Quick Six: Top stories from the Premier League weekend

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1. STUNNING ERROR COSTS MANCHESTER CITY AT CHELSEA

We know Joe Hart’s made worse mistakes this season, a perspective that leaves us looking for other answers after happened on Sunday. That’s when, near full time at Stamford Bridge, the England international came sprinting out of his box to play a ball near the edge of his penalty area. But with his Matija Nastasic on the scene, there was no need for him to come.

True, the Serbian international should have seen Hart coming and directed his header elsewhere, but City’s keeper shouldn’t have come.  Hart should have been waiting to receive his defender’s back-pass. Instead, he abdicated his goal ahead of Fernando Torres’s winner.

During NBC’s broadcast, Tim Howard was diplomatic about the error, placing blame on Hart but explaining it as a basic communication error that could happen to anybody. That seems too generous, perhaps a function of that implied goalkeepers’ fraternity that keeps number ones from being overly critical of each other. While that mistake could have happened to anybody, it would have been equally inexcusable from everybody, with the ability to correctly read the game in front of you a reasonable expectation of any Premier League goalkeeper.

Hart cost City a point at Stamford Bridge, giving a title rival two they would have otherwise been without. Would Costel Pantilimon have done the same? Or perhaps he would have be been worse in other areas – areas where Hart was fine on Sunday?

These are the basic questions Manuel Pellegrini needs to answer ahead of the January window, because even if he thinks Hart’s better than Pastilimon, England’s number one may not be better than another player City could get on the open market.

2. SUÁREZ STRENGTHEN’S CLAIM AS PREMIER LEAGUE’S BEST

This is why Luis Suárez’s transgressions spur so much discussion. He’s more than a troubled soul lashing out with a forked tongue and carnivorous intent. With Gareth Bale in Spain, Suárez is in a one-man discussion as the league’s most dangerous player, possessing an unmatched ability to single-handedly turn games.

Saturday was a perfect example. The Uruguayan international embarrassed Jonas Olsson on the first goal, nutmegging the Swede before beating Boaz Myhilll. His second was a perfectly played header from near the edge of the box, a snap decision that seemed to catch the West Brom keeper off guard. The third, a perfectly flicked header off a second half restart, was more defensive error than individual brilliance, yet it still highlighted an rarely discussed part of Suárez’s arsenal. At 5’11” (perhaps a generous listing), Suárez is an underappreciated asset in the air.

He’s like Sergio Agüero, except more explosive. He’s more relentless than Robin van Persie; more consistently lethal than Wayne Rooney. Second on the circuit in goals with only four games played, he is the Premier League’s best striker, with comparisons between him, Mesut Özil, and Yaya Touré coming down to esoteric arguments about positional value.

On Saturday, Suárez showed the value of having the league’s biggest threat, the kind of tactics-defying virtue you also see from the likes of Messi, Ronaldo, and Ibrahimovic. Perhaps Suárez isn’t quite in that class, but in the Premier League, he’s in a class by himself.

3. RIVALS PROVIDE ANOTHER REPRIEVE FOR SUNDERLAND

When spring doubts about Paolo Di Canio were echoing through Wearside, the short-lived Sunderland boss got a win over Newcastle. The 3-0 victory at St. James last April not only proved vital to the Black Cats’ survival but helped temporarily consolidate Di Canio’s position. Hindsight may see that as a steep price of a year’s survival, but it illustrates the power of the Tyne-Wear Derby. One win will gloss over a slew of evils.

Gus Poyet is riding that wave today, his second half sacrifice of Adam Johnson for Fabio Borini paying off when the Italian attacker fired home a late game-winner, giving Sunderland their first win of the year (2-1 over Newcastle). Only the second goal of his Premier League career, Borini rewarded Poyet’s risky move, the new Black Cats boss electing to play Borini, Steven Fletcher and Jozy Altidore together. But having seen Johnson’s defensive error lead to Newcastle’s only goal, perhaps the former Brighton boss felt there was nothing to lose.

It’s not unlike the broader state Poyet’s inherited. If he fails, people will blame Di Canio. If he succeeds, he’ll be viewed as a savior. He has nothing to lose, and given the depths to which Sunderland has descended, the new boss may be wise to take these kind of chances.

For the kind of momentum that can be claimed in a debry? It’s certainly worth it.

4. MOYES SUMMONS FERGUSON MAGIC IN UNITED’S WIN

Last week he was the anti-Ferguson, David Moyes seeing his team allow Southampton to come back and take a point at Old Trafford. Mid-week in Champions League, Manchester United tried to reproduce that result, though Real Sociedad never played their part. Between two close matches and their former manager’s naval-gazing book tour, it was another week that reminded Red Devils fans of what once was.

That’s why Saturday’s was such a breathe of fresh air. Instead of a day that reminded fans their team’s best performances can’t put teams away, the Red Devils came back from 2-1 down, rekindling hope some of Alex Ferguson’s mentality lingers in their DNA. If the squad can still turn water into wine, there may be hope for a title push.

