Premier League Playback: Everton’s top four stars, Man City and Liverpool get a hand

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EVERTON’S TERRIFIC TOP FOUR

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Click to enlarge: Teams percentage of passes in opponents half. Source: Opta

Sprinting towards the bench to celebrate with his manager, Everton’s on-loan striker Romelu Lukaku was a picture of happiness as he put the Toffees 2-0 ahead against Arsenal on Sunday. Eventually Everton went on to win 3-0, and everything that is good about Roberto Martinez’s side was epitomized in their comprehensive defeat of top four rivals Arsenal.

Pace, power, guile and calm in possession, Martinez’s men look focused and enthused from the start. They weren’t exactly frothing at the mouth either. There was coolness about the boys in blue, reminiscent of the way their manager approaches his job.

Their front four tore Arsenal to shreds, with Lukaku pulling out to the right to terrorize Nacho Monreal, Steven Naismith dropping in the hole to make penetrating runs at the heart of the Gunners defense, then there was the sheer pace of Kevin Mirallas on the left. To cap it off Ross Barkley came off the bench to replace the injured Leon Osman after seven minutes, and the Gunners couldn’t cope with his direct play and wide array of passing. Once again, Arsenal crumbled away from home early on against a top five team. They have now lost to Chelsea, Liverpool, Man City and Everton, conceding 20 goals in the process. Arsene Wenger looked shell-shocked after yet another lackluster display from his side.

With Arsenal slipping to fourth, after leading the way for 128 days of the season, they are now in real danger of losing the fourth and final Champions League spot to Everton. The Toffees are one point behind Arsenal and have a game in hand. Martinez’s men are in the driving seat, and after the Spanish tactician promised to deliver UCL nights at Goodison during his very first press-conference, he’s now six games away from delivering it.

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Click to enlarge: Everton are fifth in total shots in the PL, as their offense continues to fire. Source: Opta

Everton pin their opponents into their own half and as you can see on the left, a third of their passes are in the attacking third of the pitch. The quartet of Lukaku, Naismith, Barkley and Mirallas are key to UCL qualification. Those four possess pace, and the ability to pounce on any opportunities their opponents hand them. Lukaku has scored 14 goals, Naismith has eight and earned himself the nickname ‘super sub’, while Mirallas and Barkley have added six each.

Add in the likes of Aiden McGeady and Gerard Deulofeu, and the sheer variety of top attacking talents Martinez possess is frightening. This is why they are favorites for a top four spot. As you can see in the table from our buddies at Opta on the right, Everton have attempted 348 shots at an average of 10.9 per game after 32 matches.

That leaves the sixth in the most shots per game, and they have a game in hand on most of the teams above them, as they have a great chance to improve on their 52 goals scored. That’s equals an attacking quadrant that will bamboozle most PL teams, as they face Manchester United, Manchester City and Crystal Palace at home, plus Southampton, Sunderland and Hull away.

If the Toffees win those six games, they’re in the Champions League. What an incredible achievement that would be.

Premier League Schedule – Week 33

Result Recap & Highlights
Aston Villa 1-2 Fulham Recap and watch here
Cardiff 0-3 Crystal Palace Recap and watch here
Chelsea 3-0 Stoke City Recap and watch here
Everton 3-0 Arsenal Recap and watch here
Hull City 1-0 Swansea City Recap and watch here
Man City 4-1 Southampton Recap and watch here
Newcastle 0-3 Man United Recap and watch here
Norwich 0-1 West Brom Recap and watch here
Tottenham 5-1 Sunderland Recap and watch here
West Ham 1-2 Liverpool Recap and watch here

POOR DECISIONS – BIG TEAMS GET HELPING HAND?

If you look at the stats on penalty kicks awarded this season in the Premier League, there are two schools of thought.

The top three have all been awarded the most spot kicks because they’re favored by referees. Or, most likely, they are the most dangerous in the final third of their opponents half, therefore, winning a PK is much more likely. Which camp are you in? Liverpool, in first place, have been awarded 12 penalties, scoring 10, the most in the league. Then both Manchester City and Chelsea have been awarded the joint-second most with seven, as the second and third placed teams have also benefited from discrepancies against them in the box.

That said, conspiracy theorists had a field day last weekend, as both Liverpool and Manchester City had very poor refereeing decisions go their way. In the title race, those little decisions always seem to go in the favor of the big teams. I’m not accusing referees of preordained actions to hand one team an advantage over another, not at all. But I do think psychological factors come into play.

Manchester City’s pivotal second goal against Southampton, was clearly offside in the build up. As David Silva was four-yards behind Saints’ defense when he slotted the ball across to Samir Nasri to set City on their way in first half stoppage time.

As for Liverpool, they were awarded a dubious second half penalty which won them all three points against West Ham in a cagey affair at Upton Park. Watch the video of that below, as left back Jon Flanagan took the ball around Hammers ‘keeper Adrian, but the goalie got the ball and then clattered into Flanagan as referee Anthony Taylor pointed to the spot. Taylor was likely making up for his earlier error, as he let Andy Carroll batter Simon Mignolet on half time, as Guy Demel tapped in the equalizer for West Ham with Liverpool’s player incensed. Taylor’s linesman Stuart Burt raised his flag for the clear foul, but after a lengthy confrontation Taylor decided the goal was legit. So, he gave Liverpool a penalty that they probably didn’t deserve to even it up… Decisions like that seem to go for you when your at the top, and they make all the difference in the title race.

BOTTOM SEVEN ‘PANIC SACKING’

With five games to go, Norwich gave Chris Hughton his marching orders on Sunday following their 1-0 defeat to West Bromwich Albion in relegation clash. The Canaries are five points above the relegation zone, but have a run in that makes your eyes water. After this weekend’s crunch relegation six-pointer with Fulham, they face Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal in their final four games. Ouch. Hughton’s dismissal has been coming, Norwich have lost seven straight away from home, have signed two strikers for big money that have failed to deliver, and now youth team coach Neil Adams has been put in charge to try and salvage their season from oblivion. If Norwich lose against Fulham at Craven Cottage, they’re in big, big trouble.

The trend of sacking managers has become a fashionable one in the lower reaches of the standings for one reason and one reason only: money. The copious amounts of cash dished out to being part of the Premier League gravy train means teams are desperate to still be eating at the top table, year in, year out. The difference in financial rewards between the PL and the Championship is incredible. Nobody wants to drop to the second-tier.

With so many clubs nervous about relegation and the impact it will have on their finances, its no wonder their owners are trigger happy. Is it for the good of the game? Probably not. So much chopping and changing of managers is making less people attracted to taking on the job, and also isn’t giving any coach adequate time to implement his style and ideals. That fear of failure is having a huge impact on the shelf life of PL managers, and that will only get shorter as the finances continue to grow.

The current bottom seven have been ruthless in firing their managers. Hughton, Holloway, Jol, Mulensteen, Mackay, Clarke, Di Canio and Laudrup have all been dismissed this season on one ground: clubs can’t bear the thought of life outside the Premier League. It is a vicious circle for the clubs, fans, players and, most importantly, the managers. Money talks.

All of Saturday’s action, including that massive relegation battle between West Brom and Norwich, are in the video below.

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

Jonas nets 2 late goals to keep Benfica in title hunt

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LISBON, Portugal (AP) Jonas scored two late goals to lead Benfica’s 3-1 comeback win at Pacos Ferreira on Saturday, keeping it close to Portuguese league leader FC Porto.

Jonas equalized in the 72nd minute and gave the defending champion the lead in the 88th.

[ MORE: Man United-Chelsea meet in giant Sunday PL clash ]

Rafa Silva added a third goal after the host was reduced to 10 men in stoppage time when Gian dos Santos was shown a direct red card.

Luiz Phellype gave Pacos Ferreira the lead in the ninth.

The double increased Jonas’ league-leading tally to 27 goals.

Benfica moved to within two points of Porto before the pacesetter visits Portimonense on Sunday.

