Manchester United v Fulham - Premier League

Premier League Playback: Man United hit rock bottom, Hazard the hero, Liverpool dark horses?

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UNITED’S PREDICTABILITY PROVES THEY AREN’T LEARNING

“Today is probably as bad as it gets. We completely dominated the game, being 1-0 down was bad enough and it could’ve been 2-0 at one point. I mean the amount of chances, the play and attempts we had… how we didn’t win the game comfortably I have no idea.”

Sadly for fans of Manchester United, those sentiments uttered by David Moyes following Sunday’s damaging 2-2 draw with Fulham have come all too often this season.

As the Red Devils season hit a new low, they’re now nine points off the top four with 13 games to go, Moyes’ side examined many of the key factors why they are languishing in seventh spot and are 16 points away from league leaders Chelsea.

Defensive frailties, offensive predictability and a lack of belief.

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Click to enlarge: Average position of Fulham’s players vs. United. Source: Opta

As you can see from the diagram on the left, the average position of both teams shows that not one of Fulham’s players were in United’s half. But somehow the Red Devils conceded twice, and despite their record haul of crosses, 75 percent possession and 22 attempts at goal, they only bagged two goals to leave over 75,000 at Old Trafford scratching their heads.

On Sunday cross after cross came in as United’s predictability, often a trait of Moyes’ management of Everton, came to the fore. The Red Devils sent in 81 crosses, more than any PL team in a single game since Opta started keeping records of that component in 2006. But the crosses often hit the first man, or found one of Fulham’s white shirts who piled into the box as United’s attackers wandered around with no real gumption to get on the end of the deliveries. Look at the image below on the right, the ball often got to the byline but was just hung up aimlessly. They played into the Cottagers hands time and time again, as only one of United’s 10 outfield players didn’t attempt a cross, Nemanja Vidic.

That leads us nicely into the problems in defense, which were highlighted by both of Fulham’s goals. Granted, they came against the run of play to snatch a point, but the ease in which Fulham exposed United’s defense, skippered by the outgoing Vidic who announced he will leave United at the end of this season, was shocking.

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Click to enlarge: The cross graph from United’s 2-2 draw with Fulham. Red balls indicate blocked crosses.  Source: Opta.

For Fulham’s opening goal Steve Sidwell’s run wasn’t even a complex or well-crafted one, it was straight as a dye and cut through United’s defense like a knife through butter. Juan Mata and Darren Fletcher were both caught napping, Patrice Evra didn’t tuck in  from left back to close the gap Sidwell ran into, and Fulham were 1-0 up. As easy as that.

Then came the assault on the Cottagers goal, as they held out until the 78th minute 1-0 up, but Robin van Persie re-directed Mata’s shot to make it 1-1, then United went ahead just over a minute later. Michael Carrick’s 79th minute goal hit the back of the net via a deflection to hand United a lead they’d relentlessly pushed for. As the ball went in, Moyes turned to the directors box and punched the air with fury, delighted and relief.

Sir Alex Ferguson was in there somewhere, and that act of jubilation from Moyes seemed to also vent his frustration as the Red Devils continue to underwhelm across the board. Ferguson was watching on from the comfort of his warm, padded seat, with the husky voice of Simply Red’s lead man Mick Hucknall sat next to him but Fergie must feel a little uneasy at the squad he left Moyes to inherit. At this rate, Hucknall better take his boots with him the next time he turns up at Old Trafford…

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Click to enlarge: Average position of United’s players vs. Fulham. Source: Opta

Because all of Moyes’ jubilation was for ‘nowt,’ as they say in Northern England. Another huge defensive lapse cost United all three points in the 94th minute as, just like the first goal, basic errors at the back saw them come unstuck. Vidic had to head the ball clear but instead knocked it down to Carrick who was stripped of the ball, and suddenly Fulham had a four on four break in the final minute while United were 2-1 up at home.

