England’s relegation battle: What changed on Saturday

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Barring two highly improbable runs (and help from almost everybody around them), Reading and Queens Park Rangers are going to be relegated. Each sit on 23 points, eight points adrift with just over a month left in the Premier League season. If they recover, the story will be their miraculous turnarounds, not our assumptions it won’t happen.

That leaves six teams trying to avoid the last relegation spot: Norwich City, Stoke City, Newcastle United, Aston Villa, Sunderland, and Wigan.

Aston Villa came into the day in 18th, but after two late goals at the Britannia, the relegation battle’s in flux. And with the continued disappointing results of Stoke and Norwich, the picture’s becoming even more cluttered.

Here’s where the teams stand after Saturday’s results.

(MORE: Rosicky revitalized with brace at West Brom)

Relegation battle – England

Pos. Club GP Pts.
13 Norwich City 32 35
14 Stoke City 32 34
15 Newcastle United 31 33
16 Aston Villa 32 33
17 Sunderland 31 31
18 Wigan Athletic 30 30
  • Aston Villa increase pressure on Wigan, Sunderland

Of course it’s three huge points. When you start the day in 18th, any points are, and with Saturday’s 3-1 win at Stoke City, Aston Villa have climbed all the way to 16th, a status that could be temporary.

Thanks to that result, Wigan now need a Sunday win at QPR to return to safety. Sunderland need to spring an upset at Stamford Bridge to guarantee they’ll stay above the drop.

Wigan do have a game in hand, but even if Roberto Martínez’s men are able to climb on Sunday, Villa’s win should sound an alarm. Having floundered for most of the season, Aston Villa now seem capable of getting a few surprise results. While Stoke’s quality is in question, Paul Lambert’s side showed an admirable resiliency in finding two late raod goals.

The team that joins Reading and QPR in the Championship will be the one that flounders most. If Villa prove as resilient over these next six weeks, somebody else will volunteer to go down.

Right now that looks like Sunderland. It could be Wigan. Maybe Stoke will supplant them both. But based on what we say on Saturday, it probably won’t be Villa.

  • Reading, Southampton’s fates sealed

source: Getty ImagesWhat a bitter day for Nigel Adkins. The new coach at Reading saw Mauricio Pochettino guide his former club to their third straight win and 11th place. That spot in the table makes it highly unlikely every team between them and 18th will out-play them over the season’s last six rounds.

Most galling to Adkins will be the ease with which Saints got their win. In a must win game at home, Reading offered little. Adam Le Fondre had a chance to put them up early, after which Southampton controlled the game, with basic passing around an ineffectual midfield maintaining their hold on the match.

Reading are last place with 23 points through 32 rounds. Seven points back of Wigan, they’d need an unprecedented comeback to survive. Unfortunately, they showed no sign they’re capable of turning things around.

  • Stoke City, Norwich City making things too interesting

source: Getty ImagesNorwich City may be five points clear, but after today’s 2-2 draw at home with Swansea City, the Canaries have two major problems. First and most important, they’re not getting results, winless in five while being out-scored 8-3. Second, their goal difference is terrible. At -19, they’re unlikely to win a tiebreaker against anybody but Aston Villa. Their only saving grace right now is their run-in, a schedule that features visits from Reading, Villa, and West Brom.

Stoke’s in a similar situation. Although they don’t have Norwich’s goal difference issue, they’re only four points clear after a season where relegation was a blur in the rearview. They’re winless in six and have only one league win since December. They’ve been hel scoreless three times in their last five matches and have scored a league-low 28 goals.

Both Stoke and Norwich have played so poorly that their previously comatose relegation worries have been awakened and emboldened. Having allowed themselves to be pulled into this fight, there now needs to be a sense of urgency, the type of intensity we’ve seen from Southampton, Aston Villa, and Wigan.

Stoke doesn’t have that. Neither does Norwich. Their only saving grace may be Sunderland, an even more inept squad that sits lower in the table.

But all it takes is one Black Cats result to pull Stoke in. And the Canaries would be right there, too. Neither side can afford to take anything for granted.

