Three things we learned from Sunderland’s win at Crystal Palace

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LONDON — Sunderland beat Crystal Palace 1-0 at Selhurst Park on Monday with Sam Allardyce‘s side grinding out just a second win of the season and a first away victory of the campaign.

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Here’s what we learned from the Black Cats’ smash and grab win, with Jermain Defoe making the most of a defensive mix up to grab all three points.

PALACE TOO PATIENT

For much of the first half Sunderland looked comfortable as they sat back as a five-man defense when Palace had the ball and cut out any space for the Eagles out wide. There were no gaps in-behind for Palace’s pacey wingers to run into as Wilfried Zaha and Yannick Bolasie cut inside but were met by a covering Sunderland player. After 15 minutes, during a stoppage in play when John O'Shea went down, Pardew called over Yohan Cabaye, his general in midfield, and tried to hammer home a point about how to get in-behind the Black Cats. As soon as Palace’s full backs got the ball, that was the trigger for Sunderland’s wing backs — Billy Jones and Patrick Van Aanholt — to drop back and make a five-man defense as Sebastian Coates, O’Shea and Younes Kaboul held steady in central defense marking only Connor Wickham. In the 34th minute Palace had their first good chance of the first half as Bolaise’s overhead kick nearly dropped in and Zaha’s header was off target from a tight angle. The Eagles were starting to turn the screw but the tempo was too slow from the home side and Sunderland were able to retreat into a five-man defensive shell at ease.

Alan Pardew, Crystal Palace FC

At half time Pardew simply had to change things and Bakary Sako came on in place of Jason Puncheon as the Eagles went to a 4-4-2 formation. From distance Sako curled a dipping effort just wide of the far post 15 minutes after coming on and he did make a difference, but the winger was forced off with an injury and Patrick Bamford lacked the movement to out-smart Sunderland’s defense. Palace had no real plan B and their set piece delivery was awful on the night. Sunderland “did a job” on them and Pardew will be deeply disappointed his team once again failed to break down a team at home who only cared about defending and trying to snatch something on the break. The notion that the Eagles are better away from home is true. Their players are better suited to playing on the break. This season Palace have lost at home narrowly to Arsenal, Man City and West Ham, plus had a 0-0 draw against Manchester United. They have broken down stubborn teams in West Brom and Aston Villa late on at Selhurst but on Monday they ran out of ideas and ingenuinty, missing the chance to move into the top six in the process. It’s not all doom and gloom for Pardew as his side have enjoyed a best-ever start to a PL season thus far. However, they must find a new way to win games as teams figure out that if you cut off the supply line to Zaha and Bolasie you have a chance of winning.


BIG SAM HAS A PLAN

There will be no awards won for style or panache, but Sunderland’s resolute defensive display helped them grab the win. As aforementioned, the Black Cats deployed a 3-5-2 and with the wings backs tucked in they completely nullified Palace’s threat out wide. It is something Allardyce has often done throughout his managerial career and watching Sunderland on Monday was like watching one of his Bolton teams from 15 years ago. Organized. Resolute. Rigid. There wasn’t much fluidity in this display but after three defeats from his opening four games in charge, Allardyce clearly needed to obtain a strong defensive base to build from and then threaten to nick a goal from set pieces. They nearly did just that at the start of the second half when Cabaye cleared Coates’ header off the line. Allardyce has been around the block a fair few times as the stat below shows.

With 30 minutes to go Big Sam deviated from the plan as he brought on Duncan Watmore and Jeremain Lens and switched to a 4-3-3 formation. He fancied getting at Palace’s defense with the pace of Watmore and Lens much needed. It worked with Sunderland looking dangerous on the break and Lens had a glorious chance 15 minutes from time as Watmore burst into the box but Lens’ side-footed his effort straight at Wayne Hennessey. Not to worry. 10 minutes from time the game-winning moment arrived as Jones dispossessed Bolasie and slotted the ball forward to Defoe. He pounced on a terrible misunderstanding between Scott Dann and Hennessy to slot the ball into an empty net and put Sunderland ahead. Big Sam’s plan worked perfectly on Monday as his side are now only one point behind bitter rivals Newcastle and getting out of the relegation zone. There’s light at the end of the tunnel for the Stadium of Light faithful.


