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Francis Coquelin: I left Arsenal for Valencia to play more games

Francis Coquelin: I left Arsenal for Valencia to play more games

ESPN

Without question, one of the most improved players at Manchester City under Pep Guardiola has been Raheem Sterling.

Now in his third season at the Etihad, the winger has proved himself to be a key component of a Guardiola-style team -- his fast pace is crucial on the counter-attack, his positional awareness is a large factor in engineering shooting opportunities for himself and others, and his understanding of his role has also brought the best out of his teammates.

He's looking every bit a bargain at £49 million, a transfer fee that was ridiculed in 2015 when the England international made the switch from Liverpool. Even in the context of how spending has skyrocketed in the years since that deal, no transfer after Sterling's has garnered the same level of criticism.

Looking back at that transfer tussle, it is little surprise that Sterling initially struggled to settle. He was painted as not just the bad guy, but one of the most mercenary footballers to have graced the Premier League -- pundits were queuing up to give their thoughts on why he should have stayed at Liverpool and he was being branded "greedy" or "ungrateful."

As much as he insisted the switch was about furthering his career and aiming to win trophies, it was always painted as being about money. He may have only won one competition at City in his two-and-a-half seasons at the club -- the 2016 League Cup -- but there certainly looks like there'll be more winners' medals in his cabinet over the next few years. And it doesn't look like such a bad decision now.

Throughout his time at City, Sterling has been booed mercilessly at pretty much every away ground he's been to. Many opposition fans say it's down to his poor display at Euro 2016 with England, however the abuse began in that 2015-16 campaign -- 12 months before he underperformed, just like the rest of the England team did, in France.

It didn't go unnoticed, either. Sterling dubbed himself "the hated one" on social media and you can only imagine what that does to the psyche of a man who was just 21 at the time. How could he not be affected if that was what he thought of himself?

But City fans are now revelling in his transformation. Sterling's performances this term have been so good that he's been able to turn around the public perception of him -- there's barely a jeer or whistle when he's on the ball, something that was still going on for much of last season.

Sterling has already scored more goals this campaign (14) than he ever has in an entire season and his longest streak without finding the net is just three games. He's regularly been the difference between City drawing and winning, too -- as crucial goals in 2-1 wins over Bournemouth, Huddersfield and Southampton and the 1-0 success at Newcastle all demonstrate. That's four strikes that have earned City eight points alone.

The winger faces perhaps one of his toughest tests of the season on Sunday, however. It's fair to say that Sterling has never performed well for his new club when facing Liverpool -- yet to truly make an impact in the five games he's played against his former team, including missing two gilt-edged chances to wrap up the 1-1 draw in the League Cup final that his side eventually won on penalties in 2016.

But that was the old, widely-ridiculed Sterling. He was a player that hadn't benefited from 18 months of Guardiola's tutelage and hadn't developed into one of the deadliest attackers in Europe. He was inconsistent, showing flashes of brilliance alongside mistakes and indecision.

For two seasons at City, he was just potential, with only the odd moment of quality when it really mattered.

Now, though, they've got perhaps the Premier League's most exciting attacker. He understands when to cut inside and create space for right-back Kyle Walker to overlap. He can read when he needs to join striker Sergio Aguero in the box to become an added goal threat. He drifts around the front three positions, making himself near impossible to mark. He also finds the net more often than not.

Sterling will be jeered at Anfield -- Liverpool are the only club with any right to make him the pantomime villain -- and how well he is able to cope in that pressure cooker environment will go a long way to deciding how well City do in the game.

Guardiola's side have an abysmal record at Liverpool and if they're to turn that around, then the performance of Sterling could be the difference.

David Mooney is ESPN FC's Manchester City blogger. Twitter: @DavidMooney

Manchester United are ready to battle Manchester City for the signature of Arsenal forward Alexis Sanchez in January. The Chilean is available on a free transfer next summer, so bids of around £30 million are expected to persuade him to move earlier, but which club should he join? And should he snub both to stay at the Emirates?

Our club correspondents make their case for Sanchez to arrive, or stay put.

MAN CITY: Become one of the best in world and win trophies

If Sanchez still has footballing ambitions in England, his only realistic move is to Manchester City. The Chilean has never won the Premier League and by switching to the Etihad Stadium he is all-but guaranteeing himself a winner's medal in May.

With this expensively-assembled squad, Pep Guardiola's side will be challenging for the biggest trophies in Europe every season, but the same can't be said at Arsenal, and who knows with Manchester United under Jose Mourinho.

But there will be no shortcuts at City for Sanchez. In a squad bulging with quality, he'll have to compete against the best in Europe (both opposition and his own teammates) and, in a year when he will miss out on the World Cup, it will be a real opportunity to make his mark as one of the best players on the planet.

Guardiola has always been a fan of Sanchez since he took him to Barcelona and not many players can turn down the best coach in the world, who once again this season has shown he can make great footballers even better.

