Premier League Relegation Watch: Fulham, Cardiff muddy the waters

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With just four matches remaining for most teams, things are somewhat structured at the bottom…or so we thought.

Now, with teams outside the relegation zone suddenly struggling and those inside it picking up enormous victories, things could get interesting down the stretch.

Fulham won an absolutely massive three points with a win over 17th-placed Norwich City, which manager Felix Magath labeled as “lucky.”

With everyone’s attention at Craven Cottage for that big six-pointer, Cardiff City pulled out a big win under everyone’s noses, beating Southampton 1-0.

Struggling teams include Sunderland, who have games in hand but a tough schedule, and Swansea City, who have been dragged into the fight with some very poor form.

Despite this, things still remain with four likely teams still “battling” for three positions. With all that in mind, let’s take a deeper look at the situation:

20. SUNDERLAND, 25 PTS (32 PLD)

Remaining Matches: Manchester City (A), Chelsea (A), Cardiff City (H), Manchester United (A), West Brom (H), Swansea City (H).

League Form: LLLLLD

Vegas Odds to be Relegated: 1/12

Verdict: A brutal schedule and terrible form amount to a death sentence for Sunderland. Of all the teams in the fight, Sunderland seem to be the surest bet to go down.  Gus Poyet tried, but hasn’t been able to come up with the answers.

19. CARDIFF CITY, 29 PTS (34 PLD)

Remaining Matches: Stoke City (H), Sunderland (A), Newcastle (A), Chelsea (H)

League Form: WLDLLW

Vegas Odds to be Relegated: 2/7

Verdict: Their form coming into Southampton was ugly, but a big win last week puts them in a decent position. Their schedule isn’t too terrible going forward, with winnable matches in all of their next three. However, playing a Chelsea squad that could be gunning for a title in the final match of the season is a terrible, awful prospect that could end up seeing them down. Their goal differential is something to keep an eye on as well, sitting at -34, the closest of anyone to Fulham’s -40.  If the Whites keep playing well, that could play a real factor.

18. FULHAM FC, 30 PTS (34 PLD)

Remaining Matches: Tottenham (A), Hull City (H), Stoke City (A), Crystal Palace (H)

League Form: WWLLWL

Vegas Odds to be Relegated: 1/1

Verdict: Felix Magath may have just rescued Fulham yet. There’s still work to be done, but with Norwich’s absolutely ridiculous upcoming schedule, the Whites are in a pole position to save their season. Things are also shaping out well around them.  The Cardiff win last weekend hurt, but Spurs are in horrible form coming into this weekend’s match, and with the rest of their schedule against teams mid-table, their opponents will likely have little to play for.

It’s all in front of Fulham; if they fail to escape the drop, they’ll have only themselves to blame. Also to note: fans will be weirdly rooting for local derby rivals Chelsea, as the Blues play all of their relegation opponents down the stretch.

17. NORWICH CITY, 32 PTS (34 PLD)

Remaining Matches: Liverpool (H), Manchester United (A), Chelsea (A), Arsenal (H)

League Form: LLLWLD

Vegas Odds to be Relegated: 4/9

Verdict: BRUTAL schedule to finish out the year. Manchester United is always up for an upset this season, but judging by Norwich’s recent form, that’s a long way away. Every one of their other opponents will have something big to play for, and it’s quite possible they don’t see another point this season. The loss to Fulham was devastating, and it could be over for the Canaries.

16. WEST BROMWICH ALBION, 33 PTS (33 PLD)

Remaining Matches: Manchester City (A), West Ham United (H), Arsenal (A), Sunderland (A), Stoke City (H)

League Form: DLDLWL

Vegas Odds to be Relegated: 7/1

Verdict: Everyone from here on up is relatively safe.  The thing keeping West Brom out of the race is their game in hand along with a decent schedule. The club has seen plenty of turmoil this season, but they should be alright barring a disastrous end-of-season collapse. Credit to Pepe Mel.

15. SWANSEA CITY, 33 PTS (34 PLD)

Remaining Matches: Newcastle (A), Aston Villa (H), Southampton (H), Sunderland (A)

League Form: LLWDLL

Vegas Odds to be Relegated: 11/1

Verdict: Personally, I’d be more worried as a Swansea fan than a West Brom fan. They don’t have the luxury of a game in hand, and the team has played some ugly soccer the last two matches. The remaining schedule is a breeze compared to others, but they’ll have to pick things up if they want to be considered safe.

