Premier League Playback: Title-race odds, classy Moyes, drop zone drama

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MOVING DAY: TITLE WINNERS REVEALED…

‘So you’re saying there’s a chance…’

When all’s said and done at the end of the Premier League season, we may well look back to Saturday March 29th as the defining day in the PL title race. Chelsea lost at relegation battlers Crystal Palace and Manchester City let an early lead slip against a dogged Arsenal to draw. With those results on Saturday leaving Jose Mourinho claiming Chelsea’s title hopes were over, I was present in the depths of the Emirates Stadium as both Manuel Pellegrini and Arsene Wenger were asked about their team’s title chances and who the favorites are after the 1-1 draw in the late game.

“We have to fight until the end of the season because everybody can beat everybody,” Wenger said. “Chelsea lost at Crystal Palace, that means all of us have to be careful and all of us have to be consistent.”

(MORE: Latest Premier League standings)

While City boss Pellegrini believes it’s still a four horse race for the glistening trophy which is likely to be awarded on May 11, the final day of the season.

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Click to enlarge – The simulator has Man City winning it all, but Liverpool not far behind. Source: Opta

“I think all four teams have the chance to win the title but all four teams will drop points between now and the end of the season,” Pellegrini said. “It is very difficult at the end of the season, because there are a lot of teams fighting relegation. Ask Chelsea , look at what happened to them away at Crystal Palace. I think we must continue to just think about the next game.”

With Arsenal and Man City’s bosses not sticking their necks out on the line about who’ll win the coveted title, it’s about time somebody did. Here it goes. I have managed to obtain information from Opta on a simulator they have run many, many times on how the final PL standings will look. Here are the results.

As you can see on the left, Manchester City are the champions elect, with a 62.87 percent chance of them winning their second PL crown in history, then come Liverpool with a 29.84 chance and then, surprisingly, Chelsea only have a 6.89 percent chance of lifting the PL title in 2013-14. Rounding out the top five Arsenal’s chances are almost officially over, with a percentage chance of 0.30 percent, while Everton are at 0.10 percent to win it all.

How have they worked this out I hear you cry? From the horses mouth, an Opta spokesman passed on their findings to me and explained how they’ve predicted the final PL standings.

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Click to enlarge – The final PL standings of 2013-14, as predicted by Opta. Source: Opta

“First, we looked at all of the games played this season and looked at the quality of chances each team is earning and conceding. These are their “attacking” and “defending” values. Next, we use these values to simulate the remaining games left in the season. We do this many, many times. So, when we say that Man City has a 62.87% chance of winning the PL, that also means that they won the PL in 62.87% of our simulations.”

You got it? So, this is pretty much gospel. The soccer gods no longer need to speak, Opta has worked it out for them. But, with unpredictable twists and turns from here on out still likely, there’s no point putting sky blue and white ribbons on the PL trophy, just yet.

(MORE: Man City, Arsenal up for the fight but where will PL title go?)

On Saturday, we saw varying reasons as to why City and Arsenal have led the way for large periods of the season. City with their fine array of attacking talent, the Gunners with their staunch defensive nous and possession play chipping away at the opposition. City dominated the first half and tore Arsenal apart, while the Gunners dug deep to snatch a point late on. City are the favorites for a reason, they have two games in hand of leaders Liverpool and are four points behind. But they do have to visit Anfield, as do Chelsea. Those two matches are pivotal, and the percentages point to that. City are expected to win the title by two points over Liverpool, 84 points to 82, so it could all come down to that one game at Anfield on April 13.

The Reds are currently top, have won eight on the spin, Luis Suarez is their all-time record scorer in a single PL season with 29 and Brendan Rodgers has warned City and Chelsea that his boys are for real. Can Liverpool really hold onto top spot with six games to go?

As for the current fourth-placed team Arsenal, Wenger didn’t exactly rule the Gunners out of the race but he’s intelligent enough to do the math. Which is exactly what he and Pellegrini spoke about.

“Mathematically we are still in there, but it is not in our hands,” Wenger said. “We have to look above us and behind us. Because behind us they are coming too.”

Pellegrini knows his City team aren’t home and dry, as the placid Chilean was cool and calculated when assessing the run-in. “In football, if the mathematics allow you to win, then you have the chance to do it. I think in this moment, we will see what happens tomorrow with Liverpool [they beat Tottenham 4-0 to go top]. Arsenal are only five points behind the leader, it’s not too much.”

