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.

Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks – Week 35

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The Premier League games continue to come thick and fast with 10 matches on the slate this weekend.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live ] 

If you, like me, love to dissect all the games and predict what the score will be and which team will win, I encourage you to get involved in the comments section below. Let’s have a bit of fun.

Okay, so I’ve consulted my crystal ball and here’s how we see things panning out.

[ STREAM: Premier League “Goal Rush”

With the first section labelled “basically, free money” for the picks I think are dead certs. The section labelled “don’t touch this” means if you’re betting I advise you to stay clear, while the “so you’re telling me there’s a chance” section are the longshots. If it is better odds you are after, those are the picks to go for.


BASICALLY, FREE MONEY

West Brom 2-0 Leicester City – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]

Man United 2-0 Swansea City – (Sunday, 7 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Middlesbrough 1-3 Man City – (Sunday, 9:05 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM

Crystal Palace 3-1 Burnley – (Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBC) – [STREAM

DON’T TOUCH THIS… 

Stoke City 2-2 West Ham – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]

Tottenham 2-1 Arsenal – (Sunday, 11:30 am. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM

Sunderland 1-2 Bournemouth – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, CNBC) – [STREAM

Southampton 2-1 Hull City – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM

“SO YOU’RE TELLING ME THERE’S A CHANCE…”

Watford 2-1 Liverpool – (Monday, 3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM

Everton 2-1 Chelsea – (Sunday, 9:05 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM

Zidane says people should stop Le Pen in French election

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PARIS (AP) Former France great Zinedine Zidane says people should do anything they can to avoid having Marine Le Pen win the presidency.

Referring to Le Pen’s far-right party, the Real Madrid coach says he is “far from all these ideas, from this National Front. So we need to do everything to avoid this.”

[ MORE: JPW’s PL picks ]

Zidane, who was born in Marseille and comes from Algerian descent, took a similar stance when Jean-Marie Le Pen – Marine’s father – made it to the second round of the 2002 presidential election.

A former World Cup and European Championship winner, Zidane remains highly popular in France. He says the message “is the same, the one from 2002.”

Le Pen faces centrist Emmanuel Macron in the presidential runoff on May 7.

Conte aims to formalize UCL spot, find long-awaited clean sheet

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Antonio Conte‘s Chelsea is a point away from clinching a place in the UEFA Champions League, an academic number but one which will mark a return to Europe for the Blues.

Chelsea’s manager is pleased to stand on the precipice of this preseason goal (Watch Everton-Chelsea at 9:05 a.m. ET Sunday on CNBC and online via NBCSports.com), though he’s certainly more interested in nailing down a Premier League title in his first crack at English football.

[ MORE: Verratti to Barcelona? ]

Conte, 47, notes the achievement will feel especially good given the strength and depth of the Premier League’s top-end clubs, though the short-term is also on his mind. From the BBC:

“Obviously, with six teams between Chelsea, Tottenham, City, Arsenal, United, Liverpool, two strong teams won’t play next season in the Champions League.”

“It’s 11 games that we are not able to keep a clean sheet and, for this reason, it’s important to improve, to work on the situations we’re conceding the goals. I’m not concerned about this, but at the same time, we are working on it.”

Everton is one of six clubs to score 60 or more goals this season, led by former Chelsea player Romelu Lukaku. If Conte adds another a clean sheet to his resume, it will be a second-successive blanking of Everton in the PL. Quite an achievement.

Full Premier League schedule – Week 35

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We are entering the climax of the 2016-17 Premier League season.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live here ]

Kicking things off on Saturday Southampton host Hull City (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) at St Mary’s with the visitors desperate for another big win to stay out of the relegation zone.

At the some time Sunderland host Bournemouth (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET on CNBC and online via NBC Sports.com) and a defeat for the Black Cats could well confirm their relegation. Saturday ends with Crystal Palace hosting Burnley (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBC Sports.com) at Selhurst Park with Sam Allardyce‘s side aiming to recover from a late defeat to Tottenham, while Burnley is still in search of its first away win of the season.

Sunday is another busy day as Manchester United host Swansea (Watch live, 7 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) to kick things off with Jose Mourinho’s men aiming to go 25 games unbeaten and the Swans battling for their lives as they occupy the final relegation spot. Then comes a huge game at Goodison Park: in-form Everton hosting Chelsea (Watch live, 9:05 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com). Antonio Conte‘s men can stretch their lead atop the PL table to seven points once again but Everton have lost just once at home all season.

Then comes a huge game at White Hart Lane as Tottenham host Arsenal in the North London Derby (Watch live, 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) with a win for Spurs guaranteeing that they’ll finish above Arsenal for the first time in 21 years. With Spurs’ title hopes still alive and the Gunners battling for the top four, this should be a classic NLD.

[ STREAM: Premier League “Goal Rush”

On Monday the week finishes with Watford welcoming Liverpool (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) to Vicarage Road. Jurgen Klopp‘s men are feeling the pressure in third place in the table as Manchester United and Manchester City hunt them down.

The full TV schedule for this weekend is below, plus you can watch every single second of every single game live online via NBC Sports.com and the NBC Sports App,

You can also watch Premier League “Goal Rush” at 10 a.m. ET on Saturday for all the goals as they go in. Goal Rush is available via NBC Sports.com and the NBC Sports App,

If you’re looking for full-event replays of Premier League games, you can find them here. They are available soon after the final whistle, but rights limit us to a certain number each week. Looking for game highlights? Try this. Here’s your full TV schedule for the coming days. Enjoy.


FULL TV SCHEDULE

Saturday
10 a.m. ET: Southampton vs. Hull City – NBCSN [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Sunderland vs. Bournemouth – CNBC [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Stoke City vs. West Ham – Premier League Extratime [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: West Brom vs. Leicester City – Premier League Extratime [STREAM]
12:30 p.m. ET: Crystal Palace vs. Burnley — NBC [STREAM]

Sunday
7 a.m. ET: Manchester United vs. Swansea City – NBCSN [STREAM]
9:05 a.m. ET: Everton vs. Chelsea – NBCSN [STREAM]
9:05 a.m. ET: Middlesbrough vs. Manchester City – NBCSN [STREAM]
11:30 a.m. ET: Tottenham vs. Arsenal – NBCSN [STREAM]

Monday
3 p.m. ET: Watford vs. Liverpool – NBCSN [STREAM]