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.

Dani Alves fires back at Diego Forlan

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After Neymar and Edinson Cavani’s penalty drama that has blown up over the last few days and potentially led to Neymar’s exclusion from the PSG squad this weekend, Uruguayan legend Diego Forlan went on sports radio in his home country to not just back his former international teammate Cavani, but also throw a pair of Brazilians under the bus.

Forlan obviously denounced Neymar’s role in the dispute, but he also picked out Neymar’s club and country teammate Dani Alves for favoring his countrymate.

[ MORE: Goalkeeping howler sees Bayern blow lead in draw ]

“What doesn’t make any sense is what Alves does, he doesn’t give the ball to Cavani and then gives it to Neymar as if he were his [explitive]. Cavani deserves respect. He has been scoring goals for years, taking penalties. There has to be respect. Neymar would not have done that with [Lionel] Messi. He didn’t want Cavani to take the penalty. He was like a little boy annoying him.”

Well, as you can imagine, Alves did not take kindly to being sucked into the fray, and fired back as a result. “I don’t know what match you were watching,” Alves wrote on Twitter, “but for your information, I didn’t take the ball away from any of my teammates. It was just the opposite, it was taken from me!

“And also for your information, the last penalty kick for PSG was mine. So shut your trap and stop making drama in my name.”

This whole situation has blown up more than most penalty disputes (which happen relatively often) likely due to the international affiliations. With the decades-old bad blood between Brazil and Uruguay, it’s no surprise that people are taking sides. Forlan swept up another Brazilian in the mix, and understandably he did not appreciate the cheap shot.

Premier League Preview: Leicester City vs. Liverpool

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  • Leicester City has won 2 straight home PL games vs Liverpool
  • Jamie Vardy has 5 goals in 3 PL games vs Liverpool
  • Liverpool leads the PL with 40 shots on target this season

Jamie Vardy is good to go for the Foxes as they welcome Liverpool to the King Power Stadium on Saturday (Watch live, 12:30 a.m. ET on NBC or live online via NBCSports.com).

These two teams matched up midweek in League Cup play, with Leicester City winning 2-0, and they did so without Vardy who missed out with a groin strain. He’s since recovered, and will likely play a part. Christian Fuchs and Leonardo Ulloa are also ready to go, with Fuchs back after an eye injury in training, while Ulloa took a knock to the head midweek but is ready to go.

The Foxes need a win in the worst way, as a loss would leave them with their joint-worst point total through the first six matches of a top flight season since 1994/95, the year they were relegated.

[ LIVE: Stream Premier League games

Liverpool, meanwhile, has issues of its own to sort out. They are winless in all competitions since August 27th, and on a larger scale, Jurgen Klopp is taking heat for having less points than Brendan Rodgers did through his first 73 league games of his Liverpool tenure.

The Reds are also facing a bit of injury trouble, with Dejan Lovren still out with back problems, while Joel Matip and Emre Can both suffered slight injuries in the midweek loss and are questionable for Saturday. Should all those miss out, the already leaky defense would prove even more porous.

What they’re saying

Jurgen Klopp on Liverpool chasing the ball: “We come too close together in the situation where the first ball is going after a throw-in and it means for the second ball we don’t have a good formation. We need to get more natural in these things because it’s not that difficult to be honest but it happens too often. Now we have to work and then it will be even more difficult to create something against us.”

Craig Shakespeare on Jamie Vardy vs. Liverpool: “Is he a bogeyman? I am hoping so. Sometimes strikers will have good memories of playing against certain teams. Centre forwards go through these purple patches and everybody would like one who can get you 20 goals a season.”

Prediction

If anything is certain in a Liverpool match, it’s that the first goal doesn’t matter. Since the start of last season, the Reds are tops in the league with 20 points from losing positions. However, they’re also fifth in the league in that same timeframe with 20 points lost from winning positions. With that in mind, a wild game is likely in store, but with the inconsistent form for either side of late, it’s tough to pick a winner. A 2-2 draw is a likely result.

Premier League Preview: Stoke City vs. Chelsea

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  • Chelsea has won 17 of its last 23 Premier League games
  • Alvaro Morata has 3 goals and 2 assists, all with his head
  • Stoke has lost just 1 of its past 7 home games vs defending champions

Eden Hazard is back and at full strength as Chelsea travels to the Britannia to take on Stoke City Saturday (Watch live, 10:00 a.m. ET online via NBCSports.com).

