Quick Six: Top stories from this weekend in the Premier League

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1. FULHAM HAS FINALLY SEEN ENOUGH

The line of succession was outlined the moment Rene Meulensteen was appointed first team coach at Craven Cottage. With hindsight, the only question is what took so long. Fulham had lost four-in-a-row ahead of Saturday’s visit to Upton Park, leaving the Cottagers with three harbingers of a coaching change: the team was trending downward; that trend appeared to be more than an aberration; and there was no reason to believe improvement was imminent.

All of which was verified in Saturday’s 3-0 loss. The Hammers had slowly sunk toward the drop and came into yesterday’s game even on points with Fulham. Instead of using the game to show he has the resourcefulness to keep Fulham up, Jol saw his team concede three times in the second half, full-time coming without the Cottagers having put a shot on goal.

At that point, new owner Shad Khan’s credibility was at stake. Jol should have been let go weeks ago, but after Fulham’s lopsided loss to another bottom-dweller, there was no argument for keeping the Dutch boss. If he wasn’t fired, fans would have every reason to doubt being competitive is high on Khan’s agenda.

So the predictable finally happened. Meulensteen’s set to take over. Whether that means improvement remains to be seen, but at least they’re trying. Having seen enough, Fulham’s no longer willing to see how bad things will get under Jol.

[MORE: West Ham 3-0 Fulham: Hammers heap more misery on Jol after emphatic win (video)]


2. THE SEASON OF RAMSEY CONTINUES

We’re running out of different ways to say this, so there’s no point in trying: Aaron Ramsey is having a great season. Through 13 rounds, he’s been the league’s best player. That nobody saw this coming makes his rise all the more irresistible.

His Man of the Match performance at Cardiff provides some natural perspective. A one-time prospect in the Bluebirds’ academy, Ramsey was the subject of a minor bidding war between Arsenal and Manchester United before moving to North London, a decision that sparked five years of uncertainty, misfortune, and scrutiny. Coming into his sixth season at the Emirates, it was unclear how much of a role he should play in Arsène Wenger’s team.

[MORE: Cardiff City 0-3 Arsenal: Aaron Ramsey fantastic against his old side (video)]

The Arsenal boss maintained his faith, loyalty that’s been rewarded with the 22-year-old’s breakout. With Saturday’s double, Ramsey moves to eight league goals in 13 games. Coming into the season, he’d only scored seven times in 91 Premier League appearances.

Beyond the numbers, he’s become the man who balances the team. Shuttling from deep next to Mikel Arteta, Ramsey’s become increasingly adept at reading his team’s rotations, often left unmarked coming into the attack from deep. His versatility also helps augment Arteta, whose holding role is complemented by Ramsey’s ability to share in the position’s dirty work.

Saturday was just another example of how far Ramsey’s come. Still writing the first chapters of his career, the Welsh international didn’t have an obvious role at the beginning of the season. Now he may be England’s best at his position, indispensable to a team that continues to validate their contenders’ credentials.


3. COMEBACK CAN’T CURTAIL VILLAS-BOAS’S OBSTINANCY

Tottenham was destroyed last week at the Etihad, a performance that not only saw the squad roundly criticized but André Villas-Boas’s tactics picked apart. He was naïve in playing a high, unprotected defensive line, and against the league’s best attack, Spurs were picked apart. According to reports, his job was being reevaluated.

Since then, Spurs collected an obligatory win in Europa League and took a point off of last year’s champions, and while you could argue the team should have gotten more from each, the last week has certainly been progress. Instead of letting that 6-0 at Manchester City capsize them, Spurs have stayed afloat, even if they’re still a bit adrift.

[MORE: Tottenham Hotspur 2-2 Manchester United: Rooney double spoils two Spurs leads]

That’s part of the reason why André Villas-Boas’s petulance is so telling. Rather than trying to gather some momentum – some positivity that can be put back into the team – he’s entertaining the darkness. On Thursday, he allowed some of his focus to go to a Tromsø fan, while after today’s game, he chose to spark a public feud with The Daily Mail’s Neil Ashton and Martin Samuel.

On one level, it is refreshing to see a manager speak his mind, and while doing so, Villas-Boas does a good job of articulating why he’s taken exception with The Daily Mail’s coverage. It’s direct, relatively dispassionate, and a reminder the authority that comes with a prominent byline doesn’t always meet with accord from the soccer community.

On the other hand, time and place. As Tottenham boss, he should have bigger fish to fry. His team had just come back twice to draw Manchester United, 2-2, yet they’re still in ninth place. In league, they’re still winless in four. Should confrontations with Daily Mail columnists and Tromsø season ticket holders even be on his radar?


