Quick Six: Red Devils regress, Sunderland routs rivals, and the other headlines from the Premier League’s 24th round

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1. No “BIG THREE” Solution For Manchester United

When former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson claimed Charlie Adam’s corner kicks were worth £10 million, he was doing more than driving up the price of the then-Blackpool midfielder. Weighing in on the Liverpool target, Ferguson was also implicitly commenting on the limits of the Scottish international’s game. After all, how much time do we spend talking about Andrea Pirlo’s set piece delivery given everything else he can do. Pirlo, Adams is not.

On Saturday, however, Manchester United’s much-criticized midfield made the 28-year-old Stoke City distributor look like a world-class talent. With scores in the 38th and 52nd minutes, Adam’s brace book gave the Potters a historic win over Manchester United. It was the first time Stoke had beaten the Red Devils since joining the Premier League in 2008.

With all due respect to the Potters (who were fully worth their three points on Saturday), the big story here continues to be David Moyes, who showed no sign of adaptability by tossing Juan Mata wide right in a 4-4-2. For a team that has suffered because of a lack of final third creativity, it was a terrible choice, one that sets up the club’s record transfer buy as a potential waste of money. Rather than adapt to the new talent he’s bought, the first-year boss is forcing that talent into an underachieving approach.

We talked about that potential problem on Tuesday. Now, having seen how Moyes plans to use Mata when Van Persie and Wayne Rooney are available, United fans have another cause of concern. If their club ever acquires the talent to address the holes Ferguson left behind, do they have the right manager to make it work? Everything we’ve seen in 2013-14 says “No.”

2. Derby dominance fuels Sunderland’s continued climb

Given how Sunderland has been playing, 14th place actually understates their quality. Remember all that early season talk about whether they were too far gone? Now nobody thinks the Black Cats will end up in the Championship., the club having climbed out of the hole Gus Poyet inherited from Paolo Di Canio.

Instead, the story coming out of Saturday’s Tyne-Wear Derby is the Cats’ continued dominance for their northeast rival. With goals from Fabio Borini, Adam Johnson, and Jack Colback, Sunderland recorded their third straight win over the Magpies, a streak that’s transcended last season’s relegation worries, this season’s traumatic start, and generally sitting lower than Newcastle in the Premier League table since the Magpies’ promotion. After Saturday’s romp, Sunderland’s unbeaten in five against the fiercest rivals.

That was the perspective after Saturday’s win – one of dominance. The larger context casts Saturday’s win as the high point in the league’s most remarkable turnaround. This team wasn’t merely off to a poor start. They bad; like, people talking about how few points they’ll get bad.

Now? They’re one of the bottom half’s safest bets for survival. Credit of Johnson. Credit to Borini. But most of all, credit to Gus Poyet. His first Premier League job is turning into a dramatic success, at least early on.

3. Oxlade-Chamberlain’s two delivers three for Arsenal

Can we discuss this like mature adults  – people who know Manchester City plays tomorrow? That’s the deal. If not, we can’t talk about Arsenal moving into first after Sunday’s win over Crystal Palace. Call it a pet peeve, but if we’re going to treat them like the Premier League’s top team before the round’s over, I’m going to eject now.

Nobody’s going to do that? (Looks around the internet.) Well, I’ll be. This is amazing. Is the discourse finally evolving? Have we really stopped overreacting to “first place” on Saturday when the team’s likely to slide by Monday?

Probably not. With so much anticipation of tomorrow’s top-of-the-table tussle, people are speeding through Sunday’s two results to start the hype of Monday’s battle. It’s a special occasion. Thanks to tomorrow’s big game, we’re being spared all the unreasonable “woo hoo” that normally accompanies a team going top.

