Alec’s Premier League XI of the 2016-17 Season

With Chelsea clinching the title and Hull claiming the final relegation spot, the dust has mostly settled in the Premier League this season. The time has come to reflect on the most outstanding performances of the season and determine who were the eleven best. In honor of Antonio Conte’s successful three back formation, the team of the season will be the 3-5-2 with which the Blues won thirteen straight matches during the season.

Goalkeeper: David de Gea, Manchester United

In a mostly underwhelming season for the Red Devils, De Gea has been a bright spot. He has made crucial plays to save United several points throughout the season. Most recently, De Gea guided an undermanned and outmatched United to a draw at rivals Man City by keeping a clean sheet despite an assault on his goal throughout the match.

Consistently rated among the top three keepers in the world, the Spaniard is said to have an eye for Real Madrid and his potential departure would leave a massive hole to fill in goal for Jose Mourinho.

 

Centre Back: Cesar Azpilicueta, Chelsea

Before this season, the Spaniard typically played left back for the Blues. But under new boss Conte, he has thrived as a central defender in the Italian’s three back system. Azpilicueta has earned an excellent 7.29 match rating on WhoScored.com in the 28 matches he has played centrally.

The Spaniard’s rise was a major reason why Conte’s formation was able to be a success and why Chelsea are champions of England. Azpilicueta figures to continue to be a major part of the club’s plans next season.

Cesar Azpilicueta thrived in Antonio Conte’s three back formation at Chelsea this season.

 

Centre Back: Eric Bailly, Manchester United

Moving to Old Trafford last summer from Valencia, Bailly was a bit of an underrated signing as the media focused on the arrivals of Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. However, the Ivorian has arguably been the Red Devils’ most productive signing this season. With the United back line being plagued by injury and inconsistency, Bailly has been a constant and has shown his quality, as well as his potential, as he is only 23 years old.

Bailly certainly looks to be following in the footsteps of Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, and other legendary United defenders as his future looks bright and United plan on him being a defensive cornerstone for years to come.

 

Centre Back: Toby Alderweireld, Tottenham Hotspur

The best defender on the best defensive team this season, Alderweireld has been everything Spurs could have hoped for and more since moving to the club from Southampton his summer. Alderweireld was at the center of a back four that conceded just 24 times in the league this season, eight less than anyone else. Alderweireld is a very smart player who doesn’t make mistakes at the back and can provide an occasional goal from a set piece header.

Although there are a few reports suggesting the Belgian international is hesitant to sign a new contract at Tottenham, there is no concrete evidence to believe he won’t be spearheading Spurs’ back line at the start of next season as well.

 

Centre Midfielder: N’Golo Kante, Chelsea

Voted PFA player of the year, no player has had a greater impact on the Premier League in the past two seasons than Kante. A central piece of Leicester’s title winning side a year ago, Kante’s high energy has put less pressure on his Chelsea teammates this season. As of May 8th, Kante had covered the fifth most distance in the Premier League this season. Kante became the first outfield player to win back to back league titles with two different squads since Eric Cantona with Manchester United in 1993.

Kante figures to be a key player in Antonio Conte’s midfield next season. The Frenchman will seek to follow in his countryman Cantona’s footsteps with a third consecutive triumph.

 

Centre Midfielder: Dele Alli, Tottenham Hotspur

In his second season at White Hart Lane, the young England international has continued his ascent towards stardom with 17 league goals, which leads all midfielders. The 21 year old came up big during important games. Including scoring both goals in a must-win 2-0 victory over Chelsea. Dele provides an extra dimension to his arsenal with his ability to be a threat in the air.

While he has been linked with Real Madrid. It is hard to envision Spurs letting their budding superstar leave at the tender age of 21. Expect Alli to continue to flourish next season as he looks to lead Tottenham to their first Premier League title.

 

Right Midfielder: Sadio Mane, Liverpool

Looking back on last summer, Mane was arguably the best signing made by any Prem side in 2016. The former Southampton standout scored 13 goals for the Reds in 26 matches before going down injured in April. When he was in the side, Mane’s pace was electric and freed up space for fellow attackers Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino. Mane’s impact on Liverpool has shown when he is not on the pitch. Liverpool earned 59 points in the 26 matches Mane featured (2.3 ppg). In the 11 that he missed, the Reds managed only 14 (1.3 ppg).

Just 25 years old, the Senegalese international is only just hitting his prime. With Jurgen Klopp set to spend in the summer, Mane will enjoy plenty of help in the attack if he manages to stay healthy.

Liverpool has struggled mightily without the presence of Sadio Mane on the wing.