Guardiola is secure in his job and has a clear strategy moving forward, while there always seems to be uncertainty surrounding the futures of Arsene Wenger and Mourinho. The latter is back to his old ways of picking fights -- even criticising his own players if he thinks it's the right thing to do -- and that environment is not the most attractive proposition for a player who can have his pick of sides.

At 29, Sanchez's next move may well be the last big one he makes. If he wants to cap a brilliant career with a late flourish of success, City are his best bet. -- Jonathan Smith.

MAN UNITED: Come and be one of the "Untouchables"

It will be difficult for United to convince Alexis Sanchez to choose Old Trafford, as City offer the chance to work with a manager he has had success under before (Guardiola) and, probably, a Premier League winners medal in May.

Money is not an issue; United can offer Sanchez the same wage packet he would get at City. They can, though, offer him prominence. 

United need a player like Sanchez more than City. Guardiola has already got Sergio Aguero, Gabriel Jesus, Leroy Sane, Raheem Sterling, David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva competing for places in the front five. It means Sanchez would not necessarily be guaranteed to start every week.

That would be different at Old Trafford. Jose Mourinho does not like to rest Romelu Lukaku, but no one else starts every week. Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial have shared the job on the left while Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard have all been in and out of the team at different points.

Sanchez would immediately be one of the "Untouchables." If it's trophies that matter to the Chilean, he would probably have to wait until next season to challenge for the biggest ones if he signs for United. One of the key questions is whether he is willing to wait that long. -- Rob Dawson.

ARSENAL: Erm... the weather in London is better than up north...

At this stage, pleading for Sanchez to stay at Arsenal is a bit of a lost cause -- especially since he has good reasons for leaving.

Why turn down more money -- including a massive signing bonus -- and a chance to play for a better team that's virtually guaranteed to win the Premier League? The glory of fighting for a top-four spot and the Europa League title just doesn't have the same ring to it. Neither does the prospect of playing alongside Alex Iwobi and Danny Welbeck instead of Kevin De Bruyne and Sergio Aguero.

Aside from the old "loyalty" line, there just isn't any sporting argument that makes sense. Sorry, Gunners' fans, but the fact is Arsenal have failed to build a team around Sanchez and Mesut Ozil that's good enough for their own standards.

London has its charms, though, compared to Manchester. The weather is nicer. We've all seen on Instagram how much his dogs Atom and Humber love running around in Hampstead Heath. If that's not enough to turn down millions of pounds and the promise of multiple trophies, then there's not much more to add really. -- Mattias Karen.

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Hammersmith and Fulham councillors will meet on Monday to discuss a complaint that is delaying Chelsea's redevelopment of Stamford Bridge.

Plans for the new stadium have encountered an obstacle in the form of the Crosthwaites, a family who took out an injunction in May claiming that the new stadium will prevent sunlight from reaching parts of their west London home.

Chelsea have already paid compensation to other families in the area and reportedly made a six-figure offer to the Crosthwaites, but this was rejected and the club are now appealing to the local council to intervene on their behalf.

Plans for the new 60,000-seater stadium were approved in January 2017 and have also been given the green light by mayor of London Sadiq Khan, but Chelsea have since informed the council that the project cannot proceed as long as there is a chance that the injunction could scupper their plans.

The Crosthwaites have lived in their property, which falls within the borough of Kensington and Chelsea, for 50 years and believe that the current stadium plans would result in the new east stand casting a huge shadow over their home.

Chelsea contend that the land on which the property is situated can be compulsorily acquired by the council and the injunction overridden if Hammersmith and Fulham conclude that the project would benefit the economic, environmental or social wellbeing of the area.

If the council does decide to purchase the land, the Crosthwaites have the right to take further legal action, potentially further delaying the project.

Roman Abramovich has been committed to finding a new home for Chelsea for more than a decade, and commissioned a team of architects and engineers to draw up plans for a Stamford Bridge redevelopment after failing in attempts to acquire Battersea Power Station and Earls Court Exhibition Centre.

But recent months have brought considerable added costs and complications to the project, which will require Chelsea to play in a temporary home while Stamford Bridge and the surrounding buildings are demolished and the new stadium is constructed.

Chelsea now estimate that they will have to move away for four years, with Wembley the likeliest destination, before returning to a redeveloped Stamford Bridge in time for the start of the 2024-25 season.

Liam is ESPN FC's Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.

Manchester United will monitor Alexis Sanchez's situation this month but club chiefs still expect the Arsenal forward to sign for Manchester City, sources have told ESPN FC.

Sanchez is set to leave Arsenal after refusing to sign a new deal at the Emirates Stadium, with Gunners manager Arsene Wenger admitting on Friday that he could not rule out a January exit.

Manchester City are leading the chase for the Chile international's signature after narrowly missing out on deadline day when a proposed £60 million move collapsed at the last minute. City have rekindled their interest in the January transfer window.

Sources have told ESPN FC that the Etihad Stadium remains his preferred destination. City have been in talks with Arsenal although an agreement between the two clubs has not yet been reached. But the Premier League leaders are still keen to bring him in, particularly with Brazil striker Gabriel Jesus set to be ruled out for around six weeks.

