Manchester United shocked, City’s back, and England’s race is still dormant

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Manchester United stinks. Manchester City’s good again. Chelsea’s not completely reborn, and Liverpool has a heart. English Premier League, bloody hell.

United’s face plant at Wigan is overshadowing the match day’s other surprises, mostly because it undermined our most reliable hypothesis. Trying to explain why an inferior Red Devils team was besting rival City, the easiest explanation was manager Alex Ferguson’s superiority. He may not have the best car, but he sure knows the course (goes the metaphor that I just created). But if that’s the case, how did Manchester United lose at Wigan? Wigan!

Amid our cloud of incredulity this detail might get lost, but Wigan beat people. Yeah, I know – I was so surprised, too, but this kind of stuff is on record, and particularly in March and April, the Latics have been able to shock a few titans. Two years ago, it was late-season, home wins over Liverpool and Arsenal that helped perserve survival (Roberto Martínez had also engineered a win over Chelsea earlier that season). Now, Wigan have won at Liverpool and, just over two weeks later, taken full points from United.

It’s like the reverse Steve Bruce. Under Martínez’s predecessor, Wigan would survive on the back of relatively strong starts while horrible finishes made it seem the ex-United defender was working some sort of voodoo in the season’s first half (we know better, now). Under Martínez, pundits spend seven months calling the Latics hopeless only to see them find survival in April.

After yesterday’s win, Wigan sits 17th and have a two-point lead on 18th place Bolton. After this weekend’s trip to Arsenal, Wigan close at Fulham, versus Newcastle, at Blackburn, and home to Wolves.

Back to the United result. It’s hard not to think Alex Ferguson was thinking bigger picture. At least, that’s one way we can continue our deification of the United boss. As evidence, look to the 65th minute, when Wayne Rooney was brought off for Nani. Were the Premier League title race in any serious doubt, there’s no way Rooney watches the final 25 minutes from the bench. It seems more likely that Ferguson, in the face of United’s pathetic display, started seeing the match as a learning moment. Taking off the man who could have challenged Shaun Maloney’s goal certainly sent a message. That the man was also one of the world’s highest paid players only underscored the message: Get your act together – all of you.

That Ferguson was able to do that speaks to how close the race was not. Today, of course it’s closer, but Manchester City still need a lot of help, part of the reason Roberto Mancini’s sheepish about their title chances. United is still up five with five to play. Even if City defeats United at the Ettihad on Apr. 30, they still need help from their red rivals (admittedly, something that seems more likely after yesterday). And even if they get help from United, they can’t stumble.

As remarkable as yesterday was, it would have to happen again before there’s a race in England. Perhaps it was premature to think it done and dusted, but title race is still dormant.

Reports: Barcelona holding talks with Verratti’s agent

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Barcelona has their eyes set on a new Andres Iniesta.

Sure, projecting anyone to meet Ballon d’Or finalist standards is silly, but news that Barca has had multiple meetings with Paris Saint-Germain’s Marco Verratti does inspire comparison hunting.

[ MORE: Klopp explains Lovren extension ]

An influential and creative central midfielder, the 24-year-old Verratti is 8.5 years younger than Iniesta and wowed Barca in the first leg of PSG’s ill-fated UEFA Champions League tie with the Catalans.

Mundo Deportivo, amongst others, reports that Verratti feels life at PSG has gotten stale and that Barca is one of the few clubs that represents a significant jump up in class. He’s also been linked with Real Madrid and Manchester United in the past few transfer windows.

Verratti has a contract through 2020-21, so any purchase will not be cheap considering PSG’s desire to continue growing its status as a UCL contender. The Italian is 21 times capped by the Azzurri.

Klopp talks new Lovren deal, Top Four worries, Watford

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Liverpool announced a new contract for Dejan Lovren on Friday, complete with the requisite “I love my club” comments from the defender.

Then Jurgen Klopp got his hands on a microphone.

The outspoken manager explained that re-signing Lovren to a new “long-term” deal ensures that the Croatian spends the best years of his career with the Reds.

