Three things learned: Liverpool v. Arsenal

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Liverpool took another huge step towards winning their first-ever Premier League title on Saturday, as Jurgen Klopp’s men demolished Arsenal 5-1 at Anfield.

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Unai Emery‘s Arsenal took the lead through Ainsley Maitland-Niles, but a quick double from Roberto Firmino and a goal each from Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah did the damage before half time, with Firmino completing his hat trick after the break.

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Here’s what we learned from a lopsided encounter at Anfield, as Liverpool extended their lead at the top of the table.


FIRMINO HAUNTS ARSENAL AGAIN

Roberto Firmino had been going through a bit of a barren stretch before facing Arsenal on Saturday, but the Brazilian once again destroyed the Gunners with ease. Firmino hadn’t scored in his last five games for the Reds, but he scored twice in 60 seconds in the first half to swing the game in Liverpool’s favor. He then completed his hat trick in the second half to make it 5-1.

Firmino’s direct running twice caught out Arsenal’s defense, as it hurried them into making a hash of the clearance for his first and then he ripped up their entire defensive unit for his majestic second.

Robbie Fowler is the only Liverpool player to have scored more than Firmino’s eight goals against Arsenal in the Premier League, and the livewire has now been involved in 11 goals (eight goals, three assists) in seven games against the Gunners.

He may not have been red hot in recent months, but Firmino turned up when Liverpool needed him most to start their rout. When he’s at his best, he brings out the best in Salah and Mane too. He may not get all of the credit he deserves, but Firmino is pivotal if Liverpool is going to win the title this season. The no-look finish on his first goal proved his trademark swagger is finally back and that is great news for Klopp.


ARSENAL’S RAGGED DEFENSE STILL THEIR BIGGEST PROBLEM

The Gunners have looked solid enough when they have their best defensive unit fit and available. But that wasn’t the case, once again, at Liverpool as a makeshift defense which included veteran Stephan Lichtsteiner and a banged up Shkodran Mustafi (replaced at half time by Laurent Koscielny) and Sokratis at center back. Can we judge this Arsenal team based on the defense they put out? We can, even though they have struggled against the big boys in recent years, and especially Liverpool’s jet-fuelled offense.

They’ve now won just one of their last 13 PL away games against teams starting the day top of the table, losing the last seven on the trot by an aggregate score of 3-22. And they’ve now lost their last six PL games at Liverpool, conceding at least twice on each occasion.

Even if this is an Arsenal defense missing Hector Bellerin, Nacho Monreal and Rob Holding, they should be able to not implode in the manner they did at Anfield. This theme cannot continue, especially away from the Emirates Stadium.

Having conceded three goals at Southampton, two at Manchester United and another at Brighton in their last three Premier League away games before visiting Anfield, Arsenal have now conceded 11 goals in their last four PL away games and picked up just two points in that run. Emery’s men were on a run of 22 games unbeaten in all competitions until two weeks ago, and a lot of that was down to a newfound defensive toughness.

That has evaporated as injuries have stacked up, but with Lucas Torreira struggling as their midfield terrier in front of the back four once again, Arsenal must plug the gaps which keep on appearing in their backline away from home. A porous defense away from home led to the eventual demise of Arsene Wenger last season and it threatens to derail the progress made by Emery early on this season too.


RAMPANT LIVERPOOL CONTINUE TITLE CHARGE

Liverpool have now won nine PL games on the spin and they’re unbeaten through their first 20 games. Heading into their clash at Manchester City on Jan. 3 (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) they are momentarily 10 points clear of City — who play on Sunday against Southampton — and Klopp’s side may well have the chance to all but end the challenge of their rivals with Tottenham (nine points back) slipping up this weekend too.

Who on earth can stop them? In truth, it is one team: themselves.

They are simply in imperious form. Unbeaten in 31 games at home, the last time Liverpool lost at Anfield was in April 2017. Klopp’s men have an air of confidence each time they walk out onto the pitch and they have the ability to rotate their squad with Fabinho, Xherdan Shaqiri coming in, and a wealth of options in midfield and attack. If injuries are kind to Liverpool, the strength in depth they have this season proves they can go all the way with Adam Lallana, Nathaniel Clyne and Jordan Henderson coming off the bench against Arsenal, as the likes of Naby Keita and Daniel Sturridge watched on from the sidelines.

Klopp’s team are a well-oiled machine and although they will be focusing on one game at a time between now and May, they are surely now allowed to dream of winning the title. Everyone connected with Liverpool Football Club is in dreamland. But if City beat Southampton tomorrow and then beat Liverpool, the lead atop the table for Klopp’s men will be back to four points. Lot of ifs there, but given their long wait for another league title and previous heartbreaks, nobody connected with Liverpool will be allowing complacency to creep in.


