Lukas Podolski

Premier League Playback: Arsenal’s strength in-depth, festive madness, Liverpool’s reality check

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THE GUNNERS DON’T NEED TO SPLASH THE CASH IN JANUARY…

Some of you will read that sub-header with a smirk on your face, but honestly, Arsene Wenger may be able to keep his pennies in his purse in January and still lead Arsenal towards the Premier League title.

Over the Christmas period two new attackers finally arrived, as Theo Walcott scored twice and Lukas Podolski bagged a goal on his return from injury in Arsenal’s 3-1 win over West Ham on Boxing Day.

Those two hold the key to Arsenal’s success in the second half of the season, as both have been missing for lengthy spells and feel like brand new signings for the Gunners faithful.

“Podolski has been out for four months, he has not played one game. I try to get him slowly back to competitiveness and he has shown he can have a huge impact because he can score and make goals – he can give assists. On the pitch at the end we had Podolski and Walcott and Giroud and Ozil and Cazorla.” – Arsene Wenger on Arsenal’s attacking options

Following their win at Upton Park, the Gunners then relied on their leading front man Olivier Giroud to score the only goal of the game as they beat Newcastle on Sunday and went top of the PL standings. But the resurgence of Walcott and Podolski (who admittedly are both used on the wing but can easily be deployed in central roles) is cause for hope for any Arsenal fans fretting about which strikers will arrive at the Emirates in the next month or so.

Wenger doesn’t need to dip his toes into the murky waters of the January transfer window. He’s done that before and failed miserably. Look at the panic buy of Jose Antonio Reyes to name just one example, Wenger could do without wasting another $30 million on a player who won’t help him grab some silverware for the first time in eight years.

(MORE: Latest Premier League Standings)

So if Giroud gets hurt, he could do a lot worse than playing Walcott or Podolski centrally. Both are top internationals for England and Germany respectively, know how to finish and will cause problems for opposition defenses. A few months ago the attacking options at Wenger’s disposal were looking threadbare. The greatest gift Arsenal’s French manager got this Christmas was two top attacking players back to full fitness and his forward line bolstered in the process. And then there’s the likes of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Serge Gnabry waiting in the wings for the second half of the season, too.

Who said Arsenal don’t have enough strength in-depth?

Premier League Schedule – Week 18, Boxing Day

Result Recap & Highlights
Aston Villa 0-1 Crystal Palace Recap and watch here
Cardiff 0-3 Southampton Recap and watch here
Chelsea 1-0 Swansea Recap and watch here
Everton 0-1 Sunderland Recap and watch here
Hull 2-3 Man United Recap and watch here
Man City 2-1 Liverpool Recap and watch here
Newcastle 5-1 Stoke Recap and watch here
Norwich 1-2 Fulham Recap and watch here
Tottenham 1-1 West Brom Recap and watch here
West Ham 1-3 Arsenal Recap and watch here

FESTIVE FEAST DELIVERS

Boxing Day and Week 19 provided two match days of distinction around the holidays. It’s hard to sum it all up in this column, but the incidents, goals and drama we saw epitomized what the festive schedule is all about: unpredictability. Before the Boxing Day madness (the first time in five years that all 20 PL teams have played on the same day, excluding the final day of the campaign) I picked out three things we should watch and here they are.

GOALS -59 balls hit the back of the net in the 20 games that have taken place since Boxing Day, that’s an average of 2.95 goals per game. Not bad at all, plus there were some crazy 5-1, 6-0 and 3-3 score lines to go with it.

RED CARDS –There were four red cards alone on Boxing Day, as Stoke City imploded with two reds in two minutes vs. Newcastle, Antonio Valencia was sent off needlessly and poor Tim Howard was put in an impossible position and got a straight red.

THE UNEXPECTED – Hull City cruising after leading Man United 2-0 after the first 12 minutes on Boxing Day… then losing 3-2. Cardiff City 2-0 up against Sunderland on the 28th… then blowing it by letting in two goals in the final seven minutes. Plus Liverpool lead at Man City and Chelsea but blew it twice to lost back-to-back in three days.

LIVERPOOL REALIZATION: TOP FOUR AT BEST

A spoonful of sugar wasn’t dished out around Anfield during the festive season, just a bitter dose of reality.

The Reds always knew the past few days would have a big say in how seriously we could consider them as title contenders and heck, the way the PL is going this year they still have a great chance. But spirited back-to-back 2-1 defeats away at Manchester City and Chelsea proved that they can’t cut it with the big boys. Not just yet anyway.