With Hazard back and Diego Costa finally shed to Atletico Madrid, the Blues have positioned themselves to make a run at the Premier League’s top spot. Chelsea has not lost since their Opening Day misstep against Burnley, and despite firing a blank in last weekend’s 0-0 draw with the Gunners, Chelsea is still just three points off the top spot, and will look to put pressure on the Manchester clubs.

In addition to Hazard, the Blues also get Temoue Bakayoko and Pedro back in the lineup as well, although David Luiz is suspended after his late red card last weekend.

[ LIVE: Stream Premier League games

This season has been a roller coaster ride for Stoke City, having picked up four points against Arsenal and Manchester United, but also losing to Newcastle and Everton, plus a very disappointing defeat midweek to Bristol City in the Cup. The Potters are missing a host of defenders, with Geoff Cameron and Ryan Shawcross both injured, plus Kurt Zouma ineligible to face his parent club. Kevin Wimmer is also touch and go with a hamstring injury, not expected to be available.

What they’re saying

Mark Hughes on Chelsea’s discipline issues: “Chelsea at the moment look like they are getting yellow and red cards more frequently, but that might be just an anomaly, something happening in the moment. I don’t think it is prevalent in their team. They are just strong when they need to be. It is not going to be tactic we are going to irritate them with, to step over the line, because if I’m honest I don’t think I’ll have the players to do that.”

Antonio Conte on Stoke: “The most important thing for us is to go game by game. Tomorrow it will be a really tough game. We must prepare very well this game in all the situations, tactically, physically, to be disciplined. Stoke won against Arsenal and then drew against Manchester United. It means Stoke is a really good team.”

Prediction

Stoke City has given tough teams trouble, and could again if Maxim Chupo-Moting shows up at his best again, but it’s much more likely that Chelsea will ease by in this game. The Potters have fallen off slightly this season, and while their draw against Manchester United shows they pack some punch, it won’t be enough to see off a Chelsea side buoyed by the return of Eden Hazard. Chelsea could win their opening three Premier League away matches for the first time since 2009…their third away fixture of that campaign was a 2-1 victory at Stoke, so we’ll go for the same scoreline here.

Hope Solo says she has settled grievance with US Soccer

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Hope Solo has settled a grievance with U.S. Soccer over her suspension from the women’s national team following comments she made at the Rio Olympics.

The settlement was first reported by the San Francisco Chronicle. The 35-year-old goalkeeper was suspended for six months and her contract with the federation was terminated after she called the Swedish team “a bunch of cowards” following the U.S. team’s quarterfinal loss.

Details about the settlement, reached last month, were not released. The U.S. Women’s Soccer Team Players Association filed the grievance on Solo’s behalf.

In a statement provided Friday to The Associated Press, Solo reiterated her regret over the comments.

“As I expressed in my apology to the Swedish captain immediately following the match, I have tremendous respect for the Swedish team, and in describing the style of play, I used a choice of words that was both offensive and not at all what I had intended to convey,” she said.

[ MORE: JPW’s Premier League picks ]

“We have amicably resolved the matter and are moving forward in a positive way,” she added.

U.S. Soccer did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The Women’s Soccer Team Players Association declined to comment.

Solo anchored the team in goal for the 2015 Women’s World Cup victory, allowing just three goals in seven games with five shutouts during the tournament – earning her a second straight Golden Glove Award.

For her career, Solo has made 202 total appearances with the national team, with 153 wins and an international-record 102 shutouts.

The defending champion U.S. women were ousted from the Olympics last summer when Sweden advanced 4-3 on penalty kicks following a 1-1 draw.

Solo’s “cowards” quote came immediately following the loss. Sweden went on to play in the gold-medal match against Germany.

Solo told the AP in an interview late last year that she spoke to coach Jill Ellis and U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati following the loss, and felt that the issue was put to rest. After she returned to the United States, she said she was blindsided by the announcement about her suspension.

She said she believes U.S. Soccer wanted her off negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement. Solo has been an outspoken advocate for equal pay and was among the players who filed a complaint against the federation with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging wage discrimination.

“Let’s call it what is, which is a firing,” Solo told AP then. “It was a termination of my contract effective immediately with severance. That is a firing. It wasn’t a suspension, that’s what they told the media because it looked better. But I got fired. I got fired for what they say was using the word `cowards’ but in reality they got rid of an adversary in the fight for equal pay.”

U.S. Soccer said at the time that Solo was suspended following a culmination of actions, and separately her contract was also terminated with the team.