Quick Six, Premier League weekend: Eto’o shines, top three thrives, and 11 teams cram relegation picture

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1. Eto’o hat trick completes ‘Mourinho double,’ HIGHLIGHTS  Manchester United’s woes

Samuel Eto’o came into the weekend with three Premier League goals. Brought in from Anzhi Makhachkala just before the season started, the former Barcelona and Inter Milan star has failed to rise about his time-sharing arrangement with Chelsea’s incumbent strikers, Fernando Torres and Demba Ba. After two years in Dagestan’s soccer wilderness, the 32-year-old has looked years beyond his former, elite self.

On Sunday, however, Eto’o turned back the clock, if only for 50 minutes. Scoring in the 17th, 45th, and 49th minutes, the Cameroon international single-handedly reversed Chelsea’s recent slow starter status. Against Manchester United, the Blues were up three within four minutes of halftime, with only Javier Hernández’s late consolation pulling giving the Red Devils a goal come full time. Suffering their fourth loss in five games, United fell at Stamford Bridge, 3-1.

[MORE: Chelsea 3-1 Manchester United: Eto’o hat trick extends Moyes misery]

On the back of their early season 0-0 in Manchester, the Blues completed what we could call a Mourinho double, a nod the Blues’ boss’s want to play conservatively on the road against top-tier opponents. We saw it in August at Old Trafford. We saw it in December at the Emirates. Just as during his first spell in London, José Mourinho is willing to play for a draw on the road, mitigating a rival’s best change to claim full points, knowing a win at home will give his side the edge in the standings.

In that way, we should have seen this result coming. This is Mourinho’s modus operandi. The second the final whistle blew in Manchester on Aug. 26, we should have known Chelsea were going to take the teams’ battle at Stamford Bridge. We’ve seen it too many times before.

What we couldn’t have predicted, however, was how easy it would be. Chelsea are clearly title contenders, but compared to how a team like Liverpool have performed at Stamford Bridge (losing 2-1), United seem at least two tiers below the Blues. Expected to be title contenders, the Red Devils aren’t even Europe-worthy, right now. That’s far beyond the drop most predicted for Moyes’ first year at Old Trafford.

The same explanations we’ve heard over the last five months will be rolled out in Monday’s analysis, but don’t let anybody tell you United’s talent is this bad. They didn’t have Wayne Rooney, and they didn’t have Robin van Persie, but Manchester United were still able to start a quality team on Sunday. Go player-for-player and compare the two teams and you’ll find comparable talent across the back fives, two usually flawed midfields, Chelsea with a more talented attacking midfield but United with the in-form striker (until Eto’o went off). It wasn’t a side that should have been down three after 49 minutes.

Right now, however, they’re playing like an average team, at best. United has no confidence, no drive – nothing to inspire them beyond their current quagmire. Sunday merely confirmed what we already knew.

2. Easy days for Arsenal, Manchester City help leave top three unchanged

In the face of recent embarrassments against Hull and Sunderland, Saturday may be progress for Fulham. Visiting an Arsenal team the Cottagers were never expected to beat, Fulham managed to take the game to halftime scoreless despite being out-shot 8-2. Arsenal turned their control into goals early in the second half, Santi Cazorla scoring in the 57th and 62nd minutes, but in similar circumstances earlier this season, we’ve seen Fulham’s floodgates open. With Brede Hangeland and Maarten Stekelenburg back in the team, René Meulensteen’s side was able to ‘hold’ the Gunners to a 2-0 win. Perhaps it’s little more than a moral victory, but given the quality of Fulham’s opposition, that’s all they were ever likely get.

[MORE: Arsenal 2-0 Fulham: Cazorla double keeps Gunners top (video)]

The victory helped keep Arsenal ahead of a Manchester City team that continues to pour in goals. Within 15 minutes on Saturday against visiting Cardiff, the league’s most potent attack was on the board, Edin Dzeko scoring his sixth goal in four games. Craig Noone would pull the Bluebirds even just before the half-hour mark, but goals by Jesús Navas, Yaya Touré, and substitute Sergio Agüero had the home team up three in the 79th minute. City went on to win, 4-2, leaving the Citizens on pace for a record 108 Premier League goals.

