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.

MLS Snapshot: POR carve up 9-man ORL, keep pace with VAN, SKC

Pete Christopher//The Oregonian via AP
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The game in 100 words (or less): All of a sudden, the Western Conference has sprung to life as the 2017 regular season winds down — Vancouver Whitecaps, winners of five of their last seven games (unbeaten); Portland Timbers, winners of four of their last six following Sunday’s 3-0 victory over 10-man nine-man Orlando City SC at Providence Park; Sporting Kansas City, losers of just two of their last 15 games; Seattle Sounders, who had their 13-game unbeaten run snapped on Saturday; and Real Salt Lake, winners of four of their last five. With fewer than a handful of games remaining, Vancouver’s lead on Portland and Sporting KC remains one point after all three sides won this weekend; RSL and Seattle are separated by just three points, three points back of second and third. As for Saturday’s game, Diego Valeri is now a top-two candidate for MVP after scoring two more goals (his 19th and 20th, to go with 9 assists) against 10-man Orlando.

[ MORE: TFC’s Shield celebration delayed | RSL end Seattle’s run at 13 ]

Three moments that mattered

15′ — Valeri extends his streak, makes it 1-0 — The last time Valeri failed to score in a game, the date was July 23.

29′ — Mattocks taps it home after Asprilla’s cross — Huge credit to Diego Chara for the through ball to spring Dairon Asprilla into acres of space. The ball to Mattocks was simple, and he got it right.

59′ — Valeri gets no. 20, makes it 3-0 — Joe Bendik managed to deny Mattocks’ initial effort, but Valeri followed up when everyone in white had already quit on the play.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Diego Valeri

Goalscorers: Valeri (15′ – PK, 59′), Mattocks (29′)

The 2 Robbies: City Sparkle, Chelsea Shine, Liverpool Hold On

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Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe take a look at some of the weekend’s biggest storylines, including Liverpool’s thrilling victory over Leicester City, Tottenham Hotspur’s frantic win away to West Ham United and Manchester City’s demolition of Crystal Palace.

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.

All of the The 2 Robbies content can be accessed by clicking on this link:

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Follow them on Twitter @The2Robbies

Ederson harbors no ill will after Mane’s personal apology

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As far as Ederson is concerned, Sadio Mane‘s studs-to-face assault is a thing of the past — save for, the elongated scar he’ll likely wear on the left side of his face for the rest of his life, of course.

[ PL ROUNDUP: Goals galore on a wild Saturday ]

The Manchester City goalkeeper, who was forced from his side’s 5-0 victory over Liverpool on Sept. 9 after his face was raked by the studs of the Reds’ star attacker, revealed this weekend that he received — and accepted — Mane’s personal apology in the days immediately thereafter — quotes from Goal.com:

“Yes, I had contact with him, he sent me a message. I told him to stay calm, those things happen inside the pitch, it could happen anytime. I told him to not worry and wished him a good season.”

“I ended up having a hard hit in the face, but in the same week, I was ready to play in Champions League. I felt a strong kick, but I was always conscious. I knew it had been a long cut. I wanted to keep playing but, for medical issues, I couldn’t keep playing.

“But I was always conscious, even if I had my face a little bit swollen. But after a week it was normal again. In the same week, I was ready to play in Champions League. I faced that game full of confidence again, without any fear and happy for the result we achieved.”

Bundesliga: Leverkusen throttle HSV; Hannover remain unbeaten

Marius Becker/dpa via AP
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BERLIN (AP) Three days after being cleared to play by FIFA, Argentine striker Lucas Alario scored one goal and set up another on his debut for Bayer Leverkusen to beat Hamburger SV 3-0 in the Bundesliga on Sunday.

Alario struck midway through the first half, converting a cross from Leon Bailey, who also set up Kevin Volland’s opening goal just three minutes before.

A moment of class from Julian Brandt sent Alario through with less than 10 minutes remaining, and the Argentine had the awareness to spot the better-positioned Volland to seal the win.

Alario went off moments later to warm applause from fans.

“The goal is the cream on top. He played very well, scored the goal and combined with others. He worked well coming back and his first goal wasn’t so easy to score,” Leverkusen coach Heiko Herrlich said.

Alario’s first appearance for Leverkusen was held up when previous club River Plate objected to his transfer through the Argentine soccer association (AFA), which denied his playing rights.

The Buenos Aires-based club contended that Alario’s transfer was invalid as Leverkusen paid his release clause of $28.6 million on Aug. 31, after the Argentine season began, which it said was against FIFA rules.

Leverkusen then took the case to FIFA, which ruled in its favor on Thursday.

Leverkusen’s second win in six games eased the pressure on new coach Herrlich after a difficult start.

Counterpart Markus Gisdol remains in need of a change in fortune, however, after four straight defeats. Hamburg next faces Werder Bremen, Mainz and Bayern Munich.


Cologne fought its way to its first point in a 0-0 draw at promoted Hannover after starting the Bundesliga with five straight defeats.

Now the last-place side hopes it can build on the point.

“The luck will come back and the chances we had today will go in,” Cologne goalkeeper Timo Horn said. “We’ll start winning the games again. But the precondition was this performance that we delivered today.”

Peter Stoeger’s side, which has scored only one goal all season, hasn’t netted in its last four league games. That highlighted the extent to which Cologne relied on French striker Anthony Modeste, sold in the offseason in a big-money move to Chinese side Tianjin Quanjian.

Modeste scored 25 Bundesliga goals for Cologne last season. His replacement, former Mainz striker Jhon Cordoba, is yet to score in six games.

“We all have to be satisfied with the draw,” said Hannover general manager Horst Heldt, whose fourth-place side remains one of three unbeaten in the Bundesliga this season.

Hannover coach Andre Breitenreiter remained unbeaten in 15 games across two divisions.