Quick Six: Top Premier League storylines from weekend no. 2

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1. THERE’S ONLY SO MUCH AARON RAMSEY CAN DISGUISE WITH ARSENAL

I haven’t met the person who, after this week, isn’t slightly happy for Aaron Ramsey. I’m not sure I want to. A standout four days for the 22-year-old comes after a five years of promise, injury, doubt, and criticism. For one week, however, the Wales international has lived up to the hype that accompanied him from Cardiff City in 2008.

Back then, an 17-year-old Ramsey was the subject of a bidding war, most notably between Arsenal and Manchester United. He eventually chose North London, embarking on a career that was momentarily sidetracked two years later, his leg broken by a Ryan Shawcross tackle. Returning to the Gunners 14 months later, Ramsey won a role in Arsène Wenger’s squad only to become one of many faces not quite good enough to meet supporters’ ambitions. That he was bought so young, had trouble nailing doubt a specific role, and saw more time in the wake of Cesc Fábregas’s departure made him a de facto symbol of Arsenal’s plight.

But if Ramsey truly is a symbol, then things are looking up for the Gunners, because for two straight matches, he’s been great – arguably the club’s best player. On Wednesday in Istanbul, Ramsey helped create one and scored another as Arsenal downed Fenerbahçe, 4-0. Saturday at Craven Cottage, he was similarly controlling, leaving the injured Mikel Arteta far from the minds of the Arsenal faithful as the Gunners ran out 3-1 winners.

That’s not to say all is well with Arsenal. The problems brought up in the wake of their loss to Villa are still there. If Arsène Wenger chooses to bask in the glow of Ramsey’s glory, he’ll overlook the fact the club still need a central defender, midfielder, better goalkeeping, and potentially help in attack if they’re truly going to compete on all fronts.

But at a time when the club’s fans needed something, anything to show hope need not be lost, a long-held prospect has emerged. And after all he’s been through, why not Aaron Ramsey? Somebody we can all get behind.

source: Reuters2. FOR SPURS, LIVERPOOL, STAR POWER’S OVERRATED

Perhaps Tottenham do need a Gareth Bale-like presence, but the idea that they’re a one-man team is being debunked. Whereas last year Spurs seemed incapable of winning unless their star got on the scoresheet, now they don’t even need him in the team. After their 1-0 win over Swansea City, André Villas-Boas’s side is perfect through two rounds.

But Spurs aren’t the only team thriving without their leading man. With Luis Súarez suspended, Liverpool have also opened with two wins, their second coming Saturday at Aston Villa. Daniel Sturridge (right) has picked up the scoring slack, scoring in each of Liverpool’s 1-0 wins, but perhaps more importantly, Simon Mignolet has proven a prescient signing in goal.

Of course Liverpool and Spurs would be better if they had last year’s stars. And eventually, Liverpool will have theirs. But for all the talk of these clubs being one-man teams last year, it hasn’t taken long for Villas-Boas and Brendan Rodgers to remind us: There are other ways to win soccer games.

3. MANUEL PELLEGRINI MAY NOT BE ALEX FERGUSON

Given how effusive we were on Monday after City’s trouncing of Newcastle, it behooves us to take a step back from our Manuel Pellegrini praise. And given how long I’ve doted on the former Villarreal, Real Madrid, Málaga boss, I may be due for two, maybe three steps away from the champagne. No, Richard, Pellegrini is not going to redefine English football.

source: Getty ImagesSunday seemed a classic “you don’t know what you’re getting into game,” one a new coach could overlook. On talent, there isn’t much room for Cardiff City to compete with the Sky Blues, but the style of game in the English leagues (or, more readily, the culture) somehow creates an environment where results like this are more likely. Where pace, power, and passion are such integral parts of the sporting ethos, you’re not going to be able to knock the ball around for an hour, take a 1-0 lead, and consider your opponents convinced.

