Five potential replacements for Alexis Sanchez

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Alexis Sanchez’s future is still in the air at Arsenal. The Chilean cuts an increasingly frustrated figure at Arsenal and while his manager Arsene Wenger dances to the tune of ‘He wants to stay’ the consensus is that Sanchez will be plying his trade elsewhere next season.

 

Should the former Barcelona forward leave The Emirates here are five potential players who could replace the dogged Chile frontman:

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5.

Anthony Martial

Club: Manchester United

Cost: £35m – £55m

A bit of a wildcard to start off with. With Jose Mourinho and Wenger’s open dislike for each other it is unlikely that Mourinho would want to sell a talented player to a rival. However, Martial is well out-of-favour with The Special One and could be offloaded this summer. Should Arsenal submit a bid which would recoup a lot – if not all – of what Louis van Gaal paid for the then teenager Mourinho may well be willing to part with the young Frenchman.

 

Martial offers directness, pace and can finish. He is still inconsistent Wenger will no doubt have patience with the former Monaco man and give him the love he looks like he needs.

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4.

Yannick Carrasco

Club: Atletico Madrid

Cost: £51m – £65m

Carrasco will cost a lot of money; the type of money Arsenal have never parted with. However, the Belgian is becoming a star under Diego Simeone in the Spanish capital. The winger has eight goals and four assists this season for Atletico.

 

An explosive winger who can play on both flanks, Carrasco causes nightmares for opposition full-backs who have a difficult time dealing with tricky wide man. Carrasco is still 23-years-old and can get better with the right nurturing.

 

Carrasco would bring with him the directness which Sanchez would leave behind. While the young Belgium international may cost a lot but the windfall Arsenal should receive for Sanchez, should he leave, would go a long way to bringing the Atletico Madrid winger to The Emirates. Having said that, with speculation over the future of Antoine Griezmann, Simeone will be more than reluctant to let two of his star men walk away in the same transfer window.

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3.

Mohamed Salah

Club: Roma

Cost: £30m – £40m

 

After failing to shine during his first brief stint in England with Chelsea Salah has gone on to light up Serie A with goals and assists galore. The Egyptian forward has 11 goals and eight assists this campaign and 27 Serie A goals in total since joining Roma in 2015.

 

Salah himself is still only 24-years-old, although in recent years he has felt like somewhat of a journeyman since his Chelsea move did not work out with stints at former club Basel and Fiorentina before finally settling in Rome.

 

The Egypt frontman has pace in abundance, can play with either foot and finish in a variety of ways. Arsenal are always looking for classy forwards and Salah has shown that he is certainly one of them. His eight assists and 60 chances created this term show he can pick a pick a pass also – perfect ammunition for Olivier Giroud, or maybe a new Arsenal forward.

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2.

Douglas Costa

Club: Bayern Munich

Cost: £22m – £30m

Douglas Costa is reportedly unhappy at Bayern Munich and is seeking a move away. Now at 26 the Brazilian is at a stage in his career where he needs regular games – which he is not getting behind Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery.

 

Costa tore Arsenal apart during their 5-1 hammering of the Gunners in the last-16 tie of the Champions League with trickery and pace that neither Hector Bellerin nor Nacho Monreal could handle.

 

Costa’s inconsistency is perhaps what drives Carlo Ancelotti to leave him out of the Bayern first XI but he certainly has the ability to get Arsenal fans out of their seats. Not as direct as an out and out winger, Costa is strong on both feet and can float inside to get involved through the middle as well as beating his full-back down the line.

 

With his unhappiness at Bayern and the German giants seemingly happy to offload the wide man Costa would probably be the cheapest option of the list – which would probably appeal most to Wenger as he is notoriously tight with the  purse strings.

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1.

James Rodriguez

Club: Real Madrid

Cost: £45m – £55m

 

James is maybe the most likely player to make his way to The Emirates on this list. Not so much because he is desperate to join Arsenal or Arsenal are desperate to take him, but because Real Madrid and the Colombian have made no secret about his desire to leave and Madrid’s keenness to offload him.

