Premier League Playback: Fifth place finish for Man United? Superstar Shaw, Arsenal’s big chance

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WOULD A FIFTH PLACE FINISH REDEEM UNITED’S SEASON?

In the second half of their 3-0 win against West Bromwich Albion on Saturday, as they have done for fits and starts throughout the 2013-14 campaign, the real Manchester United showed up.

Full of clever running, panache, tricks, flicks and attacking intent, David Moyes’s side finally clicked going forward against the Baggies.

“It was more like it. We were more creative and played well,” Moyes said. “It’s never the easiest of places to come and we had lost to them earlier in the season so it was good to get a good result. We earned the right to be in front. When we did, we sort of controlled chunks of the game.”

Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Adnan Januzaj and Juan Mata weaved in and out of one another majestically, especially in the second half, and with Marouane Fellaini breaking things up expertly in midfield United looked a much better outfit at the Hawthorns. If you look at the average position for United’s attackers in the image from Opta on the left, you can see how Rooney and RVP were right on top of each other, while Januzaj is almost like a third striker and Mata isn’t far behind him. Not many PL teams can contain that front four when they’re on form.

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Click to enlarge – Man United’s average positions against West Brom. Source: Opta

Aside from the swaggering style emanating from the Red Devils, there was a sense of belief in the way they played, a solid defensive showing from Phil Jones and Chris Smalling and pure relief that they hadn’t suffered yet another damaging loss. In their previous five games, United had won just once. But after beating the Baggies they now sit in a somewhat respectable sixth spot in the PL, just five points behind Tottenham Hotspur with a game in hand.

So if United finish fifth this season, despite all their struggles, is that okay?

Is this acceptable for Moyes, who inherited and aging squad that many deemed lucky to win the PL title last season, to rebuild the side and just miss out on qualification for the UEFA Champions League?

(MORE: Latest Premier League standings)

One thing we know for sure, Moyes’ teams have always been slow starters but extremely strong finishers. In four of his last five season in charge of Everton in the PL, his side have been no higher than seventh after 11 games, like United, but then rallied in the last 11 games of each season and lost just four out of 44 games across the closing stages of those seasons.

That gives United hope. Despite everything that has happened since Sir Alex Ferguson left and Moyes took over, they now have nine games left and an outside chance of making the top four.

Although that looks distant, finishing fifth wouldn’t be an embarrassment considering how bad it has been this season.

Premier League Schedule – Week 29

Result Recap & Highlights
Cardiff City 3-1 Fulham Recap and watch here
Chelsea 4-0 Tottenham Recap and watch here
Crystal Palace 0-1 Saints Recap and watch here
Norwich City 1-1 Stoke City Recap and watch here
West Brom 0-3 Man United Recap and watch here

FAREWELL FULHAM

With his club issue glasses, which resemble a mishmash of Harry Potter and John Lennon’s specs, Fulham manger Felix Magath was oddly redundant as his side crumbled to a damaging 3-1 loss away at Cardiff City, in a massive relegation six-pointer over the weekend.

Magath knows, even if he doesn’t want to believe it, that Fulham are destined for the drop.

At least, that’s the way he was acting. Chewing ferociously on gum while sitting in the dugout, even when his team fought back to equalize with over 20 minutes left there wasn’t much emotion shown by the veteran German coach. Following the loss which maroons Fulham five points from safety at the bottom of the PL standings, Magath lambasted his squad for not having enough desire to fight and suggested the players at his disposal aren’t cut out for a relegation scrap.

“If you are at the bottom of the league, you have to fight,” Magath told the BBC after the game. “Maybe we do not have players that are used to it. They have come from situations where they have never had a relegation fight. They are not fighting enough.”

Well, that doesn’t sound like fighting talk from a manager trying to keep Fulham’s sinking ship from dropping into the Championship next season.

LUKE SHAW: NEXT SUPERSTAR FROM SAINTS

It’s been quite a week for Southampton’s 18-year-old left back Luke Shaw. On Wednesday Shaw made his England debut at Wembley against Denmark and earned raved reviews in a typically composed second half display. The youngster from Kingston in South West London has surged onto the scene for Saints in the last year. He made his PL debut in November 2012 and hasn’t looked back since. Shaw has handed England manager Roy Hodgson a massive dilemma with Leighton Baines his first choice left back for the World Cup this summer, but England legend Ashley Cole is now battling it out with Shaw for the other spot.

