Premier League Playback: Everton in the mix, miserable Mourinho, basement boys battling

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BEARDLESS HOWARD EXCELS, AS EVERTON ARRIVE

Tim Howard looked ten years younger on Sunday, as the bushy beard was gone and he delivered a sterling display in Everton’s 1-1 draw with Arsenal. Two quick saves off his line in the first-half and a great stop from Aaron Ramsey after the break saw the USMNT ‘keeper one again give the Toffees a solid foundation to build off. Roberto Martinez’ side impressed against the Premier League leaders and in a week where they beat Manchester United away from home and drew with Arsenal at the Emirates, Everton are looking like a top four side in the making.

What will get them to that next level? Clinical finishing, said Howard, when I spoke to him in the tunnel afterwards.

“That’s the one thing, as well as we played in the first half for the possession we had, we didn’t create enough chances. I think nearly at the halfway point [of the season], that’s something we’re looking to get better at. We defended really well, we’ve shown that with the clean sheets that we’ve kept. We have been getting in the attacking third a bunch of times but now we have to try and finish off our chances.”

Howard is right.

For all their early dominance — which frustrated the home crowd mercifully and piled the pressure on the Gunners —  Everton had no real substance to show for a sublime first half display. Both full backs bombed on and provided good crosses but so often not enough men were gambling to get in the box. Ross Barkley was a shining light in midfield and whenever he was on the ball he turned and ran at the Gunners back-tracking defense in one swift movement. Just 20-years-old and already a PL regular and England international, Barkley has the world at his feet. He was handed the man of the match award on Sunday, and in his first post-game interview he looked timid and shy. Everton’s attackers are looking a little like that at the moment, Romelu Lukaku aside, and if they’re going to make it to the Champions League in Martinez’ first season in charge, more goals and a clinical ruthlessness is whats needed.

FULL PREMIER LEAGUE PLAYBACK ARCHIVE

As they bullied Arsenal for vast swathes of their game at the weekend, Everton proved from back to front their capable of sticking with anyone in this league. A work in progress, but after watching them scare the life out of Arsenal, with some fine tuning here and there Martinez’ men could become a work of art.

Premier League Schedule – Week 15

Result Recap & Highlights
Arsenal 1-1 Everton Recap and watch here
Crystal Palace 2-0 Cardiff City Recap and watch here
Fulham 2-0 Aston Villa Recap and watch here
Liverpool 4-1 West Ham Recap and watch here
Man Utd 0-1 Newcastle Recap and watch here
Southampton 1-1 Man City Recap and watch here
Stoke 3-2 Chelsea Recap and watch here
Sunderland 1-2 Tottenham Recap and watch here
Swansea 1-1 Hull City Recap and watch here
West Brom 0-2 Norwich City Recap and watch here

MOURINHO: “WE’RE IN TROUBLE”

After Chelsea’s 3-2 defeat to Stoke City on Saturday, Jose Mourinho resembled a dejected figure. In the cauldron of the Britannia Stadium his saw his sides defense once again succumb to relentless wing-play. In their two away games last week, Chelsea conceded six goals and scored six. That is not a Mourinho team. Not at all. His sides are built on solid defense and are always hard to beat. Not this Chelsea side. Take nothing away from Stoke, they pushed, cajoled and harried the Blues and Oussama Assaidi’s stunning stoppage time howitzer was worthy of winning any game.

But the Chelsea of old would’ve seen this game out with at least a point.

“I don’t feel comfortable enough to tell you what I think about the game,” Mourinho said afterwards. “We’re in trouble. It is a concern [conceding many goals recently]. I don’t like it, I don’t organize my teams to be like this. Sometimes mistakes kill an organization.”

It is that lack or organization that killed Chelsea on Saturday.

Stoke were clever and left men in wide areas that confused Chelsea’s packed midfield of John Obi Mikel, Juan Mata and Ramires and left the defense in a muddle. Take a look at the image on the right.

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(Click  image to enlarge) Notice the space in behind Chelsea’ RB, Gary Cahill (CB) stepping into midfield and Mikel dropping back too deep. This is a mess and happened far too often.

This was after Chelsea went 1-0 up and the Potters were pushing for an equalizer. Time and time again the wide men were left unmarked, look at the space in behind full back Branislav Ivanovic and notice how the right center back, Gary Cahill, has inexplicably pushed up to try and close the ball. Obi Mikel should be doing that but the holding midfield is instead stood almost holding hands with CB John Terry. You don’t need two men to mark Peter Crouch when the ball is in that position. This shape is awful and Chelsea’s defensive problems seem to come from a sheer lack or organization. No wonder Mourinho is miserable, he prides himself on meticulously setting his team out to be impenetrable. Often standing with his hands in his pockets on the sideline, lacking his usual charisma in post-game interviews and sporting bags under his eyes, Mourinho has one heck of a job on his hands with the Blues. It’s a miracle they’re only five points off the top after defensive displays like this.

