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…

Goal-machine Jermain Defoe signs for Bournemouth

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Jermain Defoe is back where it all began.

[ MORE: Sanchez to Man City? ]

Bournemouth announced the 34-year-old striker has signed for them on a three-year contract after a release clause in his Sunderland deal was triggered, meaning he could leave for free following the Black Cats’ relegation from the Premier League last season.

Defoe spent a season on loan at Bournemouth as a teenager back in 2000-01 when he was coming through the ranks at West Ham and during his first season as a pro he played with current Cherries manager Eddie Howe, scoring 18 goals in 29 appearances (including a run of 12 goals in 10-straight games) for the then third-tier club.

The England international, who scored 15 times for Sunderland last season, returns with both himself and Bournemouth in a very different situation.

“It’s great to be back and I’m really looking forward to this challenge.” Defoe said. “When the opportunity came about to return to AFC Bournemouth I just knew it was the right one. It was an easy decision, joining a top team with a top manager. It’s a great place to be. The Bournemouth fans know that every time I pull the shirt on I will give 100 per cent, and the one thing I can guarantee is goals.”

Howe added that he was “delighted” that Defoe has returned and said it was a “huge moment” for the club as they continue their progression following a ninth-place finish in the PL last season.

During his distinguished career Defoe has scored goals by the bucket-load wherever he has played. He has 269 goals in 649 total career appearances and he has proven that he still has plenty left in the tank.

Playing for West Ham, Portsmouth, Tottenham, Toronto FC and Sunderland, he is a predator in the box and has kept himself in fine fettle over the years with a vegan diet just one of the ways he has elongated his career. Defoe’s form for Sunderland over the past two-and-a-half seasons has seen him recalled to the English national team in his mid-30s after scoring 37 goals in 93 goals.

He will not only add goals but will also help the development of young strikers Josh King, Benik Afobe and Lys Mousset at the Vitality Stadium.

This move was a no-brainer for both Bournemouth and Defoe as the Cherries continue to strengthen and add PL experience. Asmir Begovic has already arrived as their new starting goalkeeper and Chelsea’s promising defender Nathan Ake, who spent time on loan at Bournemouth last season, is expected to arrive later this week.

Heading into their third season as a PL club, Howe is addressing his needs early and impressively.

Alexis Sanchez to Man City reports gathering steam

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Alexis Sanchez’s future has still not been sorted out but Manchester City are increasingly optimistic he will be playing for them next season.

[ MORE: Ronaldo’s twin sons born

Sanchez, 28, is still on international duty with Chile who have reached the 2017 Confederations Cup final and his Arsenal future is no closer to being sorted with just one year remaining on his current contract with the Gunners.

The Guardian reports that Man City are expecting to seal the $64.7 million deal for Sanchez due to the Chilean’s desire to be reunited with his former boss at Barcelona, Pep Guardiola.

Sanchez and his agent had talks scheduled with Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger at the end of the season but with the Gunners not qualifying for the UEFA Champions League next season it appears increasingly likely the oft-frustrated forward will move on this summer with a new contract offer of $324,000 per week reportedly turned down.

Each and every day new stories and snippets emerge on Sanchez’s future but the Chilean star (who scored 24 goals and added 10 assists in the PL last season) rarely gives interviews, leading to increased hype around his situation at Arsenal at every turn.

Previous reports in Chile quoted Sanchez as saying he wanted “to stay in London, but for a club that wins” so Chelsea was his next destination. When Danny Welbeck‘s name was above the No.7 shirt on Arsenal’s website for a brief moment during their new kit launch there was hysteria. Bayern Munich are now said to be out of a deal for Sanchez due to the high transfer price Arsenal is demanding. The list goes on and on and everyone wants to know one thing: will he stay or will he go?

Arsenal’s reluctance to sell to a direct PL rival — especially to City, once again, after they bought Sami Nasri, Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna from the Gunners in the past — remains the main sticking point in this deal with the north London club preferring to sell Sanchez overseas to Bayern or PSG rather than see him inspire the attack of a rival in England.

From a pure playing standpoint, a move to City seems perfect for Sanchez.

He gets to play in a fluid front three system and can roam alongside Leroy Sane, Gabriel Jesus, Raheem Sterling and potentially Sergio Aguero. City, and Guardiola, also match his intense hunger to win trophies at any costs and challenge for titles in the PL and Europe, something he hasn’t been able to do at Arsenal. Yes, he has won the FA Cup twice during his three-season stint at the Emirates, but he wants more. He always wants more.

That’s why seeing Sanchez remain at Arsenal after scoring 72 goals in 145 games in all competitions seems highly unlikely.

Cristiano Ronaldo announces birth of twin sons via surrogate

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Cristiano Ronaldo will not play in Portugal’s third-place match at the 2017 Confederations Cup this Sunday.

He has bigger things to sort out.

Ronaldo, 32, was released from Portugal’s squad late Wednesday after their defeat on penalty kicks to Chile in the Confed Cup semifinals in Russia.  The Real Madrid and Portugal superstar will now travel to visit his new twin sons, who were born via a surrogate earlier this month, with Ronaldo set to meet them for the first time after captaining Portugal in Russia over the past few weeks.

According to reports from Portuguese TV channel SIC, the surrogate mother was based on the west coast of the U.S. (I can already hear you guys asking ‘does that mean they’re eligible to play for the USMNT?’). Ronaldo is now the father of three children after already having a seven-year-old son, Cristiano Ronaldo Jr.

Reports also suggest that his 22-year-old girlfriend Georgina Rodriguez is five months pregnant, so soon he could be a father for the fourth time. He would then be able to field a five-a-side team of Ronaldo’s for indoor games…

Below is the post from Ronaldo confirming his departure from Portugal’s squad, which the national team also confirmed, as he is set to meet his new children for the first time.

“I was in the service of the national team, as always, body and soul, even though my two sons were born. Unfortunately, we have not been able to achieve the main sporting objective that we wanted, but I am sure we will continue to give joy to the Portuguese.

“The President of the Portuguese Football Federation and the national picker have today had an attitude that has touched me and I will not forget. I’m very happy to finally be with my children for the first time.”

Open Cup roundup: Poku lifts Miami; Red Bulls, Cincy win on PKs

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While MLS represents the majority of the remaining clubs in this year’s U.S. Open Cup, one side continues to defy the odds.

[ MORE: Minnesota United adds Hearts midfielder Sam Nicholson ]

Miami FC reached their first quarterfinal in club history after knocking off Atlanta United late on Wednesday, behind a goal and an assist from Kwadwo Poku. The victory for Miami sets up a date with FC Cincinnati — who pulled off an unbelievable shootout win against the Chicago Fire.

Meanwhile, the New York Red Bulls and New England Revolution both advanced on the night with wins over the Philadelphia Union and D.C. United, respectively. The Red Bulls and Revs will meet in the final eight as well.

Sporting KC kept its hope of hoisting a fourth U.S. Open Cup title alive on Wednesday with a 2-0 win over the Houston Dynamo. The 2015 winners will take on FC Dallas — who defeated the Colorado Rapids on Tuesday night.

Here are all the results from tonight’s Open Cup action.

Houston Dynamo 0-2 Sporting KC
New England Revolution 2-1 D.C. United
Miami FC 3-2 Atlanta United
New York Red Bulls 1-1 (5-3 on PKs) Philadelphia Union
FC Cincinnati 0-0 (3-1 on PKs) Chicago Fire
San Jose Earthquakes 2-1 Seattle Sounders
LA Galaxy 2-0 Sacramento Republic