Andre Schurrle

Premier League Playback: Chelsea’s savior, Pardew’s madness, goodbye Arsenal

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CHELSEA’S STAR ‘STRIKER,’ SCHURRLE

Last week Jose Mourinho was embarrassingly caught saying Chelsea wouldn’t win the PL title because his strikers can’t score goals. Against Fulham on Saturday a striker/winger he’s had waiting in the wings for quite some time came up trumps, as German international Andre Schurrle bagged a second half hat trick to give the Blues a vital 3-1 win against their West London rivals which kept them top of the Premier League standings.

“He [Schurrle] is a cold blooded finisher,” Mourinho said of Schurrle. “He has good finishing technique, but he is not a striker.”

It’s no surprise Schurrle tore Fulham apart with his ‘cold blooded’ finishing, as Mourinho put it, as the German scored his sixth PL goal in just eight starts. It was only his second start since December when he scored twice away at Stoke City in a 3-2 loss and Schurrle’s time on the sidelines, despite costing $27 million from Bayer Leverkusen last summer, seems to have done him the world of good. Schurrle discussed how his manager has helped changed him during a tough opening to life in the PL.

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Click to enlarge: Schurrle’s heat map vs. Fulham. Source – Opta

“We talked a lot. He told me I needed to change, to change my game and my body. And that’s what I’ve done over the last two months. I’ve really worked very hard to be aggressive, to be in a good shape with my body. I did a lot in the gym. Now I’m ready to play more often.”

With Samuel Eto’o scoring just six PL goals all season as a lone forward, the Cameroon international was dropped to the bench for the last two games after Mourinho’s negative comments about Eto’o’s age and goalscoring form were leaked by an undercover reporter. Fernando Torres looked bullish as a long forward with Eden Hazard and Schurrle feeding off him. If you look at the heat map of Schurrle on the left and Hazard’s touch map, right, you can see where they operated to devastating effect. Schurrle wandered in and out, while Hazard’s touches mainly came on the left as he cuts in to create all kinds of holes for Schurrle and Torres to run into.

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Click to enlarge: Hazard’s touch map vs. Fulham. Source – Opta

Okay on Saturday, Chelsea were playing Fulham, the PL’s leakiest defense which has now given up 62 goals in 28 matches, but in the second half the Blues tore the Cottagers apart with precise movement and deadly finishing. Hazard was the catalyst for a second half revival after Mourinho had wandered into the locker room at half time, muttered “It’s your s***, sort it out,” then walked right out after a tired looking first half from his team that had just returned from a long midweek trip to Galatasaray in Turkey.

Hazard took the game by the scruff of the neck with sublime assists on Schurrle’s first two, and Torres battle to find space and fed Schurrle for his third. Hazard now only trails Wayne Rooney since the start of the 2012-13 season in assists, as the tiny Belgian wing-man has 18 assists to his name and was a menace in the second half. As for Schurrle, he became just the third German to score a hat trick in the PL, Fredi Bobic and USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann were the others, and the last three PL hat tricks have all come from Chelsea players as Hazard and Eto’o had previously bagged three in one game. There’s only been six hat tricks all season in the PL, and Chelsea have scored the last three in a row.

Despite that treble of, trebles… goals have been an issue this season for the Blues, and although Schurrle may not be a forward, if Mourinho wants to win the title it’s probably a good idea to let Schurrle keep sniffing around up there. ‘Cold blooded’ finishing is something that comes in quite handy this time of year.

Premier League Schedule – Week 28

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

PARDEW’S HEADBUTT… FIRED OR LENGTHY BAN?

In 22 years of the Premier League, I’ve never witnessed anything like I saw on Saturday. With just under 20 minutes to go at the KC Stadium, Newcastle United were 3-1 up and cruising to victory against Hull City. Cue pandemonium.

For some unbeknown reason, Newcastle’s manager Alan Pardew decided to contest a ball, that had gone out of play and strayed towards the Newcastle bench, with Hull City midfielder David Meyler in pursuit. The latter put his arm out and brushed Pardew aside, which the Magpies boss reacted angrily to and surged towards Hull’s player aggressively. What happened next could define Pardew’s entire career in soccer. TV announcers, radio hosts and pundits all gave a collective gasp as to what they were seeing before them and then exclaimed in various ways: “I don’t believe it… Pardew’s just dropped the nut on him.” For those of you unfamiliar with UK slang, that means Pardew had just headbutted Meyler, as the Premier League manager has written himself an unwanted chapter in PL folklore.

