Quick Six: Everton’s CL reality, leaders hold serve, and the rest of the PL’s weekend headlines

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1. Everton win gives life to Champions League hopes

This is really happening. For as much as we’ve talked about Everton having control of its Champions League destiny, it never felt real… until now. Before the Toffees routed Arsenal at Goodison Park on Sunday, this looked like another Arsenal close call; another plucky-but-short season from the Toffees; another reminder of the difference between the Premier League’s mammoth and merely big clubs. If decades of Everton failure against Arsenal told us anything, it’s that certain teams are allowed to be good, just not too good.

(MORE: Everton 3-0 Arsenal: Everton’s Champions League dreams in sight with big win)

So much for that. Everton’s 3-0 win over Arsenal wasn’t just plucky. It was convincing, leaving no doubt as to which team is the fourth-best I’m England. The top three: they’re title contenders. After that drop off, Everton is the best. They proved so on Sunday.

One point back of Arsenal with a game in hand, Everton’s focus now shifts to the run-in. Can they fulfill the Champions League promise they flashed on Sunday? Here are the remaining games for each team:

Arsenal
(33 games, 64 points)
Everton
(32 games, 63 points)
vs. West Ham
at Hull City
vs. Newcastle United
vs. West Bromwich Albion
vs. at Norwich
at Sunderland
vs. Crystal Palace
vs. Manchester United
at Southampton
vs. Manchester City
at Hull City

There are enough stumbling blocks along Everton’s road to give Arsenal fans hope, but those fans may also remember Mathieu Flamini’s own goal at home against Swansea, a reminder of the team’s extraordinary ability to turn its back on success. With the team also still active in the FA Cup, their last five games won’t be distraction free.

Perhaps a Gooner’s worst nightmare: Arsène Wenger uses his chance at silverware to condone his team’s waning league results.


source: AP

2. Not even Stan Kroenke would take this lying down

Let’s not talk “crisis” – the unimaginative cliché that correlates so well with “Ctrl+W”. Let’s talk about the real implications of today’s result, even if our limited knowledge of Arsenal’s inner-workings means the conversation’s no less speculative. But given the well-established suspicions about the Gunners, it’s at least worth considering how the next four or five months will test conventional wisdom.

That wisdom holds that Stan Kroenke, Arsenal’s majority shareholder, is less concerned with the team’s silverware drought than its place in Champions League. Call it a financial concern, one that explains why, despite Arsenal’s wane from perennial title contention, Wenger has remained beyond reproach.

A dip to fifth will test that hypothesis. If Arsenal loses that Champions League money and looks toward a 2014-15 season where Everton, Tottenham and Manchester United will challenge for that all-important fourth place spot, Kroenke and Ivan Gazidis may look at this season as a clear sign of unacceptable regression. Particularly as Roberto Martínez, an ideal fit for Arsenal’s job, sees his name linked with places like Barcelona, the pressure to make a move could be greater than ever.

Provided Arsenal don’t finish fourth, of course. But if they miss the top four for the first time in the Premier League era, the conversation might start. Hey, Arséne: That Paris Saint-Germain job, huh? Or Barcelona – what a fit, right? We just don’t want to ruin what we’ve got.

It will be difficult for Arsenal to improve on Wenger, but as results continue to diminish (and the outcomes of big games become more disturbingly lopsided) the risks gain a different, more tolerable context. Arsenal’s brain trust could be tempted to move on.


3. Top three hold serve

All three contenders at the top of the table held serve, something we shouldn’t taken for granted in light of Chelsea’s recent results. But in that same light, the Blues may have posted one of the weekend’s most impressive results. A 3-0 win at home to Stoke looks obligatory, but Mark Hughes’s team has seen steady improvement throughout the season. Given the Potters’ 3-2 win over Chelsea at the Britannia, a devil’s advocate could have expected more. Thanks to goals from Mohamed Salah, Frank Lampard, and Willian, the Blues slayed that demon early.

