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Rejuvenated and reinvented, Toure integral to Man City again

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MANCHESTER, England (AP) It has been one of the great sights of English soccer in recent years, Yaya Toure picking up possession in central midfield for Manchester City, rampaging upfield and scattering opponents in his path.

Those days appear to have gone.

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Toure is now found sitting in front of City’s defense, reading the game, dictating its tempo, picking off opposition passes, and starting attacks rather than finishing them.

His reinvention over the last three months as a holding midfielder — and one of Pep Guardiola‘s most integral players — is one of the stories of City’s season and has coincided with an upturn in the team’s fortunes. It’s as much a tale of the 33-year-old Toure’s enduring quality and hunger as circumstance and opportunism.

The former Ivory Coast captain started the season ostracized by Guardiola, who was unhappy at both Toure’s fitness levels and the criticism coming from the player’s outspoken agent, Dimitri Seluk.

Toure was even omitted from City’s squad for the Champions League group stage but he knuckled down, lost about 14 pounds, and waited for his chance. That came when one fellow midfielder (Fernandinho) was hit with a four-match ban and another (Ilkay Gundogan) sustained a season-ending knee injury.

[ MORE: FA Cup QF draw — Chelsea vs. Man United; Arsenal vs. Lincoln City ]

Toure, looking lean and fit, started a Premier League game against Watford on Dec. 14 and has played every match since, excelling as the team’s deep-lying midfielder and no longer the box-to-box player that City fans have been used to seeing.

Such is his change in status and importance that he was one of the few players rested by Guardiola for the FA Cup match at Huddersfield on Saturday ahead of City’s match against Monaco in the last 16 of the Champions League on Tuesday.

“He has been unbelievable since the game he came back,” City midfielder Kevin De Bruyne said on Monday. “Last year, he wasn’t that sharp. Give him credit for coming back and doing very well.”

Guardiola has settled on a central-midfield trio of Toure, as the protector of the defense, and De Bruyne and David Silva as the playmakers, and it is proving an ideal mix. City has conceded only one goal in its last five games, and its previously shaky defense kept five clean sheets in its last six away games.

Toure has said he feels like a kid again under Guardiola.

[ MORE: Fifth-division Lincoln City shock PL side Burnley in FA Cup ]

“He is so important for his personality,” Guardiola said on Monday of Toure. “He is part of the history of the club. He helped the club to be where it is. He is back with us and playing at a high level.”

Monaco will be a big test for Toure. The French league leader has scored more goals than any other team in Europe’s top five leagues this season, and is lethal on the counterattack thanks to ultra-fast transition play involving forwards Bernardo Silva, Kylian Mbappe, and Valere Germain.

Toure will be tasked with stopping them from getting at City’s backline, and that’s no easy job. The games in which he struggled since his return have been the losses to Liverpool and Everton, who played a high-energy and up-tempo style.

Monaco will be a level up from that.

[ MORE: FA Cup roundup — Premier League sides underwhelm in 5th round ]

“As a spectator, it is so nice to watch them. I am really impressed how good they are; physically strong, the full backs play like wingers, the wingers play like attacking midfielders … a complete team,” Guardiola said on Monday, describing their attackers as “killers in the box.”

Yet these are exactly the sort of games in which Guardiola will lean on the experienced Toure, a Champions League winner under the Spanish coach at Barcelona in 2009.

In those days, he also played as a holding midfielder and it is in that position that he’s set to end his career.

“I judge players on whether they are able to go to Anfield, Old Trafford, the Nou Camp, or Madrid or Turin and if they are able to react,” Guardiola has said. “There is no doubt about Yaya with that.”

Liverpool find another way to win in West Ham comeback

Liverpool v. West Ham recap and video highlights
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Sadio Mane punched in a back-post winner as poor Liverpool found a way to keep its unbeaten Premier League season alive with a 3-2 defeat of West Ham United at Anfield.

The Reds improve their record to 26-1, leading second-place Manchester City by 22 points.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

West Ham threw away a 2-1 lead when star goalkeeper Lukasz Fabinaksi fumbled an easy save, and Mane made the most of the disorganized Irons defense late in the match.

The Irons remain a point off safety with 24 points.


Three things we learned

1. Team of destiny Liverpool again wins while miles off its best: Liverpool center back Joe Gomez and to a lesser extent his partner Virgil Van Dijk had poor days, and Jurgen Klopp‘s attackers’ finishing touches were largely absent. Still, the defiant league leaders found their way to three points are now 11 matches from history.

When you can play way off your standard and still out-attempt a Premier League side 25-5, well, you’re pretty good.

2. Fabianski gifts Reds equalizer: Lukasz Fabianski has saved West Ham so, so many times, and he made some nice saves on the day including a wonderful stop on Trent Alexander-Arnold. But his howler of the highest variety on Salah’s tepid low shot is about as bad as it gets for a keeper short of turning and firing into your own goal.

3. Amazing Alexander-Arnold: The right back was again phenomenal an easy Man of the Match in assisting two goals. He would’ve had three if Mane stayed onside in a late lapse of judgment.


If a game had the makings of a 4-4, it was this one; Liverpool has quality players, obviously, but has been prone to lapses. There are fewer of the former and more of the latter for West Ham, but the attackers have high potential.

