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.

How will USMNT line up versus Costa Rica?

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Saturday brings a first look at the United States men’s national team in 2020, though Gregg Berhalter’s bunch won’t look anything like its best self.

The Yanks have an almost exclusively MLS roster for the match, with Hobro’s Christian Cappas, Wolfsburg II’s Uly Llanez and unattached 17-year-old Bryang Kayo in the fold.

Many of Berhalter’s best MLS stars won’t be in Carson either for the 3:55 p.m. ET Saturday kickoff. Jordan Morris, Jozy Altidore, and Michael Bradley are the biggest names.

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Ronald Gonzalez’s Ticos will be similarly hampered, although more of Costa Rica’s A-side play in MLS and domestically.

We’ll leave the breakdown of the visitors for a later date, but who will rep the U.S. in Saturday’s Starting XI?

The travel roster includes keepers Sean Johnson, Bill Hamid, and Matt Turner, as well as defenders Aaron Long, Walker Zimmerman, Reggie Cannon, Julian Araujo, Chase Gasper, Justen Glad, Mark McKenzie, and Sam Vines. Listed midfielders Sebastian Lletget, Jackson Yueill, Brenden Aaronson, Cappis, Kayo, and Brandon Servania are joined by forwards Gyasi Zardes, Paul Arriola, Jonathan Lewis, Jesus Ferreira, and Ulysses Llanez.

Goalkeeper is anyone’s guess, but Johnson’s got the most run of the three during the Berhalter era. The younger Turner or more accomplished Hamid may step in there.

It would be surprising to see any other center backs besides Walker Zimmerman and Aaron Long given what we know of Berhalter and his respect for regulars. Reggie Cannon should start at right back and it’s between Chase Gasper and Sam Vines for the left. We’ll choose Vines out of intrigue.

Jackson Yueill, Paul Arriola, Sebastian Lletget, and Gyasi Zardes are safe bets to start, and this would seem a spot to give Jonathan Lewis more than subs’ run. That leaves one spot, and we’re pegging Brandon Servania to be the one chosen of four midfielders aged 17-20.

There’s also the matter of whether FC Dallas striker Jesus Ferreira will be internationally cleared to play Saturday. We sure hope he will be!

How do you think Berhalter will line them up?


How Berhalter may go

Johnson

Cannon — Zimmerman — Long — Vines

Yueill — Servania

Arriola — Lletget — Lewis

Zardes


What we’d like to see

Turner

Cannon — Zimmerman — McKenzie — Vines

Yueill — Cappis — Servania

Arriola — Ferreira — Lewis

Watch our transfer deadline day show from 6-8 p.m. ET on Jan. 31, live on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com.

Report: Sheffield United in ‘advanced talks’ for $22M Norway star

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Sheffield United is ready to add one of the game’s brightest young talents to its blossoming Premier League side.

Norway midfielder Sander Berge is the name, and he’s been linked with Liverpool amongst others over the past few months.

Berge turns 22 next month and already has 20 caps for Norway in addition to 113 senior appearances for Genk in Belgium and 43 more for Valerenga in his home country.

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The defensive midfielder has chipped in six goals and four assists. He won the Belgian Super League with Genk last year and has a career-best four goals so this season.

It shows what success brings to a club, as Sky Sports reports that Berge turned down a move to Bramall Lane in the summer.

The fee is said to be $22 million, which isn’t small but completely reasonable given his stature for club and country.

This may move may join the Lys Mousset purchase as one of the Blades’ smartest bits of business, especially as Chris Wilder‘s men look for success on multiple fronts. Their success as a newly-promoted side is one of the great stories of the European season, and a place in Europe would be a fantastic achievement.

From The Yorkshire Post:

“It is going well, no doubt about it,” Wilder said. “On the Premier League front and in the Cup. You probably would not think it, but the win at Millwall has given me an enormous amount of pleasure in confirming, not even seeing, what my team is about. Players have come in with the likes of the skipper (Billy Sharp) and other players who are really driving it forward and want to produce individual performances and the atmosphere is good.”

Watch our transfer deadline day show from 6-8 p.m. ET on Jan. 31, live on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com.

Espanyol identify 12 fans who racially insulted player

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BARCELONA, Spain — Spanish club Espanyol says it has identified 12 fans who racially insulted an Athletic Bilbao player in the Spanish league last weekend.

Espanyol said on Monday in a statement that nine of the fans were club members and would face punishment that could include suspension or a full-time ban.

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It said a report of its analysis of the video images of Saturday’s game at RCDE Stadium were sent to authorities.

The club reiterated its “categorical condemnation of any displays of violence and racism.”

The fans made monkey noises directed at Athletic forward Inaki Williams, who is black. Television images showed Williams confronting the section of Espanyol fans who taunted him after he was substituted late in the game in Barcelona.

The Spanish league said it will seek a partial stadium closure for Espanyol and will raise the incident with the Spanish soccer federation’s competition committee, which handles disciplinary issues.

Transfer rumors: West Ham want $44M midfielder, Barca eyes Rodrigo

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West Ham United is being linked with a big transfer splash, and it’s not even a striker.

Uruguayan midfielder Nahitan Nandez is the man in question, and West Ham is reportedly tempting Cagliari with a $44 million offer this January.

Nandez, 23, arrived from Boca Juniors for less than half that fee this summer, and has chipped in a goal with three assists for Tommaso Giulini’s sixth-place Serie A side.

He’s got 31 caps for his national team, and is averaging 1.5 tackles per match with Cagliari. Nandez is also averaging a key pass and 1.1 successful dribbles per league outing.

Football-Italia says that Cagliari will try to tie Nandez to a new deal with a $44 million release clause if the move to West Ham is unsuccessful.

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Meanwhile Barcelona’s pursuit of a Luis Suarez replacement isn’t limited to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, according to Marca.

Club president Josep Maria Bartomeu admits that Valencia striker Rodrigo Moreno is interesting his coaches.

“We don’t talk about players from other teams. But [Rodrigo’s] name is on the table of the coaches, and a replacement will arrive. I do not know whether it will be from Barcelona B or from outside. I like many players.”

The Spaniard has eight goals in 21 caps, and turns 29 in March. Rodrigo has four goals and 10 assists in 23 matches across all competitions this season.

Valencia beat Barcelona this weekend to send the Blaugranas three points back of La Liga leaders Real Madrid.