What we learned in the Premier League

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Seven games took place in the Premier League on Saturday and we learned plenty at both ends of the table.

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Huddersfield and Fulham will both be frustrated as their bad luck continued, while Liverpool and Chelsea held their nerve and there were big wins for Watford, Southampton, Burnley and West Ham.

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Here’s a look at the key takeaways from Saturday’s PL action.


Liverpool respond with gritty away win
It wasn’t pretty but Liverpool regained a seven-point lead atop the Premier League table as Mohamed Salah won and converted a penalty kick to beat Brighton 1-0. This was the kind of test Liverpool had to pass if they’re going to win the Premier League this season. After back-to-back defeats against Man City (in the Premier League) and Wolves (in the FA Cup), this was a big statement from Liverpool. Playing at a well-organized Brighton is always tough but Jurgen Klopp‘s side made relatively light work of it as their defensive injuries didn’t hamper their charge towards the Premier League title. Of course, there are bigger tests ahead but they don’t arrive for a while. The next time they play a top six side is the trip to Old Trafford to play Manchester United on Feb. 24. Between now and then there are plenty of tricky tests against teams they are supposed to beat sandwiched between their UEFA Champions League last 16 clashes against Bayern Munich. Liverpool were far from their best at Brighton, but they got the job done with minimal fuss as they were back to being ruthlessly efficient, and solid, just as they were at the start of the campaign. That is a very good sign for Klopp after the disappointment of the last week.


Emery’s Ozil problem not going away
Arsenal lost 1-0 at West Ham on Saturday and Unai Emery‘s post-game press conference was dominated by one person: Mesut Ozil. The German playmaker was not in Arsenal’s 18-man squad for the London derby and Emery said that was because “the players who were here are the players who deserved to be in this match.” That is yet another ominous statement from Emery for Ozil, as the highest-paid player in Arsenal’s history is the biggest headache Arsenal’s new manager has. The defending wasn’t as bad as it has been at times this season in the defeat at West Ham, but you could say that Ozil’s creativity would have been handy as Arsenal had plenty of the ball but couldn’t break down a stubborn West Ham defense. They are now six points off fourth-place Chelsea and could be overtaken by Manchester United in the next few weeks, and all of the momentum Emery had from that 22-game unbeaten run has evaporated with away defeats at Southampton, Liverpool and now West Ham, as they’ve had no victories in their last four PL away games. This poor away form is all getting very similar to Arsene Wenger‘s final season in charge…

Talking of Wenger, he oversaw Ozil, 30, signing a new bumper contract in January and he is guaranteed huge sums of cash. Ozil has only appeared in 16 games in all competitions this season and Emery clearly doesn’t trust him, as he’s said before, in away games against feisty, dedicated opponents. Ozil is a luxury player who is excellent, when given the chance, against lesser opponents at home but it doesn’t appear that the high-pressing, more defensive style Emery prefers can carry any passengers against more aggressive opponents. If Arsenal aren’t going to use Ozil, they have to loan him out or sell him in January. With his huge wages that will be tough and an argument can be made that Arsenal needed him at West Ham to unlock a defense and create chances in only the way he can. Emery’s issue with Ozil, on or off the pitch, has to be resolved one way or another as it threatens to derail their season.


Puel’s time at Leicester coming to an end
The boos rang out at the King Power Stadium as Leicester City lost 2-1 to Southampton, with Claude Puel‘s time in charge of the Foxes surely coming to an end soon. After their big wins against Chelsea, Man City and Everton over the festive period, all was well. But three-straight defeats to Cardiff, fourth-tier Newport County in the FA Cup and now an injury-hit Saints (who played over 55 minutes with 10-men) have cemented what many Leicester fans have been saying: Puel is not getting the best out of this team consistently. His decision to play three defensive midfielders against Saints was baffling, as the likes of Demarai Gray and Harvey Barnes sat on the bench and made a big difference in the second half. Leicester play extremely well against the big boys as they have less of the ball and their squad of players have perfected the art of counter-attacking. Against the teams they are supposed to beat they just aren’t able to break them down, as Puel’s belief in ball rotation, slow build-up and keeping possession doesn’t play to the strengths of this squad. After a testing year off the pitch for Leicester, Puel has brought some stability. He is a good, honest man who has brought plenty of Leicester’s young players to another level but it looks like he may get the hook soon. There is no chance of Leicester being relegated this season, so now is a good time to bring in a manager who can get the best out of this group and kick them on in their pursuit of Europa League qualification.