 

James is typically a number ten but can play out wide. His goal in the 2014 World Cup against Uruguay was the stand out moment that summer and announced James to the world stage – it is also a glimpse of what he can do in a split second.

 

If Arsenal part ways with the £50m sum the Spanish giants are asking for then they will be getting a player that will not hound and harass defenders like Sanchez will, but will give you quality in abundance when going forward. In order for the Colombian to succeed he may need, perhaps like Mesut Ozil, a world-class holding midfielder who will pick up his lack of work ethic.

 

The former Monaco man has the flair that Arsene Wenger loves in a player and the technical quality which the Arsenal boss also looks for in his attacking players. He can float between the lines exposing the gaps in midfield and defence which can carve teams apart.

 

 

James is a different type of player to Sanchez – perhaps more in line with Ozil’s style of play but his quality cannot be denied and if Sanchez leaves Arsenal must replace him with quality – and James is certainly that.

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Crystal Palace v Arsenal: match report

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Arsene Wenger endured another humiliating night as his side were soundly thumped 3-0 by Crystal Palace. Andros Townsend, Yohan Cabaye and a first Crystal Palace goal for Luka  Milivojević saw The Eagles add to Arsenal’s woes.

 

For Sam Allardyce he collects his second scalp in nine days as his Palace side started April by beating Chelsea 2-1.

 

Wenger will now face a fresh inquest surrounding his future. In contrast, the Allardyce-effect is in full flight and the future of Crystal Palace looks to be edging closer to playing in the Premier League next campaign.

 

On a night when Arsenal looked half-asleep throughout, Palace were the sharper side from the first whistle with Wilfried Zaha and Townsend tormenting the Gunners’ back four with their lightening pace down the flanks.

 

The game was only 17 minutes old when Zaha burst into the penalty area and, even though he slipped, his cross met Townsend sneaking in between an oblivious Hector Bellerin and Shkodran Mustafi to bundle the ball into the back of the net from close range.

 

Arsenal retainined much of the possession but made it count for little. Mohamed Elneny saw a long-range effort tipped wide by Wayne Hennessey in the Palace goal and Alexis Sanchez saw his effort trickle wide but Arsenal muster no clear-cut chances throughout the 90 minutes.

 

Granit Xhaka was perhaps the worst player in yellow on Monday night. The Swiss international was sluggish across the ground allowing Cabaye and company to exploit the spaces in midfield and his usually sound passing range was well out of sync.

 

In a bid to claw his side back into the contest Wenger sent on Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud in place of Elneny and an isolated Danny Welbeck. Yet, three minutes later, Arsenal found their deficit doubled thanks to a superb finish from Cabaye. The Frenchman collected a pass from Zaha before unleashing a delicious curling shot into the far side of Emiliano Martinez’s goal to send the home support into ecstasy.

 

Zaha continued his rich vein of form, ending the night with two assists and a standing ovation as he was withdrawn from proceedings on 88 minutes. The Ivory Coast winger is now beginning to fulfil the potential Sir Alex Ferguson saw in him when he paid £15m to bring him to Manchester United.

 

The Gunners had no plan B. Persisting to dominate possession of the ball and hit hopeful crosses into the box. The dismal performance continued, Martinez committed himself to a 50-50 ball with Townsend and sent the England winger tumbling – while little contact was made it was enough to convince referee Michael Oliver to point to the spot. Milivojević did the rest to put the home side three to the good.

 

Palace hounded the visitors into mistakes and the bouncing Selhurst Park played its part, too, creating a hostile atmosphere which saw players in yellow wilt.

 

Palace and their supporters enjoyed the game thereon in. ‘Ole’ chants greeted every completed Palace pass while Arsenal fans commenced their ongoing witch hunt for Arsene Wenger’s head, chanting “Arsene Wenger, we want you to go.” Perhaps this may be the straw which finally breaks the camel’s back, only time will tell.