BOTTOM CLUBS UP FOR THE BATTLE

What a good weekend it was for the PL’s bottom clubs (except for Sunderland, sorry Mackems fans) as Crystal Palace, Fulham, Stoke and Norwich all won to ease the pressure on their relegation struggles. Being in and around the bottom around Christmas, historically, isn’t a good place to be. Only one side in PL history (West Brom in 2005) has avoided relegation when being bottom of the standings on Christmas Day. There’s a mad scramble to get away from the basement door to the Championship.

MORE: Latest Premier League Standings

So to see Palace picking up their second win in as many games under new boss Tony Pulis, Fulham totally dismissing Aston Villa in a first win for Rene Meulensteen, Stoke dispatching Chelsea and Norwich traveling to West Brom and beating the Baggies, shows that this seasons relegation scrap has plenty more twists and turns in it. The basement boys are up for the battle and will fight for their lives. Five points separating West Brom in 15th and Fulham in 19th shows how tight it is. Hope springs eternal and after this weekend, Christmas for fans of those struggling teams we mentioned is set to be a lot brighter.

FESTIVE SEASON TO SEPARATE PRETENDERS

Talking of the impeding festive season, come on scrooges out there, you know you love it, take a look over the following fixtures. One thing springs to mind when I have a gander, after the festive period, we’ll have a much better idea who’s for real at the top of the table and which teams stock will be falling lower than a scarf salesman in the post-festive shopping season.

  • Tottenham v Liverpool – December 14
  • Man City v Arsenal – December 15
  • Arsenal v Chelsea – December 23
  • Chelsea v Liverpool – December 29
  • Man Utd v Tottenham – January 1

In just over two weeks of fixtures, some sides will drop out of the title race altogether, others (Arsenal and Liverpool in particular) could strengthen their title credentials considerably.

MOYES TAKES THE BLAME, SO HE SHOULD…

On Monday David Moyes took one for the team after saying he takes “complete responsibility” for Manchester United’s terrible start to the season. It’s a noble act that many would see as deflecting the pressure away from his players and protecting them, something Sir Alex Ferguson was a master at. But there’s something less noble about Moyes taking responsibility, when in reality the problems probably has a lot to do with his ineptitude for change. For me, unless United score early in games, there’s often no plan B. That was the case against Newcastle on Saturday as the longer the game remained at 0-0, the home side were panicking and the substitutions from Moyes were poor. Bringing on defensive midfielder Anderson… when you needed a goal to stop United losing their second-straight home league game for the first time since 2002, nah, that’s not right.

Stop panicking Moyesy, positive subs and positivity is needed to help alter United’s worrying trend. They sit in ninth and are 13 points off league leaders Arsenal after another defeat. Worryingly, without the injured Wayne Rooney they looked lost going forward as they had the lowest number of passes in the final third of any team in the PL over the past weekend with just 93. I urged more attacking impetus from United in the last edition of Playback, that fell on deaf ears and I still believe more emphasis on attack needs to prevail at Old Trafford. The stat below from our mates at Opta says it all…

While PSG has won the title, Areola’s playing for his future

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PARIS (AP) Although Paris Saint-Germain has easily won the French title, Alphonse Areola still has plenty to play for.

The next four games could be crucial in deciding whether PSG keeps the goalkeeper or tries to sign a big name in the transfer window, possibly Thibaut Courtois. The 25-year-old Areola is the same age as Courtois, but has nowhere near the international standing of the Chelsea keeper.

[ MORE: Turkey hands bid plans to UEFA for EURO 2024 ]

It is hard for Areola to stand out, however, in a team noted almost singularly for its attacking prowess. While PSG has already scored more than 100 league goals, and remains on course to reach 100 points this season, Areola has rarely been talked about.

The common perception is that PSG will thrash teams in the French league, so letting in a goal or two is irrelevant.

However, Areola has been one of PSG’s most consistent players this season, and last Sunday he made a personal record of eight saves in a 1-0 win at Bordeaux.

He was also one of the few PSG players to come through the loss to Real Madrid in the last 16 of the Champions League with any credit. Without Areola’s shot-stopping, and particularly his bravery rushing off his line, the 5-2 aggregate loss would have been bigger.

With 104 goals, PSG’s attack is the best in the league by far and has netted 25 more than deposed champion Monaco.

But PSG’s defense is also the best and Areola has conceded only 21 goals in the 31 he has played. Although PSG has dominated most of those, losing only twice all season, he has still made on average four saves per game.

Having replaced Kevin Trapp as No. 1, Areola has missed only three league games all season. It represents a reversal for both.

When Trapp was signed by former coach Laurent Blanc in 2015-16, Areola went on loan to Spanish club Villarreal. He established himself as regular in Villarreal’s side and gained further experience in the Europa League. Spanish media were largely impressed by his consistency and his agility on the goal-line.

He returned to PSG and battled with Trapp for the starting position last season. But coach Unai Emery seemed unsure who he really preferred, with Trapp starting 24 games to Areola’s 14. PSG ended up losing the title to Monaco.

But the hierarchy is much clearer now and the error-prone Trapp, once hailed by Blanc for his passing out from goal, is the one expected to leave.

Areola has further incentive to do well with the World Cup coming up. He is challenging Marseille goalkeeper Steve Mandanda to be France’s No. 2 behind Hugo Lloris in Russia. For now, Areola is a squad member but has yet to make an international appearance under coach Didier Deschamps.

