Gylfi Sigurdsson

Super sub Iheanacho gives Leicester stoppage time win

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Leicester City came from behind to become the second Premier League team to break the 30-point barrier following a 2-1 defeat of Everton at the King Power Stadium on Sunday.

Kelechi Iheanacho had a stoppage time goal awarded by VAR after he assisted Jamie Vardy‘s league-leading 13th goal earlier in the second half.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Second place Leicester remains 8 points back of Liverpool, while 17th place Everton remains two points clear of the Bottom Three.

The last second capitulation may be the last straw for Marco Silva, whose Toffees looked set to get a fine point.


Three things we learned

1. Iheanacho stars off the bench: It’s been a tough run for the Nigerian at Everton since a high-profile move from Manchester City, but Brendan Rodgers called Iheanacho’s number at the right time. He set up Vardy’s equalizer before scoring deep in stoppage only to see the linesman’s flag up. But VAR showed Yerry Mina‘s knee kept Iheanacho’s shoulder onside by millimeters, and Iheanacho was able to celebrate a second time.

2. Richarlison unmarkable when at his best: When Richarlison is firing, there are few more powerful forces in the Premier League. The big man commanded the area on Sunday, not just with his opening goal but with another header off a corner that went wide of the goal and a terrific bit of strength and speed in working Caglas Soyuncu to produce an early second half chance for Gylfi Sigurdsson. His season total is up to six goals and two assists in 17 matches.

3. Vardy keeps firing: The veteran English striker extended his Premier League goals lead to 13 when he bundled in Iheanacho’s cross to give him eight goals and two assists in his last six matches. It’s an incredible run for Vardy, who nearly assisted a James Maddison goal moments after his marker.

Man of the Match: Wilfred Ndidi was everywhere, even shuttling the ball to Iheanacho in the run-up to Vardy’s equalizer. He passed well, and won balls left, right, and center. With apologies to Richarlison, the honor goes to the Nigerian.


Lucas Digne crossed to produce an eighth minute chance for Djibril Sidibe, but the Frenchman blazed his shot just over the bar.

At the other end, a falling Ayoze Perez dribbled a shot to Jordan Pickford.

It was almost all Leicester, so of course Everton went ahead in the 23rd minute. Alex Iwobi played a marauding Sidibe down the right side for a cross that Richarlison powered home with a header.

[ MORE: Premier League stats ] 

Ben Chilwell won a penalty off Mason Holgate in the 34th minute, and VAR had a long look after the Englishman hit the deck despite no contact. The penalty call was withdrawn.

The second half saw Richarlison beat Soyuncu, a rare feat, to cut back for Sigurdsson. The Icelandic star had his shot partially deflected for a corner.

Wilfred Ndidi sent Ricardo Pereira on goal, but Pickford made a fine low save to keep it 1-0.

Holgate froze Ndidi when he took down a cross and switched to his right foot, but his drive was blocked.

Vardy made it 1-1 in the 68th minute with a goal in his sixth-straight appearance, racing to the back post to meet substitute Kelechi Iheanacho’s pass through the 18 past Holgate.

He’d then produce an assist-worthy pass to Maddison before craning his neck to put a header just over the bar. Leicester City were knocking at the the door.

Richarlison set up substitute Moise Kean for an 80th minute arrow that flew into the outside of the side netting.

Iheanacho scored in the fourth minute of stoppage time, and VAR defied the linesman to give him his first Premier League goal in a year.

Norwich City piles more pressure on Silva’s error prone Everton

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Todd Cantwell and Dennis Srbeny scored goals as the Canaries of Norwich City flew away from Goodison Park with all three points with a 2-0 win over Everton on Saturday.

Everton’s defense struggled and its offense couldn’t find finish despite a shot advantage of 18-13 on the day, and manager Marco Silva is surely in trouble as his defense continues to give up massive chances.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Everton loses its seventh league match and sits 15th with 14 points. Norwich is up to 18th with 10 points.