 

Down the years, Wenger has often been the architect of the tactical masterclass. On this night, he found himself on the receiving end of one from long-time nemesis Big Sam.

 

Palace could have extended their advantage further with Christian Benteke having half chances to add a fourth goal, and, but from a credible performance from Martinez between the sticks for Arsenal, they may well have got it.

 

The autopsy of Arsenal has now reached new heights. The futures of key members of the squad still way up in the air, their once masterful manager, increasingly looking a caricature of his former self, yet to decide his fate and now Arsenal’s Champions League hopes hang by a thread. Currently seven points off the pace for fourth spot perhaps their lacklustre season looks ever more like marking the end of two decades of Champions League football, and perhaps Arsene Wenger.

Ravens have a safety duo that can be one of the best in 2017

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When the Baltimore Ravens signed Eric Weddle in 2016 it was a shrew acquisition. Weddle, a ball-hawking free safety who had become disillusioned with life in San Diego and was set to become a free-agent and the Ravens had a need at safety after being gashed in the deep middle of the field during the 2015 season.

 

Now, General Manager Ozzie Newsome has got his hands on another solid safety selection from free agency, this time in the shape for hard hitting former Arizona Cardinal, Tony Jefferson.

 

Jefferson signed a four-year $34 million deal with Baltimore and will pair with Weddle to form a dynamic duo at the safety position.

 

Jefferson is a tough strong safety who diagnoses plays well and wraps up well in the tackle. Team his run stopping insticts with Weddle’s knack for finding the football in the air and the Ravens have one of the better safety combinations in the league.

 

The ultimate safety paring in recent years has been Earl Thomas and Cam Chancellor. Thomas’ quick hips and nose for the football teamed with Chancellor’s bludgeoning hard hits in the run and pass game have made teams fear going at the middle of the field against Seattle – Baltimore now has the same kind of set up, even if is it a slight downgrade when looking at each player’s tale of the tape.

 

Weddle had a promising debut season in Baltimore with 89 tackles, one sack and four picks, which was his highest since 2011. Jefferson by comparison had 98 tackles with a pair of sacks but did not register a takeaway for his team. However the former Oklahoma Sooner started his season strong with a career high ten tackles against the New England Patriots before bettering that tally a week later in an all-action performance against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

 

The Ravens were fifth against the run last season and Jefferson is a player who instantly makes them better in that aspect of the game, although there may be a slight drop off after allowing an average of 89.4 yards per game Dean Pees’ unit is still a strong contender to end the 2017 term a top ten defense in that aspect.

 at MetLife Stadium on October 23, 2016 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

Weddle is entering his second year of his own four-year-deal, worth $26 million and with Jefferson and cornerback Brandon Carr joining the secondary major reinforcements will be helping the Pro Bowl safety be even more effective in 2017.

 

What the former San Diego Charger now lacks in speed he more than makes up for in football IQ having been in the league for 11 seasons. Perhaps the move also offers an opportunity for the Ravens to have Weddle impart some wisdom to Jefferson about the safety position and help the former Cardinal with his ball skills. While Jefferson is primarily there to snuff out the run and rough up tight ends – and generally set the tone for a typically aggressive defense, takeaways from all over the defense are vital in today’s pass-heavy NFL.

 

Acquiring Jefferson also allows for the Ravens to address other needs in the draft and get younger at certain positions but for the next three years at least they are set at safety. With Weddle being the model professional and maintaining a high level year on year and Jefferson’s upward trajectory Baltimore’s dynamic duo in the back end could but putting Joe Flacco in good field position many times during 2017.

Reborn van Barneveld’s big game mentality could carry him to the Premier League crown

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Coming into night nine of the Premier League Darts campaign Raymond van Barneveld is looking to add to his two-match win streak and get a firm grip on his semi-final hopes come May.

 

The Dutchman has produced back-to-back stunning performances to thrash Gary Anderson and put a stop to Michael van Gerwen’s record-breaking winning streak.

