Mali’s national football team captain Seydou Keita gives a press conference at Moses Mahiba stadium in Durban on February 5, 2013, on the eve of the Africa Cup of Nations semi-final football match against Nigeria. AFP PHOTO / FRANCISCO LEONG (Photo credit should read FRANCISCO LEONG/AFP/Getty Images)
We saw yet another weekend of dominance for the big boys in the Premier League (except for Manchester City) and the gap is growing bigger between the top six and the rest of the league.
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Throughout the entire league there are now three “mini-leagues” which are taking shape in a six-eight-six formation.
Here’s a look at what I’m talking about…
- Chelsea – 52 points
- Tottenham – 45
- Arsenal – 45
- Liverpool – 44
- Man City – 42
- Man United – 40
- Everton – 33
- West Brom – 29
- Stoke – 27
- Burnley- 26
- Bournemouth – 25
- West Ham – 25
- Southampton – 24
- Watford – 23
- Leicester City – 21
- Middlesbrough – 20
- Crystal Palace – 16
- Hull City – 16
- Sunderland – 15
- Swansea City – 15
The top six will, obviously, get plenty of the focus on right now apart from Chelsea there is little to separate the rest with just five points between second-place Tottenham and sixth-place Manchester United. The middle eight teams are all having “meh” seasons, apart from Burnley who are overachieving, while the bottom six all look destined for a relegation scrap in the closing four months of the campaign with Leicester City struggling to claw themselves away from danger.
This season it seems like the overachieving and underachieving is at a minimum. Things are almost back to normal, especially with the perennial powers, after the madness of the 2015-16 campaign.
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Yes, the title battle will be intense as Chelsea will, inevitably, drop points along the way and Diego Costa‘s situation has given their title rivals a boost. However, the more intriguing factor could be which two teams miss out on the top four and qualification for the UEFA Champions League.
If Man City’s struggles continue and Pep Guardiola misses out, or if Jose Mourinho and Manchester United don’t push into the top four in the coming months, then those will be huge stories. Yet, it is tough to see any of the current top six dropping many points between now and the end of the season.
It will be a long, hard slog and with UEFA Champions League and Europa League action to kick off next month, along with FA Cup action for all of the top six, the games will come thick and fast.
Who can handle all of this and stay in the hunt?
Biggest strength: No European action to contend with, 3-4-3 and a strong defensive unit. Antonio Conte has been here before with Juventus and has been influential in their rise to the top.
Biggest weakness: Temperamental stars (I’m looking at you Diego Costa) could go missing either figuratively or literally at any moment. Chelsea need to add a new striker in January to stop that from curtailing their title bid.
Biggest strength: Harry Kane and Dele Alli are on another level right now but when you look across Spurs’ team, everyone is hitting form at the right time. Walker and Rose at wing-back is a great option to. This team has learned from their title challenge faltering last season and they are without doubt the biggest threat to Chelsea right now.
Biggest weakness: Europa League and injuries. Mauricio Pochettino has said he will go for Europa League success but if injuries start cropping up (Vertonghen could be out long-term) then he will change his mind.
Biggest strength: Endless talent in attack with Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and even Olivier Giroud now in top form. Skhodran Mustafi has been a huge boost in defense too.
Biggest weakness: Being Arsenal. Logic suggests that a slump is coming up in the second half of the season. Just because, Arsenal. Across the board there are few weaknesses though.
Biggest strength: No European action. Plus, Philippe Coutinho has been out injured for almost two months and now looks ready to roll and re-energized. The front four have been so good all season.
Biggest weakness: Fatigue. Even with no added European action, EFL Cup and FA Cup games in recent weeks have shown Klopp’s methods could be too much. Remember how much Liverpool tired last season?
Biggest strength: Star-studded attackers who can get them out of any mess. It is now time for Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva to turn up. Massive numbers in his squad also helps.
Biggest weakness: Defense. Claudio Bravo has had a nightmare in goal and City’s defense has been far from inspiring as Pep’s masterplan has stalled significantly. Bravo’s struggles has in-turn led to John Stones, Nicolas Otamendi and others crumbling. Pep will never change his philosophy and the way he wants to play. That could mean City pay a big price and finish outside the top four unless they improve drastically in defense.
Biggest strength: Superstars Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba, plus Mourinho’s experience at grinding out wins.
Biggest weakness: Not finishing teams off and, again, the Europa League. Mourinho has and will continue to cut some deadwood from his squad. That means he will use plenty of the same players for EFL Cup, FA Cup and Europa League games. Can he balance this out to help United get right back in the top four mix? A title push seems out of the question now as they’re 10 points, but with nine wins on the spin in all competitions before the last game against Liverpool, they are in form and arguably have a better chance than Man City of overhauling that deficit.
KLOPP NOT CORRECT TO CALL OUT LONG BALL
Following Liverpool’s 1-1 draw at Manchester United on Sunday, Reds boss Jurgen Klopp took exception to United’s direct approach in the final 20 minutes of the game.
