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.

Klinsmann names USMNT preliminary roster for 2016 Copa America

United States Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann instructs his team against Guatemala during the first half of a World Cup qualifying soccer match Tuesday, March 29, 2016, in Columbus, Ohio. The United States beat Guatemala 4-0. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)
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Youth is well served as Jurgen Klinsmann has named the U.S. national team’s 40-man preliminary roster ahead of next month’s 2016 Copa America Centenario.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage ]

Youngsters Christian Pulisic, Darlington Nagbe, Matt Miazga and Jordan Morris, along with 36 others, will take part in the USMNT’s pre-tournament training camp, beginning May 16 in Miami, Fla., as Klinsmann makes his final decisions in order to trim the squad from 40 to 23 before the May 20 roster deadline.

Along with the aforementioned newcomers (relative so) is most of the regular cast of characters from Klinsmann’s nearly six years in charge — Jermaine Jones, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Fabian Johnson, Kyle Beckerman and Mix Diskerud, among others.

[ MORE: Dortmund’s Pulisic scores in second consecutive Bundesliga game ]

The USMNT will play three warm-up games ahead of their group-stage opener (June 3, vs. Colombia in Santa Clara, Calif.): at Puerto Rico (May 22), vs. Ecuador (May 25 in Frisco, Tex.) and vs. Bolivia (May 28 in Kansas City, Kan.).

The full preliminary roster is as follows…

Goalkeepers: David Bingham (San Jose Earthquakes), Brad Guzan (Aston Villa), Ethan Horvath (Molde) Tim Howard (Everton), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)

Defenders: Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Ventura Alvarado (Club America), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Steve Birnbaum (D.C. United), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Edgar Castillo (Monterrey), Timmy Chandler (Eintracht Frankfurt), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca), Eric Lichaj (Nottingham Forest), Matt Miazga (Chelsea), Michael Orozco (Tijuana), Tim Ream (Fulham), DeAndre Yedlin (Sunderland)

Midfielders: Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Alejandro Bedoya (Nantes), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Mix Diskerud (New York City FC), Fabian Johnson (Borussia Monchengladbach), Jermaine Jones (Colorado Rapids), Perry Kitchen (Hearts), Alfredo Morales (Ingolstadt), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Lee Nguyen (New England Revolution), Danny Williams (Reading), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)

Forwards: Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders), Ethan Finlay (Columbus Crew SC), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund),Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes), Bobby Wood (Union Berlin), Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy)

MLS Snapshot: Portland Timbers 2-1 Toronto FC (video)

Portland Timbers midfielder Diego Valeri (8), celebrates his equalizer goal in extra time against Los Angeles Galaxy, Sunday May 11, 2014, at Providence Park in Portland, Oregon.  (AP Photo/The Oregonian, Thomas Boyd)  MAGS OUT; TV OUT; LOCAL TV OUT; LOCAL INTERNET OUT; THE MERCURY OUT; WILLAMETTE WEEK OUT; PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP OUT
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The game in 100 words (or less): The defending champion Portland Timbers are slowly but surely hitting their stride after a less-than-ideal start to the season saw Caleb Porter’s side start their 2015 MLS Cup title defense with just one win in their first six games. With Sunday’s 2-1 victory over Toronto FC, the Timbers are now three games unbeaten (two wins), and quickly ascending the Western Conference standings (started the day in 9th, finished the day in 7th). Just a heads up: Diego Valeri is still the best (24 goals, 38 assists in 94 MLS appearances). Also, backup goalkeeper Jake Gleeson turned in one of the best goalkeeping performances in recent memory, with no fewer than three jaw-dropping saves in the second half alone. As for TFC, their eight-game road trip to start the season is, mercifully, finished. They’ll head back to BMO Field for next Saturday’s home opener with 11 points in the bag and a claim on the no. 3 spot in the Eastern Conference.

[ MORE: Monday’s MLS Rewind column  ]

Three moments that mattered

17′ — Adi takes the feed from Valeri, makes it 1-0 — Diego Valeri to Fanendo Adi [insert any Timbers forward here] has been a thoroughly productive formula for the Timbers since his arrival in the Rose City four years ago. Big props to Darren Mattocks with the ball to put Valeri into all that space.

40′ — Johnson keeps it low, makes it 1-1 — Sebastian Giovinco attracted the attention of four Timbers defenders, none of which were quick to pounce on the loose ball after the Italian went down under a crunching challenge. Will Johnson was quickest to the ball, and equalized against his former club.

