Premier League Playback: S.A.S. returns, grinders prevail, drop zone despair

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S.A.S. RETURN TO RENEW LIVERPOOL’S TITLE HOPES

Sunday against Stoke City, Liverpool proved offense is the best form of defense. The Reds smashed five past the Potters to climb back into the top four of the Premier League table. The win was important, especially given the fact they’d never won at the Britannia in the PL era, but more important than the three points was the reemergence of the now famous S.A.S. partnership that’s been on hiatus for a few months.

Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge were reunited in the second half against Stoke and it didn’t take long to score as they almost instantaneously they set up each another for a goal apiece. That telepathic understanding, which has been evident since the end of the 2012-13 season, clicked back into place. If Liverpool are to finish in the top four and challenge for the title, Suarez and Sturridge need to stay fit because that’s Brendan Rodgers’ X-factor.

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[Click to Enlarge] – Suarez’s heat map vs. Stoke. Source: Opta.
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[Click to Enlarge] – Sturridge’s heat map vs. Stoke. Source: Opta
As you can see from the heat map of Suarez on the left and Sturridge on the right, both players seemed to frequent the same areas of the pitch; they link up and dart in and out of the same spots cohesively. Many striker partnerships have a little and large combination, but Suarez and Sturridge play very similar styles. Both are relentless in their quest to score goals and open up gaps for each other to exploit. In just 23 second-half minutes the partnership tore Stoke apart as Suarez scored twice and extended his season tally to 22 (becoming the fastest player in PL history to reach 20 goals in a season), while Sturridge isn’t far behind with 10 strikes (one vs. Stoke). Thirty-two of Liverpool’s 51 goals this season have come from these two.

Evident from Liverpool’s stunning 5-3 win over Stoke is the intricate link-up play that’s defined the S.A.S. partnership. Sturridge didn’t even look at where Suarez was before neatly flicking the ball into his path for Liverpool’s fourth; Suarez lobbed the ball perfectly into Sturridge’s path for the fifth and final goal. They’re tuned into the same wavelength.

Relive that fine attacking performance from Liverpool in the video above, as the Reds sit well within reach of their top four dream… and perhaps more.

Premier League Schedule – Round 21

Result Recap & Highlights
Aston Villa 1-2 Arsenal Recap and watch here
Cardiff 0-2 West Ham Recap and watch here
Everton 2-0 Norwich City Recap and watch here
Fulham 1-4 Sunderland Recap and watch here
Hull 0-2 Chelsea Recap and watch here
Man United 2-0 Swansea Recap and watch here
Newcastle United 0-2 Man City Recap and watch here
Stoke 3-5 Liverpool Recap and watch here
Southampton 1-0 West Brom Recap and watch here
Tottenham 2-0 Crystal Palace Recap and watch here

GRINDING OUT WINS ORDER OF THE DAY

Chelsea are sitting on the heels of Manchester City and Arsenal in the race for the Premier League title, and it’s the ability of Jose Mourinho’s men to grind out crucial victories that’s made them become many people’s favorites for the crown.

They did just that once again on Saturday, as they wore down a stubborn Hull City side that were content to ‘park the bus’ and let Chelsea do all the attacking. Two superb strikes from Eden Hazard and Fernando Torres did the business, as that extra bit of class you get for splashing out $40-50 million on individuals shone through.

Composure is also needed, and that’s something Chelsea had in abundance against Hull as the Blues won their fourth straight. Mourinho announced his pleasure at seeing his sides mature performance.

“We never lost our balance, we kept our shape tactically, and we didn’t give them opportunities to score. In the second half when we had a little bit more of the ball we intensified the game and recovered the ball higher, so I think normally the tendency would be for a goal. After that goal I was happy because we were in control, we didn’t go to defend. We controlled the game well.”

Grinding out wins could also apply to: Manchester City in their shutout win over Newcastle (more on that later); Manchester United thwarting Swansea in a much-needed 2-0 win; Arsenal beating Aston Villa away; and Everton grinding out another three points at Goodison Park. The top seven teams in the PL all won this weekend, showing that this stretch between now and April is vital if teams are going to be top four contenders. The big bucks from the Champions League is what they all want and to get that sides need consistency, via dogged defensive displays and clinical finishing.

Expect plenty of 2-0, 1-0 and 2-1 results for Chelsea, Arsenal, City and co. from here on out.

RELEGATION BATTLE – WHO WILL GO DOWN?