Left Midfielder: Eden Hazard, Chelsea

Although his teammate N’Golo Kante claimed the honor of PFA player of the year, Hazard made a strong case for the award as well. Following a disappointing 2015-16 campaign, the Belgian has bounced back to the tune of 15 goals and five assists in the league. The threat he provides when he is on the ball forces extra attention from opposing defenses. Hazard made a habit of scoring in key matches throughout the season and none was more spectacular than his solo goal to clinch a vital three points against Arsenal in April.

Antonio Conte will surely fight hard to keep his playmaker, but Real Madrid lurks. If Hazard stays, it will be interesting to see if he can stay motivated or if he will drop off as he did last season.

 

Attacking Midfielder: Kevin de Bruyne, Manchester City

Despite an overall disappointing season for Man City, de Bruyne’s second season in Manchester has been anything but. The Belgian has been among the Premier League’s most unlucky players when it comes to finishing, but has still managed six goals. Where he has really contributed is with his 16 assists, tops in the league.

Next season, the pressure will be building for Pep Guardiola at the Etihad and he will look to de Bruyne to be one of the key contributors.

 

Right Striker: Romelu Lukaku, Everton

Despite having less talent around him than his peers on this list, Lukaku has still amassed 24 goals in the league. With one game to go, he is in the driver’s seat to win the Golden Boot for most goals. Perhaps the most physical player in England, Lukaku’s blend of size, strength and speed make it nearly impossible for opposing defenders to stop him when he gets moving with the ball.

While he is clearly a level above Everton, questions remain regarding whether Ronald Koeman and the Toffees will let the 24 year old Belgian leave in the summer. Lukaku played at Chelsea in the past and could potentially replace Diego Costa at Stamford Bridge if the former decides to leave.

Romelu Lukaku’s physicality makes him a nightmare for opposing defenders.

Left Striker: Alexis Sanchez, Arsenal

In the past, Sanchez has featured at wing for the Gunners. However, Arsene Wenger utilized the Chilean this season at striker and Sanchez responded. He is the only player to have double digit goals (23) and assists (10) this season. His brace in Tuesday’s 2-0 victory over Sunderland kept Arsenal’s top four aspirations alive and showed how important he is to the side. Sanchez will have a shot at the Golden Boot on Sunday when he faces off with Lukaku’s Everton.

Sanchez is said to be quite unhappy at Arsenal and a summer exit looks imminent. Chelsea, Juventus and Paris-St. Germain are said to be monitoring the situation. Wherever he ends up next season, Alexis will make a major impact.

 

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What Next Season’s Contenders Need to do to Improve in the Summer (Part 2)

Manchester City

Pep Guardiola’s second season in Manchester will be highly anticipated and expectations will be massive. With a year of experience in England under his belt, a title and run in the Champions League (assuming City make top four) will be expected.

City have perhaps the least amount of work to do as far as improving personnel. One storyline will be whether Sergio Aguero departs the club following the emergence of Gabriel Jesus. In Jesus and Kelechi Iheanacho, Guardiola has two young strikers with massive potential to develop. Aguero is nearing the end of his prime and may fancy a move back to Spain or Argentina in order to get more play time.

When City do go shopping in the summer, it will be mostly geared towards their defense. City’s deficiency at full back could be solved by signing Tottenham right back Kyle Walker. At left back, Jose Luis Gaya of Valencia would be a massive improvement over the departing Gael Clichy. Finally at goalkeeper, Guardiola needs to find an alternative to the horror show that has been Claudio Bravo and Willy Caballero this season.

 

Arsenal

The most uncertain future among England’s top clubs is that of Arsenal. The Gunners could very well lose their manager and two best players at the end of the season.

The club has been pretty mum on whether Arsene Wenger will still be at the Emirates next season. A split fanbase has made this story one of the most talked about in recent months. If Wenger ends his 21 year run at the club, two rumored candidates are Borussia Dortmund’s Thomas Tuchel and Monaco’s Leonardo Jardim.

Alexis Sanchez looks to be on his way out of the Emirates this summer. The Chilean leads the club with 25 goals in all competitions this season.

On the field, the team’s leading scorer this season, Alexis Sanchez, is all but guaranteed to be leaving in the summer. His list of possible suitors contain Chelsea, Paris St. Germain, Juventus and Bayern Munich. Midfielder Mesut Ozil also faces an uncertain future.

If either Sanchez or Ozil leave the club, it will leave a massive gap. However, the massive transfer fee Arsenal will collect will give them options in the replacement process. Monaco’s Thomas Lemar and Everton’s Ross Barkley are the latest rumored targets to replace Sanchez and Ozil respectively.

