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Europa League preview: Arsenal, Chelsea debut; Red Bull Derby (of sorts)

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The Europa League group stage begins Thursday, with two London giants taking part in a relatively unfamiliar competition.

[ MORE: Full Europa League schedule ]

Both Arsenal and Chelsea have played in the tournament finals in recent years, but for the most part are Champions League mainstays.

This season, however, it’s the UEL leading one to Greece and the other to a visit from a Ukrainian side.

Both are involved in our five matches to monitor amongst the 48-team field on Day 1.

5 (tie). Villarreal vs. Rangers / Celtic vs. Rosenborg

The Old Firm rivals with plenty to prove kick off their group stages on Wednesday, in turn saying something for Scottish football.

For Steven Gerrard‘s Rangers, that means the chance to make good on their first full European tournament since the 2010-11 Europa League. They took the long way, winning four qualifying rounds to earn these nights. Now what? Perhaps their toughest test yet in Villarreal.

For Brendan Rodgers‘ Celtic, it’s an opportunity to show that while the Champions League has been a bit too rich for their blood, a Europa League group stage with Austrian, German, and Norwegian competition isn’t a problem for the best team in Scotland.

4. Arsenal vs. Vorskla Poltava

Forget the opposition: Unai Emery sees the Europa League as the opportunity to put more silverware in the halls of Arsenal HQ. From Arsenal.com:

“Every title for us is very important. In 2000, Arsenal played the final against Galatasaray but didn’t win. And also, Arsenal played the final in 2006 in the Champions League and also didn’t win. In my career, the ambition is very important for continuing to improve and continuing to achieve the objectives in my career personally and with the team. I want to play for every title going forward.”

There’s no reason to expect anything but a win for the Gunners against a team in just its second European group stage.

3. Marseille vs. Eintracht Frankfurt

Frank McCourt’s Olympique Marseille still doesn’t sound quite right, so let’s go with the manager. Rudi Garcia’s Olympique Marseille has a lot of weapons, including a trio of World Cup winners in Steve Mandanda, Florian Thauvin, and Adil Rami. Their Bundesliga visitors feature a Mexican national teamer (Carlos Salcedo) and an American (Timothy Chandler), but eyes will be trained on a Frenchman: Sebastian Heller has three goals and an assist in three league appearances this season.

2. PAOK vs. Chelsea

With all respect to Vieirinha and Amr Warda, this shouldn’t be a major challenge for Maurizio Sarri‘s men. Yes, even with Eden Hazard, Mateo Kovacic, and David Luiz being rested in London.

But it gets our circle because Sarri has called it the most difficult challenge of their group stage. BATE Borisov and MOL Vidi (formerly Videoton) are the other members of Group L. From ChelseaFC.com:

“I have seen the four matches played by PAOK in the Champions League play-offs. My staff have seen the matches of the Greek championship. I think I know everything.

“We want to play with our characteristics, to control the match with our ball possession, but I know tomorrow will be difficult. They are a good team. They have won against Basel, Spartak Moscow, they drew against Benfica in Portugal. We have to do a very good match if we want to gain points.”

1. RB Leipzig vs. Red Bull Salzburg

UEFA would prefer to avoid matches like this, even presumably one-sided ones, as two clubs owned by Red Bull square off in a meaningful competition. The pair being in the same group will be even trickier when there are chances to affect the next round fate of their brother club (The clubs aren’t technically deemed to have the same ownership, but it’s difficult to conclude the relationship isn’t a healthy one).

What did we learn from PL Saturday?

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24 goals were scored across the seven Premier League games on Saturday, with plenty of drama and memorable moments dished out.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Wins for Liverpool and Chelsea meant their 100 percent record remained intact, while Manchester City, Manchester United and Arsenal impressed as the top six all played.

[ MORE: 3 things learned, Spurs v Liverpool ]

Here’s a look at what we learned from a wild Saturday across the Premier League’s seven games.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]


Eden Hazard is otherworldly

We weren’t sure if Eden Hazard would be a Chelsea player by the time the 2018-19 season kicked off. Chelsea fans are sure glad he is.

The Belgian wizard scored a hat trick in their comeback 4-1 win against Cardiff on Saturday, with Hazard showing off his vast array of skills throughout as he dazzled defenders at will. He has been simply dazzling this season and unlike plenty of other stars who went deep in the World Cup, Hazard is showing no signs, so far, of any fatigue.

