Premier League Playback: Assessing the title contenders

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ASSESSING TITLE CONTENDERS

Who is on the up?

Liverpool: Jurgen Klopp’s side are the top goalscorers so far this season and they are showing signs of defensive solidity despite still giving up sloppy goals from set piece situations. Still, if you’re going to score at least two goals per game, you can afford the odd slip up and it hasn’t cost Liverpool who have beaten Arsenal and Chelsea away from home, and also drawn with Tottenham on the road. Not bad at all. Liverpool has so many attacking options currently on form with Sadio Mane, Philippe Coutinho, Adam Lallana and Roberto Firmino all on their game. The fact that Daniel Sturridge, Divock Origi and Danny Ings are on the outside looking in says it all. Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum are quietly building a formidable partnership in central midfield too with Klopp’s tactics and the extra time to work on the training ground with no European action paying dividends already.

[ STREAM: PL live on NBC Sports

Arsenal: The Gunners are red-hot with five wins from five going into the break. Shkodran Mustafi looks like a superb addition in central defense and with Alexis Sanchez through the middle and Mesut Ozil, Alex Iwobi and Theo Walcott feeding off him, Arsene Wenger’s side look so dangerous in attack. After just celebrating his 20th anniversary in charge, will Wenger be celebrating a first PL title since 2004? His side is surging and after finishing second last season despite a dip in the second half of the campaign, the Gunners look like the biggest threat to Manchester City for the title as things stand.

[ MORE: 3 things on Spurs-City ]

Tottenham: These guys, somehow, have flown completely under the radar. After a summer of careful additions to the squad and being focused on signing a dozen key players to new contracts, Mauricio Pochettino’s squad looks much stronger from 1-16 and they’ve coped masterfully with the recent absence of Harry Kane and Mousa Dembele. In their win over Manchester City before the break, Spurs showed just how good they are. High-press, defensive solidity and then relying on Dele Alli and Kane for goals and assists is a pretty formidable formula. The only unbeaten team in the PL has tougher tests ahead but so far they’ve vastly exceeded expectations.

Stalling after strong starts?

Man United: Yes, they’ve still won four of their opening seven games, but United has shown that they’re still very disjointed and I’m a firm believer that Jose Mourinho still doesn’t know what his best team is. The Portuguese coach has chopped and changed so much in midfield but now Wayne Rooney is out, finally he’s getting the best out of Paul Pogba with Ander Herrera alongside him. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has, so far, been a hit and with Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial around, he has competition. United have looked really good in flashes but are yet to get firing on all cylinders apart from the first half of the big win against Leicester City. Work to do, Jose.

Chelsea: So, the Blues have defensive issues. Big time. Antonio Conte‘s boys won their opening three games but since then they’ve won just once, losing to Liverpool and home and they were trounced by London rivals Arsenal. With John Terry out injured, Conte’s defense has looked porous, although they did go to a three-man central defensive at Hull last week and it worked a treat. That seems to be the way forward because the plan was for this Chelsea team to be tough to beat and rely on the clinical finishing of Diego Costa and the wizardry of Eden Hazard and Willian to get wins. Conte has a lot of work to do at Chelsea and he knows it.

Man City: Okay, they’re top of the league with six wins from seven but in the last week or so doubts have crept in as to just how good this Man City side is under Pep Guardiola. In truth, they steamrollered opponents early in the season but the toughest game they had was against a Manchester United who were poor on the day at Old Trafford. Both Celtic and then Tottenham showed that intense high-pressing can work a treat against City with Claudio Bravo and his defense unable to find midfielders with the ball. Of course, City have missed Kevin De Bruyne of late and Vincent Kompany too but maybe this small blip will keep their feet firmly on the ground with a tough stretch of games coming up. We’ll find out how good City is in the weeks to come.


BRADLEY’S ARRIVAL HUGE FOR USA, WELL-DESERVED

It actually happened.

For so long now Bob Bradley has been linked with the vacant positions in the Premier League (Fulham, West Brom, Hull, Sunderland to name a few) but on Monday Swansea City announced the former U.S. national team head coach was their new boss.

This is a monumental moment for soccer in the USA as Bradley is the first-ever American to coach in the Premier League or any of Europe’s top five leagues.

Bradley, 58, has been working his whole career for this opportunity. From NCAA to MLS, USA to Egypt and then on his recent travails across Norway and France, Bradley has taken the long road and now he has his big chance.

Swansea hasn’t had a great start to the season (four points through seven matches will tell you that) but they have real talent and if Bradley can get through the first six games with 7-9 points on the board, a real stretch of winnable matches arrives throughout the busy December period.

Speaking following his final game for French second-tier side Le Havre on Monday, Bradley revealed his feelings on joining Swansea.

“In this moment the opportunity to go to the Premier League, on many levels, is special,” Bradley said. “I am sorry to leave, especially at this moment. It is still an opportunity for me, my family, for American football. I thank Le Havre for the opportunity to work in the best league in the world. It’s a unique opportunity.”

