroud says the club’s players want Arsene Wenger to stay, while the club’s fans have been holding near-weekly protests in an attempt to force the 67-year-old legend out.

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While he’s on international duty with the French national team, Giroud has been speaking to French television channel Canal Plus, and revealed the players’ preference regarding Wenger’s immediate future — quotes from the Guardian:

“We want Arsene Wenger to renew his contract, to continue his adventure, because we support him. We hope we can win the [FA] Cup and that Arsenal qualify for the Champions League.”

[ MORE: The “mature” one — Mourinho says he’s matured at Man United ]

Wenger, for whatever his opinion and/or preference may be worth in the matter, hopes to stay at Arsenal beyond this summer — when his contract expires — but the final decision will be made in conjunction with members of the club’s executive board, whom are said to be undecided.

Everything sounds totally fine.

Arsenal beat minnows Lincoln to reach FA Cup semifinal

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Arsenal sealed their spot in the FA Cup semifinals with a routine 5-0 win over fifth-tier Lincoln City at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday.

[ MORE: Gunners fans protest Wenger

The minnows played well in the first half with Arsenal’s opener via Theo Walcott coming in the first minute of first half stoppage time.

Arsene Wenger‘s struck twice in quick succession early on in the second half to put the result beyond doubt with Olivier Giroud and an own goal setting them on their way and then Alexis Sanchez and Aaron Ramsey added a goal each to secure their trip to Wembley on April 22 or 23.

[ MORE: Full FA Cup schedule here

Arsenal have now reached the FA Cup semifinal for the third time in the last four seasons as they’ve won the trophy in two of the last three campaigns and Wenger is two wins away from his seventh FA Cup trophy as Gunners boss.

For Lincoln, their wonderful FA Cup adventure comes to an end after they dumped out second-tier sides Ipswich and Brighton, plus Premier League side Burnley. The Imps can hold their heads high.

[ MORE: Man City reach FA Cup semis ]

Lincoln started brightly enough roared on by their 9,000 traveling fans but Arsenal had the first big chance of the game.

A ball fell to Theo Walcott on the edge of the box and his drive was brilliantly palmed onto the post by Lincoln goalkeeper Paul Farman.

Midway through the first half Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain hobbled off injured and Mesut Ozil came on in his place and moments later Lincoln almost went ahead.

Nathan Arnold cut in from the right flank and danced past two defenders before curling a shot towards the top corner which Petr Cech saved superbly.

Ozil curled in a cross to the back post which Farman scrambled to push wide and from the resulting corner Arsenal took the lead as Walcott slotted home the layoff from Olivier Giroud. 1-0 to the Gunners right on half time.

Giroud drilled a shot towards the bottom corner in he second half but Farman saved well and then from the rebound Walcott teed up Kieran Gibbs but he was off-balance and his header went over.

Soon after Giroud made it 2-0 as a wonderful piece of interplay between Sanchez and Hector Bellerin saw the latter pick out Arsenal’s French striker and he slotted home.

Bellerin then curled an effort wide when it looked easier to score and then Arsenal’s other full back, Gibbs, linked up with Sanchez as his Gibbs’ cross deflected off Lincoln’s skipper Luke Waterfall and in. 3-0 to Arsenal.

Sanchez then made the most of a defensive slip to curl home a beauty and make it 4-0, then his cross to the back post was tucked away by Ramsey as the Gunners ran away with things.

Alan Power forced Cech into a good stop late on in a rare attack as Sanchez rattled the crossbar with a dipping free kick.

Lincoln tired in the second half and were punished by a ruthless, business-like Arsenal.

UCL: Arsenal embarrassed, loses 10-2 on aggregate

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  • Walcott gives early hope
  • Koscielny sent off, 54′
  • Lewandowski converts PK
  • Brace for Vidal
  • Robben, Costa also score

Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski eliminated all Arsenal hope when he won and converted a penalty kick in a 5-1 win in the second leg of their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 match-up at the Emirates Stadium on Tuesday.

Arsenal had gone ahead 1-0 through Theo Walcott, but still trailed 5-2 on aggregate, when Laurent Koscielny tripped up Lewandowski in the box. Koscielny was shown red.

The final score was 10-2 on aggregate, and the 5-1 home loss was the worst home blowout in Arsenal’s European history.

[ MORE: Champions League scores ]

A couple of chances went by the wayside before Arsenal went in front through Walcott. Bayern keeper Manuel Neuer was prepared for a low shot, and Walcott ripped a high attempt that Neuer could only parry into the goal.

Arturo Vidal fouled Hector Bellerin in nodding a cross at David Ospina, as Bayern looked for a quick answer.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

[ MORE: Europa League schedule ]

Walcott had a very similar chance from a tighter angle, and blasted the contested shot off the outside of the net.

Robert Lewandowski missed a 38th minute chance to put the tie to bed when he mishit Arjen Robben’s looped pass wide of Ospina’s goal.

For as lopsided a score line as it was, Arsenal had plenty of chances to narrow it. Olivier Giroud nearly headed an Aaron Ramsey cross past Neuer in the 48th minute, putting it just over the bar.

