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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. 

‘The Workers Cup’ sheds light on migrant workers in Qatar

DOHA, QATAR - APRIL 09: Migrant workers play football on an area of wasteland beneath the sky scrapers of Doha's West Bank on April 09, 2016 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images)
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PARK CITY, Utah (AP) Director Adam Sobel never intended to end up in Qatar, but it was 2010, jobs were scarce in the U.S. and his longtime girlfriend – now his wife – had just been offered a job teaching at a Northwestern University Qatar. So they went.

[ MORE: Man City, Spurs draw and more in Saturday’s PL action ]

While there, Sobel found work with a local production company that did news stories and documentaries for outlets like BBC, CNN, and HBO. One particular story was requested frequently: That of the migrant workers who were building the facilities for the 2022 Qatar World Cup. He didn’t know it at the time, but the assignment would ultimately provide the foundation for his documentary, “The Workers Cup,” which premiered Thursday night at the Sundance Film Festival.

“Because the subject is so sensitive and because media restrictions were so significant, we either had to hide people’s identities or work undercover. The human touch was lost,” Sobel said. “We wanted to do something that went much deeper than that and really honored the workers for their sacrifices and their hopes and their dreams rather than doing something that just saw them as victims … I wanted to build empathy for the workers instead of sympathy.”

The film centers on the multinational men, from Kenya, Ghana, India and the Philippines, who have given their lives over to slavery-like contracts and dangerous conditions to build the stadiums from the ground up. One man, Kenneth, who was a soccer player in Ghana, shares his story about how a recruiter had told him that if he came to Qatar, he’d get a club soccer contract. It was a lie, and now he’s stuck in Qatar under horrific circumstances.

“We’ve had a lot of context about how the recruiting agents are selling a false bill of goods but certainly I didn’t expect that to be wrapped up in a professional soccer contract,” Sobel said.

The title of the documentary refers to the FIFA-sponsored “workers cup” whereby teams from different construction companies play against one another in a tournament. For men like Kenneth, it takes on a greater poignancy. Yes, it’s a welcome distraction from the conditions, but the fact remains that they are still stuck there.

“We saw (the tournament) as an opportunity because we knew they were interested in promoting this and showing to the world that workers welfare standards were improving,” Sobel said. “There was a definite PR angle there that we took advantage of and we somehow managed to stick around and keep shooting in the camps. We were able to actually get pretty close to the story.”

Sobel worked on the documentary for three years, and kept it completely secret for two due to the sensitive nature of what he planned to show and the strict media standards in the country. He’s excited that his subjects are getting their voices heard at Sundance.

“It’s a story about these guys whose lives have been sacrificed in some way for our own entertainment and that in and of itself reveals that we’re all complicit in the system,” Sobel said. “This is a story of globalization.”

Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/ldbahr

French league responds after Mario Balotelli racially abused

FILE - In this Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016 file photo, Nice's Mario Balotelli controls the ball during the Europa League group I soccer match between OGC Nice and FC Salzburg, at the Nice stadium, southeastern France. Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura says he will talk to forward Mario Balotelli before the Azzurri's next set of matches in March. Balotelli has revived his career in France, scoring eight goals in as many matches for Nice, but has not played for Italy since the 2014 World Cup. (AP Photo/Claude Paris, File)
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PARIS (AP) The French league will open an investigation after Nice striker Mario Balotelli spoke out against Bastia fans he said made monkey noises during a match on Friday night.

[ MORE: City, Spurs draw, Reds fall to Swansea in Saturday’s PL action ]

In a brief statement Saturday afternoon, the French League said it “deplored all of the incidents” that happened on Friday. Before the match, Nice’s team bus had been pelted by stones as it arrived at the stadium.

[ MORE: Saturday’s results from around the Bundesliga ]

The LFP’s disciplinary committee will start looking into the matters when it convenes on Thursday and once it has received further information from officials and both clubs.

Balotelli wrote a message on his Instagram and Twitter pages earlier on Saturday, describing the abuse he heard during the 1-1 draw at the 20,000-capacity Armand Cesari stadium in Corsica and complaining that the French league had not acted swiftly enough.

“Is it normal that Bastia supporters make monkey noise (and) `uh’ `uh’ for the whole game and no one of the `commissions discipline’ say nothing?” Balotelli wrote, referencing the French league’s disciplinary committee. “So is racism legal in France? Or only in Bastia? Football is an amazing sport. Those people like Bastia supporters make it horrible!”

Balotelli, 26, the son of Ghanaian immigrants to Italy, concluded his post by writing in French that what happened was “une vrai honte,” or a total disgrace.

Nice’s official Twitter account shared Balotelli’s message. On its website, the French Riviera club threw its support behind Balotelli.

“Nice, which already had stones thrown at its bus before the game, is outraged by what happened to its players on Friday night, and in particular to Mario Balotelli,” a statement read.

Bastia did not immediately respond to an email from the AP seeking a response to Balotelli’s claim.