(MORE: Chelsea 3-0 Stoke City: Blues back on top)

Manchester City’s 4-1 over Southampton was also impressive, but given some of the idealistic naiveté we’ve seen from the Saints, the game at the Etihad always had a chance to break this way. But against a talented team capable of capitalizing on a poor performance, City deserves credit for maintaining their standard. With a fixture list impacted by the two games in hand they have to make up, the Citizens will be challenged to bring this energy to their remaining seven games.

(MORE: Manchester City 4-1 Southampton: Citizens go second despite early scare (video))

And then there’s Liverpool, who so many expected to struggle at West Ham today. It was a somewhat patronizing evaluation, as if playing a beautiful, progressive style is inconsistent with being able to handle Andy Carroll. Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sahko may not be the league’s best defensive pairing, but they’re not weaklings. If there’s one thing they can to, it’s muscle up to a big, slow target man. Unsurprisingly, Liverpool won 2-1, albeit with two goals from the spot.

(MORE: West Ham 1-2 Liverpool: Contentious battle sees Liverpool through to top)


 

4. The hype begins now

Here’s where City’s early exit from Champions League becomes a blessing. Had they defeated Barcelona in the Round of 16, the Citizens would be playing mid-week ahead of Sunday’s big game at Anfield. Given the long odds of any non-Bayern Munich team winning Champions League, it would likely be a waste of resources. For credibility’s sake alone, Manuel Pellegrini would be compelled to play a strong team on Tuesday or Wednesday. While City’s squad has enviable depth, the game would still be a distraction. Champions League may carry more glory, but City’s chances to win the Premier League are far better.

None of which has anything to do with Sunday’s actual game. Ever since Liverpool claimed first place, City’s visit to Anfield has loomed large. With the Reds in the midst of a charge that’s seen them win nine-in-a-row, Manchester City’s games in hand appear to be the major obstacle between Brendan Rodgers and a breakthrough title. If, however, Liverpool could beat City at Anfield? Those games in hand could prove irrelevant.

Let the hype begin now. Chelsea and Manchester United’s mid-week exploits in Champions League will serve as a brief distraction, but all along, our attentions will slowly be drifting to Anfield. Premier League fans have been subtly hyping this came for weeks. They don’t have to be subtle, anymore.


5. No ground gained at the bottom

Fulham seemed to get a huge boost to its survival pursuit, taking a 2-1 result out of Villa Park. Then West Brom won, and all of the Cottagers’ strides were put in a different perspective. While Fulham did climb out of the cellar, passing both Sunderland and Cardiff City, they didn’t move closer to safety. They still need to gain six points on 17th place, even if 17th is now Norwich City, not West Brom.

(MORE: Aston Villa 1-2 Fulham: A vital three points could help Cottagers reach safety (video))

The news is worse for Cardiff, whose embarrassing loss at home felt like a ticket to the Championship. Against a Crystal Palace team that had scored only 20 goal this season, the Bluebirds conceded three times. Four games after earning what seemed a key win over the Cottagers, Ole Gunner Solksjær’s team is now below Fulham in the standings.

(MORE: Cardiff City 0-3 Crystal Palace: Puncheon at the double (video))

For last place Sunderland, there’s still hope, even if they’ve gone two months without a Premier League win. With seven points in their three games in hand, the Black Cats will be safe. How likely is it that a team that’s only earned 25 points in 30 games can take seven in three? Well, that’s why they call it hope.

(MORE: Norwich City 0-1 West Bromwich Albion: Amalfitano opener proves enough for West Brom this time (video))

(BREAKING: Chris Hughton sacked as Norwich City manager)


source: AP6. Jay Rodriguez falls

If Rickie Lambert was the attacking darling of last season’s Southampton squad, Jay Rodriguez snatched that title this year, no small feat considering the love Adam Lallana has rightfully received. But with 15 goals this season, the 24-year-old Rodriguez has carved out a spot among the Premier League’s goal scoring leaders, winning a place with the growing Saints contingent likely to represent England at this summer’s World Cup.