The Mendy Effect: Pep praises injured back

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Full back Benjamin Mendy cost Pep Guardiola and Manchester City $68 million, but perhaps he’ll be just as valuable as a very expensive sports psychologist.

The “Shark Team” member was amusing on social media even before his ACL injury sent him to the sidelines until at least April, but he’s become a must-follow Twitter fixture with his in-game messages (See some of his work below).

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

City faces Burnley at 10 a.m. ET Saturday (Watch live on CNBC and online via NBCSports.com).

It’s fairly clear his act has translated in private, too, as apparently Mendy is just as good in group messages (Let us in, Pep. We won’t tell anyone). From ManCity.com:

“Usually, players who are out for a long time with injury are sad. They sometimes train apart and feel isolated.

“Mendy decided to be present. He is communicating on social media, WhatsApp and he calls his teammates and messages me. He is going to be so important outside the pitch because people like him make the atmosphere much better.”

It’s not surprising for anyone who’s been following the former Le Havre, Marseille and Monaco man.

Keep in mind, these Tweets below are from the last few days alone!

Ozil to Manchester United?!? Wenger reacts to gossip

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Sometimes, even the biggest Arsene Wenger detractors have to feel for the guy.

Coming off a thrilling late win in Serbia, one that saw Olivier Giroud cap off a team goal straight out of the creative Wenger playbook, the manager should’ve been discussing how to stretch those good vibes into this weekend’s visit to Goodison Park.

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

Yet no. Instead of talking about how the Gunners would respect the struggling Toffees, Wenger had to address speculation from several outlets claiming Mesut Ozil would move to Manchester United, perhaps as soon as January.

Feeling it? No, no Wenger was not feeling it. From Arsenal.com:

“We have to deal with all kinds of speculation when the players are at the end of their contracts. On the other hand, to be professional is to give 100 per cent as long as you are somewhere. For the rest, we came out many times and said that’s the situation. It [the media] can come out tomorrow and say that he extends his contract here. It will be exactly the same, it will not change anything. When you play the next game, commit 100 per cent. … When a player plays for Arsenal Football Club, his commitment cannot be linked with the length of his contract, it has just to be linked with the responsibility and the ambition he has to win the football game.”
Of course most big clubs have to deal with such drama on a year-to-year basis and, yes, having Ozil and Alexis Sanchez still in town was completely avoidable. But the idea that Ozil could leave, for free, to Manchester United? We’re sure Gooners the world over will be thrilled with the gossip.

MLS Decision Day preview: Much at stake

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Four teams can claim a Western Conference second round berth, while four more can earn a valuable first-round bye in the East.

Yep, there’s plenty to play for beyond the West’s final playoff spot Sunday during Major League Soccer’s Decision Day, when every team will take the pitch for 4 p.m. ET kickoffs.

[ MORE: Conte feels pressure ]

Here’s what we do know regarding the playoffs:

  1. Supporters’ Shield winning Toronto FC gets a first round bye, while No. 6 seed New York Red Bulls are headed to the road for a first round playoff
  2. New England, Montreal, Philadelphia, Orlando, DC, Minnesota, Colorado, and LA will not make the playoffs
  3. Full stop.

So, yes, this will be fun.

First, let’s look at the Eastern Conference Standings ahead of Sunday’s extravaganza:

Eastern Conference
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Toronto FC 33 20 8 5 72 35 37 13-3-1 7-5-4 68
x – New York City FC 33 16 8 9 54 41 13 10-4-2 6-4-7 56
x – Chicago 33 16 7 10 61 44 17 12-3-2 4-4-8 55
x – Atlanta 33 15 9 9 68 38 30 11-2-3 4-7-6 54
x – Columbus 33 16 5 12 51 47 4 12-2-3 4-3-9 53
x – New York 33 13 8 12 51 46 5 9-6-2 4-2-10 47

— New York City FC controls its bye destiny, though Columbus could join them on 56 points and would pass them on tiebreakers (wins).

— If that happens, Chicago could claim the second bye with a win or draw in Houston (The Fire owns the goal differential tiebreaker).

