Premier League Playback: Top four or bust for Man United, Suarez half to blame, dangerous leads

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UNITED’S TITLE CHALLENGE OVER?

Manchester United have officially never been this bad into a Premier League season.

With 37 points from their 22 PL matches, United are languishing in seventh. The crown won last year isn’t just slipping off their head — it fell off and clanked on the floor many weeks ago. Following Sunday’s 3-1 defeat to Chelsea, United are now 14 points behind leaders Arsenal. It’s time to accept that the reigning Champions won’t retain the title. At this rate, finishing in the top four will be a monumental achievement.

Still, first-year Manchester United manager David Moyes isn’t giving up. Dressed in his freshly pressed club suit while addressing the media at Chelsea, Moyes resembled an abject figure as he answered questions on United’s dismal attempts to retain their title and his own self-confidence.

“What we won’t do is throw the towel in until we can’t get there. The job is to try and finish first and we will keep trying to do that. There are no clever answers except try to win the next game. It’s a difficult task. I am persevering and trying to keep doing what’s right. It’s a massive challenge. I hoped I’d be in a far better position than this, but I am not. The challenge is there for me and I think if you are a football person it’s a great one to have. I am really looking forward to it now, because I know we will be going upwards. That’s where we are going to go.”

Moyes’ side didn’t play badly against Chelsea; in fact they were the better team for much the first half but somehow found themselves down 0-2. That’s the way it’s been for United and Moyes this season. Not getting that lucky bounce of the ball, while everyone seems to be feeling a little bit sorry for themselves. There’s some basis for that.

As tweeted by our friends at Opta, United have played more games against the top eight than any other side. Yet they’ve picked up just five points against the PL’s elite. There’s the issue, they’ve never really damaged the teams around them this season and you can sense a lack of belief when they come up against the upper echelons of the league, especially without their injured strike duo of Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie. Good news for United fans, an easier run of games is coming up with their next three against Cardiff, Stoke and Fulham, then a trip to Arsenal comes before a meeting with Crystal Palace. Despite all these issues, United could easily win four of the next five.

One of the biggest problems Moyes faces is that most of these United players have never known losing. They are winners. From the outside it looks like Moyes is struggling instill belief that the Red Devils can pull off a drag themselves back with the top three. Not a surprise considering finishing in the top four will be like winning the title for United. Moyes knows it, his players know it, the fans know it. But nobody wants to believe it.

United captain Nemanja Vidic, who was sent off harshly late in the game for a lunge on Eden Hazard that showcased the Red Devils frustration, still believes his men can make a remarkable comeback.

“It’s important we stick together and work hard for each other. If we do that then I think we can turn things around,” Vidic said. “If you look at the whole game [at Stamford Bridge] I don’t think we played too badly. I don’t think losing three goals really tells the story. We just have to stay positive and keep fighting to be in amongst the top teams at the end of the season. Hopefully, with a bit of luck, we’ll have better days.”

Still, this is about more than the 2013-14 season. Moyes said this is a project he is building for the future. But those changes he alluded to should, and will be, widespread and shocking come the end of the 2013-14 campaign. Ruthless changes of personal at all levels of the playing staff need to be made. If they’re not, United’s transformation from champions elect to top four contenders will become permanent for the foreseeable future.

Premier League Schedule – Round 22

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

DID SUAREZ DIVE?

Once again this season one of the biggest questions asked around the PL was this: did Luis Suarez dive to win a penalty kick?

As Liverpool’s often criticized Uruguayan striker surged into the penalty box at the Kop end of Anfield on Saturday, a lunging advance from Aston Villa’s USMNT ‘keeper Brad Guzan was only going to have one result. Suarez knocked the ball past him, left his leg trailing and made minimal contact look like a stonewall penalty.

Cue the tabloid headlines: Luis Suarez is at it again.

Diving, simulation, cheating, whatever you want to call it; this debate reared its ugly head for the umpteenth time this season. But did Suarez — the PL’s leading goalscorer with 22 goals from 17 games — dive? Or was Guzan to blame?

On the face of it, a bit of both. Sure Suarez was always going to go down once he glanced across and saw Guzan tearing towards him and the Liverpool striker was going away from goal. One flick of the right boot to take the ball away from the ‘keeper and a theatrical dive later, Liverpool were back in the game thanks to Steven Gerrard dispatching the spot kick.

Watch the highlights video below, do you think Suarez took a tumble? Or was helped on his way down by Guzan?

But I don’t think Suarez deserves all the blame here. Yes, he did go down easily. But which striker in the modern game wouldn’t go down?

