Man City can build on Spurs draw, Real lose margin for error, Rooney’s record

Pep Guardiola says that he draws more satisfaction from performance than results. That being the case, there was a lot to cheer against Tottenham on Saturday.

Their previous three Premier League outings had seen Manchester City defeated by Liverpool and Everton, with a victory over Burnley (albeit after a disastrous first half) sandwiched in between. The risk that Spurs, who had comprehensively defeated them (in terms of results and performance) when they played back in October, could upend them again was very real.

Instead, Guardiola went for the jugular by putting Yaya Toure on his own in front of the back four, dropping John Stones, and putting Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling wide, thereby neutralising Mauricio Pochettino’s game plan. It’s not that Spurs were poor necessarily, though Harry Kane did call it their “worst performance of the season” — it was just that they struggled to keep up with City as Mauricio Pochettino’s plan backfired badly.

City’s two goals may have come as a result of uncharacteristic blunders from the usually uber-reliable Hugo Lloris, but don’t let that fool you: They were fully deserving. Contrast this with Tottenham, whose two goals came off their only two shots on target. This was in keeping with a theme from City’s match the week before, when Everton also hit the target four times and came away with maximum results.

Still, while chance and probability weren’t going Guardiola’s way, what really infuriated him was the officiating. When Sterling was through on goal, he was clearly pushed by Kyle Walker. He stumbled but stayed on his feet, though his tame finish was obviously affected. Referee Andre Marriner did nothing.

“Raheem is too honest,” said Toure afterwards, implying that the penalty would have been given had he gone to ground. This, of course, opens up a whole other can of worms. Years ago, Jose Mourinho told me he called it “helping the referee to make a decision.”

Players should not have to go down to get calls; it’s as simple as that. Nor should they be encouraged to do so. Simply put, referees ought to do a better job. Even if you weren’t sure about the force of Walker’s push, if you saw it and you saw Sterling stumble, that’s it: You give the penalty. There is no provision in the laws of the game for a defender to extend his arm out and push an opponent.

Yes, City deserved more and paid the price for a bad decision, but the risk for Guardiola now is to move into another simplistic narrative like we had before. First, it was “what is tackling?” Now, it’s “what are the rules?”

Guardiola met with Mike Riley, the head of the PGMOL (the body that supplies Premier League match officials) less than two weeks ago. And now, according to The Times, he’s seeking another meeting. I don’t think it’s good practice to allow private meetings between referees (or their bosses) and managers. Indeed, in many countries it’s forbidden. If you need clarification, you do it via public channels, or via meetings with referees where representatives from each club are in attendance.

All this does is sow suspicion and paranoia. If Pep gets more bad calls, he’ll grow even angrier and maybe request more meetings. If the officiating improves (from City’s perspective), then others will credit the meeting with Riley.

Still, there are many more positives to take away here, including the debut of Gabriel Jesus. Fourth place is two points away; they’re also just four points from second place. There is plenty to play for, and Saturday ought to offer plenty of encouragement.

There were boos again at the Bernabeu on Saturday, where Real Madrid overcame Malaga 2-1. It wasn’t a sparkling performance against a mediocre opponent who sent out an injury-riddled lineup, though Zinedine Zidane’s crew did hit the woodwork twice. More importantly, it was their first victory in four games. And it came without Dani Carvajal, Pepe and Gareth Bale in a match which saw them also lose Marcelo and Luka Modric through injury.

You’d imagine most home crowds would chalk up the performance to the moment and at least applaud the resilience of their players. Not the Bernabeu, a stadium unlike any other and (probably) not reflective of Madridismo as a whole.

So Madrid hang on to top spot, but the squad is now definitely stretched even further. Marcelo will be out for a month, which means Zidane has both starting full-backs missing. Their theoretical backups, Fabio Coentrao and Danilo, are about as popular as ringworm around these parts — so much so that rather than playing them, Zidane finished the match with Nacho (a center-back) and Lucas Vazquez (a winger) in those positions.

The schedule is relatively soft between now and the Champions League clash with Napoli in mid-February. But in terms of personnel, the margin for error has all but vanished.

Manchester United shared the spoils at Stoke on Saturday, 1-1, and we’d probably be talking more about how they were actually rather unlucky and how this result affects their hopes of a top-four finish (they’re four points out, but crucially, they’ll need to leapfrog two teams to do it) if not for the fact that Wayne Rooney stole the show. His late free kick didn’t just level the score, it was the 250th goal of his United career, eclipsing Bobby Charlton’s mark of 249.

