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England struck by poor club form in qualifying blip

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What do you do as a national team manager when the best players in your group are struggling at the club level?

That’s the issue currently facing Gareth Southgate, and it’s spilled over into Euro 2020 qualification as England fell to the Czech Republic 2-1 on Friday, its first Euro qualifying defeat in ten years.

While its obvious England has a massive talent imbalance between offense and defense, the poor form plague has also struck, leaving Southgate with a host of difficult choices both up front and at the back. It has become such a pestilence that Southgate was left with no choice but to admit it after the match.

“In terms of the players, I think there are players who are not playing well for their clubs, but that is the situation we are in at the moment, certainly in a couple of positions,” admitted Southgate in the post-match press conference. “We collectively have to accept the result, but of course, as the manager, then I have got to accept that as well, absolutely.”

The England boss has some serious pondering to do up and down the pitch. Marcus Rashford has become a problem for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in the suddenly stagnant Manchester United attack, and he gave way in the England starting lineup to young Jadon Sancho, who was unable to lift England on the day. In midfield, a now-broken Dele Alli was a guaranteed starter at the World Cup two years ago but was left out entirely this international break as Tottenham continues to flounder, while fellow Spur Harry Winks was relegated to the bench. Harry Maguire in defense has begun his Red Devils career well, but beside him was Michael Keane who has been downright poor at Everton thus far. Ross Barkley has lost his place at Chelsea and was left among the substitutes in Prague as well in favor of the in-form teammate Mason Mount, but with England misfiring Barkley was unable to change the tide off the bench.

The problem for Southgate is two-fold, and he’s damned no matter what. In the case of players like Alli, Rashford, and Winks, the England boss chose to replace them with less experienced players, which clearly upset the balance and cohesion within the squad. Yet he chose to stick with Keane, who has started every Euro qualifier thus far, in favor of a younger Joe Gomez and that backfired as well, as Keane toiled ineffectively in Prague. Gomez himself has lost his place at Liverpool to Joel Matip, and would have been another questionable option.

Injuries also played their part no doubt. Key players in Aaron Wan-Bissaka, John Stones, and James Maddison were axed due to injuries or illness, while Callum Hudson-Odoi was not selected as he recently returned from a long-term problem himself. Still, Wan-Bissaka’s absence left Southgate with no choice but to select a replacement, choosing Kieran Trippier on the edge of the back line, who has seen an up-and-down start to his Atletico Madrid career. Even Stones had dipped in form at Manchester City, falling completely out of the matchday squad in favor of Aymeric Laporte and Nicolas Otamendi before succumbing to an unspecified muscle injury.

These problems caused issues tactically for a squad that suddenly had to deal with a deviation from the norm. Southgate deployed a 4-2-3-1 with Mount in the central creative role, but according to Yahoo’s Kieran Canning, the national team has not played in such a formation in two years. Southgate mentioned multiple times in his post-match press conference how displeased he was with England’s off-ball structure and movement, a direct product of mixing and matching. “We tried something [in the second half] to make ourselves a bit more solid without the ball, and that didn’t happen,” he said. “We didn’t look any more solid, and we were poor at using the ball in the first half. That said, at 1-1, at half time, we were able to change that. I think we were better in the second half and we created chances to win the game.”

To make matters worse, the few players in good club form didn’t live up to standards on the international stage. Declan Rice, maybe West Ham’s best player so far this season, was miserable in a pivot with Jordan Henderson and hauled off in the second half. The Mirror says between the midfield pair, they made just one successful tackle through the entire match and completed just 11 passes in the opening 20 minutes of the game. Trent Alexander-Arnold, who has been one of many fantastic Liverpool players this season, was bafflingly left on the bench in favor of Trippier.

The issues facing Southgate are a stark reminder how long two years truly is. This England squad felt far more solid and secure with depth as it reached the semifinals of the World Cup just two year ago. Now, there are glaring holes and numerous questions at a host of different positions. With the starters floundering in Prague, Southgate’s choices off the bench have thinned considerably, and Rashford’s injection of quality off the bench two years ago in Russia 2018 is no longer to be found as he came on with 17 minutes to go on Friday. The rock solid World Cup back-three of Stones, Maguire, and Kyle Walker is nowhere to be found despite the presence of all three in the setup.

Little has changed personnel wise for England, and yet two years on after a promising World Cup run with a host of players in their prime, the squad now feels in flux again as key individuals are forced to fight for their places. Gareth Southgate does not sit in an envious position, looking for answers while keeping faith in some key squad members while making necessary changes elsewhere hoping not to upset the squad chemistry. A visit to Bulgaria on Monday represents a quick turnaround between two road matches, an opportunity to right the ship amid the necessary distraction of travel. Anything less than a convincing performance will allow lingering questions to fester for another month, plenty of time for the sudden dysfunction to become even more chronic.

