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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Can Arsenal Break Round of 16 Curse?

As the match-ups for the Round of 16 were announced in December, Arsenal fans saw a picture that is all too familiar for them. Six consecutive seasons and six consecutive exits in the Round of 16 have shown Arsenal’s consistency, but also their underwhelming tendencies on the big stage.

The opponent this season is Bayern Munich. The Bavarian giants have twice been responsible for the Gunners’ early exits in recent years. This season, it will once again be a tall task to get by. Arsene Wenger will return to the touchline for Wednesday’s first leg and Munich and that is some rare good news for the Gunners.

Arsene Wenger will hope to end a run of six consecutive Round of 16 exits for the Gunners.

Midfielder Mesut Ozil will need to be in top form if Arsenal are going to keep up with Bayern’s scoring prowess. Ozil is one of the few players on Wenger’s squad who’s talent is equal to his Bayern opponents. It will be paramount for Ozil and Prem top scorer Alexis Sanchez to show up. Defensively, Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi are a quality centre back pairing, but they don’t face strikers the quality of Robert Lewandowski week in and week out in England. For Wenger and Co. it will be important to keep themselves in the tie on Wednesday so they have a shot when these two sides meet again at the Emirates in March.

Bayern are yet to recapture the magic they had in 2013, winning the tournament over arch rivals Borussia Dortmund. Carlo Ancelotti’s first season with the club has seen the look underwhelming at times in the Bundesliga. Nevertheless, the former Madrid manager has Bayern seven points atop the table and his European successes make him a dangerous opponent in this tournament.

Bayern striker Robert Lewandowski will be a handful for the Arsenal defense.

Lewandowski has as strong a case as any for world’s best striker. With him and an attack that also includes Arjen Robben, Thomas Muller and Douglas Costa among others, Bayern are always a threat to put up goals. And defensively, Sanchez and Co. will have their hands full on the attack against arguably the best back four in the tournament, and the world’s best goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer. Many would say Bayern have the most complete side in the world and that is why they are among the favorites to lift the trophy in Cardiff this spring.

If Bayern avoid mistakes and play to the level we have accustomed them to playing, it will take something pretty special from Arsenal to advance. A good result on Wednesday could shift momentum in the Gunners’ favor, but they are clearly over-matched here. Arsenal do not have the talent at fullback and on the wing to compete with Bayern’s outside talent and that will turn out to be the Gunners downfall in a seventh consecutive Round of 16 exit.

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Preview & Predictions: Matchweek 25

Following a dominating 3-1 victory over Arsenal on Saturday, Chelsea still enjoy that comfortable nine point cushion at the top of the table. The only side showing any signs of catching them this season is Tottenham, who face a very real test against an albeit struggling, but desperate and dangerous Liverpool at Anfield. The relegation battle is very exciting however, as five team including Leicester could be in safe or in last at the end of fixtures this weekend.

Jurgen Klopp has been under fire as Liverpool have endured a brutal start to 2017

Liverpool vs Tottenham:

The weekends’ marquee match-up takes place at the home of the desperate Reds. Jurgen Klopp & Co. haven’t won in five matches and will not have it easy against a Tottenham side that is oozing confidence as they have jumped to second in the table.

Liverpool have dominated most if not all of their recent defeats. Their failure to convert chances has been their downfall. Now, against the best defense in the league, Sadio Mane and Co. will need to be sharp in the final third. For Spurs, they also could improve their finishing as they have been reliant on penalties to get them three points this season. Dele Alli is the highest scoring midfielder in the league.

Liverpool are known to play well against big competition, expect them to give Spurs a tough test on Saturday.

Liverpool 1 Tottenham 1

Leicester’s star striker Jamie Vardy has been mostly quiet this season and will look to score against Swansea.

Swansea City vs Leicester City

A surprisingly big matchup this weekend in Wales. Leicester, following an embarrassing display against Manchester United, will likely be in the relegation zone if they lose this one. The same can be said for Swansea, who know what its like to be threatened by relegation this season. A recent spike in form under new manager Paul Clement has the Swans temporarily safe.

Leicester have the talent to succeed in this league, as they proved last season. Their stars have been quiet the entire year and that will need to change if the Foxes hope to avoid the drop. Jamie Vardy will look to end a seven game dry run against a team that has allowed the most goals at home this season in the Premier League.

For Swansea, they need to lean on their veterans to save them from relegation. Striker Fernando Lllorente is a proper threat in the air and midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson plays at a Champions League level. If the Swans sure up at the back, they have the firepower up front to make Leicester trouble.

Swansea 1 Leicester 2

Other Matches

Arsenal 1 Hull 1: Hull in improved form and Gunners have been shaky without Wenger on the touchline.

West Ham 1 West Brom 1: Two sides in good form, expecting a hard fought draw here.

Man United 2 Watford 1: Watford are dangerous but United have confidence after thrashing Leicester

Middlesborough 0 Everton 1: Everton are very underrated and have enough to win at pesky ‘Borough.