Brendan Rodgers’ side looked sharp and dominated large spells against City and Chelsea but they lacked a cutting edge as Luis Suarez’ one-man band was locked down by two or three defenders marking him at a time. That allowed the likes of Philippe Coutinho, Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling to get more chances in on goal but they simply weren’t clinical enough when it mattered. I can’t help but think that if Daniel Sturridge and Steven Gerrard would’ve been around and not injured, then Liverpool could be sitting top of the standings heading into 2014… instead they’re in fifth. That shows the small margins were dealing with this campaign.

Premier League Schedule – Week 19

Result Recap & Highlights
Aston Villa 1-1 Swansea Recap and watch here
Cardiff 2-2 Sunderland Recap and watch here
Chelsea 2-1 Liverpool Recap and watch here
Everton 2-1 Southampton Recap and watch here
Hull 6-0 Fulham Recap and watch here
Man City 1-0 Crystal Palace Recap and watch here
Newcastle 0-1 Arsenal Recap and watch here
Norwich 0-1 Man United Recap and watch here
Tottenham 3-0 Stoke Recap and watch here
West Ham 3-3 West Brom Recap and watch here

RELEGATION BATTLE JUST AS TIGHT

So, this is the time of the season where the title race intensifies and the top five or six sort themselves out and pull away from the few hopefuls dragging on their coattails in the top half of the standings.

But let your eyes wander down a little… yeah, that’s right. There’s an almighty scrap about to take place at the bottom as a relegation battle.

Below is a snapshot of the bottom seven, as Sunderland somehow clawed themselves right back into things with a win at Everton on Boxing Day, followed by a marvelous two goal salvo in the final seven minutes to break Cardiff City’s hearts and drag the Bluebirds deep into the mire. Around them West Brom and West Ham scrapped it out in a fantastic 3-3 draw at Upton Park, while the likes of Norwich and Crystal Palace put up valiant efforts against the Manchester giants. Get ready folks, these small teams fighting it out at the bottom will be going hell for leather every single week in the second half of the season as they best form of defense is attack for these chaps.

In previous years there’s always been one side that’s been utterly doomed and never looked like staying up. Last season it was QPR and Reading, before that it was Wolves. But at the halfway point in 2013/14, only five points separates Sunderland in last place with Norwich in 14th, while just ahead of them Swansea, Stoke and Aston Villa are looking worriedly over their shoulders.

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Click to enlarge: The bottom seven are clustered tightly as we usher in 2014.

Who’ll be safe will only become more apparent as the winter months leave us behind and the relentless rain of an early English spring help the negative vibes soak into fans of teams embroiled in yet another relegation battle. This is unlikely to be sorted out before the final weekend of the season. That’s the beauty of it, this season nobody knows what will happen.

HUDDLESTONE HAS A HAIRCUT… AS HULL LEAD PROMOTED SIDES

After 54 games without a goal, Tom Huddlestone’s hair has become more of a feature than his vast spectrum of passes and impressively destructive displays in the middle of the pitch. But following his strike in Hull’s 6-0 shellacking of Fulham on Saturday, which also happened to be his 27th birthday, Huddlestone raced to the bench and grabbed a pair of scissors as his entangled locks were lopped away mercifully.

Sadly, a lonesome pair of shears has sat on the bench for quite some time now, as the former Tottenham midfielders strike was his first goal since April 2011. Since then he’s had a long-standing wager that he won’t cut his hair until he scored… he possesses a rasping right foot and I’d hazard a guess that he didn’t think it would take almost two and a half years to get his barnet trimmed.

Huddlestone was carrying on with his “no haircut ‘til I score” stance as charities were benefiting from the donations people sent in from all over the world. It was a bit of good fun that was for a good cause and sealed an utterly superb end to 2013 for Hull City AFC. Now Huddlestone can get back to the important things in life… speaking to his barber again and choosing a new hairstyle.

And just a word on Hull’s remarkable season so far, out of the three promoted teams many expected them to flounder the most with their heavy-handed, route one approach not the way modern PL sides are set up… how wrong those doubters were. Steve Bruce has built a robust squad that’s hard to beat at home and can cause plenty of problems with a direct style of play. While their fellow newly-promoted friends Cardiff City and Crystal Palace are embroiled in a relegation battle, Hull sit in 10th spot with 23 points from their first 19 games. Hats off to the Tigers.

EVERTON AND SOUTHAMPTON SEND US OUT IN STYLE

Two of the seasons surprise packages put on a show at Goodison Park to see out 2013, as Everton beat the Saints 2-1 in an end-to-end clash that warmed the hearts of soccer purists. Intricate one-two’s, fast flowing counter attacks and possession built from the back ruled the day. Sprinkle into the mix a whole host of English talents and there’s hope for the English national side in Brazil this summer, at least if some of these players on show make the plane. Leighton Baines, Ross Barkley and even Leon Osman were superb, while Southampton’s Adam Lallana (who got married on Christmas Eve to avoid a clash with the World Cup), Luke Shaw, Jay Rodriguez and Rickie Lambert all put in a good showing. Three fantastic goals were scored as Everton closed out the year by moving into the top four and above their arch-rivals Liverpool. The Saints finish 2013 in ninth, as you get the feeling that we’re only at the start of Mauricio Pochettino’s revolution at St. Mary’s. Two great teams who play soccer intelligently and are easy on the eye, it was hard not to drool watching some of that match.

