Quick Six: Top headlines from the Premier League Weekend

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1. Chelsea falls apart in Birmingham

You could almost hear conventional wisdom scoffing at José Mourinho when, in the lead up to Chelsea’s visit to Villa Park, the Blues’ manager said a draw in Birmingham would be a good result. Having never won at Aston Villa, Mourinho’s view was informed by hard-fought point after hard-fought point against Martin O’Neill’s teams. Even if the current Republic of Ireland manager has since moved on, Mourinho was not taking his trip to the Midlands for granted.

His worries turned out to be prescient. Chelsea, as is their recent pattern, went into halftime on Saturday without a goal, with their chances to produce another second half onslaught evaporating when Chris Foy harshly dismissed Willian. After Ramires earned his own sending off and Mourinho was sent to the stands, headlines cast Villa’s victory in terms of a nine-man Chelsea.

(MORE: Aston Villa 1-0 Chelsea: Villa benefit from Blues’ loss of composure (video))

Which, of course, is deceiving. Villa scored their winner well before Ramires was sent off. They were just as good as Chelsea before their opponents were reduced to ten. Pointing out the Blues were reduced to nine makes for a catchy headline, but it also paints a deceiving picture of the match.

The importance of that treatment goes beyond weird editorial minutia. It’s important to understanding Saturday’s game. Chelsea didn’t entirely fall victim to soccer randomness and officiating misfortunate. Those were contributing factors in an otherwise disappointing performance. The Blues had a bad day, one that would have ended in a draw had Foy’s judgment not compounded their problems.

This has been the issue with Chelsea’s title credentials all along. They are too easily drawn into these sorts of games, as the showed last month at West Brom, in January against West Ham, in December at Stoke. Other title contenders have their own problems (mostly, defense), but this is theirs. Their approach often leaves them playing down to their competition.

On any given weekend, against any team in the league, Chelsea can be drawn into this type of game. That may not be enough to keep it from the title, but it is something to worry about, particularly after it cost the team points on Saturday.

2. Long odds improving for Liverpool

When talk of Liverpool contending for this season’s title began in earnest last month, we noted the long odds. Liverpool would not only have to out-play Arsenal, Chelsea, and Manchester City but do so to a degree that made up the ground they’d conceded over the previous four months. At the time, the Reds were in fourth place and closer to Europa League than the title.

Fast forward one month, and Brendan Rodgers’ team has in fact out-played their competition. They are making up the ground. After their 3-0 win at Old Trafford, Liverpool’s within four of the top. They also have a game in hand on Chelsea.

All of which is big picture stuff. More narrowly, Liverpool were so much better than Manchester United, the match became a symbol of one team’s climb, another’s decline. Whereas Liverpool has struggled to match their rivals’ Premier League success, now the Red Devils are little more than a speed bump, one that can’t even mount a challenge at Old Trafford. And while Liverpool are much stronger than last year, there’s little explanation for why Manchester United, over the course of seven months, have fallen so far behind its rivals.

(MORE: Manchester United 0-3 Liverpool: Gerrard hits twice from the spot to send Reds second)

Nobody expected David Moyes to replicate Alex Ferguson’s accomplishments, which is why so few pundits picked them to repeat. At the same time, nobody could have reasonably foreseen they would be this bad, and had you told people in August that this team would add Juan Mata, Marouane Fellaini, and see Adnan Januzaj ascend to a starter’s role, Moyes wouldn’t have been given the leeway he received in fall.

But that leeway’s led to this. Manchester United is inexplicably bad, perhaps indefensibly so, an it’s nothing new. Liverpool’s rout provided more proof, but this is United’s 2013-14 season: A quest for rock bottom.

3. 11th man not necessary for Manchester City at Hull

Vincent Kompany’s case as one of the world’s best defenders is a strange one. Physically, and in terms of skill, talent, and capability, he may be the most complete defender in the world. He’s reputed to be one of the smartest players in the game, yet when he doesn’t have a somebody to his left that can provide decent cover, things go awry. His want to venture from his place in the defense — to take advantage of his athleticism, skill, and ability to read the game — comes back to haunt him.

On Saturday, perhaps he was hard done, but defenders know. If you are behind a guy and pull him down, you’re going to walk when nobody else between that man and goal. Argue about when defines a true goal scoring opportunity all you want, but the moment Nikica Jelavic got past him, Kompany couldn’t foul.

