Premier League Playback: Liverpool’s midfield key, relegation madness, Hillsborough

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LIVERPOOL’S MIDFIELD KEY TO TITLE SUCCESS

So often this season Liverpool’s illustrious strike-force of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge have made the headlines. With 52 goals combined, the duo dubbed S.A.S. have been a lynchpin of Liverpool’s title charge, but so has their midfield.

An afterthought for most of the campaign, at times the brilliance of Steven Gerrard, Raheem Sterling, Philippe Coutinho and Jordan Henderson has been lauded, but not nearly enough. That quartet have meshed together seamlessly, with experience, youthful exuberance and passion being intertwined marvelously by Liverpool’s manager Brendan Rodgers in an interchangeable diamond formation. His midfielders came up big on Sunday in the title showdown victory over Manchester City, as Liverpool’s forward’s had a rare off day.

“We don’t demand goals from the strikers, we just demand they gave us their best. Like you’ve seen, they have off days and we’ve had that a number of times. They are working for the cause, but we have other creators in the team,” Rodgers told the assembled press afterwards. “Some of our imagination today… Raheem Sterling’s goal was brilliant. Luis showed great strength, we had Raheem playing in the back of midfield so he could make those penetrating runs, and to make a yard and shift it and finish with that composure was outstanding. That’s what we want. If some players aren’t on their game, we need other players to step up.”

In the midst of City’s bruising midfield trying to break down Liverpool’s rhythm in the first half, the Reds’ eventual game-winner Coutinho was inspiring his side. By tackling… That’s something Coutinho doesn’t usually have a penchant for. Yet right in front of the bench the tiny attacker twice clattered into City’s left sided players in the opening stages, sliding and writhing on the floor to gain the ball back so he could work his magic to set up his teammates to score. The diminutive Brazilian playmaker is only 21, yet Liverpool’s success hinged on him, in the biggest game of the season, and likely the biggest game of his young career. He delivered, big time. Dinks, chips, robunas and nutmegs, he has it all those tricks in his locker and rightly received a standing ovation from the crowd when substituted late on.

(MORE: Three things we learned from Liverpool’s huge win vs. Manchester City)

The attacking brilliance of Liverpool’s midfielders opens up space for S.A.S. to exploit, yet defensively that does leave the Reds open. They have scored 93 goals in the PL this campaign, more than any other team, but have shipped 42 goals, the worst defense in the top five. However the message remains the same from Rodgers, as his side will retain their swashbuckling style to the end.

“We don’t need to change. We play with no fear,” Rodgers said. “You can see that whether it’s a big opponent like Manchester City, or Norwich next week, we will play with no fear. We demand to dominate the ball and work very hard. We don’t think too far ahead, that’s always been the message. With four games to go, there are still a lot of points to play for.”

Premier League Schedule – Week 34

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

MAN CITY, CHELSEA KNOW WHAT TO DO…

After losing to Liverpool, Man City know they must now win out and hope Liverpool slip up if they’re going to win the title. Chelsea are also lurking ominously over both teams’ shoulders, as a win for Jose Mourinho’s men at Anfield on April 27 will likely see the pendulum swing back in their favor. The Blues stayed in the title race by beating Swansea 1-0 away from home on Sunday, they aren’t about to give in.

But what about City?

Speaking to reporters, including myself, in the press lounge at Anfield after City’s defeat, Manuel Pellegrini believes his team can still win the league and felt his side started slowly but deserved something in the defeat to Liverpool.

“It was not the first half, it was only the first 25 minutes,” Pellegrini said defiantly. “They started they game very aggressively, they scored one goal and after they scored the second goal, they only had one more clear chance. We are playing against a very good team and they started well, but after that pressure, in the second half there was only one team in it.”