 

Manchester United

Much of what United is able to accomplish in the summer will be dependent on their result in the Europa League final May 24 vs Ajax. A victory would boost the Red Devils into next season’s Champions League, and equally importantly, it would make Old Trafford a very attractive destination in the summer.

Uncertainty over the striker position is first and foremost on Jose Mourinho’s mind. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is 35 and just sustained a serious knee injury. Marcus Rashford, while equipped with serious talent and potential, is still raw. Mourinho could look to the transfer market at that position. Antoine Griezmann has long been linked with a move to Man U and his addition would certainly make United quicker and more creative in the final third, an area they lacked in Mourinho’s first year with the club.

Two familiar faces could potentially depart the club this summer. Wayne Rooney has struggled to break into the first team under Mourinho and has been linked with a move back to his boyhood club Everton after an illustrious 13 year career for United. Goalkeeper David de Gea was close to moving to Real Madrid two summers ago and Los Blancos could come knocking again this season.

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Is Champions League Still Reachable For United Without Zlatan?

Manchester United’s quest for Champions League football next season took a massive hit when star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic suffered serious damage to his ACL and PCL ligaments in Thursday’s Europa League tie with Anderlecht .

United are fighting the battle for Champions League on two fronts, in England and in Europe. Jose Mourinho’s side controls their own destiny for a top four finish in the Premier League. Thursday’s showdown with Manchester City will have serious table implications in addition to the heated derby atmosphere.

A difficult schedule still awaits, with visits to City, Arsenal and Tottenham still to come. Zlatan’s injury thrusts the spotlight on young Marcus Rashford and club legend Wayne Rooney at striker. Anthony Martial will also likely be given a chance to redeem himself for past chances not taken.

Manchester United will need Wayne Rooney to re-find his form of old.

Rashford has been significantly better in the last month and can give shaky backlines fits with his pace and work rate. Rooney and Anthony Martial both stepped up by scoring United’s goals in a 2-0 win over Burnley on Sunday. If that trio continues to play well, it could even be an improvement over filtering the entire attack through Ibrahimovic. Liverpool’s loss to Crystal Palace on Sunday puts United in their best table position in months, making a top four dream very much alive.

In Europe, the Red Devils are in the Semi-finals of the Europa League. They must win the competition in order to automatically qualify for next season’s Champions League. Celta Vigo from Spain will prove to be a difficult test in the semis.

While they only sit tenth in La Liga, Celta have proved they can be giant killers by defeating both Barcelona and Real Madrid this season. Forward Iago Aspas is tied with Antoine Griezmann for fifth in La Liga with 16 goals on the season. Man U also lost defender Marcos Rojo to injury and will be shorthanded facing Aspas and the dangerous Celta attack.

Iago Aspas has tormented opposing defenses all season.

United will likely play similarly to the way they did against Anderlecht. Expect Mourinho to be conservative in the opening away tie and attack back home in Manchester in the decisive second tie.

 

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An Update on World Cup Qualifying (Part 3)

Europe (UEFA)

Europe’s qualification process for the World Cup involves nine groups of six teams. The winner of each group automatically qualifies for the tournament while eight out of nine second place teams advance to a separate head to head playoff. With so many prominent footballing nations in Europe, the spots are highly competitive.

Group A

Halfway through the qualifiers, France sit at the top of Group A. Sure to be one of the favorites in Russia next summer, Les Bleus are  having no problems in qualifying. The Netherlands, who missed out on Euro 2016, are in danger of missing out on Russia as well. Despite talent such as Arjen Robben, the Dutch sit fourth on 7 points, six behind the French. Sweden sits in second with 10 points, despite the retirement of Zlatan Ibrahimovic from the national team.

 

Group B

Granit Xhaka (Photo courtesy: goal.com)

The top two in Group B seem to be clear cut at this point, with Switzerland and Portugal distancing themselves from the field. The question is, who will qualify automatically and who will have to go to the gruesome two leg playoff stage? Switzerland are well rounded with players such as Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka, Wolfsburg’s Ricardo Rodriguez, and Borussia Monchengladbach keeper Yann Sommer. Portugal, of course, are Euro 2016 champions and led by the brilliant Cristiano Ronaldo. Switzerland have a three point advantage over Portugal with 15. Hungary sit third with 7.

 

Group C

Group C was always going to be Germany’s from the get go. The reigning world champions sit comfortably atop the group with 15 points. The fight for a potential playoff spot is in progress between Northern Ireland, Czech Republic, and Azerbaijan. The Northern Irish, who sit second with ten, are looking to build on a strong performance at Euro 2016. The Czech team are without longtime goalkeeper and current Arsenal player Petr Cech.