However, with City bosses reluctant to pay Arsenal's £35m asking price for a player who will be available for nothing in the summer, sources have told ESPN FC that United have taken a watching brief on negotiations.

Sources said that Sanchez is keen to move this month and that Arsenal are prepared to let the 29-year-old leave for the right price.

United's hierarchy still expect Sanchez to sign for City, where he would link up with his former Barcelona manager, Pep Guardiola.

But there is also an acceptance that failing to prepare to take advantage should the move break down for a second time would be a mistake.

Sanchez would fill a pressing need for Jose Mourinho with doubts about Zlatan Ibrahimovic's ability to play a supporting role to first-choice striker Romelu Lukaku for the rest of the season. Ibrahimovic has scored once in seven games since returning from a knee ligament injury in November, but is currently sidelined for a month with another knee problem.

Meanwhile, United full-back Demi Mitchell has joined Scottish Premiership side Hearts on loan for the rest of the season.

The 21-year-old, converted from a winger to a left-back last season, made his senior debut in the 2-0 win over Crystal Palace in May.

He could make his Hearts debut against Hibernian in the Scottish Cup on Jan. 21.

Arnau Puigmal, 17, has signed his first professional contract with United. The midfielder, who arrived from Espanyol in the summer, has followed Angel Gomes, Aliou Traore and Aiden Barlow in penning professional terms.

ESPN FC's Manchester City correspondent Jonathan Smith contributed to this report

Rob is ESPN FC's Manchester United correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @RobDawsonESPN.

Everton are in talks with Arsenal to sign forward Theo Walcott, the club's manager Sam Allardyce has confirmed.

The 28-year-old's Arsenal contract runs until 2019 but he has made just 15 appearances this season and has yet to make a Premier League start.

"I think you are all aware of our interest in Theo," Allardyce told a news conference. "If that is possible to get over the line I'd be delighted.

"Obviously there are negotiations that are happening at the moment and if that can all be sorted out one of the most difficult things to do today -- then that would be a great addition in my opinion to come and join us from an attacking point of view.

"Two or three reasons really -- goalscoring threat, pace, experience and he's good on assists from wide areas in terms of his crossing ability.

"If that is at all possible it would be very nice. It is not imminent at the moment but some negotiations are going on.

"I don't think there's any chance of a loan so I think it is a permanent deal we're hoping to negotiate."

Asked about Allardyce's comments, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said: "I cannot tell you much more. Sam Allardyce has made that statement, but Theo Walcott is here."

Arsenal have already lost Francis Coquelin to Valencia during the January transfer window, with the midfielder saying he left the club in order to play more games, and Wenger added it may be the same situation with Walcott.

He said: "We'll see. We have a good relationship with Theo, and I don't want him to be frustrated or lose an opportunity to go the World Cup. 

"Because Theo went to the World Cup in Germany in 2006, and we are now in 2018, and since he has not been for different reasons. So that of course is a sensitive subject."

ESPN FC's Mattias Karen contributed to this report.

Francis Coquelin has told L'Equipe it was "difficult" to decide to leave Arsenal, but insisted his move to Valencia is a necessary step to boost his career.

Coquelin, 26, ended nine years at Arsenal by signing a four-and-a-half year contract with the Spanish club this week.

A regular in the Arsenal first-team squad but not in the starting line-up, the French midfielder, who spent loan spells at Lorient, Freiburg and Charlton Athletic during his time in north London, admitted he could no longer settle for a bit-part role as he had made just one Premier League start this season.

"I spent some great years at Arsenal. They're the club that launched my career, I'll never forget that. It's difficult to leave. I was playing games, yes, but not necessarily those that counted. I needed to grow still more," he said.

"I'm in an important period in my career. I wasn't playing much at Arsenal, and I wanted to see something different, to experience another story. I have chosen a club with a great past, a family club. And I immediately felt good here."

Coquelin admitted he had talked to Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger about the opportunity to leave the club, despite still having two-and-a-half years left on his contract at the Emirates Stadium.

"We had a very healthy discussion together," he said. "He's someone I have a huge amount of respect for. I told him what I thought, him too, and he understood. The only thing is that I didn't want to leave on loan, but really to start a new cycle. This is perfect."

Coquelin also said he harbours no regrets over swapping the Premier League for La Liga.

"Honestly, no. I would have had if, in 2014, I had left when I was out of contract," he added. "There was a change at that moment, I played a lot of games. We won a cup, we finished in the top three several times. I can't be disappointed with that."

Coquelin will now hope to earn himself a place in a Valencia team that -- in third place, two points behind second-placed Atletico Madrid and five clear of faltering Real Madrid -- have been impressing in the Spanish top flight this season.

"I had heard good things from Santi [Cazorla] about the coach," he said, referring to his new boss, Marcelino. "The coach talked ambitiously, he wants to build a great European team, and he talked to me about the family character of the club.

"I'm coming in without any particular status. I know that in Geoffrey [Kondogbia] and Dani Parejo, there are already two very good players. I have to get myself up to that standard."

Ian is ESPN's French football correspondent. Twitter: @ian_holyman

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