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.

Injury update as Premier League returns

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With the international break over and 10 Premier League games coming your way this weekend, there is plenty of injury news to catch up on.

[ LIVE: Stream every PL game live

Below we take a look at some of the key injury updates from across the PL.


Arsenal
Petr Cech is out with calf injury he suffered against West Brom but could return next weekend
Lucas Perez is out with a thigh injury
Santi Cazorla is out for the rest of the season after undergoing surgery on his injured Achilles

Burnley
Steven Defour is available and could start against Tottenham Hotspur

Chelsea
Eden Hazard was seen taken part in full training session after missing the win at Stoke, plus Belgium’s games on international duty, with a thigh injury

Everton
Seamus Coleman is having surgery on two broken bones in his right leg as the Toffees’ right back will be out until next season
Ramiro Funes Muri is also out for the rest of the season after suffering a knee injury with Argentina on international duty
James McCarthy has once again been injured while on international duty with Ireland, reportedly leaving Ronald Koeman fuming

Liverpool
Adam Lallana is out for the next four weeks with a thigh injury he picked up on England duty
Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino will be checked up on after the duo flew back to Liverpool on a private jet on Wednesday following their displays for Brazil in World Cup qualifiers

Manchester City
Bacary Sagna suffered a tear in his adductor while on international duty with France
Kevin De Bruyne did not feature for Belgium after suffering a groin injury and is doubtful

Manchester United
Paul Pogba is out with a hamstring injury
Chris Smalling is missing with a knee injury he picked up when playing for England
Phil Jones is out with a toe injury suffered on international duty
Antonio Valencia and Marcos Rojo have both returned late from international duty and will be assessed

Southampton
Manolo Gabbiadini will not play against Bournemouth after picking up a groin injury against Tottenham two weeks ago
Virgil Van Dijk may well be out for the season as he continues to recover from an ankle injury he picked up in January

Tottenham Hotspur
Harry Kane is back working on the training pitch after his ankle injury and is ahead of schedule. Reports state he may be back on April 22
Danny Rose will see a specialist about his knee ligament injury but he is not expected to return until late April at the earliest
Erik Lamela is out for the season

Sanchez: “I’d like to stay in London… but with a team that wins”

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Alexis Sanchez may have some explaining to do when he arrives back at Arsenal…

[ MORE: Sanchez, Ozil to stay?

The Chilean forward starred for Chile on international duty, scoring and grabbing an assist in their 3-1 win over Venezuela to get their World Cup qualifying campaign back on track.

He also spoke to Chilean media outlet Publimetro and is quoted as saying the following about his future as he has just 15 months left on his current contract at Arsenal.

“I am happy in London and hope to finish my contract there,” Sanchez said. “I’d like to stay in the city but with a team that is winning things, that has a winning mentality. I’m 28 years old, I still have a lot of years ahead of me. I am a player who looks after himself.”

With Chelsea linked heavily with a move for Sanchez this week, those comments will fuel the fire further that Arsenal’s leading scorer could cross England’s capital this summer and the Gunners could lose yet another top talent to a direct Premier League rival (see: Van Persie, Robin. Cole, Ashley and Nasri, Samir).

[ LIVE: Stream every PL game live

Arsene Wenger responded to Sanchez’s reported comments in a light-hearted manner as he revealed that he believes both Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, who also has just 15 months to run on his current deal too, want to stay at Arsenal.

“In a positive way, there’s only one team in London, so he’s happy,” Wenger smiled. “He wants to win the championship, that’s what everybody wants. You have to be cautious when they give interviews in their home country. The interpretation is not always correct.”

“I have not a lot to add. I think he’s happy here. We have not extended his contract, I hope he will stay at the club. It happened before when we had to sell our best players. But that’s not the case any more. He has one and half years contract. I don’t think it is an immediate concern for Arsenal.”

So, Sanchez’s comments may have been lost in translation a little but it is intriguing to decipher what he’s saying as this whole game of cat and mouse plays out. Wenger has said that contract talks regarding Ozil and Sanchez will not happen until the season is over and that means the duo will have just one year left on their deals when they sit down to discuss a huge raise.

With Arsenal also having another eight players out of contract in 2018 there could be a huge rebuild on the way at the Emirates with or without Wenger. There’s no doubting Sanchez is the best player Arsenal have with Inter Milan, Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City and Juventus all linked with him and the fact he’s won one FA Cup in his three previous seasons with the Gunners obviously isn’t enough success for a player who seems to have an insatiable hunger for success.