This was also a glimpse into the future of the PL, as young English talent is being directed by young foreign managers (Roberto Martinez and Pochettino) who’ve got a track record of getting the best out of youngsters. Expect the Toffees and Saints’ model to be copied by many PL sides in the coming years.

Watch all the action from week 19 below, as we’ve reached the halfway point of the PL season. Here’s to hoping the second half of the campaign is just as dramatic as the first. Happy New Year to you all out there and don’t forget to celebrate New Year’s Day in the best way possible, a full slate of PL games live on NBC Sports!

Premier League Playback takes an alternative look at all the weekends actions from the PL, it comes out every week.

CCV, Zelalem, Klinsmann on U-20 roster as U.S. plays Germany, Netherlands, England

COMMERCE CITY, CO - OCTOBER 06:  Gedion Zelalem #16 of the United States controls the ball against Pedro Jeanine #5 of Panama during 2015 CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying at Dick's Sporting Goods Park on October 6, 2015 in Commerce City, Colorado. The United States defeated Panama 4-0.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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In some ways, this tournament could be more interesting than the USMNT’s friendlies against Cuba and New Zealand.

The United States U-20 team is preparing for World Cup qualification by facing a fearsome threesome in the Four Nations Tournament in England.

[ MORE: PST talks with Michael Bradley ]

The Yanks will play Germany on Wednesday in Leigh, the Netherlands on Friday in Manchester, and England on Monday in Rochdale.

Among the names to watch, of course, are Spurs’ Cameron Carter-Vickers and Arsenal youngster Gedion Zelalem. Also, Jonathan Klinsmann, son of USMNT boss Jurgen, is one of two goalkeepers in the bunch.

A pair of Fulham players make the cut, as does new UD Las Palmas signing Emmanuel Sabbi. Seattle Sounders forward Victor Mansaray and Orlando defender Tommy Redding rep MLS on the roster.

[ MORE: Carter-Vickers signs extension with Spurs ]

It’ll be a must-follow tournament, considering the opposition. The Yanks will be tested by an English roster which includes Premier League players Reece Oxford (West Ham), Joshua Onomah (Spurs), and Lewis Cook (Bournemouth). England’s full roster is here.

U.S. U-20 roster

GOALKEEPERS: Jonathan Klinsmann (University of California), Justin Vom Steeg (Fortuna Dusseldorf)

DEFENDERS (8): Hugo Arellano (LA Galaxy), Marcello Borges (Michigan), Cameron Carter-Vickers (Tottenham Hotspur), Marlon Fossey (Fulham), Tommy Redding (Orlando City SC), Miles Robinson (Syracuse), Toni Suddoth (VfB Stuttgart), Auston Trusty (Bethlehem Steel FC)

MIDFIELDERS (7): Danny Acosta (Real Salt Lake), Luca De La Torre (Fulham), Derrick Jones (Bethlehem Steel FC), Brooks Lennon (Liverpool), Weston McKinnie (Schalke 04), Jonathan Suarez (Queretaro), Gedion Zelalem (Arsenal)

FORWARDS (5): Jeremy Ebobisse (Charleston Battery), Victor Mansaray (Seattle Sounders FC), Emmanuel Sabbi (UD Las Palmas), Sebastian Saucedo (Veracruz), Isaiah Young (PDA)

Jurgen Klopp angry despite Liverpool’s fourth-straight win

SWANSEA, WALES - OCTOBER 01:  Jurgen Klopp, Manager of Liverpool reacts  during the Premier League match between Swansea City and Liverpool at Liberty Stadium on October 1, 2016 in Swansea, Wales.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
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Jurgen Klopp‘s Liverpool ground out a 2-1 win at Swansea City on Saturday as the Reds have now won four-straight games in the Premier League.

Still, Klopp isn’t that happy.

[ MORE: Latest transfer news ]

That’s because Liverpool were second best in the first half as they failed to cope with Swansea’s high-pressing and were behind 1-0 at half time.

Klopp had some strong words for his players in the dressing room and it worked as Roberto Firmino equalizes and James Milner‘s late spot kick won it.

Despite plenty of optimism over Liverpool’s strong start to the season — they have won five of their opening seven games and have 16 points on the board — the German coach wasn’t best pleased when speaking to Sky Sports afterwards.

