Month: January 2023

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Dion Dublin named five of the Big Six as being in the running for a top four finish, snubbing Manchester United in favour of a shock candidate.

United have won five of their last seven Premier League games, including victories over Liverpool and Arsenal, after back-to-back defeats to start their campaign.

But Erik ten Hag’s side have been completely ignored by Dublin as he reeled off the usual suspects for Champions League qualification, as well as Brighton, who have picked up just two points in four games under Roberto De Zerbi and have failed to score in their last three.

Dublin told Express: “I would still say that Liverpool will find their way to the top four. They’ll go on a run of games very, very soon. They’ll win four, five, six, seven in a row, or they won’t lose in seven or eight in a row, and they’ll find themselves picking up, you know, the odd 20 points here, 25 points there. They’re so good [and] they’ve got so many good players that they will find their way back.

“It’s so tough to call the top four because I expect Liverpool to be there. I mean, you’re looking at teams like Chelsea. At the moment, they’re looking good. Graham Potter has got them playing relaxed football, and they’re all smiling while they’re playing, which is very rare for a Chelsea team. They’re all enjoying their football, and it’s making a huge difference to their results as well.

“So you know, City, obviously, Liverpool, it’s going to take a massive task for them to get back to where they need to be, but they’ve got everything they need. Chelsea have turned a corner [and] Arsenal are top of the tree. Antonio Conte and Spurs, I mean, I could go on. Outside as well… Brighton are playing some good stuff. I’m glad it’s so open, to be honest with you. I’m glad there are teams in and around the top 10 that you probably wouldn’t expect to be there, and I’m glad because it just makes it a little bit more interesting.”

United take on Tottenham at Old Trafford on Wednesday and could fall six points off the top four if they’re beaten.

And Dublin believes Antonio Conte’s side will get the job done against the Red Devils.

“I think it’s a difficult one for United,” Dublin admitted. “United have got more than enough when it comes to quality, but I just think Spurs have got that Antonio Conte [character], especially in midfield. They’ve got a bit of grit in there, a bit of anger. You know, they’ve got some physical presence in there and looking up top, Son and Kane, they do what they do, they score goals.

“But having a coach like Antonio Conte, you can’t rest on your laurels. You can’t sit on your heels. You’ve got to stay on the front foot all the time. That’s what they’re doing, Spurs, they’re playing some good stuff, scoring some good goals, and they’ve got an ugly side to their game where they’re doing well. So United are going to find it really difficult against Spurs, but they’ve got enough in their locker.”

READ MORE: Big Midweek: Man Utd v Spurs, Villa, Brendan, Darwin Nunez, Arsenal

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THE NEED TO cut out mistakes is so ingrained into top-level rugby that it sounds strange when an Ireland captain gives his side some margin for error.

Paul O’Connell said Ireland don’t need to be perfect against South Africa because the second row doesn’t think it’s possible to play a perfect game.

Rather, he thinks how Ireland respond to mistakes throughout the game – both their own and from the Springboks – will be a deciding factor on Saturday evening.

“I don’t think you’ll ever be perfect in a game but you always strive to be perfect,” O’Connell said.

“Balls will go down on the ground, you’ve got to win those. We’ve been in so many games where that has won or lost you games, particularly against a team like South Africa who are so dangerous off loose ball.

“You don’t have to perfect. Your attitude and mental resolve has to be perfect but it’s very hard to play a perfect game of rugby. We’ve discussed that, we have to react. There will be mistakes from them and from us, but reacting to that is a good part of how you perform on the day.”

There will be an even greater emphasis on O’Connell and some of the more experienced members of the Ireland pack on Saturday with the injuries to Sean O’Brien and Cian Healy but O’Connell stressed that the squad hasn’t dwelled on their long injury list.

“With Joe’s style of doing things when you’re injured you’re out,” O’Connell said.

“ It’s not an issue, you move on to the next player. We are lucky in Ireland with strength in depth and injuries have probably contributed to that.

Joe Schmidt brought Leinster centre Garry Ringrose in to train with the squad this week and Paul O’Connell was as enthusiastic about the youngster’s potential as Les Kiss and Tommy Bowe were during the week. Although, when asked if he was reminded of watching Brian O’Driscoll for the first time, O’Connell took a step back.

