Blackburn Rovers v Wigan Athletic - Premier League

Shipped from abroad, England: Blackburn visited by the ghost of chaos’ past

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In a season that will end with a new club winning the title (this has only happen five times in 20 seasons), one of the Premier League’s few previous winners will go down. Not that this hasn’t happened before. None of Manchester United, Arsenal or Chelsea have sniffed relegation since finishing atop Sky’s league, but Blackburn Rovers? They’ll be making their second trip to the Championship since Jack Walker bought the title in 1995.

(Don’t take offense, Blackburn fans. All titles are bought.)

That fate was confirmed on Monday. Perhaps you heard about it? The match with the chicken? Well, like all matches, it also ended with a final score: 1-0 in favor of visiting Wigan, with Paraguayan international Antolín Alcaraz’s 87th minute winner helping Blackburn fill the Premier League’s quota of sending one chaotic mess back into the Football League.

Three years ago, that mess was Newcastle. The club’s season was sent spinning early when manager Kevin Keegan walked away amidst disagreements with then-maligned owner Mike Ashley. By season’s end, Match of the Day face Alan Shearer (also a wildly prolific scorer with Newcastle) was brought in to keep the Toon up, only he couldn’t guide the club to a final day win at home over Aston Villa, a side whose season had long since been decided.

Two years ago, Portsmouth adopted an involuntary ownership rotation scheme, apparently intent on testing the bounds of fit and proper personhood. By March they were on their fifth owner, had been docked nine points, and were relying on Avram Grant to save them (fact: nothing says chaotic ownership like Avram Grant). Two years later, the club’s been relegated to the third tier, a 10-point deduction dropping them from 18th to 22nd in the Championship. But at least the doors are still open.

Last year, West Ham started the season by looking at Pompey’s problems and demanding “get us the man who orchestrated that.” Grant was brought in and didn’t disappoint. The Hammers finished dead last despite an array of enviable talents (by relegation standards): Scott Parker, Robert Green, Matthew Upson, Mark Noble, Carlton Cole, Victor Obinna, Wayne Bridge, Tomas Hitzlsperger, Demba Ba, Pablo Barrera amongst them. They were no match for the power of Avram, nor the powers of Davids Gold and Sullivan, a duo that had previous guided Birmingham City into the Championship.

Blackburn is the latest club to fall beneath the scythe of ownership chaos. Last year, Venky’s Limited Group (best known for interests in poultry, hence the chicken) bought the team at the behest of agent Jerome Anderson. Quickly, it became known that Swiss sports agency Kentaro (affiliated with Anderson) where the brains behind the Venky’s soccer operation. Manager Sam Allardyce was let go, presumably for stylistic reasons, yet ownership never replaced interim manager Steve Kean, who proved willing to accept the Kentaro-introduced policies. One year later, downtrodden Rovers supporters are releasing live chickens during matches.

Looking to next season, which club could become the Premier League’s annual inane ownership offering? There aren’t any obvious candidates, but you can’t sleep on a club that made the brilliant decision to hire the manager of a recently-relegated arch rival. That’s what Aston Villa did at this season’s onset. Now, two years after a string of three consecutive sixth place finishes, Villa could finish 17th. It’s difficult to see next year being better if Alex McLeish is still in charge.

This season, Blackburn predictably filled the chaos quota. Hopefully next year will see 20 ownership groups appropriately value their club’s place in the first division.

Elsewhere in England

Saturday’s results
Arsenal 3-3 Norwich City

Sunday’s results
Newcastle 0-2 Manchester City
Aston Villa 1-1 Tottenham Hotspur
Bolton Wanderers 2-2 West Bromwich Albion
Fulham 2-1 Sunderland
Queens Park Rangers 1-0 Stoke City
Wolverhampton 0-0 Everton
Manchester United 2-0 Swansea City

Monday’s results
Blackburn Rovers 0-1 Wigan Athletic

Races

Champions League: Manchester City (86 points/37 games), Manchester United (86/36), Arsenal (67/37), Tottenham (66/36)*

Europa League: Newcastle (65/37) (Liverpool has already qualified by virtue of winning the League Cup; Chelsea has qualified by virtue of winning the FA Cup)

Survival (relegation): Aston Villa (38/37), Queens Park Rangers (37/37) Bolton (35/37) (Blackburn and Wolverhampton have already had relegation confirmed)

* – if Chelsea wins Champions League, they take Spurs’ spot in the 2012-13 tournament, relegating Tottenham to Europa.