As you can see on the left, both United’s full backs were bombing on throughout the game, leaving the duo of Vidic and Chris Smalling incredibly exposed.

That should not happen, and the Cottagers took full advantage of it as Darren Bent nodded home from close range following Kieran Richardson’s shot being parried away by David De Gea. Silence at Old Trafford.

Not for the first time this season, and probably not the last either. United have now hit rock bottom and the only way is up. But just how far is that?

If they keep putting in performances like that, chances of reaching the top four and Champions League soccer is a million miles away. If it hasn’t vanished already.

Premier League Schedule – Week 25

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

HAZARD: BALLON D’OR PRETENDER?

On Saturday Chelsea brushed aside Newcastle 3-0 at Stamford Bridge, going top of the PL stansings in the process, as the Belgian boy-wonder Eden Hazard bagged his first-ever Blues hat trick. Afterwards Chelsea’s manager Jose Mourinho reserved special praise for the 23-year-old trickster, the player he often refers to as ‘The Kid.’

“I think a team is made of 11 guys, but obviously he is special. I think in this moment he’s the best young player in the world.”

After two quick one-twos in the first half with Branislav Ivanovic and Samuel Eto’o, Hazard put Chelsea 2-0 up with fine finishes as he scampered past Newcastle’s defenders as if they weren’t there.

His eyes were locked on the prize and as his scything runs cut out the entire heart of the Magpies defense, Hazard continue on his path to greatness. The Kid is turning into a man before our eyes.

Earlier in the week Hazard spoke of his admiration for FIFA World Players of the Year Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo and how he needed to score more goals to be in that bracket. Scoring your first-ever hat trick for Chelsea immediately after stating that shows the mark of the young man. He know has 15 goals on the season and has lit up Chelsea’s rise to the PL summit. The Blues paid French side Lille $48 million for Hazard’s services in 2012. Pretty soon, that fee could look like a snip. Warning Messi and Ronaldo… there’s a Hazard coming your way.

HOW LIVERPOOL HAMMERED ARSENAL

With Steven Gerrard delivering pinpoint crosses for Liverpool’s juggernauts to attack, it’s no surprise the Reds got off to a flying start with two goals inside the first 10 minutes from big center half Martin Skrtel on Saturday. Add in the lighting quick trio of Luis Suarez, Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge and it was an absolute nightmare start for Arsenal that didn’t get any better.

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Liverpool had a dream first 20 minutes at Anfield, they surged into a 5-0 lead just after half time and embarrassed title hopefuls Arsenal on Merseyside. Gerrard sprayed the ball around masterfully from the holding role as he was at the center of it all, but the quartet of Sterling, Suarez, Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho tore Arsenal apart, as the cumbersome duo of Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker were once again exposed due to their lack of pace on the turn. Here are three things we learned from Liverpool’s demolition of the Gunners, as the away side ran around like loose cannons on Saturday.

High-pressure play has evoked high hopes for the rest of the season at Anfield. With Liverpool just six points off top spot and both Manchester City and Chelsea still to play at home, can Brendan Rodgers’ team come from nowhere to win this PL title?

PALACE, FULHAM: TRANSFER WINDOW WONDERS

Holtby’s delicate chip into Sidwell for Fulham’s first goal in the 2-2 draw at Old Trafford showed what the young German is capable of. His driving runs and artful weaving on the ball see him stand out above the crowd. But often at Spurs he didn’t have moments of substance, yet he already looks like the main man in a Fulham shirt and is driving the Cottagers on. The German international linking up with new $18 million poacher Kostas Mitroglou, expected to make his Fulham debut on Wednesday against Liverpool, should have fans of the Lillywhites licking their lips. Maybe, just maybe, Fulham can salvage their season as another deadline day buy Johnny Heitinga looked solid at the back against United.

