Premier League Preview: Top 5 Midfielders to Watch

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In addition to previewing two teams from the Premier League each day until the beginning of season, we will name five players to watch at each position, goalkeeper through forward. The 2013-14 season begins Aug. 17, and for the first time, every game will be broadcast live in the United States on NBC Sports

Any discussion of midfielders must define its scope. Particularly in a world where the 4-2-3-1 formation is so prevalent, the line between midfielder and outright attacker is easily blurred. Some players deployed in the line of three may be tasked a conventional midfielder’s responsibilities: moving to provide an outlet for play coming forward; linking to and creating chances for more advanced attackers; marking opposition in deeper areas of the opposing midfield. Other players are more outright attackers – wingers and forwards whose defensive responsibilities often lie along the opponent’s back line.

Today, we’re focusing on the first category – the players who play like midfielders. So even though a Gareth Bale or and Eden Hazard may vaguely play similar positions to players on this list, we’ve passed them on to tomorrow, when we’ll rank the Premier League’s five forwards. Today, we’re staying in the middle.

Santi Cazorla, Arsenalsource: AP

The former Villarreal and Malaga man may have cost Arsenal a record fee last summer, but with some of the prices we’ve seen paid for lesser talents this summer, £15 million is a steal for somebody of Cazorla’s talents. The 28-year-old Spanish international can function as a central playmaker, wide man, or somebody that can go get goals for Arsène Wenger’s team, versatility that was reflected in his 2012-13 output. In his first season with the Gunners, Cazorla posted 12 goals and 14 assists in all competitions, numbers which could improve with a year’s experience in the unique Premier League. Capable of playing any of Arsenal’s attacking midfield spots, you’re most likely to find Cazorla was Wenger’s No. 10 or wide right when his club hosts Aston Villa on Saturday.

source: Getty ImagesMarouane Fellaini, Everton

Thanks to former manager David Moyes using the Belgian international behind his striker for chunks of the last two seasons, Fellaini began garnering attention that transcended Premier League diehards. For the first half of the 2012-13 campaign, he was part of the conversation for player of the year, and while that buzz eventually dissipated, broader respect for Fellaini’s game did not. Tall, strong, and sporting with an afro that’s often as talked about as his on-field contributions, Fellaini can play either as a supporting striker or in his preferred role: deep-lying midfielder. Under new manager Roberto Martínez, that versatility could prove vital to Everton’s chances of replicating last year’s success. Playing in a more fluid system, Fellaini could see more opportunities to leverage his versatility, his ability to couple goal scoring, target man’s prowess, physicality and defensive impact again making him one of the league’s top players.

Juan Mata, Chelsea

Since arriving from Valencia two years ago, Mata (pictured, at the top) has been the Premier League’s most prolific player. In 118 all competition appearances, the Spanish international has scored 32 goals and recorded 59 assists. So why is Mata rarely mentioned with Gareth Bale, Luis Suárez, and Robin van Persie as one of the best players in the Premier League? Because physically, there isn’t much to him. He’s just short of 5’9″. He isn’t particularly strong or fast. He’s yet to carve out a major role for his national team, and the two years he’s been at Stamford Bridge have been strange (if successful) ones for the club. Ultimately, however, the production speaks for itself. If you like watching players who create and score goals, Mata is as watchable as anybody in the Premier League.

source:  Oscar, Chelsea

Just under a month short of his 21st birthday, Oscar is already a starter for both Chelsea and the Brazilian national team, and although his in-league numbers weren’t particularly impressive (four goals, seven assists), his youth, all competition production (12 goals, 13 assists in all competitions), and skill demand a place on this list. With the talent to become one of the best creators in the league, Oscar’s numbers will certainly improve. Even if they don’t, his ability to make himself available for the ball and get it to Chelsea’s creators further up the field (Mata, Hazard, who combined for 60 assists) shouldn’t be overlooked, even if basic statistics do.

source: Getty ImagesYaya Touré, Manchester City

Two years ago, Touré was the league’s best player – an absolute beast, attacking and defending, during Manchester City’s first Premier League title. Last year, like the rest of his team, he waned. Whether that was because of natural regression, wear-and-tear, or his commitments at the African Cup of Nations, City will need the 30-year-old Ivorian to be the same, dominant player he was in 2011-12 if they’re to reclaim the title. If he plays at that level, Touré will not only provide a perfect complement to the newly purchased Fernandinho, he will again be one of the league’s best players. He has the strength and awareness to be the league’s top defensive midfielder (when played there). He also possesses the range and skill to fill the space behind City’s phalanx of forwards, allowing Fernandinho to sit and distribute while adding another goal-scoring threat to City’s attack.


