Tottenham are in poor form but their quality remains clear

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Following a disappointing loss to Leicester, the FC crew dissect what has gone wrong for Spurs in the Premier League so far.
Mauricio Pochettino says Tottenham’s slow start in defeat at Leicester has become a recurring theme for his side.
Dele Alli says Spurs’ loss at Leicester is difficult to take, and they need to focus on results rather than the title race.

Tottenham Hotspur are in free fall. Mauricio Pochettino has been found out. Dele Alli is a fraud. Champions League? You’re having a laugh. Spurs will be lucky to open their new stadium with Europa League qualifiers against the third best team in Finland.

Narratives certainly change swiftly in football. During the course of this season alone, Jose Mourinho has gone from being a has-been, who could only finish sixth with Manchester United, to a renewed man leading a revitalised squad to the title, to an also-ran lagging behind Pep Guardiola all the way to Tuesday night’s see-saw encounter with Watford that seems to have left him as a manager at least partially in credit.

Up until this week, there had been no rush to judge Spurs, Pochettino or Alli. But their defeat at Leicester put paid to that and now the rush for hot takes begins. The problem is that narratives like the ones in that introduction — we’ll certainly find out who made it to the second paragraph with one glance at the comments section! — are frequently seen because they’re so simple to formulate.

Yet Tottenham’s issues are not simple. There does not appear to be any systemic failing that will bring down this nascent empire just as it starts to rise. Instead, lots of little things are accumulating, thin vines wrapping themselves around the ankles, none thick enough alone to bring you down, but together…

Domestic form has certainly dropped off a cliff since Spurs relinquished a two-goal lead at Wembley and allowed West Ham to sneak past them in the League Cup. There have been league defeats at Manchester United, Arsenal and Leicester, as well as dropped points at home to West Bromwich Albion.

Spurs’ only league win since they thumped Liverpool 4-1 on Oct. 22 came at home over a Crystal Palace side yet to net away from Selhurst Park all season. It’s just those little things: The passing is a little off; the pressing isn’t quite there; the shooting is wayward.

Pochettino’s men have been magnificent in Europe, beating Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund and sealing top spot in their group, and it is those games, not to mention so many others earlier in the campaign, which provide evidence that Tottenham, by any definition, are very good at football. But that’s not enough now.

Dele Alli has only scored one Premier League goal since August.

This may be the season with the broadest level of quality that the Premier League has ever seen. At the top, Manchester City are using their apparently infinite resources not just to win, but to win in the most spectacular fashion. At United, Mourinho has spent £75m on Romelu Lukaku, who just happens to be mates with Paul Pogba, who cost nearly £100m last summer.

Arsenal spent £50m on Alexandre Lacazette; the sum would have watered eyes a couple of years ago, yet we still consider Arsene Wenger to be tight with money. Chelsea are the expensively assembled reigning champions and yet, with all of this quality, all of these superpowers in flux, there are Liverpool fans angry that they’re not leading the title race.

Even Palace, while still bottom, have £30m Belgian international Christian Benteke and, in Wilfried Zaha, a rapid, inventive forward who has attracted the attention of innumerable larger clubs, including Spurs. The point being; you don’t have to drop off a lot to lose games in this division.

And Tottenham have certainly dropped off, with Alli a case in point. At his best, he brings technical ability and combines it with a pugnacious streak of malice that upsets and unsettles opponents. But he’s not bringing much right now. In fact, he’s giving stuff away, namely possession.

The 21-year-old was to blame for West Brom’s goal last weekend. He’s snatching at his chances too, overthinking and wasting them. But he is only 21. He’s having a dip. Thirty years ago, when games were televised at the rate of one a week at most, no one would have noticed outside of his own dugout.

And if it was just Alli who was sagging, it wouldn’t be a problem. But Harry Kane is looking tired and doesn’t seem to be fully fit. Toby Alderweireld, who so often starts moves, is sorely missed. Eric Dier has dropped back to help but that means, without Vincent Wanyama, no defensive midfielder. Harry Winks could do the job, but guess what? He’s out, too.

Danny Rose, recently returned from injury and significantly less popular after his comments about Googling new teammates, was a shadow of his usual self against Leicester. Bit by bit, department by department, Spurs are losing edges. And against Man United, Arsenal and even Leicester, opposing players do not need any encouragement to take advantage.

Spurs nearly clawed their way back — Fernando Llorente’s late miss was a bad one — and, when you consider that Jamie Vardy’s goal was one for the Youtube compilations and that Leicester cleared one off the line, you can see the narrowness of the margins.

But in such a competitive division, where whoever finishes sixth will consider it a failure in spite of the strength of the teams above them — this presumes the top six will remain the same — sometimes you just lose games of football. Spurs can play better. They will play better. It doesn’t always means that a new narrative is required.

Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.

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Henrikh Mkhitaryan-Mesut Ozil drama adds intrigue to Manchester United-Arsenal

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Arsene Wenger has insisted that Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez will not leave Arsenal in January ahead of their match with Huddersfield.

It might be a glimpse of Jose Mourinho’s past and future alike. Henrikh Mkhitaryan could be seeing a predecessor and his successor alike. Whether he does so from close quarters or with a view from the dugout as a substitute is another matter. Because while Arsenal against Manchester United was shaping up as Mesut Ozil against Mkhitaryan, Mourinho has injected doubt into that setup.

The German will surely start. The Armenian may be benched or consigned to the stands again, deprived of a chance to outshine the man who may oust him. Ozil’s star is in the ascendant again following his terrific display in the North London derby. Mkhitaryan’s has fallen as he has tumbled down the pecking order at Old Trafford. Rewind three months, and he was the Premier League’s most creative player, with five assists by the end of August, while Ozil was being criticised for an abject display in Arsenal’s 4-0 shellacking at Anfield. Then the notion that Mkhitaryan could be jettisoned to make way for Ozil seemed far-fetched.

Now the Armenian is being linked with a return to Borussia Dortmund. Ozil, whose contract at Arsenal expires next summer, is tipped to replace him at Old Trafford. It would both appeal to Mourinho’s Machiavellian streak, weakening a rival while strengthening his own squad, and his business brain, freeing up funds for other transfer targets by getting Arsenal’s £42.4 million buy for nothing. It would reunite him with a former ally.

There is a temptation to think of Deco and Wesley Sneijder as Mourinho’s quintessential No. 10s; they, after all, were the inventive fulcrums of his two Champions League-winning sides. Yet Ozil was the creator in chief in his most prolific team, the Real Madrid side who scored 326 league goals in three seasons.

“He is the best No. 10 in the world,” Mourinho said when Ozil joined Arsenal. “He makes things very easy for me and for his teammates. Everyone loves him and sees a bit of Luis Figo and Zinedine Zidane in him. Ozil is unique. There is no copy of him, not even a bad copy.”

It suggests, at least, that he does not deem Mkhitaryan a poor Ozil imitator. The 2016 signing was omitted from three of the past four games, with Mourinho saying Mkhitaryan had been “disappearing” in matches and not working hard enough. Those criticisms have long been levelled at Ozil, and not just in an Arsenal shirt. The World Cup winner revealed in his autobiography that Mourinho, in a dressing-room tirade, once called him “such a coward,” saying: “You think two beautiful passes are enough. You think you’re so good that 50 percent is enough.” But he picked him for 90 percent of Real’s league games, starting him in 72 percent of them. The corresponding figures for Mkhitaryan — beginning 48 percent of league matches, featuring in 69 percent — are far lower.

If Mourinho summed up the case against Ozil in anger, his 2013 comments amounted to the most emphatic endorsement of him. At times, it has felt that Arsene Wenger has been a lone voice defending his playmaker. Both can suffer from the English obsession with body language; neither is best suited to a culture that demands conspicuous displays of effort. Mourinho, the import who can seem more English than the English, arrowed in on it when he asked Ozil to do more running.

Will Henrikh Mkhitaryan play against potential replacement Mesut Ozil on Saturday?

Both appear more appreciated in Germany than in England. Mkhitaryan was voted the Bundesliga players’ player of the year in 2015-16. Ozil has been named the German national team’s player of the year for five of the past six years. “There is no doubt in Germany about the quality of Mesut Ozil,” said the Premier League’s leading German manager, Jurgen Klopp, in August. “He is an outstandingly skilled boy.”

They are genuine creators, the sort who make more goals than they score. In 2015-16, Mkhitaryan had the most assists in the Bundesliga, and Ozil the most in the Premier League. They possess unselfish streaks and have performed best alongside players with contrasting attributes. Ozil was a fine foil to the selfish Cristiano Ronaldo. Mkhitaryan, at the start of the season, was a very different sidekick to the bigger and more exuberant Paul Pogba when United proved prolific.

Each has stood out in a Mourinho team. United, in particular, have a phalanx of 6-footers who can launch an aerial attack. Like Ozil, Mkhitaryan possesses an elfin elusiveness to ghost into positions, but that more languid approach can make each a lightning rod for criticism. The suggestion is that they do not perform in the major matches. The evidence is decidedly mixed. Mkhitaryan scored in the Europa League final. Ozil unlocked United at the Emirates Stadium two years ago and Tottenham this month. Neither, however, has delivered enough in major away games.

