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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.

EURO qualifying wrap: FC Dallas striker sinks England

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Well, well, well, England can lose a EURO qualifier.

[ MORE: Ranieri finds new job ]

For the first time in a decade, the Three Lions came up short in a qualifier, while France needed a bit of tomfoolery to win its match and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo moved closer to 700 career goals in an easy win.

No one joined Belgium as officially in the tournament, but Ukraine is very close.

Czech Republic 2-1 England

Maybe it was a bit too young, or maybe the club form was a bit too off from some his stars, but England’s long unbeaten EURO qualifying run is over at 43 matches.

Mason Mount, Declan Rice, and Jadon Sancho started for the Three Lions, who went ahead after five minutes when Harry Kane converted a Raheem Sterling-won penalty.

But the Czechs drew level within four minutes and the hosts dominated the rest of the first half. It felt like a winner was coming for Jaroslav Silhavy’s men, and it came in the somewhat unlikely form of a 30-year-old debutant from FC Dallas.

Zdenek “The Cobra” Ondrasek scored off a Lukas Masopust cut back to give the Czechs a 84th minute lead and the hosts on to go level on points with group-leading England, who has played one fewer match.

Gareth Southgate was not pleased:

“We conceded too many poor chances and we gave the ball away too many times. We knew we’d have to be at full tilt to deal with the Czech Republic but we should have been strong enough to deal with them.”

Also not pleased? A certain prince.

Portugal 3-0 Luxembourg

Cristiano Ronaldo is one goal away from 700 in his career for club and country after bagging a second half goal in Portugal’s easy-enough win over visiting Luxembourg.

Bernardo Silva and Goncalo Guedes also scored for the reigning EURO champions.

Iceland 0-1 France

You would’ve though Antoine Griezmann was dead as he limped out of the box after drawing a penalty, and you’d be fair to imagine he had a severe pain-delay problem considering how long it took him to hit the turf, but don’t worry he was fine and back in the fray moments after Olivier Giroud‘s penalty sealed a win for Les Bleus.

Elsewhere

Andorra 1-0 Moldova
Montenegro 0-0 Bulgaria
Turkey 1-0 Albania
Ukraine 2-0 Lithuania

Chelsea youngster Mason Mount set for first England start

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According to a number of reports from England, young Chelsea talent Mason Mount is readying for his first international start as England gets set to face the Czech Republic in Euro 2020 qualification on Friday.

Mount has two international caps to his name, having come off the bench against Bulgaria and Kosovo in the last international break. He will now make his full debut, a well-earned reward for a stellar Premier League season thus far. The 20-year-old has scored four goals and assisted another through the first eight games of the season and has been one of the most positive attacking influences at Stanford Bridge alongside fellow academy graduate Tammy Abraham.

“Nothing I’ve seen surprises me at all,” England manager Gareth Southgate said of Mount’s play during his pre-match press conference on Thursday. “We’ve had him marked as a player from the first time I saw him at St. George’s [Park]. Chelsea would be the same on that, I think, but of course he’s now been able to have the opportunity to play in the Premier League and display that against top teams. I think you saw his penalty in the Super Cup, [that] was a nice cameo of what he’s about, really.”

Mount is the beneficiary of the withdrawal of James Maddison, who departed the England squad due to an illness, still unable to make his international debut. He will start ahead of Chelsea teammate Ross Barkley, whom Mount has supplanted as the starting attacking midfielder at Stamford Bridge. “I don’t think it matters what our starting three is [in attack],” Southgate said at the press conference while discussing the importance of having depth. “Clearly, at the moment Raheem [Sterling] and Harry [Kane], their numbers are incredible and the consistency of their performance is, but the rest can be down to performance at any given time.”

Mount’s 7.40 WhoScored rating so far through the first eight games of the Premier League season puts him in the top 20 of players in the league and third among English talents behind Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling and his Blues teammate Abraham. His 2.1 key passes per game ranks 13th in the league behind high-volume players like Kevin De Bruyne, Gylfi Sigurdsson, and Jack Grealish.

The 20-year-old is set to start alongside fellow youngster Jadon Sancho who is reportedly readying for another spot in the lineup after scoring a brace against Kosovo his last time out to mark his first international goals. Sancho also started against the Czech Republic in the reverse fixture back in March, a 5-0 rout that saw him assist Sterling’s 24th minute opener.

Report: Chelsea linked with $230 million move for Neymar

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Chelsea have been linked with a move for Neymar as soon as their transfer ban ends in the summer.

Spanish outlet Don Balon say the Blues want to sign Neymar for $230 million and after an entire year of not spending, Chelsea will certainly have some cash in the bank. But will they really have that much to spend?

Neymar, 27, wanted to leave Paris Saint-Germain this summer but his move to Barcelona or Real Madrid didn’t materialize and the Brazilian superstar is now lambasted by his own fans in the French capital.

It’s clear his move to PSG hasn’t quite worked out, as his main aim was to lead PSG to the UEFA Champions League title. That hasn’t happened and in his own words every PSG home game is now ‘like an away game’ as banners and chants against him are commonplace.

Would Frank Lampard and Chelsea want Neymar at Stamford Bridge?

There’s no doubting his sensational talent and his box office name will certainly generate plenty of extra income and cover a large chunk of the transfer fee and wages. However, Chelsea may struggle to fit in Neymar’s wage demands when it comes to financial fair play.

Per the report, it says that N’Golo Kante could be sold to Real Madrid to help finance the move for Neymar, which would not be popular among Chelsea fans. And even if you take the wages of Willian and Pedro out of the equation, both of whom could leave next summer, this would still take a huge financial package from owner Roman Abramovich. The fact Chelsea’s Russian owner is currently unable to be in the UK has seen spending diminish in recent seasons, but having a year of savings in the bank should help.