Your mileage may vary, and in players like Manchester United’s Michael Carrick, Arsenal’s Mikel Arteta, and Newcastle’s Yohan Cabaye, there are certainly strong candidates to replace those on this list. In reality, there are far more than five midfielders to watch this season in the Premier League. But if you were going to focus on only five, we’d suggest Cazorla, Fellaini, Mata, Oscar, and Touré.

Durmaz condemns Sweden fans’ racist abuse after World Cup loss

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KRASNODAR, Russia (AP) — Sweden midfielder Jimmy Durmaz says the racist abuse aimed at him over social media following the 2-1 loss to Germany at the World Cup has been “completely unacceptable.”

[ SCENARIOS: Who needs what, to finish where, in final round of group games ]

After coming on as a substitute, Durmaz gave away the free kick that led to Toni Kroos curling in an injury-time winner in Saturday’s group game. Durmaz has since been subjected to online abuse, including threats to his family.

Before a training session on Sunday, Durmaz — standing in front of the rest of the Sweden squad and beside coach Janne Andersson — read out a statement to the media from a mobile phone.

“When you threaten me, when you call me ‘Arab devil,’ ‘terrorist,’ ‘Taliban,’ then you have gone far beyond the limit,” Durmaz said in the statement, which was published on the Swedish Football Association’s website.

“And even worse, when you go after my family, my children, threaten them. Who does such a thing? It is completely unacceptable.”

Durmaz was born in Sweden to Assyrian parents who emigrated from Turkey.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

“I am Swedish and I am proud to play in the Swedish national team. That’s the biggest thing you can do as a football player,” he said in the statement. “I will never let any racists destroy that pride. We must all stand against all forms of racism.”

The Swedish FA has reported the abuse toward Durmaz to police.

“We do not tolerate a player being exposed to threats and violations,” said Hakan Sjostrand, secretary general of the Swedish FA. “It is unpleasant and very upsetting to see the treatment that Jimmy Durmaz has suffered. Completely unacceptable.”

The loss to Germany left Sweden tied on three points with its opponent. Both countries are three points behind Mexico with one game left. Sweden plays Mexico in Yekaterinburg on Wednesday, with Germany taking on South Korea at the same time.

Scenarios: Final round of 2018 World Cup group stage

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With just one round of group games left to be played at the 2018 World Cup, the time to begin scoreboard (and table… and tiebreaker) watching is now. 24 teams are still alive with a chance to making it into the knockout rounds and lifting the trophy in Moscow on July 15…

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Group A

Games remaining: Uruguay (2nd – 6 points) vs. Russia (1st – 6 points); Saudi Arabia (4th) vs. Egypt (3rd)

Who can finish 1st: Russia (advanced), Uruguay (advanced)
Who can finish 2nd: Russia, Uruguay

Tiebreaker(s)

Goal differential: Russia (+7), Uruguay (+2)

Scenario(s): Uruguay or Russia will finish 1st with a win over the other; the loser will finish 2nd; Russia will finish 1st if a draw


Group B

Games remaining: Iran (3rd – 3 points) vs. Portugal (2nd – 4 points); Spain (1st – 4 points) vs. Morocco (4th – 0 points)

Who can finish 1st: Spain, Portugal, Iran
Who can finish 2nd: Spain, Portugal, Iran

Tiebreaker(s)

Goal differential: Spain (+1), Portugal (+1), Iran (0)
Goals scored: Spain (4), Portugal (4), Iran (1)

Scenario(s): Spain or Portugal will finish 1st with a win by more goals (or scoring more goals, if the same margin) than the other; Iran will finish 1st with a win and a Spain draw/loss


Group C

Games remaining: Denmark (2nd – 4 points) vs. France (1st – 6 points); Australia (3rd – 1 point) vs. Peru (4th – 0 points)

Who can finish 1st: France (advanced), Denmark
Who can finish 2nd: France, Denmark, Australia

Tiebreaker(s)

Goal differential: France (+2), Denmark (+1), Australia (-1)
Goals scored: France (3), Denmark (2), Australia (2)

Scenario(s): France will finish 1st with a win/draw vs. Denmark; Denmark will finish 1st with a win; Australia will finish 2nd with a win and Denmark (if the two results combine to overturn their two-goal goal-differential deficit)