It’s a safe bet that everyone in the U.S. Soccer community had a wry smile on their faces when Bradley was appointed Swansea’s new manager and uttered something along the lines of: “Good for Bob.”

He’s a much liked figure and although he’s globe-trotted in recent years, the U.S. connection remains strong with his time in charge of the USMNT, plus great success in MLS’ early years. The American soccer community holds him close to their hearts as he starts this exciting journey in the Premier League.

Bradley will now prepare for a huge task ahead — starting with his managerial debut in the PL away at Arsenal on Oct. 15 (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET online via NBC Sports) — but it is one he will be relishing and an opportunity he thoroughly deserves.


GOOCH MAKING WAVES

Premier League Schedule – Week 7

Result Recap & Highlights
Burnley 0-1 Arsenal Recap, watch here
Everton 1-1 Palace Recap, watch here
Hull 0-2 Chelsea Recap, watch here
Leicester 0-0 Saints Recap, watch here
Man United 1-1 Stoke Recap, watch here
Tottenham 2-0 Man City Recap, watch here
Sunderland 1-1 WBA Recap, watch here
Swansea 1-2 Liverpool Recap, watch here
Watford 2-2 B’mouth Recap, watch here
West Ham 1-1 M’boro Recap, watch here

The Premier League also has a new American midfielder making a name for himself: Lynden Gooch.

A 20-year-old from Santa Cruz, California, Gooch has come up through Sunderland’s ranks after joining their academy as a 16-year-old and he has made seven appearances for the Black Cats, starting their first four games in the Premier League.

Last Thursday I went up to Sunderland’s Academy of Light training ground to speak with Gooch about his incredible rise and over the weekend it was announced he’d been called into the U.S. national team for the first time.

Looks like it was a good decision to ditch surfing in Santa Cruz to play soccer in Sunderland at the age of 16.

Watch the video below of our Facebook live chat, plus here’s a snippet from an exclusive chat we had as the wind howled in England’s north east as Sunderland remains winless through their opening seven PL games.

Even if the Mackems aren’t enjoying a good start to this season, Gooch is in dreamland.

“People still ask me ‘why have you come to Sunderland from California!?’ Well, I wanted to be successful. I wanted to be a professional footballer. I wanted to play in the Premier League and I want to play for this football club. Hopefully I can do that for a long time,” Gooch said, proudly. “Some people are still surprised at how far I’ve come. It was a no-brainer for me. As soon as I could’ve come to this club. I would’ve come early at aged 14, or 12, whenever… I would’ve came.”


Premier League Playback comes out every week as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here

Transfer Rumor Roundup: Spurs snag Clarke, Arsenal eyeing French youngster

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According to a number of reports across England, Tottenham may have secured its first new player signing in 511 days, rumored to have completed a deal for Leeds United winger Jack Clarke.

The BBC reports that Clarke has flown south to London for a medical and that the $12.7 million deal is finalized. The report states there are further, unspecified add-ons to that base payment should they trigger.

The 18-year-old made 25 appearances for the Leeds first-team last season, scoring two goals assisting two more as they reached the playoff semifinal. Clarke’s arrival will mark the first Tottenham signing since Lucas Moura joined in January of 2018, famously failing to sign a player last summer to much criticism, before making a run to the Champions League final during the season.


Arsenal is reportedly after a pair of transfer targets, one on either end of the pitch.

First, more concretely, reports indicate that the Gunners are set to bat the signature of young French defender William Saliba. The 18-year-old currently plays for St. Etienne and saw significant playing time last season, bagging 16 league appearances good for over 1,200 minutes as he helped the club secure a Champions League place with a fourth-place finish, aided by the third-best defensive record in the league.

According to an ESPNFC report by Julien Laurens, the two clubs have reached an agreement for Saliba in the range of $28 million, with the Gunners beating Tottenham and PSG to the punch. Saliba will stay at St. Etienne on loan next season as he looks to continue developing at his boyhood club.

The Gunners are reportedly also following Monaco winger Keita Balde, with the Senegal international currently on international duty at the Africa Cup of Nations. The 24-year-old spent last season on loan at Inter, where he racked up 24 Serie A appearances – mostly off the bench – scoring five goals and assisting three more.

Reports in Italy indicate that while Inter had the option to buy at the end of the loan spell, they declined as they believed the $38 million price to be too expensive. With Monaco struggling mightily this past season and in serious flux, it’s likely that Balde could move on and help the French club gain funds to reinvest.

Balde found the back of the net in Senegal’s opening AFCON match, a 2-0 win over Tanzania, marking his fourth international goal in 24 caps.


Another African on international duty is Kalidou Koulibaly, whose future is still under serious speculation.

Napoli manager Carlo Ancelotti said Wednesday – completely joking, mind you – that he won’t even return from his vacation in Canada if the club sells Koulibaly. That won’t stop the two Manchester clubs from having a go, and to this point Napoli president Aurelio de Laurentiis has held firm that only a bid that reaches his $154 million release clause will pry him from the Italian side.

