Mirko Vučinić

Sunday Transfer Rumor Roundup: Dzeko talk strengthens, while Draxler noise reduced

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With Manchester City flying high, strike man Edin Dzeko may be headed elsewhere in search of regular playing time as Sergio Aguero has returned from injury.  The Bosnian has bagged 15 goals across all competitions for Manchester City (five in the Premier League), but with the trio of Aguero, Alvaro Negredo, and Jesus Navas firing on all cylinders, Dzeko will be sent back to the bench.

According to German outfit Die Welt Wolfsburg could make a run at their former striker, fresh off shelling out £16 million ($26.2 million) for Chelsea winger Kevin De Bruyne.  The 27-year-old spent three and a half seasons at the Bundesliga club before making a big £30.5 million ($50 millio) move to the Etihad in January of 2011.

That would be a heck of a January haul for the 5th place club, and would give Wolfsburg a massive boost as they search for a return to the Champions League.

As one rumor sees a star Premier League player possibly headed to the Bundesliga, there has been plenty of noise that young Julian Draxler could be headed in the other direction.  His Schalke manager Horst Heldt has done his best to quell the speculation, and while that may be impossible, he’s certainly sewed the seeds of doubt across Gunner nation.

“I have not been told that Julian would like to leave us, either in the winter or the summer,” Heldt said. “There have not been any requests from any club regarding Julian. It boils down to wild speculation, which has been happening in England. The clubs would have to tell us if they were interested.”

Draxler has been publicly coveted by Arsenal defender Per Mertesacker, while it’s no secret manager Arsene Wenger feels the same. However, they’ll be put on alert now that his home club has come out to make a stand against losing their best young player.

source: Getty Images
A loan move Mirko Vucinic could be the answer to Arsenal’s striker depth issues, but Wenger didn’t sound interested.

Many media outfits are speculating that ultimately the fate of this transfer lies in the hands of Arsenal’s biggest rivals, Tottenham Hotspur.  They are rumored to be in negotiations to offload Lewis Holtby onto Schalke and the Spurs winger could serve as a replacement for Draxler, allowing them to then sell their man to Arsenal. But if Tim Sherwood decides he wants to nix Draxler’s chances of seeing Premier League action, he could pull the plug on Holtby’s move, causing Schalke to think twice about selling their 20-year-old assist machine.

Wenger is a seasoned vet when it comes to his media reaction to speculation.  Therefore, he wasn’t biting when prompted with another rumor, a loan move for Juventus striker Mirko Vucinic.  Wenger stated Arsenal are “not especially interested in” the owner of 8 Serie A appearances this season. Relegated to a squad depth role at Juventus Stadium, 30-year-old Vucinic could be tempted by Wenger who is searching for a striker to serve a similar role. However, with the Serie A league leaders disappointingly out of the Champions League, this could be another chance for Vucinic to serve a role in Europe’s highest competition.

Another name fresh on the lips of English media is Atletico Madrid’s Spanish youngster Saul Niguez.  At just 19 years old, Niguez has impressed on loan at Rayo Vallecano in a holding midfield role.  But according to the Daily Mail Atletico have alerted Premier League clubs such as Manchester United, Chelsea  and Arsenal that he would cost a whopping €24.3 million ($32.8 million).  With a 79% pass completion rate and 49% of his tackles won (according to Squawka statistics) in a holding midfield role, it’s unlikely anyone would pony up that kind of money for such a risk.

England vs. Montenegro, preview: The pressure’s on the hosts

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This is it: the “big one” in Europe. With just two rounds to go in UEFA World Cup qualifying, Group H is about as tight as it’s possible to be. England are unbeaten and, by virtue of that fact, sit top, but Ukraine are just one point behind. So, too, are Montenegro, although their inferior goal difference leaves them in third, without even the possibility of a playoff match to take them into the World Cup.