Stuff that stuck out:

  • Steve touched on it on Saturday, but with Sunday’s results, Arsenal got a bit of an undeserved reprieve. Tottenham dominated Aston Villa but couldn’t get more than a point, leaving the Gunners in control of their own destiny ahead of a final round visit to The Hawthornes. That match is far from a foregone conclusion. Arsenal’s winless in four, and if they can stumble at home to Norwich, they certainly can be had in Roy Hodgson’s last match with West Brom.
  • Robin van Persie scored twice on Saturday, giving him a four-goal lead atop the league’s scoring charts after Wayne Rooney failed to find the net against Swansea.
  • Speaking of scoring charts, Clint Dempsey’s goal against Sunderland (a team that checked out when they were eliminated from the FA Cup) leaves him alone in fourth place amongst Premier League goal scorers. He’s the only player amongst the chart’s top nine whose total hasn’t been bolstered by a penalty kick.
  • Despite their loss to Manchester City, Newcastle can still qualify for Champions League, though they will have to win at Everton. Should they do so, they finish top four with as little as a +8 goal difference. It’s been seven years since a club finished as high was a worse ratio, Everton remarkably claiming fourth in 2004-05 with a -1.
  • It’s the least Djibril could have done. Since arriving from Lazio in the winter window, QPR’s Djibril Cisse has seen red twice. On Sunday, he may have reclaimed the points he’s cost Rangers, his 89th minute winner giving QPR three from Stoke.
  • Mark Hughes’ team is still in dire straits. They have to get a point at the Etihad on Sunday, which isn’t going to happen. Bolton go to the Brittania to face a Stoke side that’s last in the league in goals scored. One will do for Owen Coyle’s boys.
  • If ownership is a hint as to who will and won’t survive relegation battles, it’s no wonder Wigan keeps pulling off these May escapes. Dave Whelan has kept his small-ish club in that rugby-ish town up for seven straight seasons. The faith he’s shown in Roberto Martíne, has been admirable. There’ve been many times over the last three seasons another owner would have changed course. A steady hand with realistic goals, Whelan has the Latics set for an eighth season of Premier League soccer.

Up next: It’s Survival Sunday, we’re told. Ten matches, all kicking off at the same time (10:00 a.m. Eastern), only a few of which are worth your time:

  • Manchester City vs. Queens Park Rangers: City will win and claim the title.
  • Sunderland vs. Manchester United: I suppose United could make up their eight-goal disadvantage in difference.
  • West Bromwich Albion vs. Arsenal: If Arsenal draws, they can finish no worse than fourth. If they win, they claim third.
  • Tottenham vs. Fulham: Spurs win only gives them third if Arsenal stumbles. Anything less opens the door for Newcastle.
  • Everton vs. Newcastle:
  • The Magpies can only move up with a win. If they get it, they need Arsenal to lose or Fulham to win to climb into (at least) fourth.

  • Norwich City vs. Aston Villa:
  • Villa would have to lose by at least 16 goals, have QPR get a point from Man City and have Bolton win in order to go down. I don’t know why I bothered to type that out.

  • Stoke City vs. Bolton Wanderers:
  • The Trotters need a win. If they get it, they should survive (with QPR’s loss at City).

Top Premier League Storylines – Week 26

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 08:  Claudio Ranieri, manager of Leicester City speaks with his players during the break in extra-time in the Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round replay match between Leicester City and Derby City at The King Power Stadium on February 8, 2017 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
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Well. This weekend’s return of Premier League action was already slated to be an exciting one, but now with today’s enormous bit of breaking news, it has become even more intriguing.

[ WATCH: Previewing every match in Week 26 ]

There’s plenty to discuss at the top of the Premier League table, as Arsenal and Spurs look to heal their European wounds, but it’s what’s at the bottom that has everyone talking today.

How will Leicester City react after the firing of Claudio Ranieri?

