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

1 Comment

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

source:
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.

Watch Live: Southampton vs. Tottenham Hotspur

Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Hugo Lloris and Christian Eriksen miss out as sickness-hit Tottenham Hotspur visits struggling Southampton at St. Mary’s on Sunday (Watch live at 11 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com)

WATCH LIVE ONLINE

That opens up spots in the lineup for Michel Vorm and Moussa Sissoko, as Spurs aim to go level on points with fourth-place Liverpool.

Saints dipped into the drop zone when Stoke City won on Saturday, but will sit 14th if they can spring a home win over Spurs.

Mauricio Pellegrino is giving Mario Lemina and Manolo Gabbiadini, as well as in-form James Ward-Prowse, the starters’ chance to stop the rot. Southampton is winless in 10 league matches, but has drawn three of the last five.

LINEUPS

Southampton: McCarthy, Cedric, Stephens, Hoedt, Bertrand, Lemina, Romeu, Ward-Prowse, Tadic, Hojbjerg, Gabbiadini. Subs: Forster, Pied, Bednarek, Davis, Boufal, Redmond, Obafemi.

Tottenham Hotspur: Vorm, Aurier, Sanchez, Vertonghen, Davies, Dier, Dembele, Sissoko, Dele, Son, Kane. Subs: Gazzaniga, Foyth, Trippier, Walker-Peters, Wanyama, Lamela, Llorente.

Making sense of the Silva firing: Should’ve let him walk?

Leave a comment

Watford fired manager Marco Silva on Sunday, blaming Everton’s recruitment of the Portuguese boss for his failure, and it seems his replacement has already been identified as Javi Gracia.

I mean, holy smoke: So much for “easy like Sunday morning.”

The Hornets have been poor for some time, and their drop from chasing an unlikely European position to a spot on the fringes of the relegation race does stretch back to time Everton was repeatedly asking to hire Silva.

Funny thing: Perhaps letting him walk would’ve been the right decision.

What Silva did in the first quarter of this season and his lauded attempt to save Hull City last season may recall his overachievement at Estoril in Portugal, but the 40-year-old worked wonders at league powers Sporting CP and Olympiacos.

In the case of the latter, Silva led Thrylos to an absurd record of 38W-3D-7L before quitting after one season.

There’s another piece of the puzzle to consider, too: Watford under owner Gino Pozzo has been quick to change manager, which is a sign the club values — to quote longtime Buffalo basketball coach Reggie Witherspoon — “Jims and Joes more than x’s and o’s.”

As Sam Allardyce, the man who was hired by Everton, has joined Ronald Koeman as bosses unable to get the Toffees’ talented roster humming, it’s worth asking whether both Watford and Everton would’ve been better off had the Silva “transfer” went down at Goodison Park.

Watford has eight losses in 11 matches, handing three points to a variety of teams who’ve struggled to find wins this season: Swansea City, Brighton and Hove Albion, and Huddersfield Town. The Hornets have also drawn Southampton.

Everton under both Koeman and Allardyce has done the opposite: the Toffees have too much talent to religiously fail against the lower clubs. This season, which also saw a short run for caretaker boss David Unsworth, their wins are over Stoke City, Bournemouth, Watford, West Ham, Huddersfield Town, Newcastle and Swansea.

The Toffees big slump has seen a pair of draws with woeful West Bromwich Albion and a loss at Bournemouth.

Which brings us back to Watford under Silva. Despite its long slump, the club is performing in a way more suited for Everton’s talent than the Hornets’ bunch (which certainly isn’t poor). Consider:

Consider that Watford has 49.5 percent possession on the season, behind only Man City, Arsenal, Spurs, Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, and Southampton (Everton has 46.4 and that number has regressed under Allardyce).

Also, Watford is ahead of Everton in pass completion percentage, shots per game, goals, shots allowed per game, and dribbles per game.

All this with the Toffees getting some of the finest goalkeeper performances in the league from Jordan Pickford. His 81 saves are second to Lukasz Fabianski and his seven in the six-yard box are joint-top with Mat Ryan.

So, yeah, Everton probably had the right idea in trying to get Silva, who was obviously interested in the job. The Toffees’ buys of Cenk Tosun and Theo Walcott are only going to up the ante at Goodison Park, and Allardyce does not have the record of getting talent to reach its potential (at least not in a decade).

Everton’s top performers this year according to advanced stats sites WhoScored and Squawka are ranked 82nd in the Premier League (Mason Holgate) and 103rd in the league (Ashley Williams), respectively.

All this goes to not just say that Silva has done a decent job at Watford, but beg why they’ve decided to fire the boss midway through a transfer window. And considering the Hornets would’ve received compensation of some sort for the move, it’s even more of a head scratcher

Multiple reports: Watford set to hire Gracia as manager

Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Watford looks set to appoint Javi Gracia to its managerial position, hours after firing Marco Silva and blaming Everton for the manager.

[ MORE: Watford fires Silva, blames Everton ]

Gracia led Malaga to eighth and ninth place finishes in La Liga between 2014-16 before spending last season at Rubin Kazan.

Gracia, 47, has led promotion campaigns in Spain and has plenty of experience with perceived smaller clubs battling the drop zone.

Watford will hope the Hornets don’t reach that point, still five points clear of the drop after flirting with the Top Seven for the first quarter of the Premier League season.

Latest: Sunday medicals for Mkhitaryan, Sanchez

Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Henrikh Mkhitaryan has agreed to join Arsenal from Manchester United, clearing the path for Alexis Sanchez to join the Old Trafford set.

[ MORE: 2 Robbies on the deal ]

The BBC is reporting that both players will undergo medicals at their proposed new clubs on Sunday ahead of a straight swap deal.

Sanchez, 29, has scored 80 goals for Arsenal since arriving before the 2014-15 campaign, including 30 last season.

Mkhitaryan turns 30 this summer, and has struggled at Manchester United since posting five assists in his first three matches of the season.

[ MORE: Watford sacks Silva ]

He was, however, a combination of Sanchez and Mesut Ozil in his final season at Borussia Dortmund, scoring 23 goals with 32 assists.

This could be win-win, as Mkhitaryan at his best is a like-for-like replacement for Mesut Ozil should the German leave in the summer and Sanchez is a more proven PL commodity (though his attitude should be a major question for the United room).