Liverpool's defense still looked leaky, but a mistake from Kompany saved them.

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.

LIVE – Europa League group stage finale: Saints, Man United in crucial deciders

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 03:  Virgil van Dijk of Southampton celebrates after scoring his team's first goal during the UEFA Europa League Group K match between Southampton FC and FC Internazionale Milano at St Mary's Stadium on November 3, 2016 in Southampton, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
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This is it, don’t get scared now.

[ LIVE: Europa League scores ]

Premier League duo Southampton and Manchester United both go into their final group game of the UEFA Europa League needing to avoid defeat if their going to make the knockout rounds.

For United, their task is simple. Jose Mourinho’s men need just a point from their trip to Ukraine to play Zorya Luhansk to advance to the Round of 32, while a win could see them finish top depending on the result of the Feyenoord vs. Fenerbache game.

As for Southampton, it’s a little bit more complicated.

A win for Claude Puel‘s side at home against Hapoel Be’er Sheva at a sold out St Mary’s would see them safely through to the knockout rounds of the Europa League for the first time in club history. A 0-0 draw would also do the trick but a score draw (1-1, 2-2, 3-3 etc) would send the reigning Israeli champions through instead as they’d have the advantage in head-to-head away goals after the duo drew 0-0 in Israel back in October. Making the knockout rounds of this competition would be a huge deal for Southampton and would keep their cup momentum going after they reached the semifinals of the EFL Cup last week.

[ MORE: Europa League standings ]   

Elsewhere there is plenty on the line across the 12 groups, with the standings page in the link above very handy to work out the permutations as the top two teams from each group (first place team is seeded, the second unseeded) advance to the Round of 32 and will be joined by the eight teams who finished third in their respective groups in the UEFA Champions League group stage.

Below is the full schedule for Thursday’s game which kick off in three separate time slots, while you can follow live commentary and stats on the games by clicking on the link above.


Full Europa League schedule, Thursday Dec. 8

11 a.m. ET
Konyarspor vs. Gent
Qarabag vs. Fiorentina
Osmanlispor vs. Zurich
Braga vs. Shakhtar Donetsk
Villarreal vs. Steaua Bucuresti
PAOK vs. Liberece

1 p.m. ET
Vikrotia Plzen vs. Austria Wien
Apoel Nicosia vs. Olympiacos
Sassuolo vs. Genk
Anderlecht vs. Saint-Etienne
Zorya Luhansk vs. Manchester United
Rapid Wien vs. Athletic Bilbao
Young Boys vs. Astana
AZ Alkmaar vs. Zenit Saint Petersburg
Feyenoord vs. Fenerbahce
Maccabi Tel-Aviv vs. Dundalk
Mainz vs. Gabala
Astra Giurgiu vs. Roma

3:05 p.m. ET
Panathinaikos vs. Celta Vigo
Standard Liege vs. Ajax
Inter Milan vs. Sparta Prague
Southampton vs. Hapoel Be’er Sheva
RB Salzburg vs. Schalke
Nice vs. Krasnodar

Bob Bradley will remain in charge, says Swansea chairman

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With reports circulating in the British press that American coach Bob Bradley could be fired after just seven games in charge of Swansea City, their chairman has publicly backed the former U.S. national team head coach.

[ MORE: Ranking the PL superstars ]

Bradley, 58, has just one win in his opening seven games in charge of the Swans who currently sit bottom of the Premier League table on nine points, three points off safety.

That poor form, coupled with many other issues at the club, has reportedly prompted new American owners Steve Kaplan and Jason Levien (they took over as majority owners in July) to conduct an extensive review of every department at the club.

However, chairman Huw Jenkins has moved to quell rumors about Bradley becoming the second Swansea manager to be fired through the opening 14 games of the season.

“I don’t know where that story came from, but it’s natural in football that everyone wants and needs results. But the last thing we need at this moment of time is a continual change in manager. We need stability first and foremost,” Jenkins told talkSPORT. “Take a team like Fulham, they changed managers three times in the season they tried to stave off relegation and we’re in a similar position now.”