“I think I watched Brian O’Driscoll on tv for the first time because I’m a bit younger,” O’Connell smiled.

“Garry has been involved in the academy a lot so he might even be a bit further along in development than Brian was at that age. But you don’t want to put too much expectation on a guy after only seeing him for one or two training sessions.”

O’Connell has been involved in some epic clashes with South Africa throughout his career. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

There has been a bit of a bromance between two all-time great second rows, Victor Matfield and Paul O’Connell, this week with the Springbok legend heaping praise on the Ireland captain by calling him the best second row he has ever faced.

O’Connell was quick to return the favour but also pointed out that the love-in will have little relevance on the outcome tomorrow.

“Victor Matfield is the best lineout forward in the world and he has been for some time,” O’Connell said.

“To take two years out and come back and be just as good as he ever was is some achievement. South Africa were missing a bit of that [lineout presence] in the last couple of years but he has brought it back with abundance.

“I was delighted to get the compliment but it is all irrelevant come Saturday.”

O’Connell is also impressed with how South Africa have developed under Heyneke Meyer over the last few years.

“The team is different in a better way,” O’Connell said.

“You look at how they have been playing recently with the ball in hand with Handré Pollard and Willie le Roux and I think they have an extra string to their bow than when they won the World Cup. Or that they didn’t maybe use when they won the World Cup or beat us on the Lions Tour in 2009.”

In the past, O’Connell has robbed a few Afrikaan phrases to try get a slight edge on Matfield, Bakkies Botha and co. but he is going in without his phrase book this weekend.

“No, I’ve no Gert Smal to help me this year,” O’Connell laughed.

“And Simon [Easterby] doesn’t speak Afrikaan.”

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Thomas Frank has insisted that he has “unfinished business” at Brentford amid reports linking him with a move to Aston Villa.

Steven Gerrard was sacked on Thursday night after Villa’s 3-0 loss against Fulham. This result leaves them languishing in 17th place.

Frank has been mentioned as a potential replacement but he has been quick to rule out a move to Villa Park.

“I understand the bookmakers, I’m a good manager,” he said with a smile. “Joking aside, I’m very happy here. I’ve said that many times.

“I have unfinished business to do here at Brentford. I think it’s also (important) to worship the good you have.”

Frank guided Brentford to promotion via the Championship play-offs in 2021, then to a 13th-placed finish last term. They go into the weekend in 10th, five points better off than Villa.

Frank admitted midfielder Christian Norgaard had asked him openly about the Villa links, but said he was only interested in Sunday’s fixture.

“I can’t speak about the team because I haven’t asked them,” he said.

“I prefer, which we do, to only speak about the game against Villa, how we are preparing to do it with this extra challenge of who is taking over.

“We don’t know what they will do. I prefer to speak about that instead of my future.

“The only player (who asked) this morning was Christian Norgaard. He just said, ‘Ah, there’s links, there’s rumours,’ and I just said, ‘Ah yeah, there are a lot of rumours out there’.”

Gerrard’s exit complicates Frank’s own planning for the game, but he expects to see a reaction from Villa.

“You know they will come out with energy,” he said.

“The fans will probably want to back the team more. They know the boys need them. They got what they want, they didn’t want the manager any more so it’s all about them.

“I don’t know Aaron Danks, the interim, but I imagine he will say to them ‘Play for the fans, run for the fans’ so it will be a very difficult team at Villa Park on Sunday.”

Frank expressed sympathy for Gerrard, who departed Villa Park after less than a year in charge.

Defeat at Fulham came on the back of a 2-0 loss to Chelsea at the weekend which could have been put down to individual mistakes.

“I watched their game against Chelsea, and the way Villa played was very good,” Frank said.

“With the mistake from (Tyrone) Mings after six minutes I was just looking at Gerrard thinking ‘That is tough’.

“I am feeling for him. I’m a head coach and have been for many years. Sometimes you need some luck from the football Gods.”

READ MORE: Villa should have shown more ‘class’ with Gerrard, who had ‘no chance’ with lack of investment


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WATCHING RHYS RUDDOCK in action last weekend against South Africa, one wouldn’t have guessed that he had last worn the seven shirt in 2012.

