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An Englishman in Bordeaux

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Very few have traveled the path from south London to Manchester, then Sunderland and then the Southwest of France. Then again, few people are Josh Maja.

While Jadon Sancho and Keiran Trippier may garner most of the media attention for English players plying their trade off the British Isle, one young Englishman is poised for a breakout year in Ligue 1. Maja, who joined Bordeaux during the January transfer window in 2019, is finally healthy after a knee injury cut short his first season in France, and he’s ready to make a big impact as part of a young squad.

 [ MORE: Ligue 1 score, schedule ]

The 20-year-old striker has an impressive story, overcoming the odds to not just become a professional, but also to make it to the top division in France. Maja began his career playing for St. Andrews Youth Club, its headquarters just steps away from Westminster Abbey.

He also spent time as a youngster with Crystal Palace and then Fulham, but left the club after three-and-a-half years for personal reasons. He then returned to St. Andrews, all the while going for trials across the country, trying to latch on with a team. While training with Manchester City and featuring in a friendly match against Sunderland, his fortunes suddenly changed. Sunderland liked what it saw, brought him to the northeast of England, and gave him a chance.

After working his way up the ranks from the Under-18s through the Under-23s and reserves, it was then-Sunderland manager David Moyes who gave Maja his first team debut in 2016. After working on his game for another season, Maja had a breakout year with Sunderland down in League One at the start of the 2018-2019 season.

Maja scored in Sunderland’s season opener, a 2-1 win over Charlton, and then went on to score 15 league goals in the first five months of the season, scoring with both feet and his head, and making it look easy at times.

Amazingly, Maja wasn’t even supposed to start that first game of the season. Sunderland had just signed experienced forward Charlie Wyke. But an injury to Wyke in the buildup to the game put Maja in, and he didn’t look back.

“I probably say everything was clicking,” Maja said in an interview with Pro Soccer Talk. “(Wyke) got injured in training so I had to start that game, and then I scored in the first game. From there, my confidence just went up. I think just the momentum and the confidence I had going into games was pushing me on to be successful that season.”

Suddenly, there was interest from clubs in the Championship, Premier League, and abroad. For a player who had trained at Manchester City, Fulham, and Crystal Palace, this could have been a big moment for him to make a move to a bigger club. But Maja said he didn’t see it that way.

“I just felt it was a good time for me to go abroad,” Maja said. “I didn’t feel like I was ready to take the step into the Premier League. I think signing for a PL team wouldn’t have been the right decision for my development.

“Obviously for me developing is playing games and I felt as if going abroad was going to enhance my development and get more game time. I think it was the right decision and I hope this season I can push on.”

By late January, it was done. Maja’s agent, Emeka Obasi helped Maja move from Sunderland to Ligue 1’s Bordeaux on an undisclosed fee, with Maja signing a four-and-a-half year contract. Obasi has been influential in seeing some of England’s top young talents move abroad, including Jadon Sancho’s move to Borussia Dortmund, Ademola Lookman’s move to RB Leipzig and Reiss Nelson’s loan to Hoffenheim last season.

“There was interest before the season, I knew there was a little bit there,” Maja said. “When I was scoring goals as the season was going on, the attention from them grew. My agent was the one, just because he’s got a good relationship with a lot of teams, he basically gave me confidence to listen to clubs abroad, and Bordeaux showed the biggest interest. That’s the main reason I took the opportunity to come here.”

After joining Bordeaux, Maja quickly integrated into the young squad and played in seven matches, starting three and scoring one goal. However, a torn meniscus in his left knee shut down the rest of his season for good. Instead of spending the time injured back home in London, Maja said he remained in Bordeaux to rehab, and he was ready to go at the start of the season for coach Paulo Sousa.

Following a preseason with Bordeaux, in which Maja participated in EA Sports League 1 games in Washington D.C., Maja seems primed for a big season in France. He’s come off the bench in each of the first three league matches of the season, scoring in Bordeaux’s 1-1 draw with Montpellier. Bordeaux’s young team looks to improve from a 14th-place finish last season, in which the club only earned 41 points.

