Another step forward for Arsenal as Gunners pass through Marseille (Video)

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Marseille missed Champions League last year, but Ligue 1‘s runners-up made the five previous tournaments. Twice they got out of group stage; no matter, though. They’re no longer one of Europe’s elites – the teams that you expected to make the Champions League’s second round year in, year out. So when a team like Arsenal (part of that in crowd) visits Stade Velodrome, we tend to understate the risk.

OM, however, are a more than capable side, something they showed throughout most of today’s match. At least, half their team showed it, the half that features Dimitri Payet, André Pierre-Gignac, André Ayew and Mathieu Valbuena. The attack, despite failing to score from open play, showed they’re capable of competing against the high-powered Gunners. They put seven shots on goal to their guest’s five.

But in the second half, defensive breakdowns cost them. Jérémy Morel’s inability to clear a Kieran Gibbs cross led to Theo Walcott’s 64th minute opener. Olivier Giroud’s 84th minute run through the defense drew both central defenders, allowing Aaron Ramsey a clear path to goal. Though they held Arsenal in check for one half, they wear worn down in the second.

It’s funny that what undid them was their defense – the facet of their game so reliable since Élie Baup took over last year. While challenging Paris Saint-Germain in France, l’OM conceded only 36 times in 38 games. This season, they’ve allowed four goals in five match. Perhaps the absence of veteran central defender Souleymane Diawara was a bigger loss than anticipated. He would have been occupying the spot Ramsey dribbled through.

Those goals came from the types of mistakes you see from teams who, unaccustomed to maintaining such high defensive intensity for 90 minutes, are pressured into breaking. A look at the passing numbers hints that may have been the case. Arsenal was the first team to eclipse 500 passes against Marseille this year (538). The next highest was Toulouse’s 468 on Saturday, another game Diawara missed. One other team broke 400 against Baup’s team (Evian, Aug. 17), while l’OM’s remaining three opponents were held under 400. The possession battle may have been 49-51 (Arsenal), but without the ball, l’OM’s defense was being worked.

In that sense, Arsenal certainly deserves a large amount of credit for today’s result, even if some will see the 2-1 win as obligatory. At times outplayed, at others ineffective, the Gunners still maintained enough of a presence to force a normally stalwart defense side into two game-defining mistakes. As a result, a team that’s still integrating its best player (Mesut Özil) and trying to get healthy won three valuable road points in Champions League.

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Aaron Ramsey scored his sixth goal of the season today in Marseille. Counting his goal for Wales on Sept. 6, the 22-year-old has scored seven times in the last 27 days. (Photo: Getty Images.)

The holdovers deserve much of the credit. Walcott’s finish quelled doubts. Jack Wilshere played his second good game in a row. Kieran Gibbs put in another strong performance, while Giroud and Wojciech Szczesny made integral contributions. For as much publicity as Özil’s received, it’s the holdovers that are still driving the side.

Aaron Ramsey remains the biggest part. In the 93rd minute, he conceded a penalty, possibly the first mistake he’s made all year. Before that, his 84th minute romp through Marseille’s open defense culminated with the type of calm, confident finish you’d expect from an established star. Perhaps that’s what Ramsey’s become. With six goals this season, the Wales international’s been one of the best midfielders in England. If he maintains this level of play, it will be like Arsenal added two stars to the midfield this summer.

“Honestly, I didn’t expect him to score so many goals,” the Arsenal manager said (as reported by The Guardian). “He’s especially improved in his passing, his technical quality … For me the most important thing is the quality of his game. Aaron is playing well and that is most important, that he continues to improve.”

Even anecdotally, today’s game was telling. Where Arsenal at their best? Not particularly. At least, we can envision times when Arsenal will certainly have a better eye for goal. Through midfield, they could have been stronger, not allowing Mathieu Valbuena to see as much of the ball. And l’OM did finish with seven shots on target, a number that’s higher than Arsene Wenger would have wanted.

But Arsenal got three points. And for a team that lost in at Olympiacos and drew at Schalke in group stage last season, that’s encouraging. That’s progress. Getting three points where they could otherwise get one could end up the difference between another second place finish and being drawn out of the same pot as the other seeded teams.