 

Group D

Serbia and Ireland currently sit atop Group D with 11 points. The Serbians have many prominent Premier League players such as Chelsea midfielder Nemanja Matic, Man City left back Aleksandr Kolarov, and former Chelsea man Branislav Ivanovic who now plays for Zenit St. Petersburg. Ireland made it to the knockout stages of Euro 2016. Sitting four points back with 7 are dangerous customers in Wales and Austria. Led by Gareth Bale and David Alaba respectively, both teams are capable of finding themselves in Russia next summer.

 

Group E

Robert Lewandowski looks set to play in his first World Cup next summer as Poland have taken a six point lead in their group. The Polish team also features Monaco defender Kamil Glik and Napoli striker Arkadiusz Milik among others. The battle for second is close, so close that the one second place team omitted from the playoff on points scored could very well be from this group. Christian Eriksen-led Denmark is in contention for that spot along with Romania and Montenegro.

 

Group F

England have put themselves in a good position to win Group F. The Three Lions have a four point lead on Slovakia and five point lead on Slovenia. The Liverpool duo of Daniel Sturridge and Adam Lallana have each scored twice in the campaign. Scotland is also in the group and sits in fourth. Slovakia played in Euro 2016 and enjoy the services of Napoli midfielder Marek Hamsik.

 

Group G

Gigi Buffon (Photo courtesy: zimbio.com)

Another group that has seemingly erupted into a two horse race, Group G contains two of the games’ greatest nations in Spain and Italy. Both sides have had to rebuild from the remains of golden generations in recent years. Spain now has David de Gea and Thiago while Italy boasts Marco Verratti and Leonardo Bonucci. However veteran presence still exists with Andres Iniesta and Gianluigi Buffon. The third place team fighting to stay alive is an up and coming Israel side which should see more players move to Europe soon.

 

Group H

After disappointing in recent tournaments, Belgium look set to get another opportunity next summer. They lead their group by two points over Greece and three points over Bosnia and Herzegovina. Belgium is loaded with talent such as Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne, Thibaut Cortouis and Romelu Lukaku in the Premier League alone. Greece is a scrappy defensive side with solid players such as Roma’s Kostas Manolas. Manolas’ current teammate and former Man City striker Edin Dzeko features for Bosnia and Herzegovina along with Juventus midfielder and free-kick maestro Miralem Pjanic.

 

Group I

Following a heartbreaking Euro 2016 exit, Croatia and its “golden generation” currently have the upper hand on an automatic spot in Russia. Led by a superb midfield of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and up and comer Marcelo Brozovic of Inter Milan, Croatia are certainly favorites to maintain their top spot. In second is Iceland, who grabbed headlines last summer with an incredible run in France culminating with a victory over England. Swansea playmaker Gylfi Sigurdsson is their vocal point. Ukraine and Turkey sit two points behind the Icemen. Players such as Yovhan Konoplyanka and Arda Turan bring quality to those sides.

 

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An Update on World Cup Qualifying (Part 2)

North America (CONCACAF)

The final stage of qualifying in North America features six teams with three automatically qualifying and the fourth place side moving onto an international playoff. With four of the ten matches played, it is Mexico who have claimed the top spot with three wins and a draw equaling ten points.

The United States stumbled out of the gate, but recovered this past week with a thrashing of Honduras and a hard fought draw in a visit to Panama. The US currently sit in that dicey fourth position, ahead of Honduras on goal differential. The rise of young stars such as Borussia Dortmund’s Christian Pulisic and Bobby Wood of Hamburg have given new life to an American side that desperately needed, and could still use a pick-me-up. The US have proven commodities in goalkeeper Tim Howard as well as John Brooks, Fabian Johnson and Clint Dempsey.

Mexico’s side includes a trio who star in the Portuguese league. Wing back Miguel Layun and midfielder Hector Herrera are regulars for second-place Porto. While striker Raul Jimenez plays for league leaders Benfica. All three gained valuable experience in the Champions League Round of 16 this season. Finally, the Mexican attack is led by former Manchester United and Real Madrid forward Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, who now plays for Bayer Leverkusen.

Costa Rica announced itself to the world with a run to the quarterfinals in Brazil in 2014. Former Arsenal winger Joel Campbell and midfielder Bryan Ruiz are experienced international players and play for Sporting Lisbon. Finally, Costa Rica’s best attribute is the wall that is goalkeeper Keylor Navas. Since his outstanding performances in the 2014 World Cup, Navas has become the first choice goalkeeper at Real Madrid and made key saves during their Champions League title run a year ago.

New United States manager Bruce Arena is off to a strong start in his attempt to save the USMNT’s World Cup Qualifying Campaign

Who Will Be in Russia Next Summer?