A Pro12 meeting with Zebre was the 24-year-old’s most recent experience of starting at openside flanker for Leinster, while Saturday was his first outing in that role at senior international level.

A late call-up to the starting team after Chris Henry was ruled out, Ruddock delivered in spades. Eight carries, a shedload of ruck work and 14 tackles justified Joe Schmidt’s faith in the Leinster back row.

“I sort of got my head around playing seven nice and early,” says Ruddock.

As for switching from his usual blindside flank to the openside, Ruddock took it in his stride.

“I suppose there are some major differences. I think you’re a lot more in the action at seven, whereas a six would maybe hold on certain plays. The seven seems to be the one doing all the folding, getting around the corner and linking with the backs.

“I think it kind of suits me – I like to work hard and get through a lot of work, so I actually enjoyed it a lot more than I thought it would.”

Ruddock crossed for a try in the second half against the Boks. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Ruddock’s strong display was topped off by a second-half try from a clever Ireland mauling effort, with the back row joking, “I thought it was all me!” before explaining the pleasure Simon Easterby’s pack had taken from that effort.

“I didn’t have to do much for it and it was a well-worked maul. I suppose it’s the ones that you practice and they come off like that and you get an easy run to the tryline, I think I was just grateful to be playing seven and the one on the back of it.”

Next up for Ruddock is impressing against Georgia on Sunday in Dublin, a challenge for which he feels well prepared. The flanker captained Emerging Ireland in the 2013 Tbilisi Cup, where they beat the Georgians 20-15.

“The whole pack is pretty much all playing in France and has a wealth of experience. They’ll look to dominate the set-piece and at the breakdown, where they’ve got real threats on the ball who can punish you if you don’t get your roles right.”

Ruddock insists that Ireland have genuine “respect” for Sunday’s opposition, with Schmidt having brought the players back to ground after the pleasure of beating the Boks last weekend.

Against a powerful Georgian side, Irish supporters will be looking forward to more of Schmidt’s intelligent attacking power plays, with Ruddock suggesting “we’ll have some ways to break them down.”

Ruddock is feeling far more settled in the Ireland group now. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

On a personal level, the Leinster powerhouse feels “a lot more settled” as part of the Ireland group, having turned 24 today and now with four senior caps. He admits he would be content to play anywhere across the back row, although he is “happiest playing six and have most experience there.”

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Wherever Schmidt uses him this weekend, Ruddock can be counted on to meet the Georgians with great hunger.

“I definitely think you have to meet it head on, especially early in the game. Don’t let them build confidence in their strengths.

“The reality is that we didn’t perform to the best of our ability on the weekend. There’s more left and the focus now is on getting that out this weekend.”

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Martin Keown says a couple of Arsenal players experienced Mikel Arteta’s “ruthless” side in Arsenal’s defeat to PSV Eindhoven on Thursday.

The Gunners needed a single point to secure top spot in their group but goals from Joey Veerman and Luuk de Jong won the game for the Dutch side.

Arsenal were way short of their best which has seen them win all of their Europa League games up to that point and maintain a lead at the top of the Premier league.

Keown was “screaming at the TV” over mistake for PSV’s second goal and claimed a pair of players were at fault for the first, after which they were taken off by Arteta.

Keown told BT Sport: “Looking at Rob Holding there [for the first goal], you’ve got to stay goal-side. A big man has come on [De Jong], so Holding’s got to come across.

“Lokonga could do more with the initial ball and then he just switches off. He’s got to be breaking every sinew in his body to get back there and get a block in but he doesn’t.

“Arteta was pretty ruthless because both players were hooked soon after. It’s a tough school there.”

Speaking after the defeat, Arteta admitted his side did not reach the standard he demands from his players.

“I’m very disappointed,” he said. “It’s the end of a long run where we won a lot of games and we have to reset.

“Congratulations to PSV – they were the better team today. We were nowhere near our level and we know that in Europe it’s very difficult to win.

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“We didn’t get any control. We didn’t get the ball in the areas we wanted. We gave so many balls away, which allowed so many transitions, which was what they were looking for whenever they got in the right structure.

“They were on top of a lot of things that last week was different.”

Arsenal will now have to win their final group game at home to FC Zurich next week to be sure of winning the group.

READ MORE: How soon will Newcastle United force talk of a Big Seven in the Premier League?

