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Five Things We Learned From Manchester United vs. Arsenal

1. Defense is the best form of attack – Three defenders in a four man midfield? Such a team sheet reeks of negativity, but not in Manchester United’s case. Fergie proved once again he still knows best as John O’Shea had an effective performance alongside Darron Gibson while Fabio and Rafael Da Silva were dangerous all game long and at times uncontainable. With speed on the flanks and Rooney dropping deep, United were given the perfect platform to counter attack and continuously stretch Arsenal’s defense.

2. United have depth – Any honest United fan will tell you they probably cringed when they read the team sheets prior to kick-off. News circulated that Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher had joined Anderson on the injury list while Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs could only make the bench. United demonstrated the depth of their squad today as truth be told, that was probably Ferguson’s third choice midfield. You wouldn’t know it though.

3. Arsenal needs Fabregas and Song – You would know that Alex Song and Cesc Fabregas were absent, however. With Denilson having a quiet game in midfield and Diaby failing to make an impact, Wenger must have been cursing his luck to not have been able to call on his favored midfield pair. Song was missed in helping the Gunners close down United’s midfield and win back possession while the Arsenal captain could have made a difference in helping Arsenal maintain possession and use it effectively.

4. Van der Sar irreplaceable, Almunia capable – The most disappointing aspect of United’s win was that it was another reminder of how much they will miss the big Dutchman next season. An absolutely superb performance saw Van der Sar deny Arsenal time and time again, including a clutch save from Koscielny moments before Rooney doubled United’s advantage. The next United ‘keeper has some big, big shoes to fill. As for Arsenal, Almunia took another huge step in rebuilding his reputation with another assured performance in place of Fabianski and Scensny. Kept the score down with several vital saves.

5. The FA Cup still has its magic – Following Bolton’s dramatic last-gasp win earlier in the day, United and Arsenal didn’t fail to disappoint as both sides played their part in a highly entertaining match that sees United make the FA Cup semi-finals for the 10th time under Ferguson’s reign. With so much to lose after a dreadful week for both clubs, credit to Ferguson and Wenger for fielding their strongest teams possible and ensuring their players attacked rather than throw caution to the wind.

Written by: Jeff Harbert

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Chicago Fire: Time to Stop the Rollercoaster

A semi-final penalty shoot-out defeat in 2009, a new coach and a season to forget in 2010, the last two years have been nothing short of a rollercoaster for the Chicago Fire. The period that saw the Fire establish themselves as one of the top teams in Major League Soccer has been somewhat forgotten as a year of changes off the pitch and inconsistency on it saw the Fire endure its most difficult season in six years.

Following three consecutive defeats in the MLS Eastern Conference semi-finals, the Fire parted ways with head coach Denis Hamlett and acquired Carlos de los Cobos from the El Salvador National Team prior to the start of last season. De los Cobos and the Fire missed out on the playoffs for only the second time in its 13-year history – and suffered early round exits in the U.S. Open Cup and SuperLiga – but the Fire will be hoping to improve drastically in order not to endure a similar fate this time around.

The main question is, how much will they improve? It is hard to disguise the fact that the Chicago Fire disappointed in several areas last season but fortunately for them, a number of bright spots did surface over the course of the year. A week before the beginning of the 2010 season, the Fire announced they were waiving goalkeeper Jon Busch, a fan favorite and the club’s first choice ‘keeper during the past three seasons. Stepping up in his place was Jim Dykstra, Busch’s back-up who had yet to play a single MLS game. The result was a disaster. Dykstra’s inexperience showed as several mistakes caused the Fire to drop valuable points in the opening stages of the season. Fire technical director Frank Klopas announced last month the Fire had released Dykstra.

So where is the bright spot amongst this? Sean Johnson. Had Busch not been forced to move on and Dykstra fail to fill his shoes, we may have never seen the outstanding potential of the Fire’s stand out rookie last season, or at least this early into his career. With the Fire in desperate need of a reliable pair of hands between the posts, Johnson stepped up and provided the answer. He was solid in goal, had a knack for making spectacular saves, and eventually even earned a call-up to the United States Men’s National Team. No small feat for a rookie. With Johnson establishing himself as the first choice keeper, the Fire can enter the 2011 season confident of knowing they have a safe pair of hands at the back.

The Fire may have been inconsistent all season but the experience some of the younger players gained should make a difference this year for the Fire. Baggio Husidic continued to significant strides of improvement in an attacking midfield role while Steven Kinney gained valuable minutes at the center of the Fire’s defense. Kwame Watson-Siriboe also picked up some important games under his belt which will only benefit him as he looks to slot into the vacated position at the heart of defense following the retirement of C.J. Brown. The acquisition of Cory Gibbs over the off-season will also be a huge boost for a Fire team who shipped in 38 goals last season.

