Arsenal ooze class in securing back-to-back FA Cups. But how can they challenge for the Premier League next season?

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LONDON — For the second-straight season Arsenal lifted the FA Cup trophy at Wembley Stadium as the Gunners continue to edge their way into the conversation for the Premier League title next season.

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Arsene Wenger’s men battered Aston Villa 4-0 at Wembley – the biggest victory in an FA Cup final since Manchester United’s 4-0 win over Everton in 1994 – and from start to finish they oozed class with Man of the Match Santi Cazorla controlling the tempo and the pacey duo of Alexis Sanchez and Theo Walcott ripping Villa’s shaky defense to pieces.

A record 12th FA Cup win will be lauded, as it should, and it has capped off yet another fine second half to the season for the Gunners. Wenger’s men have lost just two of their final 24 League and FA Cup games of the season on their way to adding a second-straight FA Cup to the trophy cabinet.

Speaking after the match, Wenger was delighted that his side cruised to victory and believes they’ve made progress this season.

“We feel we have made progress since the start of the season. That is for sure,” Wenger said. “The way we play and the way we manage our games. In our togetherness as well. Our certainty about our football. We finish third, we won the cup. Since January I think we have made a huge number of points. It is a good platform to do better next season. But  in England it is not like in any other country, you have six teams who can win the Premier League. I know people don’t accept that but it is the reality.”

Wenger made a big decision to bring in Theo Walcott  to start ahead of Olivier Giroud up top but the Englishman — who was injured from January 2014 to January 2015 after tearing his ACL in an FA Cup third-round match against rivals Tottenham — was pivotal in unlocking Villa’s defense just before half time with a powerful volley to open the scoring.

“I had many big decisions to make before the game day because I had to leave big players out of the squad. Difficult decisions. I just tried to find a good balance in the team,” Wenger said. “Walcott was on a high because he scored a hat trick last week. He just came back into good form. Giroud has given a lot to the team since January. But in recent games I felt he was a bit jaded.”

[ RELATED: Full PL season reviews ]

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Aston Villa v Arsenal – FA Cup Final

Saturday’s success — which was made certain with a thunderbolt from Alexis Sanchez, a header from Per Mertesacker and a late Giroud flick —  was the Frenchman’s six FA Cup crown which puts him at the top of the list alongside George Ramsay as the most successful managers in the competitions long and illustrious history. Wenger’s tactics were spot on at Wembley, as Arsenal’s plan to play pacey attackers against Villa’s pedestrian backline delivered a sublime attacking display with the Villans failing to gain any foothold whatsoever in the game.

“I thought the pace would be a problem for them because they play high,” Wenger said. “We had combined pace of Sanchez and Walcott. It was for us to dominate the midfield to use our strikers. If you manage to dominate the midfield we would be dangerous.”

Wenger’s next aim will be to challenge for the Premier League. The Gunners haven’t won the PL since 2004 and a decade on from their last success they now seem to be mounting a legitimate challenge to Manchester City and Manchester United to try and snatch the crown away from Chelsea next season.

“I think of course we can push on. Why not?” Wenger asked. “We have won the Premier League in the past when we had the potential to do it. That’s what we want to do again.”

How can they do it?

Well, when you look at the strength of Arsenal’s squad on Saturday, it was quite stunning. Danny Welbeck, Mathieu Debuchy and Mikel Arteta was injured. Olivier Giroud, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Gabriel and Jack Wilshere were on the bench. Calum Chambers and Tomas Rosickey weren’t even in the squad. Yeah, the Gunners are stacked. Asked if he plans to strengthen this summer, Wenger was jovial but revealed a lot of thought will go into the next additions.

“I am not in a buying mood tonight. I will buy a drink for my players,” Wenger joked. “We will see what is going on in the transfer market but we have a good base and we have some time now because we don’t play a qualifier in the Champions League. We have a good confidence level. Let’s show that we can be intelligent over the summer.”

Being intelligent for Arsenal means buying a top class goalkeeper, a star center forward and perhaps a powerful box-to-box midfielder in the mold of Paul Pogba. Wenger confirmed he is happy with his midfielders and said he isn’t interested in Juventus hard man Arturo Vidal, but the Gunners are now in a sound financial situation where they can go out and add one or two world class talents each summer to augment their sturdy squad. That’s all they need, two or three intelligent buys to push them onto the next level.

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Aston Villa v Arsenal – FA Cup Final

Giroud, who flicked home his 19th goal of the season in the final minute, agrees with Wenger that the aim must be to win the title next season.

