ProSoccerTalk’s Premier League Narratives: Matchweek 31 (Part One)

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As the great Roger Bennett and Michael Davies love to remind the footie-loving public, narratives are what make the Premier League so exhilarating. There are league narratives, club narratives, owner narratives, player narratives and even supporter narratives. Sometimes, the narratives run so deep that you find yourself lost in a bliss of a narrative trapped inside a narrative trapped inside another narrative.

Yes, the Premier League is that delicious. And this column promises to help you drink it down like a room-temp Boddingtons on a Sunday morning. Enjoy the storylines and have a good laugh over my predictions for following matches:  Sunderland v. Manchester United, Arsenal v. Reading, Manchester City v. Newcastle and Southampton v. Chelsea.

SUNDERLAND v. MANCHESTER UNITED (Stadium of Light, Sat 8:45am ET)

Steven Fletcher’s injury means Sunderland – who are winless in their last seven matches and sit 15th in the table, just four points from the drop zone – will look to former Swansea City striker Danny Graham to ease Wearside’s relegation fears. But don’t expect Manchester United to care. With his squad 15 points clear of 2nd placed Manchester City, Sir Alex Ferguson is poised to claim his 12th league title. And in the Glaswegian’s eyes the sooner it comes, the better. But with the second leg of the FA Cup quarter-final at Chelsea set to go forward on Monday don’t be surprised if United takes the pitch at the Stadium of Light with a less-heralded side than normal.

The 48 hour turn-around is totally ridiculous. Dare I say it? I think Sunderland get a result here. BOOM.

ARSENAL v. READING (Emirates Stadium, Sat 11:00am ET)

Both Arsenal and Reading will be hard-pressed to secure three points when two sides meet, albeit for very different reasons. The Gunners remain hell-bent on closing the four point gap separating them from 4th placed Spurs and a spot in the Champions League. Meanwhile, with seven points separating them from safety, Reading has its back against the relegation wall and will hope newly appointed manager Nigel Adkins will the immediate impact needed to preserve his side’s dream of staying in the top flight.

Arsenal is depleted but it’s an absolute must win and they have the talent to get the job done.

MANCHESTER CITY v. NEWCASTLE UNITED (Etihad Stadium, Sat 11:00am ET)

With Roberto Mancini conceding the title race and Yaya Toure’s future at the club in question, Newcastle United may be arriving at the Etihad at just the right moment. In 13th place and six points from the drop the Magpies need all the points they can get. But with an injury ravaged squad and a trip to Benfica for next Thursday’s Europa League quarter-final, Alan Pardew’s side will need to dig deep if they’re to get a result.

I’m going with the obvious choice: City takes it. Look for Kun Aguero (pictured) to return and to enjoy himself.

SOUTHAMPTON v. CHELSEA (St. Mary’s Stadium, Sat 11:00am ET)

Southampton hope their up-tempo attack and high line of pressure will disturb Chelsea just as it did Liverpool in Matchweek 30. Mauricio Pochetino’s squad has shown some real quality since the Argentinian’s appointment in January but they’ll need to be mistake-free against a Rafa Benitez side that’s playing it’s best football of the season. The Blues mental strength will be tested at St. Mary’s as it looks to secure three points while staying fresh for Monday’s FA Cup replay against United.

Am I taking the piss? Possibly. But I still say Chelsea suffers the same fate as United. Saints get a result.

Celtic’s dominance under Rodgers reaching new levels

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They’re unbeaten in 29 games, winning 27 of them. They hold a 25-point lead. They’re about to clinch a sixth straight league title this weekend and it’s still not even April.

Celtic’s players have taken their supremacy of Scottish soccer to a new level this season, putting the storied club from Glasgow in the conversation when discussing the most dominant sides in Europe’s domestic leagues in the 21st century.

Celtic will be the Scottish champion again as early as Friday if its closest rival, Aberdeen, loses to Dundee. If Aberdeen wins, Celtic will take an unassailable lead in the Scottish Premiership by beating Hearts on Sunday.

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

There’s been a sense of inevitability about the whole thing since the turn of the year, by which time Celtic had jumped into a 19-point lead. It’s long stopped being called a “title race” in Scotland, more a procession.

Meanwhile, the team coached by former Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers won the Scottish League Cup in late November and is also through to the semifinals of the Scottish Cup.

With Celtic’s unbeaten run across three domestic competitions currently at 36 games, this might be the most dominant season by any club in the history of Scotland’s top flight.

A glance around Europe shows a few other examples of title monopolies.

Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia) and BATE Borisov (Belarus) are currently on a streak of 11 domestic leagues titles in a row since 2006. Olympiakos is on course for a seventh straight Greek league title, which would be its 12th in the last 13 years, and Sheriff Tiraspol has won the Moldovan league every year except one since 2000. Basel leads the Swiss league by 17 points and is about to seal a ninth title in 10 years.

[ MORE: Zlatan to stay at United?

In these lesser-profile leagues, teams can dominate because of the cash they receive from participating in UEFA competitions, which often allow them to outspend their domestic rivals.