His new manager, Maurizio Sarri, rested him after he returned from the World Cup, with Hazard not starting either of their opening two games of the season. But five goals in his three starts means he now leads the Premier League in goals and Hazard looks at his very best and that rest seems to have paid off.

Speaking about Sarri’s new style of play, which has amassed five wins on the spin to open up the season, Hazard is enjoying life under the Italian coach.

“[Maurizio Sarri] just wants us to play and to find space between the lines so then Jorginho, Matteo Kovacic, Cesc Fabregas can find us. We have a lot of freedom on the pitch, and at the moment when we try and do something it’s coming off,” Hazard said. “I’m always happy when I’m playing football I just want to do my best for this club who have done a lot for me. I’m always trying to do more – create more chances, score more goals, and today a hat-trick so I will try to do this more.”

More of the same please, Eden. If he can deliver, like he did in 2014-15 and 2016-17, then Chelsea will be serious title contenders this season.


United take care of business, answer critics

Jose Mourinho hasn’t been impressed with his recent critics but he can only do so much talking.

His team did the talking for him on Saturday as they beat red-hot Watford and made it back-to-back wins in the Premier League after back-to-back defeats. Okay, they’ve beaten Burnley and Watford away from home (tough places to go, in fairness) but there’s a chance for positivity to build at United in the coming months with an easier schedule of games coming up at home and abroad.

This United team will not wow you. They will not get you off your seat that often apart from David De Gea making a wonder-save or perhaps a crazy flick from Paul Pogba or volley from Alexis Sanchez.

But they are almost mechanical in the way they create chances and relentlessly grind down their opponents. United may not be serious title contenders this season (their defensive displays suggest that) but they proved they can hang in the top four battle and then try to win a trophy. We all know Mourinho is good at the latter and if he wins enough of those in the next few years, we will hear no more complaining from him. Well, at least for a few weeks.


Bournemouth can make top six challenge

The way Bournemouth set the tone and ruthlessly punished Leicester in the first half of their 4-2 win on Saturday proved that Eddie Howe‘s young side are growing up. Fast. Bournemouth raced into a 3-0 lead and their attacking trio of Ryan Fraser (two goals), Josh King (1 goal) and Callum Wilson (1 assist) tore apart Leicester’s cumbersome defensive line. At times over the past four years since they were promoted to the Premier League, you could argue that Howe’s side are lovely to watch but aren’t clinical enough. Yes, defensively they still leave a little to be desired (Leicester scoring twice late on proved that) but overall this Bournemouth team has the potential to do what Burnley did last season and challenge for a spot in Europe. Seriously.

They have a settled, balanced squad and every single player knows exactly what they’re supposed to be doing. Do not underestimate how important that is. It sounds simple, but it isn’t. Howe has assembled a young, hungry group and one which players want to be part of instead of moving on at the first opportunity. With three wins and 10 points on the board, Bournemouth’s fans will be thinking they are a quarter of the way to the magic 40-point marker already. That is true. But they should also be aiming a lot higher than that this season.


Sluggish Spurs suffering

Mauricio Pochettino predicted this would happen and he had a look on his face which basically said ‘I told you so’ when speaking to the media after Tottenham’s defeat to Liverpool.

[ MORE: Klopp hails Liverpool’s progress ]

The 2-1 scoreline didn’t tell the whole story. Tottenham were sloppy early on and Roberto Firmino could’ve scored twice inside three minutes. That trend continued at the end of the first half after a brief improvement, with Georginio Wijnaldum scoring the opener and Spurs didn’t really have an answer. Yes, Lucas Moura hit the post after a mazy run, but that was about it. Any result other than a defeat would’ve been way to kind on Tottenham despite their late flourish.

The main problem area was in midfield. Mousa Dembele, Harry Winks and Eric Dier couldn’t get out of the space in front of their own defense and kept having the ball nicked off them by Naby Keita, James Milner and Wijnaldum. On the rare occasion they did escape midfield with the ball, not having Dele Alli fit and available for this game was a huge blow. Alli’s ability to drift behind Kane and in-between the lines was badly missed as Christian Eriksen in a slightly deeper role just didn’t work out and Spurs’ entire pressing system faltered.

Spurs have now lost back-to-back games for the first time since May 2016, which is quite remarkable in itself. Pochettino must rally his troops ahead of the return of Dele and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris from injury, but also rejuvenate a sluggish side which looks tired (Harry Kane and their two center backs, Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld in particular) after the vast majority of their starting lineup played at the World Cup for over a month.

