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

Leave a comment

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.

How important is Eden Hazard to Chelsea?

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Can Chelsea afford to lose Eden Hazard?

Hazard, 26, continues to be linked with a move to Real Madrid this summer for a potential world-record fee of over $125 million.

[ MORE: Conte hails Eden Hazard

This season the Belgian winger has been unplayable at times, particularly in recent months, and he is on the verge of leading Chelsea to a second Premier League title in the last three seasons.

Yet, with rumors of Hazard leaving Stamford Bridge persisting it is worth contemplating just how important he is to Antonio Conte‘s side despite the Italian claiming his star winger is “priceless” in a bid to wave off interest.

From a numbers perspective Hazard’s importance is clear. He has scored 11 PL goals and has four assists, with Diego Costa the only other Chelsea player to be involved in more goals with the Spanish international scoring 17 times and adding five assists. Beyond this season, Hazard has scored and assisted on more goals than any other current Chelsea player since he arrived in 2012-13.

There’s no doubting Hazard’s influence runs deeper than goals and assists.

When he picks up the ball defenders backtrack and even when they get close they have no idea which way Hazard will turn. The only way to try and stop him, as we’ve seen recently in their FA Cup quarterfinal win against Manchester United, is by hacking him down at every opportunity. With so much focus on stopping Hazard, the likes of Diego Costa, Pedro and Willian have been able to flourish and Conte reshaped his Chelsea side to a 3-4-3 with wing backs to get the best out of Hazard.

Hazard is back to his best with confidence flowing through his game just like it did in the 2014-15 campaign as he led Chelsea to the PL title and was crowned as the PFA Player of the Year.

However, there is a lingering sense that if Real Madrid did offer a huge sum of money this summer then perhaps Chelsea would accept the deal. Last season Hazard was way off the pace as Jose Mourinho’s time at Chelsea unraveled quickly and he was lambasted by fans as one of the star players who turned against the manager.

There’s no doubting Hazard is up there with N'Golo Kante and Costa as Chelsea’s top players this season but arguably he would be the most replaceable star. Without Costa’s goals and presence up top, Chelsea would be struggling. Without Kante’s incredible rate of interceptions and tackles in midfield, they’d be less effective in launching devastating counters.

When Hazard was missing through injury in Chelsea’s 2-1 win at Stoke in their last PL outing, Willian came into the team and scored a free kick and alongside Pedro they provided plenty of chances for Costa and others to score. Hazard wasn’t missed but there’s no doubting Chelsea is a better team when he’s in it.

On paper Hazard is entering the prime years of his career and perhaps the pull of Real Madrid could be too great if the Spanish giants do indeed intend to chase him hard in the summer. Of course, Real already have Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema up top but if the Zinedine Zidane’s side bought Hazard then he’d obviously start.

The only thing he has left to achieve with Chelsea is win the UEFA Champions League. Apart from that, he’s proven himself as one of the most dangerous players in the Premier League time and again.

It will be intriguing to see what happens with Hazard this summer.

Injuries, suspensions still an issue for busy Man United

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Manchester United have been struggling with suspensions and injuries and the international break hasn’t provided any respite.

[ MORE: United announce US tour dates ]

Both Zlatan Ibrahmovic and Ander Herrera are suspended for Saturday’s clash with West Bromwich Albion (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET online via NBCSports.com) at Old Trafford, plus Wayne Rooney, Paul Pogba, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Maroune Fellaini are all doubtful.

Jones injured his toe while on international duty as his United teammate Smalling tackled him in training, while Smalling has been spotted in a knee brace after picking up a knock in England’s win against Lithuania on Sunday. Fellaini also suffered a toe injury in Belgium’s draw with Greece on Saturday and has been released from international duty.

Rooney hasn’t played since the 1-1 draw with Bournemouth on Mar. 4 after suffering a training ground injury with Jones and Pogba limped off with a hamstring injury in United’s UEFA Europa League win against Rostov on Mar. 16.

Oh, Jose. When it rains it pours…

[ LIVE: Stream every PL game live

All of this injury news has been made more concerning given United’s busy month coming up as Mourinho’s men have nine games in April as they push hard to finish in the top four in the PL and reach the UEFA Champions League.

After the game against West Brom they face Everton at home and Sunderland away in a seven day stretch before heading to Anderlecht on Apr. 13 for the first leg of their Europa League quarterfinal. Sandwiched in-between their two games with Anderlecht they host Premier League leaders Chelsea and then finish off April with trips to Burnley and Manchester City before hosting Swansea City.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

Mourinho will be hoping the vast majority of these players will be available for the busy stretch ahead as his large squad cope with a season-long struggle of juggling PL, domestic cup and European action.

Defensively he still has Marcos Rojo, Daley Blind, Luke Shaw, Antonio Valencia and Eric Bailly to slot in but he could be forced to draft in youngster Timothy Fosu-Mensah into midfield with so many games coming up in a short space of time.

United will be stretched to the limit as they aim to finish the season strong.

Lionel Messi suspended after abusing linesman

Getty Images
1 Comment

Argentina will be without five-time World Player of the Year Lionel Messi for their next four games.

[ LIVE: Stream every PL game live

On Tuesday FIFA announced that Messi, 29, has been suspended for four international game as the Barcelona forward was found guilty of verbally abusing an assistant referee in the second half of Argentina’s crucial 1-0 win against Chile last Thursday.

Messi, of course, scored the winning penalty kick in that game.

Messi — the captain of Argentina and their leading all-time goalscorer with 58 goals — will miss the game against Bolivia on Tuesday, plus Argentina’s friendly with Brazil this summer in Australia and also two key World Cup qualifiers against Uruguay and Venezuela in August and September.

Argentina currently sit in third-place in CONMEBOL qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but are far from locks in their quest to qualify for the World Cup. That task has just got a lot harder after losing their talisman for sending verbal abuse at a linesman.

Look, it would be great to see abuse from players towards officials stamped out but how many times have we all seen players across the game screaming obscenities at officials in an aggressive manner? It seems like Messi may be a little hard done by and that FIFA has used the biggest name on the planet and made an example of him.

Below is the statement in full from FIFA on Messi’s suspension.

The FIFA Disciplinary Committee – in application of articles 77 a) and 108 of the FIFA Disciplinary Code (FDC) – has reached a decision in relation to the case of Lionel Messi following an incident that occurred during the match between Argentina and Chile on 23 March 2017 as part of the qualifying competition for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™:

Footballer Lionel Messi has been found guilty of violating art. 57 of the FDC for having directed insulting words at an assistant referee.

As a result, Lionel Messi will be suspended for four official matches and sanctioned with a fine of CHF 10,000. The first match for which the sanction will apply is the next fixture in the preliminary competition of the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ between Bolivia and Argentina, which will be played today, 28 March. The remainder of the sanction will be served over Argentina’s subsequent FIFA World Cup qualifying matches.

This decision is in line with the FIFA Disciplinary Committee’s previous rulings in similar cases.

Both the player and the Argentinian Football Association have been informed of the decision today.

After late goals broke Panama’s hearts in 2013, US returns

Getty Images
Leave a comment

PANAMA CITY (AP) With Panama about 90 seconds from reaching a playoff against New Zealand for a World Cup berth, Graham Zusi and Aron Johannsson scored in second-half stoppage time four years ago to give the already qualified United States a 3-2 win and eliminate the hosts.

“You felt this place dip,” Jozy Altidore recalled Monday. “You heard people crying.”

The U.S. will be back Tuesday night in a match that matters for both teams. The Americans routed Honduras 6-0 Friday at home and are looking for a second straight win in World Cup qualifying under coach Bruce Arena, who replaced Jurgen Klinsmann after an 0-2 start in the final round of the North and Central American and Caribbean region.

Before a light workout at Estadio Rommel Fernandez, American players thought the Panamanians might still have that 2013 match on their minds. Panama needed a win, but the late U.S. goals kept Mexico alive and El Tri went on to reach the 2014 tournament in Brazil. Panama has never advanced to the World Cup.

“If we were smart enough, we wouldn’t have broken their hearts. Pretty stupid, if you ask me,” Arena said humorously. “You think Mexico would have scored a goal at the end of that game?”

Panama opened the hexagonal, as the final round is called, with a 1-0 win at Honduras and a 0-0 tie at home against Mexico, and then lost 1-0 at Trinidad and Tobago. Five players from that 2013 loss to the U.S. were in the starting lineup for Friday’s defeat.

“It was obviously probably pretty devastating for the players,” said American midfielder Sacha Kljestan, also among those on the field that night. “I’m sure it still means a lot to them.”

Mexico leads the hexagonal with seven points, followed by Costa Rica with six, Panama with four and the U.S., Trinidad and Tobago, and Honduras with three each. The top three nations qualify for next year’s tournament in Russia, and the fourth-place team again goes to a playoff, this time against Asia’s No. 5 nation.

“The reality of the situation that we’re in and the reality of the start that we had is we’re not playing with house money,” U.S. captain Michael Bradley said. “We’re not in a situation where we can just say, great, we took our three points at home, whatever we get on the road is extra. No, we have to come here and take points. We want three. We’re going to play in a way that gives us a chance, a big chance to get three.”

LINEUP CHANGES

Arena predicted as many as four or five changes to his starting lineup. There will be at least two.

John Brooks will miss the match because of a sinus infection and Sebastian Lletget is out with a foot injury. The players who replaced them against Honduras could start, Tim Ream for Brooks in central defense and Alejandro Bedoya in place of Lletget in right midfield.

Jermaine Jones, back from a one-game suspension for yellow-card accumulation, could enter in a central midfield role, which would push Christian Pulisic to the left flank in place of Darlington Nagbe.

APPROACHING A RECORD

After scoring his second international hat trick Friday, Clint Dempsey has 55 goals, two shy of Landon Donovan’s American record.

“Yeah, it’s on your mind,” the 34-year-old Dempsey said. “But if it comes, it comes. If it don’t, it don’t.”

OLD FRIENDS

Panama goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, a holdover from the 2013 game, played for Arena on the LA Galaxy from 2013-15.

“Jaime Pinedo is one of the finest people I’ve ever met in the game,” Arena said. “We enjoyed him very much. Our fans loved him.”

WEATHER-WISE

After playing on a cool, damp night in the San Francisco Bay Area last weekend, the U.S. will deal with far different conditions. The game-time temperature is forecast to be 80 degrees with high humidity.

Panama’s players also may not be used to the heat, given some play in New York, Seattle, Toronto, Switzerland, Romania and other cool climates.