Premier League Playback: Chelsea no ‘little horse’ in title race. Who will go down? USMNT battle

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MOURINHO’S GENIUS

“The title race has two big horses and a little horse (Chelsea) which needs milk and work, and has to learn to jump. It can win the race next season.”

Pause. Control yourself. And contemplate what’s going on here as Jose Mourinho has a moment.

First of all, Mourinho is the master of distraction. On Monday in his post-game press conference after Chelsea’s huge 1-0 win over Manchester City, like he has done all season, he’s deflected the pressure away from his young Chelsea side. In games against the top four this season, Chelsea have won three times and drawn once. These “little horses which need milk” have performed admirably for the man many thought had lost his dazzle and sparkle after returning to England.

(3 things we learned: Matic & Luiz crucial, DM an issue for City, Chelsea’s young attackers dazzle)

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Click to Enlarge – The average position of Chelsea vs. Man City. (Source: Opta)

Mourinho, 51, has often looked jaded and surly throughout the opening months of the PL season but now he’s back to his rip-roaring best. Us journalists are often a harsh bunch, with many believing our hearts consist of mangled pieces of coal. But there’s one man that brings life into post-game press conferences in England’s top-flight. Hearty chortles of laughter are plentiful from the baying press when Mourinho’s around. More of the same please, on and off the field, Jose.

Looking at how the Portuguese maestro out-smarted Man City boss Manuel Pellegrini for the eight time in 10 encounters, it wasn’t complex but it was so perfect and a joy to watch. Handing Nemanja Matic his first start in the Premier League, following his arrival from Benfica in the January window, was a masterstroke, as the towering Serbian added real steel and grit to the engine room alongside David Luiz. Those two bossed the match (just looked at the stats table below and how they destroyed City’s central duo of Demichelis and Toure) and sat just in front of a sturdy back four. In front of Luiz and Matic was a trio of tricky attackers who scared the life out of City all evening. Eden Hazard’s tricks, Willian’s pace and Ramires’ intelligent runs complemented Chelsea’s sturdy backline marvelously well. You can see from the average position map on the left, that Chelsea’s four attackers stayed well in City’s half and gave them a problem to defend. It was one they couldn’t cope with.

Matic, Samuel Eto’o and Gary Cahill all hit the woodwork for Chelsea, as the margin of victory should have been more. Despite Mourinho’s side handing City their first defeat at home in the league all season, ending their 100 percent record in the process, Mourinho was coy and his side had an exuberant yet calm look about them at the final whistle. They know they are good, and have proven that across the entire season against the top clubs.

Will Jose’s “little horses” jump the final fences of the season well, as we turn around the final bend and into the home straight? They are level on points with City in second place, and just two points behind leaders Arsenal.

On these showings, Chelsea have every reason to believe they’re front-runners. Mourinho will tell you differently, although the nurturing of his fledglings is coming along very nicely indeed.

Player Martin Demichelis Yaya Touré Nemanja Matic David Luiz
Appearances 1 1 1 1
Minutes played 90 90 90 90
Passing
Goal assists 0 0 0 0
Chances created (inc. assists) 0 3 0 1
Passes 59 81 27 25
Pass completion % 90% 91% 85% 76%
Dribbling
Dribbles 0 2 5 3
Dribble completion % 0% 100% 60% 67%
Defending
Tackles 7 6 4 3
Tackles won % 71% 67% 75% 100%

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TRANSFER WINDOW, WINNERS AND LOSERS

Premier League Schedule – Round 24

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

Following a frantic final few days of activity, the January window finally slammed shut last Friday.

After the razzmatazz and splendor of deals in mid-January, Juan Mata signing for Man United in a $56 million deal and Matic to Chelsea for $35 million, deadline day itself didn’t quite live up to the billing. But that’s okay, I think by midnight GMT on Friday, every soccer fan, player, manager or pundit was just about transfer windowed out.

Here’s a look at the big winners and losers, as Arsenal and Liverpool failed to bolster their squads, while relegation haunted Crystal Palace, Cardiff City and Fulham did the best business.

The biggest deals were Kostas Mitrglou to Fulham for $18 million and Kim “I’m actually injured” Kallstrom on loan to Arsenal. Yeah, we are still scratching our heads at PST about that deal too…

SUNDERLAND’S SURVIVAL BID, PLUS OTHERS, GATHERING PACE

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Gathered in the press room at St. James’ Park, Gustavo Poyet had a wry grin on his face when asked what this win meant to himself and his players.

“I don’t know how many people were expecting this, but I’ve been telling you for a few weeks how we were getting better. Especially away from home, we are a difficult team to play against. If you get a chance early with a penalty and you take it, it becomes very difficult for the home team. One of the best days I’ve had in football as a manager. No doubt.”