3 things we learned

1. Mina, Holgate struggle at CB: Both Norwich City goals had Everton’s center backs looking like clowns, and it could’ve been three or four goals had Jordan Pickford not made a couple of very fine stops. He was left for dead on both goals, with Michael Keane seated on the bench. Everton doesn’t give up a ton of shots, but when they do they give up monstrous xG bonanzas.

2. Farke pushes the right buttons: Srbeny entered the day with 26 Premier League minutes spread across five outings, and the ex-Paderborn man only scored twice in parts of two Championship seasons. But he looked like a thoroughbred in scoring with his first touches to put this match to bed.

3. Buendia pulls the strings: Norwich playmaker Emiliano Buendia is having a sensational season veyrr much under the radar, and he helped set up the insurance goal in style. Buendia had two assists against Man City, and Saturday’s helper brings his tally to five. The 22-year-old Argentine is one to watch.

Man of the Match: Onel Hernandez — Denied by an incredible Jordan Pickford save, the Cuban-born German has taken time to get used to the league but was an absolute force over 90 minutes.


Hernandez had the best chance to break open a sleepy first half, but Everton’s Jordan Pickford made an outstanding save to keep the match level.

Teemu Pukki dribbled and bodied off Everton’s two center backs and Cantwell ran into space to beat Pickford for 1-0.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Sam Byram missed a free header off a corner kick which really should’ve made it 2-0. Would Everton take advantage?

Nope. There were few signs of life outside of Gylfi Sigurdsson, Lucas Digne, and Richarlison, and the Brazilian faded down the stretch.

Emiliano Buendia set up substitute Srbeny for a first Premier League goal to pile pressure on Silva.

EURO qualifying wrap: France, Iceland, Turkey earn wins

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With their tickets already booked to next summer’s big tournament, France and Turkey picked up wins in Sunday’s Euro qualifying action, which saw defending champions Portugal clinch qualification.

[ READ: Defending champions Portugal qualify to EURO 2020 ]


Albania 0-2 France

Albania opened their new, 22,500-seat stadium with a hard-fought loss against France.

Early on, Bayern Munich’s Corentin Tolisso gave the impression that the home fans were in for a long night at the inaugurating Air Albania Stadium, opening the score just eight minutes in with a well-placed header. In the 31st minute, an unfamiliar face, Leo Dubois, connected with Antoine Griezmann, who slotted the ball into the bottom-right corner. France finish the qualifiers leaders of Group H with 25 points. Throughout the 10 matches, the world champions lost only once, a 2-0 loss against Turkey.

Andorra 0-2 Turkey

Real Valladolid’s Enes Unal scored a first-half brace as Turkey coasted past Andorra 2-0. Turkey, who clinched a spot next summer after finishing Group H two points behind France, controlled possession and chances at goal.

Moldova 1-2 Iceland

Everton’s Gylfi Sigurdsson scored the visitor’s second and winning goal in the second half, as Iceland walked away from Zimbru Stadium with a 2-1 win on Sunday.

With 19 points throughout 10 games, Rúnar Kristinsson and company felt five points short of qualifying directly for next year’s competition. That said, they’ll partake in the Euro 2020 playoffs, looking to squeeze their way in.

Elsewhere

Luxembourg 0-2 Portugal

Serbia 2-2 Ukraine

Kosovo 0-4 England

Bulgaria 1-0 Czech Republic

Finland close to first major finals: ‘It will go crazy’

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The temperatures are plummeting and the days are getting shorter as another harsh winter approaches in Finland.

Expectations around the country’s soccer team are rising, though, like never before.

On Friday, Finland could seal a place in the finals of a major soccer tournament for the first time in its history. All that’s needed is a home win over Liechtenstein, one of the world’s weakest teams, in Helsinki and the Finns will take their place in next year’s European Championship.

After so many past disappointments, it is a day many in this Nordic country of 5.5 million inhabitants – better known for its hockey team, rally drivers and javelin throwers – thought would never arrive.

It is one that could transcend soccer, changing the mentality of a nation.