 

Van Barneveld is possibly the most frustrating figure in darts. His throwing action is as smooth as a Rolls-Royce and, when he is in the mood, his heavy scoring and combination finishing is enough to leave the very best reeling – as it did with Anderson in Rotterdam.

 

However, ‘Barney’ has often been accused of lacking in focus at times leading to uninspiring performances. This tournament he looks different.

 

The World Championship defeat to compatriot van Gerwen hurt the legendary darting Dutchman. Mulling retirement after averaging 109 against ‘Mighty Mike’ and still being on the end of a 6-2 hammering van Barneveld looked like he would follow his old rival Phil Taylor into a farewell tour and gracefully bow out.

 

Now, the old van Barneveld looks to be back. After collecting a huge four points in the last fortnight Barney sits third, just two points off top spot. Van Barneveld kicks off Judgement Day’s slate of games in Cardiff against a poorly performing James Wade.

 

The five-time world champion can put himself in a commanding position heading into the home straight of the competition. Having shown that he can beat the two best players on the planet the rest of the league will be put on red alert that the Netherlands native can still threaten for the major titles.

 

The big game mentality of Barney looks to have returned. He fed off the rocking Rotterdam throng to leave Anderson bemused in a score line that was in no way reflective of the match. Van Barneveld simply hit the big checkouts and punished the slips from the Flying Scotsman.

 

Seven days later the momentum carried over to Manchester as Barney produced arguably the performance of the tournament as he raced into an early lead against current World Champion van Gerwen, only to see Mighty Mike reel off four consecutive legs to lead 4-3. In recent times that sudden surge from a player would have seen van Barneveld’s head drop and his focus shift from hitting the big shots to pulling disgusted faces at the board.

 

However, the big Dutchman held off the world number one. Van Barneveld has often had big games and knocked off a rival in a match. However, for him to do it in back-to-back weeks against the world number two and world number one respectively is a sign that the marauding darting icon is as big a threat to the Premier League crown as any player remaining in the tournament.

Bolivia v Argentina: Match report

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Argentina’s World Cup hopes were left hanging by a thread as they slumped to a 2-0 defeat against Bolivia in La Paz. Juan Carlos Arce and Martins Moreno grabbing the goals to sink the 2014 World Cup finalists.

 

The visitors were without Lionel Messi after the Argentina hero found out he was to be suspended for the next four games for using foul and abusive language towards an official during Argentina’s 1-0 victory over Chile. This just five hours before kick-off in the Estadio Hernando Siles, meaning the Barcelona forward will be available for just the final qualifier which, by the time it comes around, may be all but irrelevant should La Albiceleste fall further behind the pack.

 

Still it was the home side that started the brighter pressing the inexperienced Argentina side, that manager Edgardo Bauza had made eight changes to, and using the high altitude to their advantage with the ball gliding unusually through the pitch.

 

Winger Pablo Escobar gave Argentina cause for concern early one with two dazzling runs and crosses picking out his Bolivian teammates. Frantic Argentina defending stopped Moreno from giving his side an early lead.

 

Argentina tried valiantly to get to grips with the conditions as quickly as possible yet painted a picture of frustration as passes often went astray, and when they did get them right the first touch let them down.

 

It took the Messi-less visitors until the 28th minute to render their first clear opportunity, Angel Di Maria who was slipped through by Angel Correa only for the ball to escape the Paris Saint-Germain forward after his first touch, allowing Carlos Lampe to obstruct the ball’s path goalward.

 

If Argentina did not feel sick from the altitude of playing nearly 12,000 feet above sea level they soon would be feeling sick from Di Maria’s missed chance. Just three minutes later Bolivia took the lead through Arce. A hopeful Escobar cross was met by the diminutive midfielder and his clever flicked header alluded goalkeeper Serigo Romero on its way into the Argentina goal.

 

The goal did not seem to wake the Argentines up as the hosts carved their opponents, their swashbuckling attacking energy too much for Marcus Rojo and company to cope with.

 

Guido Pizarro made his debut in the engine room of the Argentina midfield but failed to stamp his authority on the game. Forward Lucas Pratto was preferred to Man City marksman Serigo Aguero up front. However, the Sao Paulo forward could do little to convince spectators that he deserved to add to his five international caps.

 

Bolivia went into half-time with their opponents on the ropes, yet with such attacking verve at Bauza’s disposal many would have been forgiven for thinking the solitary goal advantage would quickly evaporate after the interval. It did not happen.

 

Instead Bolivia picked up from where they left off in the first half. The second half was just six minutes old when Moreno doubled his sides advantage. With Matias Caruzzo ball watching, Martins Moreno took no chances once collecting Jorge Flores’ cross, after the left back had beaten Mateo Musacchio for pace, belting the ball past Romero.

 

Soon after seeing the deficit doubled, manager Edgardo Bauza called for Aguero to fish his team out of a sizeable hole. Aguero one of the high-profile names to be left out of the starting line-up along with City team-mate Nicolas Otamendi, Juventus hitman Pablo Dybala and former Napoli favourite, Ezequiel Lavezzi.

 

Aguero was unable to rescue his side from what would be a fourth defeat in seven visits to the Bolivian capital. Instead it was Aguero’s strike partner, Pratto, that spurned the best chance to get the World Cup finalists back into the game. Pratto managed to get himself free at the far post before heading his effort comfortably wide. Di Maria could only look on in exacerbation, perhaps knowing what was on the horizon should his side fail to find a way back into the contest.

 

Bolivia could have added to their lead with Moreno unable to wriggle free from two markers to put away another inviting ball from Flores.

 

In the end the victory was not enough to save Bolivia, but it certainly deepened Argentina’s crisis. After losing their captain and star man hours before kick-off the inquest from the scathing Argentina media will begin about where Argentina go from here.

 

A colossal encounter with Uruguay in Montevideo in September now awaits Bauza’s squad, the Uruguayans one point ahead of Argentina in the qualification table, with Colombia, Ecuador and Chile breathing heavily down their necks.

 

Messi will be eligible to return to the starting line-up for what could be a crunch encounter against Ecuador. But while Argentina fans circle October 10th on their calendars for his return they face a must win, or rather a must not lose, clash against Luis Suarez and company before awkward visits from Venezuela and Peru, Peru still not mathematically eliminated from qualification either.

 

Argentina’s World Cup hopes hang perilously in the balance. One more defeat in a tight qualification group could see them all but eliminated. A performance as flat as week old Coca-Cola in La Paz. Bauza may use the Messi suspension as a smokescreen to shield his side, and indeed himself, from further criticism but Argentina’s problem run much deeper than that.

 

How sport helped guide me through the darkest period of my life

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It has been little over six months since I lost my mother. During which time, I have had to confront grief, stress and deep depression. All of this on top of having to tackle the everyday issues that we all face.

 

Many have helped me get through this period. Family and trained professionals have tried to guide me through the abyss to see me come out the other side Andy Dufresne, Shawshank Redemption style. Yet the place where I often found the most solace was when glued to my screen watching sporting drama unfold.

 

When my mother passed in early September me and my father made the journey from Lincoln to Oldham four days later to grieve as a family. Yet on that day the first Manchester Derby of the 2016-17 Premier League season was also taking place. For an hour and a half, I sat with my family utterly absorbed by the occasion. My uncle Fernando screaming at the television desperate for his beloved Manchester City to be victorious.

 

I myself had no stake in the game, but for 90 minutes all my sadness evaporated as I watched Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola duel on the touchline while superstars draped in sky blue and red played out a pulsating encounter. It made me forget. For however brief the amnesia the game eased the heartbreak and transported me to a world where I did not matter. All that mattered were the 22 men on the field and the thousands in the stands willing them on.

 

Mum’s funeral was some three weeks later. An occasion that provoked reflection amongst other things. Yet even in the early hours of the morning of that exhausting day I found myself sat with my cousin Chris and two friends debating the right back position. A chance to debate and think in depth and compare player X against player Y provided escapism for my brain leaving behind reality.

 

Escapism has been key. Being alone with your thoughts and all the time in the world is enough to drive any person insane. Yet amid a deep depression those thoughts turn dark. They turn to thoughts of suicide, regret and self-loathing. Nothing is more depressing than questioning with your own mortality and if life is worth it when such pain exists. You can often make a compelling case that it is easier and worth it to end it all. To not have to face the trials and tribulations of life and be reunited with loved ones.

 

The day after I watched Manchester United destroy champions Leicester 4-1 before listening to Arsenal produce a scintillating half of football to gun down Chelsea 3-0. A three-hour period that brought a much-needed catharsis. It was an opportunity to become absorbed in something other than reality.

 

While sport shares many traits with the normalcies of commonplace life it was one of these similarities that I relished most: unpredictability. Mum’s death hit home, harder than ever, that life was unpredictable and sometimes cruel. Yet it was this characteristic that I loved dearly about sport. I appreciated that I knew nothing about the outcome of whatever sport I sat down to watch – and that gave me comfort.

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The day after that I sat in a friend’s kitchen watching the Green Bay Packers open up their 2016 season against the Jacksonville Jaguars. We had to leave at the end of the third quarter. We got back just in time for the final drive of the game where I was less composed journalist and more fanboy watching his team try and hold on for an opening day victory. I was so close to the television that nobody behind me could see a thing. I remember I was sent home from work that day after it all got too much. I broke down in the kitchen, then, emotionally spent, I fell asleep once my step-mum collected me from work. When the first ball was kicked in Jacksonville I was as awake as ever. All my difficulties fell away. The only thing that mattered was Aaron Rodgers and company marching Green Bay up and down the field. While they sweated in 30 degree heat they unknowingly provided a strange therapy for a man, whom felt more like a small boy, who had lost his direction in life.

 

In the immediate aftermath of my mother’s passing I fell into a deep depression. Forcing every emotion that was not a frown. Smiles were forced rather than naturally occurring, even when I had reason to smile I could not find it within myself to raise one. But when football, NFL or darts was on the emotions flooded back and the drama unfolding in front of me made for a sturdy dam keeping negative emotions at bay. All screams, smiles and large exhales were spontaneous. Each televised sporting occasion became my own outer body experience as I rose from the cocoon of despair and grief to be reunited with emotions of joy and exhilaration.

 

In mid-November I was sat watching the Dallas Cowboys defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers in a gripping encounter. Dallas wide receiver Dez Bryant ended the game with six catches for 116 yards and a touchdown. Without context, his stat line means little. But less than 24-hours earlier Bryant had lost his father. His Head Coach and teammates paid homage to his toughness in the locker room after the game.

 

Watching an emotional locker room rally around Bryant slapped me back into reality. Bryant could perform due to his dedicated support group. Much like what I had around me. It also reminded me that, as much as we may not want to, life must go on. We must perform our duties in work and home life. He played his position at the highest level less than a day after his devastating loss (fast forward to 1:10 on the video). Bryant used playing sport the same way I used watching and analysing it. An escape from reality, a form of therapy, even if only for a fleeting period.

Not long after I sat in work watching a story on Philadelphia Eagles’ long snapper Jon Dorenbos, whose father murdered his mother when he was just 12-years-old. I shed tears. Not only because the story was touching in its own right but because suddenly I could relate. After experiencing such a devastating loss of my own I could offer sympathy on a personal level. Even if that person had no idea who I was.

 

Sport illustrated better than anything that in a split-second anything can happen and with that lives are changed forever. For better or worse sport painted the picture that in the moment anything is possible. It taught me not to assume anything no matter how stacked the odds are in your favour, or against it.

 

For me, my mum was superhuman. She was going to be around even after rapture. But trying to make sense of a passing of that magnitude is hard to convey in the spoken or written word. Yet unknowingly sport demonstrated it perfectly. Sport is a collage of hundreds and thousands of moments, strung together along an undetermined timeline until a certain outcome is reached. It is only after the final moment can a post mortem be carried out to examine what moments mattered most.