The other big question post-game: can Poyet’s Sunderland stay up amongst the 10 teams battling for survival?

“What a league this is, what a game football is. Before I said somehow we have to stay up, now it would be a shame if we didn’t. Because we have done a terrific job until now, and now we are in a position where it is in our own hands. We need to take it and I will make sure we do the right things between not and the end of the season.”

Sunderland had just beaten arch rivals Newcastle 3-0 away from home for the second season running. They’ve also won their third-straight Tyne-Wear derby for the first time since 1923, after Poyet tasted his first victory in charge of the Black Cats against Newcastle back in October.

Brimming with confidence following their win over Stoke last weekend, plus the League Cup semifinal victory over Manchester United at Old Trafford still fresh in the memory, Sunderland came flying out of the traps at a boisterous St. James’ Park on Saturday. Within 23 minutes they were 2-0 up and had silenced the partisan crowd of 50,000 plus. By the end of the game Newcastle’s fans were running onto the pitch to demonstrate, throwing season tickets around and it all got a little ugly outside the ground. I was tucked away safely in the press room, but a baying mob of Magpies were voicing their discontent following Sunderland’s emphatic derby win.

The Black Cats climb to safety has been gathering momentum for a while, with just one defeat in nine, but on Saturday they took a huge leap forward. The win only gave them three points, but the confidence and belief that a 3-0 win away from home against your biggest rivals is sure to harbor unbelievable levels of self-confidence that Sunderland can survive. Liam Bridcutt, who joined from Brighton on deadline day for $4.5 million, was a destructive genius in the holding role and allowed the likes of Jack Colback, Adam Johnson and Fabio Borini (who all scored) to surge forward in support of Jozy Altidore. As for the USMNT star, he was superb as he bullied Steven Taylor and Mike Williamson and won countless duels and battles as the lone forward. Fair play to Jozy, because the goals haven’t been flowing but he put in a monumental shift up top in terms of work rate and effort.

That’s what this Sunderland side is full of under Poyet. As a player he ground out every ounce out of his ability and made the most of his opportunities. His Sunderland side are now doing the same as they climb out of the table and are now in the heady heights of 14th. Okay, they’re nowhere near being safe as the monumental cluster of sides from 20th place to 11th are separated by just six points. But if you had to pick out one of those teams to survive the dreaded drop, I’d put my money on Sunderland.

As for the others Cardiff City, Stoke City and West Ham United all sealed massive wins at the weekend, as just four points separate 11th place from 19th. In the video below our analysts break down the relegation battle.

WORLD CUP AUDITIONS BEGIN

With just over three months of Premier League action left to impress, plenty of English players are jockeying to try and make Roy Hodgson’s England squad for the pinnacle of international soccer in Brazil this summer.

Four England hopefuls shone in the PL in Round 24, as Andy Carroll, Adam Lallana, Adam Johnson and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain all had big impacts in wins for their respective sides. Let’s break down their chances of making the plane to Brazil.

–          Andy Carroll

The towering striker has returned from his long-term injury to help propel West Ham with four points in a week a massive haul for the Hammers. Carroll was on hand to provide two assists for Kevin Nolan in his sides 2-0 win over Swansea, and the bruising front man ran the Swans defense ragged with his magnificent aerial ability. He did blot his copy book by getting a straight-red for an apparent lash out at Chico Flores. But with the latter’s theatrical action and an appeal on the way, it’s likely Carroll will escape without a ban. England need a bustling forward to compliment the talents of Wayne Rooney, Daniel Sturridge and Danny Welbeck. Carroll or Rickie Lambert will now battle it out for that place in the squad, as 25-year-old Carroll may have the edge if he can stay fit and bag a few goals between now and May.

–          Adam Lallana

Pundits, teammates and opponents are running out of superlatives for this tiny attacker who is roaring Southampton’s top-ten charge on every single game. Lallana has scored seven times and added six assists this season. In the two games he played for England against Chile and Germany last November, Roy Hodgson told the assembled media that Lallana was “the big find” from the friendlies. Gliding through opposition defenders with his slick two-footedness, Lallana is a joy to watch. His clever passing, relentless work-rate and ability to hold the ball in tight situations will serve England well in Brazil if the 25-year-old goes. He already switched his wedding from June 14, the date of England’s opener with Italy, to Christmas Eve in anticipation of a call-up. Right now, Lallana looks a shoe-in out of these four Englishman mentioned. Plus, he dazzled in Saints’ 3-0 win over Fulham on Saturday with a goal and shone alongside fellow England attackers Jay Rodriguez and Rickie Lambert, who both scored in front of Roy Hodgson. Saints fans sings “he plays on the left, he plays on the right… Adam Lallana makes Messi look ****!” Could he actually be doing that in person at the World Cup this summer?

