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.

Top 5 Premier League storylines in Week 9

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Manchester City continues to dominate its opposition at the top of the Premier League, but there are plenty of other details to watch for this weekend around England’s top flight.

The 2017/18 PL campaign has seen several of the league’s top sides struggle through eight matches, while surprises Watford and Burnley attempt to stake their claim as legitimate title contenders.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Below, PST takes a look at the top 5 storylines around Week 9 of PL action.

Blues hope to end recent woes against surprise Hornets

Chelsea vs. Watford — Saturday, 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN

What’s going on with Chelsea? The Blues nearly gave away all three points against Roma in Wednesday’s Champions League clash. That was after Antonio Conte‘s suffered back-to-back league defeats against Manchester City and bottom side Crystal Palace.

Injuries have certainly played a role in some of the club’s shortcomings recently, but there is still plenty of positive squad talent for Chelsea to pick up its performances. N'Golo Kante‘s absence in the midfield is notable because of his high work rate, but the Blues will have to make due in the mean time without the Frenchman.

Eden Hazard‘s brace against Roma is a good sign though for Chelsea, who will need their most dangerous player to influence the attack in addition to Alvaro Morata’s strong early return since joining from Real Madrid.

Clarets look to spoil City’s perfect start

Manchester City vs. Burnley — Saturday, 10 a.m. ET on NBCSN

The Clarets proved last season that they could be one of the most dangerous home sides in the PL, but 2017 has shown that Sean Dyche‘s men could present a real threat in England’s top flight.

Burnley is unbeaten in seven of its first eight matches, with its lone defeat coming to West Brom. Although that match proved to be a bit of an anomaly given the team’s win over Chelsea on opening day and subsequent results against Tottenham and Liverpool on the road.

The Citizens will present a different threat given the club’s highly-potent attack, but Burnley’s back line has been a revelation thus far by allowing just six goals. That ranks fourth in the PL behind only Man City, Man United and Spurs.

[ MORE: PST ranks the top 20 players in the latest PL power rankings ]

Kane presents challenge for Reds’ defensive unit

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Liverpool — Sunday, 11 a.m. ET on NBCSN

Prior to Wednesday’s 7-0 thrashing of Maribor in the UCL, Liverpool had drawn three straight matches in all competitions. It doesn’t really have to be stated, but Tottenham is not Maribor… they’re a lot better.

In fact, Harry Kane is budding into one of — if not the best — strikers in the world at the moment. The Englishman has already scored 11 goals in as many matches across all competitions, which poses a massive threat to a Reds defense that has struggled mightily.

Liverpool has conceded 12 goals in eight PL matches, which is only one fewer than Watford for the most allowed out of the top 14 sides in England’s top flight. Jurgen Klopp‘s group has surely built something special up front with the likes of Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah threatening opposing back lines, but that is all for not if they cannot establish a solid unit defensively.

Can the Toffees stop the bleeding at the Emirates?

Arsenal vs. Everton — Sunday, 8:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN

Two wins in their first eight is far from the expectations that anyone around Everton would have hoped for this season. The departure of Romelu Lukaku was an undoubted blow, but the Toffees have looked in shambles on both sides of the ball through the first eight weeks of play.

Everton is tied for the fourth-most goals conceded thus far in the PL (13), while only managing five finishes up front. Ronald Koeman has a lot of work to do with his side, who sit just two points above the relegation zone. That’s nowhere near the top 6/7, where the club has been accustomed to finishing in recent years.

[ MORE: The biggest surprises, disappointments in UCL so far ]

New-look Hammers head to Old Trafford

Swansea City vs. Leicester City — Saturday, 10 a.m. ET online

It’s still hard to pinpoint Leicester’s problems, but another manager has gone by the wayside and the club is running out of excuses for the team’s poor play. We saw a similar struggle from the Foxes last season, after having had won the PL in 2015/16, but the team just looks less desirable at the moment.

The Foxes currently sit in 18th place through eight matches, this despite still having Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and Kasper Schmeichel — each of whom are widely-regarded as some of the best players at their position in the PL

For the Swans, goals have been hard to come by through the first weeks of the season. The loss of Gylfi Sigurdsson prior to the new campaign beginning was a massive blow, but the club has still managed eight points thus far.

TFC’s Giovinco says Toronto FC would “avoid relegation” in Serie A

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Toronto FC won’t be leaving Major League Soccer for Serie A any time soon — or probably ever — but wouldn’t it be fun if they had the chance to?