Wales recall Jonathan Davies for New Zealand

January 13, 2023 | News | No Comments

JONATHAN DAVIES RETURNED from a shoulder injury on Tuesday as Wales coach Warren Gatland named a side showing nine changes from the team that struggled to see off Fiji last weekend for the clash with world champions New Zealand at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium on Saturday.

Davies, who has been out of action for three weeks, resumes his centre partnership with Jamie Roberts, in the only personnel change to the team beaten by Australia in Cardiff a fortnight ago.

Elsewhere in the back division Leigh Halfpenny has recovered from concussion to displace Liam Williams, while fly-half Dan Biggar (groin) and scrum-half Rhys Webb (neck) are also fit to return.

Up front, hooker Richard Hibbard also starts following his appearance for English Premiership side Gloucester last week that led to an angry response from Gatland after Wales had ruled him out of the Fiji match because of an ankle problem.

Hibbard was one of several forwards returning to Test action as Gatland selected the same pack that played in the 33-28 defeat by Australia, with captain Sam Warburton returning to the back row, locks Jake Ball and Alun Wyn Jones and prop Paul James all recalled for the clash with the All Blacks.

Prop Gethin Jenkins, who captained Wales to a 17-13 victory over Fiji, was ruled out with a hamstring strain.

Davies was injured playing for French side Clermont in their European Champions Cup clash against English club Sale on October 26 but, such is his importance to Wales, he has been recalled as soon as possible.

Scott Williams missed out on a place in the matchday 23, with Liam Williams, James Hook and Mike Phillips providing bench cover for the backs.

– Experienced team –

“It is pretty much the same side that played against Australia and it’s a boost to have a few players back from injury,” Gatland said.

“It’s one of the most experienced teams we have put out,” the New Zealander added.

“A couple of decisions have been forced upon us. Gethin Jenkins has a hamstring strain, (lock) Bradley Davies hasn’t trained for the first couple of days and Liam Williams had a bit of an ankle knock at the weekend and it was a big call on him, but he will start on the bench.

Wales, in an error-strewn display, failed to score a point after half-time against the Pacific Islanders even though Fiji played the majority of the match a man down after prop Campese Ma’afu was first sin-binned and then sent off.

It was far from an ideal way to prepare for a match with the All Blacks, a team Wales have not beaten since a 1-8 triumph in Cardiff in 1953 and with their losing run against New Zealand now standing at 25 successive Tests.

Wales’s last victory over one of the southern hemisphere ‘big three’ of New Zealand, South Africa and Australia was a win against the Wallabies in 2008, with Gatland’s men suffering 21 straight defeats combined by the trio.

A largely second-string New Zealand, coached by former Wales boss Steve Hansen, saw off Scotland 24-16 in Edinburgh last weekend but Gatland forecast his compatriots, due to name their side on Thursday, would be at their best come kick-off in Cardiff.

“We are expecting another clinical performance from the All Blacks,” he said. “We need to match their intensity and aggression.

“The players are obviously excited about the opportunity to face the number one side at a packed Millennium Stadium. We have named an experienced team and we are really looking forward to it.”

Wales team to face New Zealand:
15.Leigh Halfpenny
14. Alex Cuthbert
13. Jonathan Davies
12. Jamie Roberts
11. George North
10. Dan Biggar
9. Rhys Webb

1. Paul James
2. Richard Hibbard
3. Samson Lee
4. Jake Ball
5. Alun Wyn Jones
6. Dan Lydiate
7. Sam Warburton (captain)
8. Taulupe Faletau

Replacements: Scott Baldwin, Nicky Smith, Rhodri Jones, Luke Charteris, Justin Tipuric, Mike Phillips, James Hook, Liam Williams.

– © AFP, 2014

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Cristiano Ronaldo has labelled his return to Manchester United a ‘disaster’ as he claims his teammates lack dedication and the club has failed to evolve.

Ronaldo came back to Old Trafford in the summer of 2021, netting 27 goals in 51 appearances since, but his return has been rocky at best.

The Portugal international tried to force an exit in the summer but found no suitors, and was recently dropped by Erik ten Hag after he flounced out of the stadium in the win over Tottenham.