Arsenal does deserve a few woo hoos, though. We’ve seen how much trouble teams have had breaking down Tony Pulis’s Crystal Palace. We saw it in the first half on Sunday. Yet in the second, thanks in large part to the long-awaited return on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the Gunners were able to make it reasonably comfortable for themselves. Outshooting the Eagles 6-2 (shots on target) while controlling 73 percent of the ball, Arsenal went on to a 2-0 victory.

They may not end the round in first, but consider what Arsenal’s already accomplished. Nobody’s talking about whether they can stick around. The debate as to whether they’re real title contenders faded long ago. With solid (if unspectacular) performances like these, Arsène Wenger’s team has silenced the doubters, and while that doesn’t mean a consensus of experts sees the Gunners claiming the title, it does mean lingering concerns about Arsenal’s quality aren’t lingering any more.

4. Liverpool, Tottenham slips see Everton reclaim lost ground

Aston Villa left Everton empty handed, yet both teams had reason to be content after Saturday’s match at Goodison Park. The Villans continued a good run of form that began a week ago at Anfield, and while they’ve only claimed four points over the span, that haul has kept Paul Lambert’s team five points above the drop. The club seems to have stabilized in 10th place, heights it hasn’t enjoyed since the departure of Martin O’Neill.

For Everton, responding with two late goals showed the type of resilience they’ll need to stay in the race for fourth. Coming off a demoralizing loss to Liverpool, the Toffees needed to get back into the win column, particularly given the opposition – a mid-table team visiting Goodison Park. That they were able to do so without the injured Romelu Lukaku gives them hope they’ll be able to survive the big Belgian’s absence.

It was part of a near-perfect round for the Toffees, who saw the effects of their mid-week loss nearly wiped off the books by Liverpool and Tottenham’s results. Thanks to Kolo Touré, Liverpool gifted West Brom a second half equalizer in the Reds’ 1-1 draw at the Hawthorns. On Saturday, Tottenham were unable to claim full points from Hull, also held to a 1-1 result in their visit to the KC Stadium.

On the week, Everton only lost on one to Liverpool – not a terrible result considering they had to go to Anfield. They also jumped a spot in the standings thanks to Tottenham’s one-point week.

The Merseyside Derby make have been an embarrassing setback, but five days later, that effects of that setback have almost dried up.

5. Shake up no solution for Fulham

Fulham made four changes for yesterday’s match against Southampton. They were still terrible. Though they kept up with the Saints for most of the match, they lost 3-0 at home. Clint Dempsey, Pajtim Kasami, and Alexander Kacaniklic may have been dropped from the starting XI, but they didn’t take Fulham’s terrible defense with them.

And that’s the problem. Fulham may have undergone a complete makeover last week, welcoming Lewis Holtby, William Kvist, and Kostas Mitroglou (who didn’t play this weekend), but they’ve done little to address a defense that’s allowed 15 goals in its last six games. Even with all their changes, René Meulensteen somehow justified starting Scott Parker and Steve Sidwell in the middle – a relegation-worthy midfield that can’t grit and gut their way out of the bottom three (West Ham found this out with Parker three years ago).

Whether Parker and Sidwell keep playing or not, something bigger has to change at Fulham. The team’s in a free fall that’s landed them at the bottom of the table, and although they’ve already let one manager go, desperate times call for desperate measures. This team has only gotten worse since Martin Jol left, and with four straight multi-goal losses in the Premier League, it might be team to see if Alan Curbishley’s ready to return to the sidelines. Maybe he can organize a defense.

6. Relegation picture as murky as ever

Sunderland’s climb from 20th to 14th has been fueled not only by their amazing turnaround but by the traffic jam that continues to clog the table’s bottom half. From Stoke in 11th to Cardiff in 19th, only four points separate the nine teams currently in the middle of the relegation battle. One good, Black Cats-esque run could see any of them join Aston Villa above the muck. Fall on hard times, and a team starts to look like Fulham.

Stoke did the most for themselves this weekend. Not only did they move four clear of 18th but they claimed points their relegation rivals are unlikely to duplicate. Manchester United may be struggling, but they’re still capable of claiming three against most of the bottom half. Against Stoke, however, they left empty handed.