Premier League Preview: Chelsea, Man City, Arsenal, Man United in action

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Sunday’s slate of Premier League fixtures is set to be filled with jam-packed actions, as Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal, andManchester United all look to climb up the table.

[ STREAM: Every PL match live ]

Southampton vs. Chelsea — 9:00 a.m. ET, on NBC Sports Gold

Desperate for points, it is likely both Southampton and Chelsea will go for the jugular on Sunday at St Mary’s Stadium.

Coming off of a 2-1 win against Lille in Champions League play, Frank Lampard‘s men are in better spirits, but then again, their season has been riddled with inconsistency. The quintessential embodiment of that is N’Golo Kante, who has been riddled with injuries all season, but is expected to go on Sunday, according to Lampard.

“It’s something we’ll have to watch over the next 24, 48 hours to make sure he’s okay,” Lampard said on Friday. “All the players are on a semi-recovery program after the Lille game but it’s also the fact he hasn’t played much.”

“In terms of the injury, he’s fine and there was no fallout with that from the Lille game so it’s just about making sure he’s fit and ready, which is a call for me to make,” he added.

The home side, on the other hand, have lost two consecutive league games, and are only a point clear of the red line. The Saints, whose last league win at home dates back to last season, won’t count on Cedric Soares or Moussa Djenepo. No pressure, Ralph Hasenhüttl.

INJURIES: Southampton — OUT: Cedric Soares (calf), Moussa Djenepo (thigh)| Chelsea — OUT: Emerson (thigh), Ruben Loftus-Cheek (achilles), Antonio Rüdiger (groin), Marco Van Ginkel (knee)

 Arsenal vs. Bournemouth — 9 a.m. ET, on NBC Sports Gold

Mezut Ozil is nowhere to be found, and Arsenal are on a seven-game unbeaten run. Welcome to the Unai Emery era, which writes a new chapter on Sunday as it hosts Bournemouth.

Fueled by newcomer Gabriel Martinelli‘s brace, the Gunners routed Standard Leige, 4-0, at Emirates Stadium on Thursday. It is the ideal result the North London side needed ahead of Sundays match, but it is misleading in a sense. Despite the positive results, one thing remains true of Arsenal: an unreliable backline. In seven games, the Gunners have allowed 11 goals, a total count that is only one off their goals scored through the seven-game stretch.

Bournemouth, too, have been in worse shape in the past. In September, Eddie Howe‘s side were unbeaten in league play. The Cherries, injured riddles and all, will look to use their current positive run and their previous experiences at the Emirates to their advantage on Sunday.

“What we have to do from our previous visits to the Emirates is start better,” Howe said. “We’ve conceded early goals, which have made the games even harder for us. So if we can start stronger, show a better resolve early in the game, we’ll give ourselves a chance.”

INJURIES: Arsenal — OUT: Alexandre Lacazette (ankle) | Bournemouth — OUT: David Brooks (ankle), Dan Gosling (hip), Chris Daniels (knee), Adam Smith (hamstring), Junior Stanislas (hamstring)

Manchester City vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers — 9:00 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

If Manchester City’s loss at Norwich City in September wasn’t a wake-up call, then who knows what a wake-up call is.

Since their historical woeful night then, Pep Guardiola and company haven’t looked back, winning five consecutive games. City will be without Kevin De Bruyne once again, but as their recent run has showed, there is no lack of firepower from the defending champions. That said, the Spanish manager is aware that against Wolves, any team should be cautious.

“Yesterday they took an incredible result,” Guardiola said about Wolves’ Europa League performance midweek. “I saw the game and they were so solid as expected. At the end, they have a team to make you suffer in the Premier League.”

“They know exactly what they have to do, three or four seasons together and there is a really impressive defensive structure,” he added. “We have to be smart to take a result. ”

Wolves, the outright underdog on Sunday, are far from meeting the expectations set on them, taking up the 15th spot on the league’s table. Recently, with the helpful of more efficient attack and sturdier backline, the Wolves find themselves on a four-game unbeaten streak. Will that be enough to hold off City? Probably not.

INJURIES: Manchester City — OUT: Leroy Sane (knee), Aymeric Laporte (knee), John Stones (thigh), Kevin De Bruyne (hamstring)| Wolves — OUT: None

Newcastle United vs. Manchester United — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Sunday’s visit to St. James’ Park poses as the ideal scenario for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Manchester United to send a message of intent and crawl out of the 11th spot, which has made club officials the lighting rod for criticism.

