Liverpool’s title charge, Chelsea’s staying power, drop zone dread – View from the Booth, with Arlo White

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When watching soccer on TV, have you ever sat there and wondered what the man behind the microphone really thinks?

Maybe this will go someway to helping with that.

In the latest edition of “View from the Booth” we chat with NBC Sports’ lead soccer announcer Arlo White why games at the top have been so tight, Steven Gerrard’s resurgence, the trophy chase for the big three and much, much more. Remember, Arlo and his broadcast team are on a short break this week, as FA Cup action takes center stage.

(VIEW FROM THE BOOTH ARCHIVE)

You can hear Arlo calling live games every weekend on NBC Sports Network and NBC, and watch every single game available live online via NBC Sports Live Extra,

So, let’s get to it.

With so many of the games between the top teams this season proving tight, tense and yielding plenty of 0-0’s, why is it happening so much?

It’s a really good question. I’ve been at Manchester United v Chelsea, Arsenal v Chelsea and Arsenal v Manchester United this season, and the whole experience has followed a familiar pattern of great anticipation, early missed chances but ultimate inertia and stalemate. I think each game had it’s own significance and reasons for the result. In August, Jose Mourinho played without a recognized striker at Old Trafford before it had become apparent that United were not the force of old, and were there for the taking. In December at the Emirates, Mourinho reverted to a more cautious style having conceded far too many goals in Chelsea’s previous games. On Wednesday, Robin Van Persie and Jack Wilshere had terrific chances in the opening 3 minutes, but failed to take them, and aside from a couple of superb saves by Szczesny and De Gea later on, the rest of the game lacked any real inspiration as each side prioritized ‘not losing’ above going out and winning.

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Arlo believes the top teams have all been to afraid to go for broke this season. As a fear of losing has prevailed.

Should we be surprised? It was Arsenal’s 11th clean sheet in their last 12 home games in all competitions, but with the incentive of re-taking top spot, I was surprised with the lack of energy and urgency in the Gunners approach. With that in mind, Arsene Wenger only made one substitution in the entire game. Could Lucas Podolski have made a difference late on? Could Wenger and Arsenal have tested a potentially rusty Rio Ferdinand more? Could Arsenal have stepped up and made more of a statement of intent in this title race? I think they could and it’s a worry for Arsenal fans that they didn’t.

But dull 0-0’s haven’t dominated this season in the Premier League. We’ve seen plenty of exciting goal fests involving Manchester City and Liverpool, so there has been a balance.

One team not scared to attack is Liverpool. Can the Reds sustain their title challenge in the final few months of the season?

Who doesn’t love a cute little Chihuahua? What a brilliant and Mourinho-esque piece of imagery from Brendan Rodgers, that his little Chihuahua can “run between the legs of the horses.” And why not? Liverpool have been in devastating attacking form lately. Are they overly reliant on Luiz Suarez? He’s only scored 4 of Liverpool’s last 24 goals in the Premier League. Daniel Sturridge is on fire.  Coutinho is influencing games. Jordan Henderson is a machine in central midfield. Raheem Sterling is enjoying a break through season, and Steven Gerrard is settling into his new, deeper role brilliantly.

Liverpool can sustain a title challenge. Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester City all have to visit Anfield. On paper, their ‘toughest’ away game is at Old Trafford and that has hardly been a fortress this season. Most significantly, and unlike their title rivals, they are unencumbered by midweek European Football, and Rodgers has more training sessions to implement his tactics.

My concern would be the Liverpool defense. Could Daniel Agger come in for Kolo Toure, who has struggled of late? Can a team that has Aly Cissokho as it’s left back win a Premier League title? Will Liverpool score so many goals that it won’t matter? We shall see. The Reds are mounting a compelling and thrilling challenge this season.

At the moment, Steven Gerrard seems to be the focal point of Liverpool’s charge. How has his resurgence helped the Reds?

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Steven Gerrard has been in imperious form from a deep-lying position this season.

