With the S.A.S. in form, Arlo believes the title could well be on its way to Anfield.

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.

Higuain to seal $98.7 million Juve move; Pogba to Man United closer?

DOHA, QATAR - DECEMBER 22:  Paul Pogba of Juventus is tackled by Gonzalo Higuain of Napoli during the 2014 Italian Super Cup match between Juventus FC v SSC Napoli at the Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium on December 22, 2014 in Doha, Qatar.  (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)
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A major domino has reportedly fallen in the summer transfer window pack.

Gonzalo Higuain is set to complete his monster move from Napoli to Juventus in Serie A.

Sky Italia says that the deal for Higuain has been completed with the Argentine ace arriving in Turin for a transfer fee of $98.7 million (his release clause) and on a four-year contract worth over $8.2 million per season.

[ MORE: Spurs lose to Juve in ICC

Higuain, 28, scored 36 goals in 35 games for Napoli last season and has scored 71 goals in 104 Serie A appearances since arriving from Real Madrid in 2013. Obviously he can score goals but is he worth $98.7 million? At his age, maybe not, and especially with Juve making so many impressive signings already this summer as Miralem Pjanic, Mehdi Benatia and Dani Alves all on board, plus Paulo Dyabla looking razor sharp in preseason.

That $98.7 million transfer fee would make Higuain the third-most expensive signing of all-time, although he could be overtaken by one man very soon: Paul Pogba.

Apparently Juve are locked in talks with Manchester United to try and finalize a move for Pogba, 23, and this huge outlay of cash on Higuain could suggest they’ve agreed the reported $130 million transfer of the French international midfielder.

[ MORE: Winter break pros and cons for PL ]

Pogba has been seen laughing and joking on vacation in Miami with his agent, Mino Raiola, but it is believed that deal is being held up due to the teams not agreeing on who should pay the reported agent fee of up to $22 million. No wonder Raiola is laughing.

Seriously, though, let’s see how this plays out but it is highly unlikely Juve would’ve dropped that much cash on Higuain if they didn’t have some major cash coming in from selling a certain player.

We all know who that is…

Premier League winter break talks ongoing: What are pros, cons?

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What if the Premier League had a winter break?

That is a topic of hot discussion in the UK after new England manager Sam Allardyce called for a midseason break during his opening press conference as the new Three Lions manager on Monday.

[ MORE: PL preseason schedule

With the Premier League confirming that discussions between themselves, the English Football Association and the Football League are ongoing, it is obviously something the governing bodies which run English soccer are seriously considering.

It is believed that if a winter break was given the green light, it wouldn’t take place until the 2019-20 season at the earliest.

[ WATCH: Stream every PL game live ] 

On Tuesday the executive chairman of the Premier League, Richard Scudamore, discussed the notion of a winter break and was asked by Sky Sports about the feasibility of Allardyce’s proposal.

“He’s been very consistent. He’s been calling for it for a very long time, as has every England manager. We are not against a winter break,” Scudamore said. “We have gone on record saying that we are in discussions with the people we need to be in discussions with which is the Football Association and the Football League. It is an integrated calendar. Those discussions are taking place. I don’t know how close or far we are because I wouldn’t want to compromise those negotiations or those discussions.

“Even if the three of us, the three [governing] bodies come up with that solution, we then of course have to road test that with the clubs that are involved and the fans and everything else. We are in discussions, there is a willingness to make it happen but I can’t put anything like a timescale on that.”

Intriguing comments from Scuadmore as the PL seems to be in favor of at least giving the winter break a try. The English FA have been pushing that agenda for quite some time as they believe that heading into an international tournament the English national team suffer due to the long, hard slog of a season with a packed schedule through the winter months. At least, that’s what they’re going with after so many disappointing tournaments in recent years…

So, it’s worth asking, how much of a difference, if any, would this make? What are the pros and cons of a winter break?

Straight off the bat, it must not eradicate the traditional Boxing Day or Dec. 28 games. Those dates are sacrosanct in the UK sporting calendar. My proposal would be to keep those two matchdays and then have a break from Dec. 28 until Jan. 12, giving the teams over two weeks off.