Let’s call it what it was. Mourinho went direct for the entire second half. Eventually it paid off when substitute Marouane Fellaini hit the post with a header and Zlatan Ibrahimovic stooped to head home the equalizer in the 84th minute, even if Antonio Valencia was slightly offside when the initial cross came in.
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Klopp looked agitated, frustrated and annoyed afterwards as he told multiple news outlets that Liverpool “were the better team who had the better plan” plus kept slamming United for using long balls late on. He was probably also still smarting a little over the Joel Matip situation as he could be out for another month and Liverpool missed him once again at the heart of their defense. Matip’s height would’ve helped Klopp significantly with United’s direct approach late in the game.
[ MORE: Klopp slams “long ball” United ]
Klopp won the tactical battle to start with as Liverpool lined up with a diamond formation in midfield and nullified the impact of Michael Carrick and Paul Pogba, but Mourinho changed things up and went direct, not allowing Liverpool’s high-press to catch out his defenders as they bypassed midfield. Mourinho did what he had to do to get a draw, just like he did at Anfield.
Klopp was most likely just trying to make a point that although his side have not won in their last four games in all competitions, they should still be admired. They should. The progress Liverpool has made under him in just over a year has been huge but United and Mourinho reminded him that there is more ways to get goals than Gegenpressing.
Zlatan summed it up best when describing how United got back into the game as a big derby ended honors even and both managers were upset with dropping points as Chelsea’s gap at the top grew.
WHAT NOW FOR GUARDIOLA?
Pep Guardiola has all but given up hope of winning the Premier League title in his first season in England.
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Guardiola, 45, looked 10 years older when speaking post-game at Everton on Sunday as his side were hammered 4-0 by the Toffees in an inept display which showcased all of their weaknesses.
The much-lauded coach was supposed to turn City into not only the champions of England but also Europe. It’s not going to plan, at all, and especially in defense.
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After he suffered his worst-ever league defeat as a manager, plus City’s heaviest league defeat since 2008, Pep was asked if their title bid was over.
“Yes. Ten is a lot of points,” Guardiola said. “The second one [Tottenham] is three points. We have to see. I spoke to my players the last three weeks or a month, forget about the table. Focus on the next game and try to do our best to win the games and after that at the end of the season we are going to evaluate how our level and performance was — how was the coach, how was the players and after we are going to decide.”
Although it may seem like too early for City — don’t forget, they were the preseason favorites who won their first 10 games in all competitions under Pep to start the season — to concede the title, it is perhaps telling that Guardiola is already looking resigned to just challenging for the top four.
He knows that if he stays with his passing philosophy out of the back that his team will be susceptible to fast, strong, counter-attacking teams like Everton. There are plenty of teams who deploy those tactics in the PL — Tottenham, Chelsea, Leicester to name a few — and have had great success doing it against City. Guardiola will never play like that and his style is something which led Barcelona and Bayern Munich to glory and often eviscerating English teams in the Champions League.
Guardiola’s team isn’t eviscerating anyone on a weekly basis in the PL right now. Right now, it’s the other way round.
When it clicks their style of play looks beautiful but City is too inconsistent and as soon as they go a goal behind they are lacking in confidence and crumble. Make no mistake about it, this is Pep’s biggest challenge of his managerial career but a country mile. He knows it. You can see it in his eyes. He knows he doesn’t possess the players, in defense at least, to carry out his style and he can’t do too much about it. He will never change his ideals no matter the intense criticism coming his way.
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Right now, many would say he’s failing in the PL and at City. Big time. Yet, let’s give him until the end of the season because an appearance in the UCL semifinals and a runners up spot really wouldn’t be too disastrous. Yet with defending like this and Bravo conceding almost every shot which goes on target right now, those targets seem rather lofty and a long way off for this talented yet tainted City outfit.
Premier League Playback comes out every week as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here.
West Ham are said to be holding out for around $40 million for star player Dimitri Payet.
[ MORE: Costa trains on his own ]
Manager Slaven Bilic revealed that Payet, 29, has refused to play for the Hammers as he wants to push through a move away from the club. The Telegraph reports that Marseille president Jacques-Henri Eyraud flew to London on Monday to discuss a deal for Payet, who joined the Hammers from Marseille in the summer of 2015 for $13 million.
The Hammers are said to be reluctant to sell Payet at all, but it’s obvious they’d rather sell him to a foreign club instead of strengthening one of their Premier League rivals. Payet’s quality is undoubted and he’s created more chances than any other player in the PL this season.
However, West Ham won’t let him leave in a hurry and Sky Sports are reporting that the London club have rejected a second bid from Marseille (believed to be around $25 million) as they want the Ligue 1 club to reach their valuation. Payet is said to be training with West Ham’s U-23 side and the club is demanding that he apologizes to the fans, his teammates and his manager for his actions.
