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.

Madrid beats Leganes 3-1 in game postponed from December

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MADRID (AP) Real Madrid overcame the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo and other regular starters Wednesday, coming from behind to defeat Leganes 3-1 Wednesday in a Spanish league match postponed from last year.

The result allowed the defending champions to regain third place from Valencia, but it did little to put Zinedine Zidane’s team back in the title race as it still trails leader Barcelona by 14 points after 24 matches. Madrid is seven points behind second-place Atletico Madrid.

[ MORE: Messi defies Conte’s successful tactics ]

Less than a month ago, Leganes jolted Madrid into a crisis by eliminating the Spanish powerhouse from the quarterfinals of the Copa del Rey.

The hosts from southern Madrid went ahead less than 10 minutes into the match on Wednesday, but Madrid answered with first-half goals by Lucas Vazquez and Casemiro. Sergio Ramos sealed the victory by converting a 90th-minute penalty kick.

The league match was rescheduled from the 16th round because of Madrid’s participation in the Club World Cup in December, a competition it won.

Only in its second season in the first division, Leganes had a promising start to the campaign but has struggled recently. It hasn’t won in six matches and has lost four straight, dropping to 13th with 29 points.

Madrid has won four in a row, including 3-1 against Paris Saint-Germain in the last 16 of the Champions League last week.

Ronaldo, who scored twice against PSG and has 10 goals in his last six matches, was rested on Wednesday along with goalkeeper Keylor Navas. Marcelo, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric are trying to recover from injuries in time for next month’s return match against PSG in Paris.

Leganes opened the scoring with a goal by Unai Bustinza six minutes into the match at Butarque Stadium. The defender dived in front of the ball as Madrid left back Theo Hernandez tried to clear it from near the goal line. The ball ricocheted off Bustinza’s head and shoulder and went into the net.

Madrid equalized five minutes later with Vazquez’s low shot into the far corner from inside the area after a through ball by Casemiro, and 20 minutes later it was the Brazilian defensive midfielder who found the net from close range after a pass by Vazquez.

Ramos scored from the penalty spot after Mateo Kovacic was pushed inside the area in the closing minutes.

More AP Spanish soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/LaLiga

Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni

LIVE, UCL – Sevilla vs. Man United, Shakhtar Donetsk vs. Roma

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Jose Mourinho has created a splash this morning by benching Paul Pogba despite utilizing a 3-man central midfield formation as Manchester United heads to Spain to take on Sevilla in their Champions League Round of 16 first leg meeting.

Pogba was left out of Saturday’s win over Huddersfield Town in the FA Cup due to illness, but having made the trip to Sevilla with the matchday squad, it seems his omission is instead due to tactical reasons. 21-year-old academy product Scott McTominay starts in Pogba’s place alongside Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera, with the Frenchman on the bench among the substitutes.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores

The decision is surprising given Manchester United’s 16-point deficit in the Premier League table as they trail runaway favorites Manchester City, leaving the Champions League as the best competition remaining that the Red Devils have a shot to win.

Up front for Manchester United, Alexis Sanchez carries the creative load along with Juan Mata, with both supporting Romelu Lukaku at the striker position. Meanwhile, Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof continue to work as the central defensive partnership, while Antonio Valencia captains the side as full-back, mirrored by Ashley Young on the other edge.

In the other matchup, Roma heads to the Ukraine to take on Shakhtar Donetsk, who finished 2nd in Group F three points behind Manchester City. The Ukranian side has only just returned from its winter break, with just a single game played since December 10th.

Roma, meanwhile, has pulled itself out of a rut just in time for the return of Champions League play, with three straight Serie A wins coming on the heels of a five-match winless run. They have scored eight goals over those three wins, with a pair of road clean sheets among the group. 20-year-old Turkish winger Cengiz Under is on fire over the win streak, scoring four goals over that span.


Today’s UEFA Champions League Round of 16 schedule

Sevilla vs. Manchester United – 2:45 p.m. ET
Shakhtar Donetsk vs. Roma – 2:45 p.m. ET

Reports: Mourinho to leave Paul Pogba out of Champions League lineup

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According to multiple reports across England, including the BBC, Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho is ready to leave Paul Pogba out of his starting lineup for Wednesday’s Champions League match against Sevilla despite utilizing a 4-3-3 formation with three central midfielders.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores ]

The reports state that Pogba will be left on the bench in favor of youngster Scott McTominay, who will start alongside Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic. Mourinho has spoken highly of McTominay recently, saying three days ago, “I think Scott deserves more than what he is getting.”

“Maybe it’s because he’s this kind of kid profile: a normal haircut, no tattoos, no big cars, no big watches, humble kid, arrive in the club when he was nine or 10,” Mourinho said in what many perceived to be a thinly veiled slap at Pogba.

Mourinho has held back from publicly criticizing his $125 million midfielder in the media, but his actions on the field suggest otherwise. The 24-year-old has failed to record 90 minutes in three straight Premier League matches, seeing his manager yank him before the full-time whistle in two and failing to make the starting lineup in the other, leaving many to speculate a rift between the two.

The decision is especially surprising given Juan Mata‘s comments earlier Wednesday that suggested Manchester United is prioritizing the Champions League, given their 16-point deficit to Manchester City in the Premier League table.

Pogba missed the 2-0 FA Cup win over Huddersfield on Saturday due to illness, but it’s hard to imagine that four days later that keeps the French superstar on the bench, especially given his ability to make the trip to Sevilla with the matchday squad.

Leicester City settles Financial Fair Play dispute with Football League

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Leicester City will owe the Football League a reduced fine after coming to an agreement with the English lower-league governing body over a dispute regarding the 2013/14 season.

The Foxes, who won the Championship that season and were promoted to the Premier League, were handed an official breach of Financial Fair Play rules after accruing a loss exceeding the allowed $11 million amount. However, Leicester City argued that the deficit was due to “allowable” amounts regarding promotion and academy costs.

After talks between the two parties, the EFL announced Leicester City will owe a reduced amount of $4.33 million. They could have owed up to $18 million, the differential between the allowed amount and their actual posted loss of $20.8 million.

In an official release, the EFL announced, “The EFL acknowledges that [Leicester City] did not make any deliberate attempt to infringe the Rules or to deceive and that the dispute arose out of genuine differences of interpretation of the Rules between the parties.”

After initially receiving word of the notice back in 2014, the Foxes had legally challenged the fine, but that had been put on hold after litigation began in 2015 between the EFL and Queens Park Rangers for a similar dispute. Bournemouth was also fined after incurring a significant loss in their 2014/15 promotion season. Teams that breach rules but are not promoted face transfer bans, such as Fulham, Bolton, and Nottingham Forest received through the 2014/15 season.