Mark Travis

Mark Travis has 137 articles published.

The Resistance Of Manu Ginobili

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For all of the artistry and accolades that define Manu Ginobili’s eternal NBA career, his sporting tale is as much a story of resistance as anything else. Ginobili’s tenacity and desire have been just as important as his silky skills, and without his resolute temperament, his longevity and his platform might never have arrived.

Ginobili’s most important battles were fought in the infancy of his NBA career, back when he had to convince Gregg Popovich to give him the freedom to be himself. That Manu managed to win Popovich over was a victory for all. Who knows how differently the past decade of NBA ball would have unfolded had Popovich been steadfast and handcuffed one of the most creative players the league has ever seen.

Now that Ginobili’s creative license has been renewed annually without question for more than a decade, his resistance has shifted from an existential standoff with his head coach into a more cathartic struggle with the unprecedented athletic evolution around the league.

The first traces of Manu’s physical decline arrived during the 2013 Finals, when the turnovers piled up against a hyper-active, athletic and trap-happy Heat team that feasted on those sorts of mistakes. While the turnovers themselves hurt San Antonio,  the evident bits of self-doubt those errors brought about were even more concerning.

Ginobili has always maintained that he would retire as soon as he stopped contributing to the team, and it seems the summer after those Finals was the first time Ginobili needed convincing from Popovich and R.C. Buford that he was still fit for a meaningful role with the Spurs. Ginobili’s decision to return in the wake of the Finals collapse paid instant dividends as he played a big part in the Spurs’ vengeful retaliation on the Heat the following season, and even as the retirement suspicions multiply with each passing season, Manu has fought hard to retain a rightful place in the Spurs’ rotation.

Yet there are still some nights when Ginobili’s indomitable will and noble resistance seem futile. San Antonio’s matchup with the Thunder on Friday was one of those games.

In five first quarter minutes against OKC, Ginobili racked up four turnovers, committed one personal foul and was a -16. With Oklahoma City deploying a defense full of athletic, long and rangy swingmen who switched on almost all of San Antonio’s ball screens, Ginobili struggled to create separation and had an even tougher time creating passing lanes. The turnovers got more and more embarrassing, with his fourth one barely qualifying as a pass as he threw the ball off the back of Dakari Johnson. Ginobili’s back-to-back giveaways at the two minute mark gifted the Thunder five quick points as Oklahoma City’s lead ballooned to 19.

IMG_6897When the referees went to the scorer’s table to review a foul late in the first, a dejected Ginobili wandered over to his head coach. You could almost sense him telling Popovich that he just didn’t have it tonight, physically or mentally by that point. Pop offered some words of encouragement and a pat on the back, but once the Spurs started to cut into the lead with Kyle Anderson and Danny Green on the wings in the second quarter, Ginobili remained on the bench for the entire period. It was the sort of scene where you could imagine Manu asking himself if coming back for another season was the right call.

Ginobili has always been one to wear his emotions on his sleeve, and if there was any doubt that his early struggles against OKC had affected him, you only had to watch his reactions to his first two made shots of the game early in the fourth quarter.

With the score tied to begin the final frame, Ginobili knocked down a step back three after shaking Patrick Patterson with a gnarly hesitation move and unleashed a trademark fist pump as he trotted back on defense. A few possessions later, Ginobili hit another three to give the Spurs a six-point lead, once again letting his fist fly in celebration. With two minutes left and the Spurs up two, Ginobili skied for a monster rebound, ripping down Steven Adams in the process.

Despite the most dispiriting of starts and even a hint of desolation as he sat out the entire second quarter, Ginobili had somehow, some way, managed to push back when he seemed to have been played off the court, putting his stamp on a game the Spurs couldn’t have won or lost without him.

And yet, even after Ginobili had done all he could to redeem himself, he nearly let it slip again. After securing a crucial stop in the final minute, Danny Green panicked and shuffled the ball off to Ginobili in a not so envious position near halfcourt. Within seconds of receiving the ball, Paul George had swarmed Ginobili, who looked uncomfortable immediately and lost his handle on a behind-the-back dribble, allowing George to secure a pivotal steal. Quite simply, this is something that would have never happened to Manu when he was at the peak of his powers, and the way George rushed Ginobili like he was some kind of wounded animal almost felt rude.

As fate would have it, OKC’s string of improbable offensive rebounds from George’s free throws didn’t amount to anything catastrophic, and LaMarcus Aldridge’s late putback helped seal a remarkable comeback victory for San Antonio. But what stood out the most in what was San Antonio’s most complete effort of the season, with strong performances coming from almost every one, was the mini-saga in which Ginobili went from reserving a spot on the Spurs Retirement Vehicle to helping turn the game around.

Early in Ginobili’s career, the turnovers represented an overzealous maestro who was doing his best to suit the needs of his regimented head coach. Now, they represent a veteran with a body that cannot always catch up with his mind.

But to this day, the one thing Ginobili’s bad bouts with turnovers or ill-advised plays has never represented is the end. One day, Manu’s career will be over, and on that day we can suspect Ginobili has decided that the game has passed him by.

Until that day, however, Manu Ginobili will never stop resisting it.

Lille 3 – Nantes 0

in Futbol by

Top flight football is back, with France’s Ligue 1 being the first major European league to get underway. Although the talk of the league is all about Neymar’s transfer to PSG and Kylian Mbappe’s potential departure from Monaco, there are several Ligue 1 sides that are in for interesting and exciting seasons.

Two of those teams are Lille and Nantes, who met in the capital of northern France on Saturday. Both clubs feature new managers with celebrated resumes; Marcelo Bielsa has returned to Ligue 1 after coaching at Marseille two seasons ago and has brought his exciting brand of football to Lille, while the architect behind the most unlikely Premier League title in history, Claudio Ranieri, will attempt a similar unlikely rise at Nantes.

