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Three things we learned from Arsenal’s win vs. West Brom

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LONDON — Arsenal beat West Bromwich Albion 2-0 at the Emirates Stadium on Thursday with Arsene Wenger‘s men strengthening their grip on the top four.

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It was a strange night for Wenger and his players as fan unrest was clear but Alexis Sanchez’s double at least moved the Gunners up to third in the Premier League table.

Here’s what we learned from a subdued Emirates Stadium.


ARSENAL UNREST GROWING

About a minute before the game kicked off it was clear that Arsenal’s fans were making their feelings well known about recent results.

Following the 1-1 draw at home against Crystal Palace last Sunday unrest among Arsenal fans has reached almost unprecedented levels during Wenger’s reign. The Arsenal boss knows it and had this to say before the West Brom game.

“I want our fans to be happy and when they are not it affects me. Ideally, yes, you want to play in a positive environment,” Wenger said. “You do not want to play in a negative environment, but if we do we can still perform. ‘We are responsible for the performance of the team and it is true that at the moment it is not a highlight but we have to take a distance with that.”

The “tickets sold” sign said 59,568 but if the crowd at the Emirates was over 55,000 I’d be surprised. Sure, it was a Thursday night, it was West Brom and it was slightly chilly for April, but fans of Arsenal showed their disdain for the way this season has panned out in the best way they knew how. Staying at home.

If this continues to happen in the coming games and maybe into the start of next season then the pressure on Wenger from the board, not just the fans, will grow. Arsenal has become an incredibly successful business over recent years and one of the main reasons is their ability to charge top dollar in a stadium a few stops away from Central London on the tube and each and every week the stadium is sold out. Now that attendances are showing small signs of regression, Wenger and the club will need to address their needs this summer and buy in central defense and in central midfield to strengthen. A top four finish is still not guaranteed but they are four points clear of fifth place with four games to go.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule | standings

Make no mistake about it, 20-straight seasons in the top four under Wenger is an incredible record and Arsenal fans calling for him to be fired should be careful what they wish for. However, they are also entitled to ask for more. In each of the last 10 campaigns they’ve ever finished third or fourth. They’ll likely do the same again this season. Usually that’s enough to ward off the critics but with all of the perennial big boys faltering below them and only Leicester City and bitter rivals Tottnham Hotspur above them, the mood at the Emirates on Thursday summed up how Arsenal’s fans are feeling overall.

This season is a huge opportunity missed. That, plus Spurs pushing for the title, has accelerated the unrest among Arsenal’s fans. “Arsene Wenger, we will support you ever more,” said an Arsenal fan, sarcastically, as he walked past the press box at the full time whistle. That about summed it up.

SLICK SANCHEZ STREAKING

Alexis Sanchez has now scored in four consecutive games for Arsenal and the Chilean forward scored twice in the first half to set the Gunners on their way to victory. Arsenal’s fans should feel free to question tactical and personnel decisions from Wenger, but what they can’t question is Sanchez’s commitement to the cause. In his second season in the PL he’s gone through streaks. He started slowly, then scored in six-straight games, then cooled off in the middle as injuries took their toll. After a busy summer with Chile at the Copa America last year he’s faded in the last few months. Now he’s back to his best.

After just five minutes he swiveled past Sandro and smashed home low to put Arsenal 1-0 up and wheeled away with the same verve as if he’d just scored a crucial goal in an early season win. He was everywhere in the first half. Sanchez double-dummied Saido Berhaino on the halfway line, produced a majestic flick to Hector Bellerin who drove forward and smashed just over, then he scored the second with a clever free kick through a gap in the wall.

When Arsenal purr it’s because Sanchez is gently rubbing their belly and soothing them into action. In the second half he tiptoed around two defenders and sent a back heel perfectly into the path of Bellerin. It draw admiration and gasps from the home fans. On a difficult night for Wenger and Arsenal, that man Alexis delivered some cheer to liven up the mainly melancholy crowd.

PERFECT RETURN FOR MOSS

Following his eventful outing at the King Power Stadium last Sunday, this was the perfect game for referee Jon Moss to make his return to the middle.

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The referee is currently public enemy number one in Leicester after sending off Jamie Vardy last Sunday and then mentioning in his match report that Vardy had been abusive towards him when leaving the field of play. That led to an FA charge and will likely cost Leicester its star man for at least the next two games as Vardy accepted the FA’s improper conduct charge on Thursday. On top of his automatic one-match ban for picking up two yellow cards — the second of which came for simulation after Vardy went down in the box — the England international could miss an extra game, or even two, for pointing in the face of Moss and allegedly swearing at the official. Vardy, Leicester’s top goalscorer, has requested to speak to an FA panel early next week to try and reduce any extra ban. His important to Leicester is clear and Moss’ decision will have a huge say in whether or not Leicester win the title.

This outing for Moss was much less eventful. An Arsenal side stumbling for fourth and a West Brom side in midtable promised as much. He gave two penalties last weekend at Leicester, one correctly for a tug on Winston Reid and then another incorrectly in stoppage time after Jeffrey Schlupp went down under contact from Andy Carroll. On Thursday both Alex Iwobi and Mohamed Elneny went down in the box under slight contact but halfhearted appeals were waved away by Moss. He made the correct calls and it was an uneventful game. He’s a good referee, one of the PL’s best, and doesn’t deserve some of the criticism he’s been getting. The only mistake he made was being too human and awarding Leicester a late penalty kick last weekend under intense pressure from the home fans.

On Thursday there was no pressure on him and it was a breeze. I bet he wishes every outing was like that…

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.