Bayer Leverkusen unbeaten atop Bundesliga, teenager Wirtz stealing show

Bayer Leverkusen
Photo by INA FASSBENDER/AFP via Getty Images
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Such is the chaos of 2020 that one of the only unbeaten teams left in top European hadn’t summitted its league table until this weekend.

So perhaps it’s even more fitting and bizarre that Bayer Leverkusen’s run to the top of the Bundesliga and after three draws to start the season comes after selling the most-expensive German in history only to see a precocious 17-year-old take the bull by the horns.

[ MORE: The latest Bundesliga news ]

Leverkusen is one of four unbeaten teams left in the top five leagues of Europe after Atletico Madrid lost to derby rivals Real Madrid at the weekend, Die Werkself having drawn fellow German unbeaten side Wolfsburg to start the season.


Unbeaten teams in Europe’s top five leagues

AC Milan — 8W-3D
Bayer Leverkusen — 7W-4D
Juventus — 6W-5D
Wolfsburg — 5W-6D


Leverkusen’s only loss this season came to Slavia Prague in the Europa League, a 1-0 Matchday 2 blip in Czech Republic which is surrounded by five wins in which they’ve scored between 3-6 goals per outing.

Throw in the Bundesliga and German Cup — the latter of which was a 7-0 stomping of a fourth-tier side — and Peter Bosz’s has scored 51 goals and conceded 18 in 18 games.

Do the math, that’s good.

Lucas Alario is leading the team in goals with eight and Jamaican midfielder Leon Bailey has started well, with four goals and three assists. Young Moussa Diaby continues to impress and has played more league minutes than anyone besides goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky.

But the eye is drawn to the kid playing as an attacking midfielder, third in minutes across all competitions despite his tender age.

[ MORE: How to watch Premier League in the USA ]

Florian Wirtz, who doesn’t turn 18 until May, is killing it.

Bought from Koln in January after scoring eight goals in 10 U-17 Bundesliga games, he produced two goals and three assists in four matches for Bayer 04’s U-19s.

Promoted to the big club when the club returned from the coronavirus pause, Wirtz made his Bundesliga, German Cup, and Europa League debuts.

He became the youngest scorer in Bundesliga history, against Manuel Neuer Bayern no less, and finished the season as a promising tale for the future.

This season has been even better.

Wirtz has four goals and five assists in 16 appearances, but it’s not just about traditional numbers.

He leads the team in key passes and completed dribbles, sitting sixth and eight in the Bundesliga in both categories, respectively. Wirtz is not simply collecting dribble stats through a ton of attempts, completing 70 percent of his dribbles.

Of the 20 Bundesliga players with the most completed dribbles this season, only three — Augsburg’s Daniel Caligiuri, Gladbach’s Breel Embolo, and Dortmund’s Raphael Guerreiro — have a better dribble conversion than Wirtz (SofaScore).

Rolfes is trying to keep a lid on expectations for the teenager, who has handled the move over the Rhine in impressive fashion, and the club is reportedly optimistic that he’ll stay beyond his initial contract that runs through the 2021-22 season.

“When a player is just 17, it’s hard to predict his development and the progress he makes,” said sporting director Simon Rolfes. “There’s no question Florian has made a very impressive impact during his first professional year, so that is a promising situation for him and for us as a team. Most important is that he feels comfortable here and that he has the best environment to thrive and grow. That’s why he came to Bayer 04 and I know he appreciates the conditions we provide to him and his family.”

The early-season success for Wirtz is a bonus but the club’s fine start is not unexpected, at least within the club and certainly not for  Rolfes. As a player, the 38-year-old former defensive midfielder earned 26 caps with Germany, played 288 times in the Bundesliga, and finished runner-up in both Germany top flight and the German Cup.

The last time we spoke to Rolfes, he was looking at the German Cup Final and extended Europa League run as a signpost not an endpoint. After falling to Bayern in DfB-Pokal and falling to Inter Milan in the UEL quarterfinals, the players have not rested on laurels despite the exit of Havertz.

Rolfes told ProSoccerTalk that not making a big signing to replace Havertz served as a message to the team.

“The environment is very ambitious,” Rolfes said. “Although we made the cup final and made the quarterfinal in Europa, the players feel there are high ambitions in our club. They have quality and you give them quality. In German it’s fordern und fordern, I don’t know how it is in English. Give them confidence and also quality. We didn’t sign a big transfer for Kai, 1-for-1. That would have been a sign that we need a new player because we do not count on you. That gives extra motivation.”

Fordern und fordern, from our somewhat-limited translation skills, is demand and encourage/promote. That’s a tee shirt waiting to happen.

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Leverkusen has finished Bundesliga runners-up on five occasions since the mid-1990s, the record for a club without winning the league. Throw in five third-place finishes, and Leverkusen has been in the top three 10 times in 27 seasons. Only Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund have spent more season in the top three during that span.

We also asked Rolfes about the rise in American talent, as U.S. teens making an impact in recent seasons started with Weston McKennie and Christian Pulisic and have gone on to include Josh Sargent and Giovanni Reyna.

Bayer Leverkusen
Leverkusen’s Claudio Reyna in 1996(Photo by Arne Dedert/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Bayer 04 has history with U.S. players young and old but has signed players to South America in recent seasons.

“More and more eyes are aimed at U.S. talent and young prospects,” he said. “We’ve seen some great players coming up in recent years, just look at this past week’s Champions League action. At Bayer 04, we have our own history with young American talent like Landon Donovan and Claudio Reyna (right). We always seek to enhance our scouting network. The U.S. is a part of the world we will look to strengthen and keep a close eye on, for sure.”

Donovan was 17 when he moved to Leverkusen while the elder Reyna was 21.

Leverkusen has three matches left before Winterpause, Wednesday’s visit to Koln, a cup match, and a huge Saturday visit from Bayern Munich. Our partners SportsBet say they are +1800 to win the league behind Leipzig, Dortmund, and prohibitive favorites Munich, while only five teams are better than Leverkusen’s +1400 to win the Europa League.

PointsBet is our Official Sports Betting Partner and we may receive compensation if you place a bet on PointsBet for the first time after clicking our links.

Bundesliga fixtures, Matchday 12

Eintracht Frankfurt v Borussia Monchengladbach — 12:30 pm ET Tuesday
Stuttgart v Union Berlin — 2:30 pm ET Tuesday
Werder Bremen v Borussia Dortmund — 2:30 pm ET Tuesday
Hertha Berlin v Mainz — 2:30 pm ET Tuesday
Schalke v Freiburg — 12:30 pm ET Wednesday
Hoffenheim v RB Leipzig — 2:30 pm ET Wednesday
Bayern Munich v Wolfsburg — 2:30 pm ET Wednesday
Arminia v Augsburg — 2:30 pm ET Wednesday
Koln v Bayer Leverkusen — 2:30 pm ET Wednesday

Manchester City vs Arsenal, FA Cup fourth round: How to watch live, stream link, team news

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Premier League title rivals Manchester City and Arsenal finally meet for the first time this year when the FA Cup hits the Etihad Stadium on Friday.

The visiting Gunners have a five-point lead on City with a match-in-hand on the defending champions when it comes to Premier League play, and Arsenal’s done plenty good in the FA Cup.

[ MORE: How to watch Premier League in USA ] 

Arsenal last won the FA Cup in 2020, their tournament-best title total hitting 14. Man City won the previous season, and City has six FA Cup titles. Only six teams including the Gunners have more.


Manchester City vs Arsenal, FA Cup fourth round: How to watch live, stream link

Kick off: 3pm ET, Friday
TV Channel: ESPN+
Online: Updates via NBCSports.com


Key storylines & in-form players to watch 

The main storyline is easy: this is the first time we’ll see red-hot Arsenal test its mettle against the Premier League’s gold, er, silverware standard.

Arsenal will have a chance to run at Man City’s back line with Bukayo Saka, Martin Odegaard, Eddie Nketiah, and more, though there’s be even more juice in this match-up if Gabriel Jesus was healthy. Ex-City man Oleksandr Zinchenko may be ready for this reunion, too.

City’s won four-straight match-ups with Arsenal, but the last Gunners win came in… the 2019-20 FA Cup, when Arsenal knocked off the holders. That’s a top, top recent memory for the club, a North London outfit who will hope its a harbinger of what’s to come later this season. Plus, there’s silverware in play here, too, you know?!?

Will Pep Guardiola start Erling Haaland and Kevin De Bruyne? Man City’s next game isn’t until Feb. 5 versus Tottenham, but Guardiola may not want to give Mikel Arteta’s men a taste of the duo with a huge Premier League encounter looming Feb. 15 at the Emirates Stadium.


Manchester City team news, injuries, lineup options

Man City is pretty healthy and should be able to deploy whoever Pep Guardiola wants to see against Arsenal, though we know the Catalan wizard is sometimes careful with what he does in cup competitions against Premier League rivals.

