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Premier League 2017-18 preview – Arsenal

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An intriguing season awaits Arsenal as they prepare for life outside of the UEFA Champions League for the first time in 21 years under Arsene Wenger.

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The Gunners finished fifth last season, which insinuated we were hurtling towards an impending apocalypse given their penchant to finish in the top four no matter what over Premier League history. It was a good run while it lasted but perhaps that prompted much-maligned American owner Stan Kroenke to sanction the club-record deal for French striker Alexandre Lacazette over the summer.

[ MORE: 2017-18 PL season preview hub

Historically Arsenal are London’s most successful club with 29 major trophies (including 13 league titles) and despite the disdain towards Wenger over the past few seasons they continue to collect silverware, winning three of the last four FA Cups, including last season as they stopped Chelsea from clinching the double at Wembley in May.

With their north London rivals Tottenham finishing above them for the first time in over two decades, many are suggesting a power shift is occurring as Spurs’ young squad get ready to kick on in their new stadium next season. Arsenal know another season outside the top four would be a disaster.

Best, worst case scenario: They will finish in the top four because, well, it’s Arsenal (last year was a blip, they’ll tell you), but they are in real danger of finishing outside the top six due to the Europa League and the situation surrounding Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil. 

Best possible XI is…


—– Cech —–

— Mustafi — Koscielny — Monreal —

—- Bellerin —- Xhaka —- Ramsey —- Chamberlain —-

—– Ozil —– Sanchez —–

—– Lacazette —–


Transfers In: Alexandre Lacazette ($62.3 million, Lyon), Sead Kolasnac (Free, Schalke 04)

Transfers Out: Wojciech Szczesny ($13.2 million, Juventus), Yaya Sanogo (Free, Toulouse), Kaylen Hinds ($3.3 million, Wolfsburg), Daniel Crowley (Free, Willem II), Chris Willock (Free, Benfica), Glen Kamara ($662,000, Dundee)

Last season
5th place in Premier League
Round of 16 in UEFA Champions League
Quarterfinals of EFL Cup
Winners of 2016-17 FA Cup

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Star player: Alexis Sanchez – The Chilean superstar is the obvious standout player for the Gunners, but with just 12 months left on his contract and both Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City circling, will he be at the Emirates Stadium when the transfer window slams shut on Aug. 31? Sanchez, 28, was Arsenal’s top scorer last season with 24 goals and 10 assists in PL player and 30 goals overall. The longest this saga drags on, the more likely he, and Ozil, are likely to leave. Wenger doesn’t believe he will be playing anywhere else this season, so will Sanchez leave for free next summer? So many questions, but something which can’t be discussed is how important he is to Arsenal. Despite a club-record deal for Lacazette this summer, Sanchez is still the main man. Period. 

Coaches’ Corner: What more can we say about Arsene Wenger? He signed a new two-year deal with the Gunners early in the summer after leading them to FA Cup glory and the Frenchman, 67, is now heading into his 22nd season in charge of Arsenal. He knows he will have to balance his squad expertly in the opening months of the campaign with the test of the Europa League to come, but after seeing a 3-4-3 formation work splendidly well at the end of last season, maybe, just maybe, the Gunners are flying somewhat under the radar and will challenge for the title this season. Has the ‘Wenger Out’ brigade been silenced for at least a few months? He needs a strong start and for Lacazette to score plenty of goals, but this Arsenal squad is stacked in every position. If he can convince Ozil and Sanchez to stay the Gunners can seriously challenge for the title.

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PST predicts: Arsenal’s biggest challenge this season will be squad rotation but such is the size and strength of their roster they could play almost two different teams in the PL and the Europa League group stages and expect to do well in both in the first half of the campaign. All of their rivals have strengthened but with a strong finish to last season there is hope the Gunners will be back among the top four. PST believes that will be the case, plus they’ll make a deep run to at least the Europa League last eight. And oh yeah, they’ll probably win the FA Cup again too.

Panama boss blunt and honest before nation’s World Cup debut

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Panama coach Hernan Dario Gomez isn’t in the business of sugarcoating the truth before his team makes history by playing in its first World Cup.