Thankfully for City, the dismissal didn’t matter. Playing with 10 men for 80 minutes, the Citizens still produced at 2-0 win at Hull. A quick response from David Silva and late insurance from Edin Dzeko helped bring City within six points of Chelsea, with their league-leading +44 goal difference set to help them in any tiebreaker scenario.

(MORE: Hull City 0-2 Manchester City: Silva inspires 10-man City to victory (video))

Their biggest advantage, though: Three games in hand on the Blues. On a points-per-game basis, Manchester City have the best record in the league. Whether that holds up while it makes up those games in hand will determine whether Manuel Pellegrini will finally break through and claim a European league title.

source: AP4. Rosicky, Arsenal add to Sherwood’s woes

When Tomas Rosicky finished into Hugo Lloris’s left side netting in the second minute, Sunday’s North London Derby looked set to become the third in a series of lopsided Spurs losses. With a little help from Arsenal (and its willingness to sit on that 1-0 lead), Tottenham avoided another embarrassing loss, something that won’t placate supporters hoping their team could do against their biggest rivals.

(MORE: Tottenham 0-1 Arsenal: Early Rosicky goal, solid shape give Arsenal derby double over Spurs)

The match’s telling moment may have been in the middle of the first half, when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s failed breakaway prompted Tim Sherwood to throw his coat to the ground. The fit of emotion eventually forced the new Spurs boss back to his chair, folded arms across his chest employing a five-year-old’s method of anger management. It was a show of passion, but it also was a sign of immaturity.

Before the match, Gary Lineker shared his views on Sherwood’s recent outbursts, saying encouragement tends to be the better option than criticism (at least, in public). Graeme Le Soux noted Sherwood’s use of a negative approach so early in his tenure didn’t speak well of the manager’s methods. Today’s sideline outburst only adds to the cracks in the new boss’s armor.

Had Spurs won on Sunday, they would have been within three points of fourth. Champions League would have been a realistic possibility. Failing to put a plan in place that could compete with a lackluster Arsenal, Sherwood showed he isn’t the man to take them there. Now it’s question of what Tottenham does next.

5. If Fulham, West Brom can win games, anything’s possible

As the relegation race progresses, we’ve had to start breaking out the clichés, perhaps the most used of which is “one good streak.” If any of the teams at the bottom of the Premier League can go on a good three- or four-game run, it’ll be in the first division come August. March’s results may be terrible, but turn it around mid-April? Life in the Championship becomes a hypothetical.

Fulham, for example, has been the league’s worst team this season. On Saturday, however, they got a 1-0 win over Newcastle United, bringing them to within five points of safety. Though they have Manchester City and Everton on the schedule in the coming weeks, they also have a number of opponents from whom even a slightly improved Cottagers team could take points: Aston Villa, Norwich, Hull, Stoke and Crystal Palace. As bad as this season has been at Craven Cottage, there is hope.

(MORE: Fulham 1-0 Newcastle United: Dejagah strike and late non-call give Cottagers three huge points)

West Brom, like Fulham, is experiencing an uptick in hopes after this weekend’s action. With their 2-1 win at Swansea, the Baggies registered their first victory under Pepe Mel, putting three points between them and the drop. With a goal difference edge on the rest of its relegation rivals, West Brom suddenly look like a good bet to stay up.

(MORE: Swansea City 1-2 West Brom: Pepe Mel gets first win, likely saves his job (video))

But let’s check back next week. After all, seven days ago, Cardiff City looked ready to make a charge. Then the team had to go to Everton, and the room it’d created on Fulham evaporated. It may take one good run to ensure survival, but runs extend beyond a single result.

source: Getty Images6. Nicolas Anelka may go away, but the FA wants his ban to follow

England’s Football Association should get out of the Nicolas Anelka business as soon as possible, even if that means not pursuing his ban as he leaves English shores. After the French attacker quit West Brom (before being fired), the Premier League is rid of a player whose latest incarnation brought nothing but controversy. While the early season passing of his agent unfortunately hindered his adjustment to the Baggies, his midseason quenelle ensured any lasting impact he had on the club would be a negative one.