While Wenger has been faulted for invariably selecting Ozil, Mourinho was blamed last autumn for omitting Mkhitaryan. History may repeat itself on Saturday, with the German starting and the Armenian benched. And perhaps then Mourinho will revisit the old days and re-sign Ozil next summer.

Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.

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Portland Timbers hope to have new coach in place by end of the year

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After Caleb Porter’s departure from Portland, Herculez Gomez explains why he wouldn’t make sense for the United States.

Portland Timbers have interviewed multiple candidates and hope to have a new coach in place by the end of the year.

The team parted ways with Caleb Porter this month after five seasons with the team.

Porter compiled a 68-50-52 record and guided the team to an MLS Cup championship in 2015. This past season, the Timbers finished atop the Western Conference.

Team owner Merritt Paulson said Wednesday the search is well underway and “to say there’s significant interest in the position is an understatement.”

“I don’t have a specific timeline to provide other than to say but in a perfect world we will have identified the candidate to be the next coach by the end of this year,” Paulson said. “But the decision won’t be made unless there’s confidence in the fit. In the meantime, this isn’t going to slow down soccer decisions this offseason. “

Gavin Wilkinson, the team’s general manager, said Portland is ideally looking for someone who has been a head coach, with Major League Soccer experience or knowledge. The coach’s style must fit with the way the Timbers have been built, he added.

Caleb Porter
Portland Timbers parted ways with Caleb Porter this month.

“We need somebody who can step in, understanding who our players are and not spend several months figuring our players’ best positions, our players’ best attributes,” Wilkinson said. “We want someone who can hit the ground running.”

The objective in the search was to narrow the field to five or six top candidates, then “compare and contrast,” Wilkinson said, while there was no firm deadline because the team does not want to rush.

Porter, 42, was named the MLS Coach of the Year after his first season with the team in 2013. He signed a long-term contract extension in January 2016.

The Timbers finished this season as the top seed in the Western Conference but fell in the conference semifinals 2-1 on aggregate to Houston Dynamo.

The Timbers were decimated by injuries in the semis, including to midfielder Diego Chara, who broke a bone in his foot.

“I’d say that five years is a long tenure as a head coach with any pro soccer club. And the Timbers were fortunate to have Caleb over that time,” Paulson said. “The club matured and developed over that period and we had some terrific success.”

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Premier League Predictor: Matchweek 15

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Neymar ‘well worth the money’ PSG spent on him – Thomas Meunier

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Neymar and Edinson Cavani’s goals late in the second half earned all three points for PSG in a home win over Troyes.

PARIS — Paris Saint-Germain right back Thomas Meunier hailed teammate Neymar and declared him “worth the money spent on him” after he inspired the lacklustre Ligue 1 leaders to a 2-0 home win over Troyes on Wednesday.

The Brazil international scored the opener and assisted Edinson Cavani for the second at Parc des Princes as Unai Emery’s men moved 10 points clear at the summit of Le Championnat.

Speaking after the final whistle in the mixed zone, Meunier praised Neymar and recognised his key role in the hard-fought victory and in the team since his world-record €222 million move from Barcelona this summer.

“I think that we ought to thank him after this,” the Belgium international told journalists. “Some will say that it was not the best performance of his career but he is always decisive.

“He causes a great deal of panic [for opponents]. Yeah, he is well worth the money spent on him.”

Neymar
Neymar led PSG to victory over Troyes on Wednesday night.

Thiago Silva captained PSG for the 200th time against Troyes and the Brazil international was impressed by Neymar leaving the ball for Edinson Cavani to take a first-half penalty after everything that has been said recently about the pair’s relationship.

“I have not spoken about this with him,” said Silva. “I know my little brother — he has gone through a lot of difficult moments in his career.

“There has been a lot of confusion and there has been a lot said about these penalties. Neymar showed very good attitude here.

“He gave Edinson the ball — unfortunately, Edinson did not score.”

Silva, who is 33 and has a contract until 2020 after extending it almost 12 months ago is keen to play past that date after wearing the armband for the 200th time.

The former AC Milan wants to stay on at Parc des Princes, especially if the current squad remains relatively intact, and he reserved special praise for PSG chairman and CEO Nasser Al-Khelaifi and former coach Carlo Ancelotti.

“I am very happy,” Silva said. “I hope that I can stay here for much longer. Especially with this current group — it is special.

“It is wonderful to wear this shirt. I would like to thank my president and especially Carlo [Ancelotti], who gave me the opportunity to wear the armband.”

As Marquinhos was rested for the Troyes success, Silva may well find himself handed a breather when PSG take on Strasbourg at Stade de la Meinau on Saturday ahead of next week’s Champions League clash with Bayern Munich in Germany.

Jonathan Johnson covers PSG and the French national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Jon_LeGossip.