West Ham and Cariff also scored big wins, with the Hammers’ 2-0 victory over Swansea giving manager Sam Allardyce another reprieve. They may still but in the bottom three, but with Andy Carroll setting up two goals, there’s hope the return of their only real striker can carry them out of the drop. Provided stops collecting stupid red cards.

Will this be most competitive Premier League title race ever?

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So, who is going to win the Premier League this season?

That’s right, you haven’t got a solid answer.

[ MORE: Mourinho gets FA charge ]

It’s okay. Most people haven’t. And that’s incredibly exciting.

As Jenna Corrado and I discussed in the latest PST Extra (watch by clicking play, above), it is tough to remember any Premier League season in history being this competitive at the top end of the table.

A unique set of circumstances has created what could be described as a “perfect storm” for the 2016-17 campaign.

Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City all have new managers and are taking time to settle down. The projects at Tottenham and Liverpool are in full flow. Arsenal’s squad is looking better balanced than ever. Chelsea and Liverpool do not have European action to contend with. The midtable teams in the PL are continuing to punch above their weight too.

[ VIDEO: Full PST Extra archive ]

The closeness between the perennial top six is apparent in the early season table too.

Via the PremierLeague.com, there has never been a closer margin between the team in first place and the team in fifth place after nine games of a season. There is just one point separating first-place Man City with fifth-place Tottenham. In fact, Man City, Arsenal and Liverpool all have 20 points and only goal differential separates them. Spurs and Chelsea sit one point behind on 19. Despite some early struggles, Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United only sits six points off top spot.

What this all adds up to is parity. Last season we saw Leicester City come from nowhere to win the league. It was remarkable. Unlike anything we’ve ever seen or are likely to see. However, in the end Claudio Ranieri‘s side won it at a canter as they were 10 points clear.

That happens in most PL campaigns.

In 2013-14 the title race went down to the penultimate weekend of the season where technically three teams could win it: Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea. Apart from that, it’s been pretty much a two-horse race up until the end.

The feeling early on this season is that a multitude of factors are combining which see the top six big boys more evenly matched than ever before.

The stats back it up in terms of the opening quarter of the season. Now let’s see if anybody can make a run and separate themselves from the pack.

Most would bet the team to eventually win it all are Man City as Pep Guardiola‘s methods start to ingrain themselves in City’s players and the potential for another spending spree in January is there. That said, the others can also spend big midseason too and if the margins between them are fine come the midway point, the addition of a few key players could make all the difference.

I’m willing to bet that this will be the most competitive ever season in the history of the PL’s title race. Bring it on.

Premier League Power Rankings: The Reds rise to the top

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The top of the Premier League is as close as it’s ever been with the top five teams separated by just one point.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Chelsea won big in the return of Jose Mourinho to Stamford Bridge, while Tottenham and Arsenal faltered with draws against Bournemouth and Middlesbrough respectively.

[ ARCHIVE: All of PST’s Power Rankings ]

Check out the latest round of power rankings ahead of Matchday 10.

source: 20 (20) Sunderland: The Black Cats have had a historically bad start to the Premier League season with just two points from nine matches. Things do not get easier this weekend as Sunderland faces Arsenal.
Hull City logo 19 (19) Hull City: The Tigers have lost five straight Premier League matches and have allowed five more goals than any other team in the league this season.  
source: 18 (18) Swansea City: Bob Bradley earned his first point as Swansea City manager with a scoreless draw against Watford. However, Swansea has still only won one match this season and are in the relegation zone.
200px-Middlesbrough_crest 17 (17) Middlesbrough: An impressive draw at the Emirates has Middlesbrough just out of the relegation zone on goal difference. A home match against Bournemouth will be another tough test for The Boro. 
source: 16 (14) West HamWest Ham earned its second straight 1-0 win, but needed a Winston Reid goal in stoppage time to sneak past Sunderland.
source: 15 (12) West Bromwich Albion: After falling to Liverpool 2-1 last weekend, the Baggies face another tough test as Manchester City makes a visit to The Hawthrons. West Brom is winless in its last four Premier League matches. 
source: 14 (16) Stoke City: The offense has picked up for the Potters, led by Xherdan Shaqiri‘s brace this past weekend. Another winnable match against Swansea on Monday offers Stoke the chance to extend its unbeaten streak to five matches.
burnley fc crest 13 (15) Burnley: Burnley earned a 2-1 win over Everton thanks to a dramatic 90th-minute winner from Scott Arfield. The Clarets are three points clear of the relegation zone.

