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…

Spurs’ Alli wins PFA Young Player award for 2nd straight season

Photo credit: Tottenham Hotspur / Twitter: @SpursOfficial
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Dele Alli joined Wayne Rooney (2004-05 and 2005-06) on Sunday as the only repeat or back-to-back winners of the PFA Young Player of the Year award winners since the turn of the century.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Alli showed in 2016-17 — much like his Tottenham Hotspur teammate and 2014-15 Young Player of the year winner Harry Kane — that he’s much more than a one-season wonder, improving upon 2015-16’s goal and assist numbers (10 and 9) with a 16-goal, 5-assist season this time around.

Alli was signed by Tottenham (out of League One and relative obscurity) for a fee just north of $6 million in 2015. Recent rumors have linked the 21-year-old with a move to join the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid, for a transfer fee well over 10 times what Spurs paid to MK Dons.

[ MORE: Chelsea advance to FA Cup final | They’ll face Arsenal ]

Between Alli and Kane, Spurs players have won the last three Young Player of the Year awards, and five of the last six (Gareth Bale in 2012-13; Kyle Walker in 2011-12). Only Eden Harzard could break up Spurs’ stranglehold on the award, in 2013-14.

El Clasico: Messi scores 499, 500; Barca, Madrid level on points

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After 31 (and 32, respectively) games played, three points were all that separated Real Madrid and Barcelona at the top of the table in La Liga.

[ MORE: Chelsea advance to FA Cup final | They’ll face Arsenal ]

After another 90 scintillating, pulsating, thrilling, plot-twisting minutes of El Clasico on Sunday, there’s not a single thing to separate the two sides (other than Barca’s current tiebreaker on head-to-head meetings, and Madrid’s game in hand). This time, it was Lionel Messi who outshone Cristiano Ronaldo in the meeting of the world’s brightest stars, the former scoring twice and reaching the 500-goal mark in his Barcelona career (all competitions).

Casemiro opened the scoring with a tap-in into an empty net in the 28th minute. Marcelo floated a ball to the back post, where Sergio Ramos made clean contact but came up with nothing but hit nothing but woodwork. Fortunately for Los Blancos, the ball ricocheted off the post, bounced across the face of goal and found the Brazilian midfielder all by his lonesome.

The lead was short-lived, though, as a bloodied Messi scored yet another of his patented Messi goals just five minutes later. With two touches atop Madrid’s penalty area, he slalomed past and beat three defenders before applying the cool finish past Keylor Navas with that magical left foot of his.

Following the halftime break, the balance of play tipped in Barca’s favor. Gerard Pique and Luis Suarez went oh so close to putting the visitors ahead either side of the hour mark, but Navas produced a pair of stunning saves that’ll (perhaps) go a long way toward silencing his increasingly vocal critics.

[ MORE: Griezmann scores no. 25 as Atleti win to hold onto 3rd ]

There was absolutely nothing the Costa Rican no. 1 could do about Rakitic’s 73rd-minute strike, though. Cutting inside onto his left foot, the Croatian caressed and curled the ball toward the far post, where it made a hard right turn at the last possible second and nestled itself into the

Already up a goal, the game appeared to swing totally in Barca’s favor just four minutes later. Sergio Ramos, the most Sergio Ramos player to ever Sergio Ramos, went lunging in, with two sets of studs exposed, on Messi. He was rightly shown a straight red card.

Another pair of plot twists were still to come, though, as James Rodriguez got on the end of Marcelo’s cross and slammed the first-time finish past Marc Andre ter Stegen with four minutes of regular time remaining.

Then, with all of 13 seconds remaining in stoppage time, that man — the undisputed best player in the world and the greatest of all time — broke Madridista hearts once again. Sergi Roberto started the sequence all the way back in midfield, and Jordi Alba supplied the cross to the top of the box, and Messi drove that same left foot through the ball to beat Navas for the last-kick winner. The shirt-off-held-aloft celebration was simply salt in the wound.

MLS Snapshot: Larin outduels Villa in Orlando’s win over NYCFC

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The game in 100 words (or less): I’ve been saying it since the preseason: Cyle Larin is going to Europe, and it wont be long before MLS’s best young striker since… ever(?) makes the jump across the Atlantic Ocean. Canada’s greatest-ever hope for international soccer relevance bagged a brace (31st and 51st minutes) on Sunday, bringing his 2017 season total to six goals (37 for his career, which is just over two full seasons old), as Orlando City SC narrowly edged New York City FC, 2-1 at Yankee Stadium. He’s also scored nine goals in seven career games against NYCFC. Larin wasn’t the only star striker on display, and the scoresheet, though, as David Villa provided NYCFC’s lone goal of the game which made the final 15 minutes mighty interesting. If not for Joe Bendik’s stunning, point-blank save in stoppage time, Villa would have drawn NYCFC level and stolen a point.

[ MORE: Saturday’s MLS roundup — FCD win battle of unbeatens ]

Three moments that mattered

31′ — Larin finishes from close range for 1-0 — Scott Sutter provided the cross into the box, and Lain found space between two defenders for the easy finish.

51′ — Larin brushes off Wallace, heads home for 2-0 — Larin versus an opposing winger (Rodney Wallace on this occasion) is a mismatch that Orlando will look to exploit every single time. 9 times out of 10, it’ll end up like this.

74′ — Villa finishes a brilliant set-piece routine — Maxi Moralez couldn’t have hit a better ball into the box, and we couldn’t have expected any better finish from Villa.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Cyle Larin

Goalscorers: Larin (31′, 51′), Villa (74′)

LIVE: Real Madrid host Barcelona in El Clasico

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Let’s go.

Real Madrid host Barcelona at 2:45 p.m. ET on Sunday in the final installment of El Clasico this season in La Liga.

[ LIVE: Follow El Clasico, here ] 

With Barca three points behind their bitter rivals who top the La Liga standings and also have a game in hand with six weeks to go, nothing but a win will do for Luis Enrqiue’s men.

All of the talk before this game has been about the absence of Neymar as Barca have decided to not put the Brazilian forward in their squad after they appealed his three-game ban but have yet to hear back on his suspension.

Aside from that bizarre situation, it’s been a mixed week for the Spanish giants in the UEFA Champions League.

Barca were knocked out by Juventus at the quarterfinal stage, while Real Madrid got by Bayern Munich in an exhausting clash at the Santiago Bernabeu which required extra time to set up a semifinal tie against Atletico Madrid.

The stars will come out to play as Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema will collide.