Arsenal team news, injuries, lineup options

Gabriel Jesus will not be available to compete against his former club, while Reiss Nelson and Mohamed Elneny are unlikely to play.

2024 Copa America to be played in USA

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The United States will host the 2024 Copa America, which will once again feature six guest nations as part of a new “strategic collaboration agreement” announced by CONMEBOL and CONCACAF on Friday.

[ MORE: Report: Christian Pulisic wanted by AC Milan ]

Copa America last came to the U.S., in the summer of 2016 for Copa America Centenario, the 100-year celebration of the South American championship.

Back in 2016, the USMNT and Mexico were not required to qualify for the tournament, but the CONCACAF giants will not be given an automatic bid to Copa America 2024. They will also be forced to qualify as one of six CONCACAF through the 2023-24 Nations League. Previously, the other four bids from CONCACAF were awarded via various regional tournaments and and qualifying playoffs.

[ MORE: USMNT falls to Serbia in 2023 opener ]

The CONMEBOL-CONCACAF partnership also extends to the women’s game, where the Gold Cup is being revamped.

2024 CONCACAF W[omen’s] Gold Cup will include eight CONCACAF women’s national teams and four CONMEBOL guests

For women’s national teams, CONCACAF has invited the top four CONMEBOL national teams to participate in the 2024 CONCACAF W Gold Cup. The inaugural edition of this 12-team tournament, which is a key part of CONCACAF’s new women’s national team ecosystem, will be played in the United States.

The two Concacaf teams that will participate in the 2024 Summer Olympics (United States and Jamaica or Canada) will qualify directly for the 2024 Concacaf W Gold Cup. The remaining six Concacaf teams will be determined through the 2023 Road to Concacaf W Gold Cup.


2024 Copa America: What does it mean for USMNT?

First things first, it means playing more high-level, competitive games between World Cups. The USMNT has faced the likes of Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and other South American nations in friendlies over the years, but as things stand their only competitive fixtures come against CONCACAF competition — the Gold Cup and World Cup qualifying.

The timing of the tournament is beneficial for all national teams involved as well, at the halfway point to the 2026 World Cup — also set to be hosted in the United States (and Mexico and Canada) — just as EURO 2024 is the halfway marker for European nations. The 2023 Gold Cup is still on the schedule for this summer, with the final to be played at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles.

Only time will tell if the combined Copa America will become the new norm in the Americas, but given what we know about the profitability of international soccer, there will certainly be a “cross your fingers and hope all goes well” vibe in 2024.

Follow @AndyEdMLS

Report: Everton to appoint Sean Dyche as next manager

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Sean Dyche is set to be appointed as the new manager at Everton, replacing Frank Lampard, as the Toffees prepare for a potential relegation battle for the second straight season.

[ MORE: Report: Everton put up for sale by Farhad Moshiri, asking $615 million ]

An official announcement is expected from the club on Friday. The former Burnley boss has been out of work since the Clarets fired Dyche after nearly 10 years last April. Burnley were, of course, relegated from the Premier League anyway.

Marcelo Bielsa was reportedly the first manager contacted by Everton owner Farhad Moshiri, who’s looking to sell the club now as well, but the former Leeds boss declined the opportunity to wade into a relegation battle with a club currently unable to further invest in the first-team squad, whether that be this January or in the summer.

[ MORE: Premier League scheduleMidseason grades ]

After 20 of 38 games played this season, Everton (15 points) sit 19th in the Premier League table, ahead of last-place Southampton by five goals in the goal difference column. The good news: two points is all that separates them from safety in 17th place (Wolves). Furthermore, three points is all that stands in between Everton and 14th-place Leicester.


When did things begin to go wrong for Everton?

At the time of Rafa Benitez’s appointment in the summer of 2021, you had to go back to nearly the turn of the millennium to find a manager who 1) managed Everton for more than 40 games (all competitions), and 2) had a win percentage below 40 percent. David Moyes (42.05), Roberto Martinez (42.86), Ronaldo Koeman (41.38), Marco Silva (40.00) and Carlo Ancelotti (46.27) all matched or eclipsed the mark between the spring of 2002 and Benitez’s arrival.

Benitez’s tenure was generally viewed as an unmitigated disaster by Everton fans who were unhappy at the former Liverpool manager being hired in the first place. His win percentage (in just 22 games) was 31.82, a steep drop from his predecessors.

Lampard went a few points better worse than Benitez, checking in at 27.91. Going all the way back to the founding of the Football League in 1888, only one manager has produced a lower win percentage than Lampard in at least 40 games managed. Howard Kendall, like Lampard, lasted less than a full year from 1997-98, with a 26.19 win percentage.