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Luke Shaw finally leaving Man United Barca target Premier League trio

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With the January window on the horizon, there’s plenty brewing in the transfer market. All the latest deals and potential deals can be found here.

Shaw set to leave Man United

Manchester United are ready to cut their losses on Luke Shaw with the left-back failing to force his way into Jose Mourinho’s first-team plans, reports the Daily Mail.

Shaw has endured a frosty relationship with Mourinho since the Portuguese boss arrived at Old Trafford in 2016, and it’s thought a fresh challenge could suit all parties.

Newcastle have enquired about the 22-year-old and may be encouraged by speculation that United will accept offers of £20 million — £11.5 million less than they paid Southampton for Shaw’s signature in 2014.

The England international is keen to remain in the Premier League and a January loan move to St James’ Park — with a view to a permanent transfer — is now on the cards.

Arsenal back in for Evans

Arsenal are set to return for Jonny Evans in January despite having a £25 million bid for the defender rejected in August, reports the Daily Mirror.

After selling Gabriel Paulista to Valencia in the summer, Arsene Wenger remains keen to recruit another centre-back with Evans leading the Gunners’ list of targets.

The 29-year-old is also being tracked by Manchester City as new West Brom boss Alan Pardew prepares to hold crunch talks over the Northern Irishman’s future.

De Bruyne on Real Madrid radar

Kevin De Bruyne’s recent performances for Manchester City haven’t gone unnoticed, with Real Madrid stepping up their interest in the midfielder according to City Watch.

The Manchester City fan site quotes a source close to the player as confirming that the La Liga champions have contacted De Bruyne’s agent Patrick De Koster over a potential transfer.

The Belgium international has reportedly outlined his intention to stay at the Etihad Stadium, but Real Madrid are eager to make a high-profile signing after a period of relative inactivity in the transfer market.

Should the Spanish giants make their move, it may also reignite Paris Saint-Germain’s long-held interest in De Bruyne.

Tap-ins

– Mourinho has told his Manchester United scouts to find him a “magician” in January, claims The Sun. The United boss hasn’t given up on the title race despite his team trailing Manchester City by eight points, and believes a key creative signing in January could make the difference in the battle at the top.

– Valencia are plotting a January loan move for Everton misfit Sandro Ramirez, according to the Daily Mail. The 22-year-old joined the Toffees from Malaga in the summer, but has scored only two goals in 13 appearances.

– Barcelona are eyeing Chelsea midfielder Willian as an alternative to Philippe Coutinho, reports the Daily Mail. The Catalan giants hope to conclude a deal for Coutinho in January, but will turn to his compatriot at Stamford Bridge if they fail to strike an agreement with Liverpool.

– Barcelona are also chasing Mesut Ozil and plan to offer Arda Turan in part-exchange to push through a transfer in January, reports the Daily Star. Turan has been told he has no future at the Nou Camp and could be used as a makeweight to persuade the Gunners to let Ozil leave six months before his contract expires.

Matthew Stanger covers European football for ESPN and is the editor of The Set Pieces. Twitter: @MatthewStanger

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Massimiliano Allegri denies Juventus bust-up but would welcome more fighting spirit

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Juventus legend Alessandro Del Piero weighs in on the Serie A title race and highlights the strides Napoli have made.
Juventus manager Massimiliano Allegri has insisted that Napoli are favourites to win Serie A ahead of their match in Naples.
Relive the best goals from the weekend in Serie A, featuring Mattia De Sciglio’s first goal for Juventus.
Relive the best goals from the weekend in Serie A, featuring Mattia De Sciglio’s first goal for Juventus.

Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri has denied reports of a rift in the dressing room, although he says he would not mind some more passion from his players as he prepares them for their top-of-the-table Serie A clash at Napoli on Friday night.

It was claimed by Dagospia on Wednesday that an argument had broken out between some of Juve’s veterans and a group of three foreign players in the dressing room prior to the 3-2 defeat at Sampdoria.

It reports that the trio have asked to be sold in January, but Allegri says the whole story has been fabricated in a bid to unsettle his club, who trail Napoli by four points ahead of Friday night’s clash at the Stadio San Paolo.

“As if!” Allegri said at a news conference on Thursday when asked about the reported argument. “I would have liked it if they really had come to blows because sometimes a bit of a scandal now and again does you good, but unfortunately nothing happened.”

Massimiliano Allegri has Juventus in contention to win a seventh successive Serie A title.

Allegri’s argument with Leonardo Bonucci last February is considered by the Juve coach as the main turning point in the Bianconeri‘s 2016-17 season, as they went on to win a Serie A and Coppa Italia double and reach the Champions League final.

