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.

If the 2018 World Cup started today…

Photo by Pedro Vilela/Getty Images
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Another international break has passed, with fortunes rising and falling in most of FIFA’s confederations (Africa took a break during the break, having staged AFCON in January).

[ MORE: All World Cup qualifying news ]

Brazil joined hosts Russia as nations to have qualified for the 2018 World Cup, and 30 spots remain. Let’s take the opportunity to project the field for Russia.

In October, we took the projected qualifiers and simulated all the way down to the World Cup final. Germany beat Brazil. Let’s go again. Who will “win” it this time?


QUALIFICATION

We’ll again use actual qualification, as flawed and early as it is in some confederations, to be predict our combatants.

Asia (7 of 10 qualifiers played)
IN: Iran, South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia
PLAYOFF: Uzbekistan vs. Australia

PROJECTION: While Uzbekistan has been better in terms of overall form, Australia’s experience boosts it into a match-up with the USMNT.

Africa (2 of 6 qualifiers played)
IN: DR Congo, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Egypt

CONCACAF (4 of 10 qualifiers played)
IN: Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama
PLAYOFF: United States

(AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

South America (14 of 18 qualifiers played)
IN: Brazil, Colombia, Uruguay, Chile
PLAYOFF: Argentina

Oceania (4 of 6 qualifiers played)
PLAYOFF: New Zealand vs. Tahiti

UEFA (5 of 10 qualifiers played)
IN: France, Switzerland, Germany, Serbia, Poland, England, Spain, Belgium, Croatia
UEFA PLAYOFFS: Sweden, Portugal, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Slovakia, Italy, Greece, Iceland

SIMULATED PLAYOFFS (random draw):
Sweden vs. Iceland — Sweden wins
Portugal vs. Republic of Ireland — Portugal wins
Northern Ireland vs. Slovakia — Slovakia wins
Italy vs. Greece — Italy wins

Intercontinental playoffs:

Australia vs. United States — USMNT wins
Argentina vs. New Zealand — Argentina wins


FIELD (FIFA Rankings)

  1. Russia (hosts, 60)
  2. Argentina (1)
  3. Brazil (2)
  4. Germany (3)
  5. Chile (4)
  6. Belgium (5)
  7. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

    France (6)

  8. Colombia (7)
  9. Portugal (8)
  10. Uruguay (9)
  11. Spain (10)
  12. Switzerland (11)
  13. Poland (12)
  14. England (13)
  15. Italy (15)
  16. Croatia (16)
  17. Mexico (17)
  18. Costa Rica (19)
  19. Egypt (20)
  20. Slovakia (25)
  21. USA (30)
  22. Iran (33)
  23. Burkina Faso (36)
  24.  (Photo by Richard Huggard/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

    DR Congo (38)

  25. South Korea (40)
  26. Nigeria (41)
  27. Sweden (45)
  28. Ivory Coast (47)
  29. Japan (51)
  30. Serbia (52)
  31. Panama (53)
  32. Saudi Arabia (57)

THE POTS

The 10 European qualifiers mean two will have to join Pot 2. Our random selections were… Croatia and Spain.

Pot 1 (seeds): Russia, Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Chile, Belgium, France, Colombia, Brazil

Pot 2 (CAF, CONMEBOL, UEFA): DR Congo, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Uruguay, Croatia, Spain

Pot 3 (AFC & CONCACAF): Iran, South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, USMNT

Pot 4: (UEFA): Sweden, Slovakia, Italy, Switzerland, Serbia, Poland, England, Portugal


THE DRAW

Group A: Russia, DR Congo, Saudi Arabia, Sweden
Group B: Chile, Croatia, Mexico, Portugal
Group C: Brazil, Nigeria, Panama, Switzerland
Group D: Germany, Burkina Faso, Costa Rica, Poland
Group E: Argentina, Spain, Japan, Slovakia
Group F: France, Ivory Coast, South Korea, Italy
Group G: Belgium, Uruguay, USMNT, England
Group H: Colombia, Egypt, Iran, Serbia

So… should we play it out? We’ll try to throw in some upsets and not just go with the chalk.

Round of 16
Mexico (B2) def. Russia (A1)
Brazil (C1) def. Poland (D2)
Spain (E1) def. Italy (F2)
Belgium (G1) def. Egypt (H2)
Portugal (B1) def. DR Congo (A2)
Germany (D1) def. Nigeria (C2)
France (F1) def. Argentina (G2)
Colombia (H1) def. England (G2)

Quarterfinals
Brazil def. Mexico
Spain def. Belgium
Germany def. Portugal
France def. Colombia

Semifinals
Brazil def. Spain
France def. Germany

Final
Brazil def. France

Dempsey leads way for MLS players during Cup qualifying

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The latest round of World Cup qualifying saw a major increase in the number of players from MLS called in for their national teams.

A number of those decisions paid off for their countries, perhaps no one more than Clint Dempsey.

A few months ago, Dempsey wasn’t even in consideration for the U.S. after missing the latter half of last season because of a heart issue. But the Seattle Sounders forward scored four times in two matches as the U.S. gathered four critical points in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.

[ WATCH: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago can win World Cup ]

Dempsey was part of an influx of MLS players contributing during the latest round of qualifying for next year’s World Cup in Russia.

In all, MLS had 55 players called in for qualifying in CONCACAF, CONEMBOL (South America) and UEFA (Europe) competitions. Last September, the league saw 58 players called in to their national teams, but there were more countries still alive in qualification at that time. The 55 players selected this time was an increase of 16 from the last round of qualifying matches in November, and 40 of the 55 saw action during the two days of competition in the past week representing 12 countries.