    • The systems Bielsa and Ranieri are known for were on full display from the opening kickoff. Lille lined up in an adventurous 3-4-3, which looked more like a 5-4-1 in defense but offered loads of width when they had the ball, while Nantes sat back in a tight 4-4-2 and attacked in the same shape, using their two forwards as outlets.
    • Bielsa’s tactics were bright and even against an extremely defensive-minded opponent, Lille managed to breakdown Nantes on several occasions through a variety of attacking avenues. Lille played out from the back all game with a three-man backline anchored by Ibrahim Amadou, who is in the process of being converted from a holding midfielder to a centerback. Amadou sat deepest and offered the option of playing long balls to the wings when Nantes closed off the midfield, but it was the Paraguayan defender Junior Alonso, who was extremely impressive in this game, who brought the ball into the midfield most often, either by making passes to Thiago Mendes in midfield or driving forward with the ball himself.
    • After making a good profit last season from the sales of Sofiane Boufal (€18.7 million to Southampton) and Djibril Sidibe (€15 million to Monaco), Lille’s owner reinvested heavily this summer. With a hefty sum to spend, Bielsa raided the Brazilian Serie A this summer, spending a combined €33.5 million on midfielder Thiago Maia from Santos and winger Luiz Araujo and defensive midfielder Thiago Mendes from Sao Paulo.
    • Araujo, combined with Nicolas de Preville, whose spent last season on loan and Lille and made a permanent move this season, and last season’s most expensive buy Anwar El Ghazi, made up Lille’s new attacking triumphant. De Preville was Lille’s only goal scorer for most of last season, knocking in a team-high 14 goals despite not having a lot of service or a very fluent system. With Bielsa in charge, de Preville now has great playmakers on either side of him and a system that gives him several ways of getting service. He pressed well against Nantes, which will be necessary with two flair players on the wings rather than workhorses, but de Preville’s efforts weren’t wasted and he was rewarded with a penalty chance in the 67th minute, which he buried for Lille’s second goal.
    • Araujo was exciting to watch, offering pace and creativity down the left while also coming into a more central role to help in the build up. In transition it seemed all three Lille forwards had the freedom to drift centrally to pick up the ball while the fullbacks charged up the field to provide width. Such a system isn’t unlike what Chelsea, Arsenal and even Tottenham used last season, with creative players like Hazard, Ozil and Eriksen given the license to operate in the half-spaces while the wingbacks give them an outlet on the touchline. Araujo seems like he can thrive in that role, as does El Ghazi, whose trickery on the ball in and around the penalty area had Lille on the cup of goals on a few occasions.
    • With Nantes, you can clearly see the outline Ranieri is using, and it’s the same system he used at Leicester. You have to squint a lot harder, though, to match the players he has to the roles he has given them. Emiliano Sala is the clear target man, but Edgar Ie and Junior Alonso beat him on the majority of aerial duels. Abdoulaye Toure was the defensive-minded CM, but even though he made a number of tackles, he wasn’t covering the kind of ground that N’Golo Kante did for Ranieri. Valentin Rongier looked OK, but they will need more playmaking from him for the system to work.
    • The biggest weakness for Nantes in this game was their wide midfielders. Lille had a winger and a wingback on either side of the pitch, which would give them a numbers advantage against most defenses, but Ranieri’s 4-4-2 should be able to handle it, in theory, with the full backs taking the wingers and the wide midfielders marking Lille’s wingbacks. Instead, Jules Iloki and Alexander Kacaniklic didn’t provided their fullbacks enough support, and there were a number of occasions when they completely abandoned their flank, opening up space for Lille to attack.
    • Lille’s Yassine Benzia was a big reason for this. In possession, Bielsa’s 3-4-3 is not only spread open in terms of width, but the formation is also stretched vertically, creating a wide diamond in midfield. In this setup, LWBs Fode Toure and Rominigue Kouame and RWB Kevin Malcuit were the wide attackers, Thiago Mendes was the holding midfielder and Benzia was at the tip of the diamond, playing as a 10 and often as a second striker. Benzia was free to receive the ball close to the Nantes defensive line, which allowed the rest of Lille’s attack to move toward him and to exchange little passes in Nantes’ half. He’d drift to either side to create an overload and play triangular passes with the wingers and fullbacks to great effect, and he looked really smooth on the ball.
    • Nantes were not able to press effectively in a 4-4-2 because of Lille’s three central defenders. Without either the wide midfielders or the two central midfielders ever committing to press Lille’s backline, the trio of Ie, Alonso and Amadou were able to play keep away all afternoon like so.
  • Rather than giving his two strikers assistance, Ranieri instead chose to have Nakoulma drop off and man mark Thiago Mendes to prevent him from picking up the ball and distributing it at will once Nantes’ forwards were out of the play. It didn’t really work, and with Abdoulaye Toure being asked to mark Benzia, thus dragging him away from Nantes’ defensive line in midfield, Mendes ran the game no matter what Ranieri asked his forwards to do defensively.
  • While Araujo and El Ghazi played great games, the real stars of the show were the wingbacks, and that is likely to be the case all season under Bielsa. Although LWB Fode Toure was substituted at halftime, he didn’t do anything particularly egregious in the first half to deserve a quick hook. However, it must be said that fellow 20-year-old Rominigue Kouame made a much larger impact once he was subbed on. Kouame took a couple of players on when charging up the pitch, made a couple of brilliant turns and played an inch-perfect cross to the feet of El Ghazi for Lille’s third goal.
  • On the other side, Malcuit, who was signed for €9 million from Saint-Etienne this summer, was brilliant. He looked so comfortable getting forward and joining the attack while offering enough steal when in defense to be categorized as something more complete than a wingback. It was also Malcuit’s fantastic footwork that earned Lille’s penalty, as he stopped on a dime and drew the foul on Nantes’ CB Nicolas Pallois, who had committed himself to the challenge way to early. Malcuit on the right and a combination of Toure and Kouame on the left should all be in for big seasons.
  • Nantes only had a couple of real chances throughout the game. Their first came off of high pressure on El Ghazi, who was trying to dance around the defenders near his own corner flag. Nantes created a turnover and the ball found its way to Abdoulaye Toure, who produced a great strike with his laces on the volley, only for Lille’s keeper Mike Maignan push it onto the bar. Nakoulma had a great opportunity to head home the rebound, but somehow put the ball wide from point blank range.
  • Nantes also had a great bit of football in the second half that was basically an out of body experience for them based on how they played the rest of the game. Despite thumping long balls forward all game (mostly unsuccessfully, I might add), Nantes put together a string of three quick one-touch passes between Rongier, Sala and Nakoulma, but Maignan once again made a fantastic save on Rongier’s chip attempt.
  • Thiago Mendes played a really nice game at CDM. At 25, he might not have the best shot at stepping up to a much bigger club if he ever wants to move on from Lille, but it is clear that he has the talent to play in Europe and this was a really nice find from Lille to bring him over. He had the second most passes on the team at 64 and he was a rock in the middle of the pitch defensively. I’m not sure why Nantes gave him so much time on the ball, because he picked a number of gorgeous long balls and could also fire in a direct forward pass in transition. He might not be a prospect, but Mendes is certainly a newcomer to watch in Ligue 1 this season.
  • Junior Alonso was the man of the match for me. His outside of the box strike in the 48th minute was Lille’s opening goal of the season and his overall offensive contributions were brilliant. He had the most passes in the game at 77, which is impressive from the LCB position, and his range of passing was impressive. Even more so was Alonso’s willingness and ability to drive forward with the ball himself when his passing options were covered. He’d run at the defense, draw a defender and then play a delicate short pass to spring an attack. The Paraguayan only made 10 starts in his first season in Europe last season, but his skillset is clearly a perfect fit for Bielsa’s system, and I’d be shocked if he wasn’t one of the first names on the team sheet all season.

The Rebirth of Terrence Jones

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I’m not sure any team will be able to produce a more bizarre pair of back-to-back results this season than the ones the Pelicans just completed. After giving up 143 points and losing by 29 to the woeful Brooklyn Nets at home with Anthony Davis in the lineup on Friday, New Orleans went out and beat the defending champion Cavaliers without Davis on Monday. Though Cleveland would close within two by the final buzzer, the Pelicans never trailed and led by as many as 22 in what was at times a thorough domination.

With Davis out, the Pelicans relied heavily on Jrue Holiday, whose return to the lineup in November has turned the Pelicans season around and made a postseason spot attainable for a team that started 2-10. But, even more so than Holiday, the Pelican most responsible for the surprising victory was Terrence Jones, who is undergoing a renaissance season in his first year in the Crescent City.