(MORE: Man United set to bid $50 million for Southampton’s star duo)

Cole has been out of form, favor and fitness at Chelsea and the man who has 107 caps for England could well see himself pushed off the plane to Brazil by a teenager who grew up idolizing Cole at Chelsea as a lifelong fan of the Blues. Shaw is the latest product to roll off the line of Saints’ famous academy. In England’s squad last week Shaw was joined by fellow graduates Adam Lallana, Saints’ current captain, and Arsenal attacker Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, while Arsenal’s other former Saints youngster Theo Walcott would’ve been on the plane to Brazil had he not had a season ending knee injury. Plus Saints had three players who’ve all featured for their first team represent the England U-19 team in midweek, Sam Gallagher, Harrison Reed and Calum Chambers, while James Ward-Prowse played for England’s U-21 side. There are more where Shaw came from. Check out the photo below, Shaw is second from the left in the front row with those flowing blonde locks… Four of those 10-year-olds are now in Southampton’s first team squad and have played together for almost a decade.

Shaw’s rise has been dramatic, swift and spectacular. Yet through it all he’s played with the poise and control of a seasoned pro. They say that some players are born with talent to become internationals of the highest caliber, and Shaw is certainly one of those. Against Denmark he took everything in his stride and surged forward on many occasions from left back like he does for his club side. On Saturday in Saints’ narrow win over Crystal Palace, predictably Shaw was solid as a rock and hugely impressive going forward.

18 years old, living the dream in the Premier League and possibly on his way to Brazil, Shaw’s one of the hottest properties in England’s top-flight and is a future, if not present, star of the PL.

Now, can Southampton hold onto him as Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United try to out-bid each other?

SHERWOOD’S TIME UP AT THE LANE? ARE SPURS FOR REAL….

It seems ridiculous to be talking about yet another change of manager at White Hart Lane, but that’s looking more and more likely as the current season plays out. Tim Sherwood was handed the Spurs job on a caretaker basis to start with after the sudden sacking of Andre Villas-Boas earlier in the campaign. However after leading Spurs to several wins and swashbuckling performances Sherwood was handed a permanent contract, albeit a very short 18-month deal, to manager Spurs.

After their 4-0 battering against Chelsea on Saturday, Sherwood has admitted he doesn’t know what to expected at the end of the season, as rumors of Louis van Gaal and Michael Laudrup taking charge have not been batted away by Spurs Chairman Daniel Levy.

“The silence is deafening, isn’t it?” Sherwood said. “It’s up to Daniel. I didn’t know if he was at the game or not. Maybe he was traveling. It’s up to the club to make the decision. One thing I can guarantee people is that no one cares more than me. I want the team to do very well and it hurts me when they don’t. I’m afraid I need people in that dressing room to be hurting like I am. I never want to be a number two. I’d be no good, I’m too opinionated. I wouldn’t want to do the job.”

What makes Sherwood coming under intense scrutiny even more ridiculous is that Tottenham have been vastly improved since he took over. His record as a PL manager reads played 13, won seven, lost three, drawn three. Two of the three defeats have been blowout losses to Manchester City and Chelsea, the league’s top two teams after Spurs had a man sent off and penalties were given against them in both matches.

(MORE: Does Tim Sherwood deserve more credit for reviving Spurs?)

Is that really Sherwood’s fault? Tottenham are desperate to finish in the top four, but with defeat to Chelsea that looks increasingly like Spurs’ shot at bringing Champions League soccer to White Hart Lane next season is over. 6-0 and 5-1 defeats to Man City, a 4-0 hammering by Chelsea and a 5-0 loss to Liverpool shows that despite all their spending Spurs are miles away from the current top four in the PL. Sherwood may not be the man to help with that, but it’s harsh to blame the firefighter who arrived midway through the season and has done a pretty remarkable job thus far.

FA CUP 2014: ARSENAL’S TO LOSE

In case you hadn’t noticed, this weekend we have a pretty light schedule in the PL. That was down to four Premier League teams involved in FA Cup quarterfinal matches… and now only two remain as the semifinal field at Wembley is set. Wigan Athletic shocked Manchester City to set up a semifinal clash with Arsenal, who beat Everton 4-1 at the Emirates, while Sheffield United (the first third-tier side to reach the semis since Wycombe in 2001) face Hull City in the other semifinal after they overcame Charlton and Sunderland respectively.