Brendan Rodgers has pulled another master stroke here. He knows that Steven Gerrard is a major player at Liverpool but is also aware that Gerrard’s ability to scamper up and down a Football pitch is waning. The answer isn’t to ship Gerrard out of the club, but to embrace the new reality and find a role in which he can thrive. As Rodgers told me earlier this season, he is open to adapting his tactical approach to the talent that he has available, and this is a great example of that.

I was at Anfield for the Aston Villa game when Gerrard, and Liverpool, struggled with the new role in a 2-2 draw, but since then he seems to have taken to it beautifully. His pass for Daniel Sturridge’s equalizer at Fulham was just sublime, and he then kept his nerve to slot home an injury time penalty for the winner.

Gerrard has been a wonderful servant for Liverpool for many years. You could see in his celebration at Craven Cottage that he feels this is his best chance of winning a Premier League title with his beloved Reds. And like Rodgers says, beyond this season, Gerrard could play the “single pivot” role for England at the World Cup.

With the latter stages of the FA Cup and Champions League upon us, which title contender do you expect to cope with the rigors better, Manchester City, Arsenal or Chelsea?

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Chelsea, in Arlo’s opinion, are best equipped to make a run at the PL crown, FA Cup and Champions League.

At the moment, I don’t think Arsenal are coping with the rigors of the Premier League, let alone the Champions League and FA Cup. But getting Flamini and Ramsey back into their midfield from suspension and injury could be huge for the Gunners. I worry about the energy levels of Ozil and Giroud, and their work load is about to increase significantly.

For all of Manchester City’s amazing attacking talent, they have sorely missed Fernandinho in central midfield. His absence isn’t the only reason that City have failed to score in consecutive Premier League games, but when you look at the numbers, it is startling. He has missed 5 League starts, and Manchester City have failed to score in 4 of them. Therefore, 64 of City’s 68 Premier League goals have come in his 20 starts.

Of course, the absences of Aguero and Nasri are also key, but Fernandinho’s energy in the center of the park enables City to attack with more confidence. If their attack breaks down, Fernandinho will help them retrieve the ball and start again. They need him back. So, I think Chelsea are best equipped to cope. They have been rock solid defensively and have multiple and interchangeable options ahead of the back four to get results in big games. Matic has settled into the base of midfield nicely. Luiz can do a great job there. Hazard has been incredible of late, and Willian has been a revelation in terms of quality and work rate.

Chelsea might be title favorites now, but they also have the best chance of the three of prolonging their participation in the Champions League. They should dispose of Galatasaray, whilst Arsenal and City must overcome Bayern and Barcelona. Chelsea might have the heavier schedule in the closing weeks of the season.

Finally, with the standings so tight at the bottom, which teams do you think will survive and why?

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The arrival of Tony Pulis has ‘been a revelation’ for Crystal Palace, as they surge away from the drop zone.

Very tough question. This season is so unpredictable. Only Southampton and Newcastle are truly mid-table. Swansea are in 10th place, but only 8 points clear of the bottom side Fulham.

I said that Fulham had a terrific transfer deadline day, and I stick by that. They got rid of the ‘luxury’ players Berbatov and Taaraabt (addition by subtraction), and brought in some solid workers like Holtby, for a tough relegation scrap. Mitroglou is their wild card.  If he can score some big goals, then Fulham can turn their new found energy into points. But it’s a very tall order. They played Manchester United and Liverpool recently and despite their defensive approach, they were only outscored 5-4. But they only got 1 point for their efforts. Over the next 4 games, they face crucial games against West Brom, Cardiff and Newcastle. The results of those games could decide their fate.

Crystal Palace have been an absolute revelation under Tony Pulis. I think their story has been somewhat overlooked amidst the close title race above them. Right now, I would say Fulham, Cardiff and Norwich for the drop. But ask me after the next round of games, and it could be three different teams.

That’s the beauty of this terrific Premier League season.

Wolfsburg holds off Braunschweig with Vieirinha blast (video)

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Outworked and outperformed in the first half of their playoff second leg at Eintracht Braunschweig, Wolfsburg needed a wake-up call to steady its hopes of staying in the Bundesliga.