[MORE: Manchester City 4-2 Cardiff City: Goals galore, once again, for the Citizens (video)]

Combined with Chelsea’s win and Liverpool’s draw, the big three have eliminated any doubt as to who will compete for this season’s title. After 22 games, Arsenal has 51 points, City has 50, and Chelsea is up to 49. After that, there’s six-point gap back for fourth, where Liverpool, Tottenham, and Everton look set to compete for the league’s last Champions League spot.

3. Liverpool remains a work in progress

Last week against Stoke, Liverpool overcame the mass injuries it’s suffering in defense, their five-goal win over the Potters validating Brendan Rodgers’ approach. This week, however, that same approach could be seen as a culprit, with the Liverpool boss failing to do enough to protect his patchwork back four against Aston Villa. Down two after Christian Benteke’s 36th minute goal, Liverpool had to fight back, eventually securing a 2-2 result at Anfield.

[MOVE: Liverpool 2-2 Aston Villa: Reds stage comeback, but Villa leave Anfield with a draw (video)]

Had Rodgers not started Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling wide, Gabriel Agbonlahor may not have created two goals down the flanks. And a two-man midfield of Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson doesn’t exactly endorse Liverpool’s Champions League credentials. As entertaining as Liverpool has been throughout the season, this is still a thin, slightly flawed team that’s looking to take the next step. They’re just looking to get back into Champions League.

That type of team isn’t immune to dropping points against the world’s Aston Villas, particularly when Agbonlahor and Benteke have good days. It doesn’t mean they can’t finish top four, but contrary to what I’ve claimed for most of the season, it does mean they have issues to address before contending for a title.

4. Tony wins Pulis Derby

Given the early success Tony Pulis has experienced at Crystal Palace, it was strange to see the Eagles in the bottom three going into this weekend’s action. Against his former club, however, Pulis had the perfect stage to highlight the influence he can have on a club, with an increasingly aimless Stoke falling 1-0 at Selhurst Park.

[MORE: Crystal Palace 1-0 Stoke City: Palace out of the relegation zone (video)]

It wasn’t glamorous or decisive. Pulis’s teams never are. Instead, it was conservative but opportunistic, Palace holding the Potters to two shots on goal while leveraging Oussama Assaidi’s mistake for the game’s only goal. When the Liverpool loanee mistakenly assisted on Jason Puncheon’s redemptive score, Palace had all they’d need to hold off a punch-less Stoke.

With 20 points, Pulis’s new team sits 16th, albeit only two points above from the cellar. With seven points in six games, however, the Eagles give every indication they’ll be able to claw their way to safety, just as Pulis promised.

5. The 11-team relegation battle

Aston Villa’s draw at Anfield leaves Paul Lambert’s team in 10th place, and while that speaks to the resurgence the Claret and Blue have undergone over the last three weeks, it also makes for a deceptive description of the Premier League. While yes, Villa is technically in the league’s top half, a more accurate way to describe the team’s quality notes they’re only six points off the drop. This year, being 10th isn’t worth much.

Twenty-two rounds into the season, 11 teams still have to worry about relegation. West Ham, Sunderland, and Cardiff, each with 18 points, all have the biggest worries, but a bad stretch could find Villa (24), Hull (23), Norwich (23), or Stoke (22) facing their Championship fears. All of West Brom (21), Swansea (21), Crystal Palace (20) and Fulham (19) are within three points of the drop.

Should this persist, the Premiership will have its deepest relegation battle in history, and judging by this weekend’s performances, nobody’s ready to break clear. Hull went without a shot on goal. Stoke was only slightly less inept at Palace. On form, Swansea and West Ham would be the division’s worst teams if it wasn’t for Cardiff, while Fulham’s bipolarity would be debilitating, if the rest of the league got its act together.

[MORE: Norwich City 1-0 Hull City: Vital win for the Canaries (video)]

[MORE: Sunderland 2-2 Southampton: Black Cats fight back to grab draw (video)]

Sunderland and Crystal Palace are showing enough improvement, it’s difficult to imagine either finishing in the bottom three. But their lack of quality also makes it hard to see them separating themselves from the pack. In mid-January, we have an 11-team relegation battle, and there’s no sign of that changing anytime soon.

