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Let’s recap another wild weekend in the Premier League, as one manager passed a big test, another manager was sacked and a new star was born.

Audition of the weekend

It’s often said that the best teams always find a way to win, but almost as valuable on Sunday was Manchester United finding a way not to lose. Most of the attention will rightly be on how anemic title challengers Liverpool were, but a more generous way to look at things is to say they weren’t allowed to be anything else because of the way United defended.

Usually when United have kept a clean sheet, you can look forward to another David de Gea YouTube compilation. But on this occasion, Dave had only one shot on target to deal with, as Liverpool were forced into long-range efforts that they blasted way over the bar or into hitting the first man with a succession of errant crosses. It probably depends on your starting point whether you regard that as poor play by Liverpool or great defending by United.

Either way, the game was another piece of evidence in the case for giving Ole Gunnar Solskjaer the permanent job: We’ve seen his United attack freely, and now we’ve seen them defend staunchly. It might be particularly reassuring that, after a relatively naive tactical display against PSG in the Champions League, this was one of a proper manager.

Who knows whether he’ll play the part brilliantly in the long-term, but he’s giving a hell of an audition.
With just one defeat in 14 matches in charge, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer continues to make a strong case to be named permanent boss. Photo by Tom Purslow/Man Utd via Getty Images
Concern of the weekend

On the negative side for United, the game could be damaging simply through the number of injuries they suffered. Nemanja Matic missed the game entirely and could be out for a month, Anthony Martial was also absent, Juan Mata, Ander Herrera and Jesse Lingard all limped off and Solskjaer admitted he would have substituted Marcus Rashford, but couldn’t. Rashford running around on a busted ankle for an hour could be most damaging of all.

That’s the attacking core of United’s team and some backups crocked, and if even half of them are out for a few games, it will be enormously damaging for the rest of their season.

Slump of the weekend

“Mo knows he can play better,” was the closest Jurgen Klopp came to criticising his most threatening attacker (theoretically, at least), but the real criticism came in choosing to withdraw Mohamed Salah in favour of Divock Origi as Liverpool chased the game.

Something isn’t quite right with the Egyptian, and he’s not doing the job Klopp needs him to. He has 17 league goals this season, but nine came against teams in the bottom half of the table, and he has scored only one past another top-six team, a penalty in the 5-1 demolition of Arsenal.

In stodgy performances like this, Liverpool really need Salah to pull something special out of the bag, particularly in big games. At the moment, he’s not doing that.

Disguised blessing of the weekend

It won’t feel like it now, but Tottenham’s defeat to Burnley might turn out to be a blessing of some form. Realistically their chances of winning the Premier League were slim given it relied on both Liverpool and Manchester City melting down, but Saturday’s loss virtually put them out of contention. Still, their place in the top four is pretty much safe, and it would be a shock if they finished anywhere but third.

They do, however, have a more realistic chance of winning the Champions League, or at least going as deep into the tournament as they have since 1962, when they lost in the semi-finals to Benfica. Mauricio Pochettino can’t acknowledge this publicly, but Europe should now be the direction in which all of their significant efforts are directed.

Explanation of the weekend

At least Leicester have sorted their inconsistency problem. At the back end of 2018 they were maddeningly erratic, but this year has been more predictable: their last win came on New Year’s Day, and since then, they’ve picked up one point from a possible 18 and been knocked out of the FA Cup by Newport.

This is why Claude Puel was sacked on Sunday, and why it was always far too simplistic to point out their par league position and wonder what their fans were complaining about. This run has been coming, and Saturday’s 4-1 defeat at home to Crystal Palace was the nadir.

“It is a difficult moment for my team with all these young players,” said Puel afterwards. He’s right, they do have some fine young talent, but in mentioning concern for the nurturing and development of these youngsters he perhaps even emphasised why the club dismissed him: They want someone else to do it.

Argument of the weekend

Anyone arguing in favour of VAR should only need to play a clip of Javier Hernandez’s goal for West Ham against Fulham on Friday night. This was exactly the sort of refereeing error that VAR is perfect for: one not spotted on the field (by the officials or more than a couple of opposition players), but after a few replays is crystal clear. It was certainly a handball, and almost certainly deliberate.

The trouble is that not every such decision will be so clear. Most will involve some degree of interpretation, or to put it another way, subjectivity. Therefore, any manager, fan, player or pundit who thinks VAR will right every perceived wrong must temper their expectations. It will only remove some errors, not all. If people accept that, then VAR’s introduction next season has a better chance of being a success.

Impact of the weekend

Rafa Benitez’s insistence that it would take a miracle for Newcastle to survive looks rather pessimistic now. As it turned out, no miracle, but rather the judicious addition of talent was required: One came from the youth ranks, another by finally breaking their 13-year-old transfer record.
Miguel Almiron was impressive in his first Newcastle start, creating numerous chances and drawing a red card on Huddersfield’s Tommy Smith. Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images
Miguel Almiron was a revelation in their 2-0 win over admittedly desperate and 10-man Huddersfield, creating six goal-scoring chances and providing the sort of spark and inspiration so lacking in their play all season. And then there’s Sean Longstaff, the upright homegrown midfielder who has become a first-team regular by right since being drafted in out of necessity.

