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.

Hernandez, Araujo score in 1st half, Mexico beats Costa Rica

AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo
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MEXICO CITY (AP) Javier Hernandez and Nestor Araujo scored in the first half, and Mexico overcame the absence of half a dozen players to beat Costa Rica 2-0 on Friday night in a World Cup qualifying match.

Hernandez scored on a cross from Carlos Vela to open the score in the seventh and Araujo added a goal on a header in the 45th.

[ USMNT: Recap & videoPlayer ratings ]

Hernandez scored his 46th goal with the Mexican team and tied Jared Borgetti as the all-time leading scorer.

With the win, Mexico remains undefeated and has seven points after three rounds to take sole command in the six-nation tournament. Costa Rica stays on six points and is second and Panama is third with four.

The top three teams qualified for the Russia 2018 World Cup.

Mexico beat Costa Rica for the first time since September 11, 2012, when they prevailed 1-0.

Running Away With It

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
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Christian Pulisic scored and played a part in three other goals as the United States rained goals down on Honduras in a 6-0 win at Avaya Stadium in San Jose early Saturday morning.

Clint Dempsey scored two goals, and Michael Bradley and Sebastian Lletget also scored as the U.S. moved into fourth place in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. Their next match is Tuesday in Panama.

[ MORE: Player ratings | Three things ]

The United States men’s national team’s bid to recover their 2018 World Cup hopes got off to a flying start.

Sloppy Honduran defending caused a turnover outside the 18, and Jozy Altidore played Christian Pulisic in on goal. Keeper Donis Escober got a piece of Pulisic’s shot, but no one followed Lletget to the back post and the ex-West Ham and current LA Galaxy man quickly put the Yanks up 1-0.

The Yanks didn’t stop, and Lletget drew a yellow card when he beat Ever Alvarado down the right flank and forced a take down from the Honduran defender.

Alberth Elis slipped John Brooks’ mark, and the Houston Dynamo man turned to fire on goal. Tim Howard was well positioned to scoop it up.

Lletget turned out to be injured by the Alvarado foul, and Bruce Arena turned to Alejandro Bedoya in the 17th minute.

Geoff Cameron was given a yellow card in the 25th minute for a foul on Roger Espinoza. That gave a free kick to Honduras from 30 yards out, and Romell Quioto fired right at Tim Howard.

Then it was the captain who doubled the lead, as Honduras inexplicably gave him the room to walk across the arc of the 18 to rip a shot across goal. 2-0.

It was Clint Dempsey’s turn in the 33rd minute, after an otherworldly scooped pass from Pulisic.

What. A. Pass. Kid.

Honduras then took a bigger hit: the loss of star attacker Romell Quioto (Houston Dynamo) to an apparent shoulder injury.

Brooks bailed out an out-of-position Gonzalez just before halftime to keep the lead 3-0.

The Yanks needed 15 seconds to make it 4-0, with Dempsey winning a 50-50 tussle and finding Altidore for a flick to Pulisic. He netted his fourth USMNT goal. He’s 18.

Pulisic then won a free kick 25 yards out from goal by embellishing a foul, and Dempsey’s free kick tricked Escober. 6-0. For real.

A scary moment late as a dazed and wobbly John Brooks was forced off despite no apparent injury. Fox’s Jenny Taft said he was dehydrated, which is a relief.

LINEUP

USMNT: Howard; Villafana, Gonzalez, Brooks (Ream, 70′), Cameron (Zusi, 58′); Bradley, Lletget (Bedoya, 18′), Nagbe; Pulisic, Dempsey, Altidore.

Goals: Lletget (5′), Bradley (27′), Dempsey (33′, 49′, 54′), Pulisic (46′)

 

Player ratings from USMNT’s pounding of Honduras

Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images
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Battered. Throttled. Eviscerated.

Pick your verb of dominance, the United States likely fit it well in a 6-0 destruction of Honduras at Avaya Stadium in San Jose.

[ MORE: Recap + video | Three things ]

The win boosts the U.S. in World Cup qualifying after their 0-2 start, but how did the individuals fare? Obviously well.

Starting XI

Tim Howard — 7 — The team just feels in a safer place with the veteran back there. If the U.S. goes to the 2018 World Cup, Howard remains their No. 1 (and there probably never should have been a question. Sorry Brad).