(MORE: a group-by-group overview of UEFA World Cup qualifying)

But that all could change on Friday night at Wembley. England may have brought the world the beautiful game, but under coach Roy Hodgson, they’re not peddling a brand of soccer that could be described in such a manner. Sure, England triumphed brutally over San Marino (13-0 over two legs) and Moldova (9-0 over two legs) but haven’t managed more than dull draws against their other competitors:  1-1 and 0-0 against Ukraine, 1-1 against Poland, and 1-1 in the first leg against Montenegro. There’s no entertainment here, just a simple grinding out of results, in any manner possible.

Perhaps that’s how it should be. After all, the point is to reach the World Cup, not to put on a dazzling display of theatrical footwork and brilliant backheels while blazing a trail to Brazil. Points dug up through long balls and headed goals count just as much.

The problem is that England need more than a hard fought draw this time: Ukraine are too close behind, and Montenegro face Moldova in the last round. Fortunately for Hodgson, he’s got a healthy squad at his disposal this time around. This is not the cobbled together squad that drew against Ukraine last time; instead, it’s likely Wayne Rooney will be set to sit behind Daniel Sturridge as the two look to lead the Three Lions attack. Ashley Cole misses out through injury, but it’s unlikely anyone will be concerned by the thought of Leighton Baines taking his place at left back. In fact, the only real concern is the form of Joe Hart, who’s made a few marquee mistakes in goal for Manchester City recently. But high profile mistakes are the bane of goalkeepers’ existences, and it’s highly unlikely that the experienced Hart will make a major gaff against Montenegro.

It’s the visitors that should feel nervous. They’re missing injured Juventus striker Mirko Vucinic, who may have scored just two goals in qualifying thus far, but has a knack for getting into dangerous positions. Montenegro are also without centerback Marko Basa, while defender Miodrag Dzudovic’s status is questionable. That leaves them relying on Stevan Jovetic, who, thanks to injuries and a bit of bad luck, has barely seen the pitch for Manchester City this season. When Jovetic is in form, he’s a real terror, annoying defenders and looking to score from any angle.

Yet, despite being so close to qualifying for their first World Cup as an independent nation, there seem to be few nerves around the Montenegro camp. Jovetic himself said the pressure is on England, where the fans expect qualification and the media scrutinizes every move and every decision. Montenegrins, meanwhile, seem satisfied with their sides’ performance, and the media are producing heartwarming stories about how the national team loves to play in front of a big crowd. So Montenegro go to Wembley with little pressure, likely to simply play in their regular manner: defensively organized and with an eye toward the rare opportunity to get forward and find a goal.

Finally, both sides may find slight comfort in knowing that Ukraine face Poland this time around. The Poles are not yet eliminated from reaching Brazil, sitting just two points behind Ukraine and Montenegro. A win this time, and they could move into second. But if England and Montenegro play out a draw and Ukraine outplay Poland as they did in the first leg, it could be Ukraine that books a direct flight to Brazil — and with the hapless San Marino on deck for the final round, there will be no overcoming Ukraine’s advantage.

Milan fall to Verona before Juventus beat Sampdoria

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The start of the Serie A season has finally arrived, much to the delight of fans of Italian soccer, who’ve been forced to make do with the likes of the Premier League, Bundesliga and La Liga over the past couple weeks. While the majority of the matches take place tomorrow, Saturday saw two interesting games played out on the peninsula.

Hellas Verona 2-1 AC Milan

To the casual observer, this match looked predictable. Milan ended last season in third place, clinching a spot in the Champions League qualifying round. The winners of Serie B last summer, Hellas Verona are back in the top flight after an eleven year absence. With the rossoneri fielding Stephan El Shaarawy and Mario Balotelli up front, and Verona relying on 36 year old Luca Toni, it would seem — on paper, at least — that a Milan win could be the only ending to this match up.

“That’s why we play the games” may be a cliche, but it’s one for a reason, and it exists because there is no better way to describe a match such as this one. Sure, Serie A fans know that no trip to the cauldron that is the Stadio Bentegodi will be easy (caveat: at least, not when Verona are playing; Chievo don’t count), but even most supporters felt that, at most, the home side would come away with a point.