Infantino says closing stadiums only a short-term coronavirus solution

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FIFA president Gianni Infantino has stated that he does not support playing closed-door games as a long-term solution to avoiding the threat of coronavirus.

Serie A will play games behind closed doors for the second straight weekend thanks to the rapid spread of the disease that has infected over 800 people in Italy. Most notably, the game between title contenders Inter and Juventus will be played in front of an empty Allianz Stadium in Turin.

“I don’t think it is sustainable in the long term to play behind closed doors,” Infantino said before a meeting in Northern Ireland. “Every competition organizer ultimately has to decide what is best for him. Obviously, on the short term it can be a solution [to play without fans] in order to move on. But you cannot imagine a few months of a competition being played, several matches being played, behind closed doors.”

Infantino went on to say he “wouldn’t exclude anything” when asked about possible solutions for international fixtures coming up in March, but admitted “I hope we will never have to get into this direction. We cannot underestimate and say it’s nothing but we don’t have to overreact and panic.”

Meanwhile, English tabloids reported Friday that the Premier League could close up shop early, costing Liverpool its league title should it take place before Liverpool is mathematically crowned champions. However, the Liverpool Echo reported that the Premier League is still considering all possibilities as solutions for coronavirus prevention and that scenarios like that are at this point considered “still at a hypothetical stage.”

Some Premier League clubs confirmed they are banning handshakes around the training ground, while others have told players to tone down fan interaction for the time being. Other leagues around Europe have taken more drastic measures, such as the Swiss league which has completely shut down until at least mid-March on instruction from the government.

French goalkeeper throws ball into own net

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There’s own-goals, and then there’s own-goals. French goalkeeper Brice Maubleu scored an own-goal.

The Grenoble goalkeeper, taking on fellow Ligue 2 side Caen on Friday, threw the ball into his own net in the 18th minute to give the hosts a 2-0 lead they would not relinquish.

It appeared that Maubleu was attempting to distribute the ball to one of his defenders only to pull back at the last minute, and upon his attempt to halt the throw, he instead tossed it back towards his own net. The 30-year-old captain attempted to scramble back and stop the ball, and he very well may have, but the referee gave the goal and replays were inconclusive.

You can watch video of the brutal own-goal here.

Maubleu confirmed that was his intention after the fact. “There are dark evenings and this is one of them,” the Grenoble captain said after the match. “On the goal, I wanted to quickly set Jerome (Mombris) away, but I saw that he was not looking at me so I revised my decision and then the ball left my hands”

Maubleu recalled when French goalkeeper Steve Mandanda did something similar while playing for Marseille in 2012, throwing the ball right to an opposition attacker who easily buried the ball into the empty net. “This happens sometimes and people think that it can’t possibly happen to others. In the end, I play the ball thinking that all was still ok but apparently the ball had already gone in,” Maubleu said.

“I am disappointed because it gave our opponent a two-goal lead. I will have to quickly get back working and move on, because it will likely do the rounds on social media. The goalkeeper position is exposed and there are risks. After that, I was back in my match and made saves even though those won’t be remembered.”

The 30-year-old Maubleu has played for just Tours FC and Grenoble in his career, making two Ligue 1 appearances in 2009 before spending the rest of his time in Ligue 2.

Arsenal posts loss as Champions League absence felt

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Arsenal announced Friday a loss of £27.1 million ($34.6 million) for the most recent fiscal year, citing the combination of high player wages and a lengthy absence from the UEFA Champions League competition as the main contributing factor for the poor financial performance.

The loss is the club’s first since 2002, according to Chairman Sir Chips Keswick.

Arsenal Holdings plc released the after tax total for the fiscal year ending May 31 2019, down from a $72.1 million profit the previous year. Commercial revenues were up significantly, increasing profits from $495.6 million to $504 million. Still, operating profits rocketed to $295.8 million thanks to what the club called “continued investments in player wages.”

“Our player trading profit for this financial year was limited and this combined with a second consecutive season of Europa League football has meant the club recorded its first overall loss since 2002,” Keswick said in a club statement. “For 2019-20 we will see increased commercial revenues from Adidas and our renewed deal with Emirates, but another season outside the Champions League will continue to apply pressure to our financial results.”

The Gunners were shockingly eliminated from the Europa League on Thursday at the hands of Olympiakos in extra-time, meaning the only way they end the Champions League drought will be to charge into the Premier League top four. Currently Arsenal sits ninth in the table, six points off fourth-placed Chelsea.

Back in July, Arsenal director Josh Kroenke – son of owner Stan Kroenke – warned that the club “had a Champions League wage bill on a Europa League budget.”

3 things to know about Inter Miami and Nashville S.C.

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The Major League Soccer gets under way this weekend, and for those fans who would like to get a better feel for the league as a whole, a good place to start is the two new clubs.

