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John Stones back on track to fulfill his potential as a world beater at Man City

England’s best centre-half was playing at Old Trafford on Wednesday night and Harry Maguire also featured.

No disrespect to a character shaping up to be a fine Manchester United captain but John Stones has been the most talented central defender in the English game for some time.

There has been one problem, though. He has had what seems like a habit of making mistakes.

Not ideal.

And it has felt like every mistake Stones has made has been punished. In full.

Having helped his team to this season’s Carabao Cup final, Stones might recall last year’s edition on March 1 when his slip led to a beauty from Mbwana Samatta that gave Aston Villa some hope for long periods of their 2-1 defeat.

John Stones scored Manchester City’s opening goal against Manchester United on Wednesday

The Tanzanian striker failed to score again for Villa and is now out on loan at Fenerbahce.

When Stones gave away possession in extra-time of a Nations League semi-final game against Holland in 2019, it took a sequence of a slightly freakish subsequent events but you knew it was going to end up costing a goal.

So it did and Gareth Southgate’s faith, which had been strong enough to have Stones playing a crucial part in the World Cup 2018 finals campaign in Russia, finally seemed to wane.

It should be returning any time soon.

If Southgate plays a back three or back four, he has a variety of options when it comes to centrally-inclined defenders.

Maguire, Conor Coady, Tyrone Mings, Michael Keane, Eric Dier, Joe Gomez and, of course, the England manager likes to use Kyle Walker on the right of a trio.

Stones has often been criticised for his tendency to make mistakes in recent years
Stones has often been criticised for his tendency to make mistakes in recent years

Of those seven defenders, only one – the currently injured Gomez – is younger than Stones.

There is still more ahead of Stones than there is behind him.

And considering he has two League Cup, one FA Cup and two Premier League winners’ medals in his locker, that is encouraging.

And don’t forget, Stones more than played his part in those Premier League successes.

The goal-line clearance against Liverpool in the 2018/19 campaign, anyone?

There is no doubt he lost his way but being a centre-half, or being any type of defender for Pep Guardiola, is no easy job.

In the sense you don’t normally have to do much of it, defending can be easy.

But assistance and protection for Stones and his fellow defenders has never been in great supply.

Stones’ improvement can only be a good thing for England

I remember a game away at Leicester City four years ago when Guardiola essentially played a 1-0-9 formation with the hapless Stones as the one.

In a 4-2 win, the Foxes were four up in less than 80 minutes and Jamie Vardy and company had run riot against Stones.

Yet look at City right now and Guardiola’s slightly more pragmatic approach on occasions.

In 25 games across all competitions this campaign, City have conceded only 16 goals – and five of them were in one rather flukey loss to Leicester City.

Pep’s back four for that match?

Walker, Garcia, Ake, Mendy.

In back-to-back away games against top-notch opposition this past week, Guardiola has fielded an unchanged back four of Cancelo, Stones, Dias, Zinchenko.

Stones is beginning to form an impressive relationship with Ruben Dias
Stones is beginning to form an impressive relationship with Ruben Dias

Limited evidence, sure, but the Stones-Dias partnership smacks of the solidity on which titles can be won.

They are no Vidic-Ferdinand or Terry-Carvalho yet but you never know.

There are simply too many games for it to be used in every match but one thing is for sure.

Stones is back on track – a track that should take him, maybe belatedly, to the very top of the world game.

And for Southgate, England and Manchester City, that can only be good news.

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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer told Jack Grealish ‘doesn’t fit’ Man Utd amid transfer link

Andy Cole has disagreed with Rio Ferdinand’s claim that Manchester United should go all out to sign Jack Grealish in the near future.

The Aston Villa star has once again impressed in the Premier League this season, scoring five goals and creating seven assists.

And his fine form has also seen him break into Gareth Southgate’s England side, where he is almost certain to make the Euro 2021 squad.

Grealish was strongly linked with a move to United in the summer, and speaking recently on his YouTube channel FIVE, Ferdinand said: “I don’t care if [Paul] Pogba goes or not, Grealish is my man.

Jack Grealish has once again impressed for Aston Villa this season

“If I am a manager of a top team in  England, a top three or four team, then I would not allow him to stay there, I would go and take him.”

In an interview with talkSPORT, however, Cole stated his belief that Grealish may not be the best option for United considering their strength in the central midfield positions.

He said: “I think Grealish is a super player, I’m not going to sit here and say anything different, but I’m looking at Manchester United ’s midfield at the moment, where would you play him?