And just like all their games in this six-match winning streak, that’s a step forward. That’s a sign Arsenal may be ready to move on from the last couple years’ doldrums. That’s another sign Arsenal may be ready to be Arsenal once more.

Liverpool reverse furlough decision

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Liverpool have announced they will no longer seek financial help from the UK government to pay non-playing staff during the coronavirus pandemic with the furlough scheme.

Over the weekend Liverpool announced they would take advantage of the furlough scheme from the UK government, which will pay 80 percent of wages of any staff impacted by the coronavirus outbreak. Liverpool had announced that staff not needed over the next few weeks would be paid 80 percent of their wages by the UK government and they would make up the remaining 20 percent as part of the furlough scheme.

That decision by their billionaire American owners the Fenway Sports Group (FSG) enraged Liverpool’s fanbase.

Peter Moore, the chief executive officer of the runaway Premier League leaders, announced on Monday that the decision would be reversed after talks which included supporters groups, the Mayor of Liverpool and FSG.

“We believe we came to the wrong conclusion last week to announce that we intended to apply to the Coronavirus Retention Scheme and furlough staff due to the suspension of the Premier League football calendar, and are truly sorry for that,” Moore said. “Our intentions were, and still are, to ensure the entire workforce is given as much protection as possible from redundancy and/or loss of earnings during this unprecedented period. We are therefore committed to finding alternative ways to operate while there are no football matches being played that ensures we are not applying for the government relief scheme.”

Moore added that Liverpool will be financially impacted by this crisis and they are trying to find ways to offset the loss of revenue due to the season being suspended.

“But in the spirit of transparency we must also be clear, despite the fact we were in a healthy position prior to this crisis, our revenues have been shut off yet our outgoings remain. And like almost every sector of society, there is great uncertainty and concern over our present and future. Like any responsible employer concerned for its workers in the current situation, the club continues to prepare for a range of different scenarios, around when football can return to operating as it did before the pandemic. These scenarios range from best case to worst and everything in between,” Moore continued.

“It is an unavoidable truth that several of these scenarios involve a massive downturn in revenue, with correspondingly unprecedented operating losses. Having these vital financial resources so profoundly impacted would obviously negatively affect our ability to operate as we previously have. We are engaged in the process of exploring all avenues within our scope to limit the inevitable damage. We thank the many amazing people in our club, at all levels, who are committed to helping us do just that, despite the complexity and unpredictability in the world and our industry.”

The backlash against Liverpool’s decision follows plenty of criticism for Newcastle United and Tottenham Hotspur who did the same, as many leading voices believe that the billionaire owners of Premier League clubs should be paying their staff during this unprecedented pandemic instead of getting help from the government.

Many Liverpool’s fans and former players slammed the initial decision so it is good to those concerns have been addressed, as the Reds recorded a pre-tax profit of $51 million last year alone and $153 million profit the year before that.

VOTE: Premier League March Madness playoff final

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Our Premier League March Madness tournament began on Monday and we had some early drama in the relegation playoff semifinals.

The opening two games of our bracket produced two surprise winners, as #20 Norwich City edged out #17 Watford after winning 50.48 percent of the vote, while #19 Aston Villa comfortably beat #18 Bournemouth with 62.14 percent of votes.

[ LIVE: March Madness PL hub

That means Norwich will now face Aston Villa in the final, and Villa won both of their meetings in the Premier League this season. The first with a 5-1 win at Carrow Road, the second with a undeserved home win at Villa Park.

What do the winners get? If you win the relegation playoff final you are exempt from relegation and finish as the 2020 tournament as #17 seed, while the runner up will be relegated along with the two semifinal losers.

If you want to see the full game schedule, seedings and bracket, here is the post you need as the tournament will run all week long:

Monday: Relegation semifinals, final
Tuesday: Sweet 16
Wednesday: Elite Eight
Thursday: Final Four
Friday: Championship game

Plus, our own Nick Mendola handicapped the field and here is who he thinks will be the favorites to win it all and which teams you should look out for as dark horses over the next few days. His predictions are wild and Arsenal fans will want to prove he is correct and they pick up a first piece of silverware under Mikel Arteta.