(MORE: Arsenal 4-1 Everton – Gunners book FA Cup semifinal spot)

The FA Cup is often deemed a poisoned chalice by PL managers and players, as a decision is made early in the competitions whether or not to go all out to win it. Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has done just that and it’s pay dividends. As other PL big dogs have fallen by the wayside and paid the price for giving their reserves a run out, Arsenal have faced Tottenham, Liverpool and Everton on the road to Wembley… they simply haven’t had a chance to rest their big stars.

If you’d told Gunners fans at the start of the season they would finish in the top four and win an FA Cup title, the vast majority would’ve snap your hands off. Arsenal’s best chance of winning silverware since 2005 has arrived. They’d be fools to blow this.

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

Cristiano Ronaldo could face tax-fraud charges in Spain

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MADRID (AP) Spanish prosecutors are considering whether Cristiano Ronaldo should face charges over allegations by the country’s tax agency that he defrauded the authorities of 15 million euros ($16.7 million) between 2011 and 2014.

Prosecutors said Thursday they have until the end of June to decide whether to charge the Real Madrid star, based on evidence from an investigation by tax officials.

The alleged irregularities were mostly related to money that Ronaldo had in the Virgin Islands.

Tax officials said Ronaldo adjusted his tax declarations and paid an extra 6 million euros ($6.7 million) in 2014.

Prosecutors said that if they decided to charge him, and if the Portugal captain was subsequently found guilty by a court, he would face a prison sentence of at least 15 months. However, it would be unlikely he would go to jail as a first-time offender.

Barcelona’s Lionel Messi was convicted of tax fraud last year.

Terry: “I couldn’t care less” about 26th-minute farewell criticism

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John Terry is a man who… well, let’s just say, does things his way.

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For instance, remember the time Chelsea won the UEFA Champions League, by beating Bayern Munich, in penalties? Remember Chelsea’s post-game celebrations, which saw Terry, who was suspended for the final at the Allianz Arena, joyously jumping around with his teammates wearing his full kit, shin guards and all?

Was it over the top and a bit silly? Sure it was, but was anyone hurt or genuinely upset by it? Of course not. On Sunday, as Terry said goodbye to the only club he’s ever known (apart from a six-game loan spell at Nottingham Forest in 2000), he toed the line between what’s acceptable and what’s outlandish. Just like in 2012, Terry caused a minor uproar, and just like in 2012 he “couldn’t care less” — quotes from the Guardian:

“I couldn’t care less, I promise you. All I care about is celebrating with my Chelsea fans. Me and them have a wonderful rapport and have done for 22 years. Nothing that people write or say can ever get in the way of that.

“If that’s the way I want to go out, that’s the way I go out because I’ve been here 22 years, I’ve won so many trophies — so if I wanted to play one minute and come off, I would have done.

“I wanted to play 26 minutes because the shirt number means a lot to me and the supporters so as long as they are happy – and I was over the moon with the reception – I promise you I could not care less.”

“It was an unbelievable send-off from the supporters to help me to celebrate 22 years at the club.

“I’m very grateful to them, and it was something I will never forget. It was so emotional after the game, I was in bits.”

There’s something to be said about the success that Chelsea have had as a club, and the way its recency leads them to feel they are perceived by the outside world. Other clubs, “bigger,” most historic clubs — Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal, for example — have been winning trophies pretty regularly for decades, while 70 percent of the major trophies (14 of 20) won in the club’s history have come since Roman Abramovich bought the club 14 years ago, in 2003. Chelsea is a 112-year-old football club.

[ MORE: Pogba, Mkhitaryan fire Man United to Europa League trophy ]

Chelsea’s players and fans are so clearly away of their bought-and-paid-for status, thus everything is celebrated on the grandest scale, almost as if to legitimize their accomplishments (which stand up just fine on their own two feet) and standing within the hierarchy of English football. “Contrived” (and admittedly so) is the word that comes to mind and best describes Terry’s send-off.

No one in this space is saying there’s anything wrong with that, but everyone connected to Chelsea must realize and accept that it looks silly to supporters of the aforementioned long-time giants, and they’re going to be pointed at and laughed at every time they do it.