Leicester City vs. Liverpool —  3:00 p.m. EDT Monday on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Well. The Foxes had their work cut out for them coming into this match already, but now it has a whole new flavor. Claudio Ranieri has been dismissed just nine months after winning the Premier League title, and sitting just a point off the drop coming into the weekend (and inside the relegation zone coming into the match?) Leicester City will be lead into King Power Stadium by Assistant Manager Craig Shakespeare and First Team Coach Mike Stowell.

Liverpool stopped a five-match winless streak last time out with a quality 2-0 win over Tottenham, but the Reds defense has been leaky all season, and if Leicester is to break its horrid 610-minute goalless streak, it would be here. The Foxes are without a win in five and have not scored a Premier League goal in all of the 2017 calendar year. Can they respond and begin to play for themselves rather than their former manager?

Can Dele Alli and Tottenham bounce back?

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Stoke City — 8:30 a.m. EDT Sunday on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Spurs looked like they had rediscovered their Champions League form with a comprehensive smothering of Championship side Fulham in the FA Cup. Then, they welcomed KAA Gent to Wembley and promptly lost their heads. Dele Alli was sent off for one of the worst challenges you’ll see, and Spurs were vulnerable as a result, crashing out of the Europa League.

Now, Mauricio Pochettino must regroup the squad and get them ready to host Stoke, a team they clobbered 4-0 in the third match of the season. The squad is still healthy, and the loss of European play may actually help them in the long run. Here, however, it provides them with negative form and a short prep time. They need this one badly to solidify a top four place moving forward, can Poch turn it around?

Can Sunderland get a result against surging Everton?

Everton vs. Sunderland — 10:00 a.m. EDT Saturday on NBCSports.com

Hull City hosts Burnley. Crystal Palace welcomes Middlesbrough. With those two fellow occupants of the relegation zone playing at home against lower-half sides, the spotlight is squarely on Sunderland. The Black Cats have a tough matchup, on the road at Everton.

The Toffees haven’t lost a Premier League match since falling to Liverpool in mid-December, and have scored 19 goals in the eight matches since that blemish. With that in mind, Sunderland must get some kind of a result to pull off the bottom of the Premier League table. Can they snatch points at Goodison Park?

FA Cup final could leave Chelsea well out in front

Chelsea vs. Swansea City — 10:00 a.m. EDT Saturday on NBCSports.com

Chelsea is already eight points ahead of the pack and looks to be the clear favorite to win the Premier League title. It could get even clearer after this week. Manchester United is off, Manchester City is off, and Arsenal is off. Couple that with Tottenham struggling and Liverpool facing a desperate Leicester City side, and it’s entirely conceivable that a win for Chelsea over Swansea City could leave the Blues as far as 11 points clear at the top of the table, albeit a game ahead of some. That would all but wrap things up, wouldn’t it?

Mario Balotelli handed 2-match ban for abusing referee

FILE- In this Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016 file photo, Nice's forward Mario Balotelli, of Italy, reacts during the Europa League group I soccer match between OGC Nice and FC Salzburg, in Nice stadium, southeastern France. Nice striker Mario Balotelli’s teammate Alassane Pleas has confirmed he heard Bastia supporters racially abusing Balotelli with monkey chants during the league match on Friday, Jan. 20, 2017. (AP Photo/Claude Paris, File)
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After being sent off for referee abuse in last weekend’s Ligue 1 win over FC Lorient, Nice striker Mario Balotelli has been handed a two-match ban.

Balotelli earned his second red card of the season in the 69th minute of a 1-0 win that kept Nice within striking distance of the leaders Monaco. It was his second straight red and third sending-off of the season, having already been dismissed in reverse fixture against Lorient after a pair of yellows in the final three minutes of the game.

After the mercurial Italian’s hot start to the season, he has just one goal in the last two months, the third in a 3-1 win over Guingamp. He has not scored a point-winning goal since bagging both in a 2-1 win over Dijon back on December 18th.

Balotelli’s agent, the well-known Mino Raiola, was so frustrated with his client’s continual dismissal problems that he told French media conglomerate RMC Sport that the solution to Balotelli’s problems is to “cut out his tongue.”

“I have already found the solution: you have to cut out his tongue,” Raiola said bluntly. “To play soccer, there is no need for language! In all seriousness, he knows he made a big mistake and he has no excuse. He knows he needs to improve that. He is very sad for him, for the team.”