“You look at Bruno [Fernandes], the performances he’s putting in; that’s the position [Grealish] likes to play in. If you put him off the left, [Marcus] Rashford plays there – so where would you play him again?

Grealish was seen in conversation with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer recently

“I’m a mere mortal when it comes to things like this. I’m like everybody else from the outside looking in.”

It remains to be seen if United make a bid for Grealish either in the current window or in the summer.

But the 24-year-old is not likely to come cheap considering he recently signed a new contract to keep him at his boyhood club until 2025.

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Solskjaer makes Maguire claim after Man Utd defender’s return to form

Harry Maguire has justified the faith in him by Manchester United and England after returning to form, according the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

The £80million United stopper,27, endured a torrid spell earlier this season after being arrested in Greece in August.

Maguire was later handed a suspended prison sentence of 21 months and 10 days following an alleged brawl on Mykonos, which the star has appealed.

But the defender has still played every Premier League game for United this term.

And he has also since made four appearances for Gareth Southgate’s England squad.

Now United boss Solskjaer reckons the Old Trafford defender and skipper is close to his best again.

Ahead of Wolves ‘ visit on Tuesday night, Solskjaer said: “I support Harry.

Harry Maguire is back in form, according to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

“He is such a good human being and is in there leading the dressing room.

“He is humble, hard working and knows when he has to hold his hands up.

“He has really gone out there and been a leader in the team.

“In the dressing room as well.

“I will always support him and I think Gareth will always support him.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be hoping his Manchester United side can continue their unbeaten run at home to Wolves
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is delighted with Maguire’s recent form and application

“Hopefully he can keep on playing football as that is what he wants to do.”

Despite making 25 appearances this term for club and country, Maguire doesn’t want a rest.

Solskjaer added: “Harry is a strong character and a very good player.

“He has led from the back.

Harry Maguire is back in favour with England too after his Greece troubles

“He has really been putting himself forward, always wanting to play and never wanting a rest.

“He has really improved throughout the season but with the team.

“We can see more and more leadership and more maturity.”

ENDS

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World Cup winner warns rugby faces “greatest crisis – potentially game changing”

Rugby union is facing its biggest crisis, World Cup winner Paul Grayson claimed last night.

Grayson played alongside Steve Thompson for Northampton and England in the 1990s and 2000s and considers him a friend.

To hear Thompson say yesterday that he does not remember playing at the 2003 World Cup and that sometimes he even forgets the name of his wife Steph, has rocked his former team mate.

The World Cup-winning hooker revealed yesterday that he has been diagnosed with early onset dementia at the age of 42.

He and seven other former players are starting a claim against the sport’s authorities for negligence, claiming rugby has left them with permanent brain damage.

Thompson says he has no recollection of playing in 2003 World Cup

Grayson said: “This is a huge worry, potentially game changing. This will make every single rugby player think hard. There is no hiding from it.

“I’d go as far as to say rugby is about to go into its greatest crisis. I can’t see how this isn’t the biggest moment the sport has faced since it turned professional.”

Dad-of-four Thompson believes constant head knocks during matches and training are to blame for his condition.

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He cites the example of one training session “when the scrummaging hadn’t gone quite right and they made us do a hundred live scrums”, adding: “When it comes to it, we were like a bit of meat, really.”

Grayson, whose son James now plays for Northampton, said: “I feel desperately sorry for Steve. I know him well and to see a friend fearful of what’s coming next for him and his family is horrible.

“Does it scare me? One hundred per cent. You ask yourself what is normal in terms of memory loss. My mother-in-law has just been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment. She is 80 years old and her memory is terrible.

Thompson says has he been diagnosed with early onset dementia at the age of 42

“To be in your early 40s and have a similar thing because you’ve had a load of smashes to the head in the course of playing a sport, is just horrendous.

“It does make me think, with kids in the game, is it safe and if not how can we make it safer? It makes me question everything and it worries me there could be a lot more of these cases to come out.”

Grayson, 49, remembers Thompson, who won 73 England caps and three for the 2005 Lions, as a special talent.

‘Thommo’ with Webb Ellis Cup during England’s victory parade in London

“He wasn’t a reckless player, he was an exceptional player; spectacularly good,” said his former fly-half.

“That meant he was at the top of the game for a hell of a long time in a position where two gangs of eight blokes weighing 900 kilos between them smash into each other in training and in games.

“Old School was always more stick than carrot in terms of training methods. It was a time when more of something was often the answer.

“No longer can there be any place for ‘that was a rugby collision, he didn’t mean it’. You can’t have ‘I didn’t mean it’ collisions any more.”