Neymar would give the Blues an x-factor and would be the replacement for Eden Hazard, but what would that mean for youngsters Tammy Abraham, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Christian Pulisic and Mason Mount?

This doesn’t really fit in with Chelsea’s model of promoting youngsters, but that was probably only a short-term thing anyway as they had to deal with FIFA’s transfer ban.

With money in the bank, Chelsea could probably afford Neymar. But would bringing him to Stamford Bridge, and everything else that comes with signing him, be worth it?

On the pitch he will probably scored 25-30 goals per season and be a huge hit, but off the pitch it has often been another story.

Can we picture Neymar speeding down Chelsea’s Kings Road in his Ferrari after going for a Full English Breakfast on a Wednesday morning? The first part is definitely on brand…

Pulisic reacts to assist, being back in Chelsea team

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SOUTHAMPTON — Chants of “USA, USA!” were heard outside St Mary’s stadium as Christian Pulisic walked towards the Chelsea team bus on Sunday after playing his part in a resounding Premier League win for the Blues.

[ MORE: How do Pulisic perform? ]

The 21-year-old USMNT star came on and grabbed an assist in his first Premier League minutes since August 31, and after a spell on the bench and out of the squad completely last week at Lille in the UEFA Champions League, Pulisic impressed in his brief cameo on England’s south coast.

Pulisic recorded a lovely assist in his 15 minutes on the pitch, cleverly finding Michy Batshuayi to make it 4-1. The celebrations with Batshuayi, his teammates and the coaching staff at the final whistle showed how happy Pulisic is and he was delighted to make an impact after coming on.

“I did the best I could with the minutes I got. I tried to get in and help the team as best I could and I was happy I could do that,” Pulisic said. “I’m happy. I want to continue to work harder and I never want to stop and I want to continue to get more minutes.”

Pulisic jumped on the back of Jorginho after the game and was ecstatic to be back on the pitch and making the most of his minutes. Maybe this stint on the sidelines was what he needed. Maybe this is all part of Frank Lampard’s masterplan.

After telling Pro Soccer Talk it was ‘very frustrating’ to be on the bench as an unused sub in recent weeks, Pulisic was asked if he’s been surprised to be left out after starting plenty of games at the start of the season.

He just wants to do everything he can to make sure he gets on the pitch.

“Of course, as a professional player you want to play, you want to be on the field and be a part of the team as much as you can. It hurt not to be there but I’m happy I got my opportunity today,” Pulisic said. “I want to be starting every game. I’m working hard in training. I want to be there. I hope everyone can see that. With moments like this I hope I can continue to make a case for myself.”

He now has four assists in his last six appearances for Chelsea and leads the Blues in the assist category this season.

Does he feel like he’s performing well when he’s on the ball in the final third?

“That’s my job in an attacking role. I’m going to do the best I can to try to get goals and assists. That has been good so far, so I want to continue to push,” Pulisic added.

Blues manager Frank Lampard has said Pulisic will get his chance but admitted the $73 million addition from Borussia Dortmund has to continue to show up in training. Pulisic agrees with his manager and is eager to impress.

“Frank likes players who work very hard and show a lot in training. I want to be a part of that and I just have to continue to do that, be the best I can be in training and just try to earn my position. That’s all I can do,” Pulisic added.

Has it been tough settling in at Chelsea since his summer move from Dortmund and the Bundesliga?

“Culture wise it has been easier than Germany to be honest,” Pulisic smiled. “From the football side of things, I guess you can say that. Obviously I haven’t been getting as many minutes, like you guys said, but I’m just going to keep going and pushing and I know my time is going to come.”

Some reports in England had suggested that Pulisic may move on in January if he’s not a regular at Chelsea, but he laughed that off too.

“I’m not just going to throw a fit and give up. Ever,” Pulisic laughed. “If I’m on the bench it doesn’t mean the gaffer doesn’t think I’m part of the team. It means that’s what it is right now and I’ve just got to keep pushing and earn my spot.”

With plenty of fans on social media asking why he hasn’t been playing and a huge transfer fee hanging over his head, Pulisic is trying to take it all in his stride and focus on getting better while also battling with Willian, Pedro, Hudson-Odoi and Mason Mount for minutes.

“This number doesn’t mean anything to me,” Pulisic said of the transfer fee. “Obviously I go out and try to give my best every time I go out onto the pitch. I’m not sure what that price tag means to you guys, but I’m just going to keep trying to perform as best I can for myself and for the team.”

What about the constant chatter on social media and a little frustration from USMNT fans as to why he’s not starting?

“You can’t completely ignore it. I don’t live under a rock. I hear things and I see things,” Pulisic added. “I do my best to block it out. I’m doing my best for myself because the outside opinions don’t matter as much to me as what’s in the team and myself and the people who care about me. I’m just going to keep working and do my best to not worry about it.”

But through all of the ups and down early on in his Chelsea and Premier League career, Pulisic is glad the likes of Hudson-Odoi, Willian, Pedro and Mount are pushing him to get better.

“Competition in the team is only going to make me better. That’s what makes great teams,” Pulisic said. “Guys who are maybe not the second man or the third man, but they are pushing each other in training every single day. That is what a great team is all about.”

Pulisic is contributing for this Chelsea team as they aim to be great and he’s certainly happy to be back on the pitch and getting minutes and assists.

Chants of “USA, USA!” continued as he signed autographs and posed for photos outside St Mary’s and an American fan yelled: “Christian, we love you baby!”

The great hope of American soccer is battling for minutes at Chelsea with a smile on his face.

He is truly embracing the challenge and if he can contribute regularly, off the bench or from the start, he and Chelsea will be smiling a lot more.