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Premier League Playback: Why Liverpool, Spurs are surging, stalemates, sunny breaks and romance

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LIVERPOOL, SPURS PEAKING THANKS TO RESURGENT HEROES

With so many people concerned about whether or not Manchester United are going to make the top four this season, the imperious form of Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur has fallen by the wayside. Let’s address that.

Liverpool’s sublime attacking units is capable, as we saw against Arsenal, of ripping apart any team in the PL. While Tottenham are a well-oiled machine under Tim Sherwood, as they keep it simple and overpower their opponents with sheer athleticism and a massive will to win.

Both teams are going full throttle at making it into UEFA Champions League this season, with one team likely to miss out, agonizingly so.

Hang on a minute, why can’t both Liverpool and Spurs finish in the top four? Following their impressive midweek displays, watch Liverpool’s enthralling comeback win over Fulham above, both Liverpool and Spurs have two resurgent heroes at the center of their upsurge.

Steven Gerrard and Emmanuel Adebayor are spearheading their teams top four challenge.

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Click to enlarge – Gerrard’s passes vs. Fulham. Blues = successful passes. (Source: Opta)

First let’s start with English national team captain, Gerrard, who has been a sensation playing in a deeper role for much of this season skippering Liverpool. The amount of times I’ve been asked the question, ‘Gerrard is no spring chicken, can he still do it?’ has been quite absurd. If anything, Gerrard’s lack of being able to maraud up and down the pitch like he did in the past has helped not only his own play, but Liverpool’s chances of success, considerably. In the 2008-09 campaign Liverpool finished second in the PL standings and at this stage of the season they had 55 points. This year they have 53 points, their second best PL record after 26 games. The Reds are four points off the top of the table, with top four dreams replaced by aspirations to lift their first ever PL crown.

Since January 1, Liverpool have the best record in the Premier League. They have won five and drawn two of their seven games and have a goal differential of +13.

Much has been made of the sensational strike rates of forwards Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez, and rightly so, but Gerrard is the heartbeat of Liverpool at the age of 33. As we mentioned Gerrard has been deployed in a deep-lying role this season, and as you can see on the left from his pass map in the win over Fulham, Gerrard rarely passes backwards and his various raking long balls keep Liverpool moving forward at all time.

His engine may not be capable of performing at the highest speeds anymore, but like a luxurious Italian sportscar, you can’t get rid of Gerrard’s class.

His ball through to Sturridge for Liverpool’s first goal on Wednesday was sublime. A thing of beauty. Wondrous. Only Gerrard could have delicately threaded that ball through with the outside of this boot and taken four Fulham defenders out of the game in one fell swoop. As you can see from the stats below, Gerrard’s pass percentage rate is well over 70 percent in each of his six appearances since January 1.

The pass percentages are rather low compared with his performances in games earlier this season, but now Gerrard has license to try those long risky balls to try and open up opposition defenses. He is now the catalyst to help Liverpool get in behind the opposition, where before he was making plenty of backwards and sideways passes. Not anymore.

Gerrard’s passing stats in 2014, in games he’s started

Date Opponent Minutes Played Passes Successful Passes Passing Accuracy %
12/1/14 Stoke City 90 58 44 75.90%
18/01/14 Villa 90 42 31 73.80%
28/01/14 Everton 90 34 26 76.50%
2/2/14 WBA 90 59 48 81.40%
8/2/14 Arsenal 76 43 34 79.10%
12/2/14 Fulham 90 74 64 86.50%

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On Wednesday, ‘Captain Fantastic’ had a penalty kick in the final minute away at Fulham to seal the 3-2 win for Liverpool. Cool as a cucumber he dispatched the penalty into the top corner and wheeled away in absolute jubilation towards the thousands of traveling Liverpool supporters. As Gerrard tore his shirt off and whirled it around his head like a helicopter’s rotor blades, you saw how much it meant to him.

A hometown boy who has never won the title in 16 years with the Anfield club, he is desperate to lift the crown before he retires. The celebrations from Liverpool’s young stars, who idolize Gerrard, also epitomized the magnificent team spirit that fuels Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool side.

Here’s what the Reds Northern Irish manager said after the crucial comeback win over Fulham that sees his side in the hunt for the PL crown.

The first four, five months I was in here, we would’ve lost that game. But we’ve now built a way of working and a way of playing, but not only that, we’ve built a spirit and camaraderie that sees us fight until the very end.

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As for Spurs, they have the third best record in the PL since the turn of the year, with 16 points from seven games and the only defeat coming against Man City.