Jorge Villafana — 7 — Tidy passing and a low-risk game from the Santos Laguna man.

John Brooks (Off 70′) — 7 — An early error before recovering to be his usual free-clearing, athletic self. Scary injury took him out late, as he looked dazed. Fox’s Jenny Taft said he was dehydrated, which is a relief.

Omar Gonzalez — 5  — He wasn’t bad, but Gonzalez is still a positional question mark. Bailed out a couple times by Brooks.

Geoff Cameron (Off 59′) — 6 — Out of position and a bit hobbled, he wasn’t at his best.

Michael Bradley — 7 — One of his better USMNT games in a long time.

Sebastian Lletget (Off 17′) — 8 — Scored, then got hurt on a roasting run down the right.

Darlington Nagbe — 6 — One or two electric moments in the first half, but overall a quiet enough night for the Timbers man.

Christian Pulisic — 9 — Hard to not to hand the kid a 10. He’s quite frankly the most exciting American talent in the history of the program.

Clint Dempsey — 10 — Along with Howard, the sort of player you knew would make sure this game ended with three points. The fact that he nabbed three goals, too, is just a bonus.

Jozy Altidore — 7  — Pretty darn good night holding up the ball, and passed as well as ever, but did he drop a bit too deep too often? The answer is probably, “Who cares? They won 6-0, dude.”

Subs

Alejandro Bedoya (On 18′)  — 6 — Typical high energy, space eating job in the middle of the park from the Union man.

Graham Zusi (On 58′)  — 6 — Good late clearance preserved the shutout.

Tim Ream (On 70′)  — 6 — Interesting to note that Arena went to him over Walker Zimmerman or Matt Besler.

Three things to take away from USMNT 6-0 Honduras

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The United States men’s national team pulled a Leicester City.

[ MORE: Recap & videoPlayer ratings ]

That’s a joke with truth wrapped around it, because the Yanks have had plenty of time and even a pair of friendlies to respond from the firing of Jurgen Klinsmann.

But in their first serious match without their old coach, the U.S. looked a team renewed and unleashed. Now the Americans may find themselves back in an automatic World Cup qualifying spot with a win on Tuesday in Panama.

Things change.

Vindicated

U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati and all of the USMNT players waited months and months to get the chance to answer their critics following a pair of embarrassing losses to open the final round of World Cup qualifying.

Sure, having Clint Dempsey, Geoff Cameron, and Tim Howard back helped a whole lot, and the seasoning Christian Pulisic is getting at Borussia Dortmund is unquestionably good for an 18-year-old.

But there’s little doubt Michael Bradley and Co. were fired up to silence their critics. Whether they admit it or not, this is a bunch that was stung by those who said they failed their old coach.

Most expected the U.S. to get a point or better against Honduras, but to do it the way they did is an unexpected bonus. A win in Panama on Tuesday would boost them into the Top Three.

And don’t worry, the old boss was pleased for his former charges.


The future is now…

I Tweeted the following after a late second half pass from Pulisic, and there was little disagreement.

Pulisic won’t be credited with an assist for his shot which rebounded to Sebastian Lletget for the opener, but he will walk away with his fourth international goal and two proper assists.

One was an absurd scoop to Clint Dempsey’s chest, and the other was a long avenue that shouldn’t have existed. Still, Pulisic found that street and provided an absolutely dynamic force all over the park.

There have been U.S. teens at big European clubs, and U.S. teens who’ve made impacts on the national team, but never both at the same time and never both at this level. Pulisic is for real, and finding his ceiling is an adventure we’re all undertaking with great enjoyment.


…But the legends sure helped

Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard will go down as two of the most important players in United States men’s national team history.

Actually, they may be duking it out for Nos. 1 and 2 when it’s all said and done.

Dempsey’s hat trick was his career in a nutshell. The first saw him body off a defender while collecting a Pulisic pass off his chest, then lashing a shot with power despite said defender dragging him down.

The second was a burst of speed to run onto Pulisic’s through ball and classic calm in the face of an onrushing keeper, holding onto the ball before sliding it home from an acute angle.

The third was this free kick. A bit aided by goalkeeper Donis Escober, but such is life.

And don’t sleep on Howard’s early performance as Honduras tried to find some sort of foothold in the match. Always well-positioned, the team just feels safer with the Colorado Rapids man between the sticks.