It’s odd, because most of us don’t think of Rooney as a traditional goal scorer, yet at 31, he’s now the leading scorer for both the England national team and England’s best-supported club. If 20 goals in a season across all competitions is some kind of minimum for a “recognized striker,” it’s worth noting he reached that mark only four times in 14 professional seasons.

Then again, Charlton also only achieved that mark on four occasions. Like Charlton, he operated in various roles throughout his career, and like Charlton, he owes his mark to longevity rather than being a goal-a-game type.

As uncertainty surrounds his future — Jose Mourinho said he wouldn’t stand in his way if Rooney opted to move to China, and his playing time has definitely diminished this year — it’s worth remembering that Rooney’s primary contribution was never that of a goal scorer. Goals didn’t define him, even though he scored many — and some really good ones. At his peak, he was a rare combination of energy, work rate and technique.

Rooney ranks 32nd on the list of English football’s all-time goal scorers. Take out the guys whose career began before World War II, when it really was a different game, and he’s still only 13th.

This isn’t to diminish his achievements. Rather, it’s to serve as a reminder that unlike some of the guys above him on the list, his contribution went way beyond goals.


Philippe Coutinho signs new long-term Liverpool contract

Philippe Coutinho has signed a new long-term contract at Liverpool, the club have confirmed.

The Reds have tied down one of their best players for the foreseeable future and have rewarded the Brazilian for his excellent form in recent seasons.

Coutinho has been linked with a move to Barcelona in the past few months but Liverpool are determined to do everything they can to ensure his future remains at Anfield.

Coutinho’s new contract is a five-year deal — that lasts until 2022 — and does not include a release clause, a source told ESPN FC.

The source added that Coutinho will now become the Reds’ highest-paid player, with his weekly wage in the region of £150,000.

The 24-year-old has scored six goals for Jurgen Klopp’s side this season and is now fit after recovering from ankle ligament damage.

Coutinho told the club’s official website: “I would like to thank everybody at the club, first of all.

“I am very happy to sign a new contract here. It is a club that I am very grateful to and this shows my happiness here. I will work much harder to repay the belief shown in me.

“I signed this new contract to stay here for a few more years because it’s a great honour for me. It gives me great happiness because I was welcomed here with open arms by everyone at the club and the supporters right from my first day. I am very thankful to this football club for everything.”

In November, Klopp spoke about how he is confident he can keep Coutinho and his other best players at the club.

Speaking after the Brazilian committed himself to the Merseyside club, Klopp said: “This is wonderful news and I know everyone associated with LFC will be delighted when hearing this today.

“I think everyone knows what a great footballer Phil is, that is not in question — but not everyone sees what an incredibly positive character he is and what a big influence he is on the dressing room.

“I knew of Phil before I came to Liverpool and I was well aware of what a talent he was, but since arriving here I have not only witnessed his ability up close, but also his ever-continuing development. He is truly world-class — in that very top bracket.

“The fact he wants to stay here and be part of what we are looking to build and develop shows his personal commitment is to make himself better and be an integral part of something that is very special.

“We have total belief in our project, but when a player of Phil’s calibre and status commits for this length of time it shows that our faith is shared throughout the game. He knows he can fulfil his dreams and ambitions here at Liverpool. This is a big statement.

“I look forward to seeing Phil create many more great memories and moments for this club.”

Coutinho signed for Liverpool from Inter Milan in 2013 and has since scored 26 goals in 122 Premier League appearances.

Don’t write off Rafael Nadal just yet

Rafael Nadal is back in the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam event for the first time since 2015, when Novak Djokovic insolently dismissed him from the French Open, the tournament Nadal once dominated.

That loss was a painful humiliation for Nadal, part of a downward spiral that was accelerated over the ensuing months by self-doubts that had a corrosive effect on his effectiveness. Injury, which first became a steady companion for Nadal way back in 2009, also played a large role in a swoon that saw Nadal start this year ranked No. 9, a 14-time Grand Slam singles champ written off by many as a shadow of his former “King of Clay” self.

But hold everything. Should Nadal survive the bombardment in store when he plays ace machine Milos Raonic in Wednesday’s quarterfinals, he has an excellent chance to make the final. In a tournament that lost its top two seeds, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, respectively, Nadal could potentially play a title match against his old frenemy, Roger Federer.