Stoke 2 Crystal Palace 1: Palace will look to regroup after embarrassing outing vs Sunderland. Wont happen at stingy Stoke.

Sunderland 1 Southampton 1: Sunderland gained confidence last weekend. Lets see what they can do with it.

Burnley 1 Chelsea 1: Burnley one of the best home sides in the league will steal a point against league leaders Chelsea.

Bournemouth 1 Man City 2: City’s youth revival will continue at Bournemouth.

 

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Promising Premier League Players To Watch Under the Age of 21

The Premier League has long prided itself on having some of the greatest youth programs in the world. Some of the world’s greatest players rose to the top at a young age. Players such as Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United), Gareth Bale (Southampton/Tottenham), and Wayne Rooney (Everton/Man United) are a few recent examples among the many quality players produced by the Premier League.

There is youth talent galore in the Premier League at the moment. Many managers have made a recent effort to get youth talent more involved and to start planning for the future. Here are some players who could be top dogs one day.

Alex Iwobi (Age 20), Arsenal/Nigeria

Alex Iwobi broke into the Arsenal first team last year and his promise has tempted Arsene Wenger to continue playing him. Iwobi is a winger with decent pace. He is very dangerous in one-on-one situations and crosses the ball effectively. If he can improve on his finishing, Iwobi will add another aspect to his already multi-faceted game.

Mason Holgate (20), Everton/England

Holgate is a very versatile defender who has thrived for Ronald Koeman when he has been called upon. With seven caps on the season, Holgate has amassed a 7.24 average match rating on WhoScored.com. This figure puts him third on the team. Holgate’s quickness allows him to get forward if he is playing at fullback, but he is also very strong and wise beyond his years for a young centre-half.

Tom Davies (18), Everton/England

Davies has exploded onto the scene in the last month. The previously unknown midfielder was impressive against Hull in December and put on a masterful performance in the Toffees’ 4-0 thrashing of Manchester City.

Davies shows tremendous poise in tight areas for someone his age. His goal against City showed he is a clinical finisher as well.

Ben Chilwell (20), Leicester City/England

The heir-apparent left back to the steady Christian Fuchs at Leicester, Ben Chilwell is highly coveted by many top teams across Europe. He is an outstanding dribbler who gives the Foxes a threat going forward when on the field. In addition to dribbling, Chilwell is also a prolific passer.

The one area in which he needs to improve before he is a regular starter at Leicester is his mentality. Too many times Chilwell has been caught out of position or put his team in a tough spot by trying an ambitious tackle. If he can stop mental mistakes, Chilwell has world-class potential.

 

Demarai Gray (20), Leicester City/England

Gray has seen his playing time increase this season at Leicester following some promising performances early. Gray is a skilled dribbler and a very solid finisher for a winger. He is still improving his passing, prompting Leicester to play him at striker on occasion. His pace and size suggest Gray is better suited on the wing, where he can give opponents nightmares.

Kelechi Iheanacho (20) Manchester City/Nigeria

Like his Nigerian countryman Alex Iwobi, Kelechi Iheanacho seized his opportunity when given substitute appearances under Manuel Pellegrini last season. New manager Pep Guardiola apparently sees the massive potential Iheanacho possesses as he has continued to keep him in the playing rotation.

Iheanacho is an excellent finisher with eight goals in 21 appearances this season for club and country. He also possesses a cannon left foot and is a threat from well outside the box. If Iheanacho can improve on his heading ability, he will be a complete striker who will be around for years to come.

Gabriel Jesus (19) Manchester City/Brazil

The most anticipated Brazilian youth since Neymar, Gabriel Jesus has already shown European fans what he can do since arriving in early January. After having a potential winner against Liverpool called back in his first appearance as a substitute, Jesus made history by becoming the first player in club history to score and assist in his Premier League debut.

Jesus is unique in that as a striker, he gets back and defends very well and threatens on the counter attack. He is still just 19, and mental lapses are not to be unexpected. If he matures with age and avoids injury, there is no reason he can’t fulfill his massive potential.

Marcus Rashford (19) Manchester United/England

Speaking of seizing their opportunity, Marcus Rashford did just that when Louis Van Gaal put him in the lineup last season. He became the youngest United player to score in their debut and has gone on to become a regular player for the side under Jose Mourinho. Seven goals in 29 appearances is solid for someone who is still a teenager. If Rashford can use his pace to his advantage and broaden his game, Man United could have their Zlatan Ibrahimovic replacement already waiting in the wings.

Dele Alli (20) Tottenham Hotspur/England

Dele Alli burst onto the scene in early 2016 after his wonder goal against Crystal Palace. Since then, Alli has shown he is not a one trick pony. His eleven league goals are the most in the Premier League among midfielders this season. Starting out as a defensive midfielder, Alli has developed an attacking threat to his game that has torched opponents. His two headed goals against Chelsea in January kept Spurs’ title ambitions alive.

Known to get a hot head on occasion, Alli needs to be more careful if he wants to stay out of the referees book. Overall, many could argue that Alli is the best young talent in the world and he certainly backs up that high regard with his play.

 

 

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