[ MORE: Landon Donovan considering U.S. Soccer presidency run ]

Star striker Sebastian Giovinco brought up the hypothetical in a recent interview, and the former Italian international believes that his current TFC side is good enough to avoid relegation in Italy’s top flight.

“There’s no doubt that [MLS] has improved,” he told La Gazzetta dello Sport. “It’s still not on the same level as the elite European leagues, but it all depends on the desire and the effort you put out there. Big names keep arriving and there are a lot of top quality South Americans.

“[If Toronto were in Serie A] we would avoid relegation easily, maybe finishing in mid-table.”

The comments were prompted by the Atomic Ant after Italy manager manager Gian Piero Ventura openly expressed concerns with Giovinco playing in MLS instead of one of Europe’s top leagues. The same could be said about Ventura’s predecessor and current Chelsea boss Antonio Conte.

It’s difficult to equate MLS directly to Serie A, or any other league for that matter, but one thing has been clear throughout Giovinco’s tenure in Toronto. He’s really good.

Giovinco has scored 54 regular season goals for TFC since joining the Canadian side in 2015, while adding 37 assists. Additionally, during last season’s playoff run — which saw Toronto advanced all the way to MLS Cup — Giovinco had four goals and as many assists.

Europa League roundup: Lyon tops Everton, Giroud guides Arsenal

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It was a wild and crazy Thursday full of UEFA Europa League action, and while one Premier League side lucked out, another continued its fall from grace.

Arsenal picked up a 1-0 win over Red Star Belgrade on the road after Olivier Giroud’s 85th-minute overhead kick give the Gunners three points and complete command of Group H.

[ MORE: Dusan Tadic tells his story of his move to Southampton ]

Meanwhile, Everton fell 2-1 to Lyon on the day, as the Toffees remain at the bottom of Group E with one point in three Europa League matches. Toffees defender Ashley Williams was very lucky not to earn himself a straight red card after a terrible challenge on Lyon keeper Anthony Lopes.

The challenge came four minutes prior to Williams netted the equalizer for Everton. However, Bertrand Traore scored the winner for Lyon with a quarter hour remaining in the match.

Elsewhere, Real Sociedad scored six goals en route to a comfortable win over Vardar, while AC Milan had to settle for a scoreless draw against AEK Athens.

Here are all of Thursday’s results from around the Europa League.

Astana 4-0 Maccabi Tel-Aviv
BATE 1-0 Cologne
Hapoel Beer Sheva 1-2 Steaua
Konyaspor 2-0 Red Bull Salzburg
Lugano 3-2 Viktoria
Marseille 2-1 Guimaraes
Nice 1-3 Lazio
Ostersunds FK 2-2 Athletic Bilbao
Red Star Belgrade 0-1 Arsenal
Vardar 0-6 Real Sociedad
Zenit 3-1 Rosenborg
Zorya 2-1 Hertha Berlin
Zulte-Waregem 1-1 Vitesse
AC Milan 0-0 AEK Athens
Atalanta 3-1 Apollon Limassol
Austria Vienna 1-3 Rijeka
Dynamo Kyiv 2-2 Young Boys
Everton 1-2 Lyon
Fastav Zlin 1-1 Copenhagen
SC Braga 0-2 Ludogorets
Sheriff 1-1 Lokomotiv Moscow
Skenderbeu 0-0 Partizan
TSG Hoffenheim 3-1 Istanbul Basaksehir
Villarreal 2-2 Slavia Prague

Video: Giroud gives Arsenal three points with superb overhead finish

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Red Star Belgrade posed a big test to Arsenal on Thursday, but it was Olivier Giroud that had the last laugh for the Gunners.

[ MORE: Atlanta’s Gressel is emerging as a legitimate MLS ROTY candidate ]

The Frenchman delivered in spectacular fashion five minutes from time when Giroud scored a makeshift-bicycle kick following Theo Walcott‘s headed pass inside the penalty area.

Arsenal went on to win the match, 1-0, and currently sits atop Group H in the UEFA Europa League on nine points through three matches.

Giroud, who went the full 90 minutes for the Gunners, has had a knack for scoring some fine goals in an Arsenal kit over the years. That includes last year’s tremendous scorpion-kick goal against Crystal Palace in Premier League play (watch below).