4. HULL CITY SNARE FIRST EVER WIN OVER LIVERPOOL

Though the final score exaggerates the gap between the teams, Liverpool were less threatening than normal on Sunday, their 3-1 loss at Hull seeing their only goal come from a direct kick. With Daniel Sturridge set for a prolonged absence, Brendan Rodgers needs to find a second person to score open play goals. With nine each, Luis Suárez and Sturridge have accounted for 18 of the team’s 23 Premier League goals.

Yet on a day the Tigers recorded their first ever win over Liverpool, Hull City deserves the bulk of the stage. While two of their goals seemed pure, deflection-aided luck, their crucial second rewarded a match’s worth of persistence, the home side having out-worked their higher-ranking visitors throughout. Keeping themselves in position to lose, Liverpool allowed Hull City’s luck to pay off. David Meyler’s 72nd minute tiebreaker proved decisive.

With three points, Hull are now in 10th place, having passed the likes of Aston Villa, West Bromwich Albion, and Swansea City with their jump into the top half. While it’d be foolish to predict Steve Bruce’s side can maintain that standing, it’s not too much to ask whether 17 early points have paved their way to an unlikely survival. Now seven up on 18th place Fulham, Hull may have accumulated enough to scrape their way to survival.

[MORE: Hull City 3-1 Liverpool: David Meyler winner downs Reds at KC Stadium (video)]


 

5. CHELSEA OVERCOME EARLY GOAL, GO SECOND

Sunday gave us another reminder that Southampton have been playing a little over their heads, the Saints’ 3-1 loss at Stamford Bridge dropping Mauricio Pochettino’s team to seventh place. After back-to-back losses to Arsenal and Chelsea, we have a better idea of who Southampton really are: A very good side that’s likely to finish just inside the top half. It’d be a great step forward for a team that was struggling at the bottom of the table a year ago.

Chelsea, however, may have shown us something new on Sunday – a team capable of living up to their preseason hype. Although they went down through Jay Rodrgues just seconds into the game, the Blues controlled the final 90-plus minutes. It may have taken them 55 minutes to break through, but when full-time came with a two-goal gap, Chelsea had the win they deserved. Southampton finished the game with only one shot on target.

[MORE: Chelsea 3-1 Southampton: Stirring comeback sends Blues second]

It’s tempting to see this game as part of the Juan Mata narrative, with the restored Spaniard playing a key role on Sunday, but it’s probably best to focus on the simpler conclusions. Bouncing back from an embarrassing mid-week loss at Basel, Chelsea gave their second-straight convincing league performance. These heights at least hint the Blues are getting closer to realizing their potential.

When you see performances like today’s, you’re reminded quality isn’t a problem. Consistency, however, is. Against West Ham and Southampton, we saw a title contender, but against Basel, Chelsea looked fatally flawed. Slowly realizing who his best players are, José Mourinho will likely make the Southampton performances more relevant than the Basels.


6. FOUR-IN-A-ROW FOR SIXTH PLACE NEWCASTLE

With their win, Chelsea sit second place, but highlighting the crowd that’s cued up behind, the Blues are as close to sixth place Newcastle as they are Arsenal. At 27 points, Chelsea are four back of the league-leading Gunners, and after Newcastle’s 2-1 win over visiting West Brom, a Magpies side that’s won four-in-a-row is only one point out of a Champions League spots.

[MORE: Newcastle 2-1 West Brom: Sissoko’s sizzling strike sends Magpies fifth (video)]

Usually when a team goes on this type of run, the fixture list is providing some help. That’s not the case with Newcastle. Their November surge has featured wins over Chelsea and Tottenham, with the worst of their vanquished foes being 14th place Norwich. In that span, they’ve outscored their opposition 7-2.

Saturday featured a more controlling Newcastle that we’re used to seeing, a team that’s allowed 18 goals in 13 games holding their opponents to only one shot on target. That Chris Brunt’s shot happened to go in made the match close, though with Moussa Sissoko responding four minutes later, Newcastle had restored their lead, building on Yoann Gouffran’s opener on their way to a 2-1 win.

Considering how this team’s played since moving to a 4-4-2 formation – Alan Pardew electing to make the difficult choice of sitting Hatem Ben Arfa to opt for a more consistent, stalwart group – and there’s no reason Newcastle can’t make their mercurial 2012-13 season look like a blip. After threatening to claim a Champions League spot in 2011-13, Newcastle battled relegation, and while breaking into the league’s top four this season isn’t going to happen, the Magpies appear poised to reestablish their place among the clubs competing for Europe.