While you can see why the FA wants Anelka’s ban to be observed by other leagues, thus strengthening the credibility of their punishments, the pursuit has given Anelka another day in the headlines. Better to just move on. Particularly at this time of the season — with league races, FA Cup, and Champions League in focus — it’s okay to forget about Nicolas Anelka.

La Liga: Sevilla win late to move even with Atletico Madrid in 3rd

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MADRID (AP) Wissam Ben Yedder scored three minutes after entering the game to give Sevilla a late 2-1 win over 10-man Celta Vigo in the Spanish league on Thursday.

The victory moved Sevilla even on points with third-place Atletico Madrid with four matches left. Third place guarantees an automatic spot in the Champions League next season, while the fourth-placed team has to go through a playoff.

Ben Yedder netted the winner from close range after a low cross by Samir Nasri in the 79th minute, beating a defender to the ball and hitting the top of the net with a right-footed shot.

“It was a complex game but the team was able to overcome the difficulties,” Sevilla coach Jorge Sampaoli said.

Joaquin Correa put the host ahead after halftime, and Iago Aspas equalized by converting a penalty kick just minutes later. Aspas did not celebrate the goal out of respect to fans of his former club.

Sevilla dominated from the start and was pressuring vigorously in search of the winner, especially after Celta went a man down when midfielder Pablo Hernandez was sent off with a second yellow card in the 56th with the game 1-1.

Sergio Escudero and Nasri each struck the crossbar a few minutes apart late in the second half, and Vicente Iborra also had hit the woodwork earlier in the game played under steady rain in Seville.

It was the third win in four matches for Sevilla after a streak of five games without a win.

Sevilla and Atletico are level on points, but the Madrid club is ahead on the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Top PL Storylines: Bye-bye, St. Totteringham’s Day? So long, Sunderland?

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Ahead of Week 34 of the 2016-17 Premier League season, we’re most looking forward to keeping an eye on the following storylines…

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Cancel St. Totteringham’s Day?

8,018 days (otherwise known as 22.9 years) have passed since Tottenham Hotspur last finished above Arsenal in the Premier League. First of all, that’s a lot of days. Secondly, the time to reset that clock is nearly upon us, as Tottenham take a 14-point lead into Sunday’s North London derby (Watch live, 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com) — perhaps the final one to be played at White Hart Lane. With Arsenal having only five games left to play after Sunday, a 17-point deficit would be mathematically impossible to overcome, and would guarantee Spurs’ first PL finish above Arsenal since the spring of 1995.

The fact that Spurs could end that embarrassing, heinous streak in a game against Arsenal, in perhaps their next-to-last game at White Hart Lane, and maybe even close to within a single point of Chelsea in the title race… it’s almost all too timely and too perfect to believe it could really happen… to Spurs.


Finish the job

With all due respect to Middlesbrough (home), West Bromwich Albion (away), Watford (home) and Sunderland (home), Sunday’s trip to Goodison Park, where they’ve lost on their last two visits (all competitions) and they’ll take on seventh-place Everton (Watch live, 9:05 a.m. ET, on CNBC and NBCSports.com), is far and away the toughest remaining fixture on Chelsea’s schedule as they chase a fifth PL-era title (fifth in all eras). Having booked their spot in the FA Cup final by beating Spurs last weekend, Antonio Conte is dreaming of — and a favorite to win — a double in his first season at Stamford.


Someone has to finish top-four

Ahead of the weekend, two points separate Liverpool (third), Manchester City (fourth) and Manchester United (fifth), with Arsenal another four back in sixth (but possessing a game in hand). Given all the points dropped by each of the aforementioned sides in recent weeks, it’s important to remember that someone has to finish third and fourth in the PL this season.

We’ve already discussed Arsenal’s titanic task, so here’s the challenges facing the other three this round: Liverpool, at Watford (Monday, 3 p.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com); Man City, at Middlesbrough (Sunday, 9:05 a.m. ET, on  NBCSports.com); Manchester United, vs. Swansea City (7 a.m. ET, on CNBC and NBCSports.com).


So long, Sunderland?

For five seasons now, Sunderland have flirted with relegation from the PL; and every previous season, they’ve pulled a rabbit out of the hat and managed to stay up. This season, though, under David Moyes, there appears to be no rabbit. With five games to go, safety is a whopping 12 points away, which means a loss to Bournemouth on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET, on NBCSports.com), coupled with a win or draw by 17th-place Hull City, would officially send Sunderland to the Championship next season. If the Black Cats somehow find their way out of this predicament, a northeastern knighthood awaits Mr. Moyes.