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Gareth Southgate delighted Mason Greenwood fit and firing again for Man United

Gareth Southgate is delighted to see Mason Greenwood fit and firing again for Manchester United.

And it is clear Southgate sees the youngster, who was on the mark against West Ham last Saturday, as a potent weapon as England begin qualification for World Cup 2022 and also head to next summer’s Euros.

Southgate said: “What you saw with Mason and his finish at the weekend is his biggest strength for me.

“One chance, really, and a fantastic touch to put him in position and a brilliant finish.

“That is what we were seeing towards the end of the season and why we called him into the squad for September.”

Gareth Southgate is delighted to see Mason Greenwood fit and firing again

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But Southgate had to kick him out of the squad after the teenager and Phil Foden invited two girls to the team hotel in Reykjavik, breaking squad and Covid-19 protocols.

Foden has since returned to the fold, unlike Greenwood.

But Southgate believes the 19-year-old will be getting the sort of guidance at Old Trafford that will lead him back into the squad.

Southgate explained: “He has got great support at his football club. He has got people that care for him there and will bring him into the team and out of the team at the right times.

Greenwood was on the mark against West Ham last Saturday

“Hopefully, he will get a run of games now and at a club like Manchester United, every game is important, so he will always have to perform under pressure and under high expectations.

“It is great for their young players that they already have to deal with everything they have to deal with for England.”

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World Cup 2022 qualifying draw in full as England discover fate

England have been drawn in World Cup Group I and will take on Poland, Hungary, Albania, Andorra and San Marino in Qatar in 2022.

Wales, meanwhile, are in Group E, Scotland Group F, Republic of Ireland Group A and Northern Ireland Group C.

Gareth Southgate’s England made it all the way to the semi-finals in the 2018 World Cup, narrowly losing to Croatia, who were beaten in the final by France.

The Three Lions are hoping to build on their success at this summer’s European Championships ahead of the World Cup.

The coronavirus pandemic saw the postponement of the competition, which was scheduled for 2020, meaning we will now have international tournaments in successive years.

The World Cup will take place in Qatar in 2022

World Cup finals confirmed groups

Group A

Portugal

Serbia

Republic of Ireland

Luxembourg

Azerbaijan

Group B

Spain

Sweden

Greece

Georgia

Kosovo

Group C

Italy

Switzerland

Northern Ireland

Bulgaria

Lithuania

Group D

France

Ukraine

Finland

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Kazakhstan

Group E

Belgium

Wales

Czech Republic

Belarus

Estonia

Group F

Denmark

Austria

Scotland

Israel

Faroe Islands

Moldova

Group G

Holland

Turkey

Norway

Montenegro

Latvia

Gibraltar

Group H

Croatia

Slovakia

Russia

Slovenia

Cyrpus

Malta

Group I

England

Poland

Hungary

Albania

Andorra

San Marino

Group J

Germany

Romania

Iceland

North Macedonia

Armenia

Liechtenstein

World Cup finals dates

Nov 21, 2022: Opening group phase match

Dec 2, 2022: Last games of group phase

Dec 3, 4, 5, 6 2022: Round of 16

Dec 9 & 10 2022: Quarter final ties

Dec 13&14 2022: Semi-finals

Dec 18 2022: World Cup final

Matches will kick off at 10am, 1pm, 4pm 7pm UK time

Who will win the 2022 World Cup? Have your say here.

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England to learn 2022 World Cup qualifying opponents and could face Home Nations

Gareth Southgate will discover England’s path to the 2022 World Cup on Monday – and they could get two other Home Nations in their Group.

England boss Southgate is among the top ten seeds for the draw which will take place at FIFA’s headquarters in Zurich at 5pm.

Wales are in Pot Two while Scotland and Northern Ireland are among the third seeds along with the Republic of Ireland with 55 member nations in the draw.

But what may come as a surprise for some England fans is that the qualifying campaign kicks off with a treble header of games in March.

That is certain to put England on collision course with Premier League bosses as it comes in the thick of the title race and also before crunch Champions League knock-out fixtures.

Gareth Southgate will find out who his England side will take on

Southgate has already laid down a marker insisting that he will demand players report up – especially with places in England’s squad for the Euros next summer up for grabs.

The teams will have to play each other home and away as World Cup qualifying fixtures will last from March to November next year.

The ten Group winners will automatically qualify for Qatar in 2022 and England should be red-hot favourites to progress.

But there will be a “lifeline” for the runners-up who will enter a new-look mini tournament in March 2022. The ten runners-up will join the two best Uefa Nations League 2020/21 Group winners who had not qualified with a semi final and final in single leg knock-out matches.

There are five Groups of six teams and five Groups of five teams with the four Nations League finalists getting a Group of five.

One of the top seeds will therefore get “lucky” and get a Group of five – but, incredibly, will still have to play two friendlies despite having to play two less qualifying games.

England reached the semi-finals in 2018

UEFA’s central fund and rules means they insist on all nations playing the same number of games.

It means that Southgate now has five games – three qualifiers in March and two friendlies – before next summer’s Euros.

But England will face a huge 2021 with an unprecedented number of games, a major tournament with the European Championships final at Wembley and also a crunch World Cup qualifying campaign.

Southgate will be following the draw from afar himself as it will be done remotely without all the glitz and glamour. Former Tottenham midfielder Rafael van der Vaart and Italy legend Daniele De Rossi will be conducting the draw with FIFA’s acting Director of Competitions Jaime Yarza.

Van Der Vaart said: “I look forward to seeing an exciting race for the 13 European FIFA World Cup spots and, from my own experience, I know what it means when the most iconic tournament in world football begins to take shape.

“The FIFA World Cup always offers something different. You’re representing your country and feel as if the whole world is watching. All you want to do is write your name into the history books.”

Wales are one of the possible opponents

Pot 1: Belgium, France, England, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Croatia, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands

Pot 2: Switzerland, Wales, Poland, Sweden, Austria, Ukraine, Serbia, Turkey, Slovakia, Romania

Pot 3: Russia, Hungary, Republic of Ireland, Czech Republic, Norway, Northern Ireland, Iceland, Scotland, Greece, Finland

Pot 4: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Albania, Bulgaria, Israel, Belarus, Georgia, Luxembourg

Pot 5: Armenia, Cyprus, Faroe Islands, Azerbaijan, Estonia, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Lithuania, Latvia, Andorra

Pot 6: Malta, Moldova, Liechtenstein, Gibraltar, San Marino

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Ex-Man Utd keeper Johnstone outlines England ambitions after starring at WBA

Sam Johnstone vows to keep “pushing” Jordan Pickford and England’s other leading shot-stoppers as he targets a full international call-up.

Former Manchester United youngster Johnstone has grabbed his chance to impress in the Premier League this term.

The West Brom No.1 has made 43 saves already – one behind Newcastle’s Karl Darlow who has the most.

And based on Opta’s Expected Goals data, Johnstone has prevented 1.6 goals this season, the most of any goalkeeper in the division.

Little wonder in-form Johnstone is candid about his England ambitions having pulled on the Three Lions jersey for all the national sides from U16s-U20s.

Quizzed about his prospects of a full call-up, Johnstone,27, replied: “I hope so. I have played for England growing up.

Sam Johnstone is targeting another clean sheet when Crystal Palace visit The Hawthorns on Sunday

“It is everybody’s dream to play for your country.

“I would be proud to do if it happens.

“I knew that I needed to get to the Premier League and perform to have that chance. Hopefully I am in the minds of the staff and in the near future it will be something that happens.

“I just need to keep performing for West Brom and catching the eye of Gareth Southgate and his staff.

“But Southgate came out and he said Pickford is his number one.

“Pickford has never let England down so it is not going to be easy.

“Pickford is a very good goalkeeper, so is Nick Pope and Dean Henderson.

“But it is on my mind to try and achieve.I want to be in the thick of that and I want to be pushing them.”

Johnstone wants to be looking over Pickford’s shoulder for the England No.1 spot

Johnstone excelled again in last weekend’s win over Sheffield United as Slaven Bilic’s side registered their first victory.

Now he is looking to shut-out Crystal Palace on Sunday when they visit The Hawthorns.

Albion are near the foot of the Premier League but Johnstone is at the top in terms of keepers denying opponents Expected Goals.

“It’s nice to read and to be up there with the most of saves too,” added Johnstone.

“It’s the first season for me in the Premier League and you want to be doing well.

“It helps your confidence and hopefully I keep playing how I am.”

Johnstone is impressing for the Baggies

Johnstone has climbed to the top via loans at Scunthorpe, Walsall, Yeovil, Doncaster, Preston and Aston Villa.

He is relishing the Premier League after successive near misses in the play-offs with both Villa in 2018 and then the Baggies in 2019.

But his mum Julie and dad Glenn, an ex-keeper for Preston, have been unable to see him live yet due to Covid-19 restrictions.

Johnstone, who joined Albion from United in July 2018 for £6.5million, said: “It is so tough them.

“My family followed me to Scunthorpe and Walsall, to all these places in the freezing cold standing in the away end.

“Then I missed out in the play-offs a couple of times.

“You finally make it to the Premier League and no-one’s allowed in.

“I’m gutted for them because I want my family, my missus and my kid and friends to all be there and see me finally playing in the Premier League.

“I don’t think people realise the massive sacrifice the whole family makes to help one person grow up at a football club.

“I’m very appreciative and thankful for that.

“At least all the games have been on the TV so they can stay at home, have a beer and watch me that way.

“I’ll have to get them an executive box to watch from when fans return to make up for all those freezing away days.”

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Piers Morgan told Jack Grealish plea will put Villa star off move to Arsenal

Former Aston Villa forward Gabi Agbonlahor has laughed off Piers Morgan’s demand for Arsenal to attempt to sign Jack Grealish.

Grealish has been in superb form for his side this season, scoring five goals and creating five assists in the Premier League.

He has also broken into Gareth Southgate’s England side and now looks certain to be part of his squad for next summer’s European Championships.

Grealish was strongly linked with a move to the likes of Manchester United in the transfer window, but eventually committed his future to his boyhood club by penning a new five-year deal at Villa.

Despite this Morgan, who is a huge Gunners fan, took to Twitter on Tuesday to ambitiously suggest: “Arsenal should break the bank for Jack Grealish in January.

Jack Grealish scored his fifth goal of the season in Aston Villa’s game against West Ham on Monday

“If we don’t get some creative flair into the team, we’re going nowhere – and he’s the most creative player in the country.

“Offer Villa £100m or him or £50m + Ozil, Mustafi and Xhaka. I’m deadly serious.”

Responding to his tweet, Agbonlahor ridiculed Morgan’s request – and hinted that Grealish is not his biggest fan after the TV presenter heavily criticised him for breaking coronavirus rules earlier this year.

“I think first of all Piers Morgan saying that is going to put off Jack off [going to Arsenal] anyway as during the lockdown he hammered him in the media, so Piers Morgan isn’t helping them get him anyway, Agbonlahor told talkSPORT.

“I don’t think he’s a big fan of Piers!

“Look where Arsenal are… I’m sure if he ever wants to leave  Aston Villa  he’ll be looking at a lot better teams than Arsenal.

Piers Morgan wants Grealish to sign for Arsenal

“This season Aston Villa have tied him down, and will there be bids in the summer? I’m sure there will be.

“But Aston Villa have rich owners who don’t really need the money from a sale of Jack Grealish.

“At the moment would they want to sell their best player, who for me all their goals and assists are coming from? I just don’t see it happening.”

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Southgate discusses dementia fears and concussion protocols after Luiz decision

Gareth Southgate fears he could suffer from dementia later in life – but still would not change anything in his career.

England boss Southgate admits he knew the risks he was taking during his playing days and the concern has only been heightened by the high number of former players suffering from the disease.

But Southgate says he finished games with a head wound like Arsenal defender David Luiz and even believes he suffered concussion and still played on which is the concern even for today’s players, especially after Raul Jimenez’s horror injury.

Former England international Southgate, talking to the BBC, said: “I’ve been that soldier, I’ve played in that condition and of course in those days we didn’t even think about it.

“I would have finished games concussed, for sure.

“I was asked a few weeks ago whether I had concerns about it as a former player. Well, of course I do because it’s a horrible illness. One that I’ve seen with family and the impact of it.

Southgate receives treatment to a head wound during his time at Aston Villa

“But I knew when I was playing and I knew the risks that I was taking around my health.

“And I wouldn’t have swapped that for the career that I had but I know in the future there are things that I could be affected by.”

Southgate insists managers will always follow medical advice and believes any boss would not hesitate in taking off a player if they had any doubts about their health.

The England boss has discussed dementia fears and concussion protocols

David Luiz played on despite the sickening collision

Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta defended club doctor Gary O’Driscoll who cleared Luiz to play on despite his clash of heads with Wolves striker Jimenez before the Gunners centre half was substituted at half time.

Southgate added: “There are very clear guidelines now and we’ve to assume that Arsenal’s medical team followed that at the time on the pitch and took a further assessment at half time.

“We don’t exactly know why David Luiz was taken off at half time. It’s something everyone is very conscious of.

“I think it’s something now that medical teams and doctors are far more aware of, coaches are. If our medical team take a call that a player has to come off, there’s not even an argument. It’s done.

“The guidelines are very strict.

“It’s hard to comment on the individual incident because I wasn’t involved in the discussion but I would have thought the people at Arsenal would have been on that and would have been dealing with that in the right way.”

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