“There are always skeptics – with a sort of `Ah, they are never going to do it anyway’ feeling – in more or less everything we do, whether it is music, anything,” said former Finland player Aki Riihilahti, who is now CEO of Finnish champion HJK Helsinki. “The Finnish nature is that only when there comes an external acknowledgement of an achievement do we go and support it.

“For what this will mean, it is more important mentally than factually.”

Finland has had better teams down the years, on paper anyway. They’ve had more celebrated players, too – think of Jari Litmanen, the silky playmaker for Ajax and Barcelona, and Sami Hyypia, the defensive stalwart at Liverpool. Yet getting to a World Cup or European Championship has been beyond them, despite more than 80 years of trying.

Finland remains, somewhat embarrassingly, the only major Nordic country to have never qualified for a major tournament.

So what’s changed? The hiring of a former primary school teacher as coach has plenty to do with it.

Markku Kanerva was promoted to the job in December 2016, having previously been an assistant with the team and a former player in the 1980s and ’90s. He inherited a team that had gone all of 2016 without a win and also one that was about to lose some of its best players. One midfielder, Roman Eremenko, received a two-year ban for testing positive for cocaine in 2016; another, Perparim Hetemaj, would go on to retire in early 2018 to focus on his club career.

Kanerva took a pragmatic view of the team, picking players according to their individual strengths rather than a pre-existing style and reverting to a straightforward 4-4-2 formation. His approach was based on hard work and strong defensive shape, and relied on the country’s most high-profile player – striker Teemu Pukki – poaching some goals at the other end.

Kanerva also approaches coaching like he would teaching, encouraging his players to interact more, take responsibility, and learn what they have done wrong so they can improve.

The results have been striking. Finland won its group in the inaugural UEFA Nations League competition after winning its opening four qualifying games, earning promotion to League B and guaranteeing a playoff spot for Euro 2020 that might not be necessary.

In Euro 2020 qualifying, the Finns reacted to an opening loss to Italy by winning four straight Group J games without conceding a goal. After eight games, they are in second place, behind already qualified Italy but five points ahead of both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Armenia. With two teams advancing automatically, Finland needs one win from its final two qualifiers over the coming days, starting with last-place Liechtenstein, to make history.

“This is the missing piece of the puzzle,” said Marco Casagrande, general secretary of the Football Association of Finland. “All the other things in our sports we have managed to do, but this is something that’s still separating us from being a real sports country.”

Finland’s underperformance on the international stage was bought into sharp focus by Iceland, a tiny Nordic brother with a population of just 330,000, reaching both Euro 2016 and last year’s World Cup.

Casagrande recalls speaking to his colleagues at the Icelandic FA, asking them: “So what’s your secret?”

“It didn’t help,” Casagrande said, “when everyone was saying, `You are losing all the games and Iceland is going to the Euros. Come on guys, what are you doing?”‘

Iceland’s rise was based on a strong collective effort combined with a sprinkle of stardust by its one standout player, Gylfi Sigurdsson, and Finland is pretty much the same.

While goalkeeper Lukas Hradecki, who plays in Germany for Bayer Leverkusen, gets plenty of plaudits, most of the spotlight falls on Pukki, the hard-working striker who has scored seven goals in qualifying and made a strong start to his first season in the Premier League with Norwich.

“Teemu Pukki is really somebody who everybody seems to love,” said Riihilahti, who also played in England’s top division with Crystal Palace, “and has been adopted as the Finnish savior who is bringing us to the promised land.”

When Finland won the men’s hockey world championship this year for the first time since 2011, there were wild celebrations in central Helsinki as champagne-swilling fans braved the cold weather by stripping off and taking a swim in the fountain and climbing on the famous Havis Amanda statue.

Expect more of the same if the country’s soccer players finally make the long-awaited international breakthrough.

“Finnish people would all celebrate like a big festival,” Riihilahti said. “It will go crazy.”

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Steve Douglas is at http://www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

5 Premier League players who look broken

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Through the first nine games of the Premier League season, the table is starting to take shape and some players are separating themselves from the pack while others have shown signs of a struggle.

