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.

Jozy Altidore’s foundation funding Copa America watch parties in Haiti

TORONTO, ON - MAY 07: Jozy Altidore #17 of Toronto FC looks on during the second half of an MLS soccer game against FC Dallas at BMO Field on May 7, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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Jozy Altidore has never shied away from his Hatian decent, and while the 26-year-old will miss the Copa America, but his second home certainly won’t.

Altidore’s charity organization the St. Luke Foundation has set up watch parties across Haiti so the island nation can watch all the United States and Haiti matches, as well as the semifinals and finals.

In a phone interview with Sports Illustrated, Altidore cited that Haiti had not been invited to a major international tournament since 1974, and that the country should be able to watch. According to SI, the watch parties will allow those in the country to watch who otherwise would be unable to do so.

“I thought this would be something cool knowing how much Haitian people love their national team” Altidore told SI, “to have thousands of people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to see the matches broadcast the group games and see them perform.”

Haiti plays in Brazil’s Group B along with Peru and Ecuador, with group stage games on June 4, 8, and 12.

[ MORE: Copa America Group B preview | USA in Group A ]

Altidore will miss the tournament due to a hamstring injury which will take 6-8 weeks to recover from.

The New Jersey product has been very active with charity work in Haiti in the past, mostly through his foundation. Altidore’s parents were both born in Haiti. He said he hopes that the Haitian team “can surprise some people” in the upcoming tournament.

Rafa Benitez to have total control at Newcastle, including player sales

NEWCASTLE, ENGLAND - MAY 15:  Rafa Benitez Newcastle United manager reacts during the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle United and Tottenham at St James Park on May 15, 2016 in Newcastle, England. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty images)
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Usually, when teams are relegated to the Championship, squad salaries must be reevaluated to make ends meet, often meaning the axe for players who are deemed too costly.

That won’t be the case with Newcastle next season.

With manager Rafa Benitez back on board with the hopes of navigating the Magpies back to the Premier League as quickly as possible, owner Mike Ashley has handed Benitez the reigns.

Benitez confirmed he will have complete, unmitigated control of the squad roster in exchange for his services.

“What I have is the assurance that if I don’t want to sell any players I don’t have to,” Benitez said in his second unveiling as Newcastle manager. “We can keep all the players who we want to.”

But that’s not all. “For football business I will have responsibility. But the main thing is that I have had assurances we will have a strong team. We will have a winning team and the fans have to be sure I will try to build a strong squad. If I am sat here it is because I am sure we can do it. To clarify I am a person who likes to talk. But if I have to take responsibility I will, no problem.”

This is not only big news for anyone relegated to the Championship, but especially big news for a Mike Ashley club. Not even Sam Allardyce or Alan Pardew were given this type of total control of the club. Ashley knew he had little leverage with such a big name having fallen out of the Premier League, and he needed to make concessions to get his man.

Fernando Torres, back from the depths, can become a Champions League leader

VALENCIA, SPAIN - MAY 08:  Fernando Torres of Atletico de Madrid looks on during the La Liga match between Levante UD and Atletico de Madrid at Ciutat de Valencia on May 8, 2016 in Valencia, Spain.  (Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images)
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His days in England are well past him. From Liverpool superstar to Chelsea flop, the unconventional route the 32-year-old’s career has taken has all led to this.

Yes, Fernando Torres has a Champions League winners’ medal, but it did not come in the fashion many believed he was destined for when he peaked at Anfield. A shell of his former self at Stamford Bridge, he was second-fiddle to fan-favorite Didier Drogba during the 2011/12 run Chelsea made through the competition. Ridiculed by plenty all across England for his YouTube-worthy misses and sleepy performances, Torres was run out of Stamford Bridge with just his medal to accompany him.

“This is the most important game of my life,” Torres emphatically claimed Wednesday morning ahead of Saturday’s final against Real Madrid in Milan. “A chance to write a page that has never been written in 113 years of Atlético’s history. I have the chance to make my dream come true, a dream I had as a kid, to win this cup with this club”.

Torres does not speak as if this is his team, because it is not his team. Despite his dominance at Liverpool, Torres will never be a standout player on a Champions League final caliber squad. Those days are well in the past. Now, Torres knows his place in the squad, an important cog in an engine with no one part more valuable than the other. Such is the way of Diego Simeone.

“I knew I was risking everything by coming back here to Atletico Madrid,” Torres said. “A lot of people thought it couldn’t get better for me here, but I knew the group I was coming into. I knew this group was destined for something big and I wanted to be part of it.”

For all the praises Simeone gets for his teams’ fitness, grit, and defensive prowess, bringing Torres back from the depths of obscurity might be one of his most underrated achievements. The ridicule Torres was forced to endure towards the end of his time in England can break a person. But Torres somehow managed to stay afloat despite the demons lapping at his ankles, and Simeone pulled him ashore. Now, reborn, Torres has finally shown flashes of his former self that only Anfield remembers. Across April and May, Torres bagged six goals and two assists in eight appearances – all starts – to close out the La Liga season. The Spaniard also fed the ball that sprung Antoine Griezmann free for the goal that won the semifinal against Bayern Munich.

