Premier League Playback: Rooney’s revolution at Manchester United, Everton slides, top teams accelerate

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ROONEY PERFECT TALISMAN TO LEAD REVIVAL

What does $500,000 a week get you? These days, you get a focal point for a revolution.

On Friday evening Manchester United superstar Wayne Rooney signed a new four-year extension to his contract which will see him lead United into a brave new world and hopefully a much brighter future. Committing himself to the Old Trafford club until the age of 33, Rooney will likely see out his playing days with the club he’s now been with for over a decade.

Following his terrific display in United’s 2-0 win over Crystal Palace on Saturday, and a stunning goal which you can watch above, Rooney had the following to say.

“I’ve had it agreed for about a month now, so I was just hoping it would get done as soon as possible. Now I can focus on football and try to help us succeed and win games. I’m delighted to sign a new long-term contract, I’m here to stay and I want to help make this club successful.”

Rooney, like any player, wants to feel wanted. And ever since David Moyes arrived as manager last summer, he’s waxed lyrical about Rooney’s form, professional attitude and leadership skills. Those words, perhaps more than the astronomical sums of money, could be why the 28-year-old striker turned down the advances of Europe’s elite for the chance to spearhead United’s charge back to the top. He has been at the club for 10 years, is in line to break many records, has won every trophy possible and now seems mature enough to take on the mantle of being a talisman on and off the pitch. Rooney will become an ambassador for the club, as the deal which made him the best paid player in United’s history is about much more than money.

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Click to enlarge: Position of Wayne Rooney’s touches vs. Palace. Source – Opta.

He is the one player, throughout all of United’s struggles this season, who has sparkled time and time again. Rooney has scored 10 PL goals in 22 games, but most importantly leads the Premier League in assists with nine. That’s because his role has been altered slightly and will continue to do so after the $56 million arrival of Juan Mata to link up with Rooney. The England international has laid on 44 goalscoring chances this season at an average of one every 42 minutes and his ability as a creator may see him drop deeper as his career plays out.

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Goals, although a huge part of his game, aren’t the be all and end all of Rooney’s output for the Reds. He is the heartbeat of the offense, the robust spine of the attack and is one of the most gifted players the PL has ever seen. His driving runs, clever passes and ability to find pockets of space always see Rooney as the focal point of United’s attack. His temperament is feisty on and off the pitch and although in the past it has resulted in red cards and tantrums, the fire in his belly is exactly what United need to fuel them forward. Rooney’s teammates will feed off his insatiable desire to win titles.

Look at the image on the left and you can see Rooney’s touches from the game vs. Palace, he’s all over the place and that’s Rooney at his best. But most telling is that he only had three touches in the penalty box, and one of those was his superb controlled volley which nestled into the top corner to seal United’s win and capped off the news of his new contract in style.

After the Palace game Rooney spoke about how United’s front four “have great flexibility” and pointed out how the relationship is building between him and Mata as Rooney “was coming deeper and Juan was coming in from the wing.” Rooney noted it will take time for United’s front four of Robin van Persie, Adnan Januzaj, himself and Mata to click perfectly (and don’t forget Danny Welbeck and Chicharito on the bench) but when it does, expect Rooney to be at the hub of everything

For the foreseeable future at United: welcome to Wayne’s World.

Premier League Schedule – Week 27

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

TOP FOUR WIN, START TO PULL AWAY

The elite got it done over the weekend, as the top four seem to be pulling away from the pack as they continue to turn the screw when it really matters. Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool are now all scrapping for the title, with a six-point gap emerging between them and Tottenham in fifth.

Arsenal eased past hapless Sunderland 4-1, while Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City all won by one goal. The importance of those three grinding out wins was not lost on their managers, as they all were relieved after the final whistle. None more so than Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho, who looked relaxed and composed in his post-match press conference, just moments after most of Stamford Bridge had lost the plot thanks to the Blues’ stoppage-time winner. Their 74-match unbeaten home run under Mourinho says it all. Chelsea defended superbly once again as their solid defense will win them this title. Plus clutch late winners portray true championship form.

“Today if we only have one point, if the teams behind us win, we lose that position,” Mourinho said nonchalantly. “The difference is very small, you win the game you keep the position. You lose the game you lose your position. This is the reality. We just want to try to keep our position.”

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The reality is, these four teams are pulling away from the rest at the top and that the Premier League champions in 2013-14 will be either Arsenal, Chelsea, City or Liverpool. I’m not going out on a limb by stating that but as Jose said, that’s the reality. Chelsea lead the way with 11 games to go. Can the others catch up?

EVERTON HAVE REACHED THEIR LEVEL

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Another dose of reality, albeit it a harsh one, is that Everton have been found out and a top four place is slipping away.

In their 1-0 defeat to Chelsea on Saturday, the Toffees had a lot of possession but didn’t do enough with it to suggest they are favorites for a top four spot. Roberto Martinez cut a frustrated figure on the sidelines, as standing in front of the press box at Stamford Bridge he became increasingly irritated as the game wore on.