He denies there has been a similar spark behind the scenes now as he names Napoli as favourites for the Serie A title this season.

“They’re doing extraordinary things,” he said. “They’re two points ahead of Inter Milan and we’re four points behind them. They are top and favourites to win the Scudetto, going at an impressive rate of knots.

“This is going to be an important game for us, but it won’t be decisive. I hope it’s a good test ahead of the trip to Olympiakos, which will be our first real decisive game of the season. In Athens, our place in the last 16 of the Champions League will be on the line, and that is our first objective of the season.”

Gonzalo Higuain could be able to help either on Friday night or next Tuesday, when Juve need a win to be sure of reaching the knockout stages of the Champions League, and Allegri says he is recovering quickly from an operation on a broken finger earlier this week.

“Gonzalo’s hand is a bit painful, but he could be available,” Allegri said. “Let’s say that I’m optimistic about him being in the squad. Let’s see how his hand is and how much pain he feels. It wouldn’t make sense risking him now, with a further 30 games of the season ahead of us.”

Higuain joined Juve from Napoli for €90 million 18 months ago after he scored 36 goals in 35 games in 2015-16, setting a new Serie A scoring record.

The Argentine, who upset Napoli fans by turning his back on them to join their fiercest rivals, faced his former club four times last season — twice in the league and twice in the Coppa Italia — scoring four goals. Furthermore, he has scored five in his past four Serie A appearances for Juve.

Ben Gladwell reports on Serie A, the Italian national team and the Bundesliga for ESPN FC, UEFA and the Press Association. @UEFAcomBenG.

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Pako Ayestaran leaves Las Palmas after six La Liga games in charge

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Pako Ayestaran
Pako Ayesteran’s spell at Las Palmas was short-lived.

Struggling Las Palmas have fired coach Pako Ayestaran following Wednesday’s 3-2 home defeat to Deportivo La Coruna in the Copa del Rey.

Ayestaran, who took charge on Sept. 27 with the club in 15th place, led the team to just one point from a possible 21 in La Liga.

Despite Las Palmas progressing 6-4 on aggregate to the next round of the Copa after the loss to Depor, the club decided to part ways with the coach.

A Las Palmas club statement said: “Following the meeting of Las Palmas’ administration council after Wednesday’s Copa del Rey game against Deportivo La Coruna, the club has decided to dismiss Pako Ayestaran as coach of the first team.

“The club wishes to thank the Basque coach for his work and dedication in charge of the team since his arrival at the end of September.

“Until the club announces the new coach, Paquito Ortiz and Rafa Cristobal will be in charge of the team.”

Ayestaran, a former coach of Valencia, inherited a difficult job when he replaced Manolo Marquez at the helm in September.

The club’s only win under him was a 4-1 triumph at Depor in the first leg of their Copa del Rey tie.

They lost seven times in nine games in all competitions while he held the reins.

Las Palmas are 19th in the standings with seven points from 13 games heading into Sunday’s home game against Real Betis.

The Canary Islands-based club expect to appoint a new coach before the weekend.

Las Palmas president Miguel Angel Ramirez said in a news conference after Ayestaran’s dismissal: “We weren’t thinking of making a coaching change but after a two-hour meeting the decision was a unanimous one.

“Having arrived to this situation, we are hoping to get a new coach in the next 24 to 48 hours.

“I can only apologise to the fans because we are not achieving what we intended to do. We need a coach that will turn things around.”

Paco Jemez, who left Mexican side Cruz Azul after one season in charge earlier this month, is the main candidate to replace Ayestaran.

Jemez, who guided Las Palmas in the 2010-11 campaign, revealed he has been contacted by this former club but also has other offers on the table.

A reported target of La Liga side Alaves, Jemez told Onda Cero radio: “He [Ramirez] called me [last night] but I couldn’t answer because I was busy.

“This week I will answer all the offers that I have received. I have to evaluate whether I want to coach so soon after leaving Cruz Azul or rest.”

Adriana Garcia is a Valencia-based football writer who covers La Liga for ESPN FC.

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Sevilla boss Eduardo Berizzo has ‘successful’ surgery for prostate cancer

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Sevilla coach Eduardo Berizzo
Eduardo Berizzo was appointed Sevilla coach in the summer.

Sevilla coach Eduardo Berizzo has successfully undergone surgery after being diagnosed with prostate cancer, the club have announced.

The 48-year-old’s illness was made public in the wake of last week’s 3-3 Champions League draw with Liverpool, when Sevilla came from 3-0 down at half-time.

A club statement on Tuesday read: “The coach of Sevilla, Eduardo Berizzo, underwent successful surgery this afternoon for his recently-diagnosed prostate cancer, the club’s medical services have said.