Huddersfield, Fulham in danger of being cut adrift
The bad luck continued for two relegation battlers as Fulham scored two own goals to lose at Burnley and Huddersfield had a penalty kick awarded, then overturned at Cardiff. In two six-pointers they both came up short and all of a sudden Huddersfield are eight points from safety and Fulham are five points (basically six points, given their goal difference) from staying up. Given their respective schedules in the next few weeks as they play plenty of the big boys, they are likely to be cut adrift. David Wagner is doing all he can with limited resources at Huddersfield, while the jury is out as to whether Claudio Ranieri was ever the right hire for Fulham. Both teams have shown they can hang in games but the little things are going against them as Saturday proved. Their fortunes will have to change quickly if they’re going to drag themselves out of the relegation zone with 16 games to go. There is almost a resignation among the Huddersfield fans that they are doing down, while Fulham will be at that stage very quickly. 

Martino angry at Corona absence from Mexico squad

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New Mexico boss Gerardo “Tata” Martino did not hold back when asked about Jesus “Tecatito” Corona’s absence from the Mexico squad for the upcoming international break.

Corona pulled out of the squad due to an ankle injury he has apparently been playing through at his club side Porto. Still, Martino said he wished for Corona to travel to San Diego to meet up with the squad despite the injury as he is hoping to meet as many of the players in person and get to know them better.

“On Sunday, I spoke with him twice, once early in the morning and the other in the airport,” Martino explained to Azteca Deportes. “In the morning, I manifested the idea that even with impossibility [of playing with] the injury he had, we needed him to be with the group to get to know each other, it being the first meeting we’d have had. He didn’t have to train or play if he couldn’t, but we needed him to be here. At first he said yes and then on midday on Sunday, he called to say he’d thought about it and that his ankle wasn’t right and that he preferred not to travel.”

While Martino said that ultimately the decision was Corona’s to make, he made sure to note that “he’s [Corona’s] done something wrong” and that “he knows there will be repercussions in the future.”

“No one goes gun in hand asking them to come in and when they decide not to come we move on and keep going with the group that does want to be here,” Martino explained.

The Mexico boss also succinctly described his decision to leave LAFC striker Carlos Vela out of the squad, saying simply, “I don’t meet up [with the players] to make pacts. I had to take a decision and name the squad list and in that list I decided that Carlos shouldn’t be in.”

Just two months ago, upon officially receiving the job, Martino had described Vela as a “world class player.”

FA to investigate after coin thrown towards Chelsea’s Barkley at Goodison

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The FA has announced it is launching an investigation into the claims that a coin was thrown in the direction of former Everton player Ross Barkley during his return to Goodison Park with current club Chelsea.

The announcement confirmed that the FA has reached out to both clubs to make them aware of the investigation and procure any relevant information they may have regarding the incident.

Everton also announced it is conducting its own investigation of the incident at its home park. “We are investigating the alleged incident and reviewing footage,” Everton said in a statement. “If anyone is found responsible for this or other such incidents, the club will take robust action.”

Barkley transferred to Chelsea in January of 2018, and this was his first match back in his old stomping grounds. Everton won the match 2-0 to reach the 40 point mark and also pile pressure on Blues manager Maurizio Sarri.

The alleged coin assault came just two days after the FA, Premier League, and EFL issued a joint statement reminding “all supporters to carefully consider their behavior” at the weekend’s games and “all games in the future.” The statement came after a number of high-profile crowd disturbances, including a fan who ran onto the field and attacked Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish, plus another pitch invader who shoved Manchester United defender Chris Smalling during a match against Arsenal.

Euro 2020 qualification set to begin Thursday

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With the international break upon us, qualification for Euro 2020 is set to begin, with 55 countries spread across 10 groups to determine who will make the final field of 24 that will take place in the main event in the summer of 2020.

As the group stage draws nearer, we take a look at the important matches that will begin qualification play through the first three competitive days of the international break in round one of qualifying.

Austria v. Poland

Bayern Munich teammates Robert Lewandowski and David Alaba will go head-to-head as Austria hosts Poland in Vienna. Lewandowski hasn’t scored for the national team since a pre-World Cup friendly last summer, and the visitors will be looking to put a poor World Cup behind them for good. As the two highest-ranked teams in Group G, there will be plenty of eyes on this match between two teams who haven’t met in over a decade.