(MORE: Swansea 0-1 Chelsea – Ba’s lone goal enough for Blues)

It’s hard to argue with the Chilean, as I wrote in ‘Three things we learned” on Sunday, David Silva ran the show and City were by far the better side in the second 45. A draw, on reflection, would’ve probably been the fair result. Yet City now know they need to win all six of their remaining games. They have it easier than most, with only an away trip to Everton looking tough to negotiate between now and May 11. Games in hand over points in the bag is a nervy thing to handle at this pivotal point of the campaign, City have to cope with it. We’ve seen Chelsea’s steely resolve on several occasions this season, both in the PL and Champions League, as they’ve now kept 16 clean sheets in the PL and they now have a chance to upset Liverpool in less than two weeks.

Can City hold their nerve and hope the other two title contenders slip up?

HILLSBOROUGH DISASTER REMEMBERED

Being at Anfield on Sunday, it was both an honor and a privilege to witness not only one of the best games of the PL season, but also the incredible tributes paid to the 96 fans who were killed in the Hillsborough disaster 25 years ago.

It was a humbling experience standing next to Liverpool greats in the press box and seeing the raw emotions on people’s faces all around the stadium. Below you can watch the spine-tingling moment when over 40,000 people stood silent inside Anfield to remember those who perished. You could’ve heard a pin drop in an immaculately observed silence. The atmosphere was electric from the home fans throughout and they urged their side on with the famous “You’ll Never Walk Alone” chant. Even before kick off home fans lined the old terraced streets on the way to Anfield to cheer their team on as they arrived on the bus. That gesture wasn’t lost on Rodgers and his players.

“Our game started on the way in,” Rodger said with a smile on his face. “It was totally unique what we received coming in on the coach and that gave us the energy before we’d even stepped on the field.”

(WATCH: Anfield crowd’s incredibly stirring “You’ll Never Walk Alone”)

This was my view of the Kop, as they paid their respects to 96 fans who never returned after going to watching Liverpool play Nottingham Forest on April 15, 1989. Here’s some background info on how the tragedy at Hillsborough altered English soccer.

LET THE RELEGATION DOGFIGHT COMMENCE

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Click to enlarge – As things stand in relegation battle: April 14, 2014

At the opposite end of the standings, it’s all getting a bit messy for budding mathematicians. The permutations changed significantly last weekend, as relegation haunted sides finally turned up. For those wily old heads who’ve witnessed their fare share of relegation battles, they’ll know this is only the start. Basement boys Fulham and Cardiff City both managed to pull out nail-biting 1-0 wins last weekend, as the relegation picture took yet another dramatic twist. There’s plenty more of those to come, just look at how tight things are in the standings on the left.

(MORE: Latest Premier League standings)

Felix Magath’s Fulham side have now won two on the spin for the first time since October (watch our analysts break that down below) and are just two points and one place behind Norwich City with a much easier run-in than the Canaries. On paper. That paper usually goes out of the window at this time of the season, because who had written down that Cardiff City would go away to Southampton and win last Saturday? If you did, gold star, but you’re probably lying. The Bluebirds were battered for large chunks of the match, yet Juan Cala smashed in a beauty to hand Ole Gunnar Solksjaer’s boys a lifeline. Sunderland look doomed at the bottom and seven points off safety, yet they have two games in hand, so the Black Cats have time on their side.

Right now, if you had to pick, who would you choose to got down? Form counts for a lot at this precise moment and with Pepe Mel’s West Brom throwing away 3-0 leads all over the place, Norwich losing four of their last five, Swansea with one win from 10 and Aston Villa losing four straight, it doesn’t bode well for them. Those sides are out of form and all of a sudden Fulham and Cardiff aren’t looking so likely to be playing in the Championship next season.

FA CUP FINAL SET: DRESS REHEARSAL THIS SUNDAY

As fate so often sets things up, the two FA Cup finalists will do battle at the KC Stadium this Sunday (Watch live at 9:05 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) in the Premier League.