Its defense has hardly been the issue, however. Despite the reunion of former Fulham teammates Brian McBride and Collins John, the Fire failed to deliver up front. The fact that midfielder Marco Pappa led the team with seven goals says it all. If the Fire are to turn around their fortunes this season, they need to be much more effective up front. No one can doubt the quality of McBride, but it came as a disappointment he and his former teammate failed to link up efficiently with each other and the midfield. Both players have moved on – with the former calling an end to an illustrious career – meaning the Fire will need to rely on new options up front.

Patrick Nyarko is one of the best attackers in the squad but few will really expect the Ghanaian and Calen Carr to bang in the goals the Fire so desperately need.  Diego Cháves has joined Chicago’s ranks from Uruguayan club Nacional and de los Cobos will be hoping the striker has more success in front of goal than he did last season, where he scored just two goals in 20 appearances for both Nacional and former club Veracruz. Also arriving from Uruguay is the speedy Gaston Puerari. It’s a big risk for the Fire to acquire two forwards with no MLS experience, but if the two can form a good partnership up front, the Fire will soon be able to put last year’s goal scoring woes behind them.

New Fire signing Diego Chaves

The Fire have also been quick to offload big name failures Freddy Ljungberg and Nery Castillo, a step in the right direction, but also a decision that leaves the Fire as a very young team. With established players such as Pappa, Nyarko, Johnson and Logan Pause, the Fire still have a good foundation but will need the new arrivals to gel with the rest of the squad and quickly adapt to the MLS. A repeat of last season looks out of the question, so long as the Fire can avoid the attacking problems they experienced last season. And with the kick-off of the 2011 season just over a week away, Section 8 and the rest of the Chicago Fire support can look forward in excitement to what this team can achieve this year. If anything, this season should at least bring the Fire rollercoaster closer to the peak they have long been waiting for.

Written by: Jeff Harbert

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Feb. 28th – March 6th: Drugs, Knives and Guns

A round-up of all the latest headline-grabbing stories from this past  week…

Drugs, knives, record breakers, referee abuse, flying elbows and even flying bullets. This week had everything you could imagine. The beginning of the week consisted of the media using up column inch after column inch bashing Wayne Rooney for intentionally elbowing James McCarthy during Manchester United’s 4-0 win over Wigan. Referee Mark Clattenburg witnessed the incident but let Rooney off with a warning. By now the rest of the world has seen the incident and berated the Football Association for failing to ban the United striker, who later went on to score that game as well as against Chelsea three days later. By no coincidence, the infamous elbow was still being talked about in the press even after the defeat to Chelsea.

Staying on topic, Sir Alex Ferguson was not so lucky to escape punishment from the FA this week. His comments to MUTV about referee Martin Atkinson after his side’s 2-1 loss at Stamford Bridge gave the FA the opportunity to give him a fifth impoper conduct charge in as many years. Ferguson is no stranger to this type of controversy, however, and it is somewhat of a surprise that the newspapers chose to focus more on his punishment than Chelsea’s victory.

As for Chelsea, they too ended up in the headlines for the wrong reasons. Or at least a certain Ashley Cole did (not for the first time either). Reports surfaced early Saturday morning claiming that Cole shot and injured a club intern with an air rifle. And considering who the culprit was, who could really be surprised? Plenty of media outlets focused heavily on the incident and a few days later plenty of fans at Stamford Bridge were sarcastically yelling “Shoooooot” every time Cole had possession.

As if that hadn’t given us enough to talk about, Manchester City defender Kolo Toure went and got himself suspended by his club for testing positive for a “specified substance”. The length of his ban remains to be seen, although former manager Arsene Wenger has defended the Ivory Coast defender and claimed he took his wife’s dietary pills. Regardless of what the truth may be, Toure has probably forced his name into more newspapers than anyone else this week.

Over in Spain, Jose Mourinho managed to escape a knife attack that saw his body guard stabbed in an effort to attack the ‘special one’. Apparently this man has a huge adhorrence for the Real Madrid boss… either that or he just wanted Spain to grab a few headlines of its own this week too.

Controversy aside, plenty of media focused on Ryan Giggs, who on Wednesday marked his 20th season playing for the Manchester United first team. The night before also saw him equal Bobby Charlton’s club record of 606 league appearances. Lastly, Birmingham City stole the headlines with their unlikely 2-1 triumph over Arsenal in the League Cup final.