Belgium v. Russia

The two favorites in Group I go head-to-head to kick off the competition as two teams fresh off happy World Cup memories clash in Brussels. Both of these teams failed to win their UEFA Nations League groups, meaning Euro qualification is their only method of entry into the final competition. Kevin De Bruyne misses out for Belgium, but the rest of the star-studded Belgian roster is intact. The Russians are looking for a new goalkeeper after the international retirement of Igor Akinfeev, and the three men called up to replace him have a combined 12 caps between them.

Slovakia v. Hungary

In surely one of the most hotly contested groups of Euro 2020 qualification, Slovakia and Hungary meet hoping to get the jump on one another as they compete with Croatia, Wales, and Azerbaijan for a slot in the final tournament. Hungary has not won a competitive road match since 2016, and they have scored just one goal against Slovakia in their last five tries. Marek Hamsik, fresh off his move to Chinese club Dalian Yifang, leads the lines for Slovakia in this critical match.

England v. Czech Republic

The two favorites in Group A meet to see if either side can get a leg up on the other four teams early. England will be without John Stones and Luke Shaw due to injury, but otherwise most first-choice players are fit. Jadon Sancho may get a chance to continue his stellar club form on the international level, while Callum Hudson-Odoi is with the squad as well. The Czech Republic called up just 18 players, including Burnley forward Matej Vydra, one of only five players on the squad with over 20 international appearances.

Portugal v. Ukraine

Group B has three main contenders, and two of them will meet on Friday looking for an early advantage. Cristiano Ronaldo is in great club form and was rested in the latest Juventus match as they lost for the first time all Serie A season. All the usual suspects are back for a ridiculously experienced Portugal team that hopes to defend its Euro 2016 title. The squad features five players with at least 50 caps, including three with over 100. Ukraine, meanwhile, is without the injured Andriy Yarmolenko who tore his Achilles back in October. Coach Andriy Shevchenko made the bold decision to leave experienced defenders Yaroslav Rakytskyi and Yevhen Khacheridi at home, with their 104 caps more than the entire defensive unit currently in the squad.

Spain v. Norway

An absolutely loaded Group F begins play on Saturday as Spain hosts Norway in Valencia. While Spain is considered the favorite for the group, the rocky and disappointing World Cup journey and spotty Nations League performances leaves them considered vulnerable heading into qualifying, and with Sweden, Norway, and Romania all considered contenders for that second spot, Luis Enrique’s squad will have to be on top of its game throughout. Enrique has left out Real Madrid struggler Isco as well as Atleti pair Koke and Saul in favor of greener players like Iker Muniain. On the other side, Norway boss Lars Lagerback has an inexperienced squad captained by West Brom midfielder Stefan Johansen.

FULL ROUND 1 SCHEDULE (all times Eastern)

Thursday, 3/21

Kazakhstan v. Scotland – 11am
Cyprus v. San Marino – 1pm
Austria v. Poland – 3:45pm
Belgium v. Russia – 3:45pm
Israel v. Slovenia – 3:45pm
Macedonia v. Latvia – 3:45pm
Netherlands v. Belarus – 3:45pm
Northern Ireland v. Estonia – 3:45pm
Slovakia v. Hungary – 3:45pm

Friday, 3/22

Bulgaria v. Montenegro – 1pm
Albania v. Turkey – 3:45pm
Andorra v. Iceland – 3:45pm
England v. Czech Republic – 3:45pm
Luxembourg v. Lithuania – 3:45pm
Moldova v. France – 3:45pm
Portugal v. Ukraine – 3:45pm

Saturday, 3/23

Georgia v. Switzerland – 10am
Gibraltar v. Republic of Ireland – 1pm
Malta v. Faroe Islands – 1pm
Sweden v. Romania – 1pm
Bosnia & Herzegovina v. Armenia – 3:45pm
Italy v. Finland – 3:45pm
Lichtenstein v. Greece – 3:45pm
Spain v. Norway – 3:45pm

Inter handed suspended sentence for more racist chants

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MILAN (AP) — Inter Milan has been handed a suspended sentence of having one of its stands closed for a match after its fans were again found guilty of racist chanting.

The Italian league says in a statement that “a significant percent” of supporters in the stand in question were heard racially abusing AC Milan midfielder Franck Kessie during Sunday’s derby victory, in the seventh and 39th minutes of the first half.

The sentence will be suspended for a year but will be added onto any additional punishment if Inter’s fans commit more racist abuse during that period.

It is the second time this season that Inter has been sanctioned for racial abuse.

Inter was forced to play two games in an empty stadium in January after a Dec. 26 game at San Siro was marred by racist chants aimed at Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly.