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.

Report: In-demand Man United starlet Rashford to sign long-term contract

SUNDERLAND, ENGLAND - MAY 27: Marcus Rashford of England gestures to a team mate during the International Friendly match between England and Australia at Stadium of Light on May 27, 2016 in Sunderland, England. (Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images)
Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images
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Understatement of the year alert: It’s not a bad time to be Marcus Rashford, right now.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage | EURO 2016 ]

From his breakout season at Manchester United, to winning the FA Cup, to making and scoring three minutes into his England debut, and now on the brink of being chosen to represent his country at next month’s European Championship in France (manager Roy Hodgson will announce his final 23-man squad on Tuesday), the first five months of 2016 have treated the 18-year-old pretty well.

Now, with just one year remaining on his current Man United contract, Rashford is set to capitalize on all of his successes and become a very, very rich boy. According to reports out of the UK, United have already offered the Manchester-born and -bred striker a long-term contract extension worth nearly $30,000 per week.

[ MORE: Rashford, Rooney propel England to victory over Australia ]

After scoring eight goals in 18 appearances (all competitions), including five in the Premier League, for United this season, 19 other top-division clubs would have knocked the door down to snatch Rashford up at the expiration of his current contract.

Also reportedly in line for a new deal — though surely nowhere near the size of that of Rashford — is 19-year-old defender Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, who made 14 appearances for United this season, including 10 in the PL. Like Rashford, his current contract is set to expire at the end of the 2016-17 season.

MLS Snapshot: New York City FC 2-2 Orlando City SC (video)

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 15:  David Villa #7 of New York City FC tries to keep the ball as Scott Caldwell #6 of New England Revolution defends during the inaugural game of the New York City FC at Yankee Stadium on March 15, 2015 in the Bronx borough of New York City.The New York City FC defeated the New England Revolution 2-0.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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The game in 100 words (or less): “It’s not how many times you get knocked down; it’s how many times you get back up.” If that is indeed the way the world works, New York City FC will be given every opportunity to prove themselves again and again and again. When they’re not losing 7-0 to their rivals, they’re blowing two-goal leads (and the simplest of chances to go 3-0 up — check out the videos below for more on that) inside the final 20 minutes at home a week later. Orlando City SC have made a habit of scoring stoppage-time goals this season (Sunday’s 94th-minute equalizer in the Bronx was their fifth), so you’ll have to excuse all of us who wholeheartedly expected NYCFC to snatch this 2-2 draw from the jaws of victory. With the draw, NYCFC remain fourth in the Eastern Conference, a point back of the New York Red Bulls and Montreal Impact for second and third, while Orlando City inch to level on points with sixth-place Toronto FC.

[ MORE: USMNT 4-0 Bolivia | Three things we learned | Player ratings ]

Three Four Five moments that mattered

42′ — Brilliant heads home not long before halftime — Everything seemed fine for NYCFC

66′ — Pirlo’s beautiful ball sets Villa up for 2-0 — Class. Pure class from everyone involved. Everything is fine.

70′ — Villa sends his PK effort sky high — What more can you say? Everything is still probably fine.

72′ — Baptista fires low to make it 2-1 — Villa left the door wide open, and Julio Baptista was quick to walk right through two minutes later. Everything is less fine.

90+4′ — Molino heads home with no time left — As soon as Villa missed the penalty, it was always going to end like this. Nothing is fine.

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

Man of the match: David Villa (for a variety of reasons)

Goalscorers: Brilliant (42′), Villa (66′), Baptista (72′), Molino (90+4′)

Klinsmann excited about USMNT’s promising youngsters ahead of Copa America

COLUMBUS, OH - MARCH 29:  Head Coach Jurgen Klinsmann of the United States Men's National Team watches his team play against Guatemala during the FIFA 2018  World Cup qualifier on March 29, 2016 at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. The United States defeated Guatemala 4-0.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The U.S. national team’s last 135 minutes of game time — the final 45 minutes of a 1-0 victory over Ecuador, followed by Saturday’s 4-0 dismantling of Bolivia here at Children’s Mercy Park — have supporters across the country harboring unfamiliar feelings these days: cautious optimism ahead of this week’s 2016 Copa America Centenario.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage ]

It’s the best three-half stretch Jurgen Klinsmann’s side has enjoyed (against top-80 opposition, according FIFA world rankings) since … well, come to think of it, I’m not really sure when. In the last 24 months, the Yanks have lost away to Guatemala, drawn away to Trinidad & Tobago, lost the CONCACAF Cup to Mexico on home soil, finished fourth at the Gold Cup on home soil, and wrapped up 2014 with just one win in their last eight games of the calendar year, including three of four World Cup fixtures.

(When you write it all out like that, it sounds really bad. It’s been really bad.)

Yet, here stands the USMNT, five days from kicking off the centennial edition of Copa America, and a few pieces are beginning to fall into place for Klinsmann and Co. I waxed poetically about Saturday’s victory and all the positives it highlighted.

