Making the case: Raheem Sterling as PL Player of the Year

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Even a year ago, I wouldn’t have imagined someone making this case in a rational manner any time soon.

I especially didn’t think it would be me.

But as the Premier League takes a deep breath ahead of the stretch run, I’m going to have to say it.

[ MORE: JPW ranks the candidates ]

Raheem Sterling has been the best attacking player in the Premier League this season, and quite possibly the best player period.

Whether he earns the nod over defender Virgil Van Dijk is another story altogether, as it will probably comes down to wins and losses and one or two titles, but consider how deadly, consistent, and deadly consistent Sterling has been since the start of the season.

Of the four Premier League players who’ve accounted for some combination of 24 goals and assists, Sterling gets the least amount of positive publicity. Eden Hazard has largely been the Chelsea attack, Sergio Aguero has tied the PL hat trick record, and Mohamed Salah is riding his 2017-18 season through a remarkable cold snap of form.

But there’s Sterling, with 15 goals and nine assists in the second-fewest minutes of the bunch (Aguero).

How about these numbers — via WhoScored.com — in 2,149 league minutes?

Sterling is also averaging a tackle and .6 interceptions per match, the best of the bunch, while committed the fewest bad touches per game (most remarkable considering his second touch haunted him for several seasons).

A concession: For what it’s worth given the above stats, Hazard is easily in second of the bunch if not competing directly with Sterling. But Sterling hasn’t been a part of underachieving teams for three different managers, so we’ll abide.

There are two things going against Sterling, neither of which are his fault. The first is that Man City’s dominance of last season and run back into a title right this season has people imagining that the feast of talent at the Etihad Stadium makes numbers an afterthought; That is to say that Sterling, Aguero, and the Silvas (not to mention Leroy Sane) aren’t producing much more than their theoretical replacements.

And maybe there’s something to that, but here’s how important Sterling’s production has been to City.

In Premier League matches in which Sterling neither scored, assisted, nor drew a penalty, City has four wins, two draws, and four losses. When he has, that mark is 17-0 (He sat out wins over Huddersfield Town, Burnley, and Watford to complete Man City’s 24W-2D-4L record).

Aguero, for his part, racked up nine of his goals in three matches. I’m not here to hat trick shame, but Sterling feels a less replaceable part of Pep’s team.

The second thing going against Sterling is a bit more nefarious, linked to articles and conceptions about his gun tattoo or hairstyles. This part, hopefully, doesn’t require us to refute it.

Van Dijk has been phenomenal, and as a longtime defender admirer — those who can’t do it, love those who do it well — I’d be thrilled to see him join N'Golo Kante in non-scorers to claim such an honor.

But VVD was also on the scene for a moment that encapsulates what Sterling has become to City’s attack. He’s arguably been this season’s Leroy Sane, and coincidentally cues up the German with this incisive pass from well outside his office for the January winner against Liverpool.

EURO qualifying: Hazard drives Belgium past Russia; Scotland rocked

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EURO 2020 qualifying allows for a few hiccups along the way. Both Scotland and Russia produced one each on opening day.

Granted the Russians lost a game many suspected they might, falling 3-1 at Belgium, but we want to highlight the unexpected first, don’t we?

Scotland’s trip to Kazakhstan was just that, Alex McLeish’s men falling for the seventh time in his 11-match second tenure with the club.

[ MORE: Hazard, Real, and the back-up plan ]

And boy, did they fall. Scotland conceded twice in the first 10 minutes and again after halftime in a 3-0 loss to the 117th ranked team on the FIFA scale (106th in the slightly fairer Elo Ratings).

Plucky Azerbaijan served notice that it remains a solid dark horse, scaring World Cup finalists Croatia before ultimately losing 2-1.

Back to Russia, it fell by a pair of Eden Hazard goals after Leicester City’s Youri Tielemans and Valencia’s Denis Cheryshev traded first half markers.

Hazard now has 29 international goals ahead of his 100th cap, which will come the next time he hits the pitch.

He may have dove to earn his penalty, but there’s no debating he had the skill buttons activated on the day:

EURO qualifying

Croatia 2-1 Azerbaijan
Slovakia 2-0 Hungary
Netherlands 4-0 Belarus
Austria 0-1 Poland
Israel 1-1 Slovenia
Macedonia 3-1 Latvia
Cyprus 5-0 San Marino
Belgium 3-1 Russia
Kazakhstan 3-0 Scotland
Northern Ireland 2-0 Estonia

Chelsea rejects Real’s $78m Hazard offer; Anderson back-up plan

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Chelsea wants more than $150 million for Eden Hazard which could lead Real Madrid to look to a different part of London for its next playmaker, according to Sky Sports.

A Thursday report says Chelsea has shot down a $78 million bid for Hazard and is expecting at least twice that amount as desperate Real Madrid looks to revolutionize its team after a European trophy-free 2018-19 season.

