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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.

Claudio Ranieri dug his own grave at Leicester City

BOURNEMOUTH, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 13:  Christian Fuchs of Leicester City reacts during the Premier League match between AFC Bournemouth and Leicester City at the Vitality Stadium on December 13, 2016 in Bournemouth, England.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
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Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri admitted last week that he’s been too loyal to his title-winning players who aren’t performing up to standards this season. He followed that up by handing starting spots to out-of-form Christian Fuchs, Jamie Vardy, and Wes Morgan in the Champions League loss to Sevilla.

Now Ranieri has been sacked. It’s a sad story, but it’s easy to see why.

Should the eventual replacement truly hope to salvage Leicester City’s Premier League status, he must do what Ranieri failed to, and what he will be better equipped to do: put aside loyalties built from overachieving last season and and sit both Fuchs and Morgan, two critical players from last season’s incredible run who have sorely underperformed since. Just against Sevilla on Wednesday, Morgan gave away a blatant penalty with an ugly, petulant hack at Joaquin Correa’s legs, while Fuchs completely misjudged a cross en route to Pablo Sarabia’s opening goal.

Both have been equally as miserable in Premier League play. Morgan, the Leicester City captain, has looked every bit of his 33 years old, lumbering around the pitch unable to keep up with attackers slicing through the box. His successful tackle percentage is just 33%, and his pass accuracy is 69%, a shambolic combination for a defender. Fuchs, meanwhile, has been just as bad. Turning 31 himself in April, Fuchs was one of the worst players on the pitch in the 3-0 loss to Manchester United, and was yanked at halftime in the 2-0 loss to Swansea as he continued to struggle.

It’s surprising that Ranieri had kept faith in the two players after his comments on loyalty. One of the truest managers to his word in European soccer, the Italian said two weeks ago, “I could be [too loyal], could be. It is difficult when you achieve something so good, you want to give them one chance, two chances, three chances. Maybe now, it is too much. Of course I must change something because it is not possible to continue in this way.” He never backed up his words.

They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Ranieri had started his two aging defenders time and time again hoping they will recapture last season’s lightning. That’s flat out not happening. Just prior to Ranieri’s comments on loyalty, I wrote about how the failing defense was most responsible for this season’s struggles. Since that moment, despite both the obvious shortcomings of which were written and the manager’s statement on failing loyalty, nothing has changed.

Now, after they struggled again midweek, the two must sit immediately to avoid the otherwise inevitable. The last time Christian Fuchs started the game on the bench was the last time Leicester City won in the league, when young Ben Chilwell started at left-back and the Foxes shut out West Ham. Wes Morgan hasn’t sat a single minute in Premier League play, but he was rested for an FA Cup win over Derby County plus the subsequent loss to Millwall.

No, the manager can’t step out on the field and perform. He must be judged by the players he puts on the pitch, his tactics on the field, and his man-management off the pitch. Ranieri will always have last season, but he never left the title run behind. With Fuchs and Morgan – and to an extend Vardy as well – failing to perform to the standards of a Premier League team, Ranieri failed to leave last season in context and base his decisions in the present on what stared him right in the face.

Obviously this won’t solve the problem up front, with the Foxes still goalless in league play since Islam Slimani‘s winner against West Ham an appalling 610 minutes ago. The midfield is being overrun, the attack can’t deliver a competent cross, and set pieces appear to be the only time Leicester looks dangerous. Still, if the Foxes are to give themselves a chance of survival, now it’s up to the new manager to do what is right.

Claudio Ranieri will always be remembered for what he was able to achieve rather than what he was not. There’s plenty that isn’t his fault: the full makeup of the squad, the sale of N'Golo Kante, the failure by the board to truly spend the newfound coffers wisely. The end to the Italian’s Leicester City story is a sad, harsh one, but he only has himself to blame.

Claudio Ranieri sacked by Premier League champions Leicester City

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Leicester City’s incredible title run last season has come crashing down.

With the club battling relegation, Matt Lawton of the Daily Mail is reporting that the Foxes have fired manager Claudio Ranieri, who engineered last season’s improbable Premier League Championship.

This year, things have been completely opposite, with the club just a single point above the relegation zone. The team has lost five straight matches in Premier League play – six in all competitions – and has not scored a single goal in 610 league minutes, a span of nearly seven full games.

[ MORE: Why the decision to sack Ranieri was correct ]

Leicester makes the decision on the heels of a 2-1 loss to Sevilla in Champions League play that saw the Foxes lose but salvage an away goal by Jamie Vardy.

The decision means the previous two managers to lead his team to a Premier League title have been sacked during the following season. Jose Mourinho was fired by Chelsea in the midst of last season with the club en route to an eventual 10th place finish.