“His recovery period will depend on his post-operative progress in the next few days.”

Sevilla assistant coach Ernesto Marcucci has been put in charge of the first team in Berizzo’s absence.

The Spanish side play Cartagena in the Copa del Rey on Wednesday, before hosting Deportivo La Coruna in La Liga on Saturday.

Marcucci is confident things will runs smoothly at Sevilla while Berizzo recovers from the operation.

He told a news conference: ” Eduardo will most likely be involved daily so we are taking this [his absence] with the biggest naturalness. This is a place that I don’t want to be today but it’s only due to the circumstances that a friend is going through. When it comes to football, we are going to try and resolve things in the best possible way. This is a big club and the aim is to continue to win.”

Marcucci hailed Berizzo, saying: “His composure gives us strength. He left everything organised for today. We spoke before the training session and he’s been in permanent contact. His vigour is an example for everyone who is next to him. He prioritises work over his health, he has already shown that. We will try to follow his pace. We are here for him and for Sevilla so that this moment goes as fast as possible and we continue to win.”

Marcucci also spoke about Steven N’Zonzi being left out for a second straight game from Sevilla’s squad for technical reasons.

Diario de Sevilla claims that the midfielder had a fallout with Berizzo after being substituted at half-time in their draw against Liverpool.

N’Zonzi did not feature in Sunday’s 3-2 win at Villarreal and was also left out of the squad for Wednesday’s game against Cartagena.

Asked about N’Zonzi’s absence, Marcucci said: “Eduardo already explained it at the time. It’s still a technical decision. He is another player in the squad and once we consider it appropriate he will return to be called up.”

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Mane nets Liverpool’s opener – ESPN FC

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Chelsea end Cesar Azpilicueta’s run of 74 straight Premier League starts

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Cesar Azpilicueta
Cesar Azpilicueta is only on the bench for Chelsea on Wednesday.

Cesar Azpilicueta is not in the Chelsea starting XI to face Swansea City on Wednesday, breaking a run of 74 straight starts in the Premier League.

The full-back has played every minute of every league game under Antonio Conte, but was only on the bench at Stamford Bridge for the midweek game.

The last time he was on the bench for Chelsea in a Premier League game came on Dec. 5, 2015, against Bournemouth in Jose Mourinho’s second-to-last league game in charge.

Azpilicueta’s run was the longest active streak by an outfield player, and the second-longest active streak by any Premier League player after Watford goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes’ 90.

Antonio Rudiger takes Azpilicueta’s place as Conte made four changes from the side that drew with Liverpool on Saturday, with Pedro, Willian and Cesc Fabregas also coming into the team.

Follow @ESPNFC on Twitter to keep up with the latest football updates.

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Giuseppe Rossi set for medical tests ahead of potential move to Genoa

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Giuseppe Rossi last played for Celta Vigo in April, when he suffered a knee ligament injury.

Former Italy international Giuseppe Rossi is set to undergo medical tests with struggling Serie A side Genoa as he hopes to return from the latest in a series of serious knee injuries.

Rossi tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee while playing for Spanish club Celta Vigo in April and underwent surgery.

The 30-year-old American-born player had previously injured his right knee multiple times.

Genoa president Enrico Preziosi says Rossi “deserves a chance. He’s a great champion and a great kid. I hope he can do well for himself and for us.”

Genoa are in 17th place, one spot above the relegation zone. Coach Davide Ballardini, who previously worked with Rossi in Parma’s youth system, said: “I care about him.”

After breaking out with former club Villarreal, Rossi was in line to join the elite scorers in Europe when he tore his right anterior cruciate ligament during a game against Real Madrid in October 2011. He needed three operations before returning in May 2013 after joining Italian club Fiorentina.

He also missed four months of the 2013-14 season with a sprained ligament, ruling him out of Italy’s World Cup squad.

Rossi underwent a fourth operation on his troublesome right knee in September 2014 and missed the entire season.

He returned to Spain in January, 2016 with Levante, before joining Celta last season. He has also played for Manchester United, Newcastle and Parma.

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Borussia Dortmund complicates Bayern Munich’s pursuit of Julian Nagelsmann

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Bayern Munich’s Jupp Heynckes has insisted that although the players want him to stay, he is still only staying until June.

In Germany there’s a word for everything, including the peculiar predicament FC Bayern Munich find themselves in. Call it: the Nagelsmann-Falle.

Nagelsmann literally translates as “nails man”; Falle as “trap.” Put together, this compound noun sounds a little like a medieval torture instrument, which is rather apt. The German champions are stuck in a corner and torn in an agonising bind over the appointment of TSG Hoffenheim coach Julian Nagelsmann as Jupp Heynckes’ successor at Bayern Munich next summer.