Well, you’ve seen the predictions for how this season will finish up, do you agree with the math handing Man City the title just ahead of Liverpool?

Premier League Schedule – Week 32

Result Recap & Highlights
Arsenal 1-1 Manchester City Recap and watch here
Crystal Palace 1-0 Chelsea Recap and watch here
Fulham 1-3 Everton Recap and watch here
Liverpool 4-0 Tottenham Recap and watch here
Man United 4-1 Aston Villa Recap and watch here
Southampton 4-0 Newcastle Recap and watch here
Stoke City 1-0 Hull City Recap and watch here
Sunderland 1-2 West Ham Recap and watch here
Swansea 3-0 Norwich Recap and watch here
West Brom 3-3 Cardiff City Recap and watch here

MOYES RETAINS DIGNITY AFTER EMBARRASSING FLY-BY

One team not in the title race, Manchester United, are looking to restore a little dignity to their title defense. Yes, they’ve miserably defended the PL crown they won last season but at least new manager David Moyes still has his dignity intact. That’s more than can be said for a vast portion of United’s fans.

The drone of a propeller plane hung in the air around Old Trafford just after kick off in Manchester United’s match against Aston Villa on Saturday. The message from an unnamed set of Man United fans (with conspiracy theorists having a field day as rumors of Man City fans being behind the stunt are rife) read “WRONG ONE – MOYES OUT” as the banner hanging from the end of the plane used in the fly-by was the polar opposite of the class, professionalism and prestige that oozes from the United organization. The fans let themselves down in this crass demonstration.

Moyes came out onto the field way before kick off against Villa and applauded the fans, after he’d earlier exclaimed that vast majority were still on his side. The warm reception he got back revealed that a small minority were behind the demonstration against his appointment, as Sir Alex Ferguson’s successor has displayed admirable dignity throughout the hounding of him for United’s dismal campaign. The banner came and went early in the game, and it was heart-warming to hear boo’s from fans against the feeble excuse of a demonstration which drowned out the sound of the engine high above the skies over OT. Soon though, they were replaced with groans of discontent, once again, as Aston Villa took an early lead. But, as has so often been the case this season, Wayne Rooney inspired a United fight-back as Moyes silenced the boo boys for at least one day, with a comfortable 4-1 win for the Red Devils.

(Scrolling through responses to the banner flown over Old Trafford, I found this gem. Well done, @TheChelsOrg, well done indeed)

Yes, United have been woeful in the fight to retain their PL crown, but how much of that is really Moyes’ fault? Time and time again we’ve spoke about the aging squad he inherited and all the other intangibles which conspired against him this season. However, you can only really point the finger of blame at him for his transfer policy thus far, as Juan Mata and Marouane Fellaini have yet to hit top gear since their big money arrivals.

That will all take time, and given the fact that Moyes has acted in a respectful and dignified manner throughout it all, the wily Scot looks focused on the task at hand and has the bit between his teeth to turn things around. United’s fans need to stand by Moyes, their club needs them.

RELEGATION MADNESS; THIS IS ONLY THE START

Rage. Despair. Delight. Acceptance. Ecstasy.

Those were just some of the emotions fans of West Bromwich Albion and Cardiff City went through on Saturday… and that was just in the four minutes of stoppage time. Watch the incredible scenes unfold in the video above.

Pandemonium ensued at the Hawthorns, as West Brom raced into an early 2-0 lead but then threw it away with 15 minutes left as Cardiff launched a spirited comeback. But the real drama arrived in added time, when Thievy finished off a deflected cross in the 92nd minute to send the home fans into raptures, as head coach Pepe Mel celebrated like he’d won the PL title. Hold on though, this is the PL and this is the race against relegation.

(MORE: Latest Premier League standings)

With Ole Gunnar Solksjaer in charge, his side evoked the ‘baby faced assassins’ predatory late strikes from his playing days, as fellow Norwegian Mats Moller Daehli popped up with the last kick of the game to drive a dagger deep into the hearts of the Baggies, as Cardiff’s traveling fans lost the plot. Neither team wanted a draw in their predicament, but after a pulsating clash where both sides left everything out on the pitch, a draw was fair. Solksjaer and Mel embraced each other with a long hug and laughter, as the two are under intense pressure to keep their sides in the PL. If you didn’t laugh, you’d cry. It was a truly moving moment, in a wonderful absorbing game. The best news is, this is only the start. West Brom are one place above the bottom three and three points ahead of Cardiff in 18th, as the Baggies and Bluebirds are still embroiled in and agony and ecstasy of the relegation battle.

