Premier League Playback: Liverpool set for top four, City unstoppable, Dempsey’s struggles

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ALL OUT ATTACK – LIVERPOOL’S PLAN FOR UCL BERTH

On Wednesday against Everton, Brendan Rodgers set his Liverpool side out to attack. Scratch that, their aim wasn’t just to attack, it was to obliterate.

Job done.

Liverpool went with Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge in attack with Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling supporting them. In a swashbuckling 4-3-3 Rodgers’ star men delivered an oppressive display that enabled the Reds to strip Everton of possession as high up the pitch as possible. That lead to their biggest derby win in almost three decades against the Toffees, as a 4-0 win could and should have been more.

Last week I went along to Liverpool’s Melwood training center and asked Rodgers how important his central midfield would be between now and the end of the season, he admitted his sides 2-2 draw with Aston Villa in their last home game before the Merseyside derby still rankled with home. Especially the way he initially set up his team in the midfield and final third. This is the response he gave me.

“What was interesting about last weekend was that it was one of the only times, since I’ve been here, that we played 4-4-2,” Rodgers said. “A lot of our work has been based around 4-3-3 and having superiority in the middle of the field. The players have grown very comfortable with that over time. I probably played too much of an aggressive team, attacking wise, and we probably suffered from that. Then when we made the changes, and when we put three in the middle we had some control again. That area of the field is very important for us, that’s where we look to control and dominate the game. When we do that, we are a very good side.”

Liverpool certainly dominated the midfield and showed just how good they were against Everton.

Everyone talks about having a high-pressure approach against sides like Everton, who loved to spray the ball around and play out from the back, but you need remarkable fitness levels from all 10 outfield players to achieve this. Rodgers unleashed his forward four to harass Everton and had captain Steven Gerrard quarterbacking proceedings from a deep-lying midfield role. It worked a treat.

The 4-3-3 formation with S.A.S. leading the line is the way to go for Rodgers.

He realized that after Liverpool’s poor first half display vs. Aston Villa. Now the penny has dropped and the old adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” has never been so apt.

(MORE: Liverpool dazzle in derby win, will Champions League dream become a reality?)

Clarity of thought always comes when a massive Merseyside derby is on the horizon and Rodgers’ used that to mastermind an attacking masterclass from his side. Will the Reds make the top four playing this breathtaking brand of soccer?

You bet your bottom dollar they will. Few teams will outscore them. Expect to hear raspy chants of “attack, attack, attack” reign down from the famous Kop end during the rest of the campaign. When you have the precocious attacking Liverpool have at their disposal it would be silly not to. In his post-game press conference at Anfield following Liverpool’s largest derby win since 1982, Rodgers was a little disappointed his team didn’t win by more than the 4-0 margin.

Behind Man City’s offensive juggernaut, Liverpool are the second highest scorers in the English top-flight with 57 goals from 23 games.

Next up to feel the wrath of Liverpool’s fired up attack: West Bromwich Albion on Saturday.

Premier League Schedule – Round 23

Result Recap & Highlights
Aston Villa 4-3 West Brom Recap and watch here
Chelsea 0-0 West Ham Recap and watch here
Crystal Palace 1-0 Hull Recap and watch here
Liverpool 4-0 Everton Recap and watch here
Man United 2-0 Cardiff City Recap and watch here
Norwich 0-0 Newcastle Recap and watch here
Southampton 2-2 Arsenal Recap and watch here
Sunderland 1-0 Stoke City Recap and watch here
Swansea 2-0 Fulham Recap and watch here
Tottenham 1-5 Man City Recap and watch here

UNSTOPPABLE CITY?

After smashing 11 goals past top four hopefuls Tottenham Hotspur during two victories this season, Manchester City are the real deal. With their resounding 5-1 win over Spurs at White Hart Lane their eighth-successive win in the PL, only four other teams have done that in league history (Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Man United).

The Citizens have now scored 68 goals in 23 games, which means they’ve already surpassed the 66 goals they scored in the entire 2012-13 campaign. There are still 15 games to go this season…

After smashing Spurs into space with sublime forward movement and interchanging midfielders leaving the White Hart Lane crowd dizzy in despair, Manuel Pellegrini’s side are now top of the Premier League table with a massive few weeks coming up.

Let’s not dwell on another hammering of a top four contender because, let’s face it, it happens all too often for City this year. Thanks to our good friends at Opta, above, you can see that against the top eight sides in the PL they have grabbed 24 points from a possible 27. The only team they lost to was Chelsea in a narrow 2-1 loss back in November.