Watch the below to see what our pundits think of the incident, and no matter if Pardew’s coming together with Meyler looks slightly timid, the Newcastle boss did duck his head and attempted to headbutt Hull’s midfielder.

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Should Pardew get the book thrown at him? Yes. Should he be fired? Many think so. Is he likely to get a lengthy ban? Most definitely.

The man who signed a ridiculously long eight-year contract at the start of last season has thrown his future into disarray after one of the most bizarre and ill-thought out incidents in the league’s history. It’s not like he hasn’t had previous, either. This season his coaching staff have been involved in a brawl with Southampton’s bench on the sidelines, plus Pardew himself was warned about his conduct after verbally abusing Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini, which was picked up by TV microphones. And last season Pardew also pushed a linesman who was just in front of his technical area, and got in serious trouble for that. The long and short of it is that Pardew was in the wrong and he knows it, Newcastle already fined him $167,000 and more is to come from the English FA. This incident on Saturday is bigger than Pardew’s previous discrepancies put together.

“It was a heat of the moment thing,” Pardew said. “I massively regret it and I will have to sit down from now on. Of course, I didn’t mean to do anything aggressive. I did move my head forward and that’s enough. Perhaps I need to sit down from now on. It’s a shame beacons it’s taken the gloss off a terrific performance. Of course I apologize. I represent a big club.”

His punishment should be harsh and swift, as Pardew will likely not coach in the PL again this season. After that? Who knows. There’s simply no other incidents’ to use as a measuring stick, because we’ve never seen anything like this in PL history.

FOUR BECOME THREE – GOODBYE GUNNERS

Some would argue we’ve never seen a title race in PL history like the one we have this season. Before Week 28, four teams were battling it out at the top of the standings to try and lift the crown; scratch that, make it three.

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Premier League Standings: Top 10 (correct as of March 3, 2014)

Many knew February and March would be pivotal months for Arsenal as the Gunners battled it out on multiple fronts to win their first trophy since 2005. And as many expected after previous late winter/early spring collapses, Arsenal have once again fallen by the wayside. Stoke City beat Arsenal 1-0 on Saturday at the Britannia Stadium, as the Gunners title hopes seem to have all but evaporated. In their past four PL games they’ve lost 5-1 to Liverpool, 1-0 to Stoke, drawn 0-0 at home to Manchester United and beat Sunderland 4-1. Sandwiched in between that was a morale shattering defeat to Bayern Munich in the Champions League, as Arsene Wenger could well be forced to zip his incredibly puffy jacket all the way up, to hide his eyes from the horror of seeing his side implode before him.

The sad thing is, we all knew this collapse was coming. Pundits, Arsenal’s fans and strange as it may seem… Wenger and his players. Time and time again I’ve been in post-match press conferences where Wenger has been asked about his teams title charge. Non-committal and lackadaisical would be the words to sum up the responses Wenger dishes out. The entire season he hasn’t believed in his side to win the title, and that negative vibe has now eaten away and eroded the confidence of his players.

Latest Premier League Standings

Against Stoke on Saturday the Gunners crumbled under the pressure of it all, as wins for other table toppers compounded what has been a miserable few weeks in the red half of North London. They’ve had to deal with Olivier Giroud’s off-field issues with adultery and lack of form, Mesut Ozil choking against Bayern in the Champions League then being dropped, humiliation away at Liverpool and now a damaging defeat at Stoke. The Gunners still have the FA Cup to play for, and right now it seems as if their main focus should switch to that as they search for a first piece of silverware in almost a decade.

Four points off the lead with games against Tottenham, Chelsea, Manchester City and Everton coming up… it looks like Arsenal’s PL title dream could be over for yet another season.

U.S NATIONAL TEAM UPDATE: IT’S GOING WELL…

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Three out of the five U.S. internationals plying their trade in England’s top-flight fared extremely well over the weekend. USMNT ‘keepers Brad Guzan and Tim Howard both grabbed big wins, Guzan’s Villa eased any lingering relegation worries they had, while U.S. defender Geoff Cameron helped Stoke to a massive upset victory over Arsenal at the Britannia. Cameron and Stoke have now beaten, Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal at home this campaign and have given themselves some breathing space in the race against relegation.