“The Premier League title is the target. Hopefully we will be there,” Giroud said. “Without the injuries and if we keep this squad with one or two more players then we will have a good chance to challenge for the title.”

So does Walcott, who has only got one-year left on his current deal but Wenger is desperate for the 26-year-old England international to stick around.

“The Premier League has to be the next target for us,” Walcott said. “That’s two FA Cup wins now but this is one of the best squads we have had at Arsenal so we should be achieving more. We need to start well in the Premier League next year.”

Now, without the rigmarole of having to play in a UEFA Champions League playoff match in August for just the second time in five seasons, they can approach next season knowing they’re already in the UCL group stages and can offer that to potential signings over the summer. Wenger’s men have notoriously been slow starters but with the strength of their current squad and the togetherness he referred to, the north Londoners are in a very good place.

The big question now is that after a season of progress in terms of their PL league position from fourth to third, can Arsenal gel over the offseason and add key players who can help them go to the next level.

“That’s what we want to show next season. We don’t know how good the other teams will be,” Wenger said. “It is about consistency at the top level and we have shown signs of consistency. In the past as well when we won leagues we showed consistency. We are the only ones who didn’t lose for 49 games. Nobody else has done it. When you have a good confidence level and quality, you can be consistent.”

As for Villa, it was a bad day at the office for Tim Sherwood’s side who failed to register a single shot on target as Arsenal blew past them at Wembley.

“They have outstanding, world class footballers and we couldn’t nullify their threat. We couldn’t impose ourselves on them either… They deserved to win the game. No question about that,” said a dejected Sherwood. “It was quite obvious that they had their own way today and dominated the football match.”

Sherwood kept Villa in the PL, his main aim when taking over the Midlands club in February, but is under no illusions as to the challenge ahead of him this summer as he confirmed a number of players have already been told they can move on and find new clubs.

“The team has scrapped relegation for the last four seasons which is not good enough for a club like Aston Villa. We need to change some of their mentalities because some of the players are used to losing football matches and that is not a good habit to have,” Sherwood added.

For Arsenal, the opposite is true. Can they now bottle up their scorching second half of the season and unleash it from the start of the 2015-16 season?

If Wenger can keep his players fit, keep his massive squad happy and add a few key additions, Arsenal will go very close to winning it all next season. Progress is the key word at Arsenal during the 2014-15 season.

Americans Abroad: Gall scores; Weah returns from injury

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Two USMNT names resurfaced over the weekend – for all the right reasons.

It’s been an overall quiet year for Romain Gall in Sweden, but the 25-year-old managed to challenge the narrative by scoring in Malmo’s cup bout.

While in France, Timothy Weah made a much-anticipated return from injury in Lille’s 2-1 loss. The 19-year-old played 10 minutes after being out for six months.

Here is a list of several other USMNT affiliates making a name for themselves (or not) abroad this weekend.

Premier League

Christian Pulisic, Chelsea — Pulisic is still recovering from his injury and will miss Monday’s game against Manchester United.

DeAndre Yedlin, Newcastle — Yedlin didn’t dress in Newcastle’s 4-0 loss to Arsenal on Sunday.

Indiana Vassilev, Aston Villa — Vassilev didn’t dress in Aston Villa’s last-minute 3-2 loss to Tottenham on Saturday.

EFL Championship

Antonee Robinson, Wigan Athletic —  For a second weekend in a rown Robinson did not dress for Wigan. The failed move to AC Milan is apparently still haunting him.

Duane Holmes, Derby County — Holmes started and played 29 minutes before leaving with an ankle injury on Saturday.

Matt Miazga, Reading (loan from Chelsea) — The 24-year-old is out with a hamstring injury. There is no timeline on his return.

Eric Lichaj, Hull City — The defender is out for the season after sustaining an injury.

Geoff Cameron, QPR — The 34-year-old defender started and played 90 minutes in QPR’s 4-2 win over Stoke City.

Tim Ream, Fulham — Ream started and played 90 minutes in Fulham’s 3-0 loss to Barnsley on Saturday.

Cameron Carter-Vickers, Luton Town (loan Tottenham Hotspur) — Carter-Vickers started and played 90 minutes in Luton’s 1-0 win over Middlesbrough.

Bundesliga

Timmy Chandler, Eintracht Frankfurt Chandler started and played 90 minutes in Franjfurt’s 4-0 loss to Borussia Dortmund.

John Brooks, Wolfsburg – The 26-year-old defender started and played 90 minutes for the time since January 18. Wolfsburg won 3-2 over Hoffenheim.