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Inter Miami and Nashville S.C. will both get a difficult welcome to the U.S. top flight this weekend, with Nashville hosting Atlanta United on Saturday while Miami travels to LAFC on Sunday. Neither clubs are expected to be immediate playoff contenders, but as both their debut opponents will tell them, there doesn’t always have to be a learning curve for new introductions.

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So, with that in mind, let’s learn more about the two expansion clubs that take the MLS total to 26.

INTER MIAMI

Seven years after David Beckham retired from Major League Soccer franchise and began pursuit of club ownership, his team finally takes the field. It has been a brutally long journey for the South Florida side, but the beginning is finally here. The roster looks solid and the coaching staff is well built, so don’t be surprised if they put up a fight in the playoff race.

1. The team is stocked with MLS veterans

Inter Miami had a clear strategy while building its initial squad – hoard experience. The team acquired USMNT midfielders Lee Nguyen and Wil Trapp, former champions AJ DeLaGarza and Alvas Powell, longtime NYRB goalkeeper Luis Robles, journeyman Juan Agudelo, and former NYCFC defender Ben Sweat. The players may or may not click together, but if one thing is for certain with Inter Miami, the club doesn’t feel as brand new when looking at the roster.

2. Matias Pellegrini will lead the way

While the squad is loaded with domestic experience, the club looked abroad for its first two Designated Players. 26-year-old Mexican international Rodolfo Pizarro joined from Monterrey for a hefty fee, and he will be critically important moving forward in midfield. Young striker Julian Carranza is injured for the first month but will be a major factor up front as well. However, 19-year-old Matias Pellegrini will likely be the club’s most important player. The Argentine is an electric player, and how he integrates with a squad full of veterans will make Inter Miami an intriguing watch early in the campaign; if he doesn’t hit the ground running, the Inter Miami attack will sputter.

3. Depth is a strength

This team may need time to gel, but it is a well-constructed roster that is built to weather a storm. The only position that looks thin is center-back where Powell and Nicolas Figal are backed up by just inexperienced Grant Lillard, 19-year-old Christian Makoun, and 20-year-old Andres Reyes. Everywhere else is covered by experience. DeLaGarza provides excellent cover for Sweat and recent college graduate Dylan Nealis. Nguyen may not be an everyday starter any more but he is as good as bench options come. Robbie Robinson will likely begin the season up front but eventually take a back seat to Carranza and be a solid option off the bench, while Jerome Kiesewetter brings European experience as well.

NASHVILLE S.C.

Making less of a splash than Inter Miami is new Western Conference members Nashville S.C. Unlike Inter Miami, Nashville isn’t starting completely from scratch, having two years in USL under their belt. Still, there are plenty of questions to be asked about how Nashville can compete on a consistent basis this season.

1. This team is strong defensively, and not so much up front

This squad is clearly built for one thing – defensive strength. Nashville brought in USMNT veteran Walker Zimmerman from LAFC who will be partnered with 26-year-old former LA Galaxy defender Dave Romney. Dax McCarty provides good cover in midfield, and while Daniel Lovitz can get forward, the full-back group doesn’t exactly scream “attack attack attack.”

On that sense, going forward may be an issue. Nashville scored nine goals in preseason, but playing against other sides’ backups for much of the time it’s hard not to take that with a grain of salt. Dominique Badji’s MLS numbers with Colorado and FC Dallas are mediocre at best and Hany Mukhtar’s production abroad doesn’t jump off the page either. David Accam can create for himself but only has 17 assists in 124 career MLS appearances, so while goalscoring can be there, the creativity is lacking greatly. Abu Danladi hasn’t quite lived up to his expectations thus far and will be hoping a change of scenery can unlock a new level, but it’s hard to see the season-long consistency there.

2. The roster is full of scrappy players

A number of guys on the fringe of the Nashville S.C. roster may actually end up contributing more than expected. Randall Leal is an exciting player who could find himself a fan favorite with his swashbuckling style of play. With the expected inconsistency up front, Daniel Rios could get a look if he can translate his USL goalscoring numbers (40 goals in 62 games) to the MLS level – obviously a major question, but also one deserving the time of day. McCarty is a well-liked player who puts in a shift in midfield, and his partner Anibal Godoy plays the crunching style expected of a Central American defensive midfielder. This team will be a grind to break down.

3. Nashville probably needs to look for a few more pieces

With only Mukhtar signed on as a Designated Player, Nashville is probably a few more key contributors away from a playoff spot. Should they hold down a respectable start to the campaign, a summer signing could push this team into contention, but as it stands the cohesion brought on by two years in USL likely won’t be enough to see them keep pace with the stronger teams in the West. With an opening trio of games against Atlanta United, Portland, and Toronto FC, it will be difficult for the new boys to hit the ground running this season, and at times it could feel like a slog.