That came off the boot of longtime right back Vieirinha, as the Portuguese veteran ran onto a rebound and fired a 17-yard arrow into the goal to boost Wolfsburg aggregate lead to 2-0.

[ MORE: Barcelona names new manager ]

That would mean the 2.Bundesliga hosts would need three goals to give the second tier a third promotion this season. An 82nd minute red card to Braunschweig’s Maximilian Sauer effectively ended those far-off dreams.

Ingolstadt and Darmstadt were relegated in the season, and Stuttgart and Hannover were promoted from 2.Bundesliga.

Barcelona announces Valverde as next manager

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Six days after leaving his post at Athletic Bilbao, another dream job has been signed, sealed, and delivered to Ernesto Valverde.

The ex-Barcelona striker is joining the Blaugranas as the replacement for accolade-winning coach Luis Enrique, who stepped away from the position after Saturday’s Copa del Rey victory.

[ JPW: Huddersfield completes the dream ]

Valverde, 53, played two seasons with Barca in the late 1980s, and previously coached Espanyol, Olympiakos, Villarreal and Valencia. His spent most of his playing career at Athletic and began as their manager in 2013.

Here’s what Barca president Josep Maria Bartomeu said about Valverde:

“Valverde has the ability, the knowledge and the experience. He promotes players from the youth teams and he has a style and a way of working like ours. He has a philosophy of the game that is very Barça and he is a hard worker. Also, he is passionate about applying technology to both training and matches.”

Valverde becomes the fourth manager to take charge of Barcelona since Pep Guardiola left in 2012 (Tito Vilanova, Gerardo Martino, and Enrique are the others).

Huddersfield seal fairytale promotion to Premier League

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LONDON — Huddersfield Town have been promoted to the Premier League.

Let that sink in.

[ MORE: Wagner reacts to “fairytale” ]

The Terriers, for the first time in their history, will play in the PL and for the first time since 1972 they will be in the top-flight of English soccer.

German-American manager David Wagner has worked a miracle to turnaround a team who finished in 19th place in the Championship last season. They beat Reading 4-3 on penalty kicks on Monday after a tight, tense 120 minutes of action at Wembley Stadium, holding their nerve to seal an estimated windfall of $218 million next season and up to $372 million if they survive in the PL for another season.

All day long, and perhaps all season long, it has felt like Huddersfield were destined for promotion.

Huddersfield sold out their full allocation of tickets, 39,150, and their fans made the most noise all day long. There was no contest.

In central London Huddersfield’s fans piled on to the tube heading to Wembley for their day of reckoning.

“It’s his first full season as a fan!” said a proud mother decked out in a Huddersfield shirt as she hugged her five-year-old son proudly. “What a time to start!” replied a stranger, also a Huddersfield fan.

Excited chatter filled the 15 minute tube ride from Baker Street to Wembley Park as fans “I can’t believe it,” said one fan to another, quietly. “It will hit home when we get into the stadium,” his friend replied.

Steven Sunderland stood outside Wembley with his wife Melanie and their daughter Megan.

He summed up the surprise that Huddersfield were even one game away from the Premier League to start with.

“It would be amazing to play all of the big clubs, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, clubs like that,” Sunderland said. “I never thought we would make it. No chance. I just thought if we make midtable, it would be an improvement on last season because we’ve been struggling with relegation the last few seasons. This season, David Wagner has got the team playing really well, best team spirit I’ve ever seen for a long, long time. The fans are really connected. It shows today, there are nearly 40,000 Huddersfield fans here today and they are up for it.”

Oh yes. Yes they were.

Amid dissecting the struggles of Yorkshire rivals Leeds United, talk of just going up to the PL for one year and then enjoying it “no matter how we do” was rife among the Huddersfield fans. One Terriers supporter puffed out his cheeks, gripping his can of cider nervously as he walked up Wembley Way.

Tense was the word of the day.

With the future of both clubs on the line, the game itself didn’t deliver end-to-end excitement. With an estimated $218 million on the line for next season and $370 million if they manage to stay up one year in the PL, the economic benefit for Huddersfield the club, and the town, will be huge.

