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.

Mexico captain Guardado suffers hamstring injury

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With the World Cup still half a year away, there’s plenty of time to heal from injuries and get the body right after tweaking things during the club season.

And yet, there will still be some concern among Mexico fans.

Team captain Andres Guardado suffered a hamstring tear, his club Real Betis confirmed on Monday, and is expected to miss 3-4 weeks. That’s nothing to write home about when it comes to preparing for the big tournament, but with Guardado 31 years old and struggling with injuries in recent years, Mexico fans will be keenly aware that hamstring injuries can return with a vengeance if not given the right time to heal.

Guardado has shown his age in recent times, not necessarily with his play on the field, which has been critical to his country, but with his fitness. Guardado has just four full 90 minute performances for Mexico dating back to October of 2016, missing time with ankle, leg, and now hamstring injuries in that span.

The 31-year-old has had a fine season so far for Real Betis, scoring one goal and assisting six while appearing in all 15 La Liga matches for the club thus far. The club sits 12th in the La Liga table with 18 points.

Guardado will be fine with plenty of time to spare, but if not fully healed properly, there’s always the risk that muscle injuries can flare back up, and Mexico fans will hope that their captain’s club gives him plenty of rest to recover.

Mark Hughes wants Stoke City to “suck it up”

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Mark Hughes is under fire at Stoke City with the Potters firmly entrenched in the relegation battle, and with that he’s charging his players, staff, and himself to gut the rest of the season out.

With Stoke heading to Turf Moor to take on Burnley, they sit just three points above the drop. The players were faced with jeers from angry fans at the train station following this past weekend’s 5-1 disaster against Tottenham. The fiery Hughes is hoping to use this jarring moment to jolt his squad.

[ PREVIEW: Tuesday’s Premier League action ]

“That is still resonating. It’s good we have a game because it is still fresh in their ears probably, and they can use it as a motivating factor,” said Hughes during his pre-match press conference.

“You either suck it up and do ­something about it or you go under, and we can’t accept players like that. I don’t feel we have players like that.”

With managers nowadays often reaching into the excuses barrel as they hope to save their own skins, Hughes refuses to do just that, instead placing the decision firmly on the players shoulders, telling them they are the only ones who can save the club.

“Maybe some hadn’t ­confronted that before – but sometimes you need a reality check, and understand how our results and ­performances affect people,” Hughes said. “When people criticize you, you have to grow a thick skin in this industry. If you don’t, you’re in the wrong place.”

Louis van Gaal calls Mourinho’s United “far more boring”

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Louis Van Gaal has picked just the right time to pipe up.

The former Manchester United manager, who took flak while in charge for his side being hideous to watch, has now taken shots of his own at his successor Jose Mourinho, kicking Manchester United while they’re down after a 2-1 derby defeat at home.

The Dutchman told Fox Sports Netherlands, “If you ask me how did I do at United, I will say it was my best year ever, given the circumstances I was working under. We played football that was quite alright. But it’s not football that is appreciated in England. And yet, right now, looking at United, I have to conclude Mourinho is not being criticized while it’s far more boring football.”

[ PREVIEW: Premier League Tuesday matches, including Chelsea vs. Huddersfield ]

Van Gaal was blasted consistently for playing a boring style, especially in front of the home crowd, and now Mourinho is being criticized for the same concept. Mourinho was denounced for similar reasons while in charge of Chelsea, but with the club winning multiple titles under his leadership, the noise was always less while the team was winning. With Manchester United still unable to crack the top 4, Mourinho is feeling the heat.

“What United produce now is defensive football,” van Gaal said. “I always played attacking football. The proof is that the opposition were always parking the bus. They don’t do that now because Jose Mourinho plays so defensive.”

To van Gaal’s point, Manchester United is seventh in the Premier League in possession, holding 51% possession this season. They were out-possessed by Manchester City 65-35 at Old Trafford over the weekend. Meanwhile, van Gaal’s last full season with Manchester United, the 2015/16 season, saw the Red Devils hold 54%, which ranked third in the Premier League, just a percentage point behind leaders Arsenal. However, van Gaal’s United ranked 15th in the Premier League in total shots, while Mourinho’s United this season ranks sixth at this point.

Van Gaal made sure to point out he prefers their cross-town rivals.

“I would rather watch City play than United. You need quality in a squad and it’s clear City have a better squad.”

Conte blames fatigue for dip in Chelsea form

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Antonio Conte has figured out what is plaguing his Chelsea side as they sit 14 points back of Premier League leaders Manchester City.

“I think when you play every three days, it is impossible to have a training session and to work on the physical aspects,” Conte said in his pre-match press conference as the Blues get set to play Huddersfield Town on Tuesday. “It’s impossible. It’s impossible because you have to prepare with the players for a game every three days.”

Chelsea has yet to find itself eliminated from a single competition, drawn against Barcelona in the Champions League while navigating fixtures across all four competitions.

And yet, this is nothing new for Conte. The Blues boss is more than familiar with fixture congestion, having taken charge of Juventus and regularly competing at a high level on multiple fronts. In 2012/13, he won the Serie A title, won the Supercoppa Italia, and reached the quarterfinals of the Champions League.

However, this is new for Conte at Chelsea. Last season, the Blues did not take part in a European competition thanks to their disastrous season the previous year. While they reached the FA Cup final, they were knocked out of the EFL Cup in the 4th round.

“We have to try to do our best,” Conte said. “For sure, some players can be tired, that’s normal because some players are playing from this summer and our tours in China and Singapore. It’s normal. But I repeat we have to find the best solution. We have to find more rotations. I’m doing this, we will try and do our best with hunger and desire. We will fight.”

As an example, Conte said Alvaro Morata will miss the match on Tuesday against Huddersfield Town due to fatigue, with the Spaniard battling a slight back injury. “Morata is out. He is a bit tired and he has a problem in his back.