Bayern came close to leveling the leg when Mats Hummels raced onto a free kick to redirect the ball past Ospina, but replays showed he was correctly ruled offside.

Lewandowski then worked Nacho Monreal to get free on goal, and was taken down by Laurent Koscielny. It began as a yellow card but was upgraded to a red for denial of an obvious goal scoring opportunity.

Arsenal would be down a man before it went down 6-2, which it did when Lewandowski bested Ospina.

Robben then looked to work a 1-2 with Lewandowski before beating Alexis Sanchez to the business end. Ospina couldn’t stop Robben’s shot, and it was 7-2.

It certainly could’ve gotten worse. Costa roasted Bellerin and squared the ball into the six where Lewandowski’s sliding effort spun off the far post.

Costa got his goal in the 78th minute when he cut around Montreal to beat a flying Ospina. And the goalkeeper was faced with a 2-on-0 when Lewandowski deferred to Vidal for a chipped finish. It wasn’t the last 2-on-0. Costa fed Vidal in the 85th minute to complete the bloodbath.

Premier League Playback: Why Sanchez will leave Arsenal

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WHAT NOW FOR SANCHEZ?

Alexis Sanchez’s benching in Arsenal’s 3-1 defeat at Liverpool was one of the most bizarre decisions in Premier League history.

Sanchez, 28, is Arsenal’s leading scorer and has been involved in more goals than any other PL player this season. He was fully fit and Arsene Wenger was also without his other star man, Mesut Ozil, who was back in London after falling ill.

Wenger gambled and it backfired badly. Now, both he and Arsenal will pay the consequences.

[ MORE: 3 things learned ]

Citing “tactical reasons” for dropping Sanchez and instead starting Danny Welbeck and Olivier Giroud, it was pretty inconceivable that Sanchez (even though he’s been in mixed form of late) wouldn’t have helped Arsenal had he been on the pitch. They were 2-0 down at Liverpool at half time and Wenger had to hold his hands up. He brought on Sanchez at half time and he set up Welbeck’s goal, caused Liverpool countless problems and had a shot blocked in stoppage time which could’ve rescued a point before Liverpool’s late clincher.

His situation at Arsenal seems past the point of rescuing.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays

Talk of a training ground bust-up between Sanchez and his teammates came after the defeat but Wenger has since brushed that off (see above) and called those rumors “completely false” in an angry statement.

All of this bluster aside, it all points to one impending factor: Sanchez will not be at Arsenal next season.

Following the mass speculation, the fiery Chilean forward — we’re talking about a guy who pounded the floor after Arsenal secured a miraculous point at Bournemouth when they trailed 3-0 late in the second half, is often told to stop training so hard and almost cried when subbed out in a routine win at Swansea — could have nipped it all in the bud.

Instead, he said the following on Instagram.

“The true warrior fights not because he hates the ones in front of him, but because he loves those behind him. Let’s go Gunners. The only failure is not trying,” Sanchez said.

That was it.

With Wenger saying that Arsenal Football Club will decide the future of Sanchez, and Ozil, regarding new contracts, it seems ominous that Arsenal’s star man has 15 months to go and there doesn’t seem to be any new contract announcement in sight.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

He will likely leave this summer for a fee below $30 million as he’ll have just 12 months left on his contract. That will be a steal for whoever buys him and selfishly I hope he stays in the Premier League. Of course, Arsenal will do their utmost to sell Sanchez to Spain, France or Italy if they can but with his former boss Pep Guardiola at Manchester City there’s a real danger that the Gunners are set to lose another star to a PL rival for the prime of their career.

Think Robin Van Persie to Manchester United. Cesc Fabregas to Chelsea, via Barcelona. To a lesser extent Samir Nasri, Gael Clichy, Kolo Toure and Bacary Sagna to Manchester City. Heck, even Marc Overmars, Emmanuel Petit and Patrick Vieira before these guys, but that trio all went overseas.

In the current climate, with six heavyweights all scrapping for the top four and all capable of challenging for the title, Arsenal can’t afford to strengthen a rival. That’s what they will do if Sanchez joins Man City.

Until something changes at Arsenal and they’re willing to break the bank to not only keep but attract the biggest names in the world, they’ll be destined for top four finishes, getting knocked out of the UEFA Champions League last 16 and winning the FA Cup. That’s not something to scoff at. It’s also why Wenger will likely sign the two-year extension gathering dust on his desk before this season is over.

Still, the most important man for Arsenal’s immediate future looks even more likely to move on after this weekend. You can file this article away and dust it off every four or five years when the Gunners are in contract negotiations with a star player about remaining in north London.

It’s the same outcome. But this time with Wenger and Ozil’s future up in the air too it could be incredibly damaging for Arsenal’s ambition of a top four finish. Not just for this season but for the next generation.


CHELSEA UNSTOPPABLE

10 points clear with 11 games to play, Chelsea look imperious as Antonio Conte‘s men march towards the Premier League title.

[ MORE: Chelsea record breakers?