Last week, UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin, attending a conference in Lisbon, spoke of the threats to European soccer in the coming years, including the “decrease in competitive balance within European club competitions and secondary effects affecting domestic competitions.”

There are examples of lopsided championships in Europe’s big leagues, too: Juventus is closing on an unprecedented sixth straight Serie A title in Italy and on course for a third straight Serie A-Coppa Italia double; Bayern Munich is on course for a fifth straight Bundesliga title in Germany, which included winning one championship after 27 matches of a 34-round league; Lyon won the French league title seven times in succession from 2002; and Ajax won four straight titles in the Netherlands from 2011-14.

Scotland is widely regarded as a backwater in European soccer these days, mainly because of the uncompetitive nature of its league and an increasing lack of exposure and coverage outside Britain.

What didn’t help was Rangers – Celtic’s fierce crosstown rival and winner of a record 54 league titles – getting demoted to the fourth tier of the Scottish game in 2012 because of financial irregularities.

This is Rangers’ first season back in the Premiership, but it hasn’t been able to challenge Celtic and currently sits 33 points behind in third place. There used to be constant talk of the two “Old Firm” clubs crossing the border to join the English league but that has cooled.

“I want to win (the league) by 50 points,” Rodgers, who is in his first season at Celtic, said last month.

[ MORE: RSL hires Petke ]

In any other league, that would be a preposterous comment, but perhaps no longer in Scotland.

The season started so embarrassingly for Celtic and Rodgers, a 1-0 loss to Gibraltarian part-timer Lincoln Red Imps in a Champions League qualifier in July described by some pundits as the club’s worst defeat in its 130-year history.

Now, they are about to lift the league title with eight matches to spare and potentially in the month of March for the second time in four years.

“We want to continue winning, continue the run that we’re on,” Celtic goalkeeper Craig Gordon said, “and make sure we do that for as long as we can.”

AP Sports Writers Graham Dunbar in Geneva and James Ellingworth in Moscow, and Associated Press writers Ciaran Fahey in Berlin, Daniella Matar in Milan, Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, and Raf Casert in Brussels, Belgium, contributed to this report.

Steve Douglas is at http://www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

Mourinho: Midseason international friendlies don’t make sense

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Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United has a big challenge thanks to injuries and a club with far more international participants than the weekend’s Premier League rival.

It has the manager asking, frankly, why the friendlies?

While Phil Jones and Chris Smalling were injured in England training, not the friendly against Germany nor the World Cup qualifier versus Lithuania, Mourinho wonders why the national teams need to play relatively meaningless matches in the middle of club season.

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

Mourinho says he is being careful not to be too vocal about his disappointment given that he’ll probably one day need those friendlies as an international boss. From Sky Sports:

“A couple of weeks before the Euros or a couple of weeks before the World Cup makes sense. But mid-season friendly matches mixed with qualification matches, I don’t think that makes sense.

“On top of that the matches are not really big matches so I am not a big fan. But I think one day I will be there so I cannot be very critical.”

Mourinho will be without Jones, Smalling, and Paul Pogba this weekend. He also has several internationals who won’t arrive back at Old Trafford until Thursday. United hosts West Brom on Saturday.

Lamela needs hip surgery, out for rest of Spurs season

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Tottenham Hotspur won’t be getting an Erik Lamela boost any time soon.

The 25-year-old winger will undergo surgery on his ailing hip this Saturday, costing him availability for Spurs’ stretch run and Argentina duty.

[ MORE: RSL hires Petke ]

Lamela has been missing since Oct. 29, and left Spurs lineup with the team unbeaten in the Premier League (5W-4D).

He registered a goal and an assist in PL play, adding a goal and four helpers in the side’s first two rounds of the EFL Cup and two assists in three Champions League matches.

Real Salt Lake introduces Mike Petke as new head coach

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Mike Petke is getting a deserved next kick as an MLS coach.

The New York Red Bulls icon, 41, is taking over at Real Salt Lake, where he had been leading USL side Real Monarchs since December.

“They’re an animal waiting to be released from a cage,” Petke called RSL’s roster.

[ MORE: Zlatan to stay at United?

Petke won better than 41 percent of his matches as RBNY boss, leading the club to the 2013 Supporters’ Shield. This came after 351 matches between Colorado, the Red Bulls/MetroStars, and DC United.

He leaves Real Monarchs with a perfect 1-0 record. Unbeaten!

“The vision that he laid out, along with Craig and Rob, was music to my ears,” Petek said. “They really showed me what was ahead for the RSL organization, and it was an easy thing to be a part of.”

Petke thanked the Monarchs for restoring some of his love for managing, something he said was “kicked out of me”. The Red Bulls shockingly parted ways with Petke in January 2015, moving onto Jesse Marsch.

This is a low risk hire for Real, who gains a respected coach and soccer mind. The optics aren’t great coming so early into the season and so soon after his hiring at Monarchs raised eyebrows.

The hiring comes four days after RSL drew the Red Bulls 0-0 at Red Bull Arena, which is the only disappointment of this whole ordeal: Not getting to see the response at his old home.