And there’s no reason to think Manchester City assumed as much, yet the match played out that way. Eight minutes after Edin Dzeko opened the scoring, Cardiff had their first of three second half goals, going on to a 3-2 win.

Perhaps there’s nothing Pellegrini could have done to prevent that, but his substitutions didn’t help. Nor did his willingness to roll the dice with Javi Garcia at the back. Ultimately, in his second game in England, Pellegrini lost with a vastly more-talented side.

source: Getty Images4. PROMOTED SIDES BREAK THROUGH

Give Cardiff City credit. They played well; better than most thought them capable of. Perhaps Manchester City could have done more, but Cardiff did well to stick around. And once City cracked — once the visitors ground their gears while trying to find cruise — the Bluebirds pounced. Even if City played better, Cardiff may have found a way to win their first Premier League match at home.

Hull City, on the other hand, had to hang on after losing a man before the half hour mark, though by the time Yannick Sagbo saw himself dismissed, Robbie Brady had already converted from the spot. What followed was less of a siege than a persistent probing, Norwich unable to exert enough pressure to crack the Tigers. They held the ball of 61 percent of the time, brought on the newly acquired Johan Elmander, but couldn’t many more than four shots on goal, a paltry amount considering the 73 minutes with a man advantage.

The only thing that prevented a clean sweep for the promoted club was a comeback at the Britannia, with Stoke City handing Crystal Palace their second straight loss. Regardless, both Cardiff City and Hull City are not only into the win column, they’re outside of the drop zone. For now.

source: Getty Images5. FOUR GAMES, TWO POINTS IN THE NORTH EAST

It should go without saying Newcastle’s first two games have not been good enough. Their first, a thrashing at the boots of Manchester City, can’t be explained by the Yohan Cabaye controversy. Their second, a 0-0 draw against visiting West Ham United, saw the home side fail to register a shot on goal. Alan Pardew’s contract may run through 2020 (no joke), but the same questions of his performance that hovered at the end of last season are about resurface.

Sunderland, in the meantime, also earned a point on Saturday despite the fact they failed to carryover any of the control they showed against Fulham. The nearly didn’t need it, though, with a third minute goal from Emanuele Giaccherini holding up for 85 minutes. If it wasn’t for a goal two minutes from time from Jose Forte, the Black Cats would have completed their smash and grab.

Despite the draws, both teams clearly have a long way to go. While Sunderland has shown some promise, they’ve played two drastically different games, leaving questions as to what they truly have at the Stadium of Light. Newcastle, on the other hand, have played two games they’ll want back.

6. TOO EARLY TO PASS JUDGMENT ON ASTON VILLA, SWANSEA CITY

source: Getty ImagesVilla’s first week has seen them face three European aspirants, with Paul Lambert’s team losing the one game they may have expected to win nine. That they got a surprise result at Arsenal last Saturday means the Liverpool loss stings a little less, though with three points from matches with the Gunners, Chelsea, and the Reds, Villa can be happy with their returns. Had they taken one point from those three games, fans could have rationalized the results.

It does put Lambert in a strange position. He’s trying to evaluate what he has with his team, but he doesn’t have a good point of comparison. Against Arsenal, Chelsea, and Liverpool, Villa were always going to be outgunned. That they did, much of the time, look outgunned not only wasn’t a surprise but also led to 270 minutes where it’s hard to gauge his team’s absolute quality. Lambert will have to rely on his experience to fill in the gaps.

Michael Laudrup’s in the same situation. Swansea’s faced Manchester United and Tottenham, two teams they weren’t expected to beat. That they didn’t take points won’t be seen as a disappointment; however, Swansea’s also left with a skewed perception of self, one that won’t help them determine how they stack up against the other Europa League-aspirants.

Martino angry at Corona absence from Mexico squad

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New Mexico boss Gerardo “Tata” Martino did not hold back when asked about Jesus “Tecatito” Corona’s absence from the Mexico squad for the upcoming international break.