Okay, vote below (until 3 p.m. ET) for the two relegation playoff finalists as our Premier League March Madness tournament continues!

Report: Premier League prepares for June return

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The Premier League is reportedly preparing to return to action in June as the current season remains suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Multiple reports across the UK, including this one from the Daily Mirror, claim that the government has given the Premier League the green light to return to action from June, provided the situation has improved as expected by then.

Per the report, Premier League clubs have been told that they should prepare for games to be played from June 1 onwards behind closed doors and there is a ‘tentative agreement for the top flight to resume behind closed doors after the 20 clubs mapped out a plan with senior officials on a resumption of matches.’

The report adds that ‘in principle, with government health officials hopeful of a coronavirus peak in the UK in the next few weeks, they will sanction games under strict guidelines.’ 

Plans are in place for players to be isolated together and away from the public, as they could begin training in May so they can prepare for the current campaign resuming.

With the situation in the UK deteriorating over the last week and the country on lockdown, these tentative plans can of course change quickly.

Premier League players have had differing views on what should happen to the 2019-20 season and Luke Shaw is the latest to say games should not be played behind closed doors. But if teams play two games per week in empty stadiums or training grounds from June 1, there is the real possibility the season could be finished by the start of July and then FA Cup and Europe competitions could follow.

The overwhelming feeling from Premier League clubs, the league itself and many other individuals is that the 2019-20 season should be finished whenever it is safe to do so. Recent PL club meetings came to that agreement and that is the official stance.

However, the next big question is whether or not fans will be able to attend games for the rest of the season and this report seems to suggest that is totally off the table and if the current campaign is concluded, fans will not be present.

Luke Shaw: Scrap season and start again

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Man United and England defender Luke Shaw has said the 2019-20 season should be scrapped and started again if games cannot be completed.

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Shaw, 24, was speaking during a FIFA 20 competition which was streamed on Twitch to raise funds for UNICEF’s Combat Corona campaign.

“Scrap it and start again. Start it again, yeah,” Shaw said. “It’s got to be, you know. If we can’t carry it on, it’s got to be void.”

All 20 Premier League clubs remain committed to completing the 2019-20 season whenever ‘safe to do so’ but there’s no resumption date currently lined up.

One option is for games to played behind closed doors, when possible, but Shaw isn’t keen on that either.

“Fans are so important. You realise it even more (now),” Shaw said. “I think the sport is for fans really… I think if you don’t have fans, and you don’t play in front of fans, it just doesn’t feel right. Especially on matchday, the fans are always amazing and always help the team. Whether it’s home or even away, our fans are always brilliant and I feel like they’re always there with us.”

The view of Shaw differs slightly from other Premier League players who have discussed the current suspension due to the coronavirus pandemic but there is a general consensus that they want to move onto the next season as soon as possible. When it comes to Shaw, his views are very interesting as Man United had rallied to be three points off the top four and had plenty of momentum ahead of the final nine games of the current league campaign, as well as being in a great position in the latter stages of the Europa League and FA Cup.

Man City star Kevin de Bruyne wants to move on from the 2019-20 season as soon as possible as he doesn’t think the start of the 2020-21 campaign should be delayed and is concerned about players being injured if they are asked to resume the season quickly.

Other players are fine to wait to see what the Premier League plans but Tottenham forward Harry Kane has also expressed his desire to move on from the current campaign if games cannot be completed by the end of June.

It is intriguing to hear so many differing views from Premier League players on when the season should resume, if at all, but Kane, Shaw and De Bruyne are all saying something slightly different. Therein lies the problem. How will a consensus be reached between PL clubs with so many different ideas and opinions on what should happen next?

If you throw club affiliations and rivalries into the mix, why on earth would a Man United star want the current season to be deemed as ‘void’ when Liverpool are 25 points clear at the top of the table and just five points away from securing the Premier League title…