Group D

Games remaining: Nigeria (2nd – 3 points) vs. Argentina (4th – 1 point); Iceland (3rd – 1 point) vs. Croatia (1st – 6 points)

Who can finish 1st: Croatia (advanced), Nigeria
Who can finish 2nd: Croatia, Nigeria, Iceland, Argentina

Tiebreaker(s)

Goal differential: Croatia (+5), Nigeria (0), Iceland(-2), Argentina (-3)
Goals scored: Croatia (5), Nigeria (2), Iceland (1), Argentina (1)

Scenario(s): Croatia will will finish 1st with a win/draw vs. Iceland; Nigeria will finish 1st with a win over Argentina and a Croatia loss (if the two results combine to overturn their five-goal goal-differential deficit); Iceland will finish 2nd with a win and a Nigeria loss, or a Nigeria draw (if the two results combine to overturn their two-goal goal-differential deficit); Argentina will finish 2nd with a win and an Iceland loss/draw, or an Iceland win (if the two results combine to overturn their one-goal goal-differential deficit)


Group E

Games remaining: Serbia (3rd – 3 points) vs. Brazil (1st – 4 points); Switzerland (2nd – 4 points) vs. Costa Rica (4th – 0 points)

Who can finish 1st: Brazil, Switzerland, Serbia
Who can finish 2nd: Brazil, Switzerland, Serbia

Tiebreaker(s)

Goal differential: Brazil (+2), Switzerland (+1), Serbia(0)
Goals scored: Brazil (3), Switzerland (3), Serbia(2)

Scenario(s): Brazil will finish 1st with a win over Serbia and a Switzerland draw/loss, or a Switzerland win (if the two results combine to NOT overturn their one-goal goal-differential advantage); Switzerland will finish 1st with a win over Costa Rica and a Brazil loss/draw, or a Brazil win (if the two results combine to overturn their one-goal goal-differential deficit); Serbia will finish 1st with a win and a Switzerland draw/loss


Group F

Games remaining: South Korea (4th – 0 points) vs. Germany (2nd – 3 points); Mexico (1st – 6 points) vs. Sweden (3rd – 3 points)

Who can finish 1st: Mexico, Germany, Sweden
Who can finish 2nd: Mexico, Germany, Sweden, South Korea

Tiebreaker(s)

Goal differential: Mexico (+2), Germany (0), Sweden (0), South Korea (-2)
Goals scored: Mexico (3), Germany (2), Sweden (2), South Korea (1)

Scenario(s): Mexico will finish 1st with a win/draw vs. Sweden, or a draw and a Germany draw/loss, or a one-goal loss and a Germany loss; Germany will finish 1st with a win over South Korea and a Mexico loss (if the two results combine to overturn their two-goal goal-differential deficit); Sweden will finish 1st with a win and Germany loss/draw, or a Germany win (if the two results combine to overturn their identical goal differentials); South Korea will finish 2nd with a win and a Sweden loss (if the three results combine to overturn their two-goal goal-differential deficits)


Group G

Games remaining: England (1st – 6 points) vs. Belgium (2nd – 6 points); Panama (4th – 0 points) vs. Tunisia (3rd – 0 points)

Who can finish 1st: England (advanced), Belgium (advanced)
Who can finish 2nd: England, Belgium

Tiebreaker(s)

Goal differential: England (+6), Belgium (+6)
Goals scored: England (8), Belgium (8)
Fair-play points (yellow/red cards): England (-2), Belgium (-3)

Scenario(s): England or Belgium will finish 1st with a win over the other; the loser will finish 2nd; fair-play points will determine who finishes 1st if a draw


Group H

Games remaining: Japan (1st – 4 points) vs. Poland (4th – 0 points); Senegal (2nd – 4 points) vs. Colombia (3rd – 3 points)

Who can finish 1st: Japan, Senegal, Colombia
Who can finish 2nd: Japan, Senegal, Colombia

Tiebreaker(s)

Goal differential: Colombia (+2), Japan (+1), Senegal (+1)
Goals scored: Japan (4), Senegal (4), Colombia (4)
Fair-play points: Japan (-3), Senegal (-5)

Scenario(s): Japan will finish 1st with a win over Poland and a Senegal draw/loss, or a Senegal win (if the two results combine to NOT overturn their fair-play points advantage); Senegal will finish 1st with a win over Colombia and a Japan draw/loss, or a Japan win (if the two results combine to overturn their fair-play points deficit); Colombia will finish 1st with a win and a Japan draw/loss

Kane joins England greats, now chasing Golden Boot

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NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia (AP) — Harry Kane now has a permanent souvenir from the World Cup.