74′ — Valeri’s stunning free kick is a worthy winner — Enjoy!

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Diego Valeri

Goalscorers: Adi (17′), Johnson (40′), Valeri (71′)

Ronaldo back in training ahead of Champions League decider vs. Man City

Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo watches the math at the bench during the Champions League semifinal soccer match between Manchester City and Real Madrid, at the City of Manchester stadium in Manchester, England, Tuesday, April 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
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Cristiano Ronaldo is in a race against time in order to be fit for Real Madrid’s UEFA Champions League semifinal decider against Manchester City on Wednesday.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s UCL coverage ]

With just 72 hours to kickoff of the two sides’ return leg (0-0 draw at the Etihad Stadium last week), Madrid’s superstar attacker is back in training with an eye toward taking the field on Wednesday after missing the last three games with a hamstring injury. Ronaldo has been unavailable for selection since last featuring on April 2.

He has since downplayed the severity of the injury, saying of last week’s first-leg clash, “If it were a final, I’d play.”

[ MORE: Man City, Real Madrid draw | Atleti top Bayern at home ]

Also on the mend for Madrid is Karim Benzema, who was forced off at halftime (hamstring injury) in the first leg. The Frenchman missed Saturday’s La Liga triumph over Real Sociedad, and his availability seems much more in doubt than that of Ronaldo.

La Liga roundup: Barcelona, Atleti, Real Madrid separated by one point

Barcelona's Ivan Rakitic, left, celebrates with teammate Jordi Alba, second left, after scoring against Betis during their La Liga soccer match at the Benito Villamarin stadium, in Seville, Spain on Saturday, April. 30, 2016. (AP Photo/Angel Fernandez)
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A roundup of the weekend’s action in Spain’s top flight…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s La Liga coverage ]

Real Betis 0-2 Barcelona

Barcelona wobbled; they stumbled; they even went down to one knee so as to avoid being knocked out a couple weeks ago. From nine points ahead with fewer than 10 games remaining in the season, to suddenly level on points with Atletico Madrid, the season was slipping away, and in stepped Luis Suarez with back-to-back four-goal games to end a three-game losing streak, followed by Saturday’s 2-0 away triumph over Real Betis.

Ivan Rakitic (50th minute) and Suarez (81st minute – 35 league goals, 15 assists) provided the goals for Luis Enrique’s side with absolutely zero margin for error between now and the end of the season two weeks down the road. The math is simple: if Barca win their remaining two games, they’ll be crowned champions for a second consecutive season, all thanks due to their obscene goal differential.

Atletico Madrid 1-0 Rayo Vallecano

How much longer can Atleti keep hold of Antoine Griezmann, Los Rojiblancos‘ brilliant talisman for the last two seasons (43 goals, 6 assists combined)? Still just 25 years old, the Frenchman is a surefire top-10 player in the world right now, and will surely be the subject interest from Europe’s freest-spending clubs once again this summer.

Griezmann bagged the only goal in Atleti’s 1-0 home victory over Rayo Vallecano on Sunday, keeping the Spanish capital’s “other” side level on points with Barca. It was a stunning strike that, in a just world, would wipe away 10 or 15 of Barca’s 31-goal advantage in the goal-differential column.

Real Sociedad 0-1 Real Madrid

“Hey! Hey, guys! Don’t forget about us!” It must be so difficult to be a Real Madrid fan right now, what with Barca and Atleti currently sitting first and second, and everyone seemingly forgetting about Los Blancos and the fact they’re a measly point behind their two most hated rivals. Sure, it’ll require a fatal slip-up by both of the sides ahead of them, but stranger things have happened.

Saturday’s 1-0 victory away to Real Sociedad saw Zinedine Zidane push his record as first-team manager of Madrid to 15W-2D-1L in league play (47 points – best in La Liga during that period). With Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema once again out injured, Gareth Bale scored the game’s only goal with fewer than a dozen minutes remaining in regular time.

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Barcelona 36 27 4 5 104 29 75 15-1-2 12-3-3 85
Atlético Madrid 36 27 4 5 60 16 44 14-3-1 13-1-4 85
Real Madrid 36 26 6 4 105 32 73 15-1-2 11-5-2 84

Elsewhere in La Liga

Valencia vs. Villarreal (ongoing)
Athletic Bilbao 2-1 Celta Vigo
Espanyol 1-0 Sevilla
Granada 3-2 Las Palmas
Deportiov La Coruña 0-2 Getafe
Sporting Gijon 2-0 Eibar