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.

Chinese clubs to pay 100% tax on foreign transfers

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The days of Chinese Super League sides spending eye-popping figures on a handful of international superstars are over — either that, or those figures are about to double — for now, at least.

[ MORE: Oscar given 8-game ban for petulant display in China ]

China’s Football Association announced Thursday that, effective immediately, any foreign player signed for a fee exceeding $6.63 million would be subject to a 100-percent tax on top of the fee paid to acquire the player. The tax will remain in effect until the end of China’s ongoing transfer window, July 14. The tax will also apply to Chinese players signed for a fee exceeding $3 million.

It’s Chinese authorities’ latest attempt to prevent big spending by CSL clubs, which has in every instance been detrimental to the development of young Chinese players making their way through the academy system. The taxed money will then be reinvested in “youth training, construction of public sporting facilities and scientific progress in football development,” according to a statement by the CFA.

Just last week, China was eliminated from contention to qualify for next summer’s World Cup in Russia. The only time China has ever qualified for the World Cup was in 2002.

Young Englishman Oxford goes abroad, to Gladbach, on loan

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MOENCHENGLADBACH, Germany (AP) Borussia Moenchengladbach has signed English central defender Reece Oxford on loan for the season from Premier League club West Ham.

Gladbach sporting director Max Eberl says “Oxford has gone through all the England youth teams and is one of the biggest defensive talents in Britain.”

The 18-year-old Oxford, who spent the second half of last season on loan at second-division club Reading, is Gladbach’s fifth arrival of the off-season.

Qatar stadium safety concerns again raised by death investigation

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An investigation into why a British man fell to his death on a building site for the 2022 Qatar soccer World Cup has raised concerns about stadium roof safety.

World Cup organizers on Thursday released partial findings of an assessment of the accident at the Khalifa International Stadium, but said the full report cannot be released while local authorities continue their own investigation. It is one of two work-related deaths detailed in Qatar’s latest welfare report on preparations for the 2022 soccer tournament, which currently involves 12,367 workers on eight construction sites.

The 40-year-old British man fell 39 meters in January after one end of the roof catwalk he was installing dropped and a safety rope snapped.

“During the course of the investigation, the team had raised concerns with the method of installation of the raised catwalk system,” the welfare report from Qatar’s World Cup organizers stated. “This required further investigation regarding the method itself and the supervision skills of the specialist contractor staff.”

It has led to “corrective and preventative actions” being implemented by the contractor, a joint venture between Belgian and Qatari firms, along with safety checks across all stadium sites, the report said.

“These included a review of all working-at-height activities across all SC projects, an enhanced process when reviewing specialist activities within construction sites, and a detailed review of all roof and gantry designs,” the Supreme Committee overseeing stadium projects added.

The British man is the only European working on Qatar stadiums to have died in a country relying on a low-paid migrant workforce from south Asia to prepare for the first World Cup in the Middle East. Six non-work related deaths have been announced by organizers, with most suffering from heart or breathing problems.

Hassan Al Thawadi, the supreme committee’s secretary general, said medical staff are trying to raise awareness of the “importance of healthy lifestyles” by evaluating diets and identifying health issues, including hypertension and diabetes. Cooling helmets have also been developed in an attempt to make it safer for workers on outdoor sites during the searing summer heat.

World Cup preparations have been dogged by concerns about the welfare of workers since the natural gas-rich Gulf nation won the FIFA vote in 2010. Mounting international pressure led to Qatar raising living standards and worker rights. Inspections led to three contractors being blacklisted and 14 entities “demobilized” from projects for failing to tackle welfare issues, the World Cup report reveals.

“There is still work to be done to ensure our workers’ welfare standards continue to have a tangible impact on the ground and we are comprehensive in our attempts to tackle the myriad of issues facing migrant workers across the SC program,” Khalid Al-Kubaisi, who oversees worker welfare at the Supreme Committee, said in a statement.

The report has been released as Qatar is gripped by a diplomatic crisis that has seen it isolated in the region. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain cut ties with Qatar earlier this month and blocked air, sea and land traffic over its support for Islamist groups and ties with Iran. Qatar denies the charges and says the allegations are politically motivated.

Official (finally): Salah completes move from Roma to Liverpool

Photo credit: Liverpool FC / Twiter: @LFC
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It was the summer’s first transfer rumor-turned-real-story-turned-never-ending-saga that seemed to refuse to cross the finish line, but it’s finally come to pass: Mohamed Salah is a Liverpool player.

Salah’s move from Roma to Liverpool took so long to complete that the club’s poor social-media manager probably never wants to read the words “Announce Salah” for the rest of his/her life.

The deal will cost Liverpool something in the neighborhood of $50 million — a new Liverpool club record — and completes the utterly terrifying attacking quartet Jurgen Klopp can’t wait to unleash on the Premier League come August — Salah on one side, Sadio Mane opposite, Philippe Coutinho in the middle, and Roberto Firmino at striker. Salah, by the way, will take over Firmino’s no. 11 shirt, with the Brazilian switching to no. 9.