–          Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain

This young man has had a terrible run of injuries but now it seems to be over. Known as ‘the Ox’ the 20-year-old midfielder bulldozed through Crystal Palace’s defense to score both goals in Arsenal’s 2-0 win on Sunday. Chamberlain has shown he can do it on the big stage, and turned around England’s fortunes when playing a friendly against Brazil in Rio last June. He has the skill, temperament and pace to harm any team on the planet and England would surely take the Ox if he’s fit. A mainstay in the squad throughout the World Cup qualifying campaign, he can play on either wing and in central areas. His versatility is key and that’s exactly what’s needed in tournament soccer.

–          Adam Johnson

Sunderland’s winger has now scored six goals in his last five games, as the Black Cats resurgence has coincided with AJ’s return to form. On Saturday Johnson scored set up the opening goal which came via a PK with delicate chipped through ball, scored the second and struck the post in the Mackes massive 3-0 derby win away at Newcastle. Signed for big bucks by Manchester City from Middlesbrough as a youngster, Johnson burst onto the scene and often banged in goals for the Three Lions off the bench during the successful Euro 2012 qualifying campaign. But since Roy Hodgson took charge he’s been on the peripheries of the squad, as others likes Chamberlain, Lallana, Rodriguez and Raheem Sterling have been preferred. With his snake-hips and faint dips of the shoulder, Johnson is one of those wingers who doesn’t possess blistering pace but somehow beats his man 9 times out of 10 and his delivery with his left peg is sensational. Sunderland hope Johnson’s good form continues to drag them out of a relegation battle. If he does that, there’s a good bet he could be on the plane to Brazil.

Note: Chelsea skipper John Terry should probably be the fifth name on this list, but the former England captain has already retired from international soccer after the racism accusations and problems with Rio Ferdinand, Wayne Bridge and others. That said, Terry is having a storming season at CB for Chelsea and is easily the best English defender in the PL. Can Hodgson coax him out of retirement to partner his Blues teammate Gary Cahill at the heart of England’s defense?

BATTLE OF USMNT ‘KEEPERS, HOWARD TAKES IT AGAIN

Everton’s 2-1 win over Aston Villa didn’t get much publicity this weekend as some big boys slipped up and the mammoth Man City v Chelsea clash dominated. But both U.S. goalkeepers were in action at Goodison Park on Saturday, as Tim Howard prevailed for the second time this season over his compatriot Brad Guzan. Last time they met at Villa Park in October, Howard saved a PK in Everton’s 2-0 win and Guzan kept the score respectable with some stunning saves. On Saturday both men were kept busy, but in a tight game where scoring opportunities were few and far between, neither was overworked.

Howard had no chance with Villa’s opener from Bacuna that slid underneath him, while the same happened to Guzan on Everton’s equalizer from Naismith. Then Guzan could only make a despairing dive towards the ball as Kevin Mirallas curled in a delicious free kick late on to win the game for the Toffees. Who is the USMNT number one? In terms of win in the PL, it’s Howard. Will that be the case in Brazil this summer?

Honorable mention: USMNT defender Geoff Cameron put in yet another solid display at right back in Stoke’s hugely impressive 2-1 home win over Manchester United. Cameron, 28, attracted a bid from Sunderland on deadline day, as he continues his rise in the PL. Good on you, Geoff.

With highlights of that game and more, in the mammoth video below of every single goal scored in the PL this weekend. Enjoy.

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

Ballack acknowledges difficult decision ahead for John Terry

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For the better part of 19 years John Terry has been a staple of Chelsea’s backline.

[ WATCH: Zaha nets first international goal for Ivory Coast ]

With his future at Stamford Bridge becoming more and more in doubt though, it appears it’s time for the 36-year-old to move on from his longtime club, and that’s a decision that another former Chelsea player doesn’t envy.

[ MORE: Everton’s Coleman breaks leg on Ireland duty ]

Ex-Blues midfielder Michael Ballack knows that Terry has options, whether it be in Major League Soccer, the Chinese Super League or even with another Premier League club, but the German says it’s difficult because of what the centerback has meant to Chelsea.

“He is a player with that history and charisma,” Ballack, who spent four years with Chelsea during his playing days, told Sky Sports. “He’s such a Chelsea boy and they love him there.

“I know what it means if your career comes to an end and you’re getting older. You don’t know whether you extend your contract, play for another club or go abroad to America.

“I’m sure he has some options but if you think long-term, you have to feel comfortable with the decision.

For the first time in years, Terry has failed to establish himself as a first-team regular largely due to Antonio Conte‘s three-back system. The 36-year-old has appeared in just five PL matches this campaign, while making 10 appearances overall for the Blues, who currently sit atop England’s top flight and are in position to go for the double with the FA Cup semifinals lurking.

