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.

Benitez happy to stay at Newcastle if he “has the tools to compete”

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Rafa Benitez is approaching something vaguely resembling sainthood in the northeast of England — with the Newcastle United-supporting portion, at least — but his future remains in doubt as the end of the current Premier League season draws nearer and the next one approaches.

[ MORE: Salah beats De Bruyne to win PFA Player of the year award ]

Benitez and Newcastle owner Mike Ashley have endured an unhappy working relationship for much of Benitez’s 25 months at the club. The Spaniard was true to his word, though, when he stuck around another season after being relegated from the PL in 2016, then again after winning promotion on the Magpies’ first attempt, but he’ll be faced with the same dilemma again this summer, even after guiding Newcastle to a mid-table finish (they currently sit 10th with five games left to play).

[ MORE: Man United reach FA Cup final | Chelsea join them ]

If he’s not given assurances that he’ll be handed the necessary funds to properly strengthen his squad during the upcoming summer transfer window, the 58-year-old could very well walk away and leave Ashley to play the part of all-too-familiar villain. Or, as Benitez put it this weekend, Ashley could fork over “the tools to be capable of competing” and make everyone, from the manager to the fans, happy — quotes form the Guardian:

“If they [Ashley’s representatives] want to talk to my people [about a new contract,] they can talk. The main thing is to be sure we share the same ambition.

“I want to win games and I want to win trophies and I want to have the tools to be capable of competing. At the same time, I like to improve players, coach players, follow a business plan, a realistic business plan in modern football. I have no problem with that because I did it in the past.

“We have to be sure to have all the tools to compete and achieve what we want to achieve because Newcastle is a massive football club and we want it to reach its potential.”

Of course, the perfect scenario for everyone involved would have been for any one of the numerous takeover bids to have gone through during the last two years, but as was most recently evidenced earlier this year, Ashley and the Toon can’t seem to quit each other just yet.

MLS: Timbers end NYCFC’s unbeaten start; Seattle get 1st win

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Sunday was a very good day for a pair of green-clad Cascadia rivals, the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders, as the former put to end the unbeaten start of the best team in MLS, while the latter picked up their first win of 2018…

[ MORE: Saturday’s MLS roundupOther MLS Things — The Archive ]

Portland Timbers 3-0 New York City FC

Through their first seven games, NYCFC were almost inarguably the best team in MLS (aside: how much better is their opening-day walkover of Sporting KC looking these days?), but Patrick Vieira’s side might as well have not even shown up to Providence Park on Sunday. Chalk it up to “it’s only one game,” or “these things happen in MLS,” or “NYC to Portland is a long trip for Russian clubs,” or any other credible rationale you prefer, but they were nothing more than 11 passengers for the whole of 90 minutes.

A quick look at the defending on all three of Portland’s goals…

Vieira was right at halftime, when he said his side was lacking intensity and aggression, and that it’d be nigh impossible to get back into the game in the second half if they continued to play that way. Spoiler: it was, because they did.

Just as I’ll not be rushing to judgment over NYCFC’s no-show performance, I’m not yet buying into the idea that Portland have figured things out defensively on the back of one clean sheet (their first of the season).

Seattle Sounders 3-1 Minnesota United

Speaking of firsts, Seattle are the proud owners of points — as in, more than one point — after putting three past Minnesota but almost fatally failing to kill the game off after going 2-0 up. I’m not sure what any defender in black is doing on this sequence…

Alas, Gustav Svensson, Will Bruin and Jordy Delem were far more clinical with their chances than the Loons…

Still, though, Seattle were completely helpless when it came time to grab control of the game while in a commanding position. Osvaldo Alonso is nowhere near the player he once was, which is a massive problem against teams that set up to counter-attack, as Minnesota did on Sunday. It doesn’t help that Roman Torres and Chad Marshall are the plodding center backs behind him.

