EPL

Arteta praises 'unique' Saka after Gunners finally fire to relegate West Brom

By Sports Desk May 09, 2021

Mikel Arteta praised "unique" teenager Bukayo Saka after Arsenal ended a miserable week by relegating West Brom with a 3-1 Premier League victory on Sunday.

The Gunners are facing the prospect of missing out on European football for the first time in 25 years next season after they were knocked out of the Europa League at the semi-final stage by Villarreal on Thursday.

A drab goalless draw against the Spanish side – coached by former Gunners boss Unai Emery – was a new low for Arsenal and piled more pressure on Arteta, but they responded with a first home win in seven games.

Emile Smith Rowe scored his maiden Premier League goal before Nicolas Pepe added a second with a sublime finish to put Arsenal in command.

Matheus Pereira pulled a goal back midway through the second half, but Willian finally opened his Arsenal account with a brilliant late free-kick as Baggies boss Sam Allardyce suffered the agony of relegation from the top tier for the first time.

Saka laid on the opening goal for Smith Rowe and has provided 19 assists in all competitions, the most of any player for the club since making his debut in November 2018.

The 19-year-old was a constant threat, delivering five crosses and producing two key passes in a performance that Arteta was more than happy with.

He told BT Sport: "Going forward we know Saka is a threat, he gives you something unique. He adapted. We believed we were going to attack against them and he gave us a lot of joy."

Arsenal are ninth in the table with surely only pride to play for and Arteta is determined to avoid finishing such a disappointing season with a whimper.

He said: "We will try to win every match and see where we finish. The only thing we can do is win our games." 

The Spaniard added: "We needed that win. It has been a while since we won at home. We scored three fantastic goals and we had some great spells in the game. When we conceded the goal we did look nervy.

"We knew the necessity to win the game. They scored out of nothing and then throw everything at you, they know the situation they are in and we struggled to play that kind of game.

"We scored three fantastic goals but we missed some big chances too."

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  • Justify his place in the team? England would be down and out without Raheem Sterling Justify his place in the team? England would be down and out without Raheem Sterling

    When Luke Shaw lifted a delightful ball over the top of the Czech Republic defence during the early stages of England's 1-0 Euro 2020 win on Friday, Raheem Sterling was away.

    Of course he was. The Manchester City's forwards intelligent, incisive movement has been a vital asset for club and country over the past five years – a period in which he has become one of his country's most decorated footballers in terms of major honours.

    But what would happen next?

    Could it be as bad as that time he blazed over two clear chances in the Manchester derby on a day City were 2-0 up and set to win the league against their bitter rivals and lost 3-2?

    Maybe it would end up as wince-inducing as the open goal he missed when his club crashed out of the Champions League against Lyon in 2020 at the quarter-final stage, or the two-yard miss that persuaded Pep Guardiola to immediately substitute him at Burnley two years earlier?

    Or the full campaign at Russia 2018 when he did not find the net during England's run to the semi-finals?

    Yes, Sterling misses chances. Quite a lot of quite good ones.

    According to Opta, he scored 11 but missed 19 of the 'big chances' that fell his way for the Premier League champions in all competitions last season. It was part of the reason Guardiola increasingly left him on the bench.

    But Sterling is the sort of player who always comes back for more. The sort who never hides – a quality that starts to look increasingly valuable amid the vicious maelstrom that is England at a major tournament.

    Joy delayed but not denied

    As it happened, the shot was not one to fit in with that catalogue of misses. Sterling dispatched a deft lob over Tomas Vaclik and was unfortunate to see the effort ricochet clear off the post, continuing a strange quirk for England games in this tournament. In the early knockings versus Croatia and Scotland, Phil Foden and John Stones each rattled uprights.

    As was the case in both of those games, even the dour draw with Scotland – where Sterling created the best chance of the night for Mason Mount and had a reasonable late penalty claim rejected – the forward was a nuisance.

    Gareth Southgate's decision to bow to the Jack Grealish clamour and give Bukayo Saka a surprise start gave England a little more vibrancy, also allowing Sterling to pester the opposition defence more centrally and ensure Harry Kane was a less isolated figure. The England captain went close but remains without a goal in this tournament. Only one player has manged to score for the Three Lions.

    You might struggle to remember Sterling was the matchwinner on the opening weekend against Croatia. Calls for Grealish and the perplexingly sidelined Jadon Sancho have left Sterling as a casualty in the XIs of many a pundit and fan.

    The 26-year-old's vile treatment by a section of the tabloid press has been well documented. But Sterling scepticism goes far beyond such reactionary outposts.

    After his second-half strike sunk Croatia and sent England on their way to top spot in the group, the BBC television interviewer asked whether Sterling had justified his place in the team, despite being the Three Lions' top scorer from open play since Russia 2018.

    The Athletic, very much the antithesis of the UK red tops, ran an article in the build-up to the Czech Republic game where eight of its writers picked their England XI. Two featured Sterling.

    The annoying one

    He is, at times, an annoying footballer. That is not just down to the catalogue of horror misses outlined above.

    A source told Stats Perform last year that an aspect of improvement identified for Sterling by Guardiola's coaching staff was his control of the ball, which seems a staggeringly basic thing for a star forward in a high-end football team. There was an example of this when he sold Kalvin Phillips short with a very routine pass after half-time, forcing the Leeds United midfielder into a foul for which he was fortunate not to be booked.

    But again, we return to that capacity to make things happen, which feels vital for an England team constructing 90-minute portions where not much happens.

    When things do happen, it is thrilling and you wish they happened more often.

    Saka tore at the Czech Republic in the 12th minute – left-back Jan Boril will not reflect too fondly upon having shared a pitch with the livewire Arsenal youngster.

    His eventual delivery found its way to Grealish, who clipped a delightful left-footed cross to the back post. Sterling couldn't miss. Well, as discussed above, he could. But he didn't, nodding home to stand tall in a time of need for Southgate once more.

    Saka and Grealish hogged the initial post-match conversation, not undeservedly. Stones and the returning Harry Maguire marshalled the backline superbly and Luke Shaw impressed going backwards and forwards.

    Three clean sheets out of three are not to be sniffed at. But England's tendency for lulls in-game and to trudge through some stodgy moments still feels regrettable given the attacking talent at Southgate's disposal.

    The Czech Republic were beaten 5-0 in the opening qualifier for Euro 2020 and England looked a team to be feared in a way they don't right now. Sterling, in red-hot form, scored a hat-trick.

    Whether his national team are soaring high or quietly plugging, time and again he has shown his worth.

    There are plenty of causes for concern around this England team. The man who has scored the winning goal in each of their victories and always makes life miserable for opposition defenders is absolutely not one of them.

    Stop dropping Sterling from the XIs you put on Twitter. It makes you look silly.

  • Sweden v Poland: Losing run against 'perfect' opponents of no concern to Sousa Sweden v Poland: Losing run against 'perfect' opponents of no concern to Sousa

    Sweden can win Group E by recording a sixth consecutive victory against Poland, but their opponents are focused heading into a matchday three "final".

    The pool leaders have a dominant recent record in meetings with Poland, winning nine of their past 11 games and each of the previous five.

    Poland have not beaten Sweden since 1991, although they were victors in the only previous major tournament clash at the 1974 World Cup.

    Either way, Poland coach Paulo Sousa insists he is not concerned by past results ahead of Wednesday's game in St Petersburg.

    "It is true that, from a statistical point of view, Sweden have a better record against Poland," Sousa said. "But if we look at the past, we won't move forward. We are only focused on what is now.

    "Sweden are a perfect team. They press very well, they are good in set-pieces. There is huge diversity in their play."

    Sousa added: "For us, it is like a final. We have been working hard since the first day of our training camp to be prepared."

    Following a draw with Spain and narrow victory over Slovakia, Sweden are aiming to go an entire group stage without conceding for the first time since 1974.

    And they do not intend to take their foot off the gas now.

    Captain Sebastian Larsson said: "It's nice to be through to the round of 16 already after just two games, but we want more. Of course we'll go for the group win."

    Despite Sweden's strong defensive record, this game should at least deliver goals. The sides' previous 26 meetings have not yielded a single 0-0 draw.
     

    PLAYERS TO WATCH

    Sweden – Alexander Isak

    Sousa described Sweden forward Isak as "one of the best players in Europe when it comes to counter-attacks". The striker completed six dribbles against Slovakia, although Sweden have not had a single fast break yet at the tournament. That may change against Poland, who will have to push forward in pursuit of all three points.