“He’s very young like a lot of players on our team, but he has a lot of experience,” Maja’s Bordeaux teammate Aurelien Tchouameni said. “He played a lot of games in League One in England so he’s a very good player, a very good striker. I think he will help the team this season.”

At just 20, there’s still time for Maja to continue to improve, grow, and potentially return to England as a finished product.

“It’s a possibility,” Maja said about playing in the Premier League in the future. “I am focusing on my work in France with Bordeaux, maybe if the timing is right and the right club comes in, I’d love to take that opportunity. Right now I want to be the best I can be here.”

James says he was not knocked unconscious in Wales draw

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Head injury awareness again rose to the forefront in the 1-1 draw between Wales and Croatia in Cardiff when Daniel James went down after colliding with a pair of opponents.

The Manchester United winger looked to almost sure have been knocked unconscious when Domagoj Vida’s knee appeared to tap the back of his head while challenging for a ball in the air. Vida went toppling over the back of teammate Borna Barisic who ducked out of the way, but it was James who many were concerned for as he lay motionless on his back with his eyes closed.

Yet James was allowed to come back onto the field and completed the full 90 minutes, sparking criticism from injury advocates and fans who were concerned for James’ safety on the field, at potential risk for even more serious consequences should he indeed have suffered a concussion.

After the game however, despite what fans saw as James lie on the turf, the 21-year-old insisted he was not knocked unconscious. “I’m fine,” James claimed after the match, speaking to Sky Sports. “I think he just caught me in the head but I didn’t get knocked out fortunately.”

Wales boss Ryan Giggs backed up the decision as well, calling James’ motionless display “a bit of acting.”

“The medical staff went over, he was compos mentis and we did all the checks at half-time and he was fine,” Giggs said, referring to the latin phrase for “of sound mind.”

ESPN broadcaster Taylor Twellman, who has been outspoken over the past few years advocating for head injury awareness after his career was cut short by concussions, took to Twitter to criticize Wales for allowing James back into the game. Twellman, who was on the ESPN call of the broadcast with Ian Darke, said more needs to be done to prevent players from being able to force their way back onto the field, lest someone be killed by second impact syndrome.

Former Hull City player Ryan Mason, who was forced to retire after a serious skull fracture saw him fighting for his life, was also seriously concerned about the incident.

Interestingly enough, later in the match just seconds after the second half restart, young Wales midfielder Ethan Ampadu was whalloped from behind by Croatia’s Bruno Petkovic in a wild and reckless aerial challenge. Petkovic’s elbow went clattering into the back of Ampadu’s head, and the was left writhing on the ground holding his head. The Chelsea youngster was taken off the field and immediately replaced by Joe Morrell, while Petkovic was lucky to escape with just a yellow card.

Kane reflects on Tottenham, England struggles

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Harry Kane keeps finding the back of the net, but his teams keep losing.

The 26-year-old striker has bagged five Premier League goals in eight games for Spurs thus far, plus another seven goals for England in five Euro 2020 qualifiers this cycle. Yet Tottenham sits ninth in the table after three losses already this season, while England slumped to its first Euro defeat last time out, putting its seeding at the Euro finals next summer in jeopardy.

Kane is hoping to be a leader through the tough times for both club and country, wearing the armband for both as it currently stands.

“I think you need to lead by example,” Kane said ahead of England’s visit to Bulgaria on Monday. “Not getting too down when you lose a game, not getting too high when you win games. It is a long, old season for club and country ahead – a lot of games to be played so there are going to be tough periods.”

Kane has taken over the England captaincy on a permanent basis, and is filling in for the injured Hugo Lloris at Tottenham. “I am still the same person,” he said. “I still try and lead by example on and off the pitch and I will continue to do that. I have been in high pressure situations before in my career, whether that is going through goal droughts, playing in high-pressure games or not playing well as a team. It is something I will take in my stride and improve on.”

Leading by example includes finding the back of the net, while also supporting teammates both on and off the pitch. He knows even if he’s in good personal form on the stat sheet, there’s always ways to improve and help the squads through tough times.

“I am scoring goals but can I get more assists, create more chances? So yeah, I always look at little things I can get better at. Yes, the England form has been good but as ever, it can be better. We will see if I can continue scoring. It has been a good campaign but important I do not stop now.”