Koulibaly wouldn’t be drawn into speculation about his future when approached at the tournament in Africa, saying, “I don’t know [if I’ll still be at Napoli next year], I think so, but I have to play the AFCON and then after that I’ll go back to Napoli.”

Manchester United has been much closely linked with Koulibaly than Manchester City, but it may be difficult to convince him to switch with the Red Devils not participating in the Champions League next season.


Everton is reportedly in the hunt for Juventus striker Moise Kean according to the Liverpool Echo, with the 19-year-old breaking out last season with The Old Lady. He scored six goals in 13 appearances down the stretch of the season, coming into the squad after the club had all but secured the league title.

While he is a big strike prospect for Juventus, the club is somewhat crowded at the position with Cristiano Ronaldo, Paulo Dybala, and Mario Mandzukic at the position. The club surely could take its time bringing him along, but apparently a disciplinary issue while with the Italy U-21 team at the Euros this summer has added to the club’s concern, along with his hesitation at signing a new contract. Kean’s current deal expires next summer, so this would be the time to cash in on his high-rising stock.

The report states it would cost around $34 million to land the youngster and Ajax is also in the mix.

Women’s World Cup mascot costume stolen from Parc des Prince

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According to reports in France, first by news outlet LCI, the World Cup mascot Ettie had its mascot stolen from Parc des Princes in the early morning hours of last Friday, June 21.

L’Equipe reports the mascot costume has subsequently been recovered and police are investigating.

The reports state that a group of five somehow entered the Paris stadium between 4 and 5 a.m. local time, proceeding to walk around and even play a game on the Parc des Princes pitch before leaving the stadium carrying two large bags that contained the mascot costume. After missing for the weekend, the costume was reportedly returned to a lawyer’s office in Paris on Tuesday in anonymous fashion.

Thankfully, since the costume has been returned, Ettie will be able to make an appearance while the United States takes on host nation France at Parc des Princes in a highly anticipated quarterfinal match on Friday.

The L’Equipe report says that very little was been discernible on the Parc des Princes security camera footage, and police have appealed to the public for assistance. FIFA describes Ettie as “a young chicken with a passion for life and football.” Ettie is the daughter of Footix, the rooster mascot of the 1998 World Cup also held in France.

Toni Kroos wants to retire at Real Madrid

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After signing a contract extension in May that runs through 2023, which he said at the time is “probably my last big contract,” Toni Kroos doubled down on that statement, saying he’d like to retire at Real Madrid and will not move to another club as his career winds down.

Speaking to German publication Bild about a new film that documents his life, Kroos said that the end of his current contract is hopefully going to be the end of his career, on his own terms.

“When I am aged 33, that would be a good age to retire,” Kroos told Bild’s subscription service Bild+, as quoted by Marca. “My contract duration was chosen consciously. At 33, that would be a good age to hang up the boots. I will have the opportunity at that moment to choose if I want to do something after that.”

Obviously, it’s possible that something out of his control will take place forcing him to finish his career elsewhere, but he expresses his admiration for Los Blancos and says that he hopes his career will last long enough to ride out his contract and hang up his boots at the club he loves. “Signing for Real Madrid is the best thing I could have done, I will never play in the United States, China or Qatar.”

Kroos also emitted a typical athlete mentality, saying he hoped to make Bayern regret selling him in 2014, something he believes he’s been successful doing. “For me, it was already clear at the time of the transfer that Bayern made a mistake with my sale,” he said. “It’s true that [Bayern president] Uli Hoeness has made it public of late – and it’s a testament to his greatness that he addresses it that way.”

Kroos has won three Champions League titles with Real Madrid as well as a La Liga title since moving to the Bernabeu.

Follow Live: Africa Cup of Nations – Group play reaches round 2

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The first round of group stage matches is complete and now the slate reracks for teams to truly take control of their Africa Cup of Nations destiny.

[ LIVE: Africa Cup of Nations scores ]

Host nation Egypt takes the field for a second time as they meet Democratic Republic of Congo in the late match in Cairo, while Nigeria has the chance to secure advancement as they play Guinea, and Uganda can push Zimbabwe to the brink of elimination.

Egypt and Uganda can each secure passage to the knockout stage through Group A if both should win, while a loss for either side would complicate matters.The host nation will be looking for a better attacking display after Mohamed Salah was isolated in the narrow opening round win over Zimbabwe. Meanwhile, Congo DR likely did not expect to be facing elimination this early, with a team that sports West Ham’s Arthur Masuaku, former Premier League midfielder Youssouf Mulumbu, and Porto’s Chancel Mbemba.

In Group B, Nigeria can secure passage to the knockout phase with a win. The clear dominant side in a collection of countries that includes Guinea, Madagascar, and Burundi, Nigeria looked sluggish in its opener and will require a more complete attacking display to convince supporters they can challenge for the Cup.

2019 Africa Cup of Nations schedule – Wednesday, June 26

Group A
Uganda v. Zimbabwe – 1 p.m. ET
Egypt v. Congo DR – 4 p.m. ET

Group B
Nigeria v. Guinea – 10:30 a.m. ET