DEFOE’S INSTINCTS INTACT

“And it’s Jermain Defoe as he proves that he is still a premium scorer of goals in the Premier League!”

That was the proclamation from a radio commentator deep in the Main Stand as Defoe rounded Hennessy and rolled the ball into an empty net to hand Sunderland a vital three points. With four goals in nine games so far this season and seven in his last nine starts, Defoe, 33, remains Sunderland’s main hope of staying up. He was in the right place at the right time and harried a usually cool Dann into making a mistake as he and Hennessy hesitated to let in one of the best marksmen in PL history. Defoe didn’t miss an opportunity like that and the Londoner has now scored at least once in 17 Premier League seasons since he made his debut for West Ham back in the 2000-01 season. He will have to continue to roll back the years if Sunderland stay up this season but with his predatory instincts, they have a chance.

Struggling Atleti in unfamiliar territory under Simeone

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MADRID — This is uncharted territory for many Atletico Madrid fans.

Few other times in recent years have they seen their team struggle so much under Diego Simeone.

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Few other times have they seen their coach fail so often while trying to put the team back on track.

Atletico hit a new low under Simeone on Thursday when it was eliminated by third-division club Cultural Leonesa in the round of 32 of the Copa del Rey. The 2-1 loss in extra time was the team’s worst result in the cup competition since losing to third-tier club Albacete at the same stage in 2011-12.

Two days after that loss in 2011, Atletico hired the then-mostly unknown Simeone to replace Gregorio Manzano, a move that kick-started one of the club’s most successful eras and led to a Spanish league title, two Europa League trophies and two Champions League final appearances.

Atletico did go through difficult moments under Simeone, including when the team failed to advance past the group stage of the Champions League a couple of seasons ago.

“There were always complicated moments in past seasons, maybe after we didn’t make it in the Champions League, or when we lost in the Champions League finals,” Simeone said. “After being at the club for so long, things like this can happen, although they shouldn’t happen.”

There is a greater sense of urgency about the team’s struggles this time.

In addition to Wednesday’s embarrassing Copa del Rey elimination, Atletico lost the Spanish Super Cup final to Real Madrid on Jan. 12, and already is eight points off the Spanish league lead after 20 matches.

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Before, there used to be a notion that Simeone would quickly turn things around and put the team back on track, but this time there aren’t many signs things will improve again soon.

Atletico has yet to impress since undergoing its biggest squad revamp under Simeone at the end of last season, when it lost Antoine Griezmann and other veteran players such as Filipe Luis and Diego Godin. Young Portugal forward Joao Felix, who arrived to replace Griezmann after a transfer from Benfica worth more than 120 million euros ($133 million), has yet to meet expectations.

More concerning, Atletico is not being nearly as effective as it used to be, when it always seemed to find a way to win matches despite not playing well.

The team remains solid defensively — it has the second-best defense in the Spanish league with 14 goals conceded — but it hasn’t been able to do much in attack recently.

“Everything is harder when you can’t score,” Simeone said.

Only seven teams have scored fewer goals than Atletico’s 22 in the 20-team standings.

Diego Costa has been mostly out injured, and Victor “Vitolo” Machin and Alvaro Morata haven’t done much in attack. Morata is the team’s leading scorer with 10 goals in all competitions, and no one else has more than five.

“We have to be humble enough to be self-critical,” Simeone said. “We need to keep working to try to be ready for the challenges that we have ahead of us. We have a very good squad and I’m sure that the results that we want will start arriving soon.”

Atletico biggest chance to rebound will come next month against European champion Liverpool in the last 16 of the Champions League. The first leg will be on Feb. 18 in Spain.