Corona pulled out of the squad due to an ankle injury he has apparently been playing through at his club side Porto. Still, Martino said he wished for Corona to travel to San Diego to meet up with the squad despite the injury as he is hoping to meet as many of the players in person and get to know them better.

“On Sunday, I spoke with him twice, once early in the morning and the other in the airport,” Martino explained to Azteca Deportes. “In the morning, I manifested the idea that even with impossibility [of playing with] the injury he had, we needed him to be with the group to get to know each other, it being the first meeting we’d have had. He didn’t have to train or play if he couldn’t, but we needed him to be here. At first he said yes and then on midday on Sunday, he called to say he’d thought about it and that his ankle wasn’t right and that he preferred not to travel.”

While Martino said that ultimately the decision was Corona’s to make, he made sure to note that “he’s [Corona’s] done something wrong” and that “he knows there will be repercussions in the future.”

“No one goes gun in hand asking them to come in and when they decide not to come we move on and keep going with the group that does want to be here,” Martino explained.

The Mexico boss also succinctly described his decision to leave LAFC striker Carlos Vela out of the squad, saying simply, “I don’t meet up [with the players] to make pacts. I had to take a decision and name the squad list and in that list I decided that Carlos shouldn’t be in.”

Just two months ago, upon officially receiving the job, Martino had described Vela as a “world class player.”

FA to investigate after coin thrown towards Chelsea’s Barkley at Goodison

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The FA has announced it is launching an investigation into the claims that a coin was thrown in the direction of former Everton player Ross Barkley during his return to Goodison Park with current club Chelsea.

The announcement confirmed that the FA has reached out to both clubs to make them aware of the investigation and procure any relevant information they may have regarding the incident.

Everton also announced it is conducting its own investigation of the incident at its home park. “We are investigating the alleged incident and reviewing footage,” Everton said in a statement. “If anyone is found responsible for this or other such incidents, the club will take robust action.”

Barkley transferred to Chelsea in January of 2018, and this was his first match back in his old stomping grounds. Everton won the match 2-0 to reach the 40 point mark and also pile pressure on Blues manager Maurizio Sarri.

The alleged coin assault came just two days after the FA, Premier League, and EFL issued a joint statement reminding “all supporters to carefully consider their behavior” at the weekend’s games and “all games in the future.” The statement came after a number of high-profile crowd disturbances, including a fan who ran onto the field and attacked Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish, plus another pitch invader who shoved Manchester United defender Chris Smalling during a match against Arsenal.

Euro 2020 qualification set to begin Thursday

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With the international break upon us, qualification for Euro 2020 is set to begin, with 55 countries spread across 10 groups to determine who will make the final field of 24 that will take place in the main event in the summer of 2020.

As the group stage draws nearer, we take a look at the important matches that will begin qualification play through the first three competitive days of the international break in round one of qualifying.

Austria v. Poland

Bayern Munich teammates Robert Lewandowski and David Alaba will go head-to-head as Austria hosts Poland in Vienna. Lewandowski hasn’t scored for the national team since a pre-World Cup friendly last summer, and the visitors will be looking to put a poor World Cup behind them for good. As the two highest-ranked teams in Group G, there will be plenty of eyes on this match between two teams who haven’t met in over a decade.

Belgium v. Russia

The two favorites in Group I go head-to-head to kick off the competition as two teams fresh off happy World Cup memories clash in Brussels. Both of these teams failed to win their UEFA Nations League groups, meaning Euro qualification is their only method of entry into the final competition. Kevin De Bruyne misses out for Belgium, but the rest of the star-studded Belgian roster is intact. The Russians are looking for a new goalkeeper after the international retirement of Igor Akinfeev, and the three men called up to replace him have a combined 12 caps between them.

Slovakia v. Hungary

In surely one of the most hotly contested groups of Euro 2020 qualification, Slovakia and Hungary meet hoping to get the jump on one another as they compete with Croatia, Wales, and Azerbaijan for a slot in the final tournament. Hungary has not won a competitive road match since 2016, and they have scored just one goal against Slovakia in their last five tries. Marek Hamsik, fresh off his move to Chinese club Dalian Yifang, leads the lines for Slovakia in this critical match.