Looking ahead to his match with Raonic, Nadal told the press: “I need to be very focused with my serve and play aggressive. If I am not playing aggressive, then I am dead, because he plays aggressive.”

Nadal sounded like he couldn’t remind himself enough of how confidently he must play, and it’s understandable. About two years ago, his signature self-assurance and steady nerves deserted him. As Pat Cash, a former Wimbledon champ, said in an interview with the UAE’s Sport 360 website in late 2016: “For Rafa, it’s about rebuilding his confidence. Last year, we saw him just losing his confidence under pressure. When he’s in good form, his depth [of shot] is unbelievably good, and when he’s not in good form, it’s really poor, and the guys are taking advantage of that now.”

Nadal’s crisis has been conspicuous. He built a glorious career on his stamina and unrelenting effort that so often left him the last man standing. But Nadal lost three consecutive five-set matches before he finally won one again in the third round of this Australian Open.

All along, Nadal has been humble about his prospects and scrupulously honest about his problems, including those quaking nerves. That has hurt his image. The swashbuckling youth in those sleeveless T-shirts, with his long chestnut locks girded by a headband worthy of a samurai, seemed to have morphed into a 30-year-old bundle of nerves with a bald spot on top of his head and a sad tale to tell. The respect Nadal once inspired was increasingly flushed with pathos.

But imagine for a moment that Nadal wins this tournament or, now that he has returned to a semblance of his former self, continues to build on his recent success?

Nadal is just three Grand Slam titles behind Federer’s record of 17, and he is two ahead of Djokovic. Nadal has already won the French Open a whopping nine times. Another win in Paris is not just possible; by late May, it might seem likely.

“At some stage, it seemed that I could beat some records,” Nadal told Eurosport in an interview early this year. “People changed their opinion, but you never know what can happen. It depends on injuries and other things. Every year, some things can happen, and I will try to be ready.”

People changed their opinion.

In Nadal’s case, they might have written him off prematurely. Without the bombast and presidential bearing of Djokovic or the slick self-regard of Federer, Nadal made it easy to take him for granted. Yet if the history of the Big Four were written with the evidence at hand, Nadal — not Federer nor Djokovic — would be the pivotal figure.

That isn’t just because his stats bear comparison with those of Federer. It is because Nadal has been responsible for so much of what has happened at the top of the game from the very moment he emerged on the scene, as the first — and for a long time lone — viable challenger to Federer.

To borrow a phrase once used by New York Yankees slugger Reggie Jackson to describe his outsize role with his team, Nadal is “the straw that stirs the drink.”

Nadal matured at a time when Federer ruled the game. Over time, he did what very few predicted. He hunted down the Swiss star on Wimbledon grass to usurp the top ranking and ultimately came to dominate their personal rivalry 23-11. Nadal’s successful “Stop Federer” campaign inspired those who followed, including a brace of players barely a year younger than Nadal, Djokovic and Murray. Those two understood that if clay-court expert Nadal could master Federer on grass and hard courts, anything was possible.

Over time, Djokovic has crept ahead of Nadal in their rivalry 26-23. That tally includes seven consecutive wins in their most recent matches (in which Djokovic has been at his peak and Nadal struggling). Nadal holds a 17-7 edge on Murray, who has been perhaps the greatest beneficiary of Nadal’s absence. But by and large, Nadal’s influence is a tale the numbers don’t tell.

Although Djokovic first maximized his talents in 2011, his most productive period coincides with Nadal’s decline and lengthy absences. Similarly, Nadal was an enormous obstacle that Murray was able to surmount only periodically. Murray has had back-to-back wins over Nadal just twice in their 24-match history, and Murray never had to play Nadal during his great run in the second half of last year.

We don’t know what would have happened had Nadal remained healthy — or never lost confidence. But it seems clear that removing Nadal from the mix was a little like taking a critical card out of a house of cards. Similarly, it’s impossible to predict what a Nadal resurgence might mean to the future of the Big Four — or to Stan Wawrinka, who has just three wins in 18 matches with Nadal.

These issues and statistics are going to take on greater urgency and significance if Nadal can sustain his momentum. He’s healthy, and the way the game has gone, his age of 30 ought not to be an impediment. Nadal hasn’t always helped his own cause with his humility, though that quality earned him the enduring admiration of legions of fans.