Can the 30-year-old be entrusted with the team’s rebuilding process, or is he not quite ready to take his ideas from the sleepy Kraichgau region to the pressure cooker of the Allianz Arena, where only wins are tolerated?

These are the questions the leading figures at Sabener Strasse are asking themselves. The fraught decision-making process is not helped by a sense of disunity at board level, and there’s one more unwelcome complication: Borussia Dortmund’s likely need for a new coach in due course makes this a time-sensitive issue all of a sudden.

Bayern’s initial plan at the start of the campaign had been to adopt a prudent wait-and-see tactic. Everybody expected Nagelsmann might have a bumpy ride following the loss of influential figures Niklas Sule and Sebastian Rudy — to Bayern, coincidentally — during Europa League campaign. But with the safe hands of Carlo Ancelotti in situ and contracted until 2019, club bosses in Munich were not in a hurry to jump to conclusions.

Roping in Heynckes as an emergency measure after Ancelotti’s sudden dismissal two months ago was meant to buy Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Uli Hoeness, the two squabbling power-brokers, more time to agree on a long-term replacement over the next three to four months. (A new coach needs to be identified in time for Bayern’s transfer activities, which tend to culminate in April and May.)

Hoeness’ recent suggestion that Heynckes could well stay for another season — angrily rebuffed by the 72-year-old — shone a light on the Bavarians’ persistent trouble in securing the next man on the bench. The board obviously need more time, still, to run the rule over the possible contenders — starting with Nagelsmann.

An at best half-hearted attempt to enquire about his immediate availability back in late September never went anywhere, thanks to Hoffenheim adopting a principled stand — TSG reportedly quoted Bayern an outrageous release fee to kill the move straight away — and a lack of conviction at Sabener Strasse.

Neither Hoeness nor Rummenigge were quite ready to anoint the wunderkind; Hoffenheim’s poor showings in the Europa League, where they’ve been eliminated in group stage, hasn’t done much to strengthen Nagelsmann’s case.

Bayern Munich may have to ditch its patient approach if it wants to secure Hoffenheim’s Julian Nagelsmann as its next coach before Dortmund does.

Ironically, Peter Bosz’s increasingly doomed tenure at Dortmund has had that effect. The club, whose approach to Nagelsmann turned down back in April, are preparing another offer to lure him to the Signal Iduna Park at the end of the season at the latest.

In light of Bayern’s uncertain stance, Nagelsmann is likely to be seriously tempted this time around. That, in turn, raises fears of missing out on the brightest coaching prospect of his generation in Bavaria. Can Bayern afford to let Nagelsmann slip the net and go to Westphalia, where he might have a similarly transformative effect as Jurgen Klopp had 10 years ago?

Borussia’s renewed push forces Bayern to take a look at Nagelsmann now, in a time-frame that’s not of their own making — an uncomfortable place to be for club accustomed to being at the top of the Bundesliga’s food chain.

If there’s no quick consensus on fast-tracking Nagelsmann, Bayern go back to square one. Thomas Tuchel expressed reservations about not enjoying the board’s unanimous support when Bayern sounded him out a few weeks ago, while Germany coach Joachim Low has a World Cup to worry about and might well continue until 2020.

Reports about Liverpool boss Klopp moving into pole position are so fanciful in light of the Swabians’ rock solid support by Anfield owners FSG that they could well be smokescreen, designed to obscure Bayern’s move for the only other viable German-speaking coach left on the market. Expect the buzz around RB Leipzig boss Ralph Hasenhuttl to become a loud louder in the coming weeks.

Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC’s German football expert. Follow: @honigstein

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Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic: I’d prefer it if Neymar was still at the Camp Nou

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Ale Moreno weighs in on Lionel Messi’s assertions that Barca are better balanced and stronger defensively without Neymar.
Ernesto Valverde says that he is happy with the spirit that his Barcelona side showed after coming from behind to draw 1-1 against Valencia.

Ivan Rakitic has told Mundo Deportivo he would bring Neymar back to Barcelona if he had a magic wand.

Brazil forward Neymar left to join Paris Saint-Germain in a world-record move during the summer window.

Although Barcelona are four points clear at the top of La Liga and unbeaten in 19 matches in all competitions without him, some critics have described their performances as boring.

And Rakitic said Neymar’s exit could be the reason for that criticism, adding: “We had a bit more ‘show’ when Ney was here — maybe we lack that a little bit now.

“That was brought by Ney himself. I would prefer him to be here. If I had a magic wand, I would have him by my side.

“We’ve spoken about Ney a lot, though, but he’s not here any more and we’re doing really well.

“With the change of system, everything changes a little. We are more balanced now, more of a unit, whether that’s in attack or defence. But we still have a lot to improve.”