“Perhaps in the summer I could have made a better decision – from pre-season onwards I don’t think things were right, it was too flat at the club. That had a knock-on effect and obviously it’s taken us a while to work through it. But we’re with Bob now to try and turn that corner – that’s what we’re working towards. We look at the January window as a chance to reinforce things. There are players not hitting the form levels they have done in the past and we have to find out why that is and get that right as well.”

So, it seems that sense is prevailing after all.

Jenkins took the blame for Swansea’s poor start to the season in media interviews on Wednesday and now the long-time chairman is backing his manager.

The south Wales businessman was part of a consortium which saved Swansea in 2004 and then led them on an incredible journey up from the fourth-tier to the Premier League, plus winning the League Cup and getting to the group stages of the Europa League. He and other directors have come in for some serious stick from Swansea’s fans for selling their stake to the new American owners and Jenkins is believed to have made just over $10 million from selling 8.2 percent of his 13.2 percent stake in the club.

On the pitch, it’s difficult to blame Bradley for the current situation Swansea finds itself in.

After some woeful moves in the transfer window last summer (Jenkins has admitted they weren’t great with Ashley Williams and Andre Ayew allowed to leave for big profits but their replacements just haven’t been good enough) the American coach needs at least one transfer window to bring in better players and the Swans are only three points off safety with a pivotal stretch of six games to come in the Premier League.

Home games against Sunderland, West Ham and Bournemouth, plus trips to West Brom, Middlesbrough and Crystal Palace will see the Swans go up against direct relegation rivals between now and Jan. 3.

The next four weeks will be huge not only for Swansea’s future but also for Bradley and ahead of their crunch home game against Sunderland on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET online via NBCSports.com) the American coach is eager to cut out defensive mistakes as the Swans have now conceded 19 goals in his seven games in charge.

“When you are a manager it (the pressure) goes with the territory,” Bradley said. “It is work as usual, knowing from the beginning when I got here that it would be a big challenge, and it is. When you see a scoreline like that it is easy to jump on us. We are not going to survive if we keep on conceding goals like this.”

Man United’s Europa League clash in doubt over frozen pitch

Manchester United's coach Jose Mourinho, centre, attends a training session with his team at Chernomorets stadium in Odessa, Ukraine, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016, ahead of Thursday's Europa League group A soccer match against FC Zorya Luhansk. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
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Manchester United and Jose Mourinho may not play their UEFA Europa League game against Zorya Luhansk on Thursday.

[ MORE: Ozil, Sanchez leaving Arsenal? ]

Amid freezing conditions in the Ukrainian city of Odessa (Zorya cannot play their games at home due to the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine) the pitch underwent an inspection on Thursday and with covers and heaters on the playing surface overnight, there is hope the game should go ahead.

However, Jose Mourinho has already talked about the state of the pitch as not being ideal, while the likes of Daley Blind and Paul Pogba looked far from impressed when they went out for a training session on Wednesday in freezing conditions.

Remember, United only needs a point from the game against Zorya to qualify for the Europa League Round of 32 and Mourinho has selected a strong 19-man squad for the trip. 

A statement from Zorya said the following on Thursday morning, as they remain hopeful of the game going ahead.

“Everything depends on the weather. The pitch is not brilliant at the moment. We are expecting temperatures of two or three degrees and everything should be okay.”

Below was the scene in Odessa yesterday for United’s training session, via Simon Peach of the Press Association.


Yep, the pitch doesn’t look great.

Barcelona invites Chapecoense to play friendly

CHAPECO, BRAZIL - OCTOBER 22: Supporters of Chapecoense cheer their team during the match between Chapecoense and Sao Paulo for the Brazilian Series A 2014 at Arena Conda on October 22, 2014 in Chapeco, Brazil. (Photo by Alan Pedro/Getty Images)
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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says it has extended an invitation to host a friendly match against the Brazilian soccer club involved in last week’s plane crash.

Chapecoense was on its way to the final of the Copa Sudamericana, one of South America’s most prestigious club tournaments, when its flight went down in Colombia, killing all but six of the 77 players, officials and journalists on board.

The match would be played in August. The friendly, called the Joan Gamper trophy, is used as Barcelona’s traditional curtain raiser for the new season.

Barcelona says it sent a formal invitation to Chapecoense on Thursday.

Barcelona says it wants to “pay homage to the 71 people who died in the accident as well as their families.”