In the three CONCACAF games last Friday, 29 of the 84 players to see the field were from MLS. That outpaced LigaMX, which had 17 players among the 84 used in the three matches.

Dempsey wasn’t the only MLS player coming up big for his country. Minnesota midfielder Kevin Molino had the only goal for Trinidad and Tobago in its 1-0 win over Panama. The Vancouver duo of Christian Bolanos and Kendall Waston teamed for the only goal in Costa Rica’s 1-1 draw with Honduras.

But not all went well for MLS players during qualifying.

Young Atlanta star Josef Martinez injured his left leg during the second half of Venezuela’s 2-2 draw with Peru in CONEMBOL qualifying. Martinez returned to Atlanta and an MRI revealed a left quadriceps injury that will keep the MLS leader in goals scored out for four to six weeks. Martinez had five goals in Atlanta’s first three games.

U.S. midfielder Sebastian Lletget was forced off early in the match against Honduras but not before scoring the opening goal for the Americans. Los Angeles announced Tuesday that Lletget suffered a Lisfranc injury that will require surgery and he will be sidelined for four to six months.

[ MORE: BWP a DP; Nephew called up to England U16 ]

MATCH OF THE WEEK: The club that set the bar for expansion debuts faces the newcomer looking to topple that standard.

The Seattle Sounders will host Atlanta United on Friday night. It’s the only regular-season matchup between the two sides, but there’s more than just the competition on the field.

Seattle’s expansion season of 2009 was regarded throughout the sports industry as arguably the best franchise launch ever, not just in MLS. Between ticket sales and fan engagement, Seattle’s start could not have gone better.

Atlanta might be setting a new standard. Atlanta drew more than 55,000 for its first match and more than 45,000 for its second home game, a win over Chicago. Atlanta seems to be following significant parts of Seattle’s blueprint, down to having an influential NFL owner highly involved from the start.

As for the on-field product, the validity of Atlanta’s promising start will be tested over the next month with four straight road matches.

“It’s definitely still an expansion team,” Atlanta defender Michael Parkhurst said. “We’ve got our bumps and bruises along the way. Off the field, everyone’s still trying to get sorted and situated to the new city.”

BEST OF THE REST: Toronto finally gets to come home after opening the season with three straight road games. The Reds will host Sporting KC on Friday night. The trade-off for opening the season on the road is that Toronto gets five of its next six league matches at home and was able to get five points out of those three road contests to start.

Also of note will be what kind of lineup Vancouver rolls out on Saturday night against Los Angeles. The Whitecaps play in the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals four days later.

BACK ON THE BENCH: Real Salt Lake introduced Mike Petke as its new head coach Wednesday, less than two weeks after firing Jeff Cassar. Petke was the head coach of the New York Red Bulls for two seasons, including the 2013 season when they won the Supporters’ Shield. After two years out of coaching, Petke signed on to be the head coach of the Real Monarchs, the minor-league club associated with RSL.

OFF TARGET: The other expansion debut this season by Minnesota United is on pace to set records, but not any they want to be associated with. Simply put, Minnesota can’t play defense.

Minnesota allowed at least five goals for the third time in four matches in last week’s 5-2 loss at New England. Minnesota allowed five goals to Portland and six to Atlanta and is on pace to allow more than 150 goals this season.

LAST WORD: “I’ve been very encouraged by what I’ve seen over the last 10 days. It’s going to take some time to piece that team together.” U.S. coach Bruce Arena after the latest round of World Cup qualifying.

Messi explains actions that warranted 4-match ban

AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano
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Lionel Messi is set to miss four Argentina matches for something we arguably see every week on TV.

That doesn’t make it okay, but is anyone else scratching their head at the suspension handed down to the world’s best player for verbal abuse of an official?

[ MORE: Barca defends Messi ]

Messi, 29, shouted an obscenity at the linesman in Thursday’s 1-0 win over Chile, and was both banned and served the first match of his ban on Tuesday, as Argentina was beaten 2-0 in Bolivia.

Messi explained his actions Wednesday with the following:

“My expressions were never directed to the referee, they were said to the air,” Messi told La Nacion.

That’s pretty ridiculous, yeah? But I can’t help but feel the four matches are a bit harsh. Hardly a high-level match goes by without seeing a player clearly being derisive toward an offical, and usually lipreading proves it wasn’t G-rated.

Again, I have no problem for setting a standard, as abuse of officials is unnecessary (and even those of us who are serially offenders know it).

But if confederations and leagues want to get serious about cutting it out, this can’t be a one-off suspension; End the group upbraiding of referees during games, the wild gesticulations, so on and so forth.

Bradley Wright-Phillips gets new deal; Nephew called up to England U-16

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It’s been a big 24 hours for the Wright-Phillips family.

Bradley Wright-Phillips signed a new Designated Player deal with the New York Red Bulls, while his nephew has been called up the England U-16 national team.

D’Margio Wright-Phillips is the son of Shawn Wright-Phillips, the former RBNY player currently plying his trade with Phoenix Rising of the USL.

[ WATCH: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago can win World Cup ]

Of course that will only serve to grow the pride of Arsenal legend Ian Wright, who adopted Bradley and Shaun.

The details:

BWP has signed a new multi-year deal with the Red Bulls which brings the 70-goal man into Designated Player status.

“I’d like to thank Denis, Jesse, and everyone at the club for the opportunity to continue wearing this shirt and playing in front of the best fans in MLS,” said Wright-Phillips. “I am very proud of what has been accomplished in my time here, but my sole focus is on trying to win MLS Cup.”

As for D’Margio, he’s in Manchester City’s academy and obviously taking the right steps toward making it three generations in the Premier League. Both Shaun and Bradley spent time in City’s academy.