Weston McKennie, Schalke —  McKennie started and played 90 minutes in Schalke’s 0-0 draw with Mainz.

Zack Steffen and Alfredo Morales, Fortuna Dusseldorf — Steffen is out with an injury, while Morales started and played 90 minutes on Saturday.

Josh Sargent, Werder Bremen  Sargent came off the bench and played 25 minutes in Werder Bremen’s 3-0 loss.

Tyler Adams, RB Leipzig — Adams is out with an injury. There is no timeline on his return.

Fabian Johnson, Borussia Mönchengladbach Johnson dressed but didn’t feature for Borussia Monchengladbach.

Eredivisie

Sergino Dest, Ajax — Dest started and played 90 minutes in Ajax’s 3-0 win over RKC Waalwijk.

Haji Wright, VVV-Venlo — The 21-year-old striker was on the bench but didn’t feature on Friday.

Ligue 1

Timothy Weah, Lille — After a six-month absence, Weah featured for Lille in official competition. The attacker played the final 10 minutes in Lille’s 2-1 loss to Marseille.

Theoson Jordan-Siebatcheu, Rennes — Jordon-Siebatcheu started and played 56 minutes in Rennes’ 1-0 loss to Stade Reims.

Honorable Mentions

Romain Gall, Malmo — Gall played the final 31 minutes in Malmo’s 8-0 thumping of Syrianska and contributed a goal.

Richard Ledezma, Jong PSV — Ledezma played 60 minutes and scored a goal in Jong PSV’s 1-1 draw with FC Eindhoven. The attacker missed out the final 30 minutes after seeing a straight red card. 

Premier League Preview: Chelsea vs. Manchester United

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Manchester United look to leave a poor three-match streak behind as they travel to Stamford Bridge to take on Chelsea  (Watch live at 3:00 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com).

The last time both teams faced off was during the season’s opening matchweek, which saw the Red Devils steamroll Chelsea 4-0 at Old Trafford.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ] 

Since, United’s quality hasn’t been the same, slipping to ninth in the league, while the Blues have maintained themselves in the European competition conversation throughout the majority of the season.

A win for either side at this point of season will provide a huge morale boost, as both teams go into Monday’s match without a win in three bouts.


Injuries/suspensions

Chelsea: OUT —  Pulisic (groin), Van Ginkel (knee) QUESTIONABLE — Abraham (knock), Giroud (knock), Loftus-Cheek (calf)

Manchester United: OUT — McTominay (knee), Tuanzebe (thigh), Pogba (ankle, 5 Mar), Rashford (back), Fosu-Mensah (match fitness), Grant (surgery) QUESTIONABLE — Ighalo (match fitness)


Probable lineups

Chelsea: Arrizabalaga; Azpilicueta, Rudiger, Tomori, James; Kante, Jorginho; Hudson-Odoi, Mount, William; Abraham.

Manchester United: De Gea; Williams, Maguire, Lindelof, Wan-Bissaka; Fred, Matic; Greenwood, Fernandes, James; Martial


What they’re saying

Chelsea’s Frank Lampard on dropping Kepa Arrizabalaga last weekend: “It wasn’t about giving him a jolt. It was just a selection on that day. I want everyone’s reaction spot on. I know how it will feel for him. I had it in my career, it is part and parcel. I am pleased with the reaction.”

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on Odion Ighalo: “As a striker you get thrown on out there and it might be he’ll have to come off the bench, give us a goal and he does whatever he does.”


Prediction

Chelsea will be in front of their supporters on a Monday night with Manchester United in town. That scenario tends to go well for the Blues more often than not. Chelsea, 2-1.

Mexicans Abroad: Rodolfo Pizarro’s goalscoring start headlines handful of debuts

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A handful of Mexicans abroad debuted with their respective clubs over the weekend, but none were at par with Rodolfo Pizarro’s.

The 26-year-old attacking midfielder scored on his fourth touch as an Inter Miami player, two minutes after coming off the bench. Pizarro’s right-footed strike proved to be historic, as it became the first official goal in club history.

Also on Saturday, in different regions of the United States, Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and Alan Pulido, respectively, made their debuts. Chicharito played 78 minutes in Los Angeles Galaxy’s 2-1 preseason loss to Toronto FC, while Pulido logged 61 minutes in Sporting Kansas City’s scoreless bout.

Qatar’s new marquee star, Marco Fabian, debuted in Al-Sadd’s hard-earned cup win.

Here is a list of several other Mexico national team affiliates making a name for themselves (or not) outside of Mexico this weekend.