UPDATE: The decision has been confirmed by the club.

“Domestic results in the current campaign have placed the Club’s Premier League status under threat and the Board reluctantly feels that a change of leadership, while admittedly painful, is necessary in the Club’s greatest interest,” the club wrote in a statement.

“It was never our expectation that the extraordinary feats of last season should be replicated this season. Indeed, survival in the Premier League was our first and only target at the start of the campaign. But we are now faced with a fight to reach that objective and feel a change is necessary to maximize the opportunity presented by the final 13 games.”

The club said that Assistant Manager Craig Shakespeare and First Team Coach Mike Stowell will take charge on an interim basis until the new permanent manager is found, with Monday’s Premier League game against Liverpool their first task.

Southampton’s journey goes full circle

BOURNEMOUTH, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 18:  Jay Rodriguez of Southampton (C) celebrates scoring his sides second goal with Maya Yoshida of Southampton (R) during the Premier League match between AFC Bournemouth and Southampton at Vitality Stadium on December 18, 2016 in Bournemouth, England.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
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It was the spring of 2010, March 28 to be exact, when it truly felt like Southampton Football Club was starting to stir back to life.

[ MORE: Projected lineups for EFL Cup final ] 

In front of 73,476 fans at Wembley Stadium (over 44,000 were Saints fans, plus many more embedded in the away end due to ticketing regulations) a side managed by Alan Pardew which included Morgan Schneiderlin, Jose Fonte, Adam Lallana, Michail Antonio and Rickie Lambert beat Carlisle United 4-1 to win the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.

Seven years later they’re preparing for their first major final since 2003 and just their fourth in the past 41 years, as they face Manchester United at Wembley Stadium on Sunday.

Like a host of mid-size clubs in England, Southampton have historically felt they deserve to at least be in the top-flight and to each season challenge the established elite to win a trophy or at the very least reach a Wembley final. Now, after a humbling journey, they’re back to that.

Back in March 2010 Markus Liebherr (pictured, below) stood alongside the Southampton players lifting the JPT trophy in front of the Royal Box at Wembley. Liebherr single-handedly saved the club from extinction in 2009 when he bought them after they plunged into administration and were languishing in the third-tier of English soccer.

The billionaire businessman sadly passed away at the age of 62 in August 2010, leaving the club in the hands of his family, but as he took photos on his small personal camera of his team celebrating with the JPT trophy, over 44,000 fans celebrated in a sea of red and white at Wembley chanting his name. They knew the journey back to the top-flight, where they had previously spent 27-straight seasons, had begun.

Roll the clock forward seven years and a lot has changed, but a similar sea off red and white will adorn half of Wembley on Sunday as Saints requested a kit change to a special third-kit of white with red. Comparisons to the JPT final of 2010 will be made by many.

The trophy they’re competing for may be different this time around but the same feelings are present. Optimism is in the air for what lies ahead not just this weekend but for the future.

Saints were rescued in 2009 by German billionaire Markus Liebherr. Cortese was his right hand man and controlled the running of the club. Sadly Mr. Liebherr died in 2010, leaving the club in his daughter's hands.
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Liebherr’s legacy lives on (his name is still sung at every game by Southampton’s fans) heading into just the second League Cup final in their 131-year history. Their last appearance came back in 1979 when they lost to Nottingham Forest 3-2, just three years after they stunned Manchester United 1-0 to win the 1976 FA Cup as a second-tier club. Up until this point that was Southampton’s finest hour and the current squad would be held in the same regard if they could beat Man United for another famous final win.

All week Saints legends of that 1976 team have popped up on TV, only too happy to acknowledge and talk about Southampton’s one and only major trophy which was won in remarkable fashion due to Bobby Stokes’ second half goal. That underdog spirit from ’76 will be in full force once again among their 33,000-plus fans at the home of English soccer this weekend.

Saints are back where they feel they belong.

“It’s about time we should really get to a final,” club captain Steven Davis told Pro Soccer Talk after their quarterfinal win at Arsenal in December, which then led to a semifinal against Liverpool which Saints impressively won over two legs.

Their journey to the EFL Cup final has been just as impressive as they’ve beaten Premier League opposition on every step of the way without conceding a goal, just the second team in history to reach a League Cup final doing so.

Their journey from a third-tier team in 2009 to a team now consistently finishing in the top 10 of the Premier League and aiming for a third-straight season with European qualification has been arduous, even if it has seemed rapid.

It has been riddled with high-profile departures, changes and lofty expectations. Saints have met most of the latter and dealt with the former admirably.

Behind-the-scenes many have worked tirelessly to drive them back to become an established Premier League team, with Executive Chairman Les Reed taking over the leading role and putting in place an envious scouting network and academy system which consistently produces gems.

Heading into Sunday’s clash against powerhouse Manchester United, the fans, players and current manager, Claude Puel, know that Jose Mourinho’s superstars are the heavy favorites.

They’re fine with that.

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 28: Southampton celebrate after winning the Johnstone's Paint Trophy Final between Southampton and Carlisle United at Wembley Stadium on March 28, 2010 in London, England. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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Of course, Liebherr’s investment in Southampton brought financial wealth and the ability for Saints to build a stunning new training center (the main building of which is named the Markus Liebherr Pavilion) to house its world renowned academy, but it also allowed them to step back to where the fans and club felt they belonged. And then some.

Saints splash middle-range cash to sign stars from Europe others don’t want to take a risk on (see: Sadio Mane, Dejan Lovren, Graziano Pelle) then spend time developing them before often selling them on for a huge profit. Their model is admired across the world and both financially and on the pitch it has created great success for a club of Southampton’s size and stature within the Premier League. It’s true that they spent most of their previous time in the Premier League from 1992-2005 battling relegation but now they’re back, they’re hungry to squeeze every ounce of potential out of the club. They’re doing it.

Sure, this season they’ve slumped a little in the Premier League, with the rigors of the Europa League group stage, an EFL Cup run and untimely injuries thwarting the progress of Puel’s men in the Frenchman’s first season in charge. Yet, they’ve carried on progressing in other ways off the field with huge commercial deals with companies such as Virgin Media, Under Armour and others continuing their impressive growth, plus talk of huge investment from China ongoing.

On the pitch the signings of attackers Sofiane Boufal and Manolo Gabbiadini look like very shrewd investments, once again, while they possess hugely profitable talents in Virgil Van Dijk, Oriol Romeu and Dusan Tadic as a smattering of academy products continue to develop into steady PL players.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - JANUARY 25: Shane Long of Southampton (not pictured) celebrates with team mates after scoring his sides first goal during the EFL Cup Semi-Final Second Leg match between Liverpool and Southampton at Anfield on January 25, 2017 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
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Saints have locked down top talent (Tadic, Shane Long, Van Dijk, Davis, Ryan Bertrand) to new deals and the future is looking steady and secure. Yet, there’s just been one thing missing in their rise through the leagues and into Europe over the past few years: silverware.

Speaking to journalists in the tunnel at the Emirates Stadium earlier this year after Saints had beaten Arsenal in the quarterfinal on their march to Wembley, England international Ryan Bertrand explained that the players knew it’s about time the club got back to a final.

“It would be massive [to win the EFL Cup]. For the club, the massive rise that they’ve had from League One, as soon as the switch has turned they’ve seen success after success,” Bertrand said. “It’s not something that’s overdue, the silverware, but it is something that’s about the right time.”

It has taken them time but now they’re back where they believe they should be, a team which can finish just outside the perennial top six and challenge for trophies. On their day Saints can beaten any team in the Premier League and they’ve done it in this cup run, dispatching Arsenal and Liverpool in the last two rounds to get to this point.

Whatever happens on Sunday at Wembley, Southampton’s progression into a top 10 side in the Premier League that can challenge for trophies should not be overlooked.

Just under seven years on from winning a trophy solely consisting of teams from the third and fourth tiers of English soccer, Southampton can secure their first piece of major silverware since 1976 and just the second-ever in its history.

It will be a big ask to beat a Man United side which has lost just once in their last 25 games in all competitions but then again, Southampton are used to upsetting the odds and proving everyone wrong.

They’ve spent seven-straight years doing just that.

Sunday’s final represents the biggest stage yet for Southampton to show just how far they’ve come since their second-coming began almost seven years ago at Wembley Stadium.

This journey has gone full circle.

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 28: Southampton captain Dean Hammond and goalkeeper Kelvin Davis lift the trophy after winning the Johnstone's Paint Trophy Final between Southampton and Carlisle United at Wembley Stadium on March 28, 2010 in London, England. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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Men In Blazers podcast: Clattenburg, PieGate, Lincoln

BURNLEY, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 18:  The Lincoln City team celebrate their win in the changing room after The Emirates FA Cup Fifth Round match between Burnley and Lincoln City at Turf Moor on February 18, 2017 in Burnley, England.  (Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images)
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Rog and Davo celebrate Mark Clattenburg’s decision to postpone his Saudi Arabian sojourn, go all Woodword and Baldstein to investigate #PieGate and celebrate non-League Lincoln City’s FA Cup triumph over Burnley.

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