If Sanchez does leave then that could be the signal for several other stars to move on too.

Mourinho gives update on Ibrahimovic, Neymar

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Jose Mourinho cut to the chase when asked about two superstars.

[ MORE: Ozil, Sanchez to stay at Arsenal? ]

Ahead of Manchester United’s clash with West Bromwich Albion on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET on CNBC and online via NBCSports.com) Mourinho has been talking about a potential $217 million move for Barcelona’s Neymar this summer, plus the future of Zlatan Ibrahimovic as United’s top goalscorer revealed on Wednesday he’s in talks about extending his contract for another season. 

First up, speaking to ESPN Brazil Mourinho responded to reports claiming he had been in touch with Barcelona and Neymar’s representatives about a move for the Brazil superstar.

“It’s speculation. I always try to be objective and pragmatic with clubs and to ask them what they can give me. To ask for Neymar is absurd. A club like Barcelona cannot and will not lose Neymar,” Mourinho said. “Although Lionel Messi is still a young player with years ahead of him, he’s almost 30, and Neymar will be the great player of Barcelona post-Messi. So much that I think it is like trying to break into a safe – impossible.”

In a separate interview with Sky Sports, Mourinho revealed he will put no pressure on Ibrahimovic to stay at United for another season and will support him no matter what.

“I am just calm and waiting for the decision,” Mourinho said. “If the decision is for him to stay and he is happy with that, we are delighted with that. If his decision is to leave and try to find a different challenge, I will be also happy for him. He is [a big part of our success this season] but the human being is more important than the player and the team. If his decision is to leave and try to be happy with his family and have a different reality, so be it.”

What should we make of all this? It’s just Mourinho being Mourinho.

He’s not getting people’s hopes up about Neymar arriving at Old Trafford but if there’s a slither of a chance that could happen, you can bet your bottom dollar Mourinho will try to push it through. Neymar’s incredible release clause of $217 million would have to be met with the biggest wages on the planet (he only signed a new five-year deal at Barca in October) and although United could afford that will Barca really let him leave the Nou Camp after grooming him to be Messi’s successor?

As for Ibrahimovic, the 35-year-old Swedish striker has scored 26 goals in 41 appearances for United this season and although his deal runs out this summer he has a clause which can trigger an extra year. Reports suggest he has an offer from the LA Galaxy waiting for him but if Ibra leads United to the UEFA Champions League next season can you really see him not having one last crack at winning major titles in the Premier League and Europe? Probs not.

Wenger says Ozil, Sanchez want to stay at Arsenal

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Arsene Wenger has being discussing the situation regarding Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil at Arsenal.

[ MORE: Sanchez to Chelsea? ]

Speaking to the media ahead of Arsenal’s clash with Manchester City on Sunday (Watch live, 11 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) at the Emirates Stadium, Wenger is hopeful his star duo will both remain with the Gunners beyond this summer.

Both Sanchez and Ozil are contracted to Arsenal until the summer of 2018 but are yet to agree a new deal and talks will not begin until the end of the current season.

Wenger isn’t too concerned despite Sanchez being linked with plenty of the biggest clubs on the planet.

“I personally believe both of them want to stay. I hope the club will find an agreement with them,” Wenger said.

Asked about his own future, Wenger had no update about reports suggesting he was about to sign a new two-year contract extension. That was despite saying before the international break that he would reveal his decision soon.

“It’s a subject that at the moment it is not sorted completely out,” Wenger said. “I’m very clear in my mind. Do I stay two months or two years? My commitment will be exactly the same all the time. It does not influence my attitude.”

So, Wenger is standing firm and did not want to get into any details regarding his own future as his current deal runs out in the summer.

However, the fact he said it is “not sorted completely out” suggests that talks are ongoing and that would also seem to point towards Wenger staying on after 20 years in charge.

There’s no doubt that this situation rumbling on has impacted Wenger’s team in recent weeks as Arsenal crashed out of the UEFA Champions League 10-2 on aggregate to Bayern Munich and have also lost four of their last five Premier League games.

Bagging a big win this weekend against City would significantly boost Arsenal’s hopes of finishing in the top four but perhaps everyone connected with Arsenal is more eager to have Wenger’s future sorted and then everything else will slot into place.