Checking the Championship with two weeks to go

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There are two match days left before the Football League Championship playoffs, and there’s still no clarity outside of who will finish first.

The champion Wolverhampton Wanderers have a 12-point lead on second place, but there are three teams still alive for the second automatic promotion spot and technically seven who can make it into the playoffs.

[ MORE: LFC 2-1 Roma | Klopp reacts ]

May 6 is the final day, and all kickoffs will take place at 12:30 p.m. ET

Instant promotion battle

Cardiff City, Fulham, and Aston Villa are the three sides aiming to finish second, with Cardiff currently holding the advantage. Their 86 points are one more than Fulham, and four clear of Aston Villa.

2. Cardiff (86 pts, +28): at Hull City, vs. Reading
3. Fulham (85 pts, +34): vs. Sunderland, at Birmingham City
4. Aston Villa (82 pts, +31): vs. Derby County, at Millwall

Projection: Cardiff has a decent run-in, but Fulham’s path will carry it past them should the Bluebirds stumble at all. Aston Villa faces two sides aiming for the playoffs, and is probably plotting out its strategy for the playoffs themselves.

Playoff spots

Aside from the two above sides who fail to grab second, there are seven other sides within varying degrees of probability for a playoff spot. Middlesbrough and Derby County hold fifth and sixth now, but Millwall and Brentford are within a win of the Top Six and Preston North End, Bristol City, or Sheffield United could get in with a win and help.

5. Middlesbrough (72 pts, +20): vs. Millwall, at Ipswich Town
6. Derby County (71 pts,+19): at Aston Villa, vs. Barnsley
7. Millwall (69 pts, +12): at Middlesbrough, vs. Aston Villa
8. Brentford (68 pts, +12): at Barnsley, vs. Hull City
9. Preston (67 pts, +9): at Sheffield United, vs. Burton Albion
10. Bristol City (66 pts, +10): at Nottingham Forest, vs. Sheffield Utd
11. Sheffield United (66 pts, +7): vs. Preston, at Bristol City

Projection: Brentford is the only club without at least one date against a promotion hopeful, but everyone under 8th will be rooting for Derby to lose out (and probably Boro to draw Millwall?). Preston and Sheffield are likely staging a knockout match on Saturday. Expect Tony Pulis and Boro to avoid dropping from the Top Six, an Derby should manage its fate well even with Villa on the fixture list. Yet don’t be surprised if Brentford climbs into sixth even though the Bees have only claimed a point of six from their remaining opponents.

Behind the scenes: A look into an NYCFC player’s training routine

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Professional athletes are often lauded for their achievements on and off their field of play, but for those that have never played their respective sport at the highest level it is often difficult to exactly understand what occurs on an everyday basis for that athlete.

Regimented training schedules, as well as pre-planned diets for each player are only a few of the considerations that take place between a club and its players, and New York City FC is no different.

[ MORE: Sweden coach says Ibra must reach out to have chance at World Cup ]

On Tuesday, Pro Soccer Talk and various members of the media had the unique opportunity to visit the Etihad City Football Academy — NYCFC’s new, state-of-the-art training facility in Orangeburg, New York to get a closer look at what the daily life of a soccer player is like.

PST’s Matt Reed, and decided to keep a journal of many of the day’s activities, from getting all geared up in the locker room to viewing his performance from the day’s training session following the workout.

Below, we’ll take an hour-by-hour look at what it means to be an NYCFC player.


9 a.m. ET

Upon arriving in Orangeburg, the first thing noticeable when pulling off of the Palisades Parkway was the town’s devotion to soccer.

Before driving into the parking lot at NYCFC’s facility, it’s nearly impossible to miss the various turf fields that lie in front of the City Football Group-owned ground. Those fields belong to World Class FC — a local U.S. Soccer Development academy that has begun working closely with the Major League Soccer side.

After parking the car and walking through the front doors of the venue, there was immediately a presence that could not be overlooked. On the near-side wall was a global map, which featured pinpoints of each of CFG’s entities around the globe, which include parent club Manchester City, NYCFC and Melbourne City, among others.

Breakfast was the first item on the agenda in the team’s cafeteria, which featured an open setting that allows players to either eat inside or outdoors right next to the pitch. Every food and beverage item features a card next to it indicating the calorie intake, which is something the organization is making a strong effort to pay close attention to.

Following the meal, we had the chance to walk through the facility, which features a very similar setup to that of Man City and Melbourne. The design is said to be nearly identical to NYCFC’s sister club in Australia.

Many of the club’s full-time staff for both the senior and academy teams work on-site in Orangeburg, with an office view that allows the employees to look directly outside to the pitch.

One major emphasis from the club and its vision of the facility was to allow everybody to be inclusive of one another.