Who do they host this week at the Eithad? Chelsea.

On Monday, live on NBCSN from 2pm ET, you can watch on to see if City will be able to put Chelsea in their place and hand out another hammering to a top four, and potential title, contender. Chelsea are three points behind City going into this game and know a defeat will see the Citizens extend their lead over the West London club to six points. With Sergio Aguero injuring his hamstring against Spurs, the Argentine may miss the game. But City don’t really care if their leading man is out, they have Edin Dzeko, Alvaro Negredo and now Stevan Jovetic all fit and ready to continue banging in goals left, right and center.

(MORE: Latest Premier League Standings)

Be afraid Chelsea, very afraid. Right now a visit to City is the last thing Jose Mourinho needs as his side struggled to a 0-0 draw with West Ham and the Portuguese boss moaned and complained about the Hammer’s ” football from the 19th century.”

Chelsea had the bus parked against them, surely the only way they have any chance of inflicting a first PL home defeat of the season on City is by shutting up shop and defending for their lives at the Etihad?

On this form, City are looking to beat the PL record of 14 consecutive wins. I wouldn’t bet against them breaking pretty much every record out there this season. Their dominance is astounding, watch on as they embarrass yet another top PL club below. This time it was Tottenham’s time to bow down and imitate the ‘we’re not worthy gesture.’

EL MATA-DOR AT HOME WITH UNITED?

On his long-awaited debut for Manchester United, record-signing Juan Mata didn’t set Old Trafford alight with his opening 83 minutes in a United shirt. Sometimes, the script just doesn’t allow a dazzling display on debut. Throughout Mata was always probing, always searching for and demanding the ball at his feet to get United going as he had the most touches on the pitch with 63. The tiny Spanish playmaker helped create Robin van Persie’s opening goal with a searching ball out to the left flank in the build-up. It was only a glimmer of what he’s capable of, but it was there.

But the big question is, where will Mata play for the Red Devils?

Despite darting in and out of the lines and making intelligent and intricate runs around Cardiff’s defense, so often his new United teammates didn’t give him the ball where he could hurt the opposition. That’s part of the growing process and it’ll be extremely interesting to see where Mata lines up against Stoke City on Saturday as David Moyes has a real dilemma to solve. Albeit a luxury , which Moyesy hasn’t had a plethora of so far this campaign.

source: AP
Mata showed glimpses of what’s to come in a United shirt, after a steady debut

On Saturday Wayne Rooney will return to full fitness and now United have to fit Rooney, van Persie, Mata and teenage sensation Adnan Januzaj into the same starting XI. Antonia Valencia’s slot on the right wing looks a little vulnerable, as I’d expect to see a 4-2-3-1 formation with Januzaj deployed on the right, Mata played centrally and Rooney cutting in off the left behind RVP up top on his own.

I’d also expect to see Rooney and Mata interchange with both players taking turns to cover the left flanks defensively, but there won’t be much of that. With two holding midfielders United will be able to plug those gaps out wide by slotting a central midfielder out wide if Rooney or Januzaj get caught up the pitch and then the opposite winger will tuck in to balance things out to make a bank of four in front of the back four. It’s not rocket science. All four attackers can start in the same team together.

Will Rooney enjoy being shifted out to the left? Let’s wait and see. But his relationship on the field with Mata is something I’m looking forward to watch, as two creative geniuses feeding the PL’s most clinical striker in recent years (RVP) is a recipe for supreme success. Whatever what you dissect it.

Mata is the key cog to it all, and with his intelligent runs and boasting a superior soccer IQ to most, United need to get the ball to him in the correct positions to see the tricky Spaniard at his devastating best.

A work in progress for the Red Devils to unlock their attacking potential, but finally, it’s in progress.

DECLINING DEMPSEY EPITOMIZES FULHAM’S WOE

As Fulham’s players trudged off the pitch at a rainy Liberty Stadium following yet another defeat on Tuesday, USMNT captain Cint Dempsey is now well and truly embroiled in a relegation battle with the same club where he shone as Player of the Year and previously lit up the Premier League.

Of course Deuce is only on loan from MLS’ Seattle Sounders until the end of February, but instead of inspiring a lackluster Fulham side up the table and away from relegation during his short stint back at Craven Cottage, his arrival has done the exact opposite.

Now questions are being raised about his readiness for the World Cup in Brazil next summer. Will Clint still be the USA’s talisman?

This loan spell was also supposed to see Dempsey get back to his best after his career faltered a little at Tottenham following a move from Fulham on transfer deadline day in August 2012. Add in a largely forgettable start to his career back in MLS with his lucrative move to Seattle in July, and you have a player that’s languishing a little.