The England striker grabbed the game ball and kept it in his grasp after scoring a hat trick in his team’s 6-1 win over Panama on Sunday.

[ VIDEO: England hammer Panama ]

Those goals — two penalties and a lucky deflection — made Kane the third Englishman after Geoff Hurst and Gary Lineker to score a hat trick in a World Cup match.

“One to be proud of,” Kane said. “Not many players get to score a hat trick in a World Cup.”

The third goal was “probably one of the luckiest ones of my career,” he said. It came when a shot from teammate Ruben Loftus-Cheek deflected off his heel and wrong-footed Panama goalkeeper Jaime Penedo.

The other two were penalties, but it didn’t matter that his goals weren’t vintage. It was enough to put England into the round of 16 with a match to spare.

Kane now has a tournament-leading five goals at the World Cup, one more than Cristiano Ronaldo and Romelu Lukaku.

[ MORE: Colombia thrash Poland, set up must-win vs. Senegal ]

“You’ve got some of the best players in the world doing well, scoring goals, so it’s nice to be up there,” Kane said. “But for me it’s just about the wins. The most important thing is that my goals help my team win. I just hope to continue it.”

Kane took advantage of an overly-physical Panama team to score twice from the spot in the first half. The first penalty came when Jesse Lingard was fouled. Kane won the second himself.

He converted both penalties convincingly.

“You can dismiss penalties as being easy, but the length of time you have to wait before taking it, and the number of distractions to keep focused and start again, it tells you a bit about the mental toughness that he’s got,” England coach Gareth Southgate said. “He’s there. He’s up at the top. We wouldn’t swap him for anyone. We know when he gets opportunities he’s going to bury them.”

Hurst, who got his hat trick in England’s 4-2 victory over West Germany in the 1966 World Cup final, also had that ability. As did Lineker, who scored three against Poland at the 1986 tournament.

Like them, Kane was expected to lead England’s attack. But defender John Stones wasn’t.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

The big center back contributed two goals with a pair of headers. That gives him more World Cup goals than he has in 122 games in the Premier League, where he has scored only once.

But, as Stones swiftly reminded everyone, he did score twice in a Champions League game last year.

He said his cellphone was “blowing up” with messages after his goals. But he’s more concerned with Kane’s tally and his chance to beat Ronaldo and others to the Golden Boot for the tournament’s top scorer.

“I’d love Harry to get it,” Stones said. “I know Harry would want us to win more than get the Golden Boot. That’s the most important thing. But, on a personal level, I’d love Harry to get it.”

Colombia thrash poor Poland, set up must-win vs. Senegal

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Colombia thrashed Poland, to the tune of 3-0, in the two sides’ must-win game in Group H play at the 2018 World Cup on Sunday, getting goals from Yerry Mina, Radamel Falcao and Juan Cuadrado to leave their destiny in their own hands ahead of Thursday’s decisive group finale against Senegal.

Poland have been eliminated with one group game still to play.

[ SCENARIOS: Who needs what, to finish where, in final round of group games ]

Colombia could have scored two or three goals in the first half, with Cuadrado and Juan Quintero causing constant problems for the left side of the Polish defense, but the necessary finishing touch was consistently lacking until Mina headed home a James Rodriguez cross in the 40th minute.

Poland offered very little, both before or after Mina’s opener, as Robert Lewandowski was effectively contained with the vast majority of his touches coming 30 yards from goal and further out. After disappointing in their tournament-opening loss to Senegal, manager Adam Nawalka made a handful of changes to his lineup — dropping the likes of Arkadiusz Milik, Jakub Blaszczykowski and Kamil Grosicki — to no avail.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Despite the scoreline remaining 1-0 for the first 25 minutes of the first half, Poland never looked threatening and were put to the sword by Falcao’s first career World Cup goal (missed the 2014 tournament due to a knee injury), courtesy of Quintero’s seeing-eye through ball.

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James played provider five minutes later, when he slotted what might just be the pass of the tournament across the field, across the Polish defense, and found a streaking Cuadrado with acres of space in front of him. From one end of the field to the other, in no time at all.

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

When Colombia (3 points) meet Senegal (4 points) on Thursday, they’ll need a win to overtake them for second place, or for Poland (0 points) to beat Japan (4 points), who currently sit top of the group — but that seems highly unlikely at this point.