Add in no new signings this summer and the constant issue with the stadium at White Hart Lane being delayed, and prophetic Poch has some big issues to sort out. He knew that anyway but he still hasn’t been able to address them. That is the most worrying thing for a team, and manager, who have always provided the correct answer when faced with adversity over the past three seasons. It is time for Spurs to do that again.


Zaha best player outside a top six club

It is the debate which has rumbled on for some time and it is why Crystal Palace keep giving Wilfried Zaha new deals as the big boys circle. But it is quite clear that in the PL he’s the best player not playing for a ‘top six’ team. That shouldn’t be an argument any more. It’s quite simple. Look at Exhibit A, above, as Zaha’s magnificent run and spanked finish led Palace to victory at Huddersfield on Saturday. Of the last 12 Premier League games that Zaha hasn’t been available for Palace, they’ve lost every single one of them. Case in point.

With Zaha’s brilliance comes greater scrutiny and he is targeted by defenders in the same vein as Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Eden Hazard. The best players are the best because they find a way to get around the reducers and studs. Zaha’s complaints about his treatment are valid but as long as he keeps producing displays of the quality he has this season, he will be the number one target for opponents when they play Palace. The big boys will come calling again but isn’t in nice to see a player of his quality as the talisman for a club outside of the big boys? There’s something Alan Shearer or Matt Le Tissier-esque about Wilf.

Zaha talks wonder goal, asks whether refs will look out for him

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Wilfried Zaha scored another beauty on Saturday, but his mind was on another necessary part of his game: His health.

[ RECAP: Huddersfield 0-1 Palace ]

“I feel like I’d have to get my leg broken for anyone to get a card,” Zaha said, according to the BBC. “That’s why I lose my head. Why am I getting different treatment from other players? It is every week. I don’t know what to say.”

Zaha and Ruben Loftus-Cheek were joint-most fouled players in the Premier League last season at 2.6 times per game, and that figure was up to 2.8 before Saturday’s 1-0 win over Huddersfield Town.

Not known as a terrible diver, Zaha would still like to see more calls and has been vocal in his displeasure. Now he’s taking it to the microphones.

“I don’t know. I have tried to speak to the referees. there’s nothing I can do any more. It is hard. It doesn’t make you want to go on a run because someone will come through the back of you and it doesn’t allow you to express yourself. At the same time, I have to let my feet do the talking which I did today.”

As for his wonderful solo goal?

“I had one thing in my mind when I went on my run. I don’t think we had many shots but I managed to connect with it well and scored.”

Zaha leads Palace to victory at Huddersfield

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  • Zaha scores on return from injury
  • First win since opening day for Palace 
  • Huddersfield without a win this season

Crystal Palace secured a valuable away win at Huddersfield Town on Saturday, with Wilfried Zaha‘s moment of magic the difference at the John Smith’s Stadium.

Zaha cut in from the left and rifled home a stunner to secure all three points for Palace, while Huddersfield’s Aaron Mooy went close but his volley hit the post.

The win pushes Palace onto six points for the season, while Huddersfield remain on two points.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays

On his return from injury, Zaha looked sharp early on as he couldn’t connect with Andros Townsend in the box, with the away side causing Huddersfield plenty of problems.

The Ivorian winger then scored a Goal of the Season contender.

He cut in from the left and smashed a beauty into the far corner to give Palace the lead in fine fashion.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]  

Before half time Zaha went close but failed to get power on his low effort, while at the other end Steve Mounie nodded just over.

After the break Huddersfield put Palace under plenty of pressure as Philip Billing fired over and the home fans got behind their team.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Huddersfield then hit the post as Aaron Mooy sent in a superb volley as the Terriers couldn’t finish the follow-up.

As the game closed out gaps opened up and James McArthur fired over from a good position and Zaha had an effort blocked.

But Palace edged the victory thanks to their main man Zaha.

VIDEO: Zaha scores amazing solo goal

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Wilfried Zaha is back fit and on his return he scored an absolute stunner for Crystal Palace.

[ STREAM: Watch every PL match live

The Ivorian winger missed the defeat against Southampton before the international break and Palace have lost all of their last 12 games without him.

He delivered an incredible solo goal on Saturday at Huddersfield Town in the Premier League, which you can watch below.