The Potters should easily keep their PL status for next season, and Cameron once again looked assured and aggressive from the right back spot he has made his own. In the second half he also had a great a chance to score but the chance flew just wide. That would’ve capped off a marvelous day for Cameron and Stoke.

Elsewhere there was more disappointment for Jozy Altidore as he didn’t make Sunderland’s 18-man squad and the Black Cats let an early lead slip to lose 3-1 against Manchester City in the League Cup final at Wembley. But a brighter moment came for the U.S. national team and Clint Dempsey, as Deuce looked fired up from the start as he marked the final game of his loan spell at Fulham by almost scoring vs. Chelsea and putting the opponents defense under intense pressure. Good signs that Dempsey is finally get back to full fitness as he heads back to Seattle for the start of the 2014 MLS season.

Above is a video recap of all eight games in the PL this weekend, as the League Cup final meant we’ll have to wait a little longer for a second installment of the Manchester derby which was postponed. Week 28 is in the books, folks. Relive it.

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

Copa America trip helped convince Lodeiro of Sounders move

SEATTLE, WA - NOVEMBER 22: Nicolas Lodeiro #10 of the Seattle Sounders gets control of the ball during a match against the Colorado Rapids in the first leg of the Western Conference Finals at CenturyLink Field on November 22, 2016 in Seattle, Washington. The Sounders won the match 2-1. (Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)
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Nicolas Loderio is getting set to play in the MLS Cup finals, something that only came to pass with a team visit to the United States, and the assistance of Luis Suarez.

According to Seattle Sounders GM Garth Lagerwey, he spoke with Lodeiro often in his attempts to bring the 27-year-old from Boca Juniors to Major League Soccer. The moment that swayed him was a trip to the US. A business trip.

With Uruguay competing in the Copa America Centenario, it allowed the two to speak more frequently, but when the Uruguayan became frustrated with his own handle of the native language, a friend stepped in to help. He asked national teammate Suarez to help translate, and thus the transfer came to pass.

“You don’t have body language, it’s harder than it is straight to the face and so he just got frustrated that he couldn’t understand everything that I’m saying,” Lagerwey told MLSSoccer.com’s radio show. “And so he says, ‘Hold on, speak to my friend,’ and I said, ‘OK,’ and I have no idea what’s happening. And Luis Suarez gets on and says, ‘Hi, this is Luis Suarez, how are you?’ And I’m like, ‘Morning, Mr. Suarez, how are you?’ And he was our translator.”

Lodiero has been a revelation for the Sounders since joining in the summer. A creative force all season, the Uruguayan has scored four goals in five playoff matches, bursting onto the national scene on the biggest stage.

“It was just funny. Nico and I, we talked fairly regularly during the process, in part because it took four months for the thing to play out,”  “And he was in the US for the Copa America with Uruguay, obviously, and in hindsight that ended up being a big deciding factor for him, because he brought his wife and his little son and they got to see America and I think liked it and developed a comfort level with it. And I think that’s what ultimately pushed them to make the leap, but I was talking and Nico’s English is actually pretty, pretty good, but he isn’t always so comfortable on the phone.”

With over 50 caps for the national team, Lodeiro is a well-known presence with the Barcelona striker and his other national teammates. The two have hooked up on the field as well, with Suarez assisting Lodeiro’s fourth national team goal back in October.

Zidane’s Madrid on cusp of setting new unbeaten record

BARCELONA, SPAIN - DECEMBER 03: Zinedine Zidane, Manager of Real Madrid looks on during the La Liga  match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid CF at Camp Nou on December 3, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Zinedine Zidane is one match away from coaching Real Madrid to a new unbeaten record.

When Zidane replaced Rafa Benitez midway through last season, the inexperienced former midfield standout got off to an auspicious start with a 5-0 victory over Deportivo La Coruna.

Eleven months and one Champions League title later, Madrid faces Deportivo again at home on Saturday with the chance of surpassing its longest unbeaten run since the club was founded in 1902.

On Wednesday, Madrid equaled a club record of 34 games without a loss set in 1989 under coach Leo Beenhakker when it drew 2-2 with Borussia Dortmund.

“It’s important to continue to make history and continue our good run,” Zidane said after the match. “I don’t think it’s very important for me to leave my mark. What interests me the most is to continue with this great run that we’re on.”

Last season, when Real Madrid president Florentino Perez tapped Zidane to take over a struggling team, the decision smelled of desperation.

A fan favorite from his playing days as part of Madrid’s “galaticos” bunch, Zidane was promoted from coaching the reserve team to take over a side that was lurching from one embarrassing episode to the next.