Asked by Eurosport to name the greatest male player of all time, he said, “I would say it is between Federer and Laver. I think it’s a correct definition thinking about the tennis history. Then we will see. There are some good players that are still playing, like me. Djokovic is one of the best players as well. He is still playing and could be the best player ever.”

The “like me” was pretty deeply buried in his quote and easily missed. Nadal certainly didn’t seem to want to dwell on it. Who could blame him, given what he has been going through for almost two years? First things first, he appears to be thinking.

What are the best teams for the star PGs in the 2017 NBA draft?

The 2017 NBA draft is loaded with point guards, and that could have an impact on how teams approach the Feb. 23 trade deadline. Because most of the teams in need of an upgrade at point guard are likely to be in the lottery, there’s a chance they’ll be able to fill their need without having to trade.

To help understand the impact of the draft on the trade market for point guards such as Goran Dragic of the Miami Heat, Reggie Jackson of the Detroit Pistons, Elfrid Payton of the Orlando Magic and Ricky Rubio of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Chad Ford takes a look at seven teams’ chances of drafting a point guard and who might fit best.

Then, Kevin Pelton considers what the Knicks, Bulls, Sixers and others might do if they don’t draft a PG.

Roger Federer’s latest renaissance his most surprising

MELBOURNE, Australia — When he arrived here, Roger Federer probably should have visited the casino at Crown Melbourne, perched on the south bank of the Yarra River. Because, at the age of 35, he’s playing with house money. The pre-tournament odds against seven consecutive Federer victories were 21-1.

After he dispatched Tomas Berdych with a perfect combination of timing and tempo, and then another top-10 player, Kei Nishikori, a round later, Federer suddenly found himself the 3.5-1 favorite.

It has been 4½ years since Federer won a Grand Slam singles title, but it just might happen in five days’ time. On Tuesday night, Federer throttled unseeded Mischa Zverev 6-1, 7-5, 6-2.

The first set was over in only 19 minutes, and the 92-minute match followed oh so quickly.

Hard to believe it was Zverev who stunned No. 1 seed Andy Murray in the fourth round, sparing Federer from meeting him.

For the 13th time in 14 years, Federer is safely into the Australian Open semifinals. And so, it will be the Swiss No. 1, Stan Wawrinka, versus Federer, the (for now) Swiss No. 2.

His honest expectations coming in?

“Well not play Stan in the semis, I’ll tell you that,” Federer said in his on-court interview. “I thought maybe win a few rounds. I told the Swiss press maybe I could make the quarters if the draw was OK.

“I’m happy I played as well as I played. Never thought I’d play as well as did here. I am still standing.”

Paul Annacone has witnessed this kind of renaissance before. He coached Federer from 2010 to 2012 and helped guide him to two year-end championships, a return to the No. 1 ranking and that last major title, at Wimbledon in 2012.

“The hardest thing for great players is how often can they play great at this level,” said Annacone, now a Tennis Channel analyst. “Great doesn’t just disappear, but how do you sustain it?”

Annacone was Pete Sampras’ coach when the 14-time Grand Slam champion struggled to recapture the enthusiasm of his young career. Annacone was there when Sampras went 4-3 in the first three Slams of 2002 — and then won the US Open to close out his career.

Federer could have come back at the end of last year but elected instead to give his surgically repaired knee some extra time to recover. Turns out, the extended layoff may have had a healing effect on his head, too.

“I think so,” Annacone said. “One of the hardest things at that age and stage is to stay motivated.

“I think that refreshed him a bit, gave him a little time to take a breather. I think he’s been rejuvenated by that.”

Federer wasn’t sure how his body would hold up to the rigors of a Grand Slam tournament, describing his doubts as a “cloud.” His first two matches, both against qualifiers, reflected that tentative mindset. He framed a few forehands early in his first match against Jurgen Melzer and let 20-year-old American Noah Rubin dictate a number of points from the baseline.

But against Berdych, feeling a welcome sense of urgency, Federer stopped thinking too much and started hitting the ball. His backhand down the line, always an insight into Federer’s psyche, looked like something from the glory years.

Zverev, like so many players, idolized Federer growing up in Germany. The last time they played, in Halle, Germany, Federer won 6-0, 6-0. The win over Murray on Sunday was a marvelous moment for Zverev, who had beaten the Scot in the European Cup under-16s, but suffered a horrific series of injuries in his mid-20s, including a herniated disc, fractured ribs and a badly broken wrist.