[ MORE: Man Utd stars set for exit? ]

The Blues may not sell at all because of its impending transfer ban, despite Hazard being able to walk away for free after the 2019-20 season.

And Hazard isn’t exactly shying away from his long-held interest in a move to Real in this sly exchange with Belgian outlet HLN:

Interviewer: “Look, I have a friend who has been playing in the Premier League for seven years. At a club that plays in blue. He has won everything there and he is ready for a new challenge. He is now in the interest of another club, one in a white outfit. What would you recommend to that boy?”

Smiling, Hazard replied: “Well, buy that friend a white shirt.”

So Real is training its eyes on West Ham United’s Felipe Anderson to the tune of an $85 million bid, a figure which would see the Irons profit in a big way following a $48 million purchase just last summer.

Anderson, who turns 26 in April, has been very good as the Irons bid for seventh place and a possible Europa League spot next season. The Brazilian has nine goals and five assists across all competitions for Manuel Pellegrini.

Hazard is two years older than Anderson, and has produced at a world class level dating back to his 20-goal, 18-assist Ligue 1 season at Lille in 2011-12.

Although, even with the transfer ban, maybe Chelsea will take the money and its medicine without Hazard, who is one of the only players who have been a part of the Blues teams to quit on Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte (and possibly tried to do the same to Maurizio Sarri).

Do you want the bitter Belgian playing out the string? West Ham fans probably hope the answer is, “Nope.”

Get ready for a summer of speculating that Real might buy any player on Earth outside of Lionel Messi, given chairman Florentino Perez’s penchant for hunting Galacticos; In the past week alone, Real has been linked with Neymar, Paul Pogba, Kylian Mbappe, Hazard, and Anderson. Wow.

Report: Borussia Dortmund enters race to sign Hudson-Odoi

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In what could look like a nightmare to Premier League sides, Borussia Dortmund could potentially play next season with two of England’s top young wingers.

[READ: Pogba “happy” at Man United]

After multiple failed attempts to sign Chelsea’s Callum Hudson-Odoi on a transfer last summer and in the January transfer window, Bayern Munich now has competition for Hudson-Odoi from Dortmund, according to a report in the Telegraph. With Christian Pulisic heading the opposite direction to Chelsea this summer, Hudson-Odoi could look at Dortmund and feel that his chances for first team minutes are better than at Stamford Bridge.

The 18-year-old, who has been called-up to the current England squad, is yet to start a Premier League match this season. Of course, Hudson-Odoi is behind the likes of Eden Hazard and Willian, who would start ahead of most players. But surely Hudson-Odoi will see how his England teammate Jadon Sancho has made 35 appearances, including starts in the Bundesliga and UEFA Champions League.

Sancho has also been subject to huge transfer speculation, especially from Manchester United, which could look to make a big splash this summer under new (or current) management. If he leaves on a $100 million-plus deal, Hudson-Odoi could be Sancho’s replacement as well.

Ultimately, should Hudson-Odoi leave the Premier League, it’s a lost opportunity for both Chelsea and the league to not only develop young players but provide them with playing time, assuming they’re deserving of it from practice.

Pogba ‘happy’ at Manchester United; Real, Zidane ‘dream for anybody who likes football’

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Paul Pogba may want Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to stick around Old Trafford, but he didn’t say he would be there for the duration of the Norwegian’s tenure at Manchester United.

[ MORE: How will USMNT line up v. Ecuador? ]

The midfield magician has been a big part of the Red Devils’ post-Jose Mourinho turnaround, but money talks and Real Madrid is likely to spend incredible amounts of it this summer as it attempts to flip its fortunes following a domestic and European trophy-free season.

Pogba was asked about the chances of a move to Real Madrid at a press conference on Wednesday. From Goal.com:

“Like I’ve always said, Real Madrid is a dream for anyone. It’s one of the biggest clubs in the world,” Pogba said.

“There is also [Zinedine] Zidane as a coach and it’s a dream for anybody who likes football. For now, I’m at Manchester. We don’t know what the future holds. I’m at Manchester and I’m happy.”

It stands to reason that Pogba likes football, and he would team-up with a fellow French World Cup winner in Zidane (not to mention his purchase may inspire Raphael Varane to stay… and Kylian Mbappe to join).

The problem Real will run into, though, is Financial Fair Play. The Galacticos that Florentino Perez demand cost more money than ever before. With Pogba, Eden Hazard, and many others linked with Real, how much can they afford to spend before getting in trouble?

Going back to Pogba liking Solskjaer’s understanding of what United is all about, wouldn’t he know this is the sort of talk which would get Sir Alex Ferguson on the phone with Real? No one is bigger than the club? It will be interesting to see how these comments are received by the United public and club itself.