[ COPA AMERICA PREVIEWS: Group A | BC | D ]

Listening to Klinsmann and a handful of players speak after the game, there was a similar sense of confidence among the men on the field that a workable, sustainable formula had indeed been realized.

“The atmosphere is really good,” the 1990 World Cup-winning German said. “Fine-tuning elements, every training session helps you. I think no team will come into Copa America 100 percent or perfectly prepared. … It’s a bit tricky.”

[ MORE: Ranking Copa America contenders — what are USMNT’s chances? ]

Perhaps no player on the USMNT’s Copa America roster has come further under Klinsmann’s tutelage, and in such a short period of time, than striker Bobby Wood, who has scored all five of his international goals inside the last five months and on Saturday assisted on Gyasi Zardes’s strike for a 3-0 lead with a quality cut-back cross from the end line — Wood, speaking after the game:

“I think as a team, we’re pretty confident,” Wood said. “We wanted to continue growing as a team with each game before the tournament. With these results, I think we did a good job to be confident going into the Colombia game. … I actually think two games ago, we were still pretty confident. Maybe the outside is putting pressure on us, but as a team inside the locker room, we’re pretty confident to do well. I think everyone is pretty hungry for Copa to start.”

It’s the USMNT’s current crop of youngsters like Wood, the 23-year-old now-Hamburg man, that gives American fans hope beyond Copa America with an eye toward the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The average age of the scorers of the USMNT’s last eight goals: 23 years old. No one is more excited by that progression than Klinsmann, who raved about Christian Pulisic after the 17-year-old became the youngest goalscorer in USMNT history on Saturday.

[ MORE: USA 4-0 Bolivia | Three things we learned | Player ratings ]

“What is wonderful to see is the growth of [the young] players over these last one or two years — how they improved their game, how they’re becoming more adult[-like], obviously stronger physically, but also becoming more confident,” he said of players like Wood, Zardes, DeAndre Yedlin and John Brooks, among others. “This is a process. The process is never-ending, but the first couple of years when you grow, it’s a big learning curve. How far this process takes us into Copa America, we’ll take it one step at a time. We put the pieces together the best way that we get the right results.

“I think over the next couple of weeks, they will definitely get their opportunities to play minutes, leave an impression, and to push more and more the established players toward the edge, which is their job. It will be a very intense and interesting next couple of weeks.”

Latest: Police, military form search party for kidnapped El Tri striker

HYERES, FRANCE - JUNE 01:  Alan Pulido (no.19) of Mexico celebrates his goal during the Toulon Tournament Final between  Mexico and Turkey at Stade Perruc on June 1, 2012 in Hyeres, France.  (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
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CIUDAD VICTORIA, Mexico (AP) Federal and state forces mounted a big search operation Sunday for Mexican soccer star Alan Pulido, who was abducted in the crime-plagued northern border state of Tamaulipas.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s El Tri coverage ]

The 25-year-old Pulido is a forward for Olympiacos of Greece and was part of Mexico’s 2014 World Cup team, though he wasn’t called up for the Copa America tournament that starts this coming week.

“We have information that he was intercepted by armed persons and since then his whereabouts are unknown,” said state Attorney General Ismael Quintanilla.

The Tamaulipas Coordination Group that includes federal and state security agents said on its Twitter account that it was searching for the player. Reporters in the city saw an unusual deployment of troops and police in the streets, while at least two police or military-style helicopters flew overhead.

A state official earlier said Pulido was kidnapped early Sunday after leaving a party near his hometown of Ciudad Victoria, the capital of Tamaulipas, a state that has suffered battles between major drug gangs. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss a case under investigation.

Authorities gave no further details about the kidnapping or a motive for the abduction, which happened a week before state elections to pick a new governor for Tamaulipas.

[ COPA AMERICA PREVIEWS: Group A | BC | D ]

Pulido’s Greek team said it hoped for a good outcome for the player.

“At this difficult time, our thoughts and prayers are with Alan,” Olympiakos said on its official Twitter account in a message in both Spanish and English accompanied by a photograph of him.

Former teammates on Mexico’s national team went on social networks to offer their support for his welfare.

“A shame what happened,” goalkeeper Jesus Corona said on Twitter. “My prayers are with him and his family at this difficult time.”

Similar comments came in tweets by goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, defenders Diego Reyes and Miguel Layun and strikers Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and Oribe Peralta, all of whom are in the United States of the Copa America competition.

[ MORE: Ranking Copa America contenders — what are El Tri’s chances? ]

Pulido debuted and played several seasons with the club Tigres of Monterrey, whose Twitter account expressed solidarity with the player’s family “in the difficult situation they are experiencing.”

Pulido left the Tigres in 2014 to play in Europe, though he has been in a dispute with the Mexican club about whether his contract there continues to be valid.

National team coach Carlos Osorio recently said Pulido has the quality to be on the squad but was left off the Copa America team due to the legal dispute. He had scored three goals in earlier call-ups.

In the most recent season, he scored five times in eight appearances with Olympiacos.