6. Adebayor, Cabaye leading European pushes

If Manchester United want a quick fix, they need only look north. Yohan Cabaye would be a perfect partner for Michael Carrick, providing the Red Devils with some of the final third influence we don’t get from David Moyes’ other midfield options. While United fans may still dream of Athletic’s Ander Herrera, a more accessible option may already be in the Premier League, with Cabaye still eligible to play in this year’s Champions League.

On Saturday, Cabaye again proved his value, leading Newcastle to a 3-1 win at West Ham. Scoring his team’s first and third goals, the French international was the game’s best player, his “new” role behind Loic Remy allowing him to be more influential going forward. Where Newcastle’s biggest concern has been finding somebody to share Remy’s goal-scoring load, the solution may be obvious: Put your most creative player in a position to be more dangerous. In the six games he’s been used as an attacking midfielder, Cabaye has four goals. In a deeper role, the former Lille star has scored three times in 13 appearances.

[MORE: West Ham 1-3 Newcastle: Newcastle snap losing streak, cause more pain for Irons (video)]

Emmanuel Adebayor is providing a similarly obvious solution for Tottenham. Under André Villas-Boas, Spurs were undone by their inability to finish, the former boss persisting with Roberto Soldado while Adebayor languished in exile. When Tim Sherwood took over, the 29-year-old Togo international was brought back into the team, proving an immediate success. On Sunday, Adebayor scored his fourth and fifth goals in six starts, leading Tottenham to a 3-1 win at Swansea.

[MORE: Swansea City 1-3 Tottenham: Spurs incisive counter too much for sorry Swans (video)]

The win pushed Spurs to 43 points, even with fourth place Liverpool. While some see their standing as a sign Villas-Boas was fired too soon, the Portuguese boss was probably fired at just the right time. Tottenham has been much better under Sherwood, in large part because of the tweaks the new manager has made to the team’s approach. Had Daniel Levy persisted with “AVB,” Tottenham may have drifted too far off the pace to wage a Champions League challenge.

As for Newcastle, Saturday’s win ended a four-game slide, leaving them one point back of seventh place Manchester United. It also ended a scoreless run in league that extended back to Boxing Day, when the Magpies scored five times against Stoke.

Given the depths West Ham has sunk to, we can’t overlook the Irons’ part in the result, but we also can’t overlook the value of a well-utilized star. Like Adebayor, Cabaye lifted his team this weekend, helping their quest to reclaim a spot in Europe.

Chelsea chase Alexis Sanchez; Man United want Dier

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The summer transfer rumors are heating up long before the heat of summer arrives…

[ MORE: Zlatan to stay at United?

On Wednesday it is being claimed by the Guardian that Alexis Sanchez has become Chelsea’s “No.1 target this summer” as the Arsenal and Chile forward has yet to sign a new deal with the Gunners.

Per the report, Chelsea boss Antonio Conte has drafted up a shortlist of the players he wants to sign this summer and Sanchez is at the top of the Italian managers wishlist as he is also close to signing a new deal at Stamford Bridge.

Sanchez, 28, has a deal at Arsenal until the summer of 2018 but if the north London club fails to agree a new deal with him this summer (as well as Mesut Ozil and Arsene Wenger, but that’s another story…) then they’ll have to sell him on or risk losing him for nothing as a free agent next season.

The striker scored twice for Chile in their 2018 World Cup qualifying win over Venezuela on Tuesday and has been essential all season long to Arsenal, scoring 18 goals and adding nine assists after playing through the middle on his own for much of the campaign.

Would Arsenal really sell Sanchez to a PL rival? It wouldn’t be ideal but it’s not like they haven’t done that in the past. Think of Robin Van Persie, Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy.

The thought of Sanchez on one wing with Diego Costa up top and Eden Hazard on the other wing at Chelsea should be enough to get Arsenal to offer their star man whatever cash he wants — the report states he wants $310,000 a week which would almost double his current $160,000 a week salary — when they sit down to discuss the new deal at the end of this season.


Elsewhere in north London, Tottenham Hotspur’s versatile defender Eric Dier has been linked with a $50 million move to Manchester United this summer.

According to Neil Ashton of the Sun, Dier, 23, is being lined up to replace Michael Carrick in the holding midfield role at United.

Now, Tottenham are notoriously tough to do business with and chairman Daniel Levy will not want to lose one of his top prospects and an England international to a direct rival in the Premier League.

That said, Dier has been used in multiple positions by Spurs this season and Mauricio Pochettino appears to prefer Victor Wanyama and Mousa Dembele as the holding midfielders and the emergence of Harry Winks has seen Dier’s importance questioned by some.

The fact that Dier can play in holding midfield or anywhere across the back line will also suit Moruinho who likes to have a smaller squad to work with and per the report the Portuguese boss has been a long-time admirer of Dier. His power to break up the play and also use he ball safely could work very well alongside Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera.

PHOTOS: Bizarre Cristiano Ronaldo statue unveiled

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Hang on, is that really meant to be Cristiano Ronaldo?

On Wednesday the Portugal and Real Madrid legend had Madeira Airport named after him just outside his hometown of Funchal and during the ceremony a bust of his head was put on show.

Except, it looked horrendous…

Take a look for yourself in the photos below. See.


 

Zlatan Ibrahimovic confirms Man United contract talks

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic is in talks with Manchester United about extending his stay at Old Trafford beyond this season.

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The veteran Swedish striker, 35, has scored 26 goals in 41 appearances in all competitions this season, and he has an option to extend his contract for another year. However, that option hasn’t been triggered yet by Ibrahimovic and United’s fans seem to be getting rather tetchy about the prospect of him not being around next season.

Ibrahimovic is enjoying life in England and revealed to the Manchester Evening News that he is in talks with the club about extending his stay in the Premier League.

“Let’s see what happens, we are talking,” Ibrahimovic said. “I have an option for another year, I want to do great as long as I’m here, so let us see, there is a lot of time. I’m enjoying being at a fantastic club, without doubts, one of the biggest clubs in the world with a great coach (Jose Mourinho).

“I know him before (from our time at Inter Milan), he’s a winner, he’s the perfect coach for this club. Being a Manchester United player, I don’t know how many people have that possibility but I am a Man United player, people wanted me here, I chose the club, I chose the best English club, that’s the way it works.”

Ibrahimovic also hinted that he would stay by stating he “never leaves a job unfinished” when talking about his dedication.

“I’m a person when I go into something I put my head 200 per cent, and I do what I’m good at. I go in, I go for the kill and I go out,” Ibrahimovic said. “And when I go out there is no complaints, that’s what I do. I never leave a job unfinished. I always go in, do my job, and in the way that is a fair play, a fair deal, that is what I do.”

With offers reported pouring in from Major League Soccer and the Chinese Super League, Ibrahimovic will likely have those kind of deals on the table next summer too. His current deal at United sees him paid over $310,000 per week but after joining from Paris Saint-Germain on a free transfer it could be one of the best pieces of business in United’s history if he helps them win the Europa League and/or finish in the top four in the PL this season.

If he leads the Red Devils back to the UEFA Champions League and has one more season as the talisman for Mourinho at Old Trafford, then leaves to finish out his playing days elsewhere, the legendary forward will go down as a hero in the eyes of United’s fans.

Portugal airport to be named after Ronaldo near his hometown

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FUNCHAL, Portugal (AP) Welcome to Cristiano Ronaldo Airport.

That will be the message awaiting passengers in the Madeira Islands from Wednesday, when the local airport will be renamed after the local star by the regional government.

Ronaldo is expected to attend a ceremony at the airport outside his hometown of Funchal on Wednesday, a day after his Portugal side lost 3-2 to Sweden in the city in a friendly.

The name change attracted a lot of attention locally, with many politicians opposing it.

Portugal’s squad landed on Monday at the airport displaying the trophy it won at the 2016 European Championship in France.

Funchal also has a Ronaldo statue and a museum about the player, as well a hotel complex named after him.