RECAP: Transfer window grades for all 20 PL teams

Elsewhere, within 30 minutes of their debuts Thomas Ince and Joe Ledley had both scored to put Crystal Palace 2-0 up vs. West Brom. Talk about making an instant impact. Tony Pulis has often been lauded for his ability to rummage around in the transfer bargain bin hurriedly on deadline day, and being able to pull out a gem or two.

He’s done it again. And now the Eagles are surging towards safety as the cavalry have well and truly arrived, as the 3-1 victory vs. WBA was a fifth home win in seven attempts for the Eagles, since the former Stoke boss arrived in November.

To watch that big win for Palace, and all the other goals and action from Round 25, here’s the PL video highlights below. Enjoy.

Premier League Playback takes an alternative look at all the weekend’s action from the PL, it comes out every week. Due to midweek action, it will be back on Thursday. Double helpings…

How Sevilla hope to destroy the Madrid-Barca duopoly in Spain

MADRID, SPAIN - OCTOBER 15: Samir Nasri  (2ndR) of Sevilla FC celebrates scoring their second goal with teammates during the La Liga match between CD Leganes and Sevilla FC at Estadio Municipal de Butarque on October 15, 2016 in Leganes, Spain. (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images
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MADRID (AP) Sevilla’s ambitious hopes of becoming a La Liga contender are beginning to materialize.

With an inspired team not afraid of confronting the powerhouses, Sevilla has shown it’s ready to take the next step and seriously challenge Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Atletico Madrid.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday | Thursday ]

One game before the halfway mark in the Spanish league, the squad revitalized by coach Jorge Sampaoli is only a point behind leader Madrid, a team it defeated in impressive fashion on Sunday.

The come-from-behind 2-1 win came thanks to another gritty performance by Sampaoli’s team, which has mixed high-intensity defense and a fast-paced attack to impose its style against opponents, no matter how strong they are.

“A victory in a game like this allows us to remain optimistic and believe that this team can continue this run if we maintain this same determination,” Sampaoli said. “Time will tell if we can succeed.”

Sevilla’s win halted Madrid’s 40-game unbeaten streak in all competitions. Sevilla had already come close to a victory midweek in the Copa del Rey, but it conceded two late goals in a 3-3 draw that led to its elimination. It lost the first leg the week before in Madrid 3-0.

“We had three difficult matches against Real Madrid and we were superior in two of them,” Sampaoli said. “We were able to beat a team that was unbeaten.”

[ MORE: PHOTO — Juventus unveil new logo, identity rebrand ]

Sevilla this season also defeated Atletico 1-0, drew at fifth-place Villarreal 0-0, and routed sixth-place Real Sociedad 4-0. It lost 2-1 to Barcelona in an encouraging display.

It has won six of its last seven league games, including four in a row. In front of its diehard fans at Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan Stadium, Sevilla has won eight of its nine games.

It lost the European Super Cup title to Madrid in extra time last year, and this season advanced to the knockout stages of the Champions League, where it will face Leicester City in the Round of 16.

Sevilla has thrived in the lower-tiered Europa League, winning three straight titles, but its last Spanish league trophy was in 1946. The last time it finished second was in 1957.

It hasn’t had this much success in the league since 2007, when a squad that included Dani Alves and Frederic Kanoute fought for the title and eventually finished third behind Barcelona and champion Real Madrid. Sevilla led the competition after 18 matches that season, but with 37 points, two less than it has now.

Sevilla, the Copa del Rey winner in 2007 and 2010, also finished third in the league in 2009.

While Atletico Madrid made its way to the top thanks to the stout defense of coach Diego Simeone, Sampaoli’s Sevilla has been balancing a competitive defense with an effective offense led by players such as Samir Nasri, Victor “Vitolo” Machin, Wissam Ben Yedder, and Luciano Vietto.

[ MORE: PL Playback — One from six; who are the title favorites now? ]

It’s the first time since the winning campaign of 1956-57 that Sevilla has scored 38 goals in its first 18 league matches. Only Barcelona (47) and Madrid (46) have scored more this season.