[ MORE: Top PL Storylines ]

He also spoke plainly about Lovren’s perceived struggles and successes since arriving at Anfield from Southampton in 2014.

From The Liverpool Echo:

“If Dejan played for another club you would want to sign him – and pay a lot of money. He is 27, the best time is still to come.”

“If you’d asked fans after the Dortmund game they would said give him a 20-year contract. After the Palace game fans would have said ‘can we find another team who will have him?’ Truth is somewhere in between.”

Turning to Monday’s trip to Watford, Klopp isn’t concerned about the chance that his Reds will open the day outside the Top Four if Man City and Manchester United both win at the weekend.

He also says the Reds could have Adam Lallana and Daniel Sturridge at Vicarge Road, though Jordan Henderson remains out.

Premier League Preview: Sunderland vs. Bournemouth

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  • Sunderland won 2-1 on Nov. 5
  • Fourth meeting since 1990
  • Sunderland leads all-time 5W-3D-1L

Sunderland looks to keep its faint hopes of Premier League safety alive by managing a season sweep of Bournemouth when the two sides meet at the Stadium of Light on Saturday (Watch live at 10 a.m. ET on CNBC and online via NBCSports.com).

The Black Cats are a mess, having lost to Tees-Wear Derby rivals Middlesbrough on Wednesday and living 12 points back of 17th place Swansea City.

Bournemouth battered Middlesbrough 4-0 last weekend to move seven points clear of the drop zone, and can finish the day in the top half with a win up north.

What they’re saying

Sunderland boss David Moyes on calls for him to quit“I’m here, I’m the manager, you take it on the chin. … I’m a football supporter, I know what it’s like. You don’t like seeing your team lose. There is nobody who wants to win more than me. I am used to winning, I’m not used to losing and I don’t want to get used to it either.”

Bournemouth captain Simon Francis on Sunderland’s woes“It just show how things can happen when clubs are not run properly. If we do lose Sunderland from the Premier League it will be a real shame. They are an enormous club and playing at grounds like theirs is the pinnacle of anyone’s career.”

 

Prediction

The Black Cats haven’t quit, but manage two fewer points than they need, all but heading for the Championship after a 2-2 draw.

Premier League Preview: Southampton vs. Hull City

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  • Hull won 2-1 on Nov. 6
  • Tigers two points clear of drop zone
  • Saints lead all-time 23W-20D-15L

After back-to-back losses to Man City and Chelsea, Saints meet a different kind of desperation when Hull City arrives at St. Mary’s (Watch live at 10 a.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

With a win, Hull can move five points clear of the final relegation spot and heap pressure on Swansea City, who plays Sunday. With a loss, Marco Silva’s men open the 17th place door for Swans.

[ MORE: JPW on Romeu the Destroyer ]

Since the start of the 2011-12 season in the Championship, Southampton has won six of seven matches against Hull. That seventh, however, was the match at the KCOM Stadium earlier this season, one that saw now-West Ham man Robert Snodgrass spur a Tigers comeback.

Saints open the day four points back of eighth place West Brom, and also hold a match-in-hand on the Baggies.

What they’re saying

Saints boss Claude Puel on slump busting“After two losses it’s important to move forward now and take points on Saturday in front of our own fans. We have to improve in the right areas and find a good balance of play, but also a good clinical edge in both penalty areas.”

Marco Silva on Hull’s away troubles““We have conceded goals on the counter-attack away from home in games when the result has been looking good for us – we cannot make it possible for our opponents to do this to us. The second goal we conceded at Stoke is an example of this – conceded at a time when we were in control of the game. Details like this are making the difference and these are things we must look to change. This is clear to me and I pass this on to my players.”

Prediction

Saints have more quality than Hull, but may not have as much fire in the belly. Still, home field means a lot here and Southampton should reverse the score line from November’s tilt. 2-1, with Manolo Gabbiadini and Dusan Tadic leading the way.