Premier League Playback: Title tussle intensifies, while Jack Wilshere has the cigars out

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UNPREDICTABILITY PROVING A TREAT

The start to this Premier League season has been the most topsy-turvy, enthralling and nerve-wracking start to a campaign since the league began. So many shock results, intense storylines and drama have already consumed the opening seven weeks of play. With 70 games played, the average goal per game ratio is 2.31. Not bad, but not great. However, a distinct lack of goals in the opening few games hasn’t stopped the intrigue, if anything it’s fueled it.

With so many managerial and philosophical changes over the summer, teams are delicately testing each other out. Dissecting the weaknesses, and finding out as they feel their way through games tentatively. Oh, the pressure. Plenty of the bigger teams are frail, and as we’ve already seen, hugely susceptible to shock defeats.

But here comes the kicker, teams like Chelsea, United and City don’t have the ‘new manager’ veil to hide behind anymore. A few bad results in the opening weeks are expected by some when a club goes through a transitional period but after this international break, there’s no room for error. Think of this PL title race like the Kentucky Derby, the thoroughbreds have gone round the first bend and a few have made slip ups and fallen back in the field. Between now and January it’s time to burrow on mercifully and position yourself perfectly for the final bend. Believe it or not, with 31 games to go, the next five matches can make or break a season. An effortless fall from title contenders to Champions League hopefuls is staring a dozen teams in the face. That, right there, shows you how open this PL season is. Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool are all gearing up to take the crown after an incredible even opening.

There are now runaway leaders this season… so, who you got?

MORRISON AND JANUZAJ – ENGLAND INTERNATIONALS IN THE MAKING… NOT SO FAST

Premier League Schedule – Week 7

Result Recap & Highlights
Cardiff 1-2 Newcastle United Recap and watch here
Fulham 1-0 Stoke City Recap and watch here
Hull City 0-0 Aston Villa Recap and watch here
Liverpool 3-1 Crystal Palace Recap and watch here
Manchester City 3-1 Everton Recap and watch here
Norwich 1-3 Chelsea Recap and watch here
Southampton 2-0 Swansea Recap and watch here
Sunderland 1-2 Manchester Utd Recap and watch here
Tottenham 0-3 West Ham Recap and watch here
West Brom 1-1 Arsenal Recap and watch here

Following their sparkling performances on Sunday, Ravel Morrison and Adnan Januzaj are pushing their stock high in the opening months of the Premier League season. Morrison celebrated being called up to England’s U-21 squad by getting the ball in his own half against Tottenham and running past three players before beating Hugo Lloris with a cheeky dink, while Januzaj scored two stunners on his full-debut for Manchester United to grab a crucial comeback win against Sunderland. Those two are being touted as potential England stars for the future, both have their complications.

To say Morrison has a checkered past is an understatement, in and out of courtrooms in Manchester during his days in United’s academy, Sir Alex Ferguson finally sold Morrison to West Ham last January after insisting a move away from his hometown, and trouble, was best for his career.  Sam Allardyce told this story after Morrison scored his wonder goal against Spurs on Sunday. “Sir Alex told me ‘I hope you sort him out because you will have a top-class player.'” It seems as though the penny has dropped. As for Januzaj, no attitude or off field problems there, just an incredibly complicated ethnic identity. He was born in Belgium, his parents are from Kosovo (meaning he could also play for Serbia) and Albania, and his grandparents are Turkish. Rumors that England could cap tie him look to be unfounded, but the skinny, young winger is a tremendous talent. Just watch below.

GRINDING OUT A WIN

Manchester City, Manchester United, and to a certain extent Chelsea… you know who you are. And you know what to do when you face a tricky game. United went behind early against Sunderland, City did the same against Everton (watch below), and Chelsea were pegged back in the second half by Norwich. But all three got the job done. Plenty of top teams have dropped points this season, and as we said, the unpredictability of the Premier League really is making it irresistible this term. But the three aforementioned winners will all want mundane, mediocre, 2-1, 1-0 wins vs. the leagues also-rans to become common place between now and May. Whichever club makes that beautiful mediocrity a reality, wins the title. Simple.