Federer, the No. 17 seed, improved to 13-0 in Australian Open quarterfinals. He hit 65 winners, against only 13 unforced errors.

Annacone, as you might imagine, hears frequent questions about his former player.

“A lot of people have asked the last two years, ‘Can he win another major?'” he said. “Well, he was in two major finals in 2015. And then, even at beginning of ’16 he was playing well.

“There are still a lot of terrific players left, and pressure situations, but I don’t see why he can’t win more.”

LeBron James sounds off after Cavs’ fifth loss in seven games

LeBron James is growing impatient with the direction the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers appear to be heading and is calling for the franchise to do something about it.

After Cleveland’s fifth loss in its past seven games — 124-122 to a New Orleans Pelicans team that was without Anthony Davis on Monday night — James unloaded on what he believes is a roster ill-equipped, in its current state, to lift the Larry O’Brien Trophy in June.

“I just hope that we’re not satisfied as an organization,” James told a small group of reporters who regularly travel to cover Cleveland’s road games. “I just hope we’re not satisfied.”

The Cavs broke their city’s 52-year championship drought last season, eliminating a Golden State Warriors team that went an NBA-record 73-9 in the regular season. This season, Golden State added former MVP Kevin Durant and veteran big men David West, Zaza Pachulia and JaVale McGee — and leads the league with a 38-7 record. James says the Cavs, on the other hand, have regressed.

“We’re not better than last year,” he said, “from a personnel standpoint.”

Cleveland opted against re-signing Matthew Dellavedova and Timofey Mozgov during free agency and waived Dahntay Jones. In their place, the Cavs added rookie point guard Kay Felder, acquired Mike Dunleavy (who has since been shipped out in the Kyle Korver deal) and signed Chris “Birdman” Andersen, who went down with a season-ending knee injury.

Meanwhile, James listed other free agents — Raymond Felton, who signed with the Los Angeles Clippers, and Michael Beasley, who was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks — as players who could have helped the Cavs make it through the regular season.

“It’s great to have bodies,” James said. “Obviously, in the playoffs, you go down to what, eight max? And if somebody gets in foul trouble, you go to nine. You’re not playing back-to-backs. You have two days in between. You’re able to lock in.”

He contrasted that with the Cavs’ schedule this week, which includes five games from Monday to Monday: at New Orleans, home against Sacramento on Wednesday, home against Brooklyn on Friday, home against Oklahoma City on Sunday and in Dallas on Monday.

“It’s like when you don’t have bodies. It’s tough,” James said. “The f—ing grind of the regular season. We’re a top-heavy team. We have a top-heavy team. We top-heavy as s—. It’s me, [Kyrie Irving], [Kevin Love]. It’s top-heavy.”

As he has done for several weeks, James continued to call for a backup point guard or playmaker to be added to the mix to help lessen the load for him and Irving, in particular. James played 44 minutes against New Orleans, racking up 26 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds for his fourth triple-double of the season. Irving played 42 minutes and scored a season-high 49 points.

James made it clear that his frustration is not aimed at any one teammate or person in the front office.

“I’m not singling out anybody,” James said. “I’m not. Yeah, we won [the championship], but f—, you know what, let’s see if we can do something.”

He said he has already voiced his thoughts about the roster to general manager David Griffin face-to-face. Realizing how it could look to call for a point guard with Felder and DeAndre Liggins on the roster, James said it would not be fair to expect either of those young players to fill such a significant role on a title-contending team.

“We need a f—ing playmaker,” James said. “I’m not saying you can just go find one, like you can go outside and see trees. I didn’t say that.”

Verratti gets the strangest Yellow card ever

The PSG star was punished for heading the ball back to his goalkeeper after dropping to his knees on the edge of the penalty area

Marco Verratti might just have been given a yellow card that won’t be beaten for strangeness in 2017.

During PSG’s encounter with Nantes in Ligue 1 on Saturday, Verratti was booked for getting on his knees and heading the ball back to his own goalkeeper!

The incensed referee deemed the action to be unsportsmanlike and subsequently punished the Italy international.

In England, the FA’s rules state that referees can penalise a player if he “uses a deliberate trick to pass the ball (including from a free kick) to the goalkeeper with the head, chest, knee etc. to circumvent the law, whether or not the goalkeeper touches the ball with the hands”.