Neymar has remained a major talking point in the Catalan press, with reports last month suggesting he had regrets about his decision to leave after he made several trips back to Barcelona.

Rakitic said it was normal for Neymar to miss the friends he made while in Catalonia for four years.

And asked whether he felt the attacker also missed the club, he said: “What Barcelona give you, no other club or city in the world can.

“I miss him, too, not just on the pitch but in the dressing room. It’s been the same for me before. When I left Germany for Sevilla, I missed everyone. Then when I came here, I was going back to Seville whenever I could.

“Later, you get used to your new surroundings and teammates.

“The strength of this team is in its values in the dressing room. We miss Ney. Whether he regrets leaving or not, you’d have to ask him.”

Neymar has scored 14 goals in 15 games for Barcelona and created eight more and Rakitic added: “If he’s playing like he is while sad, then watch him go when he’s happy… so I’m sure he’s not doing that badly.”

Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.

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Italian football loses funds after World Cup qualification failure

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The FC crew answer your tweets on Italy’s leadership, the impact a De Bruyne injury would have on Man City and more.

Italian football will lose €2.6 million in funding after the national team failed to reach a World Cup finals for the first time in 60 years.

All Olympic sports receive funding from the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI) with the funds based on criteria including results and success.

Italy’s defeat to Sweden in a qualification playoff means the country’s football association (FIGC) will be given a smaller slice of the cake, with other sports earning greater shares.

“We’ve got to look at Olympic qualification, women’s football and rankings,” Giovanni Malago, the president of CONI, told Sky Sport Italia.

“We’re going to have to discuss with the future FIGC president how we can obtain better results.

“Certain parameters and criteria are involved in the distribution [of funds] and football is going to take a reduction of €2.6 million, which will impact on about seven to eight percent of our overall contributions.”

Malago added that the cutback “really should have been far superior,” saying it was “a very minor reduction” that had been agreed across the board.

The wider Italian economy is also set to suffer from Italy’s World Cup absence, which means the tournament is no longer expected to provide a spending boost in many sectors.

The FIGC is preparing for elections, with president Carlo Tavecchio having resigned days after sacking coach Gian Piero Ventura.

Ben Gladwell reports on Serie A, the Italian national team and the Bundesliga for ESPN FC, UEFA and the Press Association. @UEFAcomBenG.

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Neymar Sr. says it is too early to discuss Real Madrid move

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Ale Moreno weighs in on Lionel Messi’s assertions that Barca are better balanced and stronger defensively without Neymar.

Neymar’s father has said it is too early to discuss the prospect of his son joining Real Madrid but stressed that there are no current plans to leave Paris Saint-Germain.

Neymar Jr. joined PSG from Barcelona in a €222 million deal in the summer but there has been speculation that the 25-year-old has not settled at the Parc des Princes.

Catalan outlet Mundo Deportivo reported last month that Madrid president Florentino Perez remained in contact with Neymar’s camp with a view to a potential move, while Sergio Ramos and Casemiro have both said they would welcome the Brazil international at the Bernabeu. 

Neymar Sr. told Fox Sports in Brazil that there are no plans for the forward to leave PSG at this stage but stopped short of ruling out a move to Madrid.

“Things change so much, you can never be sure of anything,” Neymar Sr. said.

“At the moment we are not thinking about leaving PSG. To respond to this question is to feed something which is impossible. I cannot talk about what might happen in five or six years.

“He has a long contract with PSG and has just arrived. He has been here for three months and people are talking about him leaving. It is difficult to respond to this type of thing.”

Neymar Jr. has contributed 14 goals and 10 assists in his first 15 games as Unai Emery’s side have moved top of both their Champions League group and the Ligue 1 table.

However, an on-pitch disagreement over penalty duties with teammate Edinson Cavani sparked rumours over dressing-room issues, although Neymar Jr. strongly denied suggestions he is unhappy earlier this month. 

Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan

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Arsenal’s Laurent Koscielny planning Lorient return – president Loic Frey

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Arsene Wenger has insisted that Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez will not leave Arsenal in January ahead of their match with Huddersfield.

Arsenal defender Laurent Koscielny wants to finish his career at his former club Lorient, the French club’s president has told Canal +.

Koscielny, 32, is under contract at the Emirates Stadium until 2020, but Loic Frey said the France international had told him he wanted to return to his homeland before retiring.

The France international has been with the Gunners since leaving Lorient in 2010, and Frey said: “He told me last week in London that he wanted to finish his career at Lorient.

“I hope he has a few more years playing at Arsenal.”

Lorient are in the second tier of French football following relegation from Ligue 1 last season.

Follow @ESPNFC on Twitter to keep up with the latest football updates.

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