The Central American team has trouble scoring and his players will need to have a good day to have any chance against Belgium on Monday, he said.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Blunt and honest, Gomez didn’t even hide his starting lineup, the normal way of doing things for coaches these days. And when asked if Panama could repeat Iceland’s upset against Argentina — the teams drew 1-1 on Saturday — the Colombian didn’t bother picking the right words when downplaying the Argentine squad.

“Iceland sent Croatia to the playoffs (in European qualifying), and it did well in the European Championship as well,” Gomez said. “It played against an Argentina squad which isn’t at the same level as Belgium right now. I mean, the distance between Iceland and Argentina isn’t as significant as the distance between Belgium and Panama.”

Gomez didn’t completely dismiss Panama’s chances of a surprise result against the Belgians, saying “anything can happen in football,” but admitted it wouldn’t be normal.

“It’s very clear that they are the favorites,” the 62-year-old coach said. “But each game is different, and if we have a good day, maybe we can achieve something.”

[ MORE: Where to watch Monday’s games, feat. England and Belgium ]

If Panama does find a way to advance past the group stage, Gomez said he already knows how he will be celebrating.

“I’ll drink two bottles of vodka,” he said laughing, before taking it back. “No, no … we are professionals.”

Gomez didn’t bother keeping his lineup a secret for the match in Sochi, naming the 11 starters without hesitating when asked about it. He even frankly talked about the formation his team would be playing Monday.

Gomez said Panama won’t be trying anything but defending against the talented Belgians, and admitted that scoring goals has been a weakness of his team entering the tournament.

“We’ve become strong on defense. It’s Panama’s virtue,” he said. “Panama isn’t a team that will score a lot of goals. We may create good chances in some matches, but we aren’t able to score. We arrive at the World Cup with problems scoring the goals.”

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The 55th-ranked Panama drew 0-0 with Northern Ireland and lost 1-0 to Norway in its final warm-up matches before traveling to Russia.

It qualified for the tournament by finishing ahead of the United States in CONCACAF thanks to a last-minute victory over Costa Rica in qualifying.

Gomez said the team carries a big responsibility by representing the nation at a World Cup for the first time, and his biggest job is to get the players ready for the pressure they are about to face.

“The whole country is excited about this,” Gomez said. “I have to prepare the players mentally.”

Gomez has been coaching Panama since 2014. He was previously with Ecuador, Guatemala and Colombia.

Panama’s other Group G games will be against England on Sunday and Tunisia on June 28.

Maradona: Argentina drawing Iceland is “a disgrace”

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It’s been a pretty trying and criticism-filled 36 hours for Lionel Messi and Argentina, and that was already true before the World Cup hero that is Diego Maradona weighed in.

[ MORE: Where to watch Monday’s games, feat. England and Belgium ]

No longer are La Albiceleste simply known as the side that drew tiny Iceland — the smallest nation to ever qualify for the World Cup — but now their efforts on Saturday have been dubbed “a disgrace” by Maradona.

It’s not so much the players whom Maradona, manager of the national team for the 2010 World Cup (quarterfinals appearance, beaten 4-0 by Germany), has gone after, but current boss Jorge Sampaoli for his lack of a proper gameplan befitting the opponent. As for Messi, who failed to convert a critical penalty kick, Maradona has absolved the Barcelona superstar of much of the blame — quotes from the BBC:

“It’s a disgrace. Not having prepared for the match knowing that Iceland are all [6-foot-3] tall.”

“I get the feeling there’s an anger at the heart of the team.”

“I don’t blame the players. I could blame the lack of work rate. But I can’t blame the players, much less Messi, who gave it all he had,” said Maradona.

“I missed five penalties on the spin and I was still Diego Armando Maradona. I don’t think that they dropped two points because Messi missed a penalty.”

England squad reconnects with fans with image makeover

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VOLGOGRAD, England (AP) — Whatever happens to England at the World Cup, at least the reception facing the squad should be less brutal than it was in 2014 after its exit following the group stage.’

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

For once, the players can’t be accused of hiding away, retreating behind their headphones. The hallmark of England’s preparations for Russia has been shedding the past reticence to engage with the public, a calculated move by the team leadership to reconnect with a public disaffected by years of failure at tournaments and uninspiring performances.