It goes without saying that a team of United’s talent shouldn’t have this much trouble with Stoke City, particularly at home, but all clubs have off days. Whether this was a momentary downturn or part of a larger pattern is a bigger, more murky debate, but in isolation, the result wasn’t that bad. Three points rarely is.

Coming off a mid-week match in Champions League, United had more trouble than expected at home. They needed a late comeback to salvage a performance where they didn’t look themselves. If you had a nickle for each time that description could be applied in the Ferguson era, you’d might have enough money to buy his latest book.

5. ENDS JUSTIFY THE MEANS AT NORWICH

Saturday saw a Premier League goal disallowed despite no justification from the game’s laws, yet nobody seems concerned. It was a blatant abuse of an official’s power — the game’s lead arbiter taking it upon himself to fill a gap in the rules — yet the offended manager only made a minor complaint. Letter of the law, Chris Houghton’s Norwich City should have won on Saturday, Leroy Fer’s 94th minute shot into an empty net giving the Canaries a 1-0 win.

Thankfully, Mike Jones didn’t let that happen. Although the match’s lead official had no codified justification for his decision, the ends justified his means. WIth Cardiff City expecting the ball back after an injury saw them intentionally play the ball into touch, Jones wasn’t going to stand for Fer hitting Ricky Van Wolfswinkel’s throw-in into David Edwards’ open net. Helping to quell a potential melee at Carrow Road, Jones simply made it so Fer’s indiscretion never happened. The throw-in was retaking with the understanding Jones would have no part in Fer’s errant passes.

Putting aside Fer’s intent, the more interesting debate centers on the man in the middle. The injury pact between teams that sees possession restored after playing into touch is an implied agreement. If one team doesn’t want to be part of it, that should be within their right. It’s rude, obnoxious, potentially dangerous and counter productive, but so is Joey Barton, and we haven’t banned him. There’s a wide range of behaviors that are both possible and allowed by the rules.

Still, if I were in Jones’s shoes, I wouldn’t have done the same thing, though I wouldn’t be certain it was the right thing to do. I would wonder if a more nefarious official would abuse that discretion. Regardless, at some point, teams should be permitted to do what’s allowed within the rules.

Yet as long teams are expected to maintain this gentleman’s agreement, it’s nice to have a few Mike Joneses around.

6. SOUTHAMPTON CONTINUES FLASHING CONTENDER’S METTLE

Last week we highlighted Arsenal’s dominance of Norwich City as a sign of their maturation. In the same light, Southampton’s control of Fulham can be seen as a meaningful benchmark of their progress, even if the result wasn’t unexpected. If Arsenal’s ability to steer clear of potential pitfalls can be lauded, Saints’ ability to put the likes of Fulham out of reach can also be seen as a sign of the staying power.

It’s one thing to motivate yourself for derbies, and if you’re a middling side, getting up to face the league’s contenders is never a problem. But having the quality to consistently transcend the reach of the league’s talented-but- lesser teams is rare. While a team like Aston Villa can occasionally take down an Arsenal, they still stumble against the league’s mere morals.

With their win, Southampton’s now unbeaten in six, winning four in that span while climbing to fifth in the Premier League. Although they also posted multiple-goal victories over Swans and Palace, those results didn’t come after Saints claimed a result at Old Trafford. After getting an unexpected point on the road, Southampton didn’t hiccup. They kept on keeping on.

By now, their loss at Norwich seems so long ago. So does their draw with Sunderland. While those blemishes to relegation candidates are alarming, they’re also from August. Since, Southampton’s moved on. And up.

Rodgers excuses Maddison’s behavior after England departure

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Leicester City and England midfielder James Maddison made headlines for the wrong reasons after he was pictured last week watching the England match at the Czech Republic from a casino.

Despite the negative attention from Maddison’s decision to watch the game at that venue, he has the backing of his club manager, Brendan Rodgers.

“The kid went away with the international team and took ill while he was away,” Rodgers said, via the Guardian. “He wanted to stay and hopefully be ready for the second game. But the England medical staff – which I can understand, as he had flu and they didn’t want that to spread to his teammates – decided it’s best for him to leave the camp. So he leaves, gets some tablets with our guys at the club, then he feels better.

“He watched the game at home on his own on the Friday and then goes out at half-time – probably he’ll make better decisions in his life but he went to a casino on his own to sit and watch the second half by a poker table. The suggestions are he left England purposelessly and then goes to a casino but that’s totally not the case at all. But his eyes have been opened now to the wider world in terms of what he did. He knows in hindsight he’s made a mistake.”

Considering all that went on during England’s international break, from the poor performance in Prague to the horrible racism endured in Bulgaria, this is a bit of a silly scandal. To be honest, as long as Maddison is taking care of his body and himself, why does it matter if he was at a casino, or a pub, or anywhere?