Terry himself has acknowledged that his career is nearing its end, but knowing the competitive drive that has made the Englishman great throughout his almost 20-year career, it’s hard to imagine that he’ll just give up his playing days without a fight.

Gabriel Jesus confident he’ll return for Man City this season

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Gabriel Jesus bursted onto the Manchester City scene upon arrival, but an injury back in February has left the talented Brazilian sidelined ever since.

[ MORE: Everton loses Coleman to leg break on Ireland duty ]

The lively attacker suffered a broken metatarsal last month against Bournemouth, which required surgery, but the 19-year-old remains confident that he’ll be able to feature again this season for the Citizens.

“I don’t know, I have no return prediction,” Jesus told SporTV. “But I hope I can still play some games this season.”

Initial thoughts were that Jesus would miss around three months, all but ending his first Premier League season. Now, Jesus is hoping that he’ll be able to pick up where he left off prior to the devastating injury.

“It’s good,” Jesus said on his road to recovery. “Thank God, the effort, not just mine, but from all the physiotherapists in Manchester, doctors and everyone. It was not easy for me.

“It’s my first injury. Not muscle injury, but it’s the first time something happens that leaves me out of games. So it was not easy.

“But I saw that, of course, no one wants this to happen, but it could be worse. So we operated soon, I decided to operate and give it time.”

In just his first four matches with Pep Guardiola‘s side, the young Brazilian netted three goals and even dethroned Sergio Aguero in the starting lineup.

CONCACAF chief Montagliani seeks World Cup entry for all co-hosts

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A joint-bid for the 2026 FIFA World Cup is looking more and more possible, and CONCACAF chief Victor Montagliani believes that if that does happen then all co-hosts should be granted a spot in the tournament.

[ MORE: Making sense of USMNT’s emphatic win over Honduras ]

With FIFA president Gianni Infantino looking to finalize World Cup expansion plans from 32 to 48 teams over the coming weeks, it seems as though Montagliani’s hopes could become a reality for CONCACAF and other regions planning on creating multi-nation bids.

“I don’t think we should be dictating how a confederation allocates their slots from a hosting standpoint. That’s up to them,” Montagliani said.

FIFA will conduct its next meeting on Thursday when Infantino and all six confederation presidents meet in Zurich, Switzerland to decide on World Cup expansion, which Infantino has been adamant about since taking the reigns of soccer’s governing body.

2026 could play an important role for the United States, as it is seen as a critical piece in a joint-bid with Mexico and Canada to host the World Cup.

Additionally, Montagliani has hopes of making a combined Copa America with North and South America a permanent fixture after recently holding discussions with South America’s FIFA vice president Alejandro Dominguez.

[ MORE: Player ratings from Friday night’s massive USMNT victory ]

However, one area that would be left uncertain is the future of the CONCACAF Gold Cup, which is currently held every two years.

“If that is the case and we get that done, then we have to have a serious look — is it really tenable to have a Gold Cup?” said Montagliani, whose FIFA stakeholders panel faces tough talks on adding and subtracting dates when clubs must release players on international dates.

“Do we really need it [the Gold Cup]?” he suggested. “Is it just clogging the calendar for the players?”

Lukaku coy on Everton future, says “decision has already been made”

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Romelu Lukaku has made it no secret that he hopes to play Champions League football, and reality may be setting in that the opportunity to do so won’t come at Everton.

[ MORE: Everton loses Coleman to leg break during Ireland match ]

While the Belgium international hasn’t dealt his hand in regards to his future at Goodison Park, it seems as though the Toffees could be losing out on keeping their star striker.

[ MORE: UEFA qualifying roundup — Wales in trouble, Buffon hits 1000 ]

Last month, agent Mino Raiola claimed that Lukaku’s deal with the English side was 99.9 percent complete, however, the 23-year-old has still yet to ink a new contract.

Speaking ahead of Saturday’s UEFA World Cup qualifier against Greece, Lukaku says that his future plans are already made up.

“The decision has already been made so I can’t talk about that,” Lukaku said of his future at Everton.

The former Anderlecht standout has had nothing but success since joining Everton, first on loan and then making a permanent transfer from Chelsea in 2014. Over the combined stints, Lukaku has bagged 83 goals in all competitions for the Toffees, but the young attacker says there’s nothing wrong with having “ambition.”

“There is nothing wrong with ambition. You have to embrace it and where you are as a footballer,” Lukaku said. “I’ve made a long way until now but the road is still long and I know I have to improve and get better. I want to help Everton as much as I can, as well as the national team. I think a lot of stuff can be achieved.

“Sometimes people will mistake things that I say but it’s just ambition that I have; I want to win titles and trophies and I don’t think people should take that as arrogance — people should embrace it.

“This is what footballers need to achieve if they want to become the best, and I think young kids need to learn that too.”