Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Who’s in the running for Premier League Player of the Year?

Leave a comment

The Premier League Player of the Year is missing its easy winner this go-round.

There’s no Mohamed Salah running away with the scoring record, no Eden Hazard or N'Golo Kante as the clear best player on the champion.

[ MORE: Key games left in the PL season ]

So let’s take a look at where the race stands heading into the final international break of the season.

The contenders

Virgil Van Dijk, Liverpool: Like N’Golo Kante before him, there’s a massive underdog status to a non-striker winning the Premier League’s Player of the Year (and you might want to argue that Kante deserved a Ballon d’Or finalist position). Flub against Fulham aside, few Premier League defenders have made their case in the past as well as Van Dijk has this season. Due to his status on a team who has a lot of the ball, it’s difficult to find super gaudy defensive numbers to make his case. Still, when taking into account Premier League center backs to play more than half their teams’ matches this season, no one on advanced stats site WhoScored is close to VVD. He also doesn’t have a “times dribbled past” per-match average on the site.

Eden Hazard, Chelsea: For years, Chelsea has gone as Eden Hazard. The Belgian is unquestionably one of the most talented players in the world, and is effervescent in attack. Sure, Chelsea’s also suffered through periods of head-scratching results and effort — nothing new at Stamford Bridge and he’s one of the only players to be a part of the downfalls of Jose Mourinho, Antonio Conte, and presumably Maurizio Sarri — but his 13 goals and 11 assists make him the only player to reach double figures in both categories this season. And imagine how high that assist total could be with Alvaro Morata or Gonzalo Higuain finishing at an average or above-average clip.

Raheem Sterling, Man City: At Liverpool a few years ago, it would’ve been accurate to call Sterling, “the kid with the abysmal second touch.” But the Englishman has become better and better by the season, and he’s actually the most economical star in the running for the PL’s Golden Boot; His 2.1 shots per game is less than Sergio Aguero (3.7), Mohamed Salah (3.4), Harry Kane (3.6), Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (2.6), Hazard (2.6), and Sadio Mane (2.4). Only Hazard and Bournemouth’s Ryan Fraser have more assists.

Mohamed Salah, Liverpool: His average second-half of the season is going to make it difficult for him to repeat as PL Player of the Year, especially considering he has just one goal with no assists in eight matches since Jan. 30 (and four of those were 0-0 or 1-1 draws). Yet it’d be wrong to discount his 17 goals and six assists through 24 matches, and a strong finish could make him a Golden Boot, Premier League, and Champions League winner. That’s not crazy.

Sergio Aguero, Manchester City: Eighteen goals and six assists make him one of four players to combine for 24 goals of production this season, and the 30-year-old may be get sympathetic votes given his surprising lack of honors during a torrential tenure in the Premier League. His three hat tricks should live in the memory of some voters, too, especially since two came against Arsenal and Chelsea. He’s there when you need him, that’s for sure.

Harry Kane, Tottenham Hotspur: Right in the Golden Boot race despite missing four matches with torn ankle ligaments, Kane has 17 goals and four assists for Spurs this season. Not that the League Cup should come into play in a PL season vote, but Spurs’ star could well be holding silverware in voters’ minds if he hadn’t been hurt before the second leg against Chelsea. Three matches against Pep Guardiola and Man City in the next few weeks will either help or hurt his argument (again, only one of those comes in league play).

FINALLY, “THE WILD CARD” — He’s not going to win this award, and probably won’t be on any short lists besides this post, but spare a though for Raul Jimenez of Wolves. The Mexican striker has been a part of 18 league markers for Nuno Espirito Santo (12 goals, six assists) during his first ever Premier League season.

He’s scored against Chelsea twice, Spurs twice, and assisted versus Manchester United, and Arsenal. Wolves are 10W-4D-2L when he gets a goal or an assist, and 2W-3D-9L when he doesn’t produce magic.

And let’s be honest: Is one of the key players above leading their team to a title as impressive as what Jimenez has done keeping his newly-promoted side in the race for a Europa League place (even given what Wolves spent around him)?

Honestly, he’s in my Top Three with Sterling and Van Dijk. Hazard is probably fourth, with Kane, Aguero, and Salah a bit behind.