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Click to enlarge – Relegation percentages revealed. Source: Opta

Elsewhere in the race against the drop Norwich are still in big trouble as they were hammered 3-0 by Swansea. The Welsh side eased own their relegation fears considerably with the win, as they sit seven points above the bottom three in 13th. As for Crystal Palace, we already mentioned their stunning win at home to Chelsea, as the Eagles are soaring clear of trouble with many calling for Tony Pulis to be rewarded with the Manager of the Year award. Remember how dead and buried they were back in November?

West Ham beat Sunderland 2-1 at the Stadium of Light on Monday, as the Black Cats came up short in a must-win game. They are second from bottom on 25 points, with Cardiff just one point above them. The Mackems have four incredibly tough games up next, as they travel to Tottenham next week, then host Everton before traveling to Manchester City and Chelsea back-to-back. Gus Poyet’s men are teetering on the brink of the PL.

Speaking of that, Fulham, well, they are all but doomed to life in England’s second-tier next season after losing 3-1 to Everton on Sunday. Look at the predictions from Opta on the left, and you can see the Cottagers have a 96.41 percent chance of being relegated. Not great for Felix Magath’s side, but they do have Hull City, Norwich and Villa coming up in three of their next four games. Don’t rule out the great escape, just yet.

Below our Match of the Day pundits dissect the battle against the drop, as three teams will tumble into the Championship in less than six weeks time. The picture is starting to take shape, as some desperate battles await at the wrong end of the table.

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

Barkley ineligible to make Chelsea debut in FA Cup replay

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Ross Barkley was expected — and himself expected — to make his Chelsea debut on Wednesday, when the Blues host Championship side Norwich City in a third-round FA Cup replay at Stamford Bridge.

Alas, the 24-year-old English midfielder has been ruled ineligible due to a lesser-known and -applied rules surrounding transfers and player registration.

[ MORE: Tuesday’s 3rd-round replay roundup | Wednesday preview ]

Barkley completed his move from Everton to Chelsea, for $20 million, on Jan. 5, the day before Chelsea and Norwich drew 0-0 at Carrow Road. In order to be eligible for Wednesday’s replay, Barkley is required to have completed his transfer prior to the noon cut-off the day prior to the original tie. While the time of official approval is unknown, Barkley’s move wasn’t announced by the club until after 5 p.m. in the UK.

As such, Chelsea will attempt to set up a behind-closed-doors friendly this week, in order to provide Barkley a bit of game action as he builds fitness and sharpness ahead of a potential debut against Brighton & Hove Albion on Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com). Barkley hasn’t seen a single minute of first-team action this season after suffering a serious hamstring injury in the summer.

FA Cup preview: Three more PL sides face 3rd-round replays

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Three more Premier League sides, including a top-four fighter, attempt to join a dozen of their top-flight contemporaries in the fourth round of the FA Cup on Wednesday…

[ MORE: Tuesday’s 3rd-round replay roundup ]

Chelsea and Swansea City host Championship opposition in the form of Norwich City and Wolverhampton Wanderers, respectively, while Bournemouth will make the 500-mile roundtrip to take on League One side Wigan Athletic.

The Blues, who now sit fourth in the PL after their disappointing 0-0 draw with Leicester City, could manage only a scoreless draw with the Canaries at Carrow Road earlier this month. They are winless in their last four games across all competitions — all draws — including their League Cup semifinal first-leg draw with Arsenal last week; the last three of those all finished without a single goal scored. Chelsea, who are tied with Liverpool with the fourth-most FA Cups in their history (7), lost out to Arsenal in last season’s final at Wembley Stadium.

Swansea are undoubtedly the side on highest Cupset alert, as Wolves are the runaway leaders and champions-elect in the Championship (10 points clear after 27 of 46 rounds played), thus able to devote more attention to the FA Cup than the typical second-division side. With the two sides separated by just a single place in the English footballing pyramid (Swansea, 20th in the PL; Wolves, 1st in the Championship), they appear destined to swap places by the end of May.

Meanwhile, Bournemouth’s punishment for conceding a pair of early goals to a side currently 32 places below them in the pyramid, is the long, midweek trip from the south coast to the DW Stadium in the northwest of England. It was the Premier Leaguers who needed a two second-half goals, including Steve Cook‘s 90th-minute equalizer, to draw level at home in the first meeting.