12 (9) Crystal Palace: Crystal Palace was clearly the inferior side in the team’s 3-1 defeat at the hands of Leicester City. A match against Liverpool on Saturday will make it difficult for Palace to bounce back.
source: 11 (10) Watford: Watford had the chance to earn three points against Swansea City, but could only come away with a point. The Hornets have another chance at three points this weekend against Hull City. 
source: 10 (13) Leicester City: The Foxes looked impressive in their win against Crystal Palace despite having Jamie Vardy on the bench. Leicester will need to continue their good form to get a result against Tottenham this weekend.

9 (7) Manchester United: Manchester United suffered an embarassing defeat against Chelsea and appear to lack an identity under Jose Mourinho. 
source: 8 (11)
Bournemouth: Bournemouth has eight points from its last four matches, including a 6-1 victory over Hull City and a draw against Tottenham in their last two matches. The Cherries have a chance to continue their good form against Middlesbrough this weekend. 
source: 7 (4) Everton: Everton suffered a damaging defeat to Burnley. Although the Toffees are in sixth place, they are now four points off the pace of the top five.
source: 6 (8) Southampton: Southampton is unbeaten in its last five matches and earned an impressive point against Manchester City at the Etihad last weekend. 
source: 5 (5) Tottenham: Spurs are still the lone unbeaten team in the Premier League, but a draw against Bournemouth is not the type of result Tottenham has become accumosted to under Mauricio Pochettino 
source: 4 (2) Arsenal: The Gunners only earned a point at home against Middlesbrough. However, the team is unbeaten in its last eight.
source: 3 (6) Chelsea: Chelsea looks to have found its form under Antino Conte. The Blues dominated Manchester United and Jose Mourinho in a 4-0 victory. After a winless September, Chelsea have won all three of its Premier League matches in October and are just one point off the top of the table.
Logo_Manchester_City 2 (1) Manchester City: Pep Guardiola has gone six games without a win for the first time in his managerial career. Manchester City could only earn a point at home against Southampton last weekend, but the team is still at the top of Premier League on goal difference.
source: 1 (3) Liverpool: The Reds put on a beatuiful display against West Brom at Anfield last weekend. Liverpool is unbeaten in seven matches and is tied at the top of the table with Manchester City and Arsenal at 20 points.

VIDEO: Incredible goal from Graziano Pelle in China

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Graziano Pelle seems to be enjoying his time in the Chinese Super League with 5 goals and two assists in his first 12 games in China.

It’s no wonder he’s having fun when he’s scoring goals like this.

[ MORE: Mourinho gets FA charge ]

Pelle, 31, joined CSL side Shandong Lenung in July from Premier League side Southampton with plenty of people around the world raising their eyebrows at him.

With reported wages of over $250,000 per week making him the joint-sixth highest paid player in the world, you can understand why he moved to China for the final few years of his career.

Pelle’s decision to head to the Far East also hasn’t harmed his international chances as he continues to get callups to the Italian national team. Although, after refusing to shake the coaches hand during the last international break after he was substituted he may find callups harder to come by in the future.

Putting all of that aside, let’s marvel in the beauty of his fine finish in the CSL on Wednesday against Chongqing Lifan.