Follow @AndyEdMLS

FA Cup fourth round schedule, how to watch live, predictions

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The FA Cup always delivers shocks and plenty of Premier League clubs have tricky tasks facing them in the fourth round.

After Aston Villa, Newcastle, Nottingham Forest and Bournemouth were all knocked out by lower league opponents in round three, plus Everton, Chelsea, Crystal Palace and Brentford knocked out by fellow Premier League sides, there are only 11 top-flight teams left in the last 32.

[ LIVE: Follow FA Cup scores, updates ]

The fourth-round draw’s already been conducted and Arsenal will tangle with Manchester City in a tantalizing tie, while Brighton against Liverpool has the makings of a classic and Manchester United will be on upset alert against Reading and so too will West Ham as they face a tough trip to third-tier Derby County.

Read on for FA Cup stream info, fixtures, and predictions.


FA Cup live scores, schedule, dates, how to watch

Dates: Fourth round (January 27-30)
Times: Below
Online: Live updates via NBCSports.com
How to watch: ESPN+


FA Cup fourth round schedule

All games 10am ET unless otherwise stated

Friday
Man City vs Arsenal – 3pm ET

Saturday
Accrington Stanley vs Leeds United – 7:30am ET
Walsall vs Leicester City – 7:30am ET
Fulham vs Sunderland
Bristol City vs West Brom
Sheffield Wednesday vs Fleetwood Town
Blackburn Rovers vs Birmingham City
Luton Town vs Grimsby Town
Ipswich Town vs Burnley
Southampton vs Blackpool
Preston North End vs Tottenham Hotspur – 1pm ET
Manchester United vs Reading – 3pm ET

Sunday
Brighton vs Liverpool – 8:30am ET
Stoke City vs Stevenage – 9am ET
Wrexham vs Sheffield United – 11:30am ET

Monday
Derby County vs West Ham – 2:45pm ET


FA Cup fourth round predictions – By Joe Prince-Wright

Friday
Man City 2-1 Arsenal

Saturday
Accrington Stanley 1-3 Leeds United
Walsall 1-2 Leicester City
Fulham 1-2 Sunderland
Bristol City 1-2 West Brom
Sheffield Wednesday 2-1 Fleetwood Town
Blackburn Rovers 1-1 Birmingham City
Luton Town 3-1 Grimsby Town
Ipswich Town 1-3 Burnley
Southampton 2-0 Blackpool
Preston North End 1-4 Tottenham Hotspur
Manchester United 2-1 Reading

Sunday
Brighton 2-2 Liverpool
Stoke City 2-1 Stevenage
Wrexham 1-2 Sheffield United

Monday
Derby County 1-1 West Ham


FA Cup third round replays

Tuesday 

Swansea City 1-2 (AET) Bristol City
Forest Green Rovers 1-2 Birmingham City (original tie postponed due to waterlogged pitch)
Wigan 1-2 Luton
Wolves 0-1 Liverpool
West Brom 4-0 Chesterfield

Wednesday

Leeds United 5-2 Cardiff City

Tuesday, January 24

Accrington Stanley vs Boreham Wood


FA Cup third round results

Friday

Manchester United 3-1 Everton

Saturday

Preston North End 3-1 Huddersfield Town
Reading 2-0 Watford
Tottenham 1-0 Portsmouth
Gillingham 0-1 Leicester City
Forest Green Rovers vs Birmingham City — PPD
Crystal Palace 1-2 Southampton
Hull City 0-2 Fulham
Middlesbrough 1-5 Brighton
Fleetwood Town 2-1 QPR
Ipswich Town 4-1 Rotherham
Bournemouth 2-4 Burnley
Blackpool 4-1 Nottingham Forest
Chesterfield 3-3 West Brom
Millwall 0-2 Sheffield United
Boreham Wood 1-1 Accrington Stanley
Shrewsbury Town 1-2 Sunderland
Brentford 0-1 West Ham
Coventry City 3-4 Wrexham
Luton Town 1-1 Wigan
Grimsby Town 1-0 Burton Albion
Sheffield Wednesday 2-1 Newcastle
Liverpool 2-2 Wolves

Sunday

Bristol City 1-1 Swansea City
Derby County 3-0 Barnsley
Cardiff City 2-2 Leeds
Stockport 1-2 Walsall
Hartlepool 0-3 Stoke City
Norwich 0-1 Blackpool
Aston Villa 1-2 Stevenage
Man City 4-0 Chelsea

Monday

Oxford United 0-3 Arsenal