Can West Ham mount a serious challenge to finish in the top four?

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LONDON — In a season where unconventional teams have made a habit of disturbing the status quo in the Premier League, West Ham are the latest side to mount a serious challenge for a top four spot.

On Sunday the Hammers thrashed Swansea City 3-1 after going behind early on and have now won three on the spin to push themselves up to third in the PL standings. The last time West Ham won eight games before Christmas, they finished in fifth in the 1998-99 season, as dreams of equaling or bettering that are starting to be whispered around the side streets of east London.

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After a summer recruitment drive and insistence from home fans to see more attacking soccer, West Ham manager Sam Allardyce has delivered that and more. The expectations of the Upton Park faithful are now soaring almost as high as those famous bubbles they proudly sing about. It’s been a big week for Big Sam and his boys.

“For us another three goals in the bag and a big eight days – nine points – I don’t think anyone in the Premier League has done that this week,” Allardyce beamed afterwards. “We are really flying, we have a lot of players fit. The way Alex Song controls that midfield for us is brilliant. He gets the right service to the front men. We will enjoy ourselves for a day or too and get ourselves ready for the next game.”

Talk of West Ham’s fans having “nose bleeds” due to their lofty position in the table was rife around a jovial Upton Park after the match and Allardyce is working hard to keep rotating his squad as they aim to keep their good form going.

“We have a nice gap between the teams below us,” Allardyce said. “We just have to try and maintain it now. The changes from the team today, from Tuesday, has paid off. Which is a big decision for the staff because when you have a winning team ever says, ‘why change it?’ But with fatigue you get during this period of time and other players coming back from injury, it paid off handsomely. We’ve gone out and deserved to win today. We haven’t only deserved to win but we have won by playing good, attacking football.”

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In their next two matches West Ham face Sunderland and Leicester City and their first three games in the New Year are against West Brom, Swansea again and Hull. The way they are currently playing, the Hammers can dispose of all five of those teams, quite easily.

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Allardyce was just a little pleased with West Ham’s performance…

Sandwiched in-between there, West Ham have two huge London derbies — Chelsea on Dec. 26 and Arsenal on Dec. 28 — and those matches will help to determine just how special their season can be. Top four may be a bit of a stretch but they have several new additions who have strengthened them considerably compared to last season. As Allardyce mentioned, Alex Song has been immense in central midfield, dictating the tempo and finding his feet since returning to the PL on-loan from Barcelona. And the dynamism, pace and unpredictability of Diafra Sakho has opposition defenses running scared as he now has eight goals in his first 10 appearances.

 [VIDEO: Premier League highlights]

With a grueling schedule coming up, Big Sam is under no illusions that he will need his entire squad to keep this good run going.

“It goes to the next game and to try and win it,” Allardyce said of West Ham’s momentum. “Until we get to the end of January and move out of the congested fixture list and stay with a strong squad that is fit – somewhere along the line they will all have to play their part – as they have in this wonderful run and to go with one defeat in nine shows what a good squad we have.”

[RELATED: Latest Premier League standings]

Having $28 million striker Andy Carroll back fit and scoring his first goals since March will definitely help and the Englishman is relishing being back in the team and spearheading the Hammers’ attack with two goals and picking up the Man of the Match award.

“It was a great feeling, it is fantastic to be back on the pitch and play as many games as I have in the last few weeks,” Carroll said. “There is nothing better than scoring goals as a striker, so I was desperate to get a goal and it is great feeling. You always have to just think about the positives [when injured], the medical staff have helped me a lot and it is credit to them that I am back. It is a great group of lads, they and the manager are over the moon, he is doing great at the minute. We just have to reach for the top and that is what we are doing, working as hard as we can to give performances like today.”

Allardyce is certainly pleased to have Carroll back fit, as he lauded his sublime heading ability, but the Hammers boss also spoke about the several attacking talents his possesses in his squad.

“Enner Valencia wasn’t as good as we know he can be, so we brought our leading goalscorer on and that obviously made us that little bit better,” Allardyce said. “Enner will be back. He will be disappointed but the fact of the matter is there is big competition for places. Everyone has to continue to play at their best otherwise somebody will be there to take your place. We are a force. We have Mauro Zarate who gives us another dimension, Carlton Cole, we have some really good options in the front line. Today our choices were right and our system was right. We proved that with the performance.”

As good as West Ham were, they caught Swansea on an off-day as their despondent manager Garry Monk conceded afterwards.