Dempsey has struggled to impact any of the games he’s played in for Fulham in the last few weeks, with the U.S. international struggling for confidence and form. Those two key ingredients are extremely hard to find in a side battling relegation. PST’s Kyle Bonn took an in-depth look at Dempsey’s struggles since returning to the Cottage.

We are all rooting for you, Clint. In fact I would go as far as saying a fired up and rejuvenate Dempsey is the difference between the USA making the knockouts or bowing out in the group stages in Brazil this summer. Let’s hope things turn around really soon for Deuce.

In case you missed anything in Round 23, here’s all the action in a neatly wrapped video of the midweek madness.

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

Wayne Rooney’s England retirement tinged with regret

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Wayne Rooney is England’s all-time leading goalscorer with 53 goals and he played for the Three Lions 119 times, more than any other outfield player in history.

[ MORE: Rooney retires from England ]

Rooney’s legacy will live on for decades but when the 31-year-old announced his international retirement on Wednesday, one sentence in his statement will likely stick in your mind.

“One of my very few regrets is not to have been part of a successful England tournament side,” Rooney said.

After 14 years of the hopes and dreams of every English fan being placed on his shoulders at major tournaments as the attacking leader of the so-called “golden generation” perhaps constant failure at the main events are the biggest reason why Rooney has decided to bow out earlier than many expected.

[ VIDEO: Rooney’s top five England goals ]

Rooney hadn’t played for England since November 2016 against Scotland in a 2018 World Cup qualifier, so this wasn’t too much of a surprise, especially after Gareth Southgate left Rooney out of his last two England squads. There is no doubt that his powers have been waning but it appeared Rooney was set for a recall for England’s final batch of qualifiers in the next few months and the captain of the Three Lions would lead the team to Russia next summer.

Yet with less than 10 months until the 2018 World Cup, the tournament Rooney previously stated would be his last for England, why did he now feel the need to step down?

With his fine form for Everton to start this season following 12 months on the fringes at Manchester United (where he became their all-time leading goalscorer last season too) it appeared Rooney was fitter and sharper than he has been for the past four or five years. Fitness does not appear to be the issue.

Cristiano Ronaldo is a year old than Rooney. Lionel Messi is one year younger than Rooney. Like Ronaldo and Messi he has won everything he can in the domestic game, and still that is not enough. All three have the weight of their respective nations on their shoulders but now only Ronaldo and Messi are continuing to lead their nations. Yet in Messi’s case, he too walked away from the national team after they lost to Chile in the 2016 Copa America Centenario, only to be persuaded to return soon after.

Like Rooney, Messi has yet to win a major title with his nation, but Argentina have certainly come much closer (four defeats in major finals, two on penalty kicks and one in extra time during his career with La Albiceleste) than England and Rooney every came. It appears that Rooney will not make a dramatic return for England a la Messi, but never say never.

Of course, one player cannot make a team but you can argue that the England teams Rooney was the focal point of were the greatest to never reach the semifinal of a major tournament, let alone win the damn thing.

Scoring just once in 11 World Cup games for England over three tournaments, Rooney’s finest moments in tournament play came in his first major competition: EURO 2004. In Portugal a young, bullish, teenage Rooney scored twice against Croatia and led England to the quarterfinals before he broke a dreaded metatarsal and England, as they would in the next two tournaments, lost on penalty kicks to Portugal in the quarters.

After that flurry of four goals and an assist in his first four tournament games, Rooney would go on to score just three goals from 47 shots in his next 17 games in major competitions.

More misery in major tournaments arrived as he snapped in the 2006 World Cup quarters, being sent off for a stamp on Ricardo Carvalho, then responded to England fans booing the team in South Africa in 2010 by ranting into TV cameras about their criticism. Rooney was banned for the opening two games of EURO 2012 and returned only for England to exit in the quarterfinals, again, this time to Italy. He finally scored at a World Cup in 2014 but England crashed out at the group stage and he then captained England at EURO 2016 but they bowed out in embarrassing fashion to Iceland in the Round of 16.

That, somewhat poetically, was to be his last appearance for England at a major tournament.

There’s no doubting that Rooney was the most talented striker England ever possessed with his ability to score sublime goals and create chances for his teammates. Yet, the greatest players on the planet are always judged by what they won on their international stage, mostly by dragging the team around them to new levels.

Pele won three World Cups with Brazil. Diego Maradona won one with Argentina. Ronaldo has won a European Championship with Portugal. Rooney won nothing.