Tuesday’s FA Cup replay actionFULL ROUNDUP

Leicester City 2-0 Fleetwood Town
West Ham United 1-0 (AET) Shrewsbury Town
Mansfield Town 1-4 Cardiff City
Sheffield Wednesday 2-0 Carlisle United
Reading 3-0 Stevenage

Agent: 37-year-old Ronaldinho has retired

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SAO PAULO (AP) The brother and agent of 2005 Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldinho announced Tuesday that the former Brazil and Barcelona playmaker has retired from football.

Roberto Assis made the announcement to Brazilian media on behalf of the 37-year-old midfielder, who played his last professional match in 2015 for Brazil’s Fluminense.

“Ronnie’s professional career is over. He wants to be a football ambassador, do charity, and work with his friends in music from now on,” Assis told The Associated Press.

Assis hopes to schedule some farewell matches for Ronaldinho after the World Cup in Russia, which ends July 15. The initial plan is to play games in Brazil, Europe and Asia and to also get Brazil’s national team involved, Assis said.

Last July, Ronaldinho said on the sidelines of a friendly in Chechnya that was he was “too old” to return to action.

The Brazilian’s decorated career also includes one World Cup title (2002), one Champions League victory (2006) and two Spanish league titles with Barcelona, and two FIFA world player of the year awards (2004 and 2005).

Ronaldinho started his professional career at Gremio in southern Brazil in 1998. He left for Paris Saint-Germain in 2001 and was signed by Barcelona two seasons later.

At the Camp Nou, he was the engine of a team that took Barca back to the limelight. However, after a series of club trophies, Ronaldinho’s career took a downturn. He was often accused by Brazilian and Spanish media of lacking professionalism, despite his mentoring of a then youthful Lionel Messi.

In 2008, with Messi then leading Barcelona, Ronaldinho left for AC Milan. Despite being part of a team that won Serie A in 2011, he failed to reach his previous heights as a player.

When returning home became a real option, Ronaldinho frustrated Gremio’s efforts to re-sign him and joined Flamengo instead.

Disappointing performances in Rio de Janeiro took him to Atletico Mineiro, a club that then was more often fighting against relegation than for titles.

Yet a more mature Ronaldinho took Atletico to a different level.

In his last great run, Ronaldinho carried Atletico with his superb passes and dazzling dribbles to second place in the 2012 Brazilian Championship.

A year later, he was the key to his club lifting its first Copa Libertadores, South America’s most prestigious club trophy, but his hopes of playing at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil were dashed.

Ronaldinho left to play for Mexico’s Queretaro in 2014-15, but was mostly on the bench.

He played his last seven matches as a professional for Fluminense, though his performances were a far cry from his best days in Spain.

Now living in Rio, he has appeared in advertisements all over the world since leaving Fluminense.

USL granted 2018 2nd-division sanctioning by U.S. Soccer

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U.S. Soccer has officially granted the United Soccer League second-division sanctioning, behind first-division Major League Soccer, for the upcoming 2018 season, as well as first-division status for the National Women’s Soccer League.

[ MORE: Landon Donovan unveiled by Liga MX side Club Leon ]

USL, which will feature 33 teams in 2018, had been granted temporary second-division sanctioning, alongside the North American Soccer League, in 2017. As NASL’s demise continued and accelerated — the league will not begin play this spring, opting instead for a late-summer kickoff, after a number of its teams either folded or jumped ship to USL — USL, with the help of MLS, quickly pounced to capitalize — from U.S. Soccer’s statement:

Sanctioning allows NWSL and USL to operate a Division I and II league, respectively, during the 2018 season and includes a two-year pathway to full compliance with the Professional League Standards. USL has demonstrated substantial progress toward reaching full compliance since being granted provisional Division II sanctioning in 2017.

Conspiracy theorist’s take: USL supplanted NASL as the U.S.’s second-most viable professional men’s league — and more importantly, being granted official second-division status — paves the way for MLS to, at some point well down the line — say, 2030 or so — implement its own multi-tiered system of promotion and relegation, featuring anywhere between 60 and 80 teams, while still remaining a single-entity structure closed to the lower reaches of the sport in America, as the lines separating MLS and USL have only become more and more blurred in recent years.

[ MORE: Donovan ready to “win championships” after ending retirement ]

MLS realizes that public demand for promotion and relegation in the U.S. has grown significantly louder in recent years — particularly given the climate of the sport after the men’s national team failed to qualify for the World Cup, and subsequent ongoing presidential-election campaign — thus an open-but-not-really-open system which satisfies neither side will eventually be the end result.