Ex-England midfielder Gascoigne on trial for sexual assault

Getty Images
Leave a comment

LONDON (AP) — A prosecutor has alleged that former England midfielder Paul Gascoigne sexually assaulted a woman on a train by “forcibly and sloppily” planting an unwanted kiss on her lips.

Prosecutor William Mousley’s comments Monday came as Gascoigne, who has struggled with alcohol and mental-health problems, went on trial at Teesside Crown Court charged with sexual assault of the female passenger.

Mousley said the former England star “put his hands on her cheeks and kissed her forcibly and sloppily on the lips.”

The 52-year-old Gascoigne denies the charge.

The alleged victim has told the court that she froze when the man, who appeared drunk, kissed her in August 2018. She says she did not realize it was Gascoigne until after the alleged incident.

USMNT looks to build with Nations League visit to Canada

Getty Images
Leave a comment

The United States has faced much criticism since failing to miss out on the World Cup two years ago. If Gregg Berhalter is to silence the naysayers, he must use the Nations League as a building block for sustained success with a view towards 2022 World Cup qualifying.

Step 1 was completed Friday with a 7-0 demolition of lowly Cuba, and Step 2 comes Tuesday evening as the USMNT heads to Toronto to meet Canada at BMO Field, with kickoff set for 7:30 p.m. ET.

[ MORE: An in-depth look at Canada ]

The United States did the job at hand, soundly beating a far inferior opponent, allowing the squad to move forward quickly and emphatically. There is plenty more to prove, but the engine is revved and the gas pedal pressed. Still, Berhalter and company must remember this is a marathon not a sprint, and even the slightest slip in Nations League play will open the floodgates of criticism.

Seeing the bigger picture

The biggest thing for the USMNT to piece together in the Nations League is a sustained run of success that builds not just positive feelings but true momentum born by consistency. It will be fascinating to see the team chosen by Gregg Berhalter as he looks to put together consistent starting lineups that help build not just victories on the scoresheet but also chemistry between players who have a legitimate chance of seeing future lineups in more high leverage matches.

Against Cuba, positive performances can lend themselves to more opportunities down the line, but Berhalter must also be realistic about who has a chance to be contributors not just against the minnows of CONCACAF but also against teams the United States has aspirations of competing with. Against Cuba, Jordan Morris continued his revival as a winger, and he should be given more opportunities to build a relationship with Josh Sargent and Christian Pulisic up front. Jackson Yueill is another player who can earn his way into long-term contention, but it remains true that Michael Bradley is still the team’s best option at holding midfielder and requires minutes with the other consistent starters (although it would be interesting to see if the two can play together coherently). Reggie Cannon played well at right-back but incumbent DeAndre Yedlin deserves the chance to prove he’s still the correct choice after returning from a long injury layoff.

A view towards the future must be in the back of Berhalter’s mind, not just looking to achieve results but also achieve results with the right players. Meshing the correct squad now will unquestionably pay dividends down the road as the United States hopes to turn around recent negative results against teams like Mexico, Venezuela, Uruguay, Italy, and Colombia which fans aspire to be competitive against. With the start of World Cup qualification less than a calendar year away, the time is now to end the wild experimentation and begin dividing up the precious minutes between players who are considered legitimate possibilities for the potential 2022 squad.

18-year-old Alphonso Davies represents a youth movement with the Canadian national team that gives fans hope for the future (Photo by Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

Switching gears to Canada

Canada will no doubt present a tougher test than Cuba, but the United States will still be expected to emerge victorious, and anything less will represent yet another two steps back after one step forward.

The northern neighbors have high aspirations, hoping to challenge for World Cup qualification. Head coach John Herdman said in the run-up to Tuesday’s match that the United States may be a rival, but they’re also “standing in the way” of the ultimate goal, confident speech ahead of such a difficult test. LAFC midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye took it a step further, saying his play with the Canadian national team over the next few years “is going to help shape the foundation of how Canada is going to be in the next 10 years.”

Canada has a crop of young talent with Kaye joined by 18-year-old Bayern Munich winger Alphonso Davies and 19-year-old Gent youth product Jonathan David.