[ MORE: 3 Things from Man United v. Liverpool ]

Liverpool is flying atop the Premier League table with Manchester City giving chase, but teams like Everton, Manchester United, and Tottenham are floundering below their expectations. There are players on those squads who expected to be performing at a higher level that have instead struggled to make an impact.

Here is a quick overview of five players who look shells of their former selves and could do with a hard reset. All numbers from UnderStat.com.


5) Gylfi Sigurdsson – Everton

The Iceland international, along with the rest of the Everton attack, has been completely invisible so far this season. With just one assist through the first eight matches, the Toffees have had trouble converting chances, and Sigurdsson was benched for the win over West Ham on Saturday.

Thankfully, for Gylfi, there’s plenty of hope that both he and Everton will figure it out moving forward. According to infoGol’s xG model, Everton has by far the biggest differential between expected table position and actual table position based on chances created. Their expected table placed them fourth in the league before the West Ham game, with their actual position in the relegation zone. The same can be said for Sigurdsson, whose expected assist total is actually up – significantly – from his career total, with a 0.33 mark this season compared to his career clip of 0.21. It will come. In fact, it already has…he scored a brilliant hit from distance after coming on for the final few minutes of the win over West Ham, a goal that could mark the beginning of a return to form for Sigurdsson.

4) Nicolas Pepe – Arsenal

Now, to the players we’re a little more worried about. Nicolas Pepe cost Arsenal a whopping $118 million, but he hasn’t lived up to that price tag to this point. Through eight matches, Pepe has been a periphery player in the Arsenal attack with just one goal and two assists. The xA off his passes so far this season, on a better team, is on pace for about half what he put up last season at Lille. Obviously he’s facing better competition in the Premier League, but the drop in creativity is stark.

Pepe is also taking worse shots than he did last season in Ligue 1, with just a 0.11 xG mark per shot compared to 0.14 last campaign. That doesn’t seem like much, but most breaking that down further, most concerning is his shots inside the box are much poorer than usual. In his 11 shots from inside the area are averaging just 0.13 xG compared to last season where he found a 0.26 xG mark, a massive contrast that expanded to a full season amounts to just a 6.79 xG total for the season compared to his whopping 17.71 xG total last season for Lille. He is on pace to take slightly fewer shots, which makes perfect sense given Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette are the two main goalscorers in the Arsenal offense, but Pepe needs to make his own efforts count much more.

There is hope for Pepe. It seems he still is learning the Arsenal offense, and should he improve his play even slightly, it tracks that Unai Emery would entrust him with a more prominent role in the attack. Sadly, at the moment, he appears just a bit-part player with Dani Ceballos instead looking the most impressive creatively.

3) Richarlison – Everton

While Gylfi Sigurdsson appears poised to turn his own fortunes around with Everton likely to pick up the pace this season, his Brazilian teammate’s poor form is far more worrisome. Richarlison has been invisible through the first nine games of the year, and put in yet another anemic performance against a West Ham squad at Goodison Park that defended very poorly and did not play well.

Marco Silva stuck Richarlison up front in a striker role against the Hammers, benching Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Moise Kean, and it didn’t get him more involved. Theo Walcott and Alex Iwobi were excellent and Bernard also played well, with the trio behind Richarlison all excelling to produce Everton’s best attacking display yet, but Richarlison wasn’t invited to the party. He took just two shots and missed the target with both, while completing just 58% of his passes (14/24) including 2/9 in the penalty area. So far this season, Richarlison has not taken a single shot inside the six-yard box, having taken eight last season, with six finding the back of the net.

Richarlison admitted over the international break that his increased defensive responsibilities were sapping his attacking energy, which makes sense, and he approached Marco Silva about changing the tactics a bit. This tracks with his switch to a spot up top in the formation, and while it produced a win for the team, it did little to enhance Richarlison’s form.