In an offseason when even unproven role players were rolling in dough, Jones had to settle for a one-year, veteran’s minimum contract from the Pelicans after fielding no offers during the first few weeks of free agency. It was surprising given the potential Jones showed during his first two seasons with the Rockets, but chronic injury issues kept him out of the lineup last season, clouding Jones’ future. Still though, Jones is clearly talented and it was odd not to see any team, particularly one like Brooklyn or Sacramento, take a moderately expensive flier on him.

Instead it was New Orleans who convinced Jones to sign at way below his market value, though I suppose if Jones had a higher market value he wouldn’t be playing for the minimum. Ironically, it was Ryan Anderson’s departure to Houston that opened up the backup power forward spot in New Orleans, and Jones has stepped into that role and performed well. Jones is a totally different player than Anderson, but he gives the Pelicans a spark and he’s versatile enough to play alongside Davis when he needs to. Only Davis, Holiday and Dante Cunningham have a better net rating than Jones, meaning the Pelicans are generally at their best when he is on the floor.

Jones’ diverse skill set was on full display against the Cavaliers when he tied his career high of 36 points on 13-of-18 shooting while collecting 11 rebounds and three blocks. Jones inability to hit 3s consistently is perhaps the biggest reason the Pelicans found him in the bargain bin this summer, and that trend has continued this season as he is shooting just 27 percent from beyond the arc. But Cleveland learned how dangerous Jones can be when he has his shot going. Jones was 3-of-4 from deep against the Cavs, capitlizaing on the acres of space the Cavs afforded him.

That 3-point shot is so vital for Jones. When he has it going, it frees up the other delightful elements of his game that make him a tough cover for most other power forwards in the NBA. Watch here as Tristan Thompson crowds Jones at the top of the key, extending his arm to dissuade the long jumper. Jones uses the space to get moving toward the basket, stops on a dime and unleashes a gorgeous behind-the-back move to get right to the rim.

Jones is one of the most frequent pump fakers in the NBA. It is almost like a nervous twitch. Sometimes you can tell Jones never had any intention of shooting the ball and few things can irk coaches more than when their defenders fall for a pump fake from someone shooting 27 percent from deep. But when Jones does claim a victim, he takes off and drives into the paint, where can either finish or find an open teammate if the defense helps. Jones is shooting 65.2 percent in the restricted area this season, which is the same percentage as Davis.

On the other end of the floor, Jones is in an unenviable position of ambiguity. He’s not quite quick enough to guard small ball fours and he isn’t long enough to play the five for prolonged stretches. He can do a job on players in his own category, but isn’t an obvious plus defensively. However, forced into the role of rim protector against Cleveland with Davis and Omer Asik out, Jones delivered with solid interior defense, including a devastating rejecting on LeBron James late in the fourth quarter.

Jones was a forgotten man during one of the most player-friendly offseasons in sports history, and he had to settle for a make-good one-year deal in order to get a chance to prove himself as a reliable rotation player. Thus far, Jones has done far more than that in New Orleans. He hasn’t exactly cemented himself as a long term frontcourt partner for Davis, but he has shown that the variety of tools in his arsenal are still there. And if he can manage to become a more consistent outside shooter, he won’t be playing for the veteran’s minimum again for a long time.

Welcome Back

in Futbol/PL Recaps by


The game of the season thus far highlighted the enthusiasm of Jurgen Klopp, the complacency of Arsene Wenger and, ultimately, two squads that will vie for a Champions League spot come April and May, but likely not more than that. Liverpool were mostly lifeless in the first half; their press was far from organized or disorienting and the Gunners were free to build up in midfield. Luckily for the Reds, Arsenal were toothless up front with unnatural striker Alexis Sanchez playing up top and Theo Walcott playing wide.

Walcott contributed enough in the first half, winning a penalty on the hapless Alberto Moreno before having his attempt from the spot saved. Walcott atoned not even a minute later after Francis Coquelin’s brilliant challenge in midfield spurred a quick counter, with the ball pinging from Alex Iwobi to a wide open Walcott on the edge of the box. With Moreno completely outside of position, Walcott was free to line up a fine strike to the far post for the opening goal.

But despite their poor half, Liverpool were level at halftime thanks to Philippe Coutinho’s marvelous free kick on the stroke of halftime. Coutinho’s golazo seemed to set the tone for Liverpool in the second half, for they came out of the changing room revved up and promptly made Arsenal’s makeshift and embarrassingly youthful center back duo of Callum Chambers and Rob Holding look foolish, though one could hardly blame the youngsters for letting in three extremely well taken goals.

First it was Adam Lallana taking the lead with a pretty finish to the far post, then it was Coutinho tapping in his brace after a typical Arsenal move and finally it was summer signing Sadio Mane charging forward with one of the best individual runs of the season before cutting inside on Chambers and unleashing a curling shot with his left foot.

To their credit, Arsenal gathered themselves and made Liverpool sweat out the final half hour of the match. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain scored within five minutes of coming on and Chambers headed home Arsenal’s third in the 75th minute, giving the Gunners a lifeline. But in the end Liverpool’s own shaky defense was able to hold off Arsenal’s comeback attempt. It’s hard not to question why Wenger didn’t start the game with Santi Cazorla, Granit Zhaka and Oxlade-Chamberlain in the lineup. Cazorla’s insertion in particularly completely changed the game for Arsenal; he gave the Gunners a spark going forward and collected two assists within 15 minutes.

Had Cazorla featured instead of Aaron Ramsey, who came off for an injury that will sideline him for about a month, Arsenal might have had a better chance controlling the midfield and keeping Liverpool from going on the tear they did to start the second half. If the pressure wasn’t already on Wenger to spend money on a true center forward and a center back to partner withLaurent Koscielny while Per Mertesacker and Gabriel are injured, it sure is now.


A Swansea side that has had a transformative summer, and not necessarily in a good way, got its season off to a good start by spoiling Burnley’s return to the Premier League. Leroy Fer, who spent the second half of last season in Wales on loan from QPR before making the move permanent this summer, got the winning goal in the 82nd minute, tapping in a rebound past Burnley keeper Tom Heaton.

How the goal was made should give Swansea fans some optimism after an offseason that saw them sell off Andre Ayew, who led the club in the goals last season, and Ashley Williams, who flat out led the club since 2008. The Swans dominated the flanks all game, with strong play from Modou Barrow, Wayne Routledge and substitute Jefferson Montero from the wings as well as fullbacks Kyle Naughton and Stephen Kingsley. Montero come on in the 64th minute and created the scoring chance about 20 minutes later when he dance passed his defender on the left edge of the box and whipped in a cross for Fernando Llorente.

Llorente, who signed from Sevilla this summer, won eight aerial challenges against Burnley, showcasing his ability as a target man for a Swansea side that has been searching for a reference point up top ever since Bafetimbi Gomis’ incredible goal-scoring predictably came to an end last season. Llorente got his head to Montero’s cross, forcing the save and creating the rebound for Fer to finish off. Francesco Guidolin’s side was better than expected in its debut, and the Swans performed well even though Iceland hero Gylfi Sigurðsson only made a cameo and record signing Borja Baston didn’t feature.