Mexico have firmly put themselves in a good position and their past experience should keep them from falling back.

Navas, Ruiz and Campbell are about as talented a trio as there are at this stage of qualifying. Costa Rica will be there next summer.

The talent of the United States is too much and as they become more and more adapted to new manager Bruce Arena’s tactics, they will only get better and better.

Finally, Honduras’ past experience should help them eek out Panama and Trinidad & Tobago for fourth place and a spot in the playoff.

 

South America (CONMEBOL)

Widely considered to be the most exciting of the qualifying processes. CONMEBOL’s qualifying is only one round featuring all ten nations with the top four qualifying for the tournament and the fifth place team qualifying for a playoff.

With the help of some mind-boggling performances from their superstar Neymar and guidance of new manager Tite, Brazil sit atop the group by nine points and have already clinched a spot in Russia next summer. Bottom feeders Bolivia and Venezuela have been eliminated, but just six points separate teams two through eight with just four matches remaining.

James Rodriguez-led Colombia sit second at 24 points. That is one point ahead of Chile and Uruguay, who boast their own stars in Alexis Sanchez and Luis Suarez respectively. Argentina sit in the playoff spot with 22 points, but have been rocked by the news that Lionel Messi will serve a four game suspension for cursing at the referee.

With three matches remaining on Messi’s suspension, Argentina will need their other big players to step up in his absence. Paris Saint Germain’s Angel di Maria and Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero are two names that come to mind as possible candidates to pick up the slack.

Argentina will have to fend off Ecuador who sit on 20 points, as well as Peru and Paraguay who are further back with 18.

Lionel Messi’s suspension means his teammates will need to step up if Argentina want to qualify for Russia

Who Will Be in Russia Next Summer?

Rodriguez, Sanchez and Suarez all enjoy strong enough supporting casts to join Neymar and Brazil in Russia next summer. Rodriguez has pacy Juventus winger Juan Cuadrado. Sanchez is aided by Bayern Munich’s bulldog midfielder Arturo Vidal. Suarez teams up with PSG striker Edinson Cavani to make for a dangerous strike force.

Finally, it is difficult to imagine a World Cup without the magic man himself, Lionel Messi. Argentina has more than enough talent to get by in his absence and advance to a playoff where they will surely be heavy favorites..

 

Check Back Next Week for Part 3, and an update on European qualifiers.

 

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An Update on World Cup Qualifying (Part 1)

Late March in soccer means one thing, the international break. And while many players have been enjoying a “spring break” of sorts, many have been dealing with the pressure of getting their respective nations to the arguably the biggest stage in sport, the World Cup.

Asia (AFC)

While the traditional powerhouses tend to come from Europe and South America, the popularity and quality of the sport is on the rise in Asia. Australia, Japan and South Korea have been regular competitors in the World Cup, but it is Iran who have taken command of their group, Group A, and look set to advance to the 2018 tournament in Russia.

Australia’s spot in the tournament could be under threat as they currently sit third in Group B behind Japan and Saudi Arabia. If the Socceroos fail to make up the points in the final three fixtures they will face a two leg aggregate playoff against the other third place side from Group A, which is likely to be Uzbekistan or South Korea.

Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan would bring new flavor to the tournament as Saudi Arabia missed out on the last two tournaments and Uzbekistan has never qualified.

Australia will have to make up ground on Saudi Arabia and Japan if they hope to avoid a do or die playoff

Who Will Be in Russia Next Summer?

Iran, Saudi Arabia and Japan have put themselves in prime position to qualify.

South Korea possesses talent such as Tottenham’s Son Heung-Min, and their players’ European experience should get them through.

Finally, Australia know how to get it done and 37 year old striker Tim Cahill will propel them to a playoff victory in what is likely to be his final World Cup campaign.

 

Africa (CAF)

Africa is also in its final stage of qualification. Since South Africa hosted the World Cup in 2010, the talent of African nations has risen significantly. Ghana’s run to the quarterfinals in 2010 and the rise of many African players at big European clubs is a perfect example of this.

The final stage of qualifying involves five groups A-E of four teams with the winner of each group advancing to Russia next summer. With two out of the six fixtures played, it is still relatively early.

Group A has broken out into a two horse race between the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo) and Tunisia. Both sides have proven European players with Everton winger Yannick Bolasie and Villarreal striker Cedric Bakambu featuring for DR Congo while Tunisia fields dynamic Sunderland playmaker Wahbi Khazri and veteran defender Aymen Abdennour of Valencia.