One man has been instrumental in their upturn, as Emmanuel Adebayor has now scored eight goals in Tim Sherwood’s first 10 games in charge of Spurs. The revitalized striker has breathed new life into Tottenham’s campaign. Frozen out under previous boss Andre Villas-Boas, the Togolese forward has flourished under the new direct tactics Sherwood has implemented and his goal celebration of proudly saluting Tottenham’s fans will be something we’ll see a lot more of between now and the end of the season.

After playing for Arsenal, Manchester City, Real Madrid and Monaco, Adebayor’s class is there for all to see. Sherwood has said that time and time again, as AVB has been made to look like a fool for keeping the 29-year-old striker out of his squad altogether. With club record signing Roberto Soldado on the bench as Adebayor keeps banging the goals in, Spurs hammered Newcastle 4-0 on Wednesday and are now just three points behind Liverpool, who occupy fourth. Adebayor is always sniffing around the box and always seems to be on hand to finish off the vast array of crosses Spurs put into the box, something Soldado hasn’t done this season.

For his first goal vs. Newcastle on Wednesday, Adebayor won the ball on the halfway line, held it up and laid it off to Nabil Bentaleb who surged down the left. While he did that, Adeabyor put his head down and sprinted to get into the box and eventually the ball found him, and he finished confidently. He was in the box to finish it off. That’s something Spurs have been lacking from their strikers all season.

Can the North London club really bounce back from the distress of life under AVB and seal their aim of Champions League soccer, after cruelly missing out on the final day of last season?

Speaking about Spurs’ top four chances, Rookie boss Sherwood believes Liverpool are ahead of his side. But not by much.

Liverpool are up there at the moment. You would say they are favorites, but we think we can put a charge together. We’ve got to believe in that. But it is not only Liverpool. I think there are other teams in this race.

Premier League Schedule – Week 26

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

STALEMATE CENTRAL: WHY THE TITLE RACE IS WIDE OPEN

After Arsenal’s stalemate with Manchester United on Wednesday night at the Emirates, Gunners boss Arsene Wenger spoke on the

“Our team was highly focused not to concede tonight, maybe that restricted our game going forward a little bit. We were certainly hit by the five goals we conceded on Saturday [in the defeat by Liverpool] and you could feel that a little bit tonight.”

Feb 12: Arsenal 0-0 Manchester United. Dec. 23: Arsenal 0-0 Chelsea. Aug. 26: Manchester United 0-0 Chelsea.

In some of the biggest Premier League games this season we’ve seen dour stalemates as the PL’s giants don’t want to be on the end of knockout blows. It’s been like watching two great prizefighter’s dance around in the ring, threaten to smash each other in the face, but instead delicately tap one another on the chin.

In all of the aforementioned 0-0 draws, the away side has turned up with a game plan to shut up shop, and every single time it has worked perfectly. Does that mean most PL teams can grind out a draw when they need to? The vast majority can, especially the teams at the top.

Three things we learned from Arsenal and Manchester United’s deadlock

What we haven’t seen enough of from Arsenal this season in these tight games, is a way to combat ultra-defensive displays. There has often not been a Plan B. Unless you call throwing on Nicklas Bendtner late on a plan. (It’s not.) The Gunners attacking talents have failed to turn it out late in games when it’s really mattered. Arsenal have had 12 clean sheets and are proud of not conceding in their last five home games. But as they stay in the hunt for the PL title, just one point off league leaders Chelsea, the Gunners need to kick the habit of becoming frustrated by familiar foes parking the bus.

Latest Premier League Standings

Chelsea are the chief protagonists at getting shutouts, while Man City would be the people’s favorites to win the Premier League crown after their shed load of goals sees them battling it out at the summit. But even the Citizens vast array of attacking talents have failed to score in their past two games.

Going away from the top teams, look at the rest of the Premier League… There were two 0-0 draws, a 1-0 win and two 1-1 draws in the eight midweek PL matches. That’s not a lot of goals, and as the stakes go up, so does the tension and that means more teams trying to keep what they have and nick a win, rather than performing swashbuckling soccer to get three points.

Here’s a recap video from the action on Wednesday to see some of the stalemate soccer play out.

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HEAVY SCHEDULES TAKING THEIR TOLL? SOME ARE OFF TO THE SUN…

With torrential rain and wind battering Premier League players for months, FA Cup, European and PL games coming thick and fast and everyone expecting you to keep performing at the highest level, this time of year is when the real champions arise as the hard slog gets tougher.

With Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea still battling for three trophies (four in City’s case) you can forgive their players for looking a little jaded. But for those PL squads who were knocked out of the FA Cup in the early stages, they have now been rewarded with a nice little break. And they are making the most of it.