The suspension leaves Balotelli on the sidelines for tomorrow’s match against 11th placed Montpellier and then on March 4th at 17th placed Dijon. Nice sits in third, level on points with 2nd placed PSG and three back of leaders Monaco.

The leading names to take over for Claudio Ranieri

MILAN, ITALY - MAY 07:  FC Internazionale Milano head coach Roberto Mancini looks on during the Serie A match between FC Internazionale Milano and Empoli FC  at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on May 7, 2016 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)
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The wounds of Claudio Ranieri‘s firing are still healing, but it’s now up to Leicester City to move on without him. Assistant Manager Craig Shakespeare and First Team Coach Mike Stowell will take over on an interim basis, but they need a permanent replacement.

So who are the early frontrunners?

The early favorite is former Manchester City boss Roberto Mancini. The Italian won the league in 2011/12 with City, but was harshly sacked the following season with the club in second place in the Premier League and reaching the FA Cup final. He since has been in charge of Turkish side Galatasaray and also returned to Internazionale where he managed before moving to England. The 50-year-old has been out of a job since departing Inter in August.

After Mancini, the names start to seriously thin out. Alan Pardew is the second-favorite, having been fired in late December with Crystal Palace in a freefall. Frank de Boer is also high on the list, with the Dutchman finding himself on the unemployment list after just 85 days at Inter, sacked after a run of four defeats in five. Former Birmingham City manager Gary Rowett is also mentioned, after he was unexpectedly let go in December with the club 7th in the Championship table.

Even further down the list is Avram Grant, an Israeli who last spent three years in charge of the Ghanan national team and has prior Premier League experience during short stints with Chelsea and West Ham. Mark Warburton has been mentioned, without a job since his hotly contested departure from Rangers earlier this calendar year, with the club saying he resigned after falling well behind Celtic in the title race, but Warburton claiming that was not the case.

While the names mentioned aren’t exactly inspired given Leicester City’s recent history at the top of the Premier League table, the immediate goal is to avoid relegation. Whoever comes in will have the difficult job of following in Ranieri’s footsteps, given his aptitude for charisma and appreciation by fans and the media. If they can do the job, however, they’ll not only write their own names into the Leicester City history books, but also validate the decision by ownership to part ways with the beloved Italian who brought them a title. The board has to get this one right.

17-year-old Donnarumma in contract dispute at AC Milan

ROME, ITALY - FEBRUARY 13:  AC Milan goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma gestures during the Serie A match between SS Lazio and AC Milan at Stadio Olimpico on February 13, 2017 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)
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AC Milan has developed a teenage sensation, but they might not be able to keep him.

Young goalkeeping sensation Gianluigi Donnarumma could find himself on the open market this summer after reports that his agent Mino Raiola has balked at AC Milan’s contract offer.

Donnarumma is just 17 years old and has been hailed as the successor to Gianluigi Buffon’s goalkeeping throne, earning the first-place job at one of Europe’s biggest clubs this season. However, according to Italian publication Calcio Mercato, Milan offered Donnarumma just $2.6 million a year, while Raiola is reportedly seeking twice that.

Milan’s caution is understandable given Donnarumma’s extreme youth at a position that usually sees players rise and fall at a later age, but the teenager has already become a sensation in Italy, and Raiola is looking to capitalize on his popularity.

However, it’s not just sensationalism that Raiola is hoping to pounce on. According to Squawka Statistics’ Performance Index, Donnarumma has performed as the second-best goalkeeper in Serie A this season behind Wojciech Szczesny. If AC Milan doesn’t wish to pay its young star, it’s likely that someone out there will – rather handsomely.

Premier League money could be enticing for both the player and his agent who has already made a fortune negotiating big-money deals for the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba, Mario Balotelli, and plenty others. Manchester City could be after a young goalkeeper to challenge the struggling Claudio Bravo, while the Manchester United sticks could be left vacant if David De Gea ever makes his way to Spain as is annually rumored.

Either way, Donnarumma deserves to be paid, based both on his fantastic performances this season at the San Siro and the subsequent popularity he has gained as the successor to one of the games great goalkeepers.