Group B features three “blue bloods” of African soccer in Nigeria, Cameroon and Algeria. The Nigerians lead the group by four points after former Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel and current Blues wing back Victor Moses combined for three goals in a win over Riyad Mahrez led Algeria.  If results in the group hold, Nigeria will bring a talented side to Russia featuring young attacking talent in 20 year olds Kelechi Iheanacho and Alex Iwobi of Manchester City and Arsenal respectively, in addition to the aforementioned Mikel and Moses. Cameroon’s post-Samuel Eto’o hangover may keep them out of the World Cup for just the second time since 1990.

Group C sees Borussia Dortmund superstar Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang try and guide his native Gabon to its first World Cup. However, Gabon sit two points behind group favorites Ivory Coast, who possess a large talent pool that includes Manchester United defender Eric Bailly, Manchester City midfielder Yaya Toure, and Paris Saint Germain defender Serge Aurier among others.

Group D contains a tight race between co-leaders Burkina Faso and South Africa, while Sadio Mane-led Senegal sits one point behind. Meanwhile, Egypt has broken ahead in Group E with six points while African giants Ghana have stumbled out of the gate to the tune of one point from their first two matches.

Luis Suarez’s controversial handball helped end Ghana’s incredible run in South Africa in 2010. Now, they are fighting to even qualify for next summer’s tournament.

Who Will Be in Russia Next Summer?

Group A may be the toughest to call, but the attacking prowess of DR Congo should see them through.

Nigeria’s balance in every area of the pitch should help them guard their lead in Group B.

Despite the brilliance of Aubameyang, Gabon don’t have the other talent to match up against a much more well rounded Ivory Coast side in Group C.

Expect Liverpool’s Mane to guide Senegal to Russia in a group that features few other big European players.

Finally, Ghana has the talent to challenge Egypt but the hole may to big to climb out of. Expect to see Mohammed Salah and Co. next summer.

Still To Come

Part 2: North America & South America

Part 3: Europe

 

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Unclear Futures for Some of the Prem’s Biggest Stars

Since the beginning of the decade, several players have made a name for themselves in the Premier League and have basked in the major dividends that stardom has paid. Players such as Sergio Aguero, Diego Costa, Philippe Coutinho and Alexis Sanchez are all world-class, but their time at their respective clubs, and in England, may be coming to a close.

Sergio Aguero

The Manchester City talisman and scorer of the most famous goal in Premier League history has seen his role at the club come under threat this season. The Argentine was absent for large portions of December and January in favor of Brazilian starlet Gabriel Jesus. However, Jesus’s injury has seemingly given a new spark to Aguero.

With 22 goals across all competitions, it is easy to see why Aguero is still considered a top striker. While there is no doubt he can still contribute to City, there are still several issues that could force an Aguero exit in the summer.

The first is whether or not Pep Guardiola wants to move on from the 28 year old in favor of youth. Jesus’ potential is so great that he could easily be equally if not more productive than Aguero one day. This is certainly a gamble as Aguero is one of the few experienced players in a youthful attack that includes Jesus, Kelechi Iheanacho, Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling among others.

Secondly, it is unknown how Aguero feels about his spot in the starting XI being up for grabs. As he approaches the end of his prime years, a move to another European powerhouse seems likely for Aguero with an eye towards one day returning to play in this native Argentina.

Diego Costa

Diego Costa’s alleged frosty relationship with Antonio Conte could force the striker out this summer.

The Brazilian-born, Spanish-international striker is seemingly constantly at odds with someone. Like Aguero, Costa is one of the premier strikers in England. His 17 goals in the league this season have helped propel Chelsea to a ten point lead at the top of the table. Unlike Aguero, Costa’s problems stem more off the field than on it.

Costa has publicly feuded with teammates before and allegedly has had multiple conflicts with manager Antonio Conte. If these “conflicts” were to get to a point of no return, it would likely be the striker who would move on as Conte has completely turned around Chelsea after last season’s embarrassing performance.

However difficult he may be, Costa is a supreme talent and it is difficult to foresee a scenario where the club let tensions rise to a point where Costa would leave. Now that they have found their footing again, Chelsea would be foolish to let their top scorer leave.

Philippe Coutinho

Philippe Coutinho’s immense skill set has caught the eye of Barcelona.

Since Liverpool signed him from Inter in 2013, Philippe Coutinho’s immense promise and potential have been on display at Anfield. The Brazilian is already a top player in England and possesses the skill, pace, and mentality to become a superstar.

What has been frustrating for Reds’ fans is the inconsistency shown by Coutinho and the team as a whole in recent seasons. Coutinho has shown improvements under Jurgen Klopp and it really only seems to be a matter of when and not if he breaks into the top echelon of players in Europe.