— If New York City and Chicago lose or draw, Atlanta could finish second with a home win over TFC.

— Columbus can finish second with a win and non-wins for Chicago and Atlanta.

Western Conference
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
x – Vancouver 33 15 7 11 49 47 2 9-5-3 6-2-8 52
x – Portland 33 14 8 11 58 49 9 10-4-2 4-4-9 50
x – Seattle 33 13 11 9 49 39 10 10-5-1 3-6-8 50
x – Sporting KC 33 12 13 8 39 27 12 10-6-1 2-7-7 49
x – Houston 33 12 11 10 54 45 9 11-4-1 1-7-9 47
San Jose 33 12 7 14 36 58 -22 9-5-2 3-2-12 43
FC Dallas 33 10 13 10 43 47 -4 7-7-2 3-6-8 43
Real Salt Lake 33 12 6 15 47 54 -7 8-4-4 4-2-11 42

Byes

— Vancouver finishes first with a win or draw at Portland. The ‘Caps could finish as low as third with a loss to Portland and a Seattle win versus Colorado.

— Portland finishes first — and wins the Cascadia Cup — with a win over visiting Vancouver.

— Seattle can claim a first round bye with a win over visiting Colorado and a Vancouver win over Portland.

— Sporting KC can finish second with a win at Real Salt Lake and non-wins for Portland and Seattle.

Final playoff spot

— San Jose claims the sixth seed with a home win over Minnesota. They can also finish sixth with a draw joined by non-wins for FC Dallas at home to LA and Real Salt Lake at home versus SKC.

— FC Dallas claims the sixth seed with a win over LA and a San Jose draw or loss versus Minnesota. FCD gets sixth with a draw, and a San Jose loss coupled with a RSL loss or draw versus SKC.

—  Real Salt Lake gets sixth with a win over SKC, and non-wins from San Jose and Dallas. RSL could also get sixth with a draw and losses for San Jose and Dallas.

(Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images)

Schedule
FC Dallas vs. LA Galaxy
DC United vs. New York Red Bulls
San Jose vs. Minnesota United
Real Salt Lake vs. Sporting KC
Houston vs. Chicago
Seattle vs. Colorado
Philadelphia vs. Orlando City
Portland vs. Vancouver
Montreal vs. New England
New York City vs. Columbus
Atlanta vs. Toronto

Predictions

— NYCFC hangs on for a draw against Columbus, earning a bye, leaving Chicago to host New York Red Bulls and Atlanta off to Columbus for the first round of the playoffs (We have Toronto beating Atlanta on Sunday).

— Vancouver and Portland draw, while Seattle beats Colorado. The ‘Caps and Sounders get byes, while Seattle takes back the Cascadia Cup.

— San Jose beats Minnesota, gaining the West’s sixth seed. The Quakes head to Portland for the first round, while SKC hosts Houston.

Conte feels pressure, but “most important thing is to work”

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Chelsea has sputtered a bit in its bid to repeat as Premier League champions, though this isn’t quite “stop me if you’ve heard this one before.”

The Blues sit fifth in the Premier League table with 13 points, nine behind leaders Manchester City, and tossed away a 2-0 lead before rallying to draw Roma at midweek.

The Blues host fourth-placed Watford to kick off Saturday’s Premier League action at 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday (Watch live on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com)

[ MORE: West Ham 0-3 Brighton ]

And while fans are frustrated with the plan, Chelsea was in 15th at the end of October during Jose Mourinho’s ill-fated follow-up to the 2014-15 Premier League title.

Still, manager Antonio Conte feels their pain, although he’s satisfied with the effort. From Chelsea’s official site:

“Do I feel the pressure? Every manager feels pressure, but I try to give all of myself into my job, so I’m happy when I go home because I know in every moment I give all of myself for the fans, the players and the club. In football you know anything can happen, but the most important thing is to work.”

Chelsea may not look as good as Man City or Manchester United, but is still well-positioned to finish amongst the leaders and is leading a very difficult UCL group with Roma and Atletico Madrid. Things are fine, but the gossip storm just won’t leave Conte and his future at Chelsea alone (Thanks, Italian press).