Capital One Cup Final: Sunderland tries to end 40-year drought against favored Manchester City

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Wigan Athletic, Birmingham City, and Middlesbrough have all had to deal with Sunderland’s dilemma. All three recently won cups (Wigan claiming last year’s FA Cup; Birmingham City winning the 2010 League Cup; while Boro snared the same honor in 2004). All three went down at the end of their seasons, leaving clubs to balance the glory of silverware against the pain of relegation from the Premier League.

Sunderland is the latest club to sit under this Sword of Damocles. While blessed with a spot in a Sunday’s Carling Cup final, the Black Cats also sit 18th in the Premier League, their push up the first division standings recently blunted by a 4-1 loss at Arsenal. Once again, relegation is a pressing concern, but if given the choice between success on Sunday and staying alive in the Premier League, Sunderland boss Gus Poyet would gladly raise the cup.

“The feeling of winning something is far beyond going down, spending two years in the Championship,” Poyet told The Guardian, the Uruguayan coach previously serving with Brighton & Hove Albion in the second division. Having replaced former Black Cats’ boss Paolo Di Canio earlier this season, Poyet has come to appreciate the plight of a supporter base whose club hasn’t claimed a major honor since 1973.

“You need to be here for 20 years and feel it like them, or not reach a final for 15 years, or not win one for more than 40,” Poyet said. “Only the people who have been here in the city supporting the club for so long really know. They have the feeling, not me. Me, I can say it but I can’t feel it. You need to listen to them and that’s why it’s an incredible opportunity.”

That opportunity is still seen as long-shot by most, with Manchester City set to lineup against Sunderland on Sunday at Wembley Stadium. Boasting one of the most talented teams in Europe, the Citizens are in fourth place in the Premier League, with their two games in hand on league-leading Chelsea making them most likely team to keep the Blues from a second title in four years. But they’re also a team Sunderland hasn’t lost to all season, with the Black Cats pulling an upset in City’s league visit to the Stadium of Light.

“It is always dangerous playing against any team,” Pellegrini said in the lead up to the game, downplaying the gap in quality the Premier League standings imply. “Sunderland have a lot of motivation to win this cup, the same as any team.

“I am sure we are the favourites but we cannot forget that Sunderland eliminated Chelsea and Manchester United – big teams.”

source: AP
Yaya Touré, who has scored 13 Premier League goals this season from midfield, is one of the world-class talents Manchester City will bring to Wembley Stadium for Sunday’s Carling Cup Final. (Source: AP.)

While nobody will forget Sunderland’s rout to Wembley (or their place in the FA Cup’s quarterfinals), equally unforgettable will be the power at Pellegrini’s disposal. Whereas the Black Cats may rely on U.S. international Jozy Altidore up top, Manchester City will likely have Sergio Agüero and Álvaro Negredo, a duo that has combined for 24 Premier League goals (Altidore: 1). Yaya Touré and Fernandinho form one of the best midfield duos in England, a pair that’s complemented by David Silva and Samir Nasri’s quality wide. Central defender Vincent Kompany and right back Pablo Zabaleta provide world-class options, while veterans Wes Brown and John O’Shea anchor the Sunderland back line. Against a team staving off a trip to the second division, City have an embarrassment of riches.

“The pressure is always exactly the same for all the teams,” Pellegrini said, speaking of expectations to deliver his first trophy with City. “The pressure is a personal pressure – for managers, players, all of us. I think we have the same pressure to win.”

All of which is coach-speak, of course. As last year’s FA Cup final showed, the pressure on City is much much greater than what’s put on an underdog. After the Citizens lost that final to the eventually relegated Wigan, Roberto Mancini was fired. While Pellegrini’s in no danger of meeting the same fate, his team is still expect to claim Sunday’s honors.

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.