But they didn’t count on Luca Toni having a point to prove. Turns out that the veteran didn’t appreciate being written off as a has-been, and emphatically hushed the doubters with a come-from-behind brace to give Verona an opening day victory. Surprisingly, it was neither El Shaarawy nor Balotelli that scored Milan’s goal, but rather newcomer Andrea Poli. Balotelli got in a few words at the end, however, when he was carded for insulting the referee after failing to win a penalty.

Sampdoria 0-1 Juventus

The second of the day’s Serie A matches followed a much more predictable script, with only the torrential rains in Genoa deviating from the norm (and even that wasn’t all that unusual). The pounding water and slick surface combined to create less than ideal conditions, and most likely helped Sampdoria keep the scoreline looking respectable.

The game’s only goal came in the 58th minute, via summer signing Carlos Tevez. Juve’s new striker had already scored his debut goal for the side during the 4-0 Supercoppa rout over Lazio, but giving the bianconeri the goal that secures the first win of the season will certainly endear him further to the fans. Credit must be given to Mirko Vucinic as well. The two forwards combined excellently throughout the match — whenever the rain didn’t send them slipping and sliding — and put plenty of pressure on the Sampdoria defense.

That defense finally splintered in the dying minutes of the game. Paolo Castellini, on the pitch just six minutes, was shown a straight red card for a poor tackle on Stephan Lichtsteiner. There were four additional minutes left to play, but Samp’s back, already bent, was truly broken.

Rout to second-straight title clearing for Juventus

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Juventus may be resorting to their old, uncertain tricks, but with their competition falling by the wayside in Italy, piddling concerns about middling form are quickly becoming irrelevant.

On Friday, Juve gave up the first goal at Cagliari and proceded to trail for 59 minutes, during which time David Astori picked up a second yellow for the hosts. It was only after the Old Lady held a man advantage that they equalized, the much-maligned Alessandro Matri pulling Italy’s leaders even on 75 minutes. Matri and Mirko Vucinic added stoppage time goals to salvage another turn back the clock (to last season) win for Antonio Conte. It’s not pretty, and the performances are starting to bely the record, but when the final whistle blows, Juventus is almost always on top.

As questionable as it’s becoming, Juventus’s underlying quality is becoming increasingly inconsequential. On one level, they’re still getting results, their Friday victory temporarily moving them 10 points clear of second in Italy. On another, nobody’s going anything to close that gap. This race may be as dead as Germany’s, where Bayern Munich took a nine-point lead on Bayer Leverkusen into the Bundesliga’s winter break.

Earlier this week, Napoli — one of two perceived title threats — were docked two points and had their captain (Paolo Cannavaro) suspended for six months after yet another instance of Italian match fixing. A former Partenopei goalkeeper had confessed to trying to manipulate a match, Cannavaro was one of two players cited for failing to report the affair, and as a result Napoli’s season has been derailed. After Juve’s win, Napoli sit 13 points back, left to scratch their way back without one of their best defenders.

Juve’s other potential challenger, Inter Milan, did their part to clear the way on Saturday against Genoa. Despite Nerazzurri control, former Bianconeri prospect Ciro Immobile put the Genovesi up 1-0 in the 77th minute. Esteban Cambiasso equalized for the hosts eight minutes later, but Andrea Stramaccioni’s side had left it too late to get full points. The 1-1 result leaves them nine back of Juventus after a week that’s taken most of the stream out of Italy’s title race.

But we do this every year. There are always leagues where teams take huge leads, and in many of them — be it from complacency, regression, or balance — the leads don’t hold up. Just last year, a big Real Madrid lead in Spain crumbled before Los Merengues finally put Barcelona away, beating them at the Nou Camp in late April. In England, Manchester United completed the biggest collapse in Premier League history by coughing up their lead to Manchester City.

While you’re sure to read “done and dusted” in other posts on this side (most likely from this author), in my more level-headed mood, I’ll simply note the path to a second-straight title has become very, very clear for Juventus.