In just over a month’s time they will square off under the famous arch at Wembley Stadium in their quest for the world’s oldest knockout competition. Arsenal have been to more FA Cup finals (18) than any other team, while Hull City have never reached the showpiece event in their 110 year history.

MORE: Arsenal beat Wigan on penalties | Hull down Sheffield United to make final

The Gunners are lucky to be traveling a few miles across North London on May 17, after last season’s winners Wigan Athletic gave them one hell of a scare in the semifinal. The Championship side were leading 1-0 until the 82nd minute when big Per Mertesacker headed home to make amends for the PK he had given away for Wigan’s opener. A draining and dour extra time period then ensued, as Arsenal sealed their trip to the FA Cup final for the first-time since 2005 by winning 4-2 on penalties. The Gunners were widely criticized for celebrating their semifinal win and taking celebratory ‘selfies’ on the pitch. Former Manchester United midfielder Roy Keane, who possesses an infamous razor-sharp tongue, had the following to say on seeing Arsenal’s player taking selfies after beating Championship side Wigan on PKs. “These Arsenal players need a reality check. They’re celebrating beating a Championship team.”

Here’s the proof.

As for Hull, they dispatched League One side Sheffield United 5-3 in a fiery Yorkshire derby in the other semifinal. The PL team trailed too, yet their comeback was much more emphatic as the Tigers now face Arsenal for the famous trophy. On Sunday in East Yorkshire both teams will likely field much-changed starting lineups. They don’t have injuries or suspensions, yet the psychological edge both manager’s will aim to get from doing this is key. They don’t want to give away their tactics ahead of the showpiece final and the match will be a cagey affair. I will put a tenner (about $16) on the same starting lineups on Sunday not being replicated at Wembley in just over a months time.

The dress rehearsal is set, as Hull will be the underdog’s trying to scupper Arsenal’s hopes of clinching their first trophy in over nine years. Will Arsene Wenger’s side succumb to the pressure? Or will the Frenchman finally deliver another trophy? Either way, many expect him to walk away from the Emirates Stadium this summer, more on that to come in the following weeks.

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

Galaxy’s Cole admits he enjoys Arsenal struggles

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LA Galaxy left back Ashley Cole left Arsenal for Chelsea more than a decade ago, but that hasn’t erased the bitter memories of the departure from his boyhood club.

Cole was famously involved in a “tapping up” meeting with Chelsea without Arsenal’s permission in 2005, but signed a contract extension with the Gunners. Still, he was gone a year later in messy circumstances.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

As the most capped fullback in England’s history who boasts both Premier League and Champions League titles with Chelsea, Cole easily could rest on his own laurels and move on from the divorce.

But when asked whether he’s enjoying Arsenal’s current struggles, Cole couldn’t help himself.

“If I’m honest, yeah, I still think to this day. I laugh to myself. I had a lot of history there and I think the way I left was maybe a bit dodgy but the lack of respect they showed me as well.”

Cole accepts a share of the blame for his time ended at Arsenal, but says he doesn’t regret it. Still, his response is not a picture of class.

Next time, just laugh and say, “Next question,” Ashley.

“I’m not a bad guy” – Convicted murderer, new club defend signing

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A week ago, we brought you the story of goalkeeper Bruno Fernandes finding a new club despite a conviction for ordering the torture and murder of his mistress, whose body was then fed to dogs. The two were having a disagreement on child support.

Fernandes, 32, was set free from jail on a technicality and has since been signed by Boa Esporte in Brazil. He said he couldn’t “throw in the towel” on his career because he believed in himself.

Fans were outraged with the team, major sponsors pulled their funding, and an activist group even hacked Boa Esporte’s web page.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

And the club is digging in its heels.

Boa Esporte’s president, Rone Moraes da Costa, reacted to protests by saying he’d rather move the team than not give Fernandes a chance to resurrect his career.

As for Fernandes, he clearly is having trouble explaining why he’s getting another chance. From The Guardian:

“What happened, happened. I made a mistake, a serious one, but mistakes happens in life – I’m not a bad guy. People tried to bury my dream because of one mistake, but I asked God for forgiveness, so I’m carrying on with my career, dude. I’m starting over.”

One mistake. Wow. There are few clubs in the world which fit the bill of being the majority of fans’ least favorite team, but Boa Esporte could get there. Surely there must be more to the story?

Nothing new about the challenges facing USMNT

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This next week may define a generation of USMNT players, but only if it goes poorly.

That may sound overly dramatic, but it isn’t. The United States started 0-2 in the final round of World Cup qualifying, earned its coach a firing, and now stares down its status in the confederation.

Honduras is coming on Friday, far from a pushover. Then it’s off to Panama for another tricky tie. In a vacuum, coming up short in one of the two isn’t the end of the world, but the Yanks will be expected to take a minimum four points. Even that would be a disappointment to many.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

The crutches are gone, aside from any being used by injured players back in Germany (Bobby Wood and Fabian Johnson chief amongst them). Fifteen of Honduras’ players play domestically, and Panama isn’t much better in overall quality.

Frankly, and it’s been written before, the United States should outclass both of these foes. If Bruce Arena’s bunch doesn’t, well, it spells woe for the country’s soccer development as a whole.

For now, supporters and players have been able to cling to the thought that Jurgen Klinsmann was responsible for the Yanks’ struggles. In some ways, he most certainly was to blame for setbacks like the CONCACAF Cup loss to Mexico and the pathetic performance against Costa Rica that earned him a firing.

Several of the United States’ current elder statesmen have built legacies that can survive big hits. Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey may go down in history as the two biggest stars in program history (There will be an argument for both as No. 1 along with Landon Donovan and Claudio Reyna). DaMarcus Beasley is an all-timer, too.

Michael Bradley, Geoff Cameron, and Jozy Altidore are on track for that, too, and there’s an argument to be made the trio is already there, especially for Cameron, who’s a mainstay in the Premier League. Each has found success in Europe after getting their starts in Major League Soccer, and have etched their names into the national record books.

There’s still very little reason to believe the USMNT will miss the 2018 World Cup even with the 0-2 start. The class is just too much to consider the Yanks will finish below Panama, Honduras, and Trinidad and Tobago over the course of 10 matches (The fourth place side gets a shot at an Asian side like Saudi Arabia, UAE, or Uzbekistan in a two-legged affair).

But turning it around has to start now. The Yanks have to handle their business in these qualifiers, and make at least the Gold Cup final to build momentum toward Russia. Anything short of that is abject failure.

Again, this absolutely should happen, starting Friday. Even given the poor start, losses or even a pair of draws this week would be legitimately shocking, and set the program back ages. Howard set it up well Tuesday when he pointed out that the U.S. has gotten to points like this before, and they always belly up to the bar and outlast all comers.

A lot of fans have this nagging voice in their heads, asking nefariously, “What if they don’t?”

Podolski after golazo finale: “This is like a great movie”

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Lukas Podolski has won a EURO, a World Cup, and the Bundesliga with two different sides.

Only Lothar Matthaus and Miroslav Klose have been capped more than Germany’s Polish born Podolski, and he received a hero’s send-off from the home crowd at Germany’s 1-0 win over England on Wednesday.

And of course he sent himself off in style with a gorgeous goal.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

Podolski said there were more than 30,000 people from Cologne at the match, where he won one of his two Bundesliga titles.

“That’s when you know where you home is, and that you’ve done a lot of good, also off the pitch,” Podolski said. “That makes me very proud.”

It was a perfect night to say goodbye, and the goal made it almost surreal (Thomas Muller called it “cheesy”).

From Goal.com:

“This is like a great movie,” he told ARD. “We win 1-0 and I score the goal.

“I know I have a left foot that was probably gifted to me by God, or someone up there, and I can always rely on it. I am proud of these last 13 years.”

Feel good hit of the Spring.