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.

Galaxy’s Cole admits he enjoys Arsenal struggles

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LA Galaxy left back Ashley Cole left Arsenal for Chelsea more than a decade ago, but that hasn’t erased the bitter memories of the departure from his boyhood club.

Cole was famously involved in a “tapping up” meeting with Chelsea without Arsenal’s permission in 2005, but signed a contract extension with the Gunners. Still, he was gone a year later in messy circumstances.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

As the most capped fullback in England’s history who boasts both Premier League and Champions League titles with Chelsea, Cole easily could rest on his own laurels and move on from the divorce.

But when asked whether he’s enjoying Arsenal’s current struggles, Cole couldn’t help himself.

“If I’m honest, yeah, I still think to this day. I laugh to myself. I had a lot of history there and I think the way I left was maybe a bit dodgy but the lack of respect they showed me as well.”

Cole accepts a share of the blame for his time ended at Arsenal, but says he doesn’t regret it. Still, his response is not a picture of class.

Next time, just laugh and say, “Next question,” Ashley.

“I’m not a bad guy” – Convicted murderer, new club defend signing

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A week ago, we brought you the story of goalkeeper Bruno Fernandes finding a new club despite a conviction for ordering the torture and murder of his mistress, whose body was then fed to dogs. The two were having a disagreement on child support.

Fernandes, 32, was set free from jail on a technicality and has since been signed by Boa Esporte in Brazil. He said he couldn’t “throw in the towel” on his career because he believed in himself.

Fans were outraged with the team, major sponsors pulled their funding, and an activist group even hacked Boa Esporte’s web page.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

And the club is digging in its heels.

Boa Esporte’s president, Rone Moraes da Costa, reacted to protests by saying he’d rather move the team than not give Fernandes a chance to resurrect his career.

As for Fernandes, he clearly is having trouble explaining why he’s getting another chance. From The Guardian:

“What happened, happened. I made a mistake, a serious one, but mistakes happens in life – I’m not a bad guy. People tried to bury my dream because of one mistake, but I asked God for forgiveness, so I’m carrying on with my career, dude. I’m starting over.”

One mistake. Wow. There are few clubs in the world which fit the bill of being the majority of fans’ least favorite team, but Boa Esporte could get there. Surely there must be more to the story?

Nothing new about the challenges facing USMNT

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This next week may define a generation of USMNT players, but only if it goes poorly.

That may sound overly dramatic, but it isn’t. The United States started 0-2 in the final round of World Cup qualifying, earned its coach a firing, and now stares down its status in the confederation.

Honduras is coming on Friday, far from a pushover. Then it’s off to Panama for another tricky tie. In a vacuum, coming up short in one of the two isn’t the end of the world, but the Yanks will be expected to take a minimum four points. Even that would be a disappointment to many.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

The crutches are gone, aside from any being used by injured players back in Germany (Bobby Wood and Fabian Johnson chief amongst them). Fifteen of Honduras’ players play domestically, and Panama isn’t much better in overall quality.

Frankly, and it’s been written before, the United States should outclass both of these foes. If Bruce Arena’s bunch doesn’t, well, it spells woe for the country’s soccer development as a whole.

For now, supporters and players have been able to cling to the thought that Jurgen Klinsmann was responsible for the Yanks’ struggles. In some ways, he most certainly was to blame for setbacks like the CONCACAF Cup loss to Mexico and the pathetic performance against Costa Rica that earned him a firing.

Several of the United States’ current elder statesmen have built legacies that can survive big hits. Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey may go down in history as the two biggest stars in program history (There will be an argument for both as No. 1 along with Landon Donovan and Claudio Reyna). DaMarcus Beasley is an all-timer, too.

Michael Bradley, Geoff Cameron, and Jozy Altidore are on track for that, too, and there’s an argument to be made the trio is already there, especially for Cameron, who’s a mainstay in the Premier League. Each has found success in Europe after getting their starts in Major League Soccer, and have etched their names into the national record books.

There’s still very little reason to believe the USMNT will miss the 2018 World Cup even with the 0-2 start. The class is just too much to consider the Yanks will finish below Panama, Honduras, and Trinidad and Tobago over the course of 10 matches (The fourth place side gets a shot at an Asian side like Saudi Arabia, UAE, or Uzbekistan in a two-legged affair).

But turning it around has to start now. The Yanks have to handle their business in these qualifiers, and make at least the Gold Cup final to build momentum toward Russia. Anything short of that is abject failure.

Again, this absolutely should happen, starting Friday. Even given the poor start, losses or even a pair of draws this week would be legitimately shocking, and set the program back ages. Howard set it up well Tuesday when he pointed out that the U.S. has gotten to points like this before, and they always belly up to the bar and outlast all comers.

A lot of fans have this nagging voice in their heads, asking nefariously, “What if they don’t?”

Podolski after golazo finale: “This is like a great movie”

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Lukas Podolski has won a EURO, a World Cup, and the Bundesliga with two different sides.

Only Lothar Matthaus and Miroslav Klose have been capped more than Germany’s Polish born Podolski, and he received a hero’s send-off from the home crowd at Germany’s 1-0 win over England on Wednesday.

And of course he sent himself off in style with a gorgeous goal.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

Podolski said there were more than 30,000 people from Cologne at the match, where he won one of his two Bundesliga titles.

“That’s when you know where you home is, and that you’ve done a lot of good, also off the pitch,” Podolski said. “That makes me very proud.”

It was a perfect night to say goodbye, and the goal made it almost surreal (Thomas Muller called it “cheesy”).

From Goal.com:

“This is like a great movie,” he told ARD. “We win 1-0 and I score the goal.

“I know I have a left foot that was probably gifted to me by God, or someone up there, and I can always rely on it. I am proud of these last 13 years.”

Feel good hit of the Spring.