File photograph shows Manchester United's coach David Moyes pictured before the Champions League soccer match against Bayer Leverkusen in Leverkusen

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.

CONCACAF & CONMEBOL: Lionel Messi injured in final pre-Copa friendly

LANDOVER, MD - MARCH 27: Lionel Messi of the Argentinian national soccer team sits on the bench as his teammates practice on the field in preparation to take on El Salvador at FedExField on March 27, 2015 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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A roundup of international friendlies as 16 North, Central and South American and Caribbean nations prepare for the 2016 Copa America Centenario…

[ COPA AMERICA PREVIEWS: Group A | BC | D ]

Argentina 1-0 Honduras

Gonzalo Higuain, who recently set a brand new record for most goals scored in a single Serie A season (36 goals in 35 games played), continued his scintillating 2015-16 season by scoring the only goal in Argentina’s 1-0 victory over Honduras in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Friday (WATCH HERE).

The result obviously takes a backseat to news that Lionel Messi left the game injured midway through the second half. Following a corner kick that was cleared from the Honduras penalty area, Messi took a blow to the lower back and/or hip on his left side. The Barcelona superstar tumbled to the ground in a heap. He walked off the field under his own power, but was clearly in a great deal of pain before deciding he couldn’t continue.

That says Messi suffered an injury to his left side and that tests (MRI) are being done to determine the severity of the knock. La Albiceleste will kick off their Group D campaign against the reigning Copa holders, Chile, on June 6 in Santa Clara, Calif.

[ MORE: Preview — USMNT faces Bolivia in final Copa America tune-up ]

Uruguay 3-1 Trinidad and Tobago

With Luis Suarez currently on the shelf injured, it’s Edinson Cavani’s time to shine for Uruguay. The Paris Saint-Germain frontman — who’ll coincidentally also be “the man” for his club side with Zlatan Ibrahimovic heading for the exit door — bagged a first-half brace in La Celeste‘s 3-1 come-from-behind victory over Trinidad and Tobago. His first came from the penalty spot in the 26th minute, followed not long after by another from open play in the 40th minute. Matias Vecino added the third for Uruguay in the 52nd minute. T&T took an early lead through Jomal Williams’ opener on 7 minutes.

Cavani scored 19 goals in 32 Ligue 1 appearances this season, making him the league’s third-highest scorer, behind Zlatan (38) and Alexandre Lacazette (21). Suarez, on the other hand, won this year’s La Liga Golden Boot after scoring 40 goals in 35 league games. Uruguay will begin their Group C campaign against Mexico on June 5 in Glendale, Ariz.

[ MORE: Ranking Copa America contenders — what are USMNT’s chances? ]

Chile 1-2 Jamaica

No longer content as CONCACAF’s best-kept secret, Jamaica are took their upsetting ways to a different level on Friday, knocking off South America’s reigning champions, 1-2 in Viña del Mar, Chile.

Clayton Donaldson and Simon Dawkins scored for the Reggae Boyz either side of halftime before Nicolas Castillo pulled a goal back in the 82nd minute. Winfried Schäfer’s side will join Uruguay and Mexico in Group C, along with Venezuela, their tournament-opening opponents on June 5 in Chicago, Ill.

Elsewhere in international friendlies

Costa Rica vs. Venezuela (underway)

Reunited in Manchester: The best (so far) of Guardiola-Mourinho rivalry

BARCELONA, SPAIN - JANUARY 25: Head coach Josep Guardiola (R) of FC Barcelona greets head coach Jose Mourinho of Real Madrid during the Copa del Rey quarter final second leg match between Barcelona and Real Madrid at Camp Nou stadium on January 25, 2012 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)
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MADRID (AP) The rivalry between Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola is about to be renewed.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

After years of spats and high-profile games between the two rival coaches in Spain, they are set to face off again — this time in England.

Guardiola, who used to thrive with Barcelona, will begin his stint at Manchester City next season. Jose Mourinho, who succeeded with Real Madrid, is on his way to Manchester United after his appointment on a three-year contract was announced Friday.

There was plenty of controversy when the two met while coaching the Spanish powerhouses in the early 2010s, with incidents on and off the field.

Barcelona was doing well under Guardiola when Mourinho arrived at Real Madrid in 2010, and in the first game between the two, Barcelona thrashed Madrid 5-0 at the Camp Nou.

[ MORE: Mourinho — “I prefer to forget the last three years at United” ]

In the Copa del Rey final later that year, Real Madrid won the title and Mourinho took his first stab at Guardiola.

After the Barcelona coach lamented a close offside call that ruled out a goal by forward Pedro, Mourinho said that a “new era in football was beginning, one in which coaches criticize the correct decisions made by referees, not the wrong ones.”

Guardiola said he knew Mourinho well and the Portuguese coach was only trying to provoke him. He said such antics would not work, and he would answer them at an appropriate time.

The response came before Barcelona and Real Madrid played in the semifinals of the Champion League in 2011.

[ MORE: VIDEO — Marcus Rashford scores a debut England goal ]

“The teams will meet tomorrow on the pitch, but off the field he has already won, he has won his own Champions off the field,” Guardiola said of Mourinho, using an expletive. “In this press conference room, he is the (big) boss, he is the one who knows it all. I don’t want to even start competing against him here.”