Last week I spoke with U.S. international Geoff Cameron: “We are off to Dubai on Thursday for a warm weather break,” was his response when I asked what was coming up. Lucky devil. Looks like U.S. international Cameron and his Stoke teammates are enjoying their much needed working trip to Dubai…

With the crew @muniesa @erikpieters Jack Butland #jokers

A photo posted by Cameron 🇺🇸 Geoff (@geoffcameron) on

Similarly West Bromwich Albion are off to the famed La Manga resort in Southern Spain, while Manchester United and West Ham United are also off to Dubai to get away from it all. Newcastle have already been overseas to the Middle-East to work on their tans and recharge their batteries. That worked out well for Alan Pardew’s men (four straight defeats.…) Anyway, what would players rather be doing in the middle of a harsh English winter?

Lying by a pool in warmer climates or battling for multiple titles on the domestic and European stage? Do I even have to answer that…

Much maligned Manchester United midfielder Tom Cleverley believes the warm-weather break will help the Red Devils kick on in the second half of the season. Let’s see if these teams soaking up the sun in Spain or the Middle-East this week all perform how Cleverley believes United will in the closing stages.

We’ll go away and have a good five days of warm-weather training which will bring us together and hopefully do us good for the run-in. Warm-weather training is good for fitness as well as team bonding and the team spirit you get from having all the lads together. We did it last year and it really helped us – hopefully it’ll have the same effect this time.

EVERTON, THE PEOPLE’S CLUB, WITH A HEART WARMING GESTURE

Finally, let’s end with something that will truly make you smile and revel in the kindness of humanity. As you’re probably aware, Manchester City’s match vs. Sunderland and Everton’s games against Crystal Palace were called off on Wednesday as 100mph winds battered England. The latter game was cancelled just an hour before kick off amid safety fears.

But before the game had been postponed, Everton fan Richard Wee tweeted the following before he found out about the game being called off, as the life-long Evertonian had flown in from Thailand to see his first-ever Everton game.

Oh dear.

Fear not, Everton’s media staff managed to track down Mr. Wee and tried their best to salvage his trip halfway across the globe, by taking him to meet manager Roberto Martinez and star defender Leighton Baines in the dressing room.

To complete the treatment, Everton rolled out the ‘blue carpet’ for Wee on Thursday before he flew home, as he was also given a guided tour of Goodison Park by club legend Graeme Sharp.

Needless to say, Wee was delighted and Everton tweeted the following. On the eve of Valentines Day, who said romance is dead in soccer? Classy from the “People’s Club.” Share the love people.

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

Watch Live: Chelsea vs. West Brom (Lineups, Stream)

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 22:  Diego Costa of Chelsea and Joleon Lescott of West Brom battle for the ball during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and West Bromwich Albion at Stamford Bridge on November 22, 2014 in London, England.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
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Chelsea hosts West Bromwich Albion from Stamford Bridge (Watch live, 7:00 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) as the Blues look to extend their eight-match win streak.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE HERE

The Blues make one change from last weekend’s 3-1 come-from-behind victory over Manchester City as Cesc Fabregas makes way in the starting XI for Nemanja Matic.

Antonio Conte‘s side will be opposed by a West Brom side that is unbeaten in their last four Premier League matches. The Baggies remain unchanged from last week’s 3-1 win over Watford as the side looks to move above eighth in the table.

LINEUPS

Chelsea: Courtois; Azpilicueta, David Luiz, Cahill (c); Moses, Kante, Matic, Alonso; Pedro, Diego Costa, Hazard. Subs: Begovic, Aina, Ivanovic, Chalobah, Fabregas, Willian, Batshuayi.

West Brom: Foster; Dawson, McAuley, Evans, Nyom; Yacob, Fletcher (c); Brunt, Morrison, Phillips; Rondon. Subs: Palmer; Olsson, Robson-Kanu, Gardner, McClean, Galloway, Chadli.

“Pretty unreal, a fairy tale” — Alonso, Marshall celebrate Sounders title

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TORONTO — Talk about penalty kicks all you want, and definitely talk about that save, but Seattle’s formative heart kept Toronto FC’s vaunted attack off the scoreboard to win its first MLS Cup final.

Veterans Chad Marshall, Osvaldo Alonso, Stefan Frei, and Roman Torres simply got the job done against Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and the high-flying Reds.

“We knew what a great offensive team they are,” Marshall said. “Giovinco and Jozy are incredible. The amount of goals they put up this postseason is pretty ridiculous, so to keep them off the board for 120 minutes is incredible.”