Chelsea’s last gasp winner, which came from a disputed free kick after Ramires took a dramatic tumble, irked Martinez and he shared his disgust about Chelsea’s tactics as his side now sit 11 points off the Champions League positions.

“Chelsea have an incredible know-how of how to win dead-ball situations, using every trick in the book to try to get advantageous decisions. Ramires was looking for contact when he won the free kick and it was not a free kick at all. Just look at the record Chelsea have at home, it must be more than playing well at home every match.”

Sour groups Roberto? Not quite. But I’ve been present for both his post-match press conferences following the 4-0 derby defeat away at Liverpool and then the 1-0 loss at Chelsea and the Spaniard has stayed dignified yet defiant with the belief he has in his side. In their last two away games Everton have faced the same problem which troubled them at the start of the season: a lack of goals. The Toffees have only scored 37 times this season, the seventh highest total in the PL and away from home the issue has been magnified as Everton’s last three away defeats against Liverpool, Tottenham and Chelsea haven’t yielded a goal. They are now without a win in five matches away from Goodison Park and just four away wins all season isn’t good enough for a team with top four aspirations.

When asked Martinez agreed that Everton’s away form is a problem after the devastating late loss to Chelsea, but he failed to get bogged down by it all.

“Our away form in terms of results, I agree with you [it is a worry]. We go to Stamford Bridge and we get nothing, we go to White Hart Lane and we get nothing. It is probably fair to say we were the better side on both occasions. For us more important than getting points away from home, we must make sure the scoreline reflects the performance.”

As Chelsea are showing, grinding out results in the name of the game in the PL this season. Everton have plenty of style, there’s no disputing that, but their lack of substance will probably cost them a UEFA Champions League spot this season.

STAND BY YOUR MAN…

Of course Martinez’s job will be safe, even if Everton finish outside the top four as the Toffees have, overall, moved forward this season. But elsewhere in the PL, seven managers have lost their jobs and certain clubs are in free fall. The bottom five in the PL standings, Fulham, Cardiff, Sunderland, West Brom and Crystal Palace, have all changed managers and they’ve had varying degrees of success after failing to stand by their man. Country singer Tammy Wynette famously urged everyone to do just that, so maybe these PL should’ve taken a leaf out of her book?

In Crystal Palace and Sunderland’s case, they chose to go with managers who knew the English game well and had vast experience of the Premier League. You can see that, as Palace and the Black Cats have had a huge upturn in results since Tony Pulis and Gus Poyet arrived. As for Fulham, Cardiff and West Brom, who have brought in managers with little to no experience managing in the PL, they’ve seen their new men struggle to adapt. Fulham’s newest arrival, Felix Magath has had one game and garnered one point, more on him shortly. As for Cardiff City boss Ole Gunnar Solksjaer and West Brom boss Pepe Mel, they have just one PL win between them in 13 games so far. Mel has failed to win, but the Baggies have drawn four of his six games in charge 1-1 and lost to Liverpool and Aston Villa. While Cardiff are spiraling towards the trap door as Solksjaer’s men have lost five of his seven PL games in charge, with a solitary win coming against Norwich.

Were the owners of Cardiff and West Brom’s right to gamble on a new boss rather than stick with their old managers? As Tammy said “keep giving him all the love you can… Stand by your man!” Will that be enough for Cardiff and West Brom to avoid the drop?

HOPE FOR FULHAM UNDER MAGATH?

Fulham haven’t shown much love to their managers this season, and they’ve had three of them, and they’re bottom of the table because of it (Tammy was right). Back in September at Craven Cottage, Fulham led 1-0 against West Brom until stoppage time, then Gareth McAuley rose highest to head home and grab the Baggies a point in the 92nd minute. On Saturday, the same pattern played out as massive defensive errors continue to cost them dear. The Cottagers played well and went ahead early, through Ashkan Dejagah’s strike but then failed to build on their lead and ultimately paid the price for a cautious display. Another late equalizer saw Fulham slip further behind at the bottom of the standings, but this is what happens when you’ve just appointed a German disciplinarian as your new manager. Until his charges get their fitness levels up and get used to his strict training regimes, the Cottagers will likely fade late in games as Felix Magath runs them into the ground at practice.

So how did Magath do on debut? Okay. Fulham looked solid and should’ve probably grabbed a massive three points. But they didn’t after a goalkeeping error let them down and now Magath will make them work even harder to avoid the drop. That’s the only way he knows how and in the past he’s been accused of taking away water breaks from players during training. When news of West Brom’s late equalizer filtered through to myself and other journalist in a press room over the weekend, I laughed as a colleague quipped, “Well, looks like there will be no water bottles for Fulham’s players this week.”

The Cottagers are four points off the drop and have played one more game than their rivals hovering above the bottom three. Time is running out, Magath needs a miracle.

Let’s finish with a look at the top five goals from the Premier League this weekend. Watch some absolute beauts, below.

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

Serie A: Juve keep winning to remain 1 point back of Napoli

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TURIN, Italy (AP) Juventus closed the gap on Serie A leader Napoli back to just one point as the six-time defending champion eased past Genoa 1-0 on Monday.