Payet was paid a $1.2 million “loyalty bonus” in September after being signing a new lucrative deal in the summer following his heroics for France at EURO 2016.
The 27-year-old has been a regular for Hull all season but was on the bench for Marco Silva’s first Premier League game in charge at the weekend. Hull beat Bournemouth 3-1 and Livermore may now see his future elsewhere.
Livermore has been a steady player throughout his career and he would surely jump at the chance to join a team who are all but guaranteed to be playing in the Premier League next season, rather than stay with Hull we are battling relegation. Hull have plenty of other options in central midfield too and this money would give Silva plenty of funds to spend in the window.
Surely this deal would work out for everyone?
Liverpool could be without central defender Joel Matip for another month.
[ MORE: Costa trains on own ]
Matip, 25, was called up by the Cameroon national team for the 2017 African Cup of Nations which is currently taking place in Gabon. However, the former Schalke defender has previously stated that he did not want to play for them and he had retired from international duty.
Cameroon called him into their initial 35-man squad for the competition anyway but did not include him in their final 23-man squad once it became clear Matip, along with six other players, had no interest in playing for them at AFCON.
Now, Matip and Liverpool are in limbo and the Reds do now want to risk facing a FIFA sanction for playing someone who is deemed ineligible for selection.
FIFA has confirmed that Liverpool has been in touch regarding Matip’s status and it now appears that he will not be able to play in any other competition while Cameroon is still in AFCON action under Article 5 of FIFA’s rules which are as follows:
“A player who has been called up by his association for one of its representative teams is, unless otherwise agreed by the relevant association, not entitled to play for the club with which he is registered during the period for which he has been released or should have been released pursuant to the provisions of this annexe, plus an additional period of five days.”
Cameroon is not releasing Matip as they obviously feel slighted that he didn’t want to play for them (even though he hasn’t made an appearance for The Indomitable Lions since Sept. 2015) so now Liverpool must wait for them to be knocked out of AFCON unless an agreement is reached. If Cameroon make it to the final on Feb. 5 then Matip will not be available to play for Liverpool again until Feb. 10.
Matip was left out of Liverpool’s squad for the 1-1 draw at Manchester United in the Premier League on Sunday as there wasn’t any clear guidance given to the club by FIFA on his availability.
After the game his manager Jurgen Klopp revealed his true feelings about the situation.
“Our understanding is Joel is retired from international football and we, the club, did everything we had to do to make this clear but until now we could not get the response we need to be 100 per cent sure that he can play,” Klopp said. “It’s pretty difficult and pretty frustrating, to be honest. He’s been in training for five days and would have been in the squad, 100 per cent, maybe on the pitch today, so I don’t think it’s fair. But we cannot do more and are still waiting on the decision. We could not take the risk. It is public now, we have this problem and we are not the only team with this problem.”
I’m with Klopp. Shambles.
West Bromwich Albion are also dealing with a similar situation with Cameroon as Allan Nyom cannot get FIFA clearance to play after he also refused a call up.
As for Liverpool, Matip has been key since arriving last summer on a free transfer, playing 14 games in all competitions and scoring once. His partnership with Dejan Lovren has now been broken up and Ragnar Klavan has looked shaky since coming back into the team after Matip’s ankle injury which last saw him play on Dec. 11 against Middlesbrough.
Reports from multiple outlets in the UK claim that Diego Costa trained on his own on Monday.
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That shouldn’t be too surprising but anything to do with Costa right now is news.
Costa, 28, was left out of Chelsea’s squad for the 3-0 victory at Leicester City on Saturday but manager Antonio Conte cited a back injury for the absence of the Premier League’s leading scorer who has 14 goals and five assists this season.
However, reports emerged last Friday that Costa was involved in a training ground bust up last Tuesday with a member of Chelsea’s medical staff and had a heated debate with Conte. Couple that with reports of a monster contract offer of over $40 million per year from the Chinese Super League and you have, reportedly, a player in turmoil.
Pro Soccer Talk can confirm that Chelsea’s players who played on Saturday were given two days off by Conte, so the vast majority of the squad were not in training on Monday.
Photos taken on Monday (below) show Costa on his own at Chelsea’s Cobham base on Monday and he has supposedly been working on his own for the past two days as he tries to regain full fitness.
All of this will add further fuel to the fire that Costa has been exiled from the first team due to his supposed row with Conte, but it must be noted that it is not uncommon for players returning from an injury to train on their own until they get back up to speed.
It is thought that Costa has been working hard in the past two days in individual sessions to prove to Conte and his staff that he can return to first team training. Whatever you want to believe is going on, Costa’s importance to Chelsea is clear as their top scorer is needed back fast despite their seven-point lead at the PL’s summit.
Chelsea is a different team without Costa and although Eden Hazard and Co. breezed past Leicester at the weekend, they didn’t look the same in attack and they need Costa back ASAP.
Both Costa and Conte should put their differences aside, but it seems as though Conte will be the one who will be dictating the next step and its up to Costa to make amends.