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.

Arena reacts to USMNT draw, expects CONCACAF fight to end

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Bruce Arena didn’t enjoy watching Tuesday’s 1-1 draw between the United States and Panama, but he’s not upset with the result.

“The referee didn’t blow his whistle too much, and that’s the way the game looked for 90 minutes,” Arena said.

[ MORE: Player ratings | 3 things ]

Arena’s Yanks struggled to find their flow in the draw, ravaged by injuries to their back line. Arena praised his back four for their performance in difficult circumstances on the road with new teammates.

And he’s feeling a lot better than a week ago, when the U.S. had zero points and sat last in the table.

[ WATCH: Full match replay (Spanish) ]

“We’re obviously in better shape with four points in two games. We’ve made progress. Every game in qualifying is going to be critical for every team. Everyone’s in it. It’s going to be a battle for the second, third, and fourth spots.”

The Americans’ next World Cup qualifier is June 8 against Trinidad and Tobago before a June 11 road trip to Azteca to face Mexico.

Panama 1-1 USMNT: Ugly, scrappy point for both sides

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The United States will finish the international break in the Hex’s fourth place after a 1-1 draw at Panama in World Cup qualifying on Tuesday.

Clint Dempsey scored off a feed from Christian Pulisic to give the U.S. a brief 1-0 lead, and Gabriel Gomez leveled the score before halftime.

The Americans’ next World Cup qualifier is June 8 against Trinidad and Tobago before a June 11 road trip to Azteca to face Mexico.

[ MORE: Player ratings | 3 things ]

Here’s the Hex table as it stands, with the U.S. on pace for a playoff spot against Asia’s playoff winner:

Mexico — 10 points
Costa Rica — 7 points
Panama — 5 points
———————
USMNT — 4 points
———————-
Honduras — 4 points
Trinidad and Tobago — 3 points

[ WATCH: Full match replay (Spanish) ]

The first 10 minutes were a bit frenetic, with the U.S. focused on adventurous first touch passes when it managed to earn the ball from Panama.

That feel wasn’t aided by the officiating, as Cesar Ramos was inconsistent in a very physical opening quarter-hour (and never pulled a single card).

Felipe Baloy flashed a header over the cross bar off a 16th minute corner kick as he lost Jozy Altidore and nodded back across goal. It was a bit of set piece foreshadowing, as Arena has yet to fix a long-held USMNT problem.

Christian Pulisic was fired up when Luis Tejada shoved him to the turf in the 20th minute.

Tim Ream bailed out Jorge Villafana, who wasn’t as composed and smart as his Friday versus Panama, sliding to divert Armando Cooper’s cross for a corner kick.

Jermaine Jones cued up Pulisic moments later, but the youngster had to wait for a bounding ball to settle before Panama conceded a corner. That opportunity was wasted by an overly aggressive Gonzalez, who was called for a foul before the ball arrived in the 18.

Howard saw his first danger and averted it when Alberto Quintero shook Zusi to rip a shot on frame. It was 0-0 after 32 minutes.

Then, the breakthrough. Dempsey moved to within a goal of Landon donovan’s all-time mark thanks to Pulisic, who cooked Felipe Baloy and held off Roman Torres before laying off to the veteran. 1-0, 39′.

The lead lasted all of three minutes, as Gomez pounced on a loose ball with the Yanks’ back line at sixes and sevens off a long throw-in. Gomez turned off Jermaine Jones and lost Villafana to bury his chance behind Howard. 1-1, 44′.

The second half began with more chunky play until Villafana blazed down the left wing on an overlapping run to cross for Pulisic, whose shot was forced out for a corner which led to nothing.

Dempsey then turned a Michael Bradley free kick to a waiting Jaime Penedo as the Yanks started to refind their flow.

Panama found a doorstep chance when Torres nodded down for Tejada, but Howard made an exceptional nether regions “leg” save to keep it 1-1.

Arena introduced Alejandro Bedoya for Darlington Nagbe with 20 minutes to play, a move that was a testament to the physical nature of the game.

Fittingly, it was creative work from Pulisic that helped the U.S. win a corner kick soon after, though Penedo claimed the offering.

More chances came Panama’s way, as the U.S. spent much of the late stages desperately clearing loose balls. On another night, with better finishing from Tejada, the Yanks would’ve been sunk.

Three takeaways from the USMNT’s 1-1 draw at Panama

AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco
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What did we learn from the United States’ 1-1 draw in Panama City on Wednesday?

For one thing, that the coach isn’t going to matter without a number of your very best players.

[ MORE: Match recap | Player ratings ]

The USMNT saw precious few moments of brilliance from its injury-ravaged side, saved by its soon-to-be all-time leading scorer, its 18-year-old star attacker, and its legendary goalkeeper.