“They appear more relaxed. They appear more normal,” supporter Gavin Hughes said, overlooking the Volgograd Arena where England opens its World Cup campaign against Tunisia on Monday. “They appear human. They are just lads playing football at the end of the day. That’s been the problem in the past. There’s more of a togetherness.”

A defining clip of the 2010 World Cup was Wayne Rooney bellowing down the barrel of a camera after a 0-0 draw with Algeria: “Nice to see your home fans booing you, that’s what loyal support is.”

That disconnect with the public has been bridged by the 23-man squad facing the media in a 45-minute, Super Bowl-style session before leaving for Russia. The English Football Association’s approach is in a marked contrast to club duty where they are largely closeted away, save for appearances with paying broadcasters or often in controlled appearances.

[ MORE: Where to watch Monday’s games, feat. England and Belgium ]

“We’ve done a lot for the fans on social media so they can see what we are up to, which has not always been the case,” captain Harry Kane said Sunday. “It’s important while we have free time is to try to let the fans know what we are up to.”

The public is seeing a new side of the players. Not only are they more relatable but painted in a more sympathetic light, beyond the caricatures of millionaire mercenaries just chasing more money.

“That connection with the supporters is really important,” coach Gareth Southgate said. “There have been perceptions about our players for a long time … so it’s been really good for our public to see how much it means to the players to play, to see a different side of their personality.”

In a move unthinkable in years gone by, when a since-departed FA official blocked Rooney talking about his Christianity, defender Danny Rose recently opened up on his problems dealing with depression. Publicly praised by Prince William for raising awareness of health issues, Rose realizes how players can use their new platform to show their human side and inspire others.

“A lot of people messaged me to say thank you, that they know someone who is going through this or has been through that and that I’ve helped them and given them the confidence to express themselves,” Rose said. “We have a lot of down time and I’m going to think of something to help others when I get back. I’ve got time to think while I’m here and when I get back from the World Cup about how I can go forward and help people.”

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It’s not just about the players feeding a voracious traveling media pack with material. Kieran Trippier, who is also Rose’s club teammate at Tottenham, told the left back he appeared no longer burdened by a private plight in England’s last World Cup warm-up game.

“I was playing with a bit of freedom,” Rose said of the victory against Costa Rica. “I think he’s got a point.”

Southgate is credited with encouraging the warmer environment, far removed from the controlling regimes under Fabio Capello and Gary Neville, who was Roy Hodgson’s assistant for the dismal 2014 World Cup and 2016 European Championship last-16 humbling to Iceland. A bemusing, running theme in the British papers at Euro 2016 in France was the players’ refusal to divulge any details of a darts tournament. The squad has been overhauled by Southgate and it has even been playing darts with the media at the World Cup base near St. Petersburg.

Southgate has been playing his part, going to fan forums in the buildup to the tournament to recognize the commitment and cost involved watching England abroad.

“Sometimes those really good people who follow us are overlooked at the expense of some who have caused problems in the past,” Southgate said.

Ultimately, results dictate the public mood and England hasn’t won a knockout game at any tournament since 2006.

“It’s about how we perform,” Southgate said, “but there’s a bigger picture.”

WATCH: World Cup, Day 5 — England, Belgium enter the fray

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The weekend might be all but over, but that doesn’t mean that 2018 World Cup action is slowing down anytime soon.

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Monday, in fact, will be quite the opposite, as Group G giants — and a pair of popular dark horse picks — Belgium and England make their debut in Russia, taking on Panama and Tunisia, respectively.

Following Germany’s 1-0 loss to Mexico on Sunday, Group F is currently turned upside down on its head. Sweden and South Korea, who’ll face off in the day’s opener, are even more hopeful now than prior to the start of the tournament.

Below is Monday’s schedule in full.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.


2018 World Cup schedule – Monday, June 18

Group F
Sweden vs. South Korea: Nizhny Novgorod, 8 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Group G
Belgium vs. Panama: Sochi, 11 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE
Tunisia vs. England: Volgograd, 2 p.m. ET –LIVE COVERAGE