Given Llorente’s positive start, how Guidolin decides to fit Baston, another striker, into his team plans will be interesting. Will he switch from the 4-3-3 the Swans played against Burnley to incorporate a second striker or will he rotate between the Spaniards?

There were barely any standout players for Burnley, with Championship standout Andre Gray failing to muster a solid chance throughout the match. Burnley were one of my picks to be relegated this season, and without a few more reinforcements that can offer something going forward, this team will struggle to score goals as they did in its opener.


Alan Pardew’s second full season at Crystal Palace started the way last season ended rather than how it began. After a flying start to last year’s campaign, Palace fell apart down the stretch without a striker to convert their mounds of possession and spells of good play into goals. In their opener, the Eagles dominated possession against Tony Pulis’ side only to concede a set piece goal to the the towering Solomon Rondon while failing to create any chances of their own. Rondon’s goal was the kind of match-stealing poach that Palace desperately need, and now that Yannick Bolasie, who had a cameo as a sub in this game, has been sold to Everton, it is time for Palace to finish the deal for rumored target Christian Benteke.

On the bright side, Palace’s top summer signing, Andres Townsend, looked fantastic in his first game at Selhurst Park. Townsend offered the kind of dynamism going forward that Palace’s attacking players showcased as the club got off to such a hot start last season, making Bolasie expendable if the fee is right. That said, neither Townsend nor Wilfried Zaha could produce the end product necessary in this match, and its quite clear Connor Wickham isn’t the man to lead the line alone if Palace are to avoid the drop this season.

For West Brom, it was more the same under Pulis, parking the bus and squeezing the most out of set piece opportunities. Rondon’s solid form from the second half of last season continued on opening day while the Baggies’ backline proved impenetrable against an opponent lacking a killer instinct in the final third.


Former Southampton manager Ronald Koeman debuted with a three-at-the-back system that gave Everton more of a defensive backbone than they showed all of last season for Roberto Martinez. With John Stones off to Manchester City and signing Ashley Williams not quite ready to play for his club, Ramiro Funes Mori, Phil Jagielka and debutant Mason Holgate were solid at the back, only veering off course once Mauricio Pochettino inserted a second striker, which opened up a gap for Erik Lamela to score Tottenham’s equalizer minutes after the substitution.

Spurs grabbed firm control of the game after getting on level terms, pressing Everton with fervor and precision, but they couldn’t find a way through to secure all three points. Koeman proclaimed his squad’s fitness levels were only at 70 percent prior to the match, and the Toffees did seem to run out of gas during the final half hour.

That, however, shouldn’t dampen the lively and hopeful hour that came before it. Everton started the game on the front foot, with former Aston Villa midfielder Idrissa Gueye dominating the middle of the park for the Toffees. With Gueye operating in the engine room, breaking up Spurs’ play and carrying things the other way, Everton’s front three of Kevin Mirallas, Gerard Deulofeu and Ross Barkley were free to get creative in the final third, swapping places and making adventurous runs past a Tottenham backline that was a step slow all game.

Deulofeu, who started the game up top and spent the majority of the game playing centrally, showed promise in a position he hasn’t played much of in his career. His movement was fantastic and though he began to tire late in the game, he was always Everton’s most likely player to get a second. It was Barkley, though, who got the game’s opening goal from a free kick that went untouched on its way into the area. The keeper might not have been expecting it, but Barkley’s technique was fantastic and it was a goal worthy of at least a point for Koeman’s side.


This result was even more shocking than the Foxes winning the league last year. OK, so it wasn’t THAT surprising, but it sure was unexpected to see a team in turmoil with 13 fit players beat the reigning Champions in Hull’s first game back in the top flight. After Abel Hernandez and Adama Diomande’s synchronized bicycle kick got the Tigers the lead just before halftime, Riyad Mahrez’s equalizer from the penalty spot seemed to put the dream upset to bed. But Hull wouldn’t go away, with Robert Snodgrass thumping in the winning goal in the 57th minute.

Leicester were poor in this game. Summer signing Ahmed Musa was the most lively player on the pitch and created the most chances for the Foxes, but Mahrez seemed to be moping around for most of the match and Jamie Vardy couldn’t find any space behind a Hull defense that was well prepared for Leicester to play for a goal on the counter attack. It might be the only three points Hull secure all season, but the Tigers picked a pretty good team to stun. At least for now, Hull can claim to hold the Premier League title belt having stripped it away from the Foxes on opening day.


The Pep Guardiola era at the Etihad didn’t get off to a flying start, with City requiring Paddy McNair’s late own goal to secure all three points, but there was some encouraging signs for the Sky Blue. Most notably, Raheem Sterling, who had an anonymous season after becoming the most expensive English player ever last summer, looked lively from kick off, taking on his man and flying down the flank. He won the penalty that Sergio Aguero converted to open the scoring and completed a game-high six dribbles, a sign that his confidence is building after a poor first season at City and an even worse tournament at the Euros.

John Stones looked good in his City debut, stepping up and looking comfortable on the ball throughout the contest. We still haven’t seen him under pressure, but the initial returns point to Stones being the ball playing center half that Guardiola loves. It was enjoyable to see Stones step up on the ball with Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna taking up spots in the holding midfield slots and Fernandinho and Aleksandar Kolarov, a central midfielder and a left back, respectively, acting as the last line of defense. Guardiola’s innovation and outside the box thinking is talked about a lot, but that doesn’t mean it’s overrated; the man is a legitimate football genius.

Kolarov, by the way, was superb, and the manager said as much after the game. He might not play center back again this season, but his career might have a second wind once his legs go because of how well he adapted to playing centrally. It wasn’t all good for City, with Jermain Defoe nabbing the equalizer in the 71st minute and a lot of their possession not producing chances, but the framework is only now being established and it shouldn’t be long before City are flying.


The Boro made a strong debut in the Premier League with former Manchester City striker Alvaro Negredo getting off the mark in the 11th minute, allowing Aitor Karanka’s to comfortably control the game for the remainder of the game. Left back George Friend was magnificent in both of his roles, getting forward with intent and ability, dribbling past defenders and creating chances down the flank while also keeping Stoke talisman Xheridan Shaqiri in his pocket for the majority of the match.

Shaqiri would get his goal, though, with a good free kick in the 67th minute. The goal rescued a point from what was an otherwise uninspiring performance from Mark Hughes’ men. With summer signing Joe Allen only getting a cameo, Giannelli Imbula was the Potters’ most influential player in the middle of the mark, but Stoke hardly threatened the goal without a true striker leading the line.

Middlesbrough should be happy with its Premier League return and particularly with the player of playmaker Gaston Ramirez. Ramirez spent last season at the Riverside Stadium on loan from Southampton before making the move permanent this summer and he pulled the strings magnificently in the opener, assisting on Negredo’s goal before hitting the post himself and being taken off in the 88th minute.


The Saints, who are utilizing new manager Claude Puel’s diamond midfield system, look a fun side with Nathan Redmond up top along side Shane Long and Dusan Tadic. Redmond, signed from Norwich City as a Sadio Mane replacement this summer, scored on his Saints debut and nearly made it a brace if not for the offside flag. His first was enough to secure a point against a Watford side that was solid defensively and that got a wonderful opening goal from Etiene Capoue. After a down first season at the club, Capoue started off his second campaign with a controlling performance in midfield and a deciding goal.

Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, Southampton’s summer signing from Bayern Munich, entered the game with half an hour to go and opened up the game for the Saints, offering more dynamic play than James Ward-Prowse. He looks to be a great signing in Saints’ midfield and it might not be too soon to consider how long Southampton will be able to hold onto a player who looks to be one of the brightest midfielders in Europe.


The Mourinho era at United got off to a negative start, with Manchester ceding possession to the Cherries in the first half, but the pace of the game picked up in the second half and Manchester’s superior talents began to make their presence known. Juan Mata scored the game’s opening goal in the 40th minute, but it was less a goal and more Cherries’ captain Steve Francis’ personal rendition of Yakety Sax, commiting two unthinkable errors in the span of five seconds to lead to Mata’s opener. Rooney’s goal in the second half wasn’t much better, for he headed home Anthony Martial’s mishit shot in the 59th minute, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s capper and first Premier League goal was a thing of beauty.

Bournemouth didn’t have enough creativity in the midfield to break down United’s double pivot of Ander Herrera and Mauroane Fellaini. Fellaini was perfect with his passing and tremendous defensively while Herrera dropped deep and create things with his long passing. Despite Mourinho saying Rooney would’t play a deeper midfield position, United’s captain frequently dropped deep to get on the ball. Whether Rooney was disobeying instructions or merely searching for space, he wasn’t stagnant in the No. 10 role and displayed much better chemistry with Zlatan than he did during the Community Shield match against Leicester.


Chelsea looked like a totally different team than the one that tried to defend the title last season. Antonio Conte’s debut at the club featured aggressive and dominant possession, a far cry from the negative brand of football Jose Mourinho’s side had regressed to by the end of his second term at the club. Most importantly for Chelsea, Eden Hazard looked like one of the top players of the world again; he scored Chelsea’s opener from the spot, getting on the board in the opener after waiting until March to score his first Premier League goal last season, and took on defenders with glee.

West Ham were lost with Dmitri Payet on the bench, sitting back and absorbing the pressure despite having safety valves providing an outlet. Credit Conte, who had Branislov Ivanovic and Cesar Azpilicueta flying forward from the fullback spots, requiring West Ham’s wingers to track back and essentially removing them from the game. The lack of an outlet on the wings negated Andy Carroll’s impact, for his hold up play was mostly useless with nobody around him to connect with.

Of course, Chelsea wouldn’t have been able to be so aggressive with its defenders were it not for the presence of N’Golo Kante, who was tremendous in his Chelsea. Kante sat in between Chelsea’s center backs to protect them from the counter attack and showed he can pick a pass as well. Conte’s controversial exclusion of Cesc Fabregas proved fruitful as Kante and Nemanja Matic looked like a tremendous defensive duo in midfield while Oscar played magnificently in a more creative midfield role.

Although West Ham had nothing to offer going forward, Payet’s inclusion led to a couple of set piece opportunities, one of which fell kindly to center back James Collins, who thumped the ball beautifully past Thibaut Courtois in the 77th minute. Conte wouldn’t settle for the point, though, as he threw on Pedro, Victor Moses, who spent last season on loan at West Ham and former Marseille striker Michy Batshuayi on to chase a second goal. In the end, it was Batshuayi’s header down to Costa moments after coming on that created Costa’s fantastic winning strike just moments before stoppage time.


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The Premier League is back. Back because the league starts another season today, but also back because the addition of star talent on the pitch and on the sideline has rejuvenated a league that saw 5,000-to-1 underdogs Leicester City capture the title. The Foxes were amazing story, but the traditional powers have reloaded and retooled and are poised regain their grasp on the Premier League.

But first, here are the teams I have pegged for relegation.

The Bottom Three

18. Sunderland – The Black Cats needed CPR-certified Big Sam Allardyce to rescue them from relegation last season and even though David Moyes is a solid manager who you wouldn’t expect to lead a bottom three side, the team hasn’t been improved enough from last season to avoid another relegation scare. Moyes did snag Adnan Januzaj, whose hype was at its peak during Moyes’ United tenure, on a loan deal, and Jermain Defoe is still capable of banging in 15-20 goals up top, but I am not sure the squad has enough goals in it to stay up.

19. Burnley – Burnley were a powerhouse down the stretch of the Championship season last year, but they return to the Premier League without reinforcing the squad enough to challenge for a spot in the league next season. If Andre Gray, who some peg as the next Jamie Vardy, can approach the same form he had last season during his 23-goal campaign, Burnley will have a chance to stay in the top flight, but the rest of the team doesn’t have enough quality to survive in the Premier League, even if they do have tremendous chemistry.

20. Hull City – The Tigers enter the season in turmoil. Manager Steve Bruce has abandoned the team after the club’s owners refused to spend any money on new signings, instead opting to sell first-choice players to Championship teams, and Hull City start the Premier League season with only 13 fit first-team players. There is some quality within the team, but nowhere near enough to compete in the Premier League without proper depth and management.

The Top Four

4. Liverpool – Jurgen Klopp enters his second season at Anfield having adjusted his squad to better suit his aggressive, tireless and entertaining brand of football. Sadio Mane looks an excellent signing and a perfect fit for the new Liverpool; he’s got barrels of pace, the desire to press hard for an entire match and a good goal-scoring touch. Clop also added a few former Bundesliga opponents to bolster his defense, mainly Joel Matip from Schalke and Ragnar Klavan from Augsburg. Joe Allen, who didn’t fit Klopp’s style, and Jordan Ibe are gone, but without the distraction of European football, Liverpool will be able to challenge for a Champions League spot, one of the most exiting things that are going to be happening this year is that I will actually be able to watch a Real Madrid game live thanks to the tickets I got.

3. Arsenal – There is still time for Arsene Wenger to reverse the comical trend of his frugal transfer policy keeping Arsenal from competing for the title and the Champions League. The Gunners start the season with major holes at striker and center back, though rumors suggest Wenger is on the verge of signing Mustafi from Valencia, which would drastically improve the team’s defense.

That would still leave Arsenal without a top striker, though. Theo Walcott has said he prefers life on the right wing, meaning Olivier Girioud is once again Arsenal’s reluctant first-choice striker. Lyon’s Alexandre Lacazette and Inter’s Marou Icardi are intriguing options for the Gunners, but thus far Wenger has deemed their price tags too high.

It would be unfortunate for Wenger’s stinginess to spoil what is likely his final season at the Emirates. He has made an excellent signing this summer in Granit Xhaka, who will boss the midfield for the Gunners and add a vertical dimension to the team with his long passing, but even though Arsenal have a strong starting XI, they will fall short of the pair of teams from Manchester without adding another big player.

2. Manchester United – The arrivals of Jose Mourinho, Zlatan Ibrahomivic, Henrik Mkhitaryan and, most expensively, Paul Pogba have brought the Galacticos feeling back to Old Trafford after Louis Van Gaal’s uninspiring tenure. Eric Bailly’s addition has strengthened a spine that was already quite good last season and now United have players who can score goals to make its defensive disposition actually mean something.