Now all that needs to be written in the past tense. Rodriguez was stretchered off from Saturday’s game with a knee injury everybody suspects to be a major one. Though at the time of this writing Southampton had yet to clarify the extend of the problem, players reacted with that knowing regret we only see with a severe injury. Let’s just hope they’re wrong.

(MORE: Jay Rodriguez’s World Cup dream in ruins after knee injury)

Though he’s an important part of Southampton’s team, given what the Saints are fighting for right now, they’re unlikely to truly miss Rodriguez in the near-term. And while England can use all the talented attackers it can get, it was still uncertain what role he would play for Roy Hodgson this summer.

The big loss here is to Rodriguez himself. Experiencing his first prolonged spell of top flight success, Rodriguez was taking advantage of his career’s emerging prime. Now he could be sidetracked for up to a year. While he will still be young enough to comeback, reclaim some of this momentum, and challenge for a place at another major tournament, it’s always sad to see a player lose some of the best time of his career. Especially when he’d just started tasting success.

Time for new chapter in Liverpool, Chelsea rivalry

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Liverpool host Chelsea at Anfield on Saturday (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com) with the Premier League rivals aiming to hunt down runaway leaders Manchester City.

Expect a raucous, fiery atmosphere as these foes lock horns with a changing dynamic to their growing rivalry.

[ VIDEO: PL score predictions, previews ]

Since Rafael Benitez and Jose Mourinho both landed at English soccer at Liverpool and Chelsea respectively in 2004-05, there’s been an extra edge to games between Liverpool and Chelsea as they often battled for the Premier League and Champions League titles.

Yet in recent years this rivalry has subsided a little, with both clubs enduring roller-coaster seasons with title challenges mixed in with disappointing campaigns and managerial changes.

Now, both teams are challenging in the Champions League (Chelsea are in the last 16, while Liverpool will certainly join them in 10 days time) and both are in a very similar position in the chasing pack behind Man City.

They both have talented, passionate managers in Jurgen Klopp and Antonio Conte who are in their second full seasons in the Premier League and both clubs have similar targets each season: to win major trophies. Heading into Saturday’s clash Chelsea sit in third place with 25 points, while Liverpool are in fifth and three points behind.

The main reason this rivalry has lost some oomph in recent years is because Chelsea have continued to add silverware to their trophy cabinet (the Champions League in 2011-12, plus the Premier League title in 2014-15 and 2016-17) and Liverpool haven’t won anything since the League Cup in 2011-12, while the Champions League triumph under Benitez in 2005 particularly got under Mourinho’s skin after the “ghost goal” from Luis Garcia.

Yet it now feels like both clubs are ready to challenge consistently for the PL title and they’ve moved on from glorious playing eras as legendary figures such as Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, John Terry, Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard have moved on.

Will this rivalry reach the heights of Mourinho and Benitez clashing on the sidelines during Champions League semifinals at Anfield, or the former then riling home fans during his second stint at Chelsea as his under-strength side ruined Liverpool’s title hopes back in 2014?

That day on April 27, 2014 (Liverpool fans do not need reminding) reignited this rivalry as a disheveled, unshaven Mourinho — he had been feeling unwell in the lead up to the game and was focusing on a UCL semifinal v Atletico Madrid — ran down the sideline to celebrate the victory, pounding the Chelsea badge on his chest like a madman in his tracksuit. He quickly retreated to the dressing room as the abuse arrived from home supporters who had seen their legendary captain, Gerrard, slip to gift Chelsea a goal and deal a hammer blow to Liverpool’s hopes of winning a first league title since 1990.

Getting the train from London to Liverpool, and back, that day, I remember scuffles breaking out between rival fans as police intervened. The atmosphere was toxic as this rivalry once again gathered steam. It wasn’t quite the heyday of Benitez vs. Mourinho, but it was getting there. The divide between the London clubs and those in the North West of England have always had an extra edge with geography and inter-city pride, plus the North-South divide in England, playing a big part.