However, there’s no denying that the optics look bad. Folks didn’t know that he arrived to England camp with the flu, or a flu-like illness at least, and the England medical staff are right to send him away to make sure no one else gets sick. He may have been feeling better by Friday and wanted to get out of the house. I think we’ve all been there after being sick for a few days.

The most important lesson for Maddison is to learn that his actions, out of context, can be misunderstood. In terms of soccer, after Ross Barkley’s performance for England, Maddison will have to prove in his club form that he should still have a place in the England team for the near future. There’s only two more international dates left before the 2020 Euros, so time is running out for Maddison to make an impact to Southgate.

 

Tierney, Lacazette available for Arsenal

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Arsenal are edging closer to finally having a full-strength squad.

Ahead of Monday’s prime-time matchup with Sheffield United, Arsenal manager Unai Emery confirmed that Kieran Tierney was in line to make his Premier League debut, while Alexandre Lacazette was back in full training and should be in the gameday squad.

“Today is Lacazette’s first training back with us,” Emery said in a press conference on Thursday. “He finished it well and he’s feeling well with his injuries. Tomorrow we will be training again and he will be with us. We will decide.

“The most important thing is that first he is training, then secondly it’s whether he can be with us and it depends how he can feel in the next days training with us, whether his ankle is not giving him any more problems.”

This is a huge boost to Arsenal, which has had to rely on some youngsters and have made some lineup changes to accommodate not having Lacazette on the field. Tierney meanwhile could step into a position where there’s already a decent starter, Sead Kolasinac.

Lacazette’s return also couldn’t have come at a better time. In Premier League action, Arsenal’s high-powered offense has been stymied, scoring just two goals in the last two league games. Meanwhile, against weaker defenses in the UEFA Europa League and the Carabao Cup, Arsenal has bagged a total of 12 goals.

The veteran Frenchman has scored two goals in three appearances so far this season, including a big goal just before halftime in the 2-2 draw with Tottenham. However, he suffered a long-term ankle injury in that match that has kept him on the sidelines for more than a month.

“[Tierney is] ready to play,” Emery later said. Now we have two options in that left-back role with Sead Kolasinac and him. We’re going to play a lot of matches after Monday. We will need every player. It depends how he comes into the first training with us, Sead, after his international matches. We now have two players in that position and we can use one on Monday, it depends how they are, one or the other.”

Tierney, the 22-year-old Scottish left back, has made two appearances for the Arsenal first team since recovering from a double hernia operation over the summer. Signed from Celtic for around $32 million, Tierney adds a skill that Kolasinac has struggled with – expert crosser of the ball into the box, where the likes of Lacazette, Nicolas Pepe, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang can score when given a decent chance.

USWNT star Rapinoe, boxer Shields win sportswomen of year

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Soccer star Megan Rapinoe and boxer Claressa Shields have been honored as Sportswomen of the Year by the Women’s Sports Foundation.

They won in the team and individual categories, the awards coming at the foundation’s 40th annual Salute to Women in Sports.

Rapinoe led the U.S. to victory at the World Cup in France and earned the FIFA Player of the Year award. Shields is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and middleweight champion.

Sheila Johnson, part-owner of the Washington Wizards, Capitals and recent WNBA champion Mystics, won the Billie Jean King Leadership Award. Marta Vieira da Silva, star of the Brazilian national soccer team, won the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award.

Rapinoe thanked her teammates Wednesday night and lauded Marta, a six-time FIFA Player of the Year, calling the Brazilian the greatest of all time and an “absolute hero in our sport.”

John Burke, president of the Trek Bicycle company, received the inaugural Champion for Equality Award.

MNUFC’s Opara wins MLS Defender of the Year

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For the second time in three seasons, Ike Opara has been named MLS Defender of the Year, this time as the foundational piece of Minnesota United’s much-improved defense.

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Opara becomes just the fourth player to win multiple Defender of the Year awards, joining Carlos Bocanegra (2002, 2003), Robin Fraser (1999, 2004) and Chad Marshall, the only three-time winner (2008, 2009, 2014) in MLS history. Opara won the award going away, nearly doubling the percentage of votes received by second-place Walker Zimmerman.

Defender of the Year Player % Club % Media % Final %
Ike Opara  25.75% 27.27% 44.88% 32.64%
Walker Zimmerman 20.40% 17.17% 12.20% 16.59%
Miles Robinson 19.40% 13.13% 15.75% 16.09%
Maxime Chanot 1.67% 16.16% 4.33% 7.39%
Eddie Segura 4.35% 9.09% 5.91% 6.45%
Aaron Long 2.34% 5.05% 1.97% 3.12%

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This time last year, the 30-year-old was a member of one of the league’s stingiest defensive units as a member of Sporting Kansas City. Following a contract dispute with Sporting, Opara was traded to Minnesota in exchange for $900,000 of targeted allocation money, plus an additional $100,000 after Minnesota qualified for the playoffs for the first time since joining MLS.