But mainly, we saw that you can change the boss, but you need better performances to make a difference.

Limits of depth tested in ugly affair

Bruce Arena was without his best center back pairing thanks to injury, and you could argue he was without his best back four if you see Fabian Johnson as a left back (John Brooks, Geoff Cameron, DeAndre Yedlin, and Johnson).

The U.S. also couldn’t pair Bobby Wood with Jozy Altidore or Clint Dempsey, and lost Sebastian Lletget to injury on Friday. Timmy Chandler has rarely thrived with the USMNT, but it certainly would’ve been nice if Arena had called him up for the second match alone (He was suspended Friday for yellow card accumulation).

Given the above, this was not a pretty match. You just have to hope this isn’t the result that keeps them from Russia.

Mexico, revisited (What game plan?)

This might be an unpopular take, but Tuesday’s loss was nothing more than the performance put forth against Mexico in Columbus.

The main differences? Tim Howard was there to make a tremendous save, and Panama is nowhere near to the level of El Tri.

[ WATCH: Full match replay (Spanish) ]

The Yanks didn’t have a great plan other than to outwork Panama. This isn’t a big knock on the coach’s tactics given the lack of starting caliber players noted above, but once Panama flooded the middle of the pitch with fouls and tight tackles, an answer wasn’t provided by the players or the coach.

Plan B hasn’t been a U.S. strong suit for a long time, perhaps back to the finer moments of the Bob Bradley era. Arena got away with one on Tuesday.

Rough road ahead

This is something we know, but my was it reinforced: Winning CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers at home is a necessity, because there’s carnage and bad pitches on the road.

Perhaps that could’ve changed if referee Cesar Ramos brought a yellow card out for either team at any point in the proceedings. Christian Pulisic and Darlington Nagbe were fouled as part of Panama’s game plan, and the Yanks’ beleaguered defense went with a similar plan as the sloppy match wore into the waning moments.

The U.S. is still in control of its own World Cup destiny, of course, but simply must handle its business in remaining home matches against Trinidad and Tobago, Panama, and Costa Rica. T&T is next, and anything other than three points sends them into Azteca in a bad, bad way.

Player ratings from the USMNT’s 1-1 draw in Panama

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Player ratings reverted to old form after Tuesday’s 1-1 draw in Panama City, though fortunately one of the other U.S. tropes is dead.

That’s because “Christian Pulisic is the future” can officially be moved into “Christian Pulisic is the present”.

[ MORE: Match recap | 3 things ]

The Borussia Dortmund teenager again manufactured the United States’ best moment, feeding Clint Dempsey for the Yanks’ lone goal.

Starting XI

Tim Howard  — 7 — Don’t know what he’s supposed to do on the goal, but his jewels save to deny Luis Tejada could be a World Cup saver.

Jorge Villafana  — 4 — One of the many star men from the win over Honduras was too adventurous and less composed. Bad combo.

Omar Gonzalez  — 4 — I say this in a way that ignores Timmy Chandler’s fine work in the Bundesliga: Is Gonzalez going to be Bruce Arena’s Chandler? Hopefully this is the last time he has to start.

Tim Ream — 5 — Had a bad time on the goal, and made several bad plays. But it’s hard to get a read on the Fulham’s man night because he bailed out Gonzalez and Villafana on a number of occasions.

Graham Zusi  — 5 — Gets bumped up a point for handling a very difficult situation, still adapting to right back in a match where Panama’s tactics were to attack his side. A better second half than the first.

Michael Bradley  — 6 — Nothing exceptional from the captain, but still an upgrade from his form under Jurgen Klinsmann. A little too deep in the formation on the evening, but that could’ve been the plan?

Jermaine Jones  (Off 75′) — 5 — Ornery as usual, his only successes came in standing up for his oft-fouled midfield mates.

Darlington Nagbe  (Off 68′) — 6  — This game looked set up for him to pick the ball up from Michael Bradley and dance into the midfield, but he only got a few chances as Panama’s tactics were aimed at fouling the Yanks’ two best dribblers in him and Pulisic.

Christian Pulisic  — 9 — A simply incredible bit of work to work two veteran defenders and assist Dempsey’s goal. Failing an unforeseen dip in company, Pulisic is going to be one of the most important players in American men’s history.

Clint Dempsey  — 6 — Scored the goal that earned the point, but otherwise fought to be a part of the match. That’s the sign of a legend, though, still finding a way to make himself matter on a poor evening.

Jozy Altidore  — 5 — Might’ve had a dozen touches in the game. Part of this was down to the U.S. aiming balls at his head and not his feet, but not his day.

Subs

Alejandro Bedoya (On 68′)  — 6 — Dogged work rate from the Union man.

Kellyn Acosta (On 75′) — 6 — Some creativity on display in limited time

Paul Arriola (On 83′) — N/A —