In the PL there are obviously 20 teams which means that it isn’t quite as easy as the Bundesliga, for example, having a winter break as Germany’s top-flight teams only has 19 teams, meaning teams only have to play 36 games instead of the 38 games each Premier League side has to play. The FA Cup opening rounds would also have to be slotted back to late January but it could be more beneficial for the English national team and PL teams playing in European competitions as they would also have the same amount of rest as teams in Spain, Germany and Italy who all have winter breaks.

Well, regardless of what you think, here’s a quick list below looking at some of the potential positives and negatives of trying out a break.

Pros

  • Players rested, less injuries
  • PL teams could advance further in European competitions
  • English national team may have better chance in major competitions
  • Higher intensity in games throughout the season
  • Less midweek games during the season, more spread out schedule
  • Midseason breaks to warmer climates, small friendly tournaments could take place in USA or Middle East

Cons

  • Possibility of reduced games around the festive period
  • Confusion around when FA Cup third round would begin
  • Season running longer into May, possibly June, meaning less time before international tournaments

Report: Sakho sent home from Liverpool’s US tour by Jurgen Klopp

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Mamadou Sakho‘s days at Liverpool seem numbered.

According to multiple reports the French international defender has been sent home from Liverpool’s tour of the USA by Jurgen Klopp.

[ MORE: Spurs lose to Juve in ICC ]

Per the reports, Klopp is said to be upset with Sakho’s behavior on the trip to California as he turned up late for the flight to the USA and that was brought up in one of Klopp’s interviews while the team visited Alcatraz.

Sakho’s attitude around team training sessions at Stanford University was also questioned by Klopp but the towering defender isn’t actually training as he continues his recovery from an Achilles injury which will see him miss the start of the upcoming Premier League season.

All of this caps off a turbulent few months for 26-year-old Sakho who was only cleared of a doping violation by UEFA earlier this month. European soccer’s governing body accused Sakho of failing a drugs test following a Europa League Round of 16 win over Manchester United in March.

Sakho hasn’t played since April — which forced him to miss the Europa League final and France’s EURO 2016 campaign — and now his future at Anfield must be in serious doubt.

It is believed Sakho will arrive back in the UK on Tuesday and will continue treatment on his injury at Liverpool’s Melwood training ground.

Klopp’s side face Chelsea at the Pasadena Rose Bowl on Wednesday in their first International Champions Cup game, before then facing AC Milan on Saturday in Santa Clara, Calif. Their U.S. tour concludes with a friendly against AS Roma in St. Louis, Missouri on Aug. 1.

Report: Arsenal’s Per Mertesacker out five months with serious injury

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 27:  Per Mertesacker of Arsenal celebrates at the end of the UEFA Champions League Qualifier 2nd leg match between Arsenal and Besiktas at the Emirates Stadium on August 27, 2014 in London, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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Numerous reports are claiming that Arsenal will be without their BFG until 2017.

German central defender Per Mertesacker has not traveled with the Gunners on their tour of the USA with the club confirming their vice captain suffered a knee injury during their friendly win over Lens last Friday.

[ MORE: Spurs lose to Juve in ICC ]

Sky Sports in the UK claim that Mertesacker, 31, could be out for five months and they believe the club will announce that news in the next 48 hours.

That leaves Arsene Wenger with a real problem at center back.

Gabriel has also not traveled with Arsenal due to tonsillitis and Laurent Koscielny is also missing after being given extra time off following his part in France’s run to the EURO 2016 final.

That means only Calum Chambers and new signing from Bolton Wanderers, 20-year-old Rob Holding, are around as center back options for Wenger. Nacho Monreal could also slot in for the time being but Arsenal may now look to get another center back in before the end of the transfer window this summer.

The Gunners have arrived in the USA and play the MLS All-Stars in San Jose, Calif. on Wednesday, then Chivas de Guadalajara next Monday at the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif.