Marco Di Vaio (on the right) just completed a rather rare 20-goal season in MLS.

MLS Preview: Philadelphia Union vs. Montréal Impact

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  • Montréal’s regained first place in the Eastern Conference
  • Philadelphia coming off a 5-1 loss; Impact coming off 5-0 win
  • Amobi Okugo suspended; Sheanon Williams to play in the middle

Sporting Kansas City. New York Red Bulls. Philadelphia Union. They’ve all had their chance to take control of the East, and to this point, they’ve all fail. After Saturday’s 5-0 thrashing of Houston, Montréal’s regained the conference’s top spot.

Throughout the summer, as the Impact struggled to keep up their torrid spring pace, the East was there for the taking, yet over the last two weeks — with the conference’s other contenders failing to impress — Marco Schällibaum’s team has regained control. Back-to-back league not only have Montréal two points clear in the East but back on pace for the Supporters’ Shield, the team holding the highest points-per-game mark in MLS.

It’s no coincidence this minor surge has coincided with Argentine midfielder Hernán Bernardello settling into Montréal’s starting XI. As Schällibaum tried a two-striker system through much of the summer, it was unclear why his team had moved away from their effective three-man midfield. Davy Arnaud’s fitness was an excuse, but even after the captain came back, the Impact seemed intent on getting Daniele Paponi to work up top with Marco Di Vaio. In the meantime, the rest of the East caught up and passed Montréal.

Bernardello’s acquisition has moved Montréal back to three in the middle, and although the Impact lost their first match with their new Designated Player in the starting XI (2-1 at Chicago on Aug. 10), they’ve won their last two, with last weekend’s thrashing of the Dynamo portending a possible return to form. Replicating their spring formula, Montréal has lost the possession battle in each of their last two games, relying on a strong defensive shape and opportunistic attacking to reclaim their spot atop the East.

This Jekyll and Hyde, good versus bad Montréal makes the teams’ early meeting that much more instructive. In late May, the Impact scored five times at Stade Saputo, never trailing during their 5-3 win over the Union. That game, however, saw Montréal use their less-effective two-front, starting Andrew Wenger up top with Di Vaio. The Impact handled the Union while using their less effective setup, one they’re unlikely to employ Saturday at PPL Park.

It won’t help the Union that they’re set to be without starting central defender Amobi Okugo, suspended for Saturday’s match. An injured Ray Gaddis may also miss the game, while John Hackworth’s midfield could be without Keon Daniel. Coming off a 5-1 thrashing last week in New England, the Union are destined to have momentum, fitness, and suspensions working against them against Montréal.

With Conor Casey up top and the sometime susceptibility of the Impact’s central defense, Philadelphia have a route to victory. But they are underdogs. Given the state of the conference, the Union should be happy to get a stalemate in lieu of the three points they need to bridge the gap between themselves and Montréal.

What they are saying

Montréal forward Marco Di Vaio: “The next two games won’t be easy, but we have to do more if we want to make the playoffs. We have to pick up points away like we did early this season. It’s very important: it might be the difference between fifth place leading to the wild card game and the top of the table sending us directly into the playoffs.” [source]

Philadelphia head coach John Hackworth, on last week’s result: “It’s tough to move on from that, but we do our video and then our process is that we do move on. So I think from a coaching standpoint and from our staff and from our players, what we’ve all said is that we have to move on, we have to move on.” [source]

Philadelphia right back Sheanon Williams, on playing center back: “I’m comfortable doing it. I’ve done it before and it’s not something that doesn’t come natural. Regardless of where you are on the back four, you should be ready to play all of the positions.”

Prediction

Based on the teams’ first meeting, form, the injury and suspension status of both teams, everything points in Montréal’s favor. Hackworth may have to significantly change things up to protect an already suspect defense from the East’s most prolific attack, potentially slowing the game down to make set pieces decisive. But the pick: Montréal, 3-2.

 

Martinez “thought about dancing” after Everton thumped Stoke City

STOKE ON TRENT, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 06:  Roberto Martinez Manager of Everton looks on prior to the Barclays Premier League match between Stoke City and Everton at Britannia Stadium on February 6, 2016 in Stoke on Trentl, England.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Everton is finding its form, and that has Roberto Martinez with half a mind to keep dancing.

Martinez admitted his Jason Derulo fandom after video surfaced of the Spaniard dancing in a suite this week, and had to admit he felt like continuing the show after Everton crushed Stoke City 3-0 on Saturday.

The Toffees climbed above Merseyside rivals Liverpool on goal differential and into eight place in the Premier League. They are finally looking like the club supporters expected to see this season.

[ MATCH RECAP: Stoke City 0-3 Everton ]

Everton has back-to-back 3-0 wins in the Premier League. Before that was a loss to Swansea City which followed a trio of draws against Man City, Spurs and Chelsea.