Premier League

Raul Jimenez, Wolverhampton Wanderers —  Jimenez started and played all 90 minutes in Wolves’ 0-0 draw against Leicester City. The forward registered four shots off target and one blocked.

La Liga

Hector Herrera, Atletico Madrid —  Herrera was not called up by Diego Simeone for Atletico Madrid’s draw against Valencia on Friday.

Andres Guardado, Real Betis —  Guardado dressed but didn’t take the field on Sunday.

Diego Lainez, Real Betis — The 19-year-old was is out after undergoing appendicitis surgery.

Nestor Araujo, Celta Vigo — Araujo played a vital part in La Liga’s most surprising outcome of the matchweek – Celta’s 2-2 draw with Real Madrid. The defender recorded eight clearances, one interceptions and two tackles throughout the 90 minutes.

Serie A

Hirving “Chucky” Lozano, Napoli —  Lozano, Napoli’s most expensive player in team history, was not called up by Gennaro Gattuso on Sunday. The 24-year-old and the Italian manager seem to be on different pages, and the situation doesn’t appear to be getting better with time. It might be time to panic for Lozano’s development in Italy.

Primeira Liga

Jesus “Tecatito” Corona, FC Porto — Tecatito started and played 84 minutes in Porto’s 2-1 victory over Vitoria, which was marred by racist abuse towards Moussa Marega by Vitoria supporters.

Eredivisie

Erick Gutierrez, PSV Eindhoven —  Gutierrez played the final five minutes of PSV’s 3-0 thumping of AOD Den Haag.

Edson Alvarez, Ajax — After several weeks of little activity, Alvarez seems to be making his way back into Ajax’s starting lineup. On Sunday, the Mexican defender played his second set of 90 minutes in four days.

Jupiler Pro League

Omar Govea, Zulte Waregem — Govea played 76 minutes in Zulte’s 2-1 loss on Sunday.

Major League Soccer

Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, LA Galaxy – In front of a semi-full Dignity Sports Park, Chicharito made his Los Angeles Galaxy debut. The storied forward, however, failed to score despite seeing a decent amount of chances. Galaxy open the MLS season against Houston Dynamo on February 29.

Rodolfo Pizarro, Inter Miami – It took two minutes for an Rodolfo Pizarro to score on his unofficial Inter Miami debut. Ironically, the brand-new MLS franchise has yet to announce the signing of the 26-year-old from Monterrey.

Alan Pulido, Sporting Kansas City – Pulido played 61 minutes in SKC’s scoreless, preseason draw against Real Salt Lake.

Elsewhere around the globe:

Ulises Davila, Wellington Phoenix – Davila played all 90 minutes in Phoenix’s 1-0 victory over Melbourne City. The attacker also managed to pick up a yellow card throughout the match.

Marco Fabian, Al-Sadd – Fabian debuted for Xavi’s Al-Sadd on Saturday, playing all 120 minutes in his team’s win via penalties.

Hector Moreno, Al-Gharafa – Moreno and Al-Gharafa were inactive this weekend.

La Liga roundup: Celta spoil Hazard’s return in Real Madrid draw

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Real Madrid’s draw against relegation-battling Celta Vigo highlights La Liga’s Sunday action.

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Real Madrid 2-2 Celta Vigo 

Celta’s Santi Mina scored in 85th minute to give a depleted Celta Vigo a precious point at the Santiago Bernabeu, spoiling Eden Hazard‘s return to Real Madrid’s lineup after a notable absence.

Madrid’s eighth draw of the season moves champions Barcelona just one point behind Zinedine Zidane’s side.

Returning from ankle injury that kept his out of action for three months, Hazard returned to the pitch in fine style, leading all players on the field in chances created with three and earning a penalty that Sergio Ramos converted to put Real Madrid ahead.

Hazard – and all of his flair – left the field in the 70th minute, granting Vinicius Junior the final 20 minutes of the match.

Ramos’ sixth goal of the season builded on Toni Kroos’ left-footed strike early in the latter half of the match. Real Madrid, more or less, were cruising against Celta, who had a goal to their name following Fyodor Smolov’s early opener.

Celta, who had arrived in Madrid in 18th place and had lost their last seven at the host’s home, were destined to do the unthinkable. Denis Suarez and Mina – both utilized as substitutes – paired up for the equalizer with five minutes to go, spoiling Hazard’s return.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Sevilla 2-2 Espanyol

Leganes 0-0 Real Betis 

Athletic Bilbao 0-1 Osasuna