FA Cup: Three key battles between Arsenal, Chelsea

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The FA Cup final usually brings out terrific entertainment for the fans, and this Saturday’s finale should be no different.

When Arsenal and Chelsea take the field at Wembley Stadium, it will be the last chance this season for some of the Premier League’s stars such as Eden Hazard and Diego Costa for Chelsea and Alexis Sanchez and Mezut Ozil for Arsenal to bring glory to their club.

[ MORE: Follow all the FA Cup scores here ]

The match features two teams heading in different directions. Chelsea, the Premier League champions are in the ascendency after a one-year hiatus out of European competition, while Arsenal finished outside the top-four places in the Premier League for the first time in 20 years under manager Arsene Wenger.

In addition, there’s plenty of other storylines to watch on the field, from whether it’s Costa, Sanchez and Ozil’s potential last matches with their respective teams to how Arsenal will deal without two of its three regular centerbacks they’ve used this season.

Here’s a look at three key battles on the field ahead of the FA Cup final:


Arsenal’s centerbacks vs. Diego Costa

Diego Costa may be a thorn in Chelsea’s side off the field when it comes to the constant speculation of a move away from Stamford Bridge, but on the field this season he’s been brilliant. Costa scored 20 goals in the Premier League and another goal in FA Cup action, and he contributes off the ball as well, drawing the defense in towards him while opening up space for teammates including Hazard and Willian.

Heading into Saturday, it’s unclear who on Arsenal will be tasked with marking Costa. Laurent Koscielny was issued a straight red card in Arsenal’s 3-1 win over Everton and will miss the FA Cup final due to suspension while fellow centerback Gabriel left the field on a stretcher after suffering a knee injury. In addition, Shkodran Mustafi is still recovering from a concussion and is a doubt for Saturday.

That leaves Wenger with just Per Mertesacker and Rob Holding as healthy centerbacks, which could force Wenger to revert back to his usual four-man backline from the more recent three-man backline that’s been used.

Regardless of who Arsenal put out there, expect Costa to be at his best, attempting to physically dominate his opponent and get under their skin.


Nemanja Matic and N'Golo Kante vs. Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez

Arsenal are at their best when they play through the middle of the field before finding runners out wide, setting up crossing attempts into the middle or perhaps another chance to play through the lines in the center of the field.

Standing in Arsenal’s playmaking duo of Mezut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez’s way are Nemanja Matic and N’Golo Kante. Kante, as Riyad Mahrez saw last year, does so much of the dirty work defensively that he allows his teammates including Matic and Hazard to bomb forward and either create or finish goal-scoring opportunities.

Kante will have his hands full dealing with Ozil and Sanchez in midfield, and Matic may need to sit a bit deeper to cut off the passing lanes, potentially taking him out of Chelsea’s counter attack.


Eden Hazard vs. Hector Bellerin

For all the speed that Hazard possesses on the ball, there’s at least one player on Arsenal who can keep stride pace-for-pace.

With Hazard likely lining up on the left wing, Arsenal’s right wing back Hector Bellerin will likely face Hazard up one-on-one at both ends of the field, setting up a fun encounter. With Bellerin’s speed and ability to track back, he may be open to a few 40-yard springs into space down the right wing, knowing that Hazard probably won’t be in hot pursuit.

But if Bellerin doesn’t end up with the ball and there’s an Arsenal turnover, Hazard on his own or against a centerback on the left wing could be a nightmare for Arsenal to deal with.

Man United, Man City come together to support terror victims

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The Manchester derby is known as one of the world’s fiercest rivalries, but in the wake of a devastating terrorist attack this week, both sides are joining together to support the city of Manchester and victims of the attack.

Manchester United and Manchester City announced Thursday they pledged together nearly $1.3 million into the We Love Manchester community fund. The fund was set up to assist the families of the 22 people who died and 64 people who were injured in the attack.

“The barbarism of Monday evening’s attack has shocked everyone,” Manchester United executive vice chairman Ed Woodward said in a statement. “Our clubs are right at the heart of our local communities in Manchester and it is right that we present a unified response to this tragedy. The money will help of course but the work of the two clubs and their respective foundation and community scheme can build on the fantastic spirit that Mancunians have shown in the immediate aftermath.”

Folks who want to donate to the fund can visit http://www.redcross.org.uk/manchester or http://www.justgiving.com/campaigns/charity/redcross/ManchesterEmergencyFund.

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