And according to a new book, ‘Messi vs Ronaldo: One Rivalry, Two GOATs, and the Era That Remade the World’s Game’ (via The Sun), Ronaldo told an executive at a FIFA event that his return was a ‘disaster’.

The striker was unhappy under Ralf Rangnick, who took interim charge of the club following Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s sacking last November.

But Ronaldo also took issue with the commitment of his teammates, believing they lack dedication to stay in shape, and the fact that United have failed to ‘evolve as a club’ since he left for Real Madrid way back in 2009.

In particular the 37-year-old believes United should have invested more in their Carrington training complex, which pales in comparison to other top European sides.

Ahead of Sunday’s clash with West Ham, Ten Hag – who won’t take kindly to Ronaldo’s thoughts – refused to guarantee the striker a start.

“It’s up to him,” he said when asked if the veteran was capable of matching last season’s goal tally.

“But I think when you collect all the chances he creates, the team creates for him in the last weeks, you see he’s still capable to get in the right positions and he’s still capable of finishing them.

“I think it’s possible, yeah.

“I know some see it like this but I don’t have a Europe team and I don’t have a Premier League team.

“I look at the opponent and what we need, what suits the opponent. Now I have to focus on West Ham United for Sunday.

“We will pick the team to start but also have a plan B or plan C in the pocket to win that game.

“That’s what we need finally, to win games, and for that we not only need 11 players, we need the whole squad.”

READ MORE: Small wonder Ronaldo behaves the way he does if this is his ‘punishment’ from Man Utd

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GEORGE FORD IMPRESSED on his first Test start as England returned to winning ways with a 28-9 victory over Samoa at Twickenham on Saturday.

The Bath fly-half kicked five out of seven goalkicks for a haul of 13 points.

More significantly, Ford was also instrumental in creating two of England’s three tries, with wing Jonny May scoring twice.

Successive defeats by the All Blacks (24-21) and the Springboks (31-28) had turned this match into a ‘must-win’ fixture for 2015 World Cup hosts England, who kicked off on a run of five straight losses, albeit four had been against world champions New Zealand.

Samoa had called off a threatened strike in protest at the conduct of the Samoa Rugby Union, which would have seen them boycott this match, only after being told they risked losing their place at next year’s World Cup.

The Pacific Islanders, still yet to beat England, scored all their points courtesy of three penalties from fly-half Tusi Pisi.

England coach Stuart Lancaster made five changes and a positional switch to the team beaten 31-28 by South Africa last weekend, calling up Ford, whose previous four caps had come from off the bench, and moving the No 10′s old school friend and former youth rugby colleague Owen Farrell from fly-half to inside centre.

Pisi kicked Samoa into an early lead but missed a routine penalty before Ford equalised for England, playing in unfamiliar red shirts, in the 16th minute.

Loop try

Four minutes later Ford demonstrated the running and handling skill England have often lacked among their backs by setting up the only try of the first half.

Ford’s ‘loop’ move with May saw England make ground before fullback Mike Brown joined the line to send May, who slid in on a rainswept pitch, for a score by the posts.

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It took several minutes for South African referee Jaco Peyper to confirm the try as he consulted with the television match official before deciding Brown’s pass to May had not gone forward.

Ford converted and England led 10-3 before Pisi reduced the deficit.

England, however, were dominant at the scrum and a set-piece penalty saw them extend their lead to 13-6.

More good work from Ford almost led to a second England try in the 32nd minute but, as happened in their defeat by the All Blacks a fortnight ago, Brown was unable to hold what might have been a scoring pass.

An otherwise unblemished kicking record for Ford ended on the stroke of half-time when he missed a long-range penalty.

But he made no mistake in the opening minute of the second period as he edged England further in front.

Ford then produced a sublime piece of skill with his cross-kick out to the right wing regathered by Bath team-mate Anthony Watson, who passed inside to Brown for a fine try.

England’s new stand-off converted and the hosts led 23-6 before another Pisi penalty narrowed the gap.

Ford was involved again when tackled high by Johnny Leota in the 51st minute, with the Samoa centre sent to the sin-bin as a result by Peyper.

No sooner had Samoa been reduced to 14 men then England had their third try and May his second.

England won a line-out and good handling by skipper Chris Robshaw and fellow forwards Joe Marler and David Attwood led to Brown sending May in on the overlap out wide.