The obvious answer to the midfield problem is to play Cristian Roldan deeper, alongside Alonso as they did en route to winning MLS Cup in 2016, but injuries to a number of key attackers have forced him into a de facto no. 10 role for the time being. These things will work themselves out with a bit of time, I suppose.

Full MLS scoreboard

Sporting Kansas City 6-0 Vancouver Whitecaps (Friday) — FULL RECAP
Montreal Impact 3-5 Los Angeles FC — FULL RECAP
Houston Dynamo 5-1 Toronto FC
New York Red Bulls 1-2 Chicago Fire
Columbus Crew SC 2-2 New England Revolution
Orlando City SC 3-2 San Jose Earthquakes
FC Dallas 2-0 Philadelphia Union
Real Salt Lake 3-0 Colorado Rapids
LA Galaxy 0-2 Atlanta United

Salah beats De Bruyne to win PFA Player of the Year award

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LONDON (AP) Mohamed Salah has been voted Player of the Year by his fellow professionals in English football in recognition of an incredible scoring return to the Premier League with Liverpool.

[ MORE: Man United reach FA Cup final | Chelsea join them ]

The Egypt forward collected the Professional Footballers’ Association award at a ceremony in London on Sunday, two days before Liverpool’s Champions League semifinal first leg against Roma.

It is a reunion with the Italian club he left in the offseason for 42 million euros (then $47 million). The hefty fee appeared to be a gamble for Liverpool but now represents a real bargain.

The former Chelsea player has scored 41 goals in 46 appearances in all competitions for Liverpool – enabling him to beat Manchester City midfielder Kevin De Bruyne in second place to the PFA award.

Tottenham striker Harry Kane was third.

[ MORE: Man City thrash Swansea in pursuit of points record ]

“It’s a big honor,” Salah said. “I’ve worked hard and I’m very happy to win it.”

Salah is preparing to lead Egypt into its first World Cup in 28 years and he is the first player from the North African nation to win English football’s top individual prize.

“Hopefully I’m not the last one,” he said. “I’m very proud to win and I’ve worked very hard.”

Salah’s impact has been more remarkable given his underwhelming 2014-15 season at Chelsea before being offloaded by then-manager Jose Mourinho. He went on loan to Fiorentina in early 2015 and Roma in 2016, and then on a permanent basis to Roma in August 2016.

Scoring 15 goals and setting up 11 more for Roma convinced Liverpool to bring Salah back to a second spell in England.

[ MORE: Liverpool draw West Brom in final tune-up before UCL semis ]

His goal at West Bromwich Albion on Saturday was his 31st in the league this season, tying the scoring record in a 38-game campaign held by Cristiano Ronaldo, Alan Shearer and Luis Suarez.

Suarez was the last Liverpool player to be crowned player of the year by the PFA in 2014 before moving to Barcelona.

It’s a sign of his remarkable impact that Salah secured the award with third-place Liverpool and that none of Manchester City’s newly crowned champions won the accolade.

But City winger Leroy Sane was voted PFA Young Player of the Year.

The PFA women’s player award went to Chelsea forward Fran Kirby, while Lauren Hemp of Bristol City secured the young player prize.

CONCACAF cancels women’s U-17 tournament due to violence

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MIAMI BEACH, Fla. (AP) CONCACAF has canceled the rest of its 2018 Women’s Under-17 Championship following violence in Managua, Nicaragua, where the tournament began Thursday.

The Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football made the announcement Sunday. The tournament was to have determined the region’s qualifiers for the Under-17 World Cup in Uruguay, which starts Nov. 13.

More than two dozen people have been killed since Wednesday according to the independent Nicaraguan Human Rights Center, though the government had acknowledged only nine dead. Dozens of shops in Managua were looted during protests and disturbances sparked by government social security reforms.

The U.S. opened Friday with a 4-0 win over Costa Rica and had been scheduled to play Bermuda on Sunday and Canada on Tuesday.