Liverpool took the leader when Wijnaldum turned a header inside the near post, but Issa Diop answered with a header of his own off a corner kick. The West Ham center back started in the six and darted back in front of Joe Gomez to nod home.

Chances for Sadio Mane after fooling Robert Snodgrass with a dribble and Trent Alexander-Arnold from the right led to near misses.

[ MORE: Premier League stats ] 

Roberto Firmino was sent through by Trent Alexander-Arnold and missed a chance badly to start the second half, and Mohamed Salah soon saw a shot blocked by West Ham.

West Ham was stout at the back and looked prepared on the counter, but Liverpool can only blame itself for the second goal. Fornals hung out between Joe Gomez and Virgil van Dijk, with Fabinho also in the vicinity of Declan Rice‘s cross.

Lukasz Fabianski made a wonderful flying save on an Alexander-Arnold knuckler outside the box, and Liverpool move into the final half-hour up one.

The keeper made a huge error to allow to Liverpool 2-2, a Salah shot squirting through the player’s hands and legs.

Michail Antonio flubbed a 72nd-minute point blank chance.

Liverpool blew chances to make it 3-2 through Van Dijk and Salah as the match reached the final quarter-hour.

Alisson collected a low drive from Sebastian Haller.

Alexander-Arnold set Mane up for a back post finish to put Liverpool ahead, and the same pair saw a fourth goal chalked offside as the Senegalese lazily lost his focus.

Substitute attacker Jarrod Bowen was saved by Alisson when Antonio played him through in the 88th minute.

West Ham had a few more big chances, Noble seeing a rip deflect wide for a final corner. It was cleared by Andy Robertson.

Smalling considering full-time Roma switch: “Long may it continue”

Chris Smalling
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Manchester United loanee Chris Smalling is talking up life in Rome amidst a possible Serie A Team of the Season campaign.

Smalling had a disappointing 2018/19 season at Old Trafford, so it’s not a surprise that Solskjaer thought he could do better than the 30-year-old.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Instead, Smalling’s numbers are close to that of record-signing Harry Maguire in a Serie A league with slightly more scoring. Smalling ranks in Italy’s top ten for interceptions (2.2), clearances (4.5) and blocks (1.2).

Roma boss Paulo Fonseca wants the player to stay, as i Lupi are fifth in Serie A and Smalling when has played nearly every minute when healthy. Smalling told our friends Sky Sports that he has “an interesting decision to make.”

“Some of the other players said if you really hit the ground running, the love that you can have in this city is unbelievable. That’s really what I’ve felt and so have my family. Long may it continue.”

His age makes it tricky, but the advanced stats show that Smalling has been a very effective Premier League center back for four of his last six seasons.

Smalling may want to leave if Solskjaer isn’t prepared to hand him regular football, which would be a given in Rome. Now what’s the price tag?

According to WhoScored’s player comparison tool:

Chris Smalling
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Watch Live: Liverpool v. West Ham

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Liverpool v West Ham takes center stage at Anfield on Monday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) as the Reds aim to reclaim their 22-point lead at the top of the Premier League table.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE

Jurgen Klopp‘s side remain unbeaten this season and with five more wins needed to guarantee the Premier League title, the finishing line is in sight. They are aiming for an 18th consecutive Premier League win which would equal Man City’s record for the most victories on the trot in top-flight history.

As for David Moyes and the Hammers, they are scrapping for their lives at the other end of the table and their daunting run of fixtures makes them one of the favorites for relegation.

Last season the Hammers did draw at home against Liverpool in the PL which was a key factor in the Reds not winning the title last time out but West Ham look extremely far from the team they were last season.

Liverpool v West Ham is first against 18th and all signs point to a big win for the home side as their unbeaten season continues with 25 victories from 26 games so far.

In team news Liverpool are without captain Jordan Henderson who has suffered a hamstring injury and will be out for the next three weeks.

Naby Keita comes in for Henderson in midfield as the rest of the Liverpool team is what you expect.

West Ham are without the injured Ryan Fredericks who suffered a shoulder injury in the 2-0 defeat at Man City on Wednesday.

Teenager Jeremy Ngakia comes in to replace Fredericks, while Felipe Anderson also comes into the lineup.

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Kids under 12 banned from heading in UK

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LONDON (AP) Children up to the age of 12 will be banned from heading a soccer ball in practice sessions in England, Northern Ireland and Scotland as authorities look to address the potential long-term impact on health of head injuries.

[ MORE: US Soccer bans heading ]

The governing bodies of the three regions announced the new heading guidelines on Monday, months after a Scottish study found former professional players there were less likely to die of common causes such as heart disease and cancer compared with the general population but more likely to die with dementia.

The guidelines say there will be a “graduated approach” to heading in practice for kids from 12-15, while the heading will be restricted to one practice session per week for kids 16 and 17.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

There will be no change in terms of heading in matches, taking into consideration the extremely limited number of headers which actually occur in youth matches.

The Scottish study did not state that heading a ball was the cause of the increased prevalence of neurodegenerative conditions among soccer players, but the decision to update the guidelines was taken to “mitigate against any potential risks”, the English Football Association said in a statement.

“This guidance is a responsible development to our grassroots coaching,” FA chief executive Mark Bullingham said, “without impacting the enjoyment that children of all ages take from playing the game.”

The associations said the guidance had been produced in parallel with the UEFA medical committee, which is seeking to produce Europe-wide guidance later this year.

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