Without Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard, and Anthony Martial to name a few, the Red Devils will have their work cutout in front of them in one of the league’s most intimidating atmospheres. Still, win on Sunday can serve as the turning point Solskjaer has been looking for all along.

“Of course you don’t enjoy not winning games,” he told Sky Sports. “You put your heart, life and soul into this job. If you win games you are happier, your mood changes but it doesn’t mean your performances have been better – results change mood.”

“For us to get a result [at Newcastle] is vital now,” the manager added. “I think it will change the mood.The boys can go away on their international break and freshen up their heads.”

The Norwegian’s counterpart on Sunday, Steve Bruce, too, is in charge of guiding his club out of internal turmoil. For Bruce, however, who has led Newcastle to only one win this season, the seat is much warmer, and he acknowledges that the pressure  for him to turn the results around continues to worsen.

“Mud has been thrown my way since I walked through the door, that’s not going to change,” Bruce said heading into Sunday’s match. “The only thing that can change it for me is results. I’m determined, if I possibly can, to turn it around and take the club forward. That has been my remit since I arrived.”

“I’m a resilient so and so,” he added. “You wouldn’t be human if it didn’t affect you in some sort of way but you try and get on with your job as best you can. These days you don’t get the time that you would like to get, you have to get results instantly. The flack always stops with me at the top of the tree but that’s the way the job is.”

INJURIES: Newcastle United  OUT: Matt Ritchie (ankle), Florian Lejeuene (knee) | Manchester United  OUT: Paul Pogba (ankle), Anthony Martial (thigh), Jesse Lingard (hamstring), Eric Bailly (knee), Phil Jones (unknown), Aaron Wan-Bissaka (illness)

Premier League preview: Everton v. Man City

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  • Everton has just 1 win in last 12 PL meetings with Man City
  • Seven of last 11 PL goals City have conceded have come via set piece
  • Everton has 7 points through 6 matches, one more than this stage last season

With Liverpool on the road looking to keep a perfect record intact, Man City will also leave the friendly confines hoping to keep pace or rise to an opportunity as they visit Goodison Park to take on Everton at 12:30 p.m. ET live on NBC or live online at NBCSports.com.

Both teams have hit rough patches over the last few weeks, with Everton unable to capitalize straightaway on its summer spending spree and Man City falling five points back of Liverpool early in the title race. Pep Guardiola and company were able to bounce back last weekend and clobber an out of form Watford side 8-0, and they will hope to take advantage of another struggling side this time around, with Everton having lost three of four.

[ STREAM: Every PL match live ] 

Still, City is struggling with injuries to its back line as Fernandinho is forced back to play in a defensive partnership with Nicolas Otamendi. That, however, has not stopped the onslaught up front as Bernardo Silva is fresh off a hat-trick and five other players added goals against Watford. Raheem Sterling will look for a way back into the starting lineup and a frustrated Gabriel Jesus may see time if Guardiola chooses to rotate his striker, as Sergio Aguero’s worst goalscoring record against any Premier League opponent (min 2 appearances against) comes against Everton.

For Everton, striker Moise Kean has struggled to adapt to the Premier League and could be swapped for Dominic Calvert-Lewin who scored midweek in cup action. Alex Iwobi could also be in contention for a place in the starting lineup off the bench.

Injuries/suspensions

Everton: OUT – Andre Gomes (rib), Jean-Philippe Gbamin (thigh). QUESTIONABLE:

Man City: OUT – Leroy Sane (knee), Aymeric Laporte (knee), John Stones (unspecified muscular).


Projected lineups

Everton: Pickford; Digne, Kean, Mina, Coleman; Schneiderlin, Delph; Bernard, Sigurdsson, Richarlison; Calvert-Lewin.

Man City: Ederson; Angelino, Otamendi, Fernandinho, Walker; De Bruyne, Rodri, D Silva, B Silva, Sterling; Jesus.


What they’re saying

Everton manager Marco Silva on recent form: “Of course, we’re not happy, but it’s too early to look at the table and panic. If we won our last game, we are talking completely differently about the position in the table; everything is too close. If you ask me if I’m really concerned or panicking, of course not. We know what we’re doing, we know we should improve, and if we do, then the results will come, and after more games we’ll see a different position in the table, for sure. But if you ask me if I’m happy with our last performance, of course not. It wasn’t good enough. I shared our fans’ frustration after the match.”

Man City boss Guardiola on Jesus’s playing time comments:  “He’s special. I saw the interview and it was perfect. No problem. He was respectful. Of course he wants to play. He’s the No 9 for Brazil. He’s the only striker in the world with this mentality. He plays one second, two minutes, 90 minutes and has to play his best. I understand completely. All the players want to play all the games. It’s normal.”