Liverpool are not the only side that are aware of Coutinho’s talent. Barcelona have been heavily rumored to be weighing a move for him in the summer. With an aging Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi’s contract negotiations ongoing, Barca see Coutinho as a future catalyst in their side.

While Coutinho has all the tools to become a Barcelona player, he is not there yet. Barcelona will likely realize this and wait until Klopp has worked further with the dynamic play-maker before the seriously pursue him. It wasn’t until a 33 goal season in 2013-14 that Luis Suarez sealed his move from Anfield to the Camp Nou. Coutinho will need to mimic Suarez if he hopes to join his former teammate at the Catalan club.

Alexis Sanchez

As speculation on Arsene Wenger’s future in North London has stolen the headlines, Sanchez has taken a back seat. The Chilean winger is widely rumored to be unsettled at Arsenal and is frustrated by poor results in the league and Europe this season. Regardless of whether Wenger or Mesut Ozil stay at the Emirates past this summer, it seems a foregone conclusion that Sanchez will not be back next season.

23 goals and 12 assists across all competitions show how tremendous Sanchez has been this season. At the turn of the calendar year, there was a strong case to be made that Sanchez had been the best player in Europe to that point in the season. His departure would cripple Arsenal in a manner in which there is very little they could do to make up for it.

Now, as he is expected to miss an extended amount of time with an ankle problem, we will get a good look at Arsenal without Sanchez and how they cope.

If Sanchez does leave, Juventus and PSG have been rumored to be keeping an eye on him. A move to Juventus would make sense as they still have money to spend from the Paul Pogba sale. With a rock solid defense and legendary goalkeeper in Gianluigi Buffon, the addition of Sanchez on the wing would certainly put Juve among the favorites to win the Champions League next season.

 

 

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Is Wenger’s Arsenal Exit Imminent?

Turbulent 2017

At the beginning of the season, it seemed very difficult to believe that Arsenal fans would be calling for manager Arsene Wenger’s head this season. Following a lackluster start start to 2017, the Frenchman’s future at the club is very much in question.

Following a 3-1 defeat to Liverpool on the weekend, the Gunners were thrashed again by Bayern Munich 5-1 knocking them out of the Champions League. Before Tuesday’s match vs Bayern, fans brought signs to the Emirates stadium which read “Wenger out”. After all of the success he has had at the club, could Arsene Wenger really be sacked?

Bayern Munich embarrassed Arsenal 10-2 on aggregate in their Champions League tie.

Well yes, but its very unlikely. Wenger’s contract expires at the end of the season and there are already rumors of him leaving in the summer. It wouldn’t make sense for Arsenal to sack him mid-season as it would shake the club up even more. Arsenal are out of the title race and European competition. With not much to play for, a sacking of a club legend surely wouldn’t be worth the media backlash.

Wait Until Summer?

Another factor at play is Wenger’s influence on Arsenal’s top players. A respected manager, Wenger helped draw Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil to Arsenal despite both players enjoying massive success at Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively.

Wenger leaving would almost certainly mean the end of Sanchez’s time with the Gunners. The Chilean winger has been rumored to be unsettled and linked with clubs such as Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain. Ozil could also be tempted by a move as he has been somewhat of a scapegoat at Arsenal this season.

Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez could potentially follow their manager out of Arsenal this summer.

While the current results are not acceptable for a club like Arsenal, would a change necessarily improve thing? Wenger is arguably the greatest figure in club history and his departure would be comparable to Sir Alex Ferguson leaving Manchester United in 2013.

Four years later and United are still not the same side they were. It definitely heeds a warning to Arsenal who would almost certainly lose Sanchez and/or Ozil if Wenger leaves in the summer.

It is a difficult decision that may become clearer at the end of the season. However, at the moment, Arsenal are not performing up to standard. But a managerial change would start a rebuilding process they may not want to endure.

 

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Preview and Predictions: Matchweek 27

Solid recent play has maintained helped Chelsea maintain a double digit lead in the Prem as we round into March. While the Blues have excelled, other top teams have struggled, which has lead to a tight race for the top four.

Two of the teams firmly entrenched in the top four race are Arsenal and Liverpool, who meet this weekend in a critical match-up between two sides who have had less than encouraging starts to 2017. This match-up headlines a weekend full of potential traps for teams toward the top of the table to trip on.

Liverpool vs Arsenal

 A rematch of Liverpool’s victory at the Emirates on the opening weekend of the season, both sides could desperately use three points to jump-start their respective starts to the new year.