Still, they have not defeated the United States in their last 17 tries, dating back to 1985. Their last match was a measly 1-0 victory over the same Cuba squad that was obliterated by the US, forced to play 35 minutes a man down after Vancouver Whitecaps defender Doneil Henry was sent off. Canada still managed to hold a whopping 81% possession in that match, but worked just a single shot on target, which resulted in Davies’ 9th minute opener. They will need to be both more disciplined and more dangerous if they wish to pull off the upset in Toronto.

Projected lineup

— Steffan —

— Yedlin — Long — Ream — Lovitz —

— McKennie — Bradley — Roldan —

— Morris — Sargent — Pulisic —

Brad Guzan started the Cuba match in goal, but Zack Steffan is the true long-term option here and it would be natural to see him return to the lineup against the tougher opponent. Gregg Berhalter loves Aaron Long and his return could also be expected. As stated above, Bradley is a contentious selection among many fans but his presence calms the midfield, and he delivers a long ball forward like nobody else on the roster. The front three played exceptionally well against Cuba and it would be questionable to see anyone but those players start again with Jozy Altidore injured.

Prediction

The United States will no doubt face a tougher challenge, and the young attacking talent will test the in-flux back line. Yedlin at right-back will have the toughest test matching up with Davies defensively which could force him back more than Berhalter wants. It will be imperative for the midfield trio to establish control of the central areas and work forward from there. It can be expected that the United States will control the tempo, and if they stay calm, cool, and collected when Canada counters, they should come away with a nervy 2-1 victory.

Lyon hires Rudi Garcia as new manager

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Olympique Lyonnais has announced they have hired Rudi Garcia as manager, replacing the fired Sylvinho.

Lyon has struggled mightily to start the Ligue 1 season, winning just two of its first nine league games and sitting 14th in the table with nine points. Sylvinho, who was only hired at the end of May, was let go last week.

Garcia has formerly taken charge of Roma, Lille, and St. Etienne, and most recently managed Lyon rivals Marseille for three seasons before departing this summer. He left with Marseille having failed to claim a Champions League place amid the Ligue 1 top three.

“I chose Rudi Garcia because he is a fighter who, like us, has the ambition to win titles and succeed on the European stage,” said Lyon sporting director Juninho. The Brazilian had chosen his countrymate Sylvinho this summer, but made a change just nine matches into the season with the club winning its first two matches of the season and failing to win since. They have lost three of the last four, with all three defeats coming via a 1-0 scoreline. They have scored just five goals in the seven-match winless run, shutout on four different occasions.

The 55-year-old Frenchman will have plenty of proving to do to Lyon fans. Coming straight over from a direct rival, . Fans were outspoken about their cautious feelings, as the introductory tweet was ratio’d by those expressing a distaste for the hire.

“He is an experienced coach who has already won trophies,” added Juninho.“Wherever he has been, he has had above-average performances and has always managed to make the most of what he had at his disposal.”

Garcia’s first match in charge will be a home league match this weekend against Dijon, followed by a Europa League visit to Benfica.

Barcelona denounces Spanish court decision on Catalan independence

Getty Images
1 Comment

Barcelona released a statement criticizing a recent Spanish Supreme Court decision that saw 12 political activists jailed for their role in the 2017 push for Catalan independence.

The statement said that “prison is not the solution” and called the decision “condemnatory.” Instead, the club said that “the resolution of the conflict in Catalonia must come exclusively from political dialogue.”

The political activists were punished for pushing through an October 2017 referendum in Catalonia that resulted in over 90% of the population voting for independence. The referendum was declared illegal by Spain and seen within the country’s political hierarchy as an act of treason.

As one of the biggest social institutions of Catalonia, Barcelona’s statement on the matter carries significant weight both within the region and across Spain. Barcelona games often feature flags and banners calling for Catalan independence. Catalonia has also made a recent push for an independent FIFA-recognized squad, unsuccessful to this point. However, they played their first match inside a FIFA-sanctioned international window this March against Venezuela.

As a result of the court decision, the Catalan Football Federation suspended all its matches for Monday in solidarity with the accused. This includes only clubs and leagues that fall under the federation, which does not include Barcelona, La Liga, or the Spanish national team.

“FC Barcelona also expresses all its support and solidarity to the families of those who are deprived of their freedom,” the club said in the statement. Gerard Pique re-tweeted the social media version of the statement, adding the caption “Proud to be part of this Club.” Pique is a Catalan native and has appeared for the Catalonia national team 10 times.