Guardiola said he was surprised by Mourinho’s animosity toward him considering they worked together for four years at Barcelona, when Guardiola was a player and Mourinho an assistant coach.

“He knows me and I know him,” Guardiola said. “If he prefers to pay more attention to the point of view of the (Madrid-friendly) media and not to the relationship that we had, then he can do it. It’s his decision and it’s his right.”

Later in 2011, during a brawl in a Spanish Super Cup game between the rival teams, Mourinho was caught by television cameras poking the eye of Tito Vilanova, then an assistant to Guardiola at Barcelona.

[ MORE: Klopp to pick between signing Gotze or Mane this summer ]

Guardiola’s Barcelona won most of the “clasicos” against Mourinho’s Madrid during the three seasons the Portuguese coach was in Spain.

In addition to winning the league in 2011-12, Mourinho also won the Copa del Rey and the Spanish Super Cup titles before ending his stint with Madrid. He and the club parted ways after what Mourinho called his worst season ever in 2012-13.

He was without a job since December after leaving Chelsea following a poor start to the season.

Guardiola won nearly every title possible with Barcelona before leaving the club to join Bayern Munich in 2013.

Gotze’s Bayern future remains uncertain; Sadio Mane still Liverpool’s Plan B?

MUNICH, GERMANY - MAY 14: Mario Goetze of Muenchen celebrates after the Bundesliga match between FC Bayern Muenchen and Hannover 96 at Allianz Arena on May 14, 2016 in Munich, Germany. (Photo by Daniel Kopatsch/Getty Images For MAN)
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Sadio Mane has been an extremely in-demand commodity since last summer, when Manchester United and a handful of other Premier League and foreign clubs failed to pry the Southampton winger away from the South Coast in either one of the summer or January transfer windows.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Great players will always be in demand, though, which means another summer full of transfer rumors linking the ever-dangerous 24-year-old to clubs across England and Europe.

Enter stage left: Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, who’s eager to undertake his first summer transfer window since taking the Anfield job last October.

[ MORE: Man United confirm Mourinho as new manager ]

Mario Gotze is said to remain Klopp’s no. 1 target this summer — the 23-year-old has said he intends to remain at Bayern Munich and fight for his place under new manager Carlo Ancelotti, but the Bayern hierarchy (Ancelotti included) perhaps see it differently — with Mane a not-so-terrible Plan B should Gotze remain at the Allianz Arena or land elsewhere. Gotze has scored just 22 Bundesliga goals in three seasons at Bayern (36 in all competitions) since making a big-money move from Borussia Dortmund three years ago.

[ MORE: VIDEO — Marcus Rashford scores a debut England goal

After a promising debut in England saw Mane score 10 goals in 30 PL games two seasons ago, the Senegalese dynamo followed up with an 11-goal haul in the PL season just completed (15 goals in all competitions), much of which was shrouded in transfer rumors and clear discontent at St. Mary’s Stadium. Mane will cost anyone a great deal more — think 10 to $15 million more — than the $30 million Bayern hope to recoup in their sale of Gotze (they paid roughly $40 million for him in the summer of 2013).

Pre-EURO int’l friendly roundup: Rooney, Rashford score as England win again

SUNDERLAND, ENGLAND - MAY 27:  Wayne Rooney of England scores his team's second goal of the game during the International Friendly match between England and Australia at Stadium of Light on May 27, 2016 in Sunderland, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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A roundup of international friendlies as 24 European nations prepare for EURO 2016…

[ MORE: Man United confirm Mourinho as new manager ]

England 2-1 Australia

Roy Hodgson seems to have one of those good dilemmas on his hands: with Danny Welbeck already out for EURO 2016, and Daniel Sturridge injured yet again, does he take 18-year-old Marcus Rashford to France next month? The Manchester United striker is certainly making his case after a breakout finish to the 2015-16 Premier League campaign, which he followed up on Friday with a goal all of three minutes into his England debut (WATCH HERE).

Wayne Rooney doubled England’s lead 10 minutes after he entered the game as a halftime substitute (WATCH HERE), extending the England and Man United captain’s record goal haul to 52 in his international career. Eric Dier scored an embarrassing header to pull one back for the Australians in the 75th minute (WATCH HERE).

England will host Portugal at Wembley Stadium next Thursday in either side’s final pre-EURO friendly.

[ MORE: VIDEO — Marcus Rashford scores another debut goal

Ireland 1-1 Netherlands

The Dutch aren’t headed to EURO 2016 themselves, but the Irish certainly are, and Martin O’Neill’s side picked up a bit of positive momentum in the form of a 1-1 draw with the 2014 World Cup semifinalists.

Southampton’s Shane Long put the Irish ahead when he cleaned up a goal-line scramble on the half-hour mark, but former Newcastle United striker Luuk De Jong turned home a free kick to equalize for the visitors with five minutes remaining in regular time.

[ MORE: Mourinho — “I prefer to forget the last three years at United” ]

Elsewhere in international friendlies

Northern Ireland 3-0 Belarus
Croatia 1-0 Moldova
Czech Republic 6-0 Malta
Slovakia 3-1 Georgia