Speaking on Sky Sports in the UK on Sunday morning, former Chelsea boss Robert Di Matteo (who led the club to its first-ever UCL title in 2011-12) said the following: “As a manager you would expect him to go down there to try and win the penalty.”

Going back to those quotes form the current Chelsea manager Mourinho, he believes managers should not embellish this kind of behavior from their players. But it happens. ‘If you feel a nick in the box, go down.’ If I had a dollar for every time I’d heard that sentiment echoed at soccer’s clubs across the world. Look, that’s just the way it is.

The fact that an American ‘keeper played a role means the demonetization of Suarez will most likely be widespread in the U.S. But Guzan also deserves blame. There was no need for him to dash off his line to usher Suarez away from the goal. Liverpool’s 26-year-old forward was moving at pace toward the goal, but away from the goal itself.

MORE: Latest Premier League standings

In hindsight, Guzan should’ve stayed on his line and dealt with ant cross or ball into the six-yard box Suarez was about to conjure. But think back to the last time Liverpool met Villa back in September at Villa Park. Do you remember right at the end of the game when Sturridge was tripped by an on-rushing Guzan in a very similar incident? You think the big American shot-stopper would’ve learned his lesson. But hey, this is the PL where the pace of the game is tremendous and it’s just a coincidence that two slip ups from Guzan have both come against Liverpool on televised games beamed across the globe.

It was rash judgment by Guzan to come out and make the challenge, and it was poor from Suarez to make a meal of it. But because Suarez is involved he will steal the headlines, but both parties are to blame. End of.

On Sunday I attended Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho’s postmatch press conference. There he was asked about the flurry of controversial red and yellow cards shown in Chelsea’s victory over United. Instead, as he often does, Mourinho went off on a tangent and had the following to say about diving, simulation and play acting in the PL. Turns out, the players and the referees aren’t the only ones to blame…

“I keep saying to my players to help the referees. I don’t want to complicate the lives of the referees. But it looks like other managers tell their players exactly the opposite of what I say. I think we need a managers meeting with the referees again, like we did in the summer, because I think some managers forgot the meeting. Maybe I am very naïve because I criticize my players [for simulation] because the other managers don’t criticize their players. They cry when it is not going in their favor. ” 

Chelsea’s manager wouldn’t divulge what incident, or incidents, he was referring to. But we all know the Suarez incident was on his mind, and he’s not exactly given the Liverpool striker a glowing reference in the past. Trust Jose to tell it how it is.

WHY 2-0 IS STILL THE MOST DANGEROUS SCORE LINE IN SOCCER  

In the early and late games on Saturday we saw both away sides squander 2-0 leads in the first half to draw 2-2. Southampton and Aston Villa were guilty of throwing away two points, albeit it against fired up opponents who are desperate for points.

The thing I took away from both pulsating clashes; 2-0 is well and truly the most dangerous score line in soccer.

When you go 2-0 up, which I did many times whilst playing the game, there’s a quick look around to the bench to see what you should do now. Does the manager give you the forward hand motion to say “keep going, let’s batter them” or the hand gesture which sees both palms pushed towards the ground slowly to say “let’s calm down and keep what we have.”

The latter was what both Southampton and Villa did on Saturday, and instantly Sunderland and Liverpool pounced on that air of indecision creeping into the away teams play. It took Sunderland less than 90 seconds to pull a goal back and make it 2-1 at half time vs. Saints, and it took Liverpool a little longer but they did the same vs. Villa as both games mirrored each other.

MORE: Liverpool 2-2 Aston Villa – Reds stage comeback, but Villa leave Anfield with a draw (video)

Villa and Saints had battered the home teams they were facing — in Villa’s case they out-shot Liverpool 8-1 and enjoyed 61 percent of possession in the opening 25 minutes at Anfield — but somehow they were only in front by one goal at the interval. That acted as great solace to home manager Brendan Rodgers during his half-time talk, “we are still in this lads, let’s crank up the pressure.” Plus Liverpool’s players knew there was no way they could possibly play any worse than they just had in the first half.

Often you will hear players bellowing out the instructions, “It’s still 0-0” to their side as the opponents restart the game from the center spot. That mentality wasn’t prevalent for the away sides mentioned, as two of the youngest teams in the PL struggled to keep their composure as their lack of experience showed.

Is that due to picking youngsters? Or perhaps having managers who prefer to hold onto what they have rather than kicking on to knock the opposition into submission?

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

For fans of Sunderland and Liverpool it will be a welcome change, as the Black Cats are now showing a bit of backbone but they’re still got the second worst record in the league when it comes to picking up points form losing positions (as these great stats show how every PL team has fared when going in front or behind this season). Sunderland have garnered just two points after trailing all season, both of which have come in dramatic comebacks from 2-0 in January, against Cardiff and Southampton. That will hold them in good stead for the relegation scrap ahead.

As for Liverpool, they haven’t won any of the games in which they’ve fallen behind but have fought back to grab four draws from losing positions. That’s the second highest draws from losing positions in the PL.

Surprisingly Villa have the best record in the PL after going ahead, as they’ve lost just four points from winning positions. Quite remarkable really. While Southampton have let eight points slip, that’s the sixth-worst record in the PL. Something to think about there, as then next time your team goes 2-0 up don’t relax. In fact, it could well be time to hit the panic button.

STOKE SLIDING TOWARDS THE TRAP DOOR?

Following a spirited yet unsuccessful display against Liverpool last-time out, Stoke City are sliding worryingly towards the PL trap door after their 1-0 defeat to Crystal Palace last weekend. Like every team in the bottom half of the table, the Potters face the real possibility of scrapping for their lives come May 11. With two wins from their last 10 games, Mark Hughes’ men have shown some worrying signs this season. One of which is a severe lack of goals away from home.

Stoke have only scored just eight goals away from home this season and have not scored in six of their 11 matches away from the Britannia. After firing yet another blank away at Palace on Saturday, manager Mark Hughes admitted his side “didn’t show enough purpose or guile to create enough chances in the final third.”

All that points to Stoke’s home form being crucial if they will stay up this season. Of course, the nature of the standings this campaign means a few improved performances and vital wins could see them finish comfortably in midtable, with just five points separating 11th placed Hull City on 23 with bottom placed Cardiff who are on 18 points. My colleague Richard Farley explains all of that relegation madness eloquently, in the his ‘Quick Six’ column. No doubt about it, the 2013-14 campaign has been more worrying than it should be for Stoke.

One other note on this game: Stoke were coming up against ex-manager Tony Pulis who got the Potters promoted to the PL then transformed them into a solid midtable team and brought plenty of good times to the Staffordshire club. Fans became despondent last season and Pulis left after seven seasons at Stoke, with everyone thinking a fresh approach could help kick them onto the next level. Now Pulis has landed at Palace, who looked doomed before his arrival but are now clear of the drop zone after losing nine of their first 10 games.

Pulis is still highly regarded by Stoke’s fans, as they took to Twitter before the game vs. Palace to thank their former boss for all he had done for them. After a shaky start to the Hughes era and relegation still a real possibility, do Potters fans think Pulis should’ve stayed on? As they say, the grass isn’t always green on the other side of the fence. It has been for Pulis, but so far it certainly hasn’t been the case for his old side Stoke.

Testing times ahead for the Potters, and the entire bottom half of the PL table.

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

Mourinho: Mkhitaryan “disappeared” during games, got dropped

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It would appear that Henrikh Mkhitaryan has become the new Luke Shaw, who not so long ago became the new Juan Mata, who had become the new Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos and Pepe, who all previously become the new Kaka and Mesut Ozil — players previously perceived to be undroppable, only to fall out of favor and be dropped from Mourinho’s side.

[ MORE: Carrick back in training after operation to fix irregular heartbeat ]

Similarly to many of the aforementioned stars of Manchester United, Chelsea and Real Madrid sides of the not-so-distant past, Mourinho recently singled out Mkhitaryan for not working hard enough for the team and failing to meet expectations with his performances.

Mkhitaryan last featured in Man United’s 1-0 loss to Chelsea on Nov. 5, prior to the most recent international break. He played just 62 minutes, to follow an UEFA Champions League appearance of just 45 minutes against Benfica. Mkhitaryan was then absent from the substitute’s bench for a victory over Newcastle United and a defeat to Basel.

[ MORE: Pochettino sees Sanchez as one of world’s best defenders already ]

In Mourinho’s mind, Mkhitaryan hasn’t merited a place in the team — quotes from the Guardian:

“I was not happy with his last performances. I’m not speaking about one or two, I’m speaking about three, four or five. He started the season very well and after that, step by step, he was disappearing. His performance levels in terms of goalscoring and assists, pressing, recovering the ball high up the pitch, bringing the team with him as a no. 10, were decreasing.

“That was enough [to drop him] because the others worked to have a chance. Everybody works to have a chance. It’s as simple as that.”

“I don’t know if Mkhitaryan will start but, for sure, he will be back in the group. For him to be back to the group, it means that somebody is going to leave the group.”

Davinson delights Pochettino, who predicts “massive” strides

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It’s still very early days for Davinson Sanchez as a Tottenham Hotspur player, but the early returns are extremely positive as the Colombian center back has featured in 14 of the club’s 17 games in the Premier League and UEFA Champions League this season.

[ MORE: Spurs beat Dortmund again to win group with Real Madrid ]

What’s more encouraging than Sanchez’s initial performances? The 21-year-old’s “massive” room for improvement and the expectation he’ll one day soon be one of the world’s best defenders, according to manager Mauricio Pochettino.

After signing for Spurs in August, Sanchez went straight into Pochettino’s starting lineup, slotted in between stalwarts Toby Aldeweireld and Jan Vertonghen, who together last season led the defense with the PL’s best record (26 goals conceded in 38 games), as part of a back-three. Sanchez has taken to Tottenham like a duck to water, in Pochettino’s estimation — quotes from ESPN FC:

“You saw against against Dortmund how many times he was with [Pierre-Emerick] Aubameyang one-versus-one. How many central defenders can play one-versus-one and escape and go, be tight and press? If you run, I run because I am so confident when running. I think not many center backs in the world can do this.

“Or against Swansea against Tammy Abraham: how many times he was one vs. one and the ball was behind him, he was on the halfway line and running was not a problem? And against Cristiano Ronaldo, too?”

“We expect more from him, but I am so happy with him. He is doing well, very well. He’s only 21 years old, but he shows more maturity [than that], and he’s so aggressive when he’s marking, his concentration [is good] and then with the ball he’s good, but I think he can improve.

“There is massive scope to improve potentially, it’s massive for him. In only a few months, he’s showing he’s doing a fantastic job for us. [He can improve in] every single aspect, tactic, physical condition, technique.

“We need with him one and a half months or two months preseason every day, and then I’m sure he’s going to show a different level. I think he’s one of the best today, but has potential to improve a lot more.

“Because he’s so clever, and he’s very humble, and he’s very open to learn, he’s a player when you tell something his reaction is to be open, and be critical with himself, and that is a massive skill from a player, when he’s so open to improve, and then the conditions he has are amazing to be one of the best center halves in the world.”

To state the completely obvious, Pochettino was wise to utilize Aldeweireld and Vertonghen as training wheels for Sanchez, if you will, upon his arrival. His athleticism and pace make him 1) the ideal complement to a pair of players who read the game so well; and, 2) perfectly positioned to operate as the last-man, emergency defender on the rare occasion either Belgian is breached.

[ MORE: Liverpool host Chelsea in massive top-four clash ]

For the first time all season, Sanchez started out wide in Alderweireld’s absence (hamstring) against Arsenal last weekend, and for the first time since his arrival, he appeared a flawed — which is to say, human — defender. To his credit, Sanchez gave a quality account of himself on the whole, and finished the game much stronger than he’d started.

No one was more aware of this than Pochettino, though, as he slid Eric Dier into Aldeweireld’s spot for Tuesday’s Champions League triumph over Borusia Dortmund, again deploying Sanchez in the middle. With Aldeweireld expected to miss a couple more weeks at minimum, the Tottenham teamsheet should routinely read Vertonghen-Sanchez-Dier from left to right until he returns.

Lille appoint four interim managers to replace Bielsa

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LILLE, France (AP) A four-man coaching team will take provisional charge of French soccer club Lille in the wake of Marcelo Bielsa’s dismissal.

Lille says Fernando Da Cruz, Joao Sacramento, Benoit Delaval and Franck Mantaux will be in charge of the team until further notice.

Lille announced earlier this week that Bielsa had been suspended “as part of a procedure started by the club” following a 3-0 loss at Amiens.

The northern side is in 19th place and next travels Saturday to Montpellier, which has the best defense in the league.

Bielsa joined Lille this season but failed to make the club competitive. After finishing a disappointing 11th last season, Lille hired the coach – affectionately known as El Loco Bielsa (Crazy Bielsa) – with the aim of returning to the Champions League.

Irregular heartbeat the cause of Carrick’s recent absence

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Manchester United captain Michael Carrick hasn’t played for his club since Sept. 20, a confounding period of more than two months now, and the reason for the 36-year-old midfielder’s absence has finally come to light: an irregular heartbeat.

[ MORE: Mourinho slams critics (again), gives injury updates ]

The condition, which Carrick announced himself on Friday, was first detected after Man United’s League Cup victory over Burton Albion. He has since undergone a cardiac ablation, a procedure to scar or destroy tissue in your heart that’s allowing incorrect electrical signals to cause an abnormal heart rhythm, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Carrick was named the new United captain this summer following the departure of Wayne Rooney. As told in the above statement, he is working toward full fitness and once again being available for selection in Jose Mourinho’s side.

Hooray for modern technology and medicine, which allow otherwise baffling medical conditions to be diagnosed, treated and recovered from in a matter of weeks or months.