That was in focus when we visited the indoor training area, filled with weights, stationary bicycles and various workout machines. Not only can players view the pitch outside, but the team’s medical staff is able to see everything in that room, as well as on the opposite side of the wall where players can be tended to for injuries, massages, ice baths and other amenities.

New York City FC

10 a.m ET

Although NYCFC has been training at its new facility for over a month now, the occasion served as an official opportunity to open up the ground with all of the club’s executives.

Technical director Claudio Reyna and head coach Patrick Vieira were on-site for the ribbon-cutting ceremony, along with Vice-Chairman of NYCFC, Marty Edelman, and president Jon Patricof.

Photo by Anthony J. Causi

As several of NYCFC’s higher-ups alluded to on Tuesday, their vision for the new facility won’t be simply for the club, but also give the opportunity to other teams to practice in Orangeburg when they are in town.

Man City has already been scheduled to make a visit to the training ground in late July when the incumbent Premier League champions arrive in the United States for the International Champions Cup.

They’ll face PL giants Liverpool on July 25 at MetLife Stadium, approximately 30 minutes from the NYCFC training facility.

PST then had an opportunity to speak to several players and staff members in an open media forum, so we decided to provide some of the most-notable takeaways from the discussions.

Patrick Vieira on links to Arsenal

“Who? Vieira said jokingly. “No. I’m sure you would know before I do. It’s an honor, of course. It’s Arsenal Football Club, and it’s a big football club.

Vieira on how the club has been able to become more inclusive at the training ground

“When I was talking to Claudio about what we really wanted here we wanted our departments to interact with each other. We wanted to be more like a family. People can see each other. It’s not too small, and it’s not too flashy. You understand what I mean? You have what you need. There’s nothing over the top that we don’t need. Every single room makes sense. At the same time it’s good, and it’s simple. I really love this facility. There’s nothing extra that we don’t need.”

President Jon Patricof on vision for pursuing a stadium

“This is not going to put our fans at ease. And nor should it. Listen, MLS is continuing to grow and the stakes are rising. The standards are rising. We’re really proud of this facility, but this is what is expected of MLS clubs today. It’s a huge milestone. It’s important.In no way does it slow down our plans in pursuing a stadium. We have to and continue to press full speed on that front. I recognize that expectations are high. We are highly focused on it.”

Technical director Claudio Reyna on having their own facility

“Manchester is still part of the group, so it’s an extended home for us as part of the team. Also, in January the weather isn’t great here. Not that it’s great in Manchester either, but it allows us to send guys there and get some preparation ahead of the MLS season. But of course, what we didn’t have at SUNY Purchase for December and January was a gym space. And if the field is in good condition then we can obviously use it. The players come earlier and leave later. They want to stick around, and they do extra work. It’s very motivating for them. Since this will be our first offseason here, we’ll see how the players use it, but I think a lot of them will be here once the season is over.

Goalkeeper Sean Johnson on setting the standard for other MLS sides

“I can’t speak for the rest of Major League Soccer because I haven’t been around to many club’s training facilities, but what I can say is that from my experience this place doesn’t compare to anything I’ve seen. For a player to have a place like this is amazing, and us as players don’t take it for granted. We feel this is very special, and we want to make sure that we’re doing our part and give back.”

Midfielder Tommy McNamara on being from the Orangeburg area

“It’s beautiful. We’re very appreciative to have it. We’re given everything we need to compete. We feel very grounded and settled here like we’re at home. My parents live three miles down the road. My cousins, you could walk to their house from here. My sister grew up on those fields. It means a lot to me because this is literally home to me.”


11 a.m./12 p.m. ET

It’s impossible to pinpoint one specific highlight that created the best memory of the experience, but viewing the locker room and physically participating in training have to be high up on the list.

After sitting down for the interviews, we got to suit up just as NYCFC players would, went out to the pitch, and experienced a Vieira-led training session up close and personal.

Before moving to the field, members of the media were given their own kits and changed in the locker room, which featured a unique twist on a traditional changing area.

The circular dynamic of the room is another measure of the team’s willingness to create a welcoming atmosphere for its senior players.

That was something McNamara and Villa stated repeatedly during his interview sessions with the media, and they believe it is one of several reasons why the club’s camaraderie has improved with the current group of players.

Then, it was time to hit the training room for several workout exercises to warm up, including leg lifts, several forms of dynamic yoga and box-jumping routines.

Once the warmups were over and everyone was loose, we went out onto the pitch to receive instructions from Vieira and the rest of his training staff. The former Premier League midfielder broke the session up into different groups to focus on certain drills, as the team would on a regular training day.