When Michael Hefele headed wide and Isaiah Brown missed a glorious chance early on, you began to wonder if it was Huddersfield’s day. In the end none of that mattered.

Christopher Schindler stepped up and slotted home the winning penalty kick after Danny Ward saved from Jordan Obita as Huddersfield had reached the promised land.

Huddersfield chairman Dean Hoyle summed up his emotions after taking over the club and putting in a prudent plan for promotion involving loan players and a budget less than $12 million this season.

“I’m so emotional. To say I’ve been supporting this club since 1969, to be a Premier League team now – dreams come true,” Hoyle said. “It’s huge what it means for Huddersfield, we’re on the big stage. It proves you don’t have to blow your brains to get promoted. We’ve done it the right way.”

What impact will this have on the Yorkshire town?

Sunderland and his family summed it up perfectly as yet another underdog, just like Bournemouth, Blackpool and Burnley before them, has risen to the promised land.

“It is massive. It is the land of milk and honey if you like, the place where everybody wants to be,” Sunderland said. “It will be brilliant, for the town. Just that little bit of success makes a big difference. We’ve been on TV this season more times than we have been the last 10 seasons. Next year it will be high profile very week. Match of the Day, on TV… Champions League the year after!? You never know.”

What did Wagner have to say? He told ProSoccerTalk he wants Huddersfield to keep the identity he has helped build and nurture.

“We have to be focused on ourselves and this football club has to be focused on themselves. This football club has created an identity and this was always our target, that we create an identity and a style of football where even if we wear neutral jerseys people from outside are able to say ‘okay, that could be Huddersfield.’ I think it makes no sense to compare ourselves with other small clubs. This football club has its own story and I think, we are on the way.”

They certainly are. Even if their fans can’t quite believe it.

As some posed for photos outside the electronic board at Wembley which said “congratulations Huddersfield!” others stood around in disbelief.

A group of three young Yorkshiremen sat on the tube back to Baker Street in stunned silence.

“We are going to be on Match of the Day!” said one fan, rubbing his hands in glee as he recites an intro to next years show which, of course, features Huddersfield top of the bill.

Discussion then switches to which games they’re most looking forward to. Arsenal, Liverpool and Man United away tops the list.

“We can’t believe it. It hasn’t sunk in yet,” said one fan as they looked at each other with dropped jaws.

Believe it, lads.

Watch out, Premier League. Huddersfield are on their way.

David Wagner reacts to Huddersfield’s promotion

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LONDON — There will be an American coach in the Premier League next season.

David Wagner, 45, led Huddersfield Town to its first-ever promotion to the Premier League as the Terriers beat Reading 4-3 on penalty kicks after a tense Championship Playoff Final at Wembley which ended 0-0 after 120 minutes.

Speaking after the nail-biting win, Wagner was delighted that his team proved everyone wrong and came from nowhere to reach the top-flight for the first time since 1972.

“A lot of the pundits wrote us off before the season,” Wagner told Sky Sports. “Over the season I thought we could do a little bit more, I thought around Christmas when we’d played everyone we had a chance. What happened is an unbelievable story – a fairytale.”

The former U.S. national team forward has galvanized the club, linking the team and fans together with passion and a plethora of loan players from the likes of Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea.

What he has achieved this season has left Huddersfield fans stunned as the former Borussia Dortmund II boss, who left the German giants in November 2015, has built a hardworking, organized team.

ProSoccerTalk asked Wagner if he will look at any of the smaller teams who have been recently promoted to the PL — the likes of Bournemouth, Burnley et al. — to follow a blueprint of how to plan ahead.

“We have to be focused on ourselves and this football club has to be focused on themselves,” Wagner said. “This football club has created an identity and this was always our target, that we create an identity and a style of football where even if we wear neutral jerseys people from outside are able to say ‘okay, that could be Huddersfield.’ I think it makes no sense to compare ourselves with other small clubs. This football club has its own story and I think, we are on the way.”

They are certainly on their way and we will be hearing a lot about the Terriers in the days and weeks to come.