But since Mourinho left Chelsea, for the second time, this rivalry now has a different feel to it. Last season it was Liverpool trying to play the spoiler for Chelsea’s title bid as they drew at Anfield with a wild Diego Costa winning, then failing with a late penalty kick which would’ve grabbed victory for the Blues. The flickers of a fiery rivalry are still very much there.

Sadio Mane vs. Eden Hazard. Mohamed Salah vs. Alvaro Morata. Philippe Coutinho vs. N'Golo Kante. Those are the new heavyweight rivalries in a clash which was one of the main events in the Premier League just over a decade ago. It’s importance is building once again.

It is time for a new chapter to be written in this rivalry and Saturday evening under the floodlights at a packed out Anfield seems like the perfect place to do that.


Team news

Liverpool have Joel Matip back in training and he could be available to return in central defense but Emre Can is a major doubt in midfield.

Chelsea’s Victor Moses continues his recovery from a hamstring issue and could be on the bench but Michy Batshuayi will likely remain sidelined.


What they’re saying

Jurgen Klopp on Chelsea: “If we can create a special atmosphere that would help us. Our job is to stay really consistent. Chelsea, what a team, champions of last year, it will be a really tough job. They lost decisive players with Matic and Costa. With Chelsea last year, everything worked. They didn’t need many chances to win a game. It’s difficult to play the same season again, especially when you lose players.”

Antonio Conte on Chelsea not having enough rest before the Liverpool game after playing at Qarabag: “It was a problem to land. I think to get to your house at six o’clock in the morning is not simple to then rest and recover. We’ve only had one day to prepare for a big game and I think this is not right, I must be honest. But we have to do this and today we’ve had a good training session and we’ve tried to prepare for the game against Liverpool very well. I think to only have one day to prepare for a big game, especially to only have one day to rest is not right for all the teams, not only for Chelsea.”


Prediction

I’m excpecting big things from this game, and the atmosphere, at Anfield. Both teams are in fine goalscoring form heading into this game and the vast array of attacking talents on display has everything set up for an enthralling battle. With Hazard, Morata and Willian purring for Chelsea, plus Salah, Roberto Firmino and Mane on fire for Liverpool you can expect one thing: goals. I’m going for a 2-2 draw.

Statement released on Niasse’s ban for “deception”

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The reasons behind Oumar Niasse‘s ban for “deception of a match official” (diving, or simulation, to you and I) have been explained.

[ MORE: Toffees hammered by Atalanta ]

Niasse, 27, became the first player in Premier League history to be banned retrospectively for simulation with new rules which came into place in May being used.

Everton forward Niasse went down easily in the penalty box after slight contact from Scott Dann in the first half of their 2-2 draw at Crystal Palace on Saturday and referee Anthony Taylor awarded a penalty kick. However, Niasse was then retrospectively handed a two-game ban for simulation.

Niasse and Everton appealed the ban but the FA upheld the decision from an Independent Commission made up of a former professional player, referee and official, who revealed they were “unanimous” in charging him with diving.

Below is a look at how they came to make the decision.

“The Commission were unanimous that the video footage gave clear and overwhelming evidence that the player had exaggerated the effect of a normal contact in order to deceive the referee.

“The Commission noted that there was contact between Scott Dann and Mr Niasse but the Commission considered the contact to be normal, fair and expected contact in the situation that arose with Mr Niasse ‘taking on’ Mr Dann. The Commission unanimously agree that the nature of the contact made by Scott Dan was minimal in nature and would not have thrown Mr Niasse off balance and knock him down in the way that Mr Niasse portrayed it to have done.

“To the minds of the Commission members the movements of Mr Niasse’s body, in particular the arching of the back and the collapsing of both legs, were simply not consistent with the amount of force exerted upon him by Mr Dann and in exaggerating the effect of the contact made between himself and Mr Dann, Mr Niasse deceived the referee and this led to a penalty being awarded by the referee.”