England v. Czech Republic

The two favorites in Group A meet to see if either side can get a leg up on the other four teams early. England will be without John Stones and Luke Shaw due to injury, but otherwise most first-choice players are fit. Jadon Sancho may get a chance to continue his stellar club form on the international level, while Callum Hudson-Odoi is with the squad as well. The Czech Republic called up just 18 players, including Burnley forward Matej Vydra, one of only five players on the squad with over 20 international appearances.

Portugal v. Ukraine

Group B has three main contenders, and two of them will meet on Friday looking for an early advantage. Cristiano Ronaldo is in great club form and was rested in the latest Juventus match as they lost for the first time all Serie A season. All the usual suspects are back for a ridiculously experienced Portugal team that hopes to defend its Euro 2016 title. The squad features five players with at least 50 caps, including three with over 100. Ukraine, meanwhile, is without the injured Andriy Yarmolenko who tore his Achilles back in October. Coach Andriy Shevchenko made the bold decision to leave experienced defenders Yaroslav Rakytskyi and Yevhen Khacheridi at home, with their 104 caps more than the entire defensive unit currently in the squad.

Spain v. Norway

An absolutely loaded Group F begins play on Saturday as Spain hosts Norway in Valencia. While Spain is considered the favorite for the group, the rocky and disappointing World Cup journey and spotty Nations League performances leaves them considered vulnerable heading into qualifying, and with Sweden, Norway, and Romania all considered contenders for that second spot, Luis Enrique’s squad will have to be on top of its game throughout. Enrique has left out Real Madrid struggler Isco as well as Atleti pair Koke and Saul in favor of greener players like Iker Muniain. On the other side, Norway boss Lars Lagerback has an inexperienced squad captained by West Brom midfielder Stefan Johansen.

FULL ROUND 1 SCHEDULE (all times Eastern)

Thursday, 3/21

Kazakhstan v. Scotland – 11am
Cyprus v. San Marino – 1pm
Austria v. Poland – 3:45pm
Belgium v. Russia – 3:45pm
Israel v. Slovenia – 3:45pm
Macedonia v. Latvia – 3:45pm
Netherlands v. Belarus – 3:45pm
Northern Ireland v. Estonia – 3:45pm
Slovakia v. Hungary – 3:45pm

Friday, 3/22

Bulgaria v. Montenegro – 1pm
Albania v. Turkey – 3:45pm
Andorra v. Iceland – 3:45pm
England v. Czech Republic – 3:45pm
Luxembourg v. Lithuania – 3:45pm
Moldova v. France – 3:45pm
Portugal v. Ukraine – 3:45pm

Saturday, 3/23

Georgia v. Switzerland – 10am
Gibraltar v. Republic of Ireland – 1pm
Malta v. Faroe Islands – 1pm
Sweden v. Romania – 1pm
Bosnia & Herzegovina v. Armenia – 3:45pm
Italy v. Finland – 3:45pm
Lichtenstein v. Greece – 3:45pm
Spain v. Norway – 3:45pm

Inter handed suspended sentence for more racist chants

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MILAN (AP) — Inter Milan has been handed a suspended sentence of having one of its stands closed for a match after its fans were again found guilty of racist chanting.

The Italian league says in a statement that “a significant percent” of supporters in the stand in question were heard racially abusing AC Milan midfielder Franck Kessie during Sunday’s derby victory, in the seventh and 39th minutes of the first half.

The sentence will be suspended for a year but will be added onto any additional punishment if Inter’s fans commit more racist abuse during that period.

It is the second time this season that Inter has been sanctioned for racial abuse.

Inter was forced to play two games in an empty stadium in January after a Dec. 26 game at San Siro was marred by racist chants aimed at Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly.