Kyle Martino chats Andre Villas-Boas drama and Premier League parity

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EXCLUSIVE — Following his side’s 2-2 draw with Manchester United this past weekend, Andre Villas-Boas made headlines for lashing out at journalists who questioned his ability to manage Tottenham (see video).

Accusing the Daily Mail’s Neil Ashton and Martin Samuel of launching an attack on “my integrity, my human values, and my professionalism,” many felt Villas-Boas came off as overly-sensitive and even petty.

He had just finished a high-intensity 2-2 match with Manchester United, a game that may not have seen his side take the three points but one that did, however, go a long way to erasing the previous week’s 6-0 nightmare loss to Manchester City.

Fast forward three days and Villas-Boas’ squad finally did get that much-needed victory, although the 2-1 win at Fulham was hardly a convincing act. Down 0-1 after Ashkan Dejagah’s 56th minute strike, Spurs needed goals from Vlad Chiriches and Lewis Holtby to spare AVB’s blushes.

Unconvinced that the Portuguese boss is off-the-hook at White Hart Lane, I sat down with NBC Premier League analyst, Kyle Martino, and talked all things AVB and Spurs.

When asked whether AVB’s job was under threat, Martino issued a decisive “No,” adding the caveat, “but the period of scrutiny has definitely started and you can bet the powers-that-be are now monitoring the situation very close. The reality for AVB is that he lost the best player in the Premier League last year, a player who probably overshadowed a few cracks in the system. But when you spend $150 million or so in the summer, alongside that comes incredible expectations of improvement. If they hadn’t lost Gareth Bale and didn’t spend a lot of money, you’d have more patience with his predicament.”

Hard to disagree with that. With increased resources comes increased expectations.

As far as AVB’s reaction at the press conference goes, Martino was sympathetic. “Look, I understand and appreciate his desire to want to defend himself when he feels he’s being personally attacked but something that comes with being an experienced manager is being calm and secure when playing the media game.”

“Right now the media are getting AVB to do exactly what they want him to do, which is react and get upset. I don’t think he’s wrong in a man-on-man personal situation but he needs to look at the bigger picture – when his team sees an interview like that I think they see a manager that’s slightly over-sensitive before they see a manager who’s standing up for himself.

“When you go back at your critic, you give them bait that validates their comments. Whereas if you dismiss them, that’s what makes you look the strongest.”

Martino’s argument of refrain and dismissal is spot on. A similar philosophy was echoed by Sir Alex Ferguson in his latest autobiography, “Ferguson.”

There, the United legend notes that the best piece of advice he ever received on the media front was from a friend named Paul Doherty, who told Fergie that he was “giving the game away” and “showing his worries” during press conferences.

Ferguson agreed. “Appearing beleaguered is no way to handle the press. Showing your torments to them is no way to help the team or improve you’re chances of winning on a Saturday.”

Ferguson goes on to claim that he “couldn’t allow a press conference to become a torture-chamber” and that it was his duty to protect the integrity of the club.”

For Ferguson, the key to press conferences was to prepare himself mentally while he noted that his “experience” was a huge factor in allowing him to “see the line a journalist is pursuing.”

It all lines up, doesn’t it?

The perfect descriptor for AVB last weekend was “beleaguered.” The press room truly was his “torture-chamber.” And during that bust-up, he definitely would’ve given his left arm for 1/4th the experience of Sir Alex Ferguson.

But that’s life.

AVB is simply not that experienced. He’s only 36-years-old. Those kind of moments are bound to happen.

When I asked how smart he thinks Villas-Boas is, Martino said: “I think he’s very smart, getting his badges as a young man, learning under Sir Bobby Robson and Jose Mourinho. If you’re an intelligent and ambitious person, which AVB is, you can’t help but absorb those things.”

With that high a level of intelligence, however, there is a sense that AVB tends to overcomplicate things. Martino makes an interesting observation: “If you watch AVB on the sideline it takes him three minutes of conversation to get across his points to a substitute. That’s the kind of technocratic overload that can paralyze some players. I’ve heard players talk about him planning training sessions weeks in advance. To be that meticulous can be too much.”

Another thing AVB seems to be taking seriously is the Europa League.

Martino chuckles, “Yeah, I’m not sure if going after the Europa League rather than the Premier League is the best thing to do after spending $150 million on players last summer. Spurs fans want improvement on last year’s Premier League season. They want a Champions League spot.”

That’s the thing in the Premier League – a lot of clubs want a Champions League spot. Right now, it appears the title will be decided by three teams: Arsenal (34p) Chelsea (30p) and Manchester City (28p).

But who will claim that precious 4th spot?

That’s the million dollar question.

And currently any of six different clubs (Liverpool (27), Everton (27), Tottenham (24), Newcastle (23), Southampton (22) and Manchester United (22)) could make it happen.

It’s a situation that has Martino shaking his head in disbelief.

The parity truly is astounding.

Xhaka slams “bulls***” criticism of Arsenal

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Arsenal have been targets for a lot of criticism recently.

Granit Xhaka is usually at the center of it.

The Gunners captain came out all guns blazing after they lost 1-0 at Sheffield United on Monday, as he addressed Patrice Evra‘s comments that Arsenal are “babies” and always will be due to their mentality.

“We have to stop about mental [strength] bulls*** like this. For me, it is the same whether you play home or away – you have to win and show big character and a good game and not to always find the same excuse,” Xhaka said. “A lot of people they speak too much. It is not the first time he has spoken something about us. I have a lot of respect for him as he was a great player but you have to be careful what you say. But it is not only him – a lot of people speak a lot of bulls*** about us. It’s always the same.

“For me it is strange as they were in the same situation as us, they were players as well. Sometimes it is good and sometimes it is not always good but every week they speak bulls*** like this every week. I tell you the honest truth, I’m not interested in what people say and speak. We have to speak in our group to improve things and work hard and not listen to these people.”

Xhaka and Arsenal have only lost twice this season, 3-1 at Liverpool and 1-0 at Sheffield United.

But aside from being fifth in the table and two points outside the top four, pressure is being placed on Unai Emery and his squad as they’ve narrowly beaten Bournemouth, Burnley, Newcastle and Aston Villa so far. Their performances aren’t instilling confidence in anyone that they can seriously push for a top four finish this season.

Has much changed under Emery in the past 15 months? Nope. This is pretty much the same Arsenal team making the same old mistakes and looking vulnerable away from home. Nothing new here. Sure, some new players have arrived, but David Luiz, Pepe and Sokratis have all been hit and miss so far and it has been left to Matteo Guendouzi and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to try and rescue the Gunners each and every week.

Emery was supposed to change their style of play, develop them into a stronger team defensively and improve their chances of challenging for trophies once again.

None of that has happened, and it doesn’t look closer to happening. That is why the critics are circling around the Gunners. Monday was the perfect opportunity to prove their mentality had changed and they are a stronger, more balanced team under Emery. They aren’t and something drastic will have to change for them if Emery is going to win over the fans, and pundits, once again.

Ronaldo not ready for retirement: ‘Age is just a number’

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Cristiano Ronaldo reassured Juventus supporters and his legions of fans worldwide that at 34 he’s not ready for retirement yet.

 [ MORE: Serie A scores, schedule

“Age is just a number. It does not mean that at 34, 35, 36 you are at the end of your career,” Ronaldo said at a news conference ahead of Juventus’ Champions League match against Lokomotiv Moscow on Tuesday. “I can show that with my performances, how I play, the way I play, the way I still feel good, sharp, thinking about the game, more mature. This makes the difference.”

In the second season of a four-year deal at Juventus, Ronaldo had sparked concern among his fans when he said in an interview published a few weeks ago that he was starting to enjoy seeing himself “outside of football, so who knows what will happen in the next year or two?”

Ronaldo recently scored his 700th goal as a professional while on international duty with Portugal and has been nominated for a record sixth Ballon d’Or award – which would break his tie of five with Lionel Messi.

But Ronaldo said he’s more interested in winning a treble with Juventus.

“We want to win Serie A, we want to win the Cup, the Champions League,” he said. “Juventus should think big. … We are going to try to win all the trophies, we know it will be difficult, especially the league and the Champions League, but I think it is possible. Everything is possible.

“In terms of individual, I have nothing to say as this is individual. It is not the most important thing,” Ronaldo added. “The most important is the collective awards. If you win the collective awards you have more chance to win the individual awards. … The Golden Ball is for me in second place.”

While retirement may not be on Ronaldo’s mind yet, family time is a big part of his life now.

“To win games, to score goals, to enjoy myself, to arrive home and see my kids happy and say, `Congratulations daddy for scoring a goal.’ That makes me happy,” he said. “This is my motivation to come to train, for the games, to entertain people and the fans with my passion.”

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Andrew Dampf on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/AndrewDampf

Carragher apologizes to Evra over Suarez t-shirts

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Jamie Carragher has apologized to Patrice Evra after Liverpool wore t-shirts in support of Luis Suarez in 2011.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

The day after Suarez was banned for eight games by the English Football Association, who found him guilty of racially abusing Evra, Liverpool’s players put on t-shirts with Suarez on the front and back during their warm up in a Premier League game against Wigan Athletic.

Carragher and Evra were both analysts for our partners at Sky Sports in the UK on Monday Night Football for the clash between Sheffield United and Arsenal, and discussed the current problems with racism in the game.

“There is no doubt we made a massive mistake; that was obvious,” Carragher said.

Liverpool’s former vice-captain asked Evra how he felt regarding the situation with Suarez, and the former Man United, Juventus and Monaco left back revealed his disgust at the way the situation was handled.

“When I saw it I was like, this is ridiculous. This is unbelievable,” Evra said. You put your own club in danger when you do those things. You always have to support your player because he is from your team but this was after the ban. If it was before and we were waiting for the sanction, I would understand. What message do you send to the world? Supporting someone being banned because he used some racist words.”

Click play on the video above for the full discussion between Carragher and Evra.

Italy women’s team awarded for ’emancipating’ female game

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ROME (AP) The Italy women’s national soccer team was awarded the Foreign Press Association’s Invictus award Monday for promoting and “emancipating” the female game in the country with its run to the World Cup quarterfinals.

[ MORE: Sheffield United beat Arsenal with stellar defensive display (video) ]

Head coach Milena Bertolini and forward Barbara Bonansea were given the award during a ceremony at the Rome-based association.

With soccer dominated by men in Italy and few opportunities for girls, Bertolini recounted how she had to dress up as a boy to play as a kid.

“Now things are changing, thanks to the Italian federation’s school programs,” Bertolini said.

Bertolini and Bonansea lamented that female players are still not considered professionals and therefore are not permitted to earn more than $33,500 per year by Italian law.

“It’s not about the money, it’s a question of rights,” said Bonansea, who also plays for Italian champion Juventus.

[ MORE: Referee officials explain VAR decision on Rashford goal ]

While Italy’s men’s team is a four-time World Cup champion, the women had not played in a World Cup for two decades and entered as a prohibitive underdog during its opening match against Australia in France in June. But the Azzurre came back from a goal down for a 2-1 win courtesy of Bonansea’s two scores , with her second coming in the fifth minute of stoppage time.

“That goal shaped our World Cup, both in terms of results and in terms of promoting women’s soccer in Italy,” Bertolini said. “The strong emotions on the field were transmitted to everyone who was watching. I still get goosebumps now just thinking about that goal.”

The Azzurre went on to win their group then beat China in the first knockout round before losing to eventual finalist the Netherlands.

In a country of 60 million people, a total of more than 20 million spectators watched Italy’s five matches on RAI state TV, setting audience records for women’s soccer game after game.

The Invictus award is dedicated to “promoting the positive effects of sports in terms of integration and emancipation by the vulnerable sections of society.”