Douglas Costa scored in the 16th minute, the first conceded by Genoa in five league matches. It was a less than convincing performance from Juventus but it was never really troubled, as goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny – standing in for the still-injured Gianluigi Buffon – was little more than a spectator.

“What was important was to win,” Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri said. “At the end there was a bit of nervousness because we were lacking in energy a bit.

“We could have finished off the match in the first half, and again with a couple of occasions after the break. We didn’t manage to so compliments to Genoa.”

The battle for the Serie A title is shaping into a two-horse race. Juventus moved 10 points clear of third-placed Lazio, although the capital side has a match in hand.

“The season is still long and all those who are behind us can still get back into the race,” Allegri said. “It was important to stay in Napoli’s slipstream.”

Juventus needed to win after Napoli beat Atalanta 1-0 on Sunday.

Allegri’s side started brightly and had an early chance to take the lead but Genoa goalkeeper Mattia Perin did well to keep out a free kick from specialist Miralem Panic.

However, it did not take much longer to strike. Douglas Costa passed out left to Mario Mandzukic, who played a delightful return ball for the Brazil midfielder to slot into the bottom left corner.

League Cup semi: Man City take 2-1 lead into 2nd leg vs. Bristol

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Manchester City can move one step closer on Tuesday to claiming their first of four potential trophies this season, when Pep Guardiola‘s men take on Bristol City in the second leg of the League Cup semifinal.

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

After coming back to beat the Robins in the first leg at home, Man City must now go on the road and take care of business to reach the Feb. 25 final at Wembley Stadium. As he has done so many times — and so famously — in the sky blue of City, Sergio Aguero grabbed the late winner (91st minute — WATCH HERE) 14 days ago.

For a few not-so-insignificant periods of the game, Bristol were very much the aggressors and appeared more likely to make the score 2-0 than for City to get back to 1-1. Bobby Reid converted from the penalty spot in the 44th minute after her was brought down under John Stones‘ wild, sliding tackle. Kevin De Bruyne leveled things up 10 minutes into the second half, setting the stage for Aguero’s late heroics.

[ MORE: Alexis-for-Mkhi swap complete | De Bruyne’s new contract ]

Since the first leg on Jan. 9, City have failed in their bid to finish the PL season with an unbeaten record before bouncing back to beat Newcastle United on the weekend, courtesy of a hat trick from Aguero — Guardiola quotes, from Sport24:

“I said many times it was going to happen, we can lose, so (it is) important the reaction we have. Still we have 42 points to play (for). It is 14 games. It is a lot of games to play and difficult games like Saturday and like Liverpool. It is important to show the team is still there but I don’t have the feeling we give up.

“We want to go through to the final in the (League) Cup and the FA Cup, so (we have) a lot of games but I think the people have the desire to keep going, to keep going, to keep going.”

[ MORE: One dream January signing for each top-six side ]

Bristol, meanwhile, have fallen on hard times: it’s been nearly a month (Boxing Day, to be specific — five losses, one draw) since Lee Johnson’s side last won a game in any competition, and they’ve fallen from second to fifth in the Championship table — Johnson quotes, from the Guardian:

“We don’t want to be brave losers, we want to compete to win. It’s up to the players to be focused and tactically aware, and who knows what will happen if we can show the same quality as we have shown in the previous rounds?

“We have to make sure we’re really bold. If you’re going to deliver a corner, do it like you mean it. I’d rather fail bold than fail timid. We know we have to score. I hope Pep picks his absolute best team and we can give them a right go. I’m not sure you could go and play an under-23 side against us at the moment and I think he’ll know that.”

The winner of Arsenal versus Chelsea (0-0 after the first leg) awaits in the final.

The 2 Robbies: Alexis-Mkhitaryan Swap Becomes Reality

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Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe react to the Alexis Sanchez-Henrikh Mkhitaryan swap deal between Arsenal and Manchester United finally becoming reality (0:20), Swansea’s stunning 1-0 victory over Liverpool (9:20), Southampton’s much-needed draw with Spurs (22:30) and Watford’s decision to part ways with Marco Silva (36:20). The gents end the show sharing their memories of the late English striker, Cyrille Regis (39:45).

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

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Inter Milan sign Barcelona midfielder Rafinha on loan

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MILAN (AP) Inter Milan completed the signing of Barcelona midfielder Rafinha on loan until the end of the season, with a view to a permanent move.

Inter can sign the Brazil international permanently for $43 million plus $3.7 million in bonuses, and said on Monday that option “must be taken up before the end of the season.”

Rafinha, who was born in Sao Paulo, had been at Barcelona since 2006, when he joined its youth team. He spent the 2013-14 season on loan at Celta Vigo.

After nine months out after surgery on his right knee, he made his first appearance of the season last week as a late substitute in Barcelona’s Copa del Rey defeat at Espanyol.

“It’s an important stage in my life,” he said, “and I had a lot of desire to approach this new phase in my career.”

Inter has slipped to fourth in Serie A, 11 points behind leader Napoli.

It could slip out of the Champions League places if Roma wins its match in hand on Wednesday.

“I hope to play in as many matches as possible and help the team to reach our objective which is Champions League qualification,” Rafinha said.