    Poland – Robert Lewandowski

    Having so often failed to make an impact on the international stage, dominant Bayern Munich goalscorer Lewandowski turned up against Spain. A stunning header meant he has been involved in 14 goals in his past 12 starts for his country. Another Lewandowski goal would make him Poland's outright leading Euros scorer on four.
     

    KEY OPTA FACTS

    – Sweden and Poland's only previous encounter at a major tournament came in the second round of the 1974 World Cup; Poland won 1-0, courtesy of Grzegorz Lato's solitary goal. The victors finished third – their joint-best performance at a major tournament – and Lato won the Golden Boot (seven goals).
    – Poland have won just one of their past nine matches across all competitions (D4 L4), beating Andorra 3-0 in March. Indeed, Poland's ongoing five-match winless streak (D3 L2) is their longest since September to November 2018 (six games).
    – Of Sweden's goals at the Euros, 88 per cent have been scored in the second half of games (23 of 26), the highest percentage of any side with at least three goals at the tournament.
    – Poland have won their final group game in both of their last two major international tournaments (World Cup and Euros), beating Ukraine at Euro 2016 and Japan at the 2018 World Cup. Failing to win this match would be the first time Poland have not won any of their three group games at such a competition since Euro 2012.
    – Sweden's Emil Forsberg has scored each of his nation's past two goals at major tournaments, netting winners in 1-0 victories over Switzerland at the 2018 World Cup and against Slovakia at Euro 2020. Forsberg has only scored in consecutive international appearances once previously, netting against France in November 2016 and Belarus in March 2017.

  • Croatia 3-1 Scotland: Scots dumped out of Euro 2020 at group stages Croatia 3-1 Scotland: Scots dumped out of Euro 2020 at group stages

    Croatia secured their place in the knockout stages of Euro 2020 and dumped Scotland out as they claimed a 3-1 win in Glasgow.

    Having led through Nikola Vlasic's early strike, Zlatko Dalic's men were pegged back before half-time as Callum McGregor notched his country's first Euros goal since 1996.

    However, the Croatians' class eventually told, the evergreen Luka Modric netting a stunner before the influential Ivan Perisic headed home from a corner late on, equalling his country's record for the most goals at major tournaments (nine).

    And that ensured the visitors clinched second place in Group D while bringing an early end to the Scots' first major tournament appearance since 1998. 

    Encouraged by an electric atmosphere at Hampden Park, Scotland made the better start.

    But they failed to make the most of their best chance of a frenetic opening period, with Che Adams unable to get a touch on a John McGinn inswinger, allowing Dominik Livakovic to make the save.

    And Croatia were not as generous when their first major opportunity came, with Vlasic making the most of space in the box to finish ruthlessly from a Perisic knockdown.

    Scotland's chances were dealt a further blow just past the half-hour mark when Grant Hanley limped off, and his replacement Scott McKenna made an inauspicious start that saw a yellow card before a touch of the ball.

    However, the Scots levelled things up just before the break when McGregor deftly controlled a panicked clearance before thrashing a low shot into the corner.

    With a draw guaranteed to send both sides crashing out, it was no surprise to see them take more chances in looking to carve out attacks in the second period.

    Croatia almost made it count when only brave goalkeeping from David Marshall prevented Josko Gvardiol poking home, though the same man was fortunate McGinn could only fire wide after getting on his wrong side moments later.

    But it was a moment of sheer quality that eventually broke the deadlock, Modric curling home a beauty with the outside of his boot after slick play around the Scotland box.

    The hosts huffed and puffed in the aftermath of that strike but did not really look like scoring before Perisic wrapped things up, flicking a front-post header into the far corner to send his side through.

    What does it mean? More to come from Scotland

    Although Steve Clarke will have hoped for more, Scotland cannot be too disappointed with their efforts throughout Euro 2020.

    Qualifying represented a major achievement in itself, and this young squad will have plenty of opportunities to go one better at major tournaments in the future.

    What's next?

    England's win over the Czech Republic means Croatia progress as runners-up and will face the team that finishes in the same position in Group E in the last 16, either Sweden, Slovakia, Spain or Poland.

    As for Scotland, a first tournament outing in 23 years comes to an end at the group stages.

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