From the chest control, to the flick over the defenders head and then the volley, it has to be a contender for FIFA’s Puskas award which is given to the best goal score in world soccer each year.

Graziano, take it away…

Napoli treating Higuain as a traitor after record transfer

Gonzalo Higuain, SSC Napoli
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ROME (AP) A traitor. A mercenary. An ingrate.

Napoli fans have no shortage of insulting words when it comes to describing Gonzalo Higuain, the striker who transferred to rival Juventus for an Italian-record 90 million euros ($100 million) after scoring 36 goals last season to break a 66-year-old Serie A record.

So it will be interesting to see what type of reception Higuain gets when he faces his old club for the first time as Napoli visits Juventus on Saturday.

“I’ll greet him like a father does with a son who has really (ticked) him off,” Napoli manager Maurizio Sarri said.

Napoli forward Dries Mertens, one of Higuain’s best friends when they played together, was asked if he would prepare a “trick” for his former teammate to celebrate Halloween.

“No. At most, I’ll give him a slap,” Mertens said with a laugh.

Napoli fans are banned from attending the match for security reasons. That may prevent replicating a scene like when Luis Figo returned to face Barcelona after transferring to Real Madrid in 2000 and a pig’s head was thrown onto the pitch.

Juventus doesn’t visit Napoli until April.

Other strikers have left Napoli at the height of their powers in recent years – namely Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi, who went to Paris Saint-Germain – but the fact that Higuain moved to the club’s fiercest domestic competitor has sparked more outrage.

With 71 league goals in 104 Serie A matches for Napoli the past three seasons, Higuain’s popularity in Naples was beginning to approach that of Diego Maradona, his fellow Argentine who led Napoli to its only two league titles in 1987 and 1990.

When the transfer was announced in July, Napoli fans publicly threw their Higuain shirts, banners and scarves into the trash.

Outside the San Paolo stadium at Napoli matches this season, vendors sell toilet paper with Higuain’s image printed on it.

“He prefers the money to our love,” read a headline in Naples’ Il Mattino newspaper after the transfer.

The artisans on Naples’ famed San Gregorio Armeno street placed placards in the hands of Higuain’s Christmas figurine that read, “I’m a traitor” and “I’m a mercenary.”

Higuain was lambasted for performing medical exams with Juventus in secret in Madrid.

“Neapolitans were met with betrayal this summer,” Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis said. “(Higuain’s) brother (and manager) told me in February that he wanted to leave because there were no other stars in our squad besides him.”

Higuain attempted to calm the tensions before the season started by thanking Napoli’s fans for supporting him the past three years, but that only seemed to cause more problems.

Ten games into the season, Juventus holds a four-point lead over third-place Napoli.

Higuain enters on a four-match scoring drought in all competitions, while Napoli has struggled to replace him at center forward.

With seven goals in eight matches in all competitions, newly signed Poland forward Arkadiusz Milik was filling in quite nicely until he severely injured his left knee.

Manolo Gabbiadini, who had performed well as a backup to Higuain the past two seasons, struggled to replace Milik, then was suspended for two matches for a reaction foul last weekend.

As a result, Sarri has been relying on a three-man forward line with Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejon flanking Mertens. The trio has been labeled the “piccoli” line for the players’ small stature.

“We don’t have a natural striker right now and we’ve got to adapt,” Sarri said.

Besides Higuain’s recent troubles, Juventus has its own injury problems in attack with Paulo Dybala and Marko Pjaca each out for several weeks.

Higuain started the season with six goals in seven Serie A matches but hasn’t scored since. He struggled again in a 4-1 win over Sampdoria on Wednesday.

“Higuain will score again soon, and by the end of the season he’ll have scored many,” Juventus manager Massimiliano Allegri said.

A goal against Napoli would be difficult for his former fans to digest.

Follow AP Sports Writer Andrew Dampf on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/asdampf