Sporting Lisbon is third at five points behind Porto. It hosts Moreirense on Monday.

Orlando City trades defender Jose Aja to Whitecaps for allocation money

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The Vancouver Whitecaps have struck a deal with an Eastern Conference side to help solidify their back line.

[ MORE: USMNT’s Johannsson leads Werder Bremen to win ]

On Saturday, the Cascadia club finalized a deal to acquire Orlando City defender Jose Aja in exchange for $125,000 in Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) for 2019.

Additionally, Orlando could receive another $100,000 in TAM if Aja remains on the Whitecaps roster next season and a 2021 second-round MLS SuperDraft pick if Aja is in Canada for the 2020 campaign.

Aja has made 25 appearances for Orlando since coming to MLS in 2016 from his native Uruguay.

The timing of the deal is intriguing, given Tim Parker’s willingness to exit the Whitecaps ahead of the 2018 MLS season.

PST reported on Thursday that Parker is seeking a move back to the East Coast, and the New York-native is being tracked by several Eastern Conference sides, including the New York Red Bulls, D.C. United and the Montreal Impact.

Parker is considered one of the top American defenders in MLS, and is actively seeking a massive pay raise ahead of the new season, after making just under $100,000 in 2017.

PL Sunday preview: Red Devils battle Chelsea at Old Trafford

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It will surely be one of the biggest fixtures of the season when Manchester United and Chelsea get together on Sunday, and for both clubs a victory could be vital in projecting their form for the rest of the 2017/18 campaign.

Meanwhile, a crucial meeting at Selhurst Park pits teams on opposite ends of the table against one another. Crystal Palace enters the weekend levels on points with 18th-place Swansea, while Tottenham could leap Chelsea for fourth if results go in favor of Spurs.

[ MORE: Liverpool continues to score at lightning pace against West Ham ]

Crystal Palace vs. Tottenham Hotspur — 7 a.m. ET on NBCSN

The injury bug has hit Palace hard as of late, with a total of 12 senior team players being left out of Roy Hodgson‘s squad. The list includes Wilfried Zaha, Yohan Cabaye and Mamadou Sakho, which won’t make things easy against a talented Spurs side.

Tottenham have had a ton of success in this fixture recently, winning the last five encounters and only allowing one goal in the process.

Mauricio Pochettino‘s men have hit the ground running in the second half of the season thus far, picking up a league-high 15 points in the Premier League since the start of 2018.

If there is a saving grace for the Eagles though, it is that Palace has been solid at home this season, and gone unbeaten in nine of its last 10 fixtures at Selhurst.

Manchester United vs. Chelsea — 9:05 a.m. ET on NBCSN

After a pair of draws from the PL sides kicked off their Champions League Round of 16 campaigns midweek, United and Chelsea can now focus their attention back to England; at least for the time being.

Jose Mourinho’s team came away from Seville with a crucial scoreless draw after the hosts tested goalkeeper David De Gea on numerous occasions, while Chelsea were close to pulling out a victory against Barcelona had it not been for a big-time mistake from Andreas Christensen late in the match.

Nonetheless, this is a fixture that always garners significant attention, especially from the Blues, who tend to have a better go of it. United has won just once against Chelsea in their last 14 fixtures, with the lone victory coming last season.

That said, Antonio Conte and his side have failed to exemplify consistency this year, and that includes road matches. The Blues have just two road wins in their last nine attempts across all competitions, which bodes well for the Red Devils.

The good news for Chelsea is the recent form of attacking duo Willian and Eden Hazard. The Brazilian was constantly in dangerous positions up the pitch against the Blaugrana in their recent UCL encounter, nabbing the lone goal for the Blues, while Hazard has scored six times in his last six PL matches.

The 2 Robbies: Unstoppable Liverpool, Man United-Chelsea and more

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In today’s episode, Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe discuss Liverpool’s emphatic win over West Ham (0:17), breakdown an extremely complicated relegation situation where nearly half of the league is in jeopardy of going down (10:05), before closing the show with a preview of tomorrow’s Man United v. Chelsea match (28:10).

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

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