But he has done well at every level for France, starting with the under-16s a decade ago. He got his first taste of international success when he helped France win the Under-20 World Cup in 2013.

While Paul Pogba was one of the stars of the tournament, Areola’s crowning moment came in the final itself. France drew 0-0 with Uruguay and he saved two shots in the penalty shootout. Prior to the shootout he had a word with France’s designated penalty takers, confidently telling them “do your job and I’ll do mine.”

With Emery almost certain to be replaced next season, it promises to be a frenetic offseason of buying and selling at the club.

But whoever replaces Emery should perhaps think twice before letting Areola leave. The Parisian-born Areola came through the youth ranks at PSG, as did center half Presnel Kimpembe and midfielder Adrien Rabiot.

Star-studded sides like PSG often import their best players and fans are happy to see them arrive, because it shows ambition. But they nevertheless identify more closely with homegrown talents such as Areola.

More AP Ligue 1 coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/Ligue1

Jerome Pugmire on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/jeromepugmire

Infantino has ‘full confidence’ in Samoura amid ethics issue

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ZURICH (AP) FIFA President Gianni Infantino says he retains “full confidence” in secretary general Fatma Samoura after an attempt to embroil her in an ethics investigation.

[ MORE: Turkey hands in bid plans to UEFA for 2024 EUROs ]

Samoura has expressed irritation at “totally ridiculous and baseless” claims she broke FIFA rules by not declaring an alleged conflict of interest in the 2026 World Cup bidding contest.

FIFA has not specified the exact nature of the complaint or the progress of any ethics investigation after it was alleged she was a relative of former Senegal player El Hadji Diouf, who is an ambassador for Morocco’s bid.

Samoura insisted on Wednesday the former Liverpool forward “is not a member of my family and therefore everything is crystal clear.”

FIFA’s top administrator received a public show of support from Infantino.

“I can confirm my full confidence in Fatma Samoura to lead the FIFA administration,” Infantino said in a statement to The Associated Press on Thursday.

The former United Nations official was hired by Infantino in 2016 months after he was elected as Sepp Blatter’s successor.

Morocco is due to take on a joint bid from the United States, Canada and Mexico in the June 13 vote for the 2026 World Cup host.

Photo: Flamengo supporter tattoos club jersey on body

MAURÍCIO DOS ANJOS VIA VICE
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A supporter in Brazil has taken fandom to a whole new level with a piece of body art that shows his devotion to the club.

[ MORE: Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks ]

Maurício dos Anjos, a passionate Flamengo fan, has been a life-long supporter of the Rio de Janeiro-based club, and has the tattoo to prove it.

While it may look like body paint, Dos Anjos has a tattoo on the upper-half of his body depicting the Flamengo jersey, and it’s pretty awesome.

“People ask me if I don’t find it strange that I’m always wearing a Flamengo shirt. And I just don’t,” dos Anjos told VICE. “To me, it’s normal. But it doesn’t seem like anyone I talk to about it actually dislikes my tattoo.”

In total, Dos Anjos says the body work took over 90 hours and 30 sessions to complete the tattoo.

Has the perception of MLS really changed?

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When David Beckham arrived in Los Angeles back in 2007 his presence changed the complexion of Major League Soccer for all the right reasons, and the perception of the growing league changed.

[ MORE: Go behind the scenes at NYCFC’s new training facility ]

Over the years, MLS has strived to move into the upper-echelon of the global game, in an attempt to compete with the likes of the Premier League, Bundesliga and La Liga, but naysayers still indicate to this day that the United States’ top flight lacks the quality of the aforementioned.

Phrases like “retirement league” and “uninspired” have been used to describe MLS in the past, particularly when it comes to the league’s willingness to spend boatloads of cash on notable players well past their prime.

Examples such as Andrea Pirlo, Steven Gerrard and Rafael Marquez have at times dampened the perception of MLS due to the lack of quality on the pitch from those players, along with several others that had previously boasted extensive resumes.

Now, we’re at a time where MLS has picked up its scouting, with clubs focused more on younger, more skilled talents from South America and Europe.

That has led to major signings over the past several years, such as Ezequiel Barco, Miguel Almiron, Diego Rossi and Jesus Medina, to name a few.

Has that changed the overall complexion of MLS though?

On Thursday, Kevin De Bruyne‘s agent, Patrick de Koster, suggested in an interview that the Belgium international would likely “finish” his career in MLS.

“For now, he’s very happy at this club,” De Koster said. “We always look what the best solution for the player, both financially and football wise. Kevin’s future? I can see him finish at Los Angeles.”

This comes on the heels of a 36-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic joining the LA Galaxy in a move that has sent shockwaves across the league and the world because of the Swede’s great presence on a global scale.

It’s not to say that players like Ibrahimovic, or previous signings like David Villa and Didier Drogba cannot help the overall growth of MLS, because they certainly bring an awareness to the matches and draw attention to their respective clubs.

However, the long-term viability of MLS has been and will continue to be sustained on youth players succeeding in the league, as well as being able to draw promising young talents into the top flight of the U.S.