So… quite an uneventful week, eh? One can only wonder what the upcoming week can possibly have in store for us!

Written by: Jeff Harbert

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Premier League Preview: Week 29

Saturday

Birmingham City vs. West Bromwich Albion

What a week for Birmingham City. After waiting 48 years for another piece of silverware, Alex McCleish’s men pulled off the impossible by defeating Arsenal 2-1 in the League Cup final at Wembley. Six days later and Birmingham are back in action against West Brom and will be buoyed by their cup success. The mood around St. Andrew’s could change dramatically if the Blues fail to get a result, however. Birmingham sit in 16th place, just one point ahead of the Baggies and just one point separating the two sides. A loss could see Birmingham slip into the relegation zone. Roy Hodgson will have his work cut out for him though as West Brom haven’t won in seven matches dating back to January 15 (3-2 vs. Blackpool) and have only won two away matches all season (vs. Arsenal and Everton). Kick-off at 7:45 ET

Form guide: Birmingham – LDWWL          West Bromwich – DLDDD

Prediction: 2-1

Arsenal vs. Sunderland

After blowing the chance to win their first major trophy since 2005, Arsenal bounced back with a 5-0 demolition over Leyton Orient in Wednesday’s FA Cup fifth round replay. Following Manchester United’s defeat to Chelsea in midweek, the Gunners can close the gap on the league leaders to one point. Robin van Persie and Cesc Fabregas are both injured but don’t be surprised if Nicholas Bendtner builds on his hat-trick from Wednesday night. Sunderland’s injury problems are even more serious as Steve Bruce will hope to see his side end a four-match losing streak. A draw would be a bonus for Sunderland, but the odds are firmly stacked in Arsenal’s favor. Kick off at 10:00 ET

Form guide: Arsenal – WWDWW              Sunderland – WLLLL

Prediction: 3-0

Bolton vs. Aston Villa

Gerard Houllier made eight changes ahead of Aston Villa’s 3-0 defeat to Manchester City in the FA Cup on Wednesday claiming “We have a big game against Bolton on Saturday.” Well, he’ll be inviting heavy criticism if his side can’t earn a result against Bolton. The last meeting between these two sides ended in a 1-1 draw but Bolton will be looking for a win to keep their Europa Cup hopes alive. Kick off at 10:00 ET

Form guide: Bolton – LWLWD     Aston Villa – WLDDW

Prediction: 2-1

Fulham vs. Blackburn Rovers

Level on 32 points in the standings, both clubs desperately need a win to push themselves further away from the relegation zone, which is anybody’s guess as to which three teams will face the drop this season. Fulham are coming off a positive result at Manchester City last weekend while Blackburn are still reeling after their 4-1 defeat to Aston Villa. The last meeting between both sides ended in a 1-1 draw, but with Dempsey in good form and Andy Johnson playing well up front, Fulham will most likely be favorites. Kick off at 10:00 ET

Form guide: Fulham – LWDDD    Blackburn – WLLDL

Prediction: 2-0

Newcastle United vs. Everton

Jermaine Beckford’s brace last weekend has given David Moyes some renewed hope of a top 10 finish in the league. His side will need to bounce back from the disappointment of exiting the FA Cup at the hands of Reading, however, and they face a difficult test at St. James Park. Everton have only lost three of their last 12 league games and are more than capable of making amends for a 1-0 loss to Newcastle earlier in the season. Kick off at 10:00 ET

Form guide: Newcastle – LDDWD             Everton – DLWLW

Prediction: 0-1

West Ham United vs. Stoke City

At last West Ham find themselves off the bottom of the league. But for how long is the question? West Ham was buzzing on Thursday after the announcement that their bid for the Olympic stadium has been approved by the government and mayor of London and they will be on cloud nine if they can gather all three points on Saturday. Scott Parker has been in inspiring form of late but Stoke City will be no pushovers. This one has a draw written all over it. Kick off at 10:00 ET

Form guide: West Ham – DWLDW            Stoke City – LWLLD

Prediction: 0-0

Manchester City vs. Wigan Athletic

With Manchester City’s title hopes already appearing bleak, at best, the news of Kolo Toure facing a two year ban for taking an illegal substance will have sent shockwaves through the blue half of Manchester. Failure to gather all three points against Wigan will only make matters worse as it will all but end any dreams of a league title. Wigan, meanwhile, now find themselves at the bottom of the table and will be desperate to lift themselves off the relegation zone as quickly as possible. Judging by their form against bigger clubs, however, they might have to wait. Kick-off at 12:45 ET