No longer a star but still a valuable piece of the puzzle, Torres is right where he belongs. While his time with Chelsea brought him that medal so many legends in the game fail to achieve, he knows now is where his legacy will truly be judged. “The past can only help you get better,” Torres said. “We only think about Milan, which is the present.”

The key word being “we.” For his entire club career, the narrative surrounding Torres had always been about himself, from superstardom at Liverpool to the abuse he suffered after. Now with a “we” to fall back on, it’s time for Torres to play the most important game of his life.

Copa America 2016 preview, Group B: Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Haiti

Brazil's Willian, left, and United States’ Alejandro Bedoya contend for the ball during the first half of an international friendly soccer match Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2015, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
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Brazil

They’ve won five Copa America titles with the last in 2007, but in their previous two Copa campaigns Brazil hasn’t made it past the quarterfinal stage. Despite not having captain and talisman Neymar around they’ll be one of the favorites this summer.

Star player: Douglas Costa – The winger was in fine form for Bayern Munich this season and along with Willian he will be a real threat in support of Hulk.

They will sweep all before them because… They have a huge number of talented attacking midfielders who can rip teams apart on their own. Together it could get rather silly. Expect them to be in the final four.

Really, though, Dunga will be on the hot seat in July: The one thing that stands out about this team is the lack of goals. Only one player in the entire squad has double figures (Hulk, with 12) and anything less than winning a major title is always treated with despair by the Brazilian population. If they don’t win either Copa America Centenario or the gold medal at Rio 2016, Dunga will be under big pressure.


Ecuador

LOS ANGELES, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA - MARCH 28:  Miguel Layun of Mexico (L) fights for the ball with Antonio Valencia of Ecuador (R) during a friendly match between Mexico and Ecuador at Memorial Coliseum Stadium on March 28, 2015 in Los Angeles, United States. (Photo by Omar Vega/LatinContent/Getty Images)
(Photo by Omar Vega/LatinContent/Getty Images)

Man, Ecuador is due a good Copa America performance. They haven’t made it out of the group stage since 1997 and have finished in fourth place twice.

Star player: Enner Valencia – After returning from injury in the final 13weeks of the season we saw just how important he is for Manchester United. That was from right back. Valencia will play in a more advanced role for Ecuador and provides bags of experience.

La Tricolor will go far because of forwards: Goals. Goals. Goals. Ecuador has a ton of talented attackers in its squad. Enner Valencia and Jefferson Montero will be dangerous and through the first five 2018 World Cup qualifying games they’ve scored 12 times and sit second in the table.

Likely heartbreak warning: With top scorer from World Cup qualifying, Felipe Caceido, out injured, Ecuador has been dealt a huge blow. They seem to always be the nearly men.


Peru

Paolo Guerrero, Peru

They’ve won the tournament twice in their history and last summer they were the surprise semifinalists who finished in third place. Anchored by a strong defense, they’ll be hoping to cause another upset.

Star player: Paolo Guerrero – He is their main man up top with 26 goals in 67 appearances. If Peru has a chance in the box, they want it to fall to him.

They will be the darlings of the tournament: If they get off to a flying start against Haiti in Seattle then we can expect big things. Confidence will be key ahead of the final game against Brazil.

Goals will be the big problem: They scored just twice in three games during the group stage last summer and somehow made it through. They will have to do more than that this time out and if they don’t beat Haiti, it is curtains for their knockout stage hopes.


Haiti

Gyasi Zardes, Frantz Bertin
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This will be their first-ever appearance in the Copa America and after their successful Gold Cup campaign in 2015, who knows what’s possible? They will fancy their chances of advancing despite all the odds stacked against them.

Star player: Johnny Placide – He shone for Haiti during the Gold Cup last summer and their goalkeeper will be another busy man. A beast.

Beware of the underdogs, they’ll get you: As we saw last summer, we shouldn’t underestimate Haiti. They only lost to the USA 1-0 and beat Honduras on their way to a quarterfinal exit to eventual runners up Jamaica. They will keep it tight and try to grind out wins.

Tight isn’t good enough: As they’ve found out in World Cup qualifying, you have to do more than hang in there. They haven’t scored a goal through four games of 2018 World Cup qualifying in CONCACAF Group B and sit bottom of the table. Placide will have to come up big this summer if they’re going to produce something special.


Game schedule – Full schedule for Group B, here

Who’s going through, who’s going home: Brazil, Ecuador going through; Peru and Haiti going home

Marquee match: I’m going with Brazil vs. Ecuador on June 4 at the Rose Bowl. This two will go at it to try and take control of Group B. Should be a fun one. 

Top players to watch

1) Douglas Costa
2) Willian
3) Antonio Valencia
4) Paolo Guerrero
5) Johnny Placide