“This team likes to play, it likes to attack,” said Stevan Jovetic, who scored the injury-time winner against Madrid on Sunday. “There is still a long way to go and we will be fighting against some top teams, but we will keep doing our thing and see where we can end up.”

Sampaoli, the Argentine coach who arrived with high expectations this season, has made a mark by successfully rotating players. Despite not having the same budget as Madrid or Barcelona, he has been able to make the most out of the squad put together by renowned sports director Ramon “Monchi” Rodriguez.

But despite the recent success and all the hype surrounding Sevilla, president Jose Castro is trying to keep the club grounded.

“We are excited, we are one point behind Madrid, and one ahead of Barcelona,” Castro said. “We will try to win it all, but the goal is to secure a spot in the Champions (League). The Spanish league is for other teams with a bigger budget.”

Sevilla’s next game is at last-place Osasuna on Sunday.

Courtois: Chelsea can still win title without Costa

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 26:  Thibaut Courtois of Chelsea celebrates his team's second goal during the Premier League match between Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur at Stamford Bridge on November 26, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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A week from now, Diego Costa may still be a Chelsea player; he may also very well be off to the Chinese Super League by then.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

The beauty insanity of the transfer market — and a volatile figure like Costa, in particular — is that no one knows which path he’ll take. After being made to train on his own on Monday, the best anyone can tell you is, “It’s 50-50.”

There aren’t many sides in the world that could stand to lose the league’s top goal-scorer (14 goals in 19 appearances this season; Chelsea have played 21 games) and still win the league title, but Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois believes that the current Blues squad is one that could hold onto its seven-point lead with 17 games remaining — quotes from FourFourTwo:

“Of course we have enough quality to replace Diego. Diego is important for us, but if he’s not there for one game, we know we can handle it as well.

“Was this a message to our rivals? Yes, just to see Chelsea won 3-0 and that loss at Spurs didn’t affect us and we can play without Diego if need be. I think everybody hoped for us to drop points and we didn’t so that was very good.”

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday | Thursday ]

Eden Hazard has chipped in with nine goals of his own this season — his performances have been bordering on brilliance at points — while Pedro and Willian each have five league goals to their name. 19 goals from three secondary-type scorers is what champions are made of, until you consider the only other true striker currently in the squad, 23-year-old Premier League newcomer Michy Batshuayi, has 1) made just 13 PL appearances (all as a substitute); 2) scored just once, all the way back in August.

Louis van Gone: Ex-Man United, Barca boss LvG retires from coaching

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 21:  Louis van Gaal Manager of Manchester United celebrates after winning The Emirates FA Cup Final match between Manchester United and Crystal Palace at Wembley Stadium on May 21, 2016 in London, England. Man Utd won 2-1 after extra time.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
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It wasn’t supposed to end like this for Louis Van Gaal.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

In his mind, he probably imagine himself manager Manchester United for the duration of his three-year contract before riding off into the sunset after restoring the Red Devils as Premier League champions four months from now. At the very least, he’d agree to stay on one more season to complete a bit of unfinished business after narrowly missing out on the title in his third season in charge at Old Trafford.

Instead, he was fired last May, two days after lifting the FA Cup at Wembley Stadium, and has been out of a job ever since. Van Gaal’s unemployment will now continue for the rest of his days, as the 65-year-old announced on Monday that he has retired from coaching after 26 years at Ajax, Barcelona (twice), AZ Alkmaar, Netherlands (twice), Bayern Munich and Manchester United — quote from the BBC:

“I thought maybe I would stop, then I thought it would be a sabbatical, but now I do not think I will return to coaching.”

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday | Thursday ]

After the stress put upon his shoulders while at Man United, the last eight months must have felt like heaven to Van Gaal. Why on earth would anyone ever go back?