The big boys are grinding out wins at the top of the PL table, but it was a huge weekend at the bottom of the standings. Which teams will fall short? Wins for Sunderland and West Ham dragged another four teams into the scrap, as any team from Hull City in 10th to bottom side Crystal Palace could face the dreaded ‘R’ word come May time. Just six points separates the bottom 10 and it could all change in an instance.

I have a feeling this relegation battle will encapsulate the final month of the season more so than the title race, as some massive clubs are fighting for their lives. Now more than ever, with the huge financial incentives dished out in the PL, the future of certain teams are defined by hitting the magic 40-point marker and staving off the threat of finishing in the bottom three. Fans of teams in the bottom half are having sleepless nights already, I can guarantee it. Below our analysts break down the drop zone picture, after Round 21.

West Ham have been the biggest sliders. Manager Sam Allardyce has been on the ropes for months with his injury-ravaged squad decimated and results going against the Hammers. The dreaded vote of confidence came from the owners last week, and West Ham were beaten 5-0 by Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup and 6-0 by Man City in the League Cup. So Saturday’s 2-0 PL win away at Cardiff City was much needed as West Ham finally showed some steal in their often flimsy defensive unit and Andy Carroll returned from injury. Hope for the Hammers… and Big Sam.

Then there was Sunderland, with arguably the win of the weekend in a high-pressure encounter down at Craven Cottage. Gus Poyet’s side knew three points would drag them off the bottom and in the process the gap has closed right up. Adam Johnson’s hat trick, with many saying England should give him another chance, did the damage as Rene Muelensteen’s Fulham looked in disarray. With a muddle of people involved (Ray Wilkins and Alan Curbishley employed to assist operations in West London) alongside Muelensteen it seems as though American owner Shadid Khan doesn’t fancy Sir Alex Ferguson’s former assistant. Muelensteen is stumbling with the Cottagers, but the beauty of it is that they aren’t doomed. Not yet, anyway.

More: Latest Premier League Standings

West Bromwich Albion, Norwich City, Swansea, Aston Villa and Stoke City are looking nervously over their shoulders as teams entrenched in the bottom three for most of the campaign make a surge for survival in the second half of the season. You think this relegation battle is interesting? Just wait for the twists and turns over the next few months…. This is only the start. I love it. Expect to hear plenty of managers mumbling the words “staying up is like winning the title for us” and other clichés murmured out of desperation and hope more than anything. That dreaded ‘R’ word will become a frequent in your vocabulary between now and May, if it isn’t already.

OFFSIDE RULE UNCERTAINTY REARS ITS UGLY HEAD

St. James’ Park erupted just before half time on Sunday, as captain Cheick Tiote hammered a sizzling left-footed strike into the far corner to draw Newcastle level against Manchester City. Or so they thought.

Tiote had already wheeled away and was amongst the Newcastle bench hugging his teammates and Magpies manager Alan Pardew had a huge grin in his face. That was quickly erased. Referee Mike Jone consulted his linesman and ruled out the goal for Yoann Gouffran apparently interfering with play, and Man City ‘keeper Joe Hart, from an offside position Though the ball whizzed past Gouffran and Hart ferociously, both of them where nowhere near the actually trajectory of Tiote’s pile driver. But Jones ruled Gouffran to be interfering with Hart’s line of vision and disallowed the goal. What a poor decision from the ref.

Cue a solid 5-6 minutes of booing from the famously vociferous Newcastle fans. They were not happy. Neither was manager Pardew who told Jones exactly what he thought at half time as the ref walked down the tunnel:

“The linesman’s right and you’re wrong. The linesman is right and you’re wrong. You know that!”

Pardew’s Newcastle went about their business unperturbed and gave City a real scare in the second half as Hart once again excelled in goal for the Citizens to keep Loic Remy and Yohan Cabaye out. Some nasty challenges from Newcastle saw Samir Nasri stretchered off and Manuel Pellegrini complaining which promoted Pardew into another sideline rant.

“You f****** old ****,” Pardew was seen to say to Pellegrini as he walked away in disgust.

That prompted a post-match apology from the Newcastle boss as he cited the heat of the moment getting the best of him. It certainly was a fiery atmosphere up in the North East that wasn’t made any better by referee Jones’ poor decision as his linesman saw nothing wrong with the goal, nor did 52,000 fans insides the stadium and millions watching around the world. The interference rule from an offside position needs to be clarified and the attacking side should be given the benefit of the doubt. Newcastle can consider themselves hard done by, as City rolled on with a resolute 2-0 win and prove that the little bit of lucky you need when challenging for the title is well and truly falling their way.