Madrid’s 2015-16 campaign had started with Perez flubbing his play to sign away Manchester United goalie David De Gea. The team was then disqualified from the Copa de Rey for fielding an illegible player, and it endured a 4-0 defeat from Barcelona at home as it failed to click with Benitez.

Perez needed to make an impact move. But instead of searching for a veteran manager, he charged the unproven Zidane with turning around Madrid’s group of talented underachievers.

At first, the team remained erratic, and even looked set to bow out of the Champions League after a shocking 2-0 loss at German side Wolfsburg.

But that defeat on April 6 proved to be a catalyst. The team hasn’t lost since, recovering to claim its 11th European Cup and almost nip Barcelona for the Spanish league crown, before roaring out to lead la Liga this season.

Zidane, whose top-tier coaching experience had been limited to his stint as an assistant under Carlo Ancelotti, has now reached the half-century mark as head manager. During that 50-match period, he has overseen 37 wins, 11 draws and only two losses. That other loss came at Atletico Madrid in February.

“The players have to be congratulated. They’re the ones out on the pitch, it’s them who run, fight and dig in,” Zidane said. “We also have to thank the fans, who always get behind the team and support us. They’ve got to take some credit for what the team is achieving”.

Gifted with world-class stars like Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Luka Modric, Zidane focused on getting more from Madrid’s supporting cast. He put a new emphasis on defense in his midfield by favoring Mateo Kovacic and Casemiro over flashier playmakers James Rodriguez and Francisco “Isco” Alarcon, and he has helped the little-known Lucas Vazquez blossom into an important piece of its attack.

“(Zidane) has gotten us to work hard and for things to go well for us, and that is paying off with this run of 34 unbeaten games,” defender Dani Carvajal said. “Everyone on the team has words of praise for him.”

Whereas the draw with Dortmund was disappointing because it cost Madrid a first-place finish in its Champions League group, its 1-1 stalemate earned last weekend at Barcelona tasted of victory. The “clasico” draw kept Madrid six points clear of Barcelona at the top of the Spanish table.

After it plays Deportivo, Madrid heads to Japan for the Club World Cup.

If Zidane sets the new club mark, his next goal would be the milestone held by Barcelona under counterpart Luis Enrique, whose 39-game unbeaten run was ended by Madrid last April.

Top 5 Premier League storylines for Week 15: Chelsea top, Leicester tested

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 03:  Alexis Sanchez of Arsenal celebrates after scoring his team's second goal during the Premier League match between West Ham United and Arsenal at London Stadium on December 3, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images)
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This weekend is absolutely critical for the Premier League. Last time out, the top of the table kept pace and little changed. This time around, there is danger lurking for much of the top. Arsenal, Liverpool, and Spurs all have difficult tests, but can Tony Pulis be the one to pin Chelsea back?

Spurs and Manchester United 9:15 a.m. ET Sunday, NBCSports.com) meet with both teams clawing for scraps from those above them. These two teams very well could be battling it out for a final Champions League place at the end of the season, meaning this matchup could go a long way in building a true gap in the table.

[ MORE: Jose Mourinho failing to adapt at Manchester United ]

The bottom of the table is fascinating as well. Bob Bradley has his biggest chance yet to pull the Swans off the bottom against Sunderland amid the noise, while Hull City and Crystal Palace have a key meeting.

1. Moving day for Chelsea

Chelsea vs. West Brom — 7:00 a.m. ET Sunday, NBCSports.com

Chelsea is in the best form of any Premier League team in years. Their clean sheet streak predictably ended two games ago, but it hasn’t stopped the Blues’ fine run. They’ve won eight in a row and look impossible to stop. Can Pulis-ball keep the Blues at bay? They’re three points on top of the table, and another win would likely give them even more space considering tough matches for the other top teams.

2. Any magic left in the tank for Leicester City?

Leicester City vs. Manchester City — 12:30 p.m. ET Saturday, NBCSports.com

The Foxes topped their Champions League group, but things continue to look more and more bleak in league play. Claudio Raneiri admitted they’re in a relegation battle with the Foxes just two points above the drop. But we’ve learned not to count this team out already, and a win against Pep Guardiola‘s stumbling team could be more than just three points.