French authorities investigating 2018, 2022 World Cup bids

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PARIS (AP) French financial prosecutors are investigating the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups and have heard former FIFA president Sepp Blatter.

A person with direct knowledge of the investigation told The Associated Press on Thursday that France’s financial prosecutor services (PNF) opened the investigation on grounds of private corruption, criminal association, influence peddling, and benefiting from influence peddling relating to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, which were awarded to Russia and Qatar respectively.

The person spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the case.

Blatter was questioned in Switzerland last week as a witness, the same person told the AP.

The office of the attorney general of Switzerland said in a statement that “at the request of and in the context of proceedings being conducted by French justice authorities, it has questioned Mr. Joseph Blatter in his capacity as a person providing information on the 20th April 2017 in Zurich.”

The PNF opened its investigation last year.

FIFA has also been targeted by investigations led by Swiss and US authorities. Last month, FIFA sent 1,300 pages of internal investigation reports into suspected bribery and corruption to Switzerland’s attorney general. The documents complete a 22-month probe by legal firm Quinn Emanuel, which FIFA retained in the fallout from United States and Swiss federal prosecutors revealing their sprawling investigations of soccer corruption in May 2015.

Blatter said last week that he met with U.S. Department of Justice investigators and insisted he was not a suspect in their bribery and corruption case linked to FIFA.

Blatter was suspended from office in September 2015 and later banned from soccer by the FIFA ethics committee.

Johannsson expected to leave Bremen this summer — is MLS next?

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Aron Johannsson’s time at Werder Bremen is all but finished, as the 26-year-old American-born, Icelandic-raised striker is expected to leave the club this summer after 22 months with Die Werderaner.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage | MLS ]

Having failed to make much of an impact during his second season in the Bundesliga, following a few promising days early in the fall of 2015, the German press stated on Thursday, in no uncertain terms, “Aron Johannsson is leaving the northern club” — quotes from Kicker (translation courtesy of Google Translate):

In addition, Aron Johannsson is leaving the northern club. The US boy was not able to get through the hard competition in the storm, claimed more time, which can hardly be guaranteed in the next season. The fact that Baumann is already talking about finding a meaningful solution with the striker in the summer can be interpreted as follows: Johannsson will leave Werder.

Since various bits and pieces are lost in the above translation, allow us to offer a translation of the translation: the “hard competition in the storm” refers to the three or four strikers presently ahead of him in the pecking order. Johannsson fell down the depth chart due in large part to a hip injury which cost him the final seven months of last season.

Johannsson was recently quoted as saying, “It’s not my desire to leave, but at the end of the day it’s important that I play. I love football, but I need to play to be happy.”

[ MORE: John Brooks hip injury is worrying ahead of World Cup qualifiers ]

So, what’s next for Johannsson?

He can probably forget about a move to a top-division team in any of Europe’s premier leagues (England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France). A move back to Holland, where he starred at AZ Alkmaar (39 goals in 81 games) before moving to Bremen, would make sense if his goal is to stay in Europe at all costs. Another strong season (just a half, even) could earn him another shot with a first-division side roughly the size of Bremen.

Then, there’s MLS, which Johannsson’s been linked with before, and has publicly expressed a desire to join one day. As a current U.S. national team player, a move to MLS would mean a trip through the league’s allocation order for Johannsson. As of this posting, the Houston Dynamo hold the no. 1 spot in the allocation order, with Columbus Crew SC, San Jose Earthquakes, Minnesota United and Orlando City SC rounding out the next five.

[ WATCH: If you haven’t Darlington Nagbe’s latest golazo ]

Any team in MLS could land Johannsson by acquiring the top spot in the allocation order, via trade, and agreeing (what would almost certainly be) a Designated Player contract with him.

At the age of 26, Johannsson will likely feel there is still something left for him to accomplish in Europe. A strong showing in this summer’s Gold Cup (he’s a perfect candidate for Bruce Arena’s “B-team”) could open plenty of eyes — and doors. Money talks, though, just as the opportunity to be the face of the franchise and score a boatload of goals in MLS might also do.