TOP PERFORMERS

Coming up big, once again, Artur Boruc made two tremendous saves from Michu and Wilfried Bony in Saints’ 2-0 win over Swansea. England fans will be hoping the big Pole isn’t in that kind of form at Wembley next Tuesday. Daniel Sturridge was sensational for Liverpool in their first half rout of Crystal Palace. He spun Palace’s defense inside out and struck home a beauty, the striker is in the form of his life. We’ve already discussed his heroics, but 18-year-old Januzaj’s two goals seem him a shoe in for team of the week. Elsewhere, Loic Remy struck twice in Newcastle’s 2-1 win at Cardiff, the Frenchman has five already this season and is coolness personified in front of goal. So is Chelsea’s Brazilian star Oscar, who netted the Blues’ opener and looked in control throughout the win vs. Norwich.

MOURINHO PROVES TACTICAL NOUS

Premier League Star Performers

Player Reason
1. Adnan Januzaj (Man Utd) 2 goals, incredible debut
2. Loic Remy (Newcastle) 2 goals, difference maker
3. Dan Sturridge (Liverpool) 1 goal, sublime first half
4. Oscar (Chelsea) 1 goal, cool as a cucumber
5. Artur Boruc (Saints) 2 great saves, 5 shutouts in 7

Speaking of that, once again Jose Mourinho proved that, no matter what everyone else thinks, he knows best. A tricky trip away to Norwich was handled remarkably well, as the Portuguese manager shuffled his squad superbly and used three key substitutions to land Chelsea the win. In the second half the Canaries drew level through Anthony Pilkington, and Chelsea’s comfortable looking afternoon was in danger of unraveling. Mourinho sparked into life, bringing on attackers Willian, Eden Hazard and Samuel Eto’o to force the issue, and it worked, magnificently.

Hazard and Willian both scored late to seal a superb 3-1 win at Carrow Road. Following Mourinho’s half time switch at Tottenham last week to change the game, bringing Juan Mata on for John Obi Mikel, his decisiveness seems to be coming back. The sharp ruthlessness of his tactical changes are mirroring his first, hugely successful, spell in charge at Chelsea. He’d often make changes in the first half or at the interval if things weren’t working out, and now he’s doing it again. After many doubters have already spun webs of discontent towards Chelsea’s boss, Mourinho is finally showing us why he’s the best coach in the game.

WORST REFEREEING PERFORMANCE? THIS ONE’S UP THERE

Sometimes I really don’t get how the English Football Association decides which referee to send to what game. But it was clear right from the start of Fulham vs. Stoke that referee Roger East was out of his depth. Refs have a hard job, I get it. But I’ve never seen so many pivotal decisions given incorrectly, East was frozen to the spot on four key moments in the opening 45 minutes.

First, he missed Patjim Kasami pushing Erik Pieters in the face in front of the benches. Then, Stoke had two “stonewall penalties” turned down, those are not my words, but Potters manager Mark Hughes. And I have to endorse them. I was sitting in the famous wooden Johnny Haynes Stand on Saturday, with home fans taking deep breaths on two occasions in the first half, as Phillipe Senderos scythed down Stephen Ireland in the box, then Fernando Amorebieta clumsily clambered all over Jonathan Walters. Somehow, Stoke were denied penalties on both occasions. Then Fulham’s Bryan Ruiz was hacked down my Marc Wilson as he tried to wriggle away from the Irishman in the box, East again waved away the PK appeals. The ref struggled to keep control of the match throughout, as the tense affair resulted in tough challenges flying in. He dished out five bookings, there should’ve been more.

Marin Jol’s mammoth man hug on the sidelines when Darren Bent scored the winner said it all, the relief was evident because Stoke should’ve won. Afterwards, Jol was man enough to admit his side struggled but the Cottagers needed a win desperately, and they got it, thanks to a lucky deflection and the ineptitude of East.

SAINTS THE REAL DEAL?

Last Thursday I spoke with Southampton manager Mauricio Pochettino and captain Adam Lallana in the build up to Sunday’s clash with Swansea. Pochettino said that he wasn’t keen on the Europa League, and that Saints are aiming for the Champions League.