 

My own reflective stage taught me to string together the moments that mattered most when remembering my mother: the trip to Barbados, being with her on my graduation, watching the 2004 F.A. Cup final together and seeing a young Cristiano Ronaldo blossom in Manchester. These moments, in hindsight, mattered more significantly than I could have ever imagined at the time. Just like all the moments in sport matter.

 

For the last six months’ sport has provided a wonderful, yet surreal, haven for myself. A bridge between fantasy and reality allowing for brief moments of distraction while being present in the moment. Everything about sport as an industry made it feel surreal. The level of skill on show, the very nature of it being on television and the vast amounts of money on display allowed for an experience unable to be pinned down in reality.

 

After turning to alcohol, work, family and many other outlets for, not help, but a way out it was in sport that I found the most comfort. After all, all I am after, is an escape.

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England vs Lithuania: Match report

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Jermain Defoe scored his first England goal since 2013 and Jamie Vardy fired home also as England maintained their lead at the top of Group F, and remain on course for Russia in 15 months’ time, after a 2-0 win over Lithuania at Wembley.

 

the last time Defoe was on the score sheet for the Three Lions, against San Marino, his club career at Tottenham was eroding away with the instinctive finisher making the long trip to the Great White North, Canada, and his international career looked to be on ice too with Wayne Rooney, Daniel Sturridge, Danny Welbeck and Harry Kane, to name a few, all preferred in the Roy Hodgson pecking order.

 

Defoe led out England mascot, admire and friend Bradley Lowery before leading the England line. The latter proved to be of much frustration as the Lithuania defence sat as deep as the could.

 

The visitors frustrated the hosts with banks of four and five often deployed to stifle Gareth Southgate’s attacking line-up. And while England were dominant they almost came undone just before the half time interval when Vykintas Silvka looped an innocent enough looking header over Joe Hart, a goalkeeper desperate to avoid anymore headlines questioning his decision making, and required the help of John Stones to save his blushes.

 

England were rarely threatened, more gently reminded, by their Eastern European opposition when they dared to venture out of their own half.

 

England probed for the first whistle with accurate passes looking to find any cracks in the opposition back line and it took until the 21st minute for them to finally break the deadlock. Raheem Sterling’s lightning quick dip of the shoulder and charge into the penalty area gave the Manchester City winger plenty of time to side-foot a cross just in front on the penalty spot where Defoe was waiting to ponce. The Sunderland striker cooly slotted past Ernestas Setkus in the Lithuania goal. A trademark finish that has seen him register 14 goals at club level this season, and over 150 Premier League goals.

 

The man of the hour was replaced on the hour, by Vardy, having completed his work in giving Southgate’s side the advantage. His biggest fan Bradley offering up the biggest applause from the stands.

 

Marcus Rashford was also introduced to proceedings and ran at the robust visitors with great power while Kyle Walker raided up and down the right side providing width at will as England continued to pepper the Lithuania box with Vardy, Dele Alli and Eric Dier spurning chances to extend the already convincing lead.

 

England continued to boss possession with Sterling having a glorious chance to double the lead just after half time but were reduced to rather speculative efforts from there on with the yellow Lithuanian wall bending but never breaking.

 

Their patience was rewarded as Vardy calmed tucked away the ball after a delicious touch from Adam Lallana. The duo almost linked up again with Lallana’s cross finding the Leicester forward who this time found his effort smothered by scrambling visiting defenders.

 

England got the result that they desired but have often travelled this road before in qualification, looking slick and sharp against far superior opposition – Iceland aside – before stagnating against much more complete opposition. However, Southgate’s tactical switch against Germany, followed up by an optimistic outing against the World Cup holders, before reverting to a 4-5-1 approach at Wembley.

 

Whether this England will be any different to the squads that have gone by and faded away remain to be seen but we were offered yet another glimpse of optimism England fans have become so accustomed to seeing down the years.