Form guide: Manchester City – LDWLD  Wigan – LDWDL

Prediction: 3-0

Sunday

Liverpool vs. Manchester United

A hat-trick and stunning overhead kick by a brilliant Bulgarian, a game-deciding penalty decision in the FA Cup third round followed by this picture on twitter… this season’s fixtures between these two bitter rivals has already provided plenty of talking points. With so much on the line, the latest clash between both sides will most likely be no different. Still reeling after a contentious loss to Chelsea in midweek, Sir Alex Ferguson will be viewing this as a must win match – and not just because Liverpool are the opponent. United’s lead at the top of the league could shrink to one single point if Arsenal win on Saturday and Liverpool are the very last club willing to do the Red Devils any favors. Kenny Daglish has Liverpool finally climbing the table, mainly behind Raul Mereiles match-winning performances. Another match-winner could be on the field for Liverpool too in the form of 35 million pound Andy Carroll. The former Newcastle striker could not ask for a better platform to announce himself at Anfield and make himself an instant hero. Kick-off at 8:30 ET

Form guide: Liverpool – WWWDL             Manchester United – WLWWL

Prediction: 1-2

Wolverhampton Wanderers vs. Tottenham Hotspur

Out of the top four and with a gigantic Champions League tie next week, how will Harry Redknapp treat his side’s trip to the Molineux on Sunday? Spurs will undoubtedly have one eye on Wednesday’s clash with AC Milan but can ill-afford to underestimate Wolverhampton. Mick McCarthy’s team have already beaten Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United at home this season and will be desperate to add Tottenham to that list in order to boost their survival chances. Redknapp has already claimed it will take a ‘miracle’ for his side to finish in the top four and if Spurs don’t come away with a victory against Wolves, he may end up being right. Kick off at 11:00 ET

Form guide: Wolverhampton – LWLDW Tottenham – DWWWL

Prediction: 1-3

Monday

Blackpool vs. Chelsea

Finally back in to the top four and buoyed by a vital win over Manchester United, Frank Lampard insists Chelsea can still reclaim their title. Carlo Ancelotti is slightly more realistic, focusing his attention on Champions League qualification but whichever their ultimate aim, they will need a win at Bloomfield Road. Blackpool will also bode well with a win after suddenly finding themselves just four points off the drop zone. With Chelsea showing signs of returning to form, a win will be a big ask for Ian Holloway though. Knowing Blackpool, however, they will play as if they have nothing to lose and will look to push Chelsea all the way. The Tangerines will be boosted by the return of Charlie Adam, but even that will unlikely be enough to offset Chelsea. Kick-off at 3:00 ET

Form guide: Blackpool – LLDWL Chelsea – WWLDW

Prediction: 0-2

Written by: Jeff Harbert

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La Liga Preview: Week 27

Barcelona has the chance to stretch their lead at the top of the La Liga standings back up to 10 points on Saturday if they can win at home against Real Zaragoza. And who would bet against them? The Catalonians have won 19 out of their last 20 league matches and are firm favorites to capture a third consecutive league title.  In the days other matches Valencia travel to Mallorca while Athletico Madrid host Villareal. Both Valencia and Villareal have a chance to strengthen their hold on a Champions League birth with a victory and all but end Athletico Madrid and Mallorca’s top-four aspirations.

Jose Mourinho recently called former Real Madrid and current Malaga manager Jose Pelligrini the ‘best loser’ for missing out on the league title last season with 96 points. If the Los Blancos fail to win at Racing Santender, however, Mourinho will be in severe danger of earning the same title as his predecessor. His side destroyed Malaga 7-0 on Thursday though and will be hoping to make another statement of their title intentions this weekend. Other highlights from Sunday will see Hercules host Almeria in a relegation battle while Athletico Bilbao and Sevilla attempt to stake their claim for a spot in the Europa League next season.

Saturday

Mallorca vs. Valencia (12:00 ET)

Form guide: Mallorca – DWLLW                 Valencia – WWDWL

Prediction: 1-2

Barcelona vs. Real Zaragoza (14:00 ET)

Form guide: Barcelona –WWWWW         Real Zaragoza – DLLDW

Prediction: 3-0

Athletico Madrid vs. Villareal (16:00 ET)

Form guide: Athletico Mardid – LLWDD  Villareal – LLDDW

Prediction: 2-1

Sunday (all games at 11:00 ET)