Ford missed the difficult conversion but, at 28-9, England all but had the game won in front of a crowd of more than 82,000.

Amid a welter of replacements, England lost cohesion — with lock Attwood knocking on to scupper a try just yards out.

England know better than anyone that a sterner test awaits when they face World Cup pool rivals Australia, smarting from their 26-23 defeat by Ireland in Dublin earlier on Saturday, in their November finale at Twickenham next weekend.

 – © AFP 2014

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Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg’s last-gasp winning goal saw Tottenham Hotspur come from behind to beat Marseille to finish top spot in Group D.

Spurs looked to be heading for the Europa League after a poor first half in a hostile environment saw them fall behind to Chancel Mbemba’s powerful header.

But a much-improved display after the restart saw Clement Lenglet equalise and Hojbjerg snatch victory in the final kick of the game.

It was fitting that qualification was sealed so late after last week’s VAR intervention against Sporting Lisbon meant their fate went down to the final group game.

The entire 90 minutes was filled with jeopardy as Spurs knew defeat would send them out, but victory ensures they progressed to the knockout stages for the fourth successive time in this competition and they will face a second-placed team when it resumes in 2023.

This was never going to be easy, especially with Antonio Conte confined to the stand due to a touchline ban, and there was a sense of inevitability about how the game started given Spurs’ troubles on the road in Europe and Marseille, with three ex-Arsenal players in their side, were out of the traps fast.

Alexis Sanchez could have given them the lead inside the opening five minutes but he headed Amine Harit’s cross just wide.

The former Gunner, who scored three times against Spurs in his time in England, was looking Marseille’s most dangerous player and he tested Hugo Lloris with a shot on the turn, but the France goalkeeper was equal to it with a parried save.

Spurs were perhaps waiting to catch their hosts on the break, but they lost a key component to that plan on the half-hour as Son Heung-min was forced off after a heavy collision with Mbemba.

The South Korean had a bloodied nose and walked off very wobbly, meaning he could be a doubt for Sunday’s game with Liverpool due to possible concussion protocols.

Lloris was Spurs’ busiest player and he produced a flying save to keep out a fierce Jordan Veretout drive that was heading for the top corner.

But eventually Marseille’s pressure told and they scored in first-half stoppage time.

Ryan Sessegnon’s mistake led to a corner which Marseille took quickly and Mbemba powered home a free header at the far post.

Spurs looked condemned, having not even completed a forward pass in Marseille’s half, but came out in the second half and immediately improved, levelling in the 54th minute.

Ivan Perisic sent in a delicious free-kick which Lenglet headed home as Spurs continued their set-piece prowess.

The game had changed and Conte’s side were beginning to find space and had moments where they could have taken the lead.

They wasted a chance to counter as Rodrigo Bentancur overhit a pass to Lucas Moura who was through on goal, but Spurs recycled the ball and when Emerson Royal’s cross was spilled by Pau Torres, Harry Kane could not adjust his feet in time to tap-in.

They thought their moment had come in the 80th minute as they worked a throw-in brilliantly as Bentancur and Moura combined to tee up Hojbjerg, whose shot from 14 yards crashed against the crossbar.

A minute later Kane was through on goal but was denied by a brilliant last-ditch tackle by Mbemba just as he was about to pull the trigger.

Spurs survived a hair-raising moment in the 87th minute as former Arsenal player Sead Kolasinac put a free header wide at the far post.

It looked like it would be job done with a draw but Spurs made sure at the death as Kane played in Hojbjerg who finished emphatically to silence a hostile Marseille crowd.

READ MORE: Every Premier League club’s highest-rated player of the season so far


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MATHIEU BASTAREAUD IS six feet tall and tips the scale at a smidgen under 19 stone. That is a hefty amount of bulk. But just like in Rocky, all the size in the world doesn’t matter a damn if you are faced with an overwhelming amount of human spirit.

Step forward Argentina’s Santiago González Iglesias. For the record, The French Fridge weighs 120kg while the Argentine out-half is a whopping 33 kilos lighter at 87kg.

That was Argentina’s very own Munster-on-Chabal moment in their upset win over France last weekend. The original hit still holds up almost eight years later.

Source: Georgie Casey/YouTube

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H/T to reddit for the gif.

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