The big question for United is one of tactics. Mourinho preferred a 4-2-3-1 at Chelsea and has hinted that it would be his formation for the Red Devils as well. But Pogba’s arrival changes things. Pogba has struggled as a deeper midfielder in the 4-2-3-1 as recently as this summer during the Euros and he was never able to play the No. 10 role at Juventus. At Juve, Pogba’s best role was as a center mid bombing forward in a 4-3-3, which is a formation that would suit Ibrahimovic, who played at the top of PSG’s 4-3-3, and Mkhitaryan.

Wayne Rooney would be the casualty of the 4-3-3; currently pegged as the No. 10 behind Ibra in the 4-2-3-1, Rooney would lose his place in the 4-3-3, for Mourinho has said he will not play Rooney as a central midfielder. It’s a case of loyalty or royalty: Does Mourinho stick with the club legend and play Pogba in a role he isn’t suited for, or does everything change with the arrival of the world’s most expensive player?

No matter the answer, United will be an excellent team this season, one that combines the grit and stingy nature of Mourinho’s defenses with the individual and collective brilliance of their expensive and talented attackers. But in the end, I think they will fall short of their Manchester rivals.

1. Manchester City – The dream is finally a reality. Pep Guardiola, the club’s dream manager, has arrived, and he has brought with him a bundle of fantastic signings to bolster a team that was already a title contender, but was lacking in tactical direction. Guardiola’s genius will give City several new dimensions, breathing new life into a side that constantly came up short against the biggest clubs in European play.

Guardiola has already mastered the domestic leagues of Spain and Germany, and now he sets his sight on the Premier League, which will present new problems, but nothing that his tactical acumen and blank checkbook can’t solve. His initial reinforcements of Ilkay Gundogan, Leroy Sane, Nolito and, most recently, John Stones give City a mix of potential, solidity and flair, and if Pep gets his wish, soon Barcelona’s Marc Andre Ter Stegen will take Joe Hart’s place in goal.

The potential for Guardiola’s experimentations with this squad are mouth water.  Raheem Sterling will have his chance to shine in a high-octane, press-heavy system that is all about moving the ball forward with tempo. Fernandinho could play anywhere on the pitch this season if you listen to Guardiola’s praises, and there are even whispers of Yaya Toure, who played for Pep at Barcelona and was convinced to stay at City by his former manager, following his brother’s footsteps and playing center back.

It might take time for Guardiola’s intellectual approach to the game to soak in with his players, but the nature of Pep’s style is already sewn into the fabric of a lot of his players. Sergio Aguero should win the golden boot this season if he stays healthy, David Silva, who had a bit of a down season by his standards last year, should be rejuvenated under Guardiola, and Gundogan could challenge Pogba for the title of best midfielder in England once he is fit.

Although Mourinho’s transition at United might be quicker given that he has already won in the Premier League, I think Guardiola’s style and selection are superior, paving the way for City to stake their claim as kings of Manchester and champions of England.

Close Call

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Top flight European football is back, with the French Ligue 1 kickoff a day before the Premier League gets underway. The reigning French champs PSG opened the season on the road against Bastia, playing its first league game since Zlatan Ibrahimovic left for Manchester. Here are my observations from PSG’s season opener.

  • I was underwhelmed after PSG had such a strong and goal-filled preseason, which included a convincing victory against Lyon. But Bastia presented a different challenge, combining the un-preseason like tactic of parking the bus with the un-preseason like mentality to rough up the game. The result was somewhat expected if you think about it: A Zlatan-less PSG searching for who the new reference point up top will be for them to help break down these defensive teams. The obvious answer is Cavani, and with his exclusion, it isn’t so surprising that PSG were a bit sluggish in the opener.
  • To that point, I thought Ben Arfa was quite poor in his debut league performance for PSG. Perhaps he can do a job against teams that won’t be so negative with its style of play, but I think he is better a bit off the front man, perhaps as a backup to Pastore. Like the rest of the front players, Ben Arfa seemed to get more touches in midfield and in wide areas than he did up top, and because of that PSG never really threatened to break down Bastia with link up play down the middle.
  • Playing wide isn’t necessarily a problem; I thought the width that Kurzawa and Aurier provided in this game was fantastic. But when you are starting Ben Arfa up top and the only player good in the air in the team is David Luiz, then that width is a bit wasted because crosses are taken off the menu. Cavani would have changed this, but perhaps it was a bit concerning that PSG couldn’t come up with some different ideas on the fly that would have allowed them to break down Bastia with the team they had, because with PSG’s quality you’d expect that level of ingenuity and ability.
  • I thought Di Maria was good in this game. He started off on the left but ventured all over the pitch, including switching sides with Lucas on a few occasions. There were almost no chances for PSG to counter, so Di Maria’s brilliant direct passing wasn’t involved, but he made the game’s only goal by playing Jese Rodriguez through and was probably PSG’s most dangerous playmaker for the entirety of the game.
  • Speaking of Jese, I thought Emery’s subs were fantastic in this game, even if they were obvious. Dropping Ben Arfa for Jese gave the team a bit of juice, with Jese staying higher up the pitch and getting into the area for the best chance of the game (would have been nice for him to debut with a goal, but Kurzawa took the follow up beautifully).
    Verrati’s insertion changed the game immediately; his long balls were magnificent and Bastia couldn’t press the ball off of him. He provided something different in the deep-lying role than Rabiot or Motta did and it remains clear how vital Verrati is to the squad. Motta had a fairly Motta performance, picking up a yellow with a couple of old-man fouls in midfield and recycling possession on occasion, but without many attacks to break up, Verrati and Matuidi offered more to get PSG to the winner.
  • Pastore didn’t do much for me in this game, which can be attributed to the clutter Bastia had in midfield. Pastore spent a lot of the game roaming around the pitch trying to find the space where he could most make an impact, but he wasn’t sharp and wasn’t really involved in any threatening attacks. Similar things could be said for Lucas, who lost the ball on a few occasions and didn’t show any of the potential PSG fans have been waiting on for years.
  • At the back, like I said before, I thought Kurzawa and Aurier were brilliant in this game. They were constantly bombing forward, pretty much playing winger roles as Lucas and Di Maria cut inside to help move play along. I even remember Aurier making a run in the space between Ben Arfa and Lucas at one point; the full back’s involvement was heavy and necessary in this game.
  • And then we get to my favorite (but not the best) player on the pitch from yesterday: Presnel Kimpembe. I saw him a couple of times in preseason but after watching him against Lyon and Bastia, I think this kid is going to be a great centre half one day. For a 21-year-old he is composed and comfortable on the ball and shows a willingness to drive the ball up the pitch when given space. We didn’t see him pressed much in this game, so who knows how he will react to that the rest of the season (when he plays, that is), but his potential is obvious. A few of his passes in this game were wayward or ill-advised, but he can correct those issues over time; he cannot, however, correct his natural instincts, and it looks like Kimpembe’s instincts are to be relaxed and contemplative on the ball. I’m not sure how much he will play this season with the Brazilian trio likely ahead of him on the depth chart, but he looks like he will be a starter for some club sometime soon.
  • Bastia’s right winger Saint-Maximin was impressive doing work down the right hand side. With Kurzawa vacating that space, the 19-year-old looked dangerous flying down the touchline, but Kimpembe seemed to provide good cover. Diallo also made his presence known, if only because he had about three ridiculously selfish goes. He looked capable with the ball but didn’t seem to think twice about his next movement.