“The work that’s been happening for the last four years, started with the Chairman,” Pochettino said. “His vision for the club and the way he started building the future of the club, the ideas, the philosophy. The basic idea is to take the club to the top of the league and Europe. That’s our ambition.”

That’s a bold statement for a club that was struggling in League One two years ago. But the South Coast club sit fourth in the PL after seven games — following their 2-0 win over Swansea thanks to Lallana and Rodriguez — conceding just twice and winning three in a row. Granted, their schedule hasn’t been too tough so far, but a trip to Manchester United after the international break will be a true reflection of how they’ll get on this season. Pochettino was nominated for manager of the month, and Polish ‘keeper Artur Boruc for player of the month with five clean sheets from seven. Both believe Southampton can effortlessly climb into the upper echelons. Most Saints fans will be hoping to hit the magic 40-point mark ASAP, then anything else is a bonus.

SMOKING HOT… JACK WILSHERE SCORES EQUALIZER, APOLOGIZES FOR HAVING A CIG

Against West Brom, Arsenal were against the ropes and needed someone to come up with the goods. Cue Mr. Marlboro himself, Jack Wilshere, to coolly slot home a wonderfully flowing move to snatch the Gunners a point. All afternoon Arsenal’s fans had sung, “He smokes when he wants, he smokes when he wants,” following Wilshere’s poor judgement and getting snapped by the British paparazzi smoking outside a London club in midweek. Wilshere said sorry afterwards and insisted he doesn’t smoke. If he keeps scoring goals like the one below, and playing the way he is, I’m not sure Arsenal’s fan will care if he’s on 20 a day.

PL roundup: Chalk at the top, blowouts at the bottom

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Get caught up on all of Saturday’s Premier League fixtures…

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Manchester City 4-1 Tottenham HotspurFULL RECAP

What’s left to say about Man City at this point? Christmas is still nine days away, and their lead in the title race has already ballooned to 14 points. Pep Guardiola‘s side will have such an advantage that they’ll be able to choose between chasing the elusive unbeaten PL season, or resting key players with an eye toward winning the UEFA Champions League. Or, you know, he might just choose to do both, because he can.

Anyway, Ilkay Gudogan, Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling (twice) scored the goals as City blew the doors off Tottenham. Christian Eriksen‘s consolation goal was little more than a 92nd-minute pity present.

Chelsea 1-0 SouthamptonFULL RECAP

Marcos Alonso scored a stunning free kick — what else? (WATCH HERE) — to give Chelsea a 1-0 victory over Southampton at Stamford Bridge. The Blues had ample opportunity to put the game to bed, but much like fellow top-four chasers Arsenal, couldn’t do so and were made to sweat all the way through the game’s final moments. The victory pulls Antonio Conte‘s side level with Manchester United for second in the PL table, though United don’t play until Sunday.

Arsenal 1-0 Newcastle UnitedFULL RECAP

Mesut Ozil scored one of the goals of the season (WATCH HERE), and it was all Arsenal needed to edge past Newcastle and leave Rafa Benitez‘s side sitting in the relegation zone another few days, at least. Thanks to points dropped by Tottenham and Burnley (yes, Burnley), Arsenal now sit fourth in the league table with only Liverpool capable of leapfrogging them this weekend.

Leicester City 0-3 Crystal PalaceFULL RECAP

The good times were really rolling for Leicester, who entered Saturday’s clash with Palace riding a five-game unbeaten streak (four straight wins) under new manager Claude Puel. Oh, how quickly fortunes can change in the PL. Christian Benteke and Wilfried Zaha had the visitors 2-0 up by halftime, and Bakary Sako added another goal during second-half stoppage time, just for good measure. Speaking of fortunes changing quickly, Palace now sit 14th in the league table, four places and two points clear of the relegation zone.

Roy Hodgson, miracle worker.

Watford 1-4 Huddersfield TownFULL RECAP

Huddersfield will stave off relegation quite comfortably if they can continue picking up lopsided wins every second or third game for the rest of the season, even if they’re sandwiched by blowout defeats. Saturday’s romp past Watford will surely go down as the most straightforward all season, as the Terriers went 2-0 up in 23 minutes, then went a man up after Troy Deeney was sent off in the 33rd. It was 3-0 after five second-half minutes, and 4-0 with more than 20 minutes still to play. Back up to 11th, David Wagner‘s side is six points clear of relegation just one game shy of the halfway mark.