Balotelli joined from Liverpool on a free transfer in August and has scored eight league goals in 10 games to help Nice challenge for the title.

He did not say in his message whether or not he had informed referee Clement Turpin, who had the authority to stop the game, of the crowd’s actions. Commentators from broadcaster Canal Plus, which covered the game, made no mention of any racist abuse during the match.

In May 2013, when playing for Italian side AC Milan, Balotelli was subject to racist abuse from visiting Roma fans, causing the Serie A game to be briefly halted by the referee during the second half after warnings to stop the abuse were made throughout the stadium. Massimiliano Allegri, Milan’s coach at the time, made stinging comments against those who had racially abused Balotelli.

Bastia was docked two points by the LFP in the 2007-08 season after its fans racially abused Burkina Faso forward Boubacar Kebe by holding up a banner during a second-division home game against Libourne. The kickoff was delayed by a few minutes until the banner aimed at Kebe was removed.

PL Sunday preview: Chelsea looks to extend lead, Gunners host Burnley

HULL, ENGLAND - MARCH 22:  Diego Costa of Chelsea (2L) celebrates with Filipe Luis (L) and Cesc Fabregas (2R) as he scores their second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Hull City and Chelsea at KC Stadium on March 22, 2015 in Hull, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Antonio Conte‘s Chelsea received everything they wished for on Saturday after several of the Premier League’s big boys all dropped points in crushing fashion.

Now, the Blues have the opportunity to extend their gap at the top of England on Sunday while two other matches are slated on the day.

[ MORE: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Southampton vs. Leicester City — 7 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

The Saints will have to make do without one of its most important defensive figures following the sale of Jose Fonte, however, Claude Puel‘s men won’t have to deal with several of Leicester’s attacking threats as the African Cup of Nations rolls on. Riyad Mahrez, Islam Slimani and Daniel Amartey will each be absent for the Foxes as they play for their respective sides at the tournament.

Southampton has taken points against Leicester in four straight PL fixtures (1 W, 3 D), however both sides have been vastly inconsistent in form throughout the campaign. Leicester striker Jamie Vardy and his side continue to struggle, with the Englishman having posted just five goals this season after netting 24 in league play a season ago.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Man City, Spurs finish level ]


Arsenal vs. Burnley — 9:15 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

The Gunners are unbeaten in five straight matches against Burnley, and Sunday presents the chance for Arsene Wenger‘s side to win its fifth consecutive fixture against the Clarets. Wenger’s men currently sit eight points behind league leaders Chelsea, and after the rest of the the PL’s title contenders slipped up on Saturday the Gunners will be looking to avoid any stumble at the Emirates Stadium.

Olivier Giroud is expected to be back for Arsenal, while Hector Bellerin, Kieran Gibbs and Francis Coquelin are also healthy once more. Meanwhile, the Clarets are said to be expecting Dean Marney, Ashley Barnes and Johann Berg Gudmundsson back in the squad after missing the team’s FA Cup victory during the midweek.

[ MORE: WATCH — Wayne Rooney’s top Man United goals ]


Chelsea vs. Hull City — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

The Blues will be expected to take advantage of this match but all eyes will be on Antonio Conte’s team sheet, particularly with close attention on Diego Costa. The Spaniard was said to have missed the team’s last PL match due to a back injury, although reports have also suggested interest from China. Chelsea has yet to lose to Hull in nine PL fixtures, having won seven encounters and drawn the other two matches.

Meanwhile, Hull could have some of its reinforcements available on Sunday, including Olympiakos defender Omar Elabdellaoui. The Tigers will have a massive task at hand against the Blues, who have won 14 of their last 15 league matches. Marco Silva’s side currently sits in the relegation zone, however, a victory could propel the team above both Crystal Palace and Swansea City.

Watch: USMNT midfielder Hyndman provides assist in Rangers debut win

United States midfielder Emerson Hyndman (8) gets past Cuba defender Adrian Arturo Diz Pe during the first half of a CONCACAF men's Olympic qualifying soccer match Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015, in Kansas City, Kan. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
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Well, it didn’t take long for Emerson Hyndman to make an impression at his new club.

[ MORE: Man City, Spurs finish level in Saturday’s PL action ]

The U.S. Men’s National Team midfielder provided the game-winning assist for Scottish side Rangers in Saturday’s 2-1 Scottish Cup win over Motherwell after picking out Kenny Miller for his second goal of the match.

[ MORE: Ghana books place in AFCON quarterfinals, Egypt edges Uganda ]

Hyndman, 20, joined the Scottish giants in January after coming over on loan from Premier League side Bournemouth. The rising USMNT attacker only made three appearances for the Cherries prior to completing the loan move to Rangers.

The former FC Dallas academy product has risen through the USMNT set up over recent years, appearing for the Under-17, U-20 and U-23 sides before Hyndman earning his first cap with the senior team in 2014.

Check out Hyndman’s game-winning assist below.