Prediction

Manchester City got back in good form against Watford. Meanwhile, Everton’s slide is mind-boggling given the talent in the squad, and any more slips could see Marco Silva on his way out. They will be up for this game at home, but it won’t be enough to challenge a City side blistering with talent, with the visitors winning convincingly 3-0.

Guardiola pretty happy with Man City’s 8-star win

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Pep Guardiola isn’t here for your storylines.

It’s fair to say that a lot of faith has been restored in Manchester City following last weekend’s loss to Norwich City.

[ RECAP: Man City 8-0 Watford ]

The reigning champs hung a collective 11-0 score line in wins over Shakhtar Donetsk and Watford over the past four days, eight of those goals coming in an utterly rampant roll over the Hornets on Saturday.

So, point proven? Nope, says Pep.

“Do you think after what these guys have done for two seasons they have to prove something?”

A rhetorical question, sure, but this City team had lost to a newly-promoted team days after losing its best defender for six months. Then another center back, John Stones, fell victim to the injury bug.

Enter Fernandinho at center back. And two clean sheets.

“What I like the most is normally when it’s 5-0 at half time the second half is not serious, it’s boring but we did the opposite and we were more aggressive and made a very good second half,” Guardiola said. “People still don’t understand, journalists, pundits, former players, losing games is part of life. Opponents always deserve respect. The same feeling I have now I had after Norwich so it was not a bad performance. We can lose the games but the important thing is the approach and how we react.”

The BBC also had a pretty snarky response to Guardiola being asked about just missing the Premier League single game goals record, held by Manchester United with nine.

Bookmark this, because if he didn’t know it before the post-match, he knows it now.

“I didn’t know the record. Who is it? They deserve it, congratulations.”

Premier League Preview: Man City v. Watford

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  • Manchester City looking to bounce back after stunning loss to Norwich City
  • Watford enjoyed thrilling comeback draw last weekend v. Arsenal
  • Manchester City have won their last 11 meetings with Watford in all competitions, scoring at least twice in each match and 38 times in total. 
  • This will be the fourth managerial meeting between Pep Guardiola and Sanchez Flores but the first in England. Sanchez Flores won the first match as Atletico Madrid manager in February 2010 against Guardiola’s Barcelona.

Coming off the club’s first Premier League in 19 matches last weekend, Manchester City returns home to the friendly confines of the Etihad Stadium to face a team they’re quite familiar with in Watford. (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET on NBCSN and NBCSports.com).

[ STREAM: Every PL match live

Man City of course obliterated Watford, 6-0, in the FA Cup final last May, but it’s a new Watford with Quique Sanchez Flores in charge. Watford as well looked the best it had all season in the second half of last Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Arsenal, though that very easily could have just been because Arsenal’s midfield was non-existent in that half.

In any case, it all shapes up to be an exciting match, especially if new Watford signing Ismalia Sarr can get a start and run at Man City’s makeshift backline. Then again, if Raheem Sterling is back to his usual clinical self, it could be a long afternoon again for the Hornets.

Injuries/suspensions

Manchester City: OUT – Aymeric Laporte (knee), John Stones (thigh), Leroy Sane (knee); QUESTIONABLE – Phil Foden (illness)

Watford: OUT – Craig Cathcart (muscle), Isaac Success (groin), Troy Deeney (knee)


Projected lineups

Manchester City: Ederson – Walker, Otamendi, Fernandinho, Zinchenko – Gundogan, Rodri, Silva – Sterling – Aguero, De Bruyne

Watford: Foster – Femenia, Dawson, Kabasele, Holebas – Capoue, Cleverly, Dacoure – Pereyra, Sarr, Deulofeu

What they’re saying

Pep Guardiola, on striker Gabriel Jesus after his goal in mid-week v. Shakhtar Donetsk: “It’s difficult to find anywhere in the world a striker like Gabriel. The number nine for Brazil, his behaviour in training is outstanding and he has to fight with one of the best strikers I have ever seen in my life in Aguero [for a place in the side]. I will not find a player like Gabriel. To sub Sergio you have to have a top player. I am so delighted with the strikers. When Gabriel plays, he does absolutely everything. Like he did in Ukraine, not just for the goal, he fights and plays.”

Quique Sanchez Flores, on last week’s comeback v. Arsenal: “We have good feelings. We need to make sure we don’t go too much about this match as the next one is completely different. It is not a time to talk about how many shots or how many attempts we had. It is time to be realistic. We still need to change the dynamic – this is the first step and then change for the next opponent.”


Prediction

Manchester City will be ultra focused this weekend to get back to winning ways, and even with a makeshift centerback duo, there’s still more than enough attacking firepower to demolish Watford. The Hornets looked better last week after making the coaching change during the international break, but this will be a step back for Watford.

Man City 3-0 Watford