A communication drill kicked off the on-field display, as players passed the ball to one another in a small 10 yard by 10 yard grid.

Then, games of 3 versus 3 and passing drills designed to find the open player were implemented to get a better feel for the group of players.

Needless to say, t’s very easy to see how difficult some of the exercises are…


1 p.m. ET

After a filling lunch back in the cafeteria, the final stop of the day brought us to the film room, where we had the chance to view some of the action from our on-field session.

Several members of NYCFC’s coaching staff indicated the importance of these sessions, which normally takes place in small groups. Vieira stated that he has put an emphasis on the meetings to not only point out areas where his players can improve, but also to indicate something a particular player is doing well.

Matt Reed/Pro Soccer Talk

One person, in particular, who is often only caught behind the scenes for the club is Head of Performance Analysis, Daniel Fradley. Vieira suggested that Fradley has been an integral part in NYCFC’s analytical approach, which has helped the club improve since the team’s inception over three years ago.

On a regular day of training, NYCFC players have the opportunity to speak with Vieira, Fradley and other members of the staff about their individual play from their session on the pitch. This includes individual tactical approaches, as well as how the group as a whole should be performing as a unit.


Training evaluation

For about five minutes, there was a strong sense within myself that I could impress Vieira and the rest in attendance, but then I came the realization that I haven’t played competitive soccer in years and this was a lot more difficult than I had anticipated.

To be perfectly blunt, the warmup exercises were tricky enough as it was, and that was only coupled by the fact that the on-field experience featured my very sloppy touches on the ball and several missed opportunities shooting on goal.

Straying away from my personal lack of soccer skills though, it’s very easy to see why the NYCFC players enjoy their new facility so much.

As Vieira stated so succinctly, “The venue isn’t too big and it isn’t too small. It has exactly everything that we need.”

UCL Preview: Will CR7 continue to haunt Bayern Munich?

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Bayern Munich hopes home field can be the key to its first win over Real Madrid in six tries.

The German powers have lost five-straight UEFA Champions League encounters against Real heading into Wednesday’s semifinal first leg at the Allianz Arena (2:45 p.m. ET kickoff).

[ MORE: LFC 2-1 Roma | Klopp reacts ]

Real knocked Bayern out of the 2013-14 and 2016-17 UCL, with Bayern eliminated Real in penalty kicks during the semifinal round of 2011-12.

All told, this is the 12th time Real and Bayern have met on the road to the European Cup.

It was the quarterfinal stage last season that saw Cristiano Ronaldo score five times over two legs including both goals in a 2-1 first leg win in Germany. He also scored twice against the Bavarians in 2013-14, and twice in 2011-12 (though he missed the first penalty of the semifinal shootout).

Real’s German midfielder, Toni Kroos, is quite wary of the superpowers from his home nation:

“I’ve been playing alongside a lot of Bayern players for many years now in the national team, but if you look at Bayern’s possible line-up, you can see that they have a lot of very good players. They’re in better shape than they were last year and we’ve got to go out and play our game.”

Real boss Zinedine Zidane knows there’s a juicy subplot with James Rodriguez on loan at Bayern and very much enjoying his football, but says it’s media-driven and nothing on the mind of Zizou or James.

“I didn’t want James to go, he decided to go. I never had any problem with James and it’s more about what is said in the press,” Zidane said, according to Goal.com. “I think he will be motivated because he is a football player. He doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone. Anyone that thinks I am against James is wrong. He will want to go out and prove himself but because he likes football and that’s it.”

Rodriguez has six goals and 12 assists across 34 appearances for Bayern this season, though just one assist has come in the UCL.

Bayern boss Jupp Heynckes says James’ exit from Real might’ve been desired but it wasn’t easy for the player.

“He was a little depressed,” Heynckes said. “I took care of him, I had lots of talks with him, and step by step he found confidence. He is more relaxed within the team. Our fans here, when they see him play football, they enjoy it. Above all he is a player who has fantasy, has an overview. He is more open-minded and gives the impression he feels well and has settled in Munich.”

Liverpool fan attacked by Roma support outside pub

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Ugly scenes surrounded Liverpool’s UEFA Champions League visit from AS Roma, as visiting supporters used the occasion as an excuse for violence.

[ MORE: LFC 2-1 Roma | Klopp reacts ]

Several reports say Roma support — some armed with belts, others with hammers — stormed Liverpool supporters outside a pub near Anfield, with a 53-year-old man requiring treatment after 80 people charged the Albert Pub using a side route.

The Liverpool Echo says Merseyside Police are investigating the incident, and Sunday Times football correspondent Jonathan Northcroft provides some details on the harrowing events.