Speaking of Manchester City, Pep was pipped by fellow first-time Premier League manager Antonio Conte last weekend, and then held to a 1-1 draw with Celtic in midweek Champions League action. However, City has taken care of business so far this season against weaker opponents, and the Foxes certainly seem to be just that at this point.

Claudio Ranieri admitted Leicester City is in a relegation battle (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
Claudio Ranieri admitted Leicester City is in a relegation battle (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

3. Will Arsenal stumble against Stoke?

Arsenal vs. Stoke City — 10:00 a.m. ET Saturday, NBCSports.com

For all the heat the Gunners have (unfairly?) taken this season, Alexis Sanchez has them just three points off the top. For Arsenal to still be one game off Chelsea despite the Blues’ fabulous run is somewhat remarkable, and for them to have thus far weathered the storm, it would be truly something to see them capitalize on a slip-up from Conte.

[ MORE: Sanchez among Premier League’s best 5 players ]

However, Stoke has been here before. The Potters have conceded just three goals in their last seven matches, including a pair with clean sheets; if anyone can stop Sanchez’s amazing form, it’s the Mark Hughes and the defensively stout Potters. A win for Stoke could potentially see them jump as high as sixth, could they go on the road and halt the Gunners? It’s possible, but a 315-minute shutout streak vs. Stoke for Arsenal puts things squarely in Arsene Wenger‘s favor before kickoff.

4. Bob Bradley’s golden opportunity

Swansea City vs. Sunderland — 10:00 a.m. ET Saturday, NBCSports.com

Bob Bradley has taken plenty of flak at Swansea City, and rightly so. Since his anointment as the first American manager in England’s top flight, the Swans have picked up just five points and still sit bottom of the table, two points back of anyone else. But to be fair, the competition has been tough. The four losses since his appointment have come against Arsenal, Stoke City, Manchester United, and Tottenham, and he picked up a pair of points against 8th placed Everton and 11th placed Watford. Now is his chance to pick the Swans off the bottom with a win against those directly above him.

[ RELATED: Swansea issues vote of confidence for Bob Bradley ]

Sunderland visits Wales sitting in 18th, and should Swansea win, they would jump above the Black Cats. The task is no given, however, with Sunderland owning three wins in its last four, meaning they’ve picked up nine of their 11 total points in the last month. Bradley fended off much criticism the past week, and if he’s going to silence those calls for his job after just two months, this is a must-win.

5. West Ham finishes gauntlet stretch

Liverpool vs. West Ham United — 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday, NBCSports.com

The Hammers are in the midst of a brutal run of matches where they have just two points, putting them a single point above the relegation zone. The teams they’ve played? Everton, Stoke City, Spurs, Manchester United, Arsenal. Yikes. And yet, if West Ham aspire to the heights they reached last season, Slaven Bilic will expect better. Can the Hammers get a result against the high-flying Reds? Liverpool sits four points off the top, but goalkeeper Loris Karius was exposed last week in the stunning Bournemouth comeback, and it’s possible that disappointment leaves a lasting impact. Who will prevail?

FA bans Leeds owner Massimo Cellino 18 months

LEEDS, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 13:  Massimo Cellino President and Director of Leeds United during the Sky Bet Championship match between Leeds United and Fulham at Elland Road on December 13, 2014 in Leeds, England. (Photo by Clint Hughes/Getty Images)
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Leeds United may be making a push to return to the Premier League, but they’ll have to do so without their owner.

Massimo Cellino, who took over Leeds in February of 2014, has been banned for 18 months by the English FA for his involvement in the sale of Ross McCormack to Fulham later that summer. He was also fined $315,000 and required to complete a course outlining the duties and restrictions for owners in the English league.

During McCormack’s sale, a significant payment was apparently paid to unlicensed agent Barry Hughes, facilitated by McCormack’s official licensed agent Derek Day, who was also banned for 18 months, although 11 of those are suspended, leaving him sidelined for seven months should no other infractions arise.

This likely will only serve to accelerate the current potential sale of Leeds to Andrea Radrizzani, with both sides having publicly acknowledged discussions are ongoing.

Leeds is currently in fourth in the Championship table, having won five of their last six matches. McCormack, meanwhile, scoring a whopping 42 goals in 100 appearances over two years before making a big-money move to Aston Villa this past summer, where he has slumped at Villa Park, owning just two goals over 13 Championship appearances this season and losing his place in the team. To be fair, he struggled in his early days at Fulham as well, scoring just twice in his first 15 matches before exploding in his second season at Craven Cottage with 21 league goals.