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.

Preview: Everton v. Newcastle

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  • Everton have won seven of their last eight games v Newcastle
  • Newcastle have won four PL games in a row
  • Wayne Rooney has more goals (15) against Newcastle than any other PL team

Everton host Newcastle United on Monday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) with the Toffees and Magpies both setting pretty in midtable.

[ LIVE: Stream every PL game

The Toffees sit in ninth, with Newcastle in 10th and just one point behind Everton with a game in hand. Rafael Benitez has been lauded for taking his newly-promoted side into the top 10 with defensive solidity, while Sam Allardyce has been lambasted for a defensive style of play despite getting Everton out of a relegation fight following his appointment back in November.

In team news Everton have Mason Holgate and Gylfi Sigurdsson out injured, while Newcastle will be without Christian Atsu but Islam Slimani could make his first start.


What they’re saying 

Sam Allardyce on the job Rafael Benitez has done at Newcastle: “From a difficult period they have managed to recover and get in the Premier League and they have turned it around. They have put together a run of games and we’ll see a better Newcastle than we saw up there [when Everton won 1-0 in December]. Rafa has progressed very well. He has always expressed his disappointment with not enough funds – we can all say we don’t have enough funds. What he has managed with the funds he has, particularly in the January months, has been excellent.”

Rafael Benitez on his Newcastle future: “I want to win games and I want to win trophies and I want to have the tools to be capable of competing. At the same time. I like to improve players, coach players, follow a business plan, a realistic business plan in modern football. I have no problem with that because I did it in the past.”

Prediction
Two teams who are very similar in terms of their style of play should see a bit of a stalemate take place at Goodison. 1-1 draw, which is a much better result for Newcastle and will pile more pressure on Big Sam.

Paul Pogba: “Transfers are not in my head”

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Paul Pogba has been discussing his future at Manchester United beyond this season.

The Frenchman delivered a stunning assist in United’s 2-1 win against Tottenham in the FA Cup semifinal on Saturday, with the midfielder now named Man of the Match in each of his last two games after plenty of speculation about his future at United in recent months.

Jose Mourinho left Pogba out of his starting lineup on multiple occasions, while Pep Guardiola claims he was offered to buy Pogba in January and speculation about him joining Paris Saint-Germain, going back to Juventus or heading to Real Madrid continue.

Speaking to French outlet Canal Football Club, Pogba had the following to say about his own future.

“Right now, I am at Manchester United and I am honestly only thinking about the present. Transfers are not in my head. We are in the [FA] Cup final and the World Cup is around the corner,” Pogba said.

Pogba also addressed the rumors regarding his relationship with Mourinho with reports stating that the duo do not get along and United’s manager is fed up with the Frenchman’s attitude off the pitch.

“I don’t have a problem with him, and I don’t think he has a problem with me,” Pogba said. “He’s the coach and he has to make choices. I am a player and I accept them. I have to answer on the pitch.”

Benitez happy to stay at Newcastle if he “has the tools to compete”

Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images
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Rafa Benitez is approaching something vaguely resembling sainthood in the northeast of England — with the Newcastle United-supporting portion, at least — but his future remains in doubt as the end of the current Premier League season draws nearer and the next one approaches.

[ MORE: Salah beats De Bruyne to win PFA Player of the year award ]

Benitez and Newcastle owner Mike Ashley have endured an unhappy working relationship for much of Benitez’s 25 months at the club. The Spaniard was true to his word, though, when he stuck around another season after being relegated from the PL in 2016, then again after winning promotion on the Magpies’ first attempt, but he’ll be faced with the same dilemma again this summer, even after guiding Newcastle to a mid-table finish (they currently sit 10th with five games left to play).

[ MORE: Man United reach FA Cup final | Chelsea join them ]

If he’s not given assurances that he’ll be handed the necessary funds to properly strengthen his squad during the upcoming summer transfer window, the 58-year-old could very well walk away and leave Ashley to play the part of all-too-familiar villain. Or, as Benitez put it this weekend, Ashley could fork over “the tools to be capable of competing” and make everyone, from the manager to the fans, happy — quotes form the Guardian:

“If they [Ashley’s representatives] want to talk to my people [about a new contract,] they can talk. The main thing is to be sure we share the same ambition.

“I want to win games and I want to win trophies and I want to have the tools to be capable of competing. At the same time, I like to improve players, coach players, follow a business plan, a realistic business plan in modern football. I have no problem with that because I did it in the past.

“We have to be sure to have all the tools to compete and achieve what we want to achieve because Newcastle is a massive football club and we want it to reach its potential.”

Of course, the perfect scenario for everyone involved would have been for any one of the numerous takeover bids to have gone through during the last two years, but as was most recently evidenced earlier this year, Ashley and the Toon can’t seem to quit each other just yet.

MLS: Timbers end NYCFC’s unbeaten start; Seattle get 1st win

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Sunday was a very good day for a pair of green-clad Cascadia rivals, the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders, as the former put to end the unbeaten start of the best team in MLS, while the latter picked up their first win of 2018…

[ MORE: Saturday’s MLS roundupOther MLS Things — The Archive ]

Portland Timbers 3-0 New York City FC

Through their first seven games, NYCFC were almost inarguably the best team in MLS (aside: how much better is their opening-day walkover of Sporting KC looking these days?), but Patrick Vieira’s side might as well have not even shown up to Providence Park on Sunday. Chalk it up to “it’s only one game,” or “these things happen in MLS,” or “NYC to Portland is a long trip for Russian clubs,” or any other credible rationale you prefer, but they were nothing more than 11 passengers for the whole of 90 minutes.

A quick look at the defending on all three of Portland’s goals…

Vieira was right at halftime, when he said his side was lacking intensity and aggression, and that it’d be nigh impossible to get back into the game in the second half if they continued to play that way. Spoiler: it was, because they did.

Just as I’ll not be rushing to judgment over NYCFC’s no-show performance, I’m not yet buying into the idea that Portland have figured things out defensively on the back of one clean sheet (their first of the season).

Seattle Sounders 3-1 Minnesota United

Speaking of firsts, Seattle are the proud owners of points — as in, more than one point — after putting three past Minnesota but almost fatally failing to kill the game off after going 2-0 up. I’m not sure what any defender in black is doing on this sequence…

Alas, Gustav Svensson, Will Bruin and Jordy Delem were far more clinical with their chances than the Loons…

Still, though, Seattle were completely helpless when it came time to grab control of the game while in a commanding position. Osvaldo Alonso is nowhere near the player he once was, which is a massive problem against teams that set up to counter-attack, as Minnesota did on Sunday. It doesn’t help that Roman Torres and Chad Marshall are the plodding center backs behind him.

The obvious answer to the midfield problem is to play Cristian Roldan deeper, alongside Alonso as they did en route to winning MLS Cup in 2016, but injuries to a number of key attackers have forced him into a de facto no. 10 role for the time being. These things will work themselves out with a bit of time, I suppose.

Full MLS scoreboard

Sporting Kansas City 6-0 Vancouver Whitecaps (Friday) — FULL RECAP
Montreal Impact 3-5 Los Angeles FC — FULL RECAP
Houston Dynamo 5-1 Toronto FC
New York Red Bulls 1-2 Chicago Fire
Columbus Crew SC 2-2 New England Revolution
Orlando City SC 3-2 San Jose Earthquakes
FC Dallas 2-0 Philadelphia Union
Real Salt Lake 3-0 Colorado Rapids
LA Galaxy 0-2 Atlanta United