Stoke City 0-3 West Ham UnitedFULL RECAP

Marko Arnautovic haunted his former club, Stoke City, as he scored a goal and was a constant threat throughout West Ham’s 3-0 victory at the bet365 Stadium. That makes three games without a loss, including two wins, for the Hammers under new manager David Moyes. Like Palace, they are also now two points clear of the relegation zone.

Brighton & Hove Albion 0-0 BurnleyFULL RECAP

Burnely, who began the weekend level with Tottenham and Liverpool (and ahead of Arsenal) for fourth place, dropped points for the first time in three games. Brighton, meanwhile, haven’t won in their last seven PL games and have slowly but surely slid back to the relegation-fighting pack.

Sunday’s PL schedule

West Bromwich Albion vs. Manchester United — 9:15 a.m. ET
Bournemouth vs. Liverpool — 11:30 a.m. ET

World champs! Ronaldo goal gives Madrid a 3rd CWC title

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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) Cristiano Ronaldo scored from a free-kick to help Real Madrid claim its third Club World Cup title after beating Brazilian team Gremio 1-0 Saturday.

The Ballon d’Or winner fired his right-footed shot between two players in Gremio’s defensive wall, leaving goalkeeper Marcelo Grohe no hope of reaching the ball before it bounced inside the post in the 53rd minute.

Madrid defended the title it won last season as it collected its fifth trophy of 2017, along with the Champions League, Spanish league, European Super Cup and Spanish Super Cup.

Ronaldo celebrated the goal by rushing to Madrid’s dugout where he was embraced by his teammates. The goal increased Ronaldo’s record to seven goals in the competition. He also scored in Madrid’s 2-1 comeback win over Al Jazira in the semifinals.

“What am I going to say? The numbers speak for themselves. I am very happy. The team played fantastically well and it has won another title,” Ronaldo said. “We played a very good game and deserved the victory.”

Madrid equaled Barcelona’s record of three titles for the short knockout tournament between the champions of FIFA’s six continental confederations and the host nation’s league winner.

European clubs have won 10 of the last 11 Club World Cups, with only Brazil’s Corinthians interrupting that streak in 2012 when it defeated Chelsea.

Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane played the same starting 11 from last season’s Champions League final in June, when Madrid crushed Juventus 4-1 – led by Ronaldo’s double.

The European champions outclassed Gremio throughout the match, but the closest it got to scoring in the first half was Dani Carvajal’s goal-bound volley in the 20th that was cleared by Pedro Geromel.

While Gremio had to scramble on several occasions to stop Madrid inside its own area, the closest the South American champions came at the other end was a free-kick by Edilson that swerved onto the top netting near the half-hour mark.

Geromel had tried to set the tone early on with a hard tackle that left Ronaldo writhing in pain, and hoping for a booking that never came.

Ronaldo had a poor first half. He twice erred in short passes with his back heel that failed to reach his teammates, and he squandered a good opportunity when he took too long to shoot when a loose ball fell to him close to the net.

All that changed after the interval. Ronaldo baited Jailson into fouling him outside the area with some fancy dribbling, setting up his winner.

Ronaldo thought he had another goal moments later, but Karim Benzema was ruled offside before he passed the ball back to Ronaldo.

Marcelo Grohe kept his side in the game by pushing Luka Modric’s shot onto his post and denied Ronaldo a second goal, but Gremio never mounted a serious response to get the equalizer.

Bundesliga wrap: Pulisic’s late winner sends BVB 3rd (video)

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While Bayern Munich continue to run away with their sixth straight Bundesliga title, the royal rumble over who’ll finish second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth — seven sides are currently separated by four points from second to eighth — rages on.

[ MORE: Man City make it 16 straight wins | Three studs, three duds ]

Stuttgart 0-1 Bayern Munich

You’ll quickly notice an emerging theme from Saturday’s games: late, result-altering goals.

Bayern dominated every phase of play the way they usually do, but were made to wait 79 minutes for a breakthrough. It was beginning to look as if their lead might shrink to seven points this weekend, but Thomas Mueller was more than happy to play the part of hero.

There was further heartbreak for Stuttgart, who then had a penalty kick saved by Lars Ulreich in the 93rd minute.

Borussia Dortmund 2-1 Hoffenheim

Dortmund have won back-to-back league games, for the first time since September, since firing manager Peter Bosz last week, and this one came courtesy of a certain, well-known American teenager.

Mark Uth put Hoffenheim ahead in the 21st minute, and Dortmund appeared to be headed for their first loss under new boss Peter Stoger. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang brought the home side back to level terms in the 63rd minute, but again, it seemed for the longest time that it wouldn’t be enough.

Then came the 89th minute, time for Christian Pulisic to shine. The presence of mind to flick the ball over the goalkeeper with his first touch, the control to drop the ball exactly where he wanted it on the other side, the quick feet to maneuver his way around the ‘keeper. The euphoric feeling as he slams the ball into an empty net.

Eintracht Frankfurt 2-2 Schalke

Schalke are making something of a routine out of falling behind by multiple goals, only to roar back to life and rescue a point in the game’s dying moments. First, there was the comeback from 4-0 against Dortmund. Today, the hill to climb was halved in size, but the point won is no less significant.

After falling 1-0 behind in the 1st minute and 2-0 behind in the 64th, Domenico Tedesco’s side got goals from Breel Embolo in the 81st minute and Naldo — scorer of the final goal in that 4-4 thriller — in the 94th.

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away Pts
 Bayern Munich 17 13 2 2 37 11 26 7-1-0 6-1-2 41
 FC Schalke 04 17 8 6 3 28 21 7 5-3-1 3-3-2 30
 Borussia Dortmund 17 8 4 5 39 24 15 4-1-3 4-3-2 28
 RB Leipzig 16 8 4 4 25 22 3 5-2-0 3-2-4 28
 Moenchengladbach 17 8 4 5 27 28 -1 5-2-2 3-2-3 28
 Bayer Leverkusen 16 7 6 3 30 19 11 4-4-0 3-2-3 27
 1899 Hoffenheim 17 7 5 5 27 22 5 5-3-1 2-2-4 26
 Eintracht Frankfurt 17 7 5 5 20 18 2 2-2-4 5-3-1 26

Elsewhere in the Bundesliga

Augsburg 3-3 Freiburg
Werder Bremen 2-2 Mainz
Cologne 1-0 Wolfsburg

Sunday’s Bundesliga schedule

Hannover vs. Bayern Leverkusen — 9:30 a.m. ET
RB Leipzig vs. Hertha Berlin — 12 p.m. ET

Three stars, three duds from Man City 4-1 Spurs

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Spoiler alert: Our three stars and three dudes from Man City’s 4-1 demolition of Spurs fall neatly along club lines.

[ MORE: Match recap | 3 things from the Etihad ]

Three stars

  1. Kevin De Bruyne — Short of Lionel Messi, is anyone anywhere near the Belgian’s level right now? The passing, the shooting, the resilience in the face of constant fouling; KDB is a magician.
  2. Leroy Sane — The 21-year-old has more than justified his $62 million price tag — as much as such a thing can be justified — with terrific service, blinding pace, and wise reading of the game.
  3. Ilkay Gundogan — His header ushered City in front and he could’ve scored a second, but the ex-Borussia Dortmund man was a marshall in the middle of the park.

Three duds

  1. Dele Alli — Hasn’t scored since bagging a brace against Real Madrid on Nov. 1, and had miserable positioning when Gundogan headed home the opener. Then stamped Kevin De Bruyne with an outrageous blade in the second half. Not being sent off is hilarious;
  2. Kieran Trippier — For as dangerous as Trippier can be moving forward, he was out to lunch as Leroy Sane and Kevin De Bruyne — might wanna mark them, fella — raced down the left to make it 2-0 City.
  3. Hugo Lloris — Spurs’ sensational goalkeeper didn’t have many moments in him at the Etihad Stadium, dribbled around for the final goal.