Martinez’s club looked fit to score even more after Romelu Lukaku, Seamus Coleman and Aaron Lennon scored first-half goals on the road at the Britannia Stadium.

Look at that face… a living dance hall. Of course we kid, and are even more grateful for Martinez’s personality.

Pochettino on Tottenham winning title: “If we believe, it can happen”

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 06:  Mauricio Pochettino Manager of Tottenham Hotspur looks on prior to the Barclays Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Watford at White Hart Lane on February 6, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
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Mauricio Pochettino is playing it cool, but Tottenham Hotspur has a real chance of winning its first-ever Premier League title.

[ MORE: Foxes beat City to stay top ]

Following Spurs’ 1-0 win over Watford at White Hart Lane on Saturday — the scoreline doesn’t reflect how dominant Tottenham were — optimism levels were high.

Four Premier League wins on the spin and six in all competitions will do that.

With Tottenham now second in the PL table and five points behind surprise leaders Leicester City, are they genuine title contenders?

“I feel very proud of the players,” Pochettino said. “We need to be calm. We are in a very good position in the league but the philosophy from the beginning of the season has been to go step by step. We are a very young squad so it is important to keep going and take every game and competition and be ready to compete.

“We need to be careful and always work in the same way. In football you can never stop. You always need to improve and fix a different situation. We still need to be more clinical, we created a lot of chances today but need to score more.We have a good idea of how we want to build the squad for the future and it is important to take this philosophy and deliver it.”

More tellingly Pochettino was also quoted as saying: “In football belief is the most important. If we believe, it can happen.”

In a season where Leicester City top the Premier League, why can’t Spurs launch a serious title challenge of their own with 13 games to go?

[ MORE: 3 things we learned as Leicester demolished Man City

As Pochettino mentioned, scoring more goals should be the main aim for Spurs as they had 26 shots against Watford and 66 percent of the ball but only scored once. But with the best defensive record in the PL and the best goal differential, Spurs are right in this title race.

Agbonlahor says Villans prepared to produce great escape

during the Barclays Premier League match between Aston Villa and Norwich City at Villa Park on February 6, 2016 in Birmingham, England.
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Gabriel Agbonlahor is feeling quite buoyed by his first goal of the season.

The 29-year-old striker helped ensure his side would keep its early lead with a second half goal, and hopes the 2-0 win over Norwich City is just the latest step in the quest to avoid Villa’s first ever Premier League relegation.

[ MATCH RECAP: Aston Villa 2-0 Norwich City ]

Villa is now eight points back of 17th place Newcastle, and seven of the Canaries. It’s still a 4-point journey to 19th, but Agbonlahor and company are taking it proverbially: one game at a time.

From the BBC:

“We are going to keep fighting till the end. That is all the club expects from us. Take it game by game. There is no reason why we cannot escape. We showed fight today. We had a game plan: we defended well and attacked well.”

The Villans are facing a relatively tough stretch of matches with Liverpool, Stoke City, Everton and Man City on the docket.

What odds would you give Villa of pulling off the latest in a long line of Premier League great escapes?

Newcastle United 1-0 West Bromwich Albion: Mitrovic pushes Magpies to 17th

during the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle United and West Bromwich Albion at St James' Park on February 6, 2016 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England.
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  • Magpies climb out of relegation zone
  • Baggies continue to struggle under Pulis
  • Mitrovic gets winner as hosts control match

Aleksandar Mitrovic‘s first-half goal gave Newcastle United a week above the drop zone in a 1-0 home win over West Bromwich Albion at St. James Park on Saturday.

The Magpies leapfrog losing Norwich City for 17th place in the Premier League with 24 points.

West Brom is now winless in five and sits five points ahead of Newcastle, good for 14th place.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

The Magpies provided an inspired start to the match, piling on pressure and winning a pair of corner kicks. Aleksandar Mitrovic was saved at the goal line by Boaz Myhill in the most clear-cut opportunity.

Craig Gardner won a free kick on the edge of the 18, but Georginio Wijnaldum leapt off the wall to help deflect it out for an eventually unsuccessful corner.

Cheik Tiote scored from close to 40 yards out, but Lee Mason consulted with his linesman before disallowing the goal because Aleksandar Mitrovic was in the flight of the ball and offside.

Mitrovic had the next laugh, though, sprung on a break by Jonjo Shelvey and deservedly finishing his chance past Foster. Newcastle owned a 1-0 lead.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Wijnaldum flashed a header over goal of Townsend’s cross from the right, and it was still 1-0 in the 66th minute. Townsend then poked a low shot off the right post moments later, and Moussa Sissoko flashed a prime shot wide.

The Magpies were leaving themselves open to an equalizer, and it’s not as if the Baggies didn’t find a chance or two (though mostly through set pieces).