This decision is truly groundbreaking in the PL.

Last season 22 players were booked for simulation in Premier League games, so this new ruling could see plenty of two-game bans dished out until players finally stop taking a tumble to try and win a penalty kick or free kick.

Of course, there is still a certain amount of subjectivity to all of this but the FA and PL have shown they will take a tough stance against simulation. Good on them. Now, can they keep it up and be consistent in dishing out these bans? That’s the big challenge.

Mourinho slams critics, reveals team news; Fellaini update

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Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United are almost back to full strength but he has a few concerns.

The Red Devils host Brighton & Hove Albion at Old Trafford on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) with Mourinho now having just a handful of injury concerns.

Long-term absentees Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Marcos Rojo have all returned to action over the past week, while Mourinho has a small defensive problem with Eric Bailly and Phil Jones out for the visit of the newly-promoted Seagulls.

“They are out. But we are okay because we have [Chris] Smalling, [Marcos] Rojo and [Victor] Lindelof,” Mourinho said.

He also said that Pogba isn’t yet able to play a full 90 minutes as he continue his recovery from a hamstring injury, while Zlatan is improving all the time after jumping off the bench in the victory over Newcastle United last weekend and the midweek defeat at Basel in the UEFA Champions League.

“I prefer him [Ibrahimovic] on the pitch than off the pitch,” Mourinho said. “On the pitch, he’s another option for us and he’s an option of quality. His physicality and his intelligence, the way he moves, the way he plays. But he needs time. We managed to give him 15/20 minutes in both matches, he needs more of that, so hopefully, tomorrow, we play him again.”

Mourinho also took exception to a question about the criticism his team receives about their defensive style of play, with the Portuguese coach pointing towards United’s superb home record this season.

“I don’t know who is more ambitious than us,” Mourinho said. “We played against Newcastle with Pogba, Rashford, Martial, Mata, Lukaku, the full backs are not full backs, everybody knows they are wingers, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young. So, I don’t know what you want.”

United have won all six PL home games this season and have scored 19 goals, conceding just once. So, yeah, he has a point but the only real test they’ve had so far at home was against Tottenham Hotspur.

Aside from an injury update and hitting back at critics, Mourinho also gave an update on Fellaini’s contract situation and revealed he is concerned the Belgian midfielder may leave.

Fellaini, 30, is out of contract at the end of the season and Mourinho has praised the lanky midfielder on numerous occasions over the past few months. Is he worried Fellaini will leave for nothing?

“Yeah,” Mourinho said. “This is a discussion between the player and the board. I’m not involved in contracts, in deals, and I respect both – I respect the player because he has the right to decide his future. So I just wait wishing they will have an understanding, but it’s out of my control.”

Bayern fans unhappy with Champions League ticket prices

AP Photo/Matthias Schrader
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MUNICH (AP) Bayern Munich fans were unhappy with the price of tickets for their team’s match at Anderlecht in the Champions League.

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The fans held banners during Wednesday’s game saying, “Are your necks not full? Is your greed now finally satisfied?”

A Bayern fan group, Club Nr. 12, issued a statement saying Anderlecht had made 85 percent of the tickets available to the German club’s fans priced at 100 euros ($118).

“Even by the standards of the generally high-priced Champions League, this represents a new dimension for a first-round game,” said the statement, which thanked Bayern for supplementing the tickets so fans had could pay 70 euros ($82.50).

Many Bayern fans avoided the trip to Brussels altogether, while 91 percent of more than 2,500 Club Nr. 12 members said in a survey that ticket prices were “completely unacceptable.”

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Anderlecht spokesman David Steegen told The Associated Press that Bayern fans were charged “exactly the same price” as home fans who bought single tickets to the game. He said fans who bought a three-game Champions League bundle were offered a reduction.