[ MLS CUP: Seattle wins in PKs | 3 things ]

The man in front of him, Alonso, was a prime reason for that. Countless connecting passes and perfect spacing limited TFC’s chances with the ball. After an MVP caliber season, you could argue that Alonso deserved just as much of a shout for MLS Cup MVP as winner Frei.

“In the final you have to give everything you have to win,” Alonso said. “I step on the field to play for my team, play for myself, and play for my family. And I think I did that.”

Both Alonso and Marshall spoke of the moments following Torres’ match-winning PK, as the Sounders crew flew down to pitch to celebrate in front of a rave green and blue visitors section high above BMO Field.

[ MORE: Bradley apologizes to fans ]

[ MORE: Altidore, Frei on that save ]

“I think I threw my back out on the run to Roman, and he flew right by me,” Marshall said. “It was just nuts. I lost my voice in a matter of 20 seconds. It’s just so exciting.”

Alonso was filled with pride for the fans at the game, and the ones back in Seattle who stood by the Sounders after a midseason coaching change.

“They deserved this, the trophy, because they are always there for us,” Alonso said. “Even when we were down at the bottom of the table. This trophy means a lot for me.”

Marshall admitted the words weren’t coming to him, even an hour after the game.

“I don’t know if I can. It’s an incredible feeling, from where we in July, the Kansas City game, to this moment right now, it’s pretty unreal, a fairy tale.”

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Bradley lauds “fearless” teammates after heart-wrenching MLS Cup loss

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TORONTO — Michael Bradley paused to collect himself, several times actually, before apologizing to Toronto FC’s supporters.

The game of football, with its soaring highs and gutting lows, was the latter now. TFC had dominated Seattle over a lackluster 120 minutes, Bradley engineered several big interventions and some delightful balls that didn’t have an end product.

[ MLS CUP: Seattle wins in PKs | 3 things ]

Much of that won’t be remembered, though, because Bradley passed his penalty kick right into the path of a waiting Stefan Frei. Surrounded by reporters in the TFC locker room, Bradley chose his words carefully.

“When you put everything you have into something, when you come in every day ready to pour your heart and soul into something, the highs are amazing and emotional and incredible in a positive ways,” Bradley said. “And the setbacks… hit you hard. Every guy here is going to have to take the time to get over this one, to let it hurt, let it frustrate you, let it anger you.

“It’s not for the weak, and you see that on nights like tonight.”

[ MORE: Altidore, Frei on that save ]

Bradley was one of the final men to emerge from the showers at BMO Field, and he answered every question with brutal honesty.

“On behalf of the team, we can only thank every person in this city for their support and for the passion and the emotion and the energy that they put into this, together with us,” he said. “I’m sick to my stomach that we couldn’t reward them with the biggest trophy tonight.”

In defeat, it was easy to see why TFC’s locker room is drawn to its captain. Bradley shirked nothing, answering the tough questions and humoring those who would lob softballs about his family.

Among the former was this response, one of those quotes that moves a team into formation.

“The margins are so small, and on nights like this you have no choice but to go for it,” he said. “We talked about having a group of guy who were gonna, on the biggest of nights, be fearless and go after things in an aggressive way. And we did that. We were strong, brave, and went after the game in a really, really hard away from the first minute right up until the 120th minute.”

That Bradley missed a PK will howl to the moon in Toronto to the wee hours of this Sunday morning, and his critics will be happy to join in. But as the 29-year-old prepares for a winter that could see him head across an ocean before returning for World Cup qualifying and another MLS season, Toronto can be happy to put its faith — and its backbone — in No. 4.

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Altidore, Frei react to “that save” after Sounders claim MLS Cup

TORONTO, ONTARIO - DECEMBER 10:  Stefan Frei #24 of the Seattle Sounders stops Michael Bradley #4 of the Toronto FC during the penalty kick phase during the 2016 MLS Cup at BMO Field on December 10, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Seattle defeated Toronto in the 6th round of extra time penalty kicks. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
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TORONTO — When it came down to it, Jozy Altidore and Toronto FC were inches away from becoming MLS Cup champions.

The man who walked away with MLS Cup MVP was the reason they didn’t land the title.

[ WATCH: Frei’s big save ]

Deep in extra time, Altidore leapt high to loft a header toward the far post. Frei adjusted his body for one dramatic lunge, just slapping the ball toward Roman Torres for a clearance.

“(Altidore) does the right thing because he goes against the way that I’m coming from, and that point you just move your feet as quick as you can see what’s possible,” Frei said.

Altidore thought it was in.

“I thought so,” he said. “It was a tough ball to begin with. … It was a hell of a save. At the end of the day you’ve got to pull off something special.”

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