“We are really happy in this moment, second half was like the whole game should have been. We were really angry with ourselves with the first half because the body language was not good and too late in mind and all that stuff. It was far away from our best performance but we showed a reaction in the second half and that’s important,” Klopp said. “You can lose football games and we will lose football games in the future but you have to show minimum part of your usual face. That’s what we showed second half and that was Liverpool and that’s what we think we should be. We were the deserved win in the end.”

Liverpool deserved to just edge the game but they could’ve been 2-0 or even 3-0 down at half time had Swansea been more clinical. Defending set pieces continues to be a problem for Klopp and his side have now conceded the most from those situations in the Premier League since he arrived last October. There was no surprise Leroy Fer‘s goal came from a set piece as zonal marking was again an issue for the Reds, while goalkeeper Lorus Karius looked a little nervy at times when coming for crosses as Mike Van der Hoorn should’ve equalized in the dying stages for Swansea.

With plenty of euphoria around Liverpool’s stellar start to this season, question marks over their defensive play still linger. Liverpool has now failed to keep a clean sheet in any of its last 10 Premier League away games dating back to last season, which is closing in on the club record of 12. Yes, we know they are the top-scoring team in the Premier League in 2016 but shoring up these defensive issues will be the priority for Klopp.

Klopp also confirmed that both Adam Lallana and Dejan Lovren are struggling with groin injuries. Lallana hobbled off in the first half and Klopp believes the England midfielder will not be available for Gareth Southgate over the international break.

“One or two problems today. Adam with a groin problem and Dejan Lovren too. I’m pretty sure they both cannot go now to national team,” Klopp confirmed. “We need further assessment and then we will see. Hopefully they can use the time to recover and be back in the race for the next game.”

Liverpool remain in the race for the PL title with yet another win but Klopp knows his side will come up against better opponents than a struggling Swansea and they got out of jail a little bit on Saturday.

STREAM: Watch Hull-Chelsea, West Ham-Boro, every 10am ET game

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24: Diego Costa of Chelsea shows his frustration during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Chelsea at the Emirates Stadium on September 24, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
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Four games take center stage at 10 a.m. ET in the Premier League on Saturday.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live here ]

Hull City host Chelsea at the KCOM Stadium, while struggling West Ham host Middlesbrough at the London Stadium.

Elsewhere Bournemouth head to Watford and Sunderland is hoping to get their first win as West Brom head to the Stadium of Light.

You can stream each game live by clicking on the links below or above.


10 a.m. ET: Hull City vs. Chelsea – NBCSN [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Sunderland vs. West Brom – Premier League Extratime [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: West Ham vs. Middlesbrough – Premier League Extratime [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Watford vs. Bournemouth – Premier League Extratime [STREAM]

Pardew, Palace wish luck to FC Cincinnati; USL Playoffs underway (video)

CINCINNATI, OH - JULY 16: Tyler Polak #3 of FC Cincinnati steals the ball from Bakary Sako #26 of Crystal Palace FC as Paul Nicholson #8 of FC Cincinnati falls back on defense during the first half at Nippert Stadium on July 16, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio.(Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
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Before Crystal Palace drew Everton 1-1 at Goodison Park on Friday, they turned their attention Stateside.

The club released a video message in support of United States third tier side FC Cincinnati on Friday, as the third-seeded USL club prepares to take on No. 6 Charleston Battery at Nippert Stadium on Sunday.

[ MORE: PST talks with Michael Bradley ]

Palace visited FC Cincinnati this summer, with 35,000-plus showing up as the Premier League side beat its USL opposition in a wonderful showcase for American soccer supporters.

Well, Pards and the boys were impressed, and issued a vote of good luck:

The playoffs are underway, with 16 of the 29 clubs making the march forward. Reigning champion Rochester Rhinos open up against Charlotte at Rhinos Stadium on Saturday, while the No. 1 seeds are New York Red Bulls II (Eastern Conference) and Sacramento Republic FC (Western Conference).

Full first round

Western Conference

Sacramento Republic (1) vs. Orange County Blues (8) — Saturday
Swope Park Rangers (4) 3-0 LA Galaxy II (5)
Colorado Springs Switchbacks (3) 1-2 Vancouver Whitecaps 2 (6)
Rio Grande Valley FC Toros (2) vs. Oklahoma City Energy FC (7)

Eastern Conference

New York Red Bulls (1) vs. Orlando City B (8) — Sunday
Rochester Rhinos (4) vs. Charlotte Independence (5) — Saturday
FC Cincinnati (3) vs. Charleston Battery (6) — Sunday
Louisville City FC (2) vs. Richmond Kickers (7) — Sunday