Liverpool are coming off an embarrassing defeat to Leicester on Monday, in which their defense crumbled as Jamie Vardy had a field day retrieving long balls. Philippe Coutinho and Sadio Mane headline an always dangerous attack, but Liverpool’s defense is always a concern. Alberto Moreno is not a true full back and there is a lack of depth at the center back position behind starters Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren. If Liverpool’s defense can bend and not break against the Gunners, then Jurgen Klopp’s men will have a good chance Saturday.

For Arsenal, it appears to be another season where they are simply fighting for the top four. Uncertainty over the futures of manager Arsene Wenger and stars Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil has put a damper on the Gunners’ season. Arsenal’s defense will be severely tested by Liverpool’s attack at Anfield on Saturday and Arsenal will need to take advantage of the hosts’ shaky defense.

Liverpool 2 Arsenal 1

 

Tottenham vs Everton

 Both sides are in stunning form domestically at the moment. Everton are yet to lose in the new year and Tottenham are coming off a 4-0 thrashing of Stoke City. Spurs’ faint title hopes are on the line every week now as they must get three points every fixture.

The hosts are very tough to handle this season when playing in the confines of White Hart Lane. Star striker Harry Kane is coming off a hat trick and midfielders Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen have had masterful seasons. Spurs must be consistent for all ninety minutes and not let discipline cause dangerous set piece situations against a team that excels in scoring off of them.

Everton are nipping at the heels of Manchester United at the bottom of the “top six”. Romelul Lukaku shares the title of leading goalscorer this season. Ross Barkley brings creativity to the midfield and Joel Robles has been somewhat of a revelation in goal this season. Ronald Koeman is very good at getting his players prepared for big games like this one and these are the types of games that the Toffee’s will need to perform in if they want to be viewed as a top English side.

Tottenham 3 Everton 2

 

Other Predictions: (Home in Bold)

Manchester United 2 Bournemouth 0

Stoke City 1 Middlesbrough 0

Leicester 1 Hull 0

Swansea 2 Burnley 1

Watford 2 Southampton 2

West Brom 1 Crystal Palace 1

Manchester City 3 Sunderland 1

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Everton are Well on Their Way to the Next Level

Since Tottenham broke into the Champions League in 2010, there have been a consensus top six teams of the Premier League. Liverpool’s Merseyside neighbor, Everton has long been seen as seventh best or “best of the rest” in England.

However, the Toffees have shown a recent commitment to reaching the same level of the top six. The hiring of promising Southampton manager Ronald Koeman in the summer helped Everton sign key players and promising prospects. As is custom, it took time for Koeman to make his mark at Goodison Park. Everton have not lost in the league since Dec. 19 on a last minute goal by Sadio Mane. Currently seventh, if they continue this form they could challenge for top four as there are only six points separating them from fourth place Arsenal.

The Manager

Koeman starred as a player in the 1980’s for Ajax, PSV, and Barcelona as well as for the Dutch National Team. After retiring he had many managerial jobs in the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain. He was hired by Southampton in 2014, bringing in and mentoring several youth players such as Sadio Mane, Nathaniel Clyne, Morgan Schneiderlin, and Virgil Van Dijk.

Ronald Koeman took Southampton from Premier League newcomers to European football and he is working his magic at Everton as well.

Koeman’s reputation for working well with young players gained Everton’s attention and he has already featured several promising young players. If Koeman continues to produce solid young talent, more and more highly sought after players may take their talents to Goodison Park to play for the 53 year old Dutchman.

The Squad

Everton’s squad under Koeman is young and full of potential. The attack is headlined by 23 year old star striker Romelu Lukaku. Lukaku’s seventeen league goals is tied for tops in the Prem. Often assisting Lukaku on his goals is fellow 23 year old Ross Barkley. Barkley broke onto the scene last season with eight goals and eight assists. He also was selected for England’s Euro 2016 squad this last summer.

Romelu Lukaku is joint top goalscorer in the Premier League this season.

Defensively, two summer signings have been the backbone for Everton. Midfielder Idrissa Gueye was signed from relegated Aston Villa and leads the league in tackles. Ashley Williams was also bought this summer from Swansea. The wily veteran has been a rock at the back and played a key role as captain of Wales in their semifinal Euro run. Goalkeeper Joel Robles has also stepped up this season, posting the third best match rating on the team per WhoScored.com.

The youth talent is also abundant at Everton. 20 year old defender Mason Holgate and 18 year old midfielder are academy products who have shined when played by Koeman this season. 19 year old striker Ademola Lookman, bought in January, scored on his Premier League debut against Manchester City.

With all of this youth potential in the side and a good eye for talent on the transfer market , Koeman’s successes in the past imply that he is the man to lift Everton to the next level and start competing for a Champions League spot.

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