Euro qualifying: Gundogan saves 10-man Germany, Bale earns Wales draw

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Germany played for much of its visit to Estonia with 10 men as Emre Can was sent off for a bad last-man tackle just 14 minutes in, but Ilkay Gundogan‘s second-half brace saw Germany slide through with all three points on a 3-0 win to jump back on top of Group C. The all-important first came on a deflected effort from just outside the box to the right of center, while his second came minutes later with a shot from nearly the same place but just inside the area. Timo Werner added the third with under 20 minutes to go.

Wales secured a 1-1 draw at home against Croatia, but both sides will have greivences with the refereeing. Daniel James was taken out by Dejan Lovren on the edge of the box eight minutes in and likely should have been a penalty kick as the Liverpool defender barged James over without playing the ball. After Nikola Vlasic put Croatia ahead moments later, Gareth Bale would equalize just before halftime one a silky play through the Croatian defense, but a foul in the buildup wasn’t called that would have stopped play before the goalscoring moment.

There were also a pair of scary moments that involved nasty-looking head injuries. James came together with a pair of Croatians in the first half, and while it looked initially like Borna Barisic and Domagoj Vida had taken the brunt of the clash, James appeared to lose consciousness thanks to a knee in the back of his head. Despite the appearance of a clear distressing head injury, James was allowed to continue. Just second after the halftime break, Ethan Ampadu settled under the ball for a header until Bruno Petkovic blasted through his torso from behind, sending the Welsh midfielder to the ground awkwardly, holding his head in agony. Petkovic came in so hard that he earned a yellow card and maybe could have even seen red on another day. Ampadu was not allowed to continue, replaced immediately by Joe Morrell. Also notable in the match, Mateo Kovacic was taken off at halftime after appearing to pick up a muscle problem.

Austria held on for a 1-0 victory over Slovenia to temporarily jump into the lead in Group G, ahead of Poland on goal differential. Hoffenheim defender Stefan Posch scored the game’s only goal, a 21st minute effort off a corner. The back line did the rest, holding the hosts to just two shots on target in Ljubljana.

Poland secured qualification to the finals with a 2-0 win over North Macedonia behind goals from Przemyslaw Frankowski and Arkadiusz Milik, both which came in the final 20 minutes. The first was a messy finish from Chicago Fire winger Frankowski, collecting a flubbed Robert Lewandowski shot and poking it through past goakeeper Stole Dimitrievski. The second goal was much prettier, with the referee playing advantage after Lewandowski was fouled, and Milik delivered a delicious looper into the far corner.

Click here to see a roundup of the action from the early slate of games, including wins by Belgium, the Netherlands, and Russia.

Full Sunday Euro 2020 qualification scoreboard:

Kazakhstan 0-2 Belgium
Belarus 1-2 Netherlands
Cyprus 0-5 Russia
Hungary 1-0 Azerbaijan
Scotland 6-0 San Marino
Estonia 0-3 Germany
Poland 2-0 North Macedonia
Slovenia 0-1 Austria
Wales 1-1 Croatia

Teams who have secured guaranteed Euro 2020 qualification:

Italy
Belgium
Russia
Poland

Report: Alexis Sanchez out until 2020 with ankle injury

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Alexis Sanchez has targeted a return to form at Inter, but that may be shelved for some time as an ankle injury picked up on international duty could keep him out of action for months.

The Chilean federation confirmed that Sanchez suffered a “dislocation of the ligaments” in his left ankle in the 0-0 friendly draw with Argentina over the weekend, but did not specify a timeframe for his recovery. However, Italian journalist Tancredi Palmeri tweeted that Sanchez will not return until the calendar flips to 2020.

The injury is poorly timed for Sanchez who just broke into the Inter squad after being loaned from Manchester United. He scored his first goal in a 3-1 win over Sampdoria in late September before being sent off and suspended a match. The 30-year-old was also quality in the Champions League defeat to Barcelona, assisting Inter’s only goal.

At worst, a three-month injury layoff would see Sanchez return in mid-January, meaning he would miss the rest of the Champions League group stage as well as a host of Serie A matches. A Milan derby in early February would likely be a significant possibility for a late return.