Finishing Touch

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Gerard Pique’s winning goal in Spain’s victory against the Czech Republic on Monday was a thumping reminder of Spain’s persistent goal-scoring drought. After Spain was held scoreless for 86 minutes and with the team fresh out of ideas, Pique and Sergio Ramos were summoned forward to provide aerial threats for one final barrage of crosses.

It didn’t take long for Iniesta to find his Barcelona teammate for the winner, but after dominating possession and passing the ball all over the field, the desperate measures required for Spain to score one goal are concerning. Without a striker to rely on, Spain leaned on its centerbacks to deliver a goal and rescue the result.

This has been Spain’s biggest weakness since its disappointing title defense at the 2014 World Cup. With David Villa on his last international run, Spain featured turncoat Diego Costa as its striker in Brazil, and the ex-Brazilian failed to deliver anything of substance. Costa has only one goal in 10 caps for Spain and after being left out of the squad for friendlies in March, Vicente del Bosque kept out of the Euros, too.

Costa is just one of several strikers Spain has cycled through during the past few years. Del Bosque has selected Soldado, Negredo, Llorente and now Alvaro Morata and Aritz Aduriz with this summer’s squad, but the goals still haven’t come. Spain has even gone without a striker altogether with David Silva and Cesc Fabregas in False 9 roles to no avail.

Morata offers good pace, skill on the ball and determination on defense, but his finishing is not on par with the top strikers in the world. Aduriz was a more than deserving selection after a 32-goal season for Athletic Club, but he is more of target man than someone who can squeeze through the tight spaces Spain is forced to play in.

Although subpar striker play is to blame for Spain’s lack of goals, so is the way its opponents play. Spain is almost better off playing teams of similar quality that attack and go for all three points than it is against Georgia or the Czech Republic and other teams that park the bus and simply try to survive for 90 minutes. When a team possesses the ball for 70 or 80 percent of the match, there are few opportunities to counter, and when the opposition has resigned itself to playing without the ball, there is almost no room to operate around their box.

The Spaniards still play some beautiful stuff in midfield and their creative players are among the best in the world, but with defenses so compact and dug in, they can’t walk the ball into the net. This often forces a team that prefers a tiki-taka style to lump in crosses and to force the ball into fruitless slivers of space. Luckily for Spain, it is one of the few European nations that still possesses reliable full backs, and Jordi Alba and Juanfran are capable of decent defending and making important runs down the flank to open things up.

When all else fails, Spain gets desperate and sends Pique and Sergio Ramos forward, leaving Sergio Busquets back as the break stopper in case of emergency. It is a far cry from the beautiful football Spain is typical associated with, but it is a necessary adjustment that its opponents and its strikers force it to make.

Against the Czech Republic, it worked. Iniesta, who looked like the best midfielder in the world in this game, delivered a brilliant cross that found Pique’s forehead and Spain took a valuable three points in its opening group game, putting a stop to a troubling trend of horrible opening performances under del Bosque. But for Spain to defend its title as the European Champs, it is going to need a lot more production from the men leading its line.

Payet’s World

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France 2 – Romania 1

The 2016 Euros kicked off with a rather tense opener in Paris, with the host nation looking less than dominant in a game many expected them to seize. Luckily for France, it had Dimitri Payet on its side.

Payet was brilliant and would have been the man of the match even had the game ended in a draw. His stunning strike to give France the win was the capper on a sensational and inspired night of football. In what was essentially his debut for France on the big stage, Payet was the driving force for the hosts, racking up an assist on Olivier Giroud’s opening goal and nearly creating another with a beautiful cross that found the foot of Paul Pogba on the volley.

Pogba wasn’t quite as dominant as he should have been against a Romania side with no answer for him in the midfield, but Payet picked up the slack and N’Golo Kante continued his sensational Premier League winning form by bossing the middle of the park. Payet’s winner also sheltered Antoine Griezmann from some criticism. Griezmann’s last competitive match was the Champions League Final against Real Madrid. After missing a critical penalty in that match, Griezmann seemed to lack confidence in front of goal against Romania, squandering a pair of chances that should have been goals.

Despite a pair of underwhelming efforts from two of its stars, France is well on its way past the group stage, and it has two more games to sharpen up before the pressure on them amps to the max.

Switzerland 1 – Albania 0

The Albanians will feel they deserved at least a point after their strong defensive showing against the Swiss. Despite having its captain, central defender Lorik Cana, sent off 10 minutes before halftime, Albania kept its shape for the entirety of the match, even when manager Gianni De Biasi made offensive substitutions in the final 20 minutes.

Albania created a handful of delicious chances on the counter, but its strikers were not up to par. Swiss keeper Yann Sommer had a man of the match performance and made several key saves, but Armando Sadiku and Shkelzen Gashi made his job easier by putting in poor attempts in one-on-one situations.

The Swiss were far from convincing in this game and tactically I think they were inferior to a 10-man Albanian side. Albanian’s solid defense kept danger man Xherdan Shaqiri from creating much in open play (though he did assist the game’s only goal on a set piece) and fullbacks Stephan Lichsteiner and Ricardo Rodriguez, critical elements of Switzerland’s attack, did not factor into play.

Playing against his brother Taulant, new Arsenal midfielder Granit Xhaka was the most impressive outfield player on the pitch, controlling the game with a game-high 116 passes. Xhaka is going to dominate the middle of the park for the Gunners in a few months, but if the Swiss are going to get the most out of him in the Euros, they will need their wide players to provide him with more dangerous options going forward.

Wales 2 – Slovakia 1

It should come as no surprise that a Gareth Bale free kick helped Wales take all three points in its first major tournament game in more than 50 years. Bale was less than spectacular in open play, as one might expect with much of the defense’s attention being on him (and Martin Skrtel’s experience defending him), but his trademarked knuckleball free kick was enough of a contribution to spur on his country.

Slovakia were game in this match, though. Had Marek Hamsik’s early effort on goal been a bit more precise, this would have been a much different game. Slovakia did tie the game when Ondrej Duda came off the bench in the 61st minute and scored less than 30 seconds after subbing in, but Welsh substitute Hal Robson-Kanu rescued the three points with a fortunate strike in the 81st minute.

Wales might be extremely reliant on Bale’s brilliance, but with Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen supporting him in the midfield and what looked a sturdy three centerback alignment, it is on its way to having a quarterfinal berth.

England 1 – Russia 1

After going 10-0 in its qualifying group and with some promising young talent coming off strong seasons in the Premier League, England entered this tournament as one of the teams to watch. The Lions might not be ready to challenge Germany, France or Spain for the trophy this year, but the foundation is being built for a World Cup contender.

England’s opening match against Russia, however, was proof that the team is still not reliable on the big stage. Although the Lions dominated possession against Russia and were minutes away from three points, overall England were underwhelming and its infamous tendency to giveaway games reared its ugly head. Eric Dier scored a wonderful free kick that should have sealed a win for England, but Russia tied the game one minute into added time.