Mourinho in favor of PL’s winter break, but says timing all wrong

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Jose Mourinho seems to be quite happy that the Premier League will implement its first-ever winter break next month, allowing players a bit of rest and recovery time during a marathon campaign, but says its timing makes the break almost worthless for clubs competing in European competitions.

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The next four weeks will play out as follows for Tottenham Hotspur: FA Cup against Southampton this weekend; PL fixture against Manchester City next weekend; the following weekend off which results in two weeks without a game; PL fixture against Aston Villa the following weekend; Champions League first leg against RB Leipzig three days later.

In Mourinho’s perfect world, that first round of PL fixtures following the break would be held a week earlier, leaving the seven English clubs competing in the Champions League and Europa League with a week and a half between games before setting out once again to chase European glory. Instead, Tottenham, Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea will all have a quick turnaround from PL action to UCL competition — quotes from the Guardian:

“It is what it is. I’m not happy that the break comes in the wrong moment. The break should be before the Champions League and, in the end, before the Champions League we don’t have the break. We have to play Aston Villa on the Sunday, playing [RB Leipzig three] days later. So we don’t really care about the break, honestly.”

Mourinho’s point is a solid one: if the winter break is going to exist — and it should — then why shouldn’t its benefits be maximized? Non-European sides — typically those with smaller squads — would still have the full two weeks between games, while those in Europe are able to better leverage their slightly larger squads with only 10 or 11 days between games — still a lengthy break relative to the rest of the season.

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It’s only the first year of the winter break in the PL, so perhaps hopefully they’ll receive Mourinho’s criticism — and that of any other managers — constructively.

Serie A: AC Milan extends unbeaten run since Zlatan’s arrival

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BRESCIA, Italy (AP) Ante Rebic scored his third goal in two matches, goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma was superb and AC Milan won 1-0 at relegation-threatened Brescia on Friday to climb into the Europa League places in Serie A.

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Rebic, who scored twice in a win over Udinese last weekend, pounced on a loose ball directly in front of the goal following a cross from Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the 71st minute.

Since Ibrahimovic’s return to Milan over the holiday break, Milan is unbeaten with four wins and a draw across all competitions.

Donnarumma produced several difficult saves to deny Dimitri Bisoli and Ernesto Torregrossa.

Also, Milan fullback Theo Hernandez hit the crossbar in the closing minutes.

The Rossoneri moved up to sixth place, four points behind fifth-place Atalanta.

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“Our goal is to qualify for Europe,” Donnarumma said. “We’ve got to continue like this and not rest for a moment. There’s another big Italian Cup match coming up with Torino midweek and we want to reach the semifinals.

“We’ll take it one game at a time and try to keep this momentum going.”

Brescia was without Mario Balotelli, who was suspended for two matches after protesting a booking last weekend that ended up with the striker being sent off.

Brescia remained one point above last-place Genoa.

FA Cup: Sheffield Wednesday into 5th round; Derby headed for replay

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Sheffield Wednesday became the first club to reach the fifth round of the 2019-20 FA Cup by beating Queens Park Rangers at Loftus Road on Friday.

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The Owls took a 1-0 lead into halftime after Morgan Fox squeezed his shot past the goalkeeper from a tight angle, and Sam Winnall put the EFL Championship side 2-0 up by slotting the ball home just before full-time. QPR pulled a goal back through Nahki Wells just moments later, but it wasn’t enough and the game finished 2-1.

It’s the second time in three seasons that Wednesday has reached the fifth round after doing so just twice in their previous 17 seasons.

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Elsewhere, fellow Championship side Derby County, featuring Wayne Rooney who played all 90 minutes, couldn’t see off League Two side Northampton Town and will be forced into the dreaded replay after struggling to a scoreless draw away from home.

The draw for the fifth round will be held on Monday at 2:20 p.m. ET, prior to kickoff of Bournemouth v. Arsenal.