“No complaints with the result. We didn’t deserve anything,” Monk said. “That is the first time I can genuinely say we haven’t reached anywhere near our level today… We gave them an early Christmas present.”

Early Christmas presents or not, West Ham will be hoping to ride this wave of optimism long past the festive season and deep into 2015. A top six finish, and maybe more, beckons but there’s still over half the season to go.

Fernandes scores first goal, says Ronaldo backed Manchester United move

Bruno Fernandes Ronaldo
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It’s probably not a surprise that a young Portuguese player would fancy Manchester United given the heroics of Cristiano Ronaldo at Old Trafford early his career.

Bruno Fernandes admits that those images danced through his head well before he signed with the Red Devils in January.

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It’s also not a shock that United would turn to their former player for a take on the playmaker before buying him from Sporting Lisbon.

Fernandes says he’s grateful that CR7 endorsed BF18. From Sky Sports:

“I know some people asked Cristiano what he thought of me and what I was like as a player and a person,” Fernandes said. “I know he spoke highly of me and gave me a good reference, so I sent him a message after to thank him for his kind words.”

Fernandes has 19 caps and two goals for Portugal, while Ronaldo has a few more with 164 and 99.

He now has a goal and an assist in four appearances for United. Ronaldo finished with 118 goals and 69 assists in 292 appearances for the Red Devils.

Here’s the finish:

Eden Hazard suffers fracture ahead of Man City in UCL, El Clasico

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Eden Hazard is set to miss the Real Madrid’s UEFA Champions League first leg against Man City with a broken fibula.

Hazard had only returned to the lineup for two matches following a three-month absence with an ankle injury.

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The 29-year-old has made just 15 appearances for Real since arriving in a big-money move from Chelsea, scoring once with five assists.

He has never appeared in less than 30 league matches over the course of his career, five times missing one or zero matches.

Of course, all of his absences show that Real is very comfortable playing and winning without Hazard. Zinedine Zidane’s men lost Sunday to drop behind Barcelona in La Liga, but that was just its second loss of the league season.

Real will be taxed in depth like its rivals, with Wednesday’s visit from Man City followed by an El Clasico at the Bernabeu on March 1. Barcelona hosts Napoli on Tuesday.

Whether you like the playmaker or despise him, there must be some sense of sympathy for his latest ailments (even if Man City and Barca fans will likely offer a Jerry Seinfeld-esque, “That’s a shame”).

Watch Live: Manchester United, Wolves host bottom three battlers

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A pair of Premier League basement dwellers face stiff tests in their bids to win another season in the top flight.

Manchester United hosts Watford on NBCSN while Wolves welcome Norwich City on CNBC as both home sides aim to improve the health of their top four hopes in 9 a.m. ET kickoffs.

[ WATCH: Man Utd-Watford | Wolves-Norwich ]

Lineups notes from both matches:

LINEUPS

Manchester United

Watford


Wolves

Norwich City

Three Serie A matches suspended due to virus deaths in Italy

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ROME (AP) Three Serie A soccer matches scheduled for Sunday in the northern regions of Lombardy and Veneto were suspended late Saturday after the deaths of two people infected with the virus from China.

On orders from the Italian government, the games called off were: Inter Milan vs. Sampdoria, Atalanta vs. Sassuolo and Hellas Verona vs. Cagliari.

Three other matches in Genoa, Turin and Rome on Sunday are going ahead as scheduled.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

A dozen towns in northern Italy effectively went into lockdown on Saturday after the deaths of two people infected with the coronavirus from China, and a growing cluster of cases with no direct links to the origin of the outbreak abroad.

“The government is working on urgent measures to decisively confront and contain the cases of coronavirus contagion,” read a letter from Sports Minister Vincenzo Spadafora to Italian Olympic Committee president Giovanni Malago shortly before midnight local time on Saturday. “Those measures also include the sports world in order to prevent risks and to better take care of the health of those involved in the events and competition.

“Following measures taken by the cabinet for protective reasons and maximum precaution, on orders of the government I’m asking you to suspend all sports events of every level and discipline planned for the Lombardy and Veneto regions on Sunday.”

The secondary contagions prompted local authorities in the Lombardy and Veneto regions to close schools, businesses and restaurants and to cancel sporting events and Masses.

The mayor of Milan, Italy’s business capital and the regional capital of Lombardy, shuttered public offices.

A 78-year-old man infected with the virus died in Veneto. A postmortem on a 77-year-old woman in Lombardy came back positive, though it wasn’t clear if illness from the virus caused her death.

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

Andrew Dampf on Twitter: https://twitter.com/AndrewDampf