Hercules vs. Almeria

Form guide: Hercules – LWLDL   Almeria – WLDLD

Prediction: 1-1

Levante vs. Espanyol

Form guide: Levante – WWLWD                                Espanyol – LLLWL

Prediction: 0-1

Malaga vs. Osasuna

Form guide: Malaga – DDDWL    Osasuna – DLWLD

Prediction: 1-2

Sporting Gijon vs. Getafe

Form guide: Sporting Gijon – LDDDL        Getafe – WDLDD

Prediction: 1-1

Athletico Bilbao vs. Sevilla FC

Form guide: Athletic Bilbao – WLLLL         Sevilla – DLWDW

Prediction: 2-2

Racing Santander vs. Real Madrid

Form guide: Racing Santander – DWWDD             Real Madrid – WWWDW

Prediction: 0-4

Monday (15:00 ET)

Deportivo de la Coruna vs. Real Sociedad

Form guide: Deportivo de la Coruna – LWDDD         Real Sociedad – LWWLD

Preiction: 2-2

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EPL: Shaping Lives Everywhere

Deep in the heart of poverty-stricken countries in Africa, the crest of some of England’s biggest clubs can be seen on worn, tattered and faded t-shirts and jerseys. For some, the shirt on their back is worth more to them than any amount of money they could earn by selling their shirt in the second-hand market.

Even in places where people would do almost anything to earn enough money to be able to afford one meal a day, the crest of clubs like Manchester United, Arsenal, and Chelsea are valued as much as the food necessary for survival.

The crest of clubs like Manchester United, Arsenal, and Chelsea represent a hope and optimism that nothing else can even come close to matching. It goes to show just how much the English Premier League has grown and the impact it has had and continues to have in our world.

In war torn countries such as the Ivory Coast, seeing their countryman Didier Drogba playing for one of the world’s biggest clubs in some of the world’s most prestigious competitions provides people with a renewed hope and inspiration needed to continue with their lives.

Thousands gather every week around a small television in a bar or house to catch a glimpse of their favorite heroes. Players like Didier Drogba, Obafemi Martins, and Yakabu Ayegbeni are what keep the dream alive in their countries. Little kids with absolutely nothing for footwear run around the dusty streets of town kicking a football ball made out of plastic bags, hoping they can one day follow in their hero’s footsteps.

And for people like this, it is their idols in the world’s biggest league that keep their dream alive. Without players like Kolo Toure, Didier Drogba, or Michael Essien flourishing in the English Premier League, some people would have nothing to cling on to in life.

It’s a sad truth, but a large portion of the continent of Africa is overwhelmed with poverty. After being born and living in Kenya for fourteen out of the first eighteen years of my life, I have witnessed such poverty first hand.

I can still recall walking through the streets of the town I lived in and hearing homeless people yell at me, “Man United!” Being one of the few white people in my town in a large town in Kenya, I was known by most people for two things: Being white and being a Manchester United supporter.

Even when I wasn’t sporting a Manchester United jersey or shirt, people who knew I was a United fan would still shout things at me about the club. Sometimes their remarks were affirmative and sometimes they were negative, but no matter what they were always said in a friendly manner.

And whenever I was seen donning a United jersey I would lose track of the vast amount of comments I received from people, most of who I didn’t even know. Even homeless kids on the side of the street without a shirt of their own chimed in with their own comments at times. My little brother, a die-hard Chelsea supporter, experienced much of the same whenever he wore his Chelsea jersey in public.

I learned that, even in the midst of despair and hopelessness, people were still able to find hope in the English Premier League. It may be hard to grasp if you haven’t actually experienced it first hand, but England’s biggest clubs have, in a sense, become a shining light in a dark world.

People’s hopes stretch far beyond their own countries’ football stars in England, but even in some of the big club’s star players in England’s top flight.

Wayne Rooney, John Terry, Fernando Torres and Cesc Fabregas are some of the most popular players in Africa, and they too are able to inspire anyone, from the poor man who struggles to earn enough money to be able to go to a bar and watch his favorite team to the rich business man who sits comfortably in the luxury of his home as he cheers on his beloved club.

Football and specifically the English Premier League give a lot of people something to live for. After all, when your job generates less than a dollar a day and you live in a hut made out of mud, sometimes the only happiness you get is from watching your favorite football club win.

The English Premier League is the world’s biggest and most popular league but its thriving popularity is seen in many places besides Africa. But after living in Africa for 14 years, I have discovered first hand just how big of an influence the English Premier League has across the world.

Whether it’s in the heart of big cities or the fringes of mid-size towns, the English Premier League is undoubtedly making a difference. And whether it’s in the center of small villages or the borders of the poorest of slums, England’s top flight is clearly having an influence.

The most important part of all is the fact that this influence is a positive one and one that will continue to shape and inspire our world in a beneficial way.

Written by: Jeff Harbert

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