AFCON: DR Congo go top of Group C with win; Ivory Coast, Togo draw

Congo's Lomalisa Mutambala, right, with Morocco's Faycal Fajr, left, during their African Cup of Nations Group C soccer match between Congo and Morocco at the Stade de Oyem in Oyem, Gabon, Monday Jan. 16, 2017. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)
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A roundup of all of Monday’s action in the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations…

Ivory Coast 0-0 Togo

OYEM, Gabon (AP) Ivory Coast’s Europe-based stars stumbled in the heat of northern Gabon in their African Cup of Nations opener, with the defending champion held by Togo to 0-0 on Monday in another twist to start the tournament.

Ivory Coast’s title-winning coach fared worse as Congo beat Herve Renard’s Morocco 1-0 in the day’s second game.

Congo, a team that was on strike and refusing to train two days ago, finished with nine men on the field and on top of Group D.

Ivory Coast created few clear chances against Togo, with Wilfried Zaha‘s blocked shot in the second half after a clever run probably its best. Zaha was substituted two minutes later and, although Ivory Coast pressed hard in stages, it never broke open Togo’s well-drilled defense in the first game in Group C in the northern jungle town of Oyem.

Togo was competitive in the first half and had two good openings with around 10 minutes to go, when Kodjo Laba missed with a header from in front of goal and Mathieu Dossevi’s deflected shot dropped onto the roof of the net.

Four of the first six games at the African Cup have been draws, with Ivory Coast’s fellow title challenger, Algeria, held to 2-2 by Zimbabwe, a team that hasn’t qualified for the African Cup in over a decade. Also, host Gabon couldn’t beat outsider and tournament debutant Guinea-Bissau in the opening game.

“After Algeria-Zimbabwe and Gabon-Guinea-Bissau, we were very careful,” Ivory Coast coach Michel Dussuyer said. “But we still have two (group) matches so we are still confident.”

Togo even started better, and Dossevi was clear on goal in the 29th minute only for Ivorian goalkeeper Sylvain Gbohouo to smother the chance.

Zaha was at the heart of Ivory Coast’s two best attacks, first in the first half when he sped down the right wing and sent across a dangerous low cross that was scrambled away. Then, in the 68th minute, he tricked his marker with a clever turn, cut inside, and hit a low shot that was headed to goal before two Togo defenders managed to get in the way.

Senegal and Congo are the only teams to win at the tournament.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday | Thursday ]

DR Congo 1-0 Morocco

Junior Kabananga got the winner for Congo in the 55th minute after a mistake from Morocco `keeper Monir el-Kajoui. Congo’s Lomalisa Mutambala was sent off for a wild tackle in the 81st and played the last six minutes of normal time plus six minutes of injury time with nine men when captain Gabriel Zakuani went off injured with all their substitutes used up.

Still, victory was a major mood-changer for Congo, whose players refused to train on Friday and Saturday, claiming they hadn’t been paid tournament bonuses. They also posted a video on social media during their strike, where they complained about their treatment.

On Monday, Morocco was the one frustrated: Midfielder M’Bark Boussoufa hit the crossbar in the second minute. Goalkeeper El-Kajoui tried to block a cross with his feet and managed only to divert the ball to Kabananga to score the winning goal. Then, substitutes Youssef En Nesyri and Youssef el-Arabi missed late chances.

Although Ivory Coast and later Renard failed their first tests at the tournament, the Stade d’Oyem held up despite a desperate race to be ready in time, which saw workers scrambling around the venue finishing all sorts of jobs on the day of the game. Television viewers won’t have seen the construction debris that surrounds the outside of the stadium, which juts out of dense jungle canopy around 15 kilometers outside of Oyem.

Even organizers couldn’t do anything about the heat during the opening match, though, with Togo coach Claude le Roy’s shirt covered in dark sweat patches after urging his team on to a promising draw against the defending champion Ivorians.

“It was very hot. We were sweating so much,” Le Roy said. “We did what it takes. We are satisfied with the draw.”

Tuesday’s AFCON schedule

Ghana vs. Uganda — 11 a.m. ET
Mali vs. Egypt — 2 p.m. ET