2) Marcus RashfordManchester United

Looking at Marcus Rashford’s season-long numbers, it’s a shock that he’s receiving the criticism he’s garnered. He collected three goals and two assists in the first eight games, plus a 4.39 xG total in that span, which puts him on double the pace of last season. Then you look a little closer…two of his three goals and 1.40 xG came from the opening match against Chelsea, and two of his three goals are from the penalty spot. In his last three games, Rashford has three total shots (including a pair of goose eggs) for a total of 0.27 xG, plus a measly xA total of 0.13. In the 1-0 loss to Newcastle last time out, Rashford – in a 90 minute performance – had 0 shots while center-back Harry Maguire had two. The 21-year-old was invisible, attempting just 16 passes (nine of which were backward), failing to complete a take-on, 0/4 in the air, and failing to draw a foul.

In addition, Rashford’s contribution to others in the Manchester United attack has plummeted. Last season, Rashford put together a 0.2 xA mark per game, but the bottom has dropped out of that, falling to 0.06 thus far. Much of that can be attributed to overall team performance in a toothless Manchester United attack, but Rashford has certainly contributed to that as well.

However…

There were plenty of positives to take from today’s performance against Liverpool. While he will still hope his time on the ball increases as the season progresses – Solskjaer’s somewhat negative tactics playing with a lead contributed – Rashford’s movement at times was stellar. On the goal, he utilized a common but effective striker move, drifting towards the near post forcing Joel Matip commit before fading away to the far post where he met the cross. Rashford also completed four take-ons in dangerous areas, adding to the collective showing. Still, he remains miserable in the air (0/5), only received 19 passes all match and delivered just 11 himself, and the goal represented one of just two shots taken (the other was a poor finish when given space outside the top of the area). He was withdrawn after a 83rd minute run that did not produce separation from his defender. The signs of improvement are there, but he must become more consistently dangerous to reach his true potential.

1) Dele Alli – Tottenham Hotspur

Of all the players on this list, Dele Alli’s season-long performance is by far the most worrisome. He’s completely lost his place in the Tottenham squad, and the few chances Mauricio Pochettino has given him to prove his worth have gone quite poorly. Alli was given his first start of the Premier League season against Watford, and Pochettino clearly hoped to reign in his wandering, giving him a smaller area to cover. His passing in the middle of the field was tidy, but he struggled to unlock a Watford defense that has been porous this season. Alli earned two chances created, but both the ensuing shots were extremely poor efforts from bad positions outside the box. Alli did make his trademark runs through the defensive line and was rewarded with the late equalizing goal, but if he is to earn more playing time over or alongside Christian Eriksen, he has to put in a better overall performance to help Spurs get better results than a home draw against Watford.

In their two Champions League games where Alli has seen the field more, he was even worse. Against Bayern Munich, Alli had little influence, especially in the first half where the game was still in the balance.In Greece he was even less influential, sending 11 of his 27 completed passes backward while failing to record a single shot assist, completing just one take-on, and committing three fouls while earning none. Overall, his body language is extremely poor and he looks like he expects bad execution before mistakes even happen.

Honorable mention: Harry Kane – Tottenham Hotspur

This is a tough one because on paper, Harry Kane is in great goalscoring form. He’s bagged five goals this Premier League season, plus a whopping nine goals in his last nine international matches. And yet, the eye test tells a completely different story.

Watching Kane, he has devolved from a quick, crafty striker with excellent off-ball movement to a static target man unable to keep up with counter-attacking chances. Kane has been sapped of his explosiveness, most likely thanks to a host of ankle injuries suffered over the past few seasons. Have a look at Kane’s radar for this season compared to the previous two, and you can see the worrying regression.

Harry Kane 2019/20 season so far.

 

Harry Kane 2018/19 season.

 

Harry Kane 2017/18 season.

As you can see, the xG totals have declined sharply, while so have his shooting totals. Numbers can be rectified with improved play, but watching Kane play tells a whole different story, one of a striker who appears unable to produce the same skill set he once could, and at 26 years old its far too early in his career for that to be a natural transition.