That remains the only regret in a storybook international career which saw a lad from Liverpool put on a pedastool at the age of 17 and handed the keys to a nations success.

It didn’t work out how Rooney, and everyone else, had hoped when it came to ending England’s now 51-year wait for a major trophy, but he delivered goals, guile and commitment which the likes of Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Marcus Rashford will try to replicate in the next few decades.

Rooney’s international career will always be celebrated and his achievements are unlikely to be surpassed, but there were always be a tinge of regret he could never lead the Three Lions to international glory.

Players who survived Chapecoense plane crash tell their story

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On November 28, 2016 a plane crashed into a mountainous region outside the Colombian city of Medellin due to a lack of fuel, killing 71 of the 77 passengers on board.

It was carrying players, coaches, officials and journalists from Brazil to Colombia as Chapecoense were set to play in the biggest game in club history.

A team from Brazil’s top-flight was on the verge of its greatest moment when disaster struck.

Only three of the 22 Chapecoense players on board survived the crash.

Neto, Jakson Follmann and Alan Ruschel were the three survivors and all three have been telling their story to the Players’ Tribune in the story titled: “Tomorrow Belongs to God.”

In this piece (see the video above, also) Neto, Follmann and Ruschel go back and forth describing the crash, the aftermath and how they feel today with Neto and Ruschel able to play for Chapecoense once again, while goalkeeper Jakson had to have one of his legs amputated after the crash.

Jakson revealed that, for some reason, he pestered his close friend Ruschel to come and sit next to him on the plane rather than at the back just 30 minutes before the crash. They both survived.

Neto reveals how he woke up before the trip having had a horrible nightmare where he was in a plane but walked away. The dream was so vivid he told his wife and even text her to pray for him before the flight took off.

Below is an excerpt from Neto which opens up the incredibly emotional account from the trio.

I dreamed that it would happen. A few days before we were supposed to leave for the Copa Sudamericana finals in Colombia, I had a terrible nightmare. When I woke up, I told my wife that I had been in a plane crash. I was in the airplane at night, and there was a lot of rain. Then the plane shut off. It fell from the sky. But somehow I could stand up from the wreckage. I walked out and was on a mountain at night. Everything was dark. That’s all I remembered.

On the day of the trip to the finals, I couldn’t get the nightmare out of my mind. The dream was so vivid. It was hammering in my mind. So I sent a message to my wife from the airplane. I told her to pray to God to protect me from that dream. I didn’t want to believe that it was really going to happen. But I asked her to pray for me.

Stats behind Wayne Rooney’s record-breaking England career

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We all know Wayne Rooney was England’s all-time record goalscorer, but what other numbers will define his international career?

[ VIDEO: Rooney’s top five England goals

Rooney, 31, retired from Three Lions duty on Wednesday after scoring 53 goals in 119 games for England over the past 14 years.

Despite his incredible longevity England’s most-capped outfield player (second only behind goalkeeper Peter Shilton) will look back on his international career with some regret as his record in major tournaments was nowhere near what he would have hoped for.

[ MORE: Twitter reacts to Rooney’s retirement

Via Opta, below are the key stats behind Rooney’s record-breaking England career.

  • Rooney scored 53 goals and collected 20 assists in his 119 appearances for England
  • Overall his England career he created 192 goalscoring chances and recorded 380 shots
  • He struggled to impose his quality for England at international tournaments – scoring just seven goals in 21 apps in World Cup/EURO finals combined.
  • Rooney scored just once in 11 World Cup games for England, attempting 21 shots across the 2006, 2010 and 2014 tournaments
  • Following his breakthrough tournament at EURO 2004, Rooney scored just three goals and assisted another in 17 tournament appearances.
  • His conversion rate of shots since the start of the 2006 World Cup in international tournaments for England was just 6.4%.
  • During his England career, Rooney managed an impressive ratio of scoring every 156.1 minutes in competitive games – a higher ratio than in non-competitive friendlies.
  • Only Ashley Cole (22) has more appearances in major tournaments than Wayne Rooney who had 21 alongside Steven Gerrard

Twitter reacts to Wayne Rooney’s England retirement

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Wayne Rooney has retired from international duty and tributes have been pouring in for England’s all-time leading goalscorer.

[ VIDEO: Rooney’s top five England goals ]

Rooney, 31, made the announcement on Wednesday and he ends his England career with 53 goals in 119 games, having appeared in six major tournaments for the Three Lions.

[ MORE: Rooney retires from England

Below is a look at some of the best reaction from players, clubs, pundits and celebrities to Rooney’s decision to call it quits.