With one player to please the eye and another to please the heart, suddenly there’s a little optimism about Newcastle, on the pitch at least.

Toast of the weekend
Huddersfield were toast even before their defeat to Newcastle. Now they’re extra-burnt toast, entirely black and inedible, which has set off the fire alarm. We are talking Marcos Rojo toast, people. At the start of December they looked in trouble, on 10 points from 13 games, but would at least avoid the indignity of being the worst Premier League side ever by breezing past Derby’s 11-point 2007-08 season. Since then, they’ve lost 12 and drawn one, and it’s not outrageous to think they won’t collect another point in their remaining 11 fixtures.

Performance of the weekend

Gerard Deulofeu has flattered to deceive at several clubs, only sporadically displaying his clear talent in what has threatened to be an unsatisfying, peripatetic career. You can’t argue with a hat trick of the quality he managed in Watford’s 5-1 win over Cardiff, though, brilliant finishes all, and you can throw in an unselfish assist for Troy Deeney too. A decent night’s work.

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Sometimes, one name can say it all.

Michael, Shaq, Kobe, LeBron — larger-than-life stars who need no further introduction and can carry the weight of the entire sport on their shoulders.

The NBA is still under LeBron James’ rule, but his spot on the throne won’t last forever.

So who’s next? Which 25-and-under star has the game, the star power and the marketability to become the new face of the league in five or six years?

With LeBron in Michael Jordan’s house this weekend for the 2019 NBA All-Star Game in Charlotte, North Carolina, we’re taking a look at five candidates who could do just that — take the torch from James when another No. 23 calls it a career.

 

Giannis Antetokounmpo is a top MVP candidate at 24, and he’s only getting better. Sarah Stier/Getty Images
Giannis Antetokounmpo, the evolving Freak
You might have heard some variation of this story before: Giannis Antetokounmpo is fuming after a Milwaukee Bucks loss. He just had an off night. His shot wasn’t falling. He was getting double-teamed.

After the game, Antetokounmpo plunks his feet into an ice bucket and says nothing — the missed free throws and clanks off the rim looping in a mental playback. Forty minutes later, he retreats back to the gym to complete every step-back that he missed and every 3-pointer that he air-balled.

The late-night gym sessions have diminished this season, but that relentless work ethic combined with freakish length is part of what drove Golden State Warriors star Kevin Durant to say Antetokounmpo has the potential to be the best player ever.

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“The Greek Freak, I think, is a force,” Durant said in 2017. “His ceiling is probably — he could end up being the best player to ever play if he really wanted to. That’s pretty scary to think about.”

What’s even scarier? Since Durant made those comments a year and a half ago, Antetokounmpo has added more than 20 pounds of muscle. The Bucks have catapulted to the top of the NBA this season, with coach Mike Budenholzer’s five-out system spacing the floor for Antetokounmpo to attack the rim with ease.

It’s easy to forget Antetokounmpo is only 24 and he is still getting better — even though he already is in the MVP conversation. This season, he has improved as a passer, which has made him only more difficult for other teams to handle. The shooters positioned around Antetokounmpo have aided him in achieving Shaquille O’Neal-like productivity around the basket. He leads the league in baskets made within 5 feet with 422 made field goals in the restricted area — 110 more than any other player.

Antetokounmpo’s basketball accolades are mounting. He won the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award in 2017, and he has been named the league’s player of the month three times. He has made the All-NBA Second Team twice, and he was voted into his third All-Star game this season, this time a captain. Perhaps a less formal decoration — the title of best player in the league — is not far off.

– Malika Andrews
No teenager since LeBron James has accomplished what Luka Doncic has in Dallas. Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports
Luka Doncic, the boy wonder
Luka Doncic, at 19 years old, already has earned his way into LeBron James’ exclusive company, in terms of all-around production as NBA teens. Nobody else compares.

James was the lone teen to average 20 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists before Luka — also already known internationally on a first-name basis — came along and comfortably joined the club by averaging 20.8 points, 7.1 rebounds and 5.5 assists as the All-Star break nears.

Expand the search to include all rookies and the club adds only three members: all-time greats Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson … and, uh, Tyreke Evans, who hasn’t averaged 20 points since his rookie season.

Sure, stuffing box scores this season doesn’t guarantee greatness for Doncic, but the odds are certainly in his favor. All signs point to Doncic developing into a superstar.

He arrived in the NBA as the most hyped European prospect ever, and he has exceeded expectations so far with the Dallas Mavericks, who expedited their rebuilding process in part because Doncic is already a dominant force.

“I love the fact that he loves carrying the load,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said Sunday after Doncic scored 13 of his 28 points in the fourth quarter to lead the Mavs to a comeback win over the visiting Portland Trail Blazers. “He has great belief in himself, and he’s one of these dynamic young players that has the charisma to give his teammates confidence.”