Many things are helping the Italian coach with N'Golo Kante running the show in midfield and a solid defensive unit thriving in the 3-4-3 system he introduced in September, but the form of Eden Hazard has somewhat flown under the radar.

Hazard, 26, is back to his best and is putting the horrors of the 2015-16 campaign behind him. Many thought he would never recover from a horrendous season which saw him look a shadow of the PFA Player of the Year in 2014-15 who led Chelsea to the crown.

[ MORE: 3 things learned

He has 11 goals and four assists in the PL and his latest strike in the 2-1 win at West Ham on Monday summed up Chelsea’s brilliantly incisive play this season. Kante intercepted the ball and gave it to Hazard and that was the trigger for Pedro‘s run. The duo darted forward together, leaving West Ham’s defenders bamboozled as Hazard slotted home the opener after rounding goalkeeper Darren Randolph following a devastating 11-second counter-attack.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]  

Following the victory, Pro Soccer Talk asked Conte about Hazard’s ability on the counter and just how important he is to this Chelsea team.

“Eden is really important for us; we all know that. He’s a really good player with great technique and talent,” Conte said. “It’s better when he plays between the lines to score on the counter-attack. It’s not his specialty but he’s very good at receiving the ball, going one v one and beating his opponent to score the goal. We also have other options of scoring a goal on the counter-attack, people like Willian and Pedro and Costa, and this is also good.”

They have so many ways to hurt teams — on the counter, from set pieces, by dominating possession, you name it — and it is clear Chelsea will win the PL.

Only seven teams in PL history have had 66 or more points after 27 games of the season. Every single one of them has gone on to win the title. Chelsea currently has 66 points after 27 games.

Even if Man City beat Stoke in midweek to cut Chelsea’s lead at the top to eight points, it seems like the pressure isn’t getting to Chelsea and all of their players are rested and ready each week.

Not having European action has been pivotal in their run of just one defeat in their last 21 games, but so has the brilliance of individuals such as Diego Costa, Kante, David Luiz and the forgotten man: Hazard.


FA GET ZLATAN, MINGS SPOT ON

The officials don’t often get praise, and they didn’t get much this weekend in the Premier League with an impromptu bachelor party muddying the criticism around officials, but in the end the English Football Association got the main point of contention spot on.

[ MORE: Ibra accepts three-game ban ]

On Monday both Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Tyrone Mings were charged with alleged violent conduct for their ongoing spat during Manchester United’s 1-1 draw with Bournemouth at Old Trafford.

Ibrahimovic accepted the charge and has a three-game ban, while Mings is set to contest what is reported to be a six-game ban for his stamp on Zlatan’s head which then led to the an elbow in his face by the veteran Swede.

Kevin Friend and his officials didn’t see the incidents clearly at the time and took no action. With the retrospective action coming in to save the day, it’s a system which works well. Even though Zlatan and Mings both came out and said they didn’t mean to injure one another after the game, they had the look of guilty men plastered across their faces.

Both men will have to take their punishment for a bruising battle. We will also cherish another gem from Zlatan when he tried to explain what happened.

“With the stamp, I don’t see it. I just felt something hit me behind my neck,” Ibrahimovic said. “With the elbow I see it clearly. I jump up, I jump high to protect myself. At the same time I jump for the ball and he jumps into my elbow. Hopefully he didn’t get injured or something. My intention was not to injure, it was the opposite, to protect myself to go for the ball. It was unlucky he jumped into the elbow. This happens many times.”

Okay, Zlatan…


KING KANE

“One season wonder, he’s just a one season wonder!” sang Tottenham’s fans after Harry Kane belted in the opening goal of Spurs’ 3-2 win against Everton on Sunday.

The Englishman, still just 23, added another to take his tally to 19 for the season as he leads the PL in goals and he’s now scored 24 times in 28 games in all competitions for Tottenham. That’s getting to the Ronaldo and Messi-esque bracket of a goal a game or better.

[ MORE: Premier League stats ]

Before the weekend all the talk was about the Kane vs. Romelu Lukaku battle. Give me Kane all day long. He creates goals, drops deep, is a pure finisher and you always know he is going to leave everything out on the pitch. He is one of the most complete forwards in the game and Mauricio Pochettino was correct to say he can go on to become a Spurs legend. With Tottenham in second place, they’re 10 points off Chelsea and it’s destined to be another case of “close, but no cigar” for the second season running in their title hopes.

Their talisman will keep on trucking away though.

Don’t forget, Kane was out for over six weeks this season too through injury. Imagine if he was fit throughout October. Where would Spurs be had Kane been on hand as they dropped points against Leicester, Bournemouth and West Brom during his absence?

Probably challenging Chelsea for the title.

Still, with no defeats at home all season and a record nine-straight home wins in the PL they are looking nailed on for a top four finish as they only have two of the top four (Arsenal and Manchester  United) left to play. Both at home. That will please Pochettino as he kicks on the project to the next step ahead of the stadium move and with his young squad all committed to the vision.

Plus, their goal celebrations are as awesome as they are elaborate…


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