Russia were not good in this game. It relied heavily on lumped through balls to Artem Dzyuba, who had a poor game, and it didn’t get enough from Aleksandr Kokorin, who I think is Russia’s best player. But England gave Russia a chance by failing to create chance for the majority of the match. Wayne Rooney looked good in his new midfield role, but I think Ross Barkley and Jamie Vardy should be preferred to Adam Lallana and Dele Alli.

England should still be a sure thing to get past the group stage, but if it can’t generate more on the attack than it did against Russia, Wales might end up on top of Group B.

Quite An Arrival

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Sparse crowds and inflated ticket prices have been the talk of the Copa America Centanario during its opening week. With Neymar out, Luis Suarez sidelined and the United States not quite to the level where they can draw sold out crowds even against the No. 3 team in the FIFA rankings (Columbia), only two nations have been able to pack stadiums across the US: Mexico and Argentina.

It isn’t hard to understand why that is the case. There is no walling off Mexican fans from their beloved El Tri and there is nothing more appealing to any football fan than the chance to see Lionel Messi play in person. Although Mexico have more than delivered for its fans with entertaining wins against Uruguay and Jamaica, fans who ponied up to see Messi in action were left wanting after Argentina’s first 130 minutes in this tournament.

After Messi missed Argentina’s 2-1 win against Chile, he started the Albiceleste’s second game against Panama on the bench as well. The crowd at Soldier Field in Chicago chanted Messi’s name almost from kickoff on Saturday night, pleading with Gerardo Martino to unleash the world’s greatest player on United States soil.

And in the 61st minute, the fans got their wish.

Argentina only lead 1-0 when Messi entered the game, but the result was never in doubt. Given his lack of game fitness, it would have been easy and forgivable for Messi to come on and have a runabout in the game’s final half hour. But this is the best player in the world we are talking about, and after reaching the final in each of Argentina’s past two major tournaments (the World Cup and last year’s Copa America) before falling short, Messi is a man on a mission to deliver a trophy for the Albiceleste.

Messi netted a hat trick in his half-an-hour on the pitch, dazzling with his pinpoint passes and spectacular curved shots. Twice he beat Panama’s keeper one-on-one after having the ball fall to his feet near the edge of the box and his 28-yard free kick was picture perfect. And if coming in and making the result go from an underwhelming 1-0 victory to a crushing 4-0 win wasn’t enough, Messi delivered an inch perfect pass to Marcos Rojo down the left flank in the closing minutes, allowing Rojo to head the ball down to Sergio Aguero for Argentina’s fifth goal.

The Albiceleste have had two good games to start this tournament, and with Messi back in the side they certainly look like the favorite to win the tournament. Argentina’s opening win against Chile was an important one; without Messi, the team played a counterattacking style perfectly suited for Angel Di Maria and controlled Chile in the middle of the park with the duo of Javier Mascherano and Augusto Fernandez, giving Martino a tactical change of plans for his back pocket.

That said, Di Maria was subbed off in the first half against Panama with what is believed to be an abductor injury. Injuries have been the unfortunate story of Di Maria’s international career during the past few years, and Argentina will be losing one its most dangerous weapons if he is forced to miss anything more than its final group stage game against Bolivia.

But with Messi back and with solid players such as Nicolas Gaitan or Erik Lamela around if a Di Maria replacement is necessary, Argentina are still more than capable of winning this tournament. And, as Messi’s arrival proved, the Albiceleste are more than worth the price of admission.

Let Down

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Edinson Cavani must feel cursed. Blessed with an incredible knack for scoring goals, ideal size for a target man and good skill on the ball, Cavani has the makings of a player who can lead the line for some of the top clubs and countries around the world. But in his two most high-profile roles, better players have overshadowed and displaced him from the top dog role he would have had almost anywhere else.

For Uruguay, Barcelona star Luis Suarez has always assumed the spotlight. Whether it be his antics, skills or goals, Suarez is a far more polarizing and electrifying footballer than Cavani. Uruguay often play Cavani alongside Suarez, but Cavani is not tremendous as a support player and has struggled to find his form for the national team.

Unfortunately, Cavani has had his hands tied in a similar predicament during his time at Paris Saint-Germain with Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Ibrahimovic had a legendary stint at PSG, but that didn’t stop the French giants from purchasing Cavani in 2013 while he was tearing it up for Napoli. PSG boss Laurent Blanc never could find an ideal way to pair Zlatan, who prefers to be a lone striker, and Cavani. Cavani wound up playing Cavani as a winger far more than he would have liked, and his production never matched the results he

This summer seemed to be a potential turning point for Cavani. With Ibrahimovic biding farewell to Paris and PSG seeming to commit to Cavani as its lead striker, it seems Cavani will finally be the star man for one of the top clubs in the world. As for his national team duties, an injury for Suarez meant a chance for Cavani to lead Uruguay past the group stage.

But as is often the case for Cavani, with the sky being the limit, he never got off the ground.

Cavani didn’t make a great impression as the lone talisman for Uruguay last summer. Uruguay got to the quarterfinals at the 2015 Copa America, and his side nearly eliminated Chile, the hosts and eventual champions, but he was sent off in the final game and didn’t score a goal in the tournament. Nevertheless, this year’s tournament offered Cavani a redo.

After serving his suspension for his biting ban last year, an injury has kept Suarez off the pitch this summer, giving Cavani another chance to get Uruguay past the group stage and put his team in a good position for when Suarez was able to return. Instead of carrying his country, Cavani collapsed under the pressure.

Losing to Mexico in Glendale in your opening game is nothing to be embarrassed about; it was practically a home match for Mexico and El Tri has been flying under new manager Juan Carlos Osorio. But Uruguay’s ensuing loss to Venezuela on Thursday was shocking, and it sealed La Celeste’s elimination from the tournament. And of course Cavani would be at fault with his terrible miss in the 88th minute on a shot that would have tied the game and given Uruguay a sliver of hope in its final group game.

To make matters worse, Suarez was throwing a fit on the sideline as he hoped to get into the game during the second half. Even as an ineligible observer, Suarez seemed more likely to deliver for Uruguay than Cavani did.

This makes back-to-back tournaments Cavani has failed deliver as his country’s most dangerous offensive player, and he wasn’t spectacular playing alongside an injured Suarez at the World Cup, either. Cavani’s poor showing this summer is all the more interesting because of the role he is expected to step into with PSG next season; if this is how Cavani performs outside of Suarez’s shadow, why should PSG believe he will do any better filling in for Zlatan?

Cavani is one of the biggest enigmas in world football. He was an exceptional player during his time at Napoli and has had his moments – like his winner in PSG’s Champions League tie at Stamford Bridge this season – with the Parisians and for his country, but whether he will ever return to the form he reached in Serie A remains a mystery.

Perhaps it is as simple as style of play. Cavani might be seen as one of the world’s best No. 9’s if he had spent the past few seasons playing for Atletico Madrid instead of PSG. Few teams around the world dominate the ball like the Parisians, especially in Ligue 1 play, but Cavani has always been better suited for a counter-attacking team that allows his pressing and work rate to shine.

A change of scenery or league might be best for Cavani at this point, but PSG seems intent on giving him a chance to lead the club to glory, which is a chance he was more than deserving of when PSG first bought him from Napoli. But more and more, Cavani’s domination of Serie A seems like his peak, and everything since has been a let down.

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