Doncic was a proven winner before he played a minute in the NBA, having led Slovenia to a EuroBasket championship and Real Madrid to Spanish league and Euroleague titles. He possesses the intangible quality required to have a chance to take over the title as the NBA’s best player: the ability to thrive under pressure.

This kid has built a case for being the NBA’s best clutch player this season. According to NBA.com stats, he is 11-of-17 on shots that would tie or take the lead in the final two minutes of games. Nobody else has more than nine buckets in those situations this season.

So much for questions about whether Doncic was athletic enough to create his own shot in the NBA.

Doncic definitely isn’t in James’ class when it comes to athleticism. He’s not a high flyer or especially explosive. In that regard, he compares more to reigning MVP James Harden — a big guard with a savvy understanding of how to use his strength and the rare ability to be in complete control as he slams on the brakes and changes direction.

Doncic’s level of commitment to diet and conditioning over the years could determine which pantheon of NBA legends he ultimately joins. He is expected to be among the league’s elite for years to come. The question is whether he’ll earn the seat at the head of the table.

– Tim MacMahon
Joel Embiid has the skills — and the social media followers — to be the next face of the NBA. Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports
Joel Embiid, the modern-day Shaq
In looking for the player who is going to fill some of the biggest shoes in NBA history — replacing LeBron James as the face of the sport — why not choose literally the biggest star in the sport today?

When running through a list of the things that would allow a player to become the face of the NBA today, Joel Embiid checks every one of them.

For starters, he is a tremendous player. Despite missing two full seasons and most of a third with injuries, the 24-year-old is one of the NBA’s most gifted stars. He is an efficient hub of the Philadelphia 76ers’ offense and a massive anchor of the team’s defense, making him one of the league’s most valuable players. His ascent has been the biggest reason the 76ers have risen from the rubble of The Process to one of the league’s elite teams.

On top of that, Embiid also has a personality specifically built for today’s media environment. His social media game — whether it be Instagram posts or tweets — is entertaining, and he plays to the camera in virtually every setting. He is, in every way, the modern embodiment of Shaquille O’Neal — another guy who, for a time, was arguably the face of the league.

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So why not Embiid? Well, the most obvious reason is his lengthy injury history. Even now, every time he falls to the ground, everyone watching holds their breath until he gets up again. The combination of his previous injuries and his truly massive frame understandably has skeptics questioning whether he can remain on the court.

For the past year and a half, though, he has been largely available. All basketball fans will be hoping that stays the same for years to come.

The other factor working against Embiid: the way the game is trending. With the emphasis on spacing and shooting, the strain on big men, particularly defensively, is as great as it has ever been. Bigger, slower centers such as Embiid and Rudy Gobert have struggled in the playoffs to combat teams dragging them away from the basket. Quite simply, it is difficult for big men to get the ball, because they generally need to have someone get it to them. Perimeter players will, by definition, have an easier time in the game’s biggest moments of standing out because they can always have the ball in their hands.

Still, the NBA is a league that has been built on size. From George Mikan to Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Hakeem Olajuwon to O’Neal to Tim Duncan, the NBA’s history can largely be told through the play of its star centers. Embiid is the logical heir to that rich tradition.

And as the sport transitions away from the LeBron James era, Embiid is as good a bet as anyone to take over The King’s throne and make it his own.

– Tim Bontemps

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Carlos Vela has told ESPN that he is “happy” at LAFC and didn’t expand on whether he could be headed to Barcelona, with rumors swirling that he is an option for the Catalan side in this January transfer window.

“They are issues for the clubs and agents,” Vela told ESPN on Sunday in an interview. “I’m relaxed, working on the preseason and the most important thing is to be happy in the place you are. In the future we’ll see what happens.”

Vela’s name being linked to Barcelona last week came as a surprise and, although it’s been reported that a deal is unlikely, the Mexican wasn’t giving much away.

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“Whatever I may decide or happens I’ll be happy because I’m loving being in Los Angeles with my team enjoying the day-to-day and I don’t have anything to lose in any case,” said the former Real Sociedad player.

Vela hasn’t been involved in the Mexico set-up since last summer’s World Cup and confirmed that he hasn’t yet spoken to incoming Mexico head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino about his future with El Tri.

“I think they’ve taken a great decision in bringing in Tata,” said the Cancun native. “Obviously I have to speak to him to see his plans with me or without me.
LAFC’s Carlos Vela has emerged as a surprise transfer option for La Liga giants Barcelona. AP Photo/Reed Saxon
“I’ve not had the chance to talk with him, but I know I’ll do so before the next call-ups [in March]. I wish him the best. I’m open to keeping going or to stepping aside for the youngsters, whatever is best for Mexico.”

Vela added that before he moved to Major League Soccer at rookie franchise LAFC he wasn’t sure what to expect, but says he can contribute more in 2019 than he did last season, when the club lost to Real Salt Lake in the playoffs.

“I enjoyed [the first season] a lot, I took on the responsibility,” he said. “This year I’ll take on more and I can give more to this club and this league. I’ll work to that end.”

Vela and LAFC open their 2019 MLS campaign against Sporting Kansas City on March 3.