RETURN OF “KING ARTUR” SPARKS SAINTS BACK INTO LIFE

Southampton is glad to have Artur Boruc back between the sticks. On Saturday at St. Mary’s he won them all three points against West Bromwich Albion

The Saints gave a up a glorious chance in the dying seconds in Boruc’s return from injury, as Baggies striker Shane Long was left unmarked six-yards out and ready to tap the ball home… then Boruc appeared to grow in front of our eyes as a simple task for Long suddenly turned into an impossible one, as dressed in neon green (resembling the jolly green giant) the Polish beast thwarted West Brom’s striker with a tremendous foot save. Boruc timed his return from injury perfectly as Southampton has struggled desperately since the man they call “King Artur” was injured seven games ago against Chelsea at the beginning of December.

Since then Saints have lost four, drawn two and won just once, conceding 13 goals. In the seven games before Boruc was injured Saints won four, drew two and lost once, letting in just five goals. Needless to say Saints’ defensive instability looks to be over, with Boruc back they have a chance of challenging for the top six once again after their stunning start to the season declined in the absence of their first-choice ‘keeper. After the game on the South Coast I asked Mauricio Pochettino if the 1-0 win over West Brom signified the return of the Southampton we saw in the seasons early months:

“I think the evolution of the team of late has been good. The team has progressed a lot and has been playing much better but has been lacking defensively solidity at the back. I think today we’ve recovered that, we’ve recovered that winning spirit and solidity at the back. Overall the most important thing about this team is that regardless of the fact that we’ve been facing some troubles, it has kept on believing in the work that we do and the way that we play. That winning mentality has been recovered and it has been kept throughout the tough period.”

With a string of winnable games coming up, expect to see the Saints marching up the table again with Boruc leading the charge from the back.

Premier League Playback takes an alternative look at all the weekend’s action from the PL, it comes out every week.

Celtic’s dominance under Rodgers reaching new levels

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They’re unbeaten in 29 games, winning 27 of them. They hold a 25-point lead. They’re about to clinch a sixth straight league title this weekend and it’s still not even April.

Celtic’s players have taken their supremacy of Scottish soccer to a new level this season, putting the storied club from Glasgow in the conversation when discussing the most dominant sides in Europe’s domestic leagues in the 21st century.

Celtic will be the Scottish champion again as early as Friday if its closest rival, Aberdeen, loses to Dundee. If Aberdeen wins, Celtic will take an unassailable lead in the Scottish Premiership by beating Hearts on Sunday.

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

There’s been a sense of inevitability about the whole thing since the turn of the year, by which time Celtic had jumped into a 19-point lead. It’s long stopped being called a “title race” in Scotland, more a procession.

Meanwhile, the team coached by former Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers won the Scottish League Cup in late November and is also through to the semifinals of the Scottish Cup.

With Celtic’s unbeaten run across three domestic competitions currently at 36 games, this might be the most dominant season by any club in the history of Scotland’s top flight.

A glance around Europe shows a few other examples of title monopolies.

Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia) and BATE Borisov (Belarus) are currently on a streak of 11 domestic leagues titles in a row since 2006. Olympiakos is on course for a seventh straight Greek league title, which would be its 12th in the last 13 years, and Sheriff Tiraspol has won the Moldovan league every year except one since 2000. Basel leads the Swiss league by 17 points and is about to seal a ninth title in 10 years.

[ MORE: Zlatan to stay at United?

In these lesser-profile leagues, teams can dominate because of the cash they receive from participating in UEFA competitions, which often allow them to outspend their domestic rivals.

Last week, UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin, attending a conference in Lisbon, spoke of the threats to European soccer in the coming years, including the “decrease in competitive balance within European club competitions and secondary effects affecting domestic competitions.”

There are examples of lopsided championships in Europe’s big leagues, too: Juventus is closing on an unprecedented sixth straight Serie A title in Italy and on course for a third straight Serie A-Coppa Italia double; Bayern Munich is on course for a fifth straight Bundesliga title in Germany, which included winning one championship after 27 matches of a 34-round league; Lyon won the French league title seven times in succession from 2002; and Ajax won four straight titles in the Netherlands from 2011-14.

Scotland is widely regarded as a backwater in European soccer these days, mainly because of the uncompetitive nature of its league and an increasing lack of exposure and coverage outside Britain.

What didn’t help was Rangers – Celtic’s fierce crosstown rival and winner of a record 54 league titles – getting demoted to the fourth tier of the Scottish game in 2012 because of financial irregularities.

This is Rangers’ first season back in the Premiership, but it hasn’t been able to challenge Celtic and currently sits 33 points behind in third place. There used to be constant talk of the two “Old Firm” clubs crossing the border to join the English league but that has cooled.

“I want to win (the league) by 50 points,” Rodgers, who is in his first season at Celtic, said last month.

[ MORE: RSL hires Petke ]

In any other league, that would be a preposterous comment, but perhaps no longer in Scotland.

The season started so embarrassingly for Celtic and Rodgers, a 1-0 loss to Gibraltarian part-timer Lincoln Red Imps in a Champions League qualifier in July described by some pundits as the club’s worst defeat in its 130-year history.

Now, they are about to lift the league title with eight matches to spare and potentially in the month of March for the second time in four years.

“We want to continue winning, continue the run that we’re on,” Celtic goalkeeper Craig Gordon said, “and make sure we do that for as long as we can.”

AP Sports Writers Graham Dunbar in Geneva and James Ellingworth in Moscow, and Associated Press writers Ciaran Fahey in Berlin, Daniella Matar in Milan, Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, and Raf Casert in Brussels, Belgium, contributed to this report.

Steve Douglas is at http://www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

Mourinho: Midseason international friendlies don’t make sense

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Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United has a big challenge thanks to injuries and a club with far more international participants than the weekend’s Premier League rival.

It has the manager asking, frankly, why the friendlies?

While Phil Jones and Chris Smalling were injured in England training, not the friendly against Germany nor the World Cup qualifier versus Lithuania, Mourinho wonders why the national teams need to play relatively meaningless matches in the middle of club season.

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

Mourinho says he is being careful not to be too vocal about his disappointment given that he’ll probably one day need those friendlies as an international boss. From Sky Sports:

“A couple of weeks before the Euros or a couple of weeks before the World Cup makes sense. But mid-season friendly matches mixed with qualification matches, I don’t think that makes sense.

“On top of that the matches are not really big matches so I am not a big fan. But I think one day I will be there so I cannot be very critical.”

Mourinho will be without Jones, Smalling, and Paul Pogba this weekend. He also has several internationals who won’t arrive back at Old Trafford until Thursday. United hosts West Brom on Saturday.

Lamela needs hip surgery, out for rest of Spurs season

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Tottenham Hotspur won’t be getting an Erik Lamela boost any time soon.

The 25-year-old winger will undergo surgery on his ailing hip this Saturday, costing him availability for Spurs’ stretch run and Argentina duty.

[ MORE: RSL hires Petke ]

Lamela has been missing since Oct. 29, and left Spurs lineup with the team unbeaten in the Premier League (5W-4D).

He registered a goal and an assist in PL play, adding a goal and four helpers in the side’s first two rounds of the EFL Cup and two assists in three Champions League matches.

Real Salt Lake introduces Mike Petke as new head coach

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Mike Petke is getting a deserved next kick as an MLS coach.

The New York Red Bulls icon, 41, is taking over at Real Salt Lake, where he had been leading USL side Real Monarchs since December.

“They’re an animal waiting to be released from a cage,” Petke called RSL’s roster.

[ MORE: Zlatan to stay at United?

Petke won better than 41 percent of his matches as RBNY boss, leading the club to the 2013 Supporters’ Shield. This came after 351 matches between Colorado, the Red Bulls/MetroStars, and DC United.

He leaves Real Monarchs with a perfect 1-0 record. Unbeaten!

“The vision that he laid out, along with Craig and Rob, was music to my ears,” Petek said. “They really showed me what was ahead for the RSL organization, and it was an easy thing to be a part of.”

Petke thanked the Monarchs for restoring some of his love for managing, something he said was “kicked out of me”. The Red Bulls shockingly parted ways with Petke in January 2015, moving onto Jesse Marsch.

This is a low risk hire for Real, who gains a respected coach and soccer mind. The optics aren’t great coming so early into the season and so soon after his hiring at Monarchs raised eyebrows.

The hiring comes four days after RSL drew the Red Bulls 0-0 at Red Bull Arena, which is the only disappointment of this whole ordeal: Not getting to see the response at his old home.