14. ASTON VILLA, 34 PTS (33 PLD)

Remaining Matches: Southampton (H), Swansea City (A), Hull City (H), Manchester City (A), Tottenham (A)

League Form: LLLLWW

Vegas Odds to be Relegated: 16/1

Verdict: Talk about poor form. Four straight losses – including ones to Fulham, Crystal Palace, and Stoke – have Villa fans a bit worried, but they still would need the club to lose out plus some help to be considered a real candidate. One or two wins should see them easily safe, despite the limp towards the finish line that has some calling for Paul Lambert’s head. The win over Chelsea looks more and more important, and not just in the title race.

NEXT IN LINE: Hull City (35 PTS, 33 PLD), Crystal Palace (37 PTS, 33 PLD), West Ham United (37 PTS, 33 PLD)

Mexico captain Guardado suffers hamstring injury

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With the World Cup still half a year away, there’s plenty of time to heal from injuries and get the body right after tweaking things during the club season.

And yet, there will still be some concern among Mexico fans.

Team captain Andres Guardado suffered a hamstring tear, his club Real Betis confirmed on Monday, and is expected to miss 3-4 weeks. That’s nothing to write home about when it comes to preparing for the big tournament, but with Guardado 31 years old and struggling with injuries in recent years, Mexico fans will be keenly aware that hamstring injuries can return with a vengeance if not given the right time to heal.

Guardado has shown his age in recent times, not necessarily with his play on the field, which has been critical to his country, but with his fitness. Guardado has just four full 90 minute performances for Mexico dating back to October of 2016, missing time with ankle, leg, and now hamstring injuries in that span.

The 31-year-old has had a fine season so far for Real Betis, scoring one goal and assisting six while appearing in all 15 La Liga matches for the club thus far. The club sits 12th in the La Liga table with 18 points.

Guardado will be fine with plenty of time to spare, but if not fully healed properly, there’s always the risk that muscle injuries can flare back up, and Mexico fans will hope that their captain’s club gives him plenty of rest to recover.

Mark Hughes wants Stoke City to “suck it up”

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Mark Hughes is under fire at Stoke City with the Potters firmly entrenched in the relegation battle, and with that he’s charging his players, staff, and himself to gut the rest of the season out.

With Stoke heading to Turf Moor to take on Burnley, they sit just three points above the drop. The players were faced with jeers from angry fans at the train station following this past weekend’s 5-1 disaster against Tottenham. The fiery Hughes is hoping to use this jarring moment to jolt his squad.

[ PREVIEW: Tuesday’s Premier League action ]

“That is still resonating. It’s good we have a game because it is still fresh in their ears probably, and they can use it as a motivating factor,” said Hughes during his pre-match press conference.

“You either suck it up and do ­something about it or you go under, and we can’t accept players like that. I don’t feel we have players like that.”

With managers nowadays often reaching into the excuses barrel as they hope to save their own skins, Hughes refuses to do just that, instead placing the decision firmly on the players shoulders, telling them they are the only ones who can save the club.

“Maybe some hadn’t ­confronted that before – but sometimes you need a reality check, and understand how our results and ­performances affect people,” Hughes said. “When people criticize you, you have to grow a thick skin in this industry. If you don’t, you’re in the wrong place.”

Louis van Gaal calls Mourinho’s United “far more boring”

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Louis Van Gaal has picked just the right time to pipe up.

The former Manchester United manager, who took flak while in charge for his side being hideous to watch, has now taken shots of his own at his successor Jose Mourinho, kicking Manchester United while they’re down after a 2-1 derby defeat at home.

The Dutchman told Fox Sports Netherlands, “If you ask me how did I do at United, I will say it was my best year ever, given the circumstances I was working under. We played football that was quite alright. But it’s not football that is appreciated in England. And yet, right now, looking at United, I have to conclude Mourinho is not being criticized while it’s far more boring football.”

[ PREVIEW: Premier League Tuesday matches, including Chelsea vs. Huddersfield ]

Van Gaal was blasted consistently for playing a boring style, especially in front of the home crowd, and now Mourinho is being criticized for the same concept. Mourinho was denounced for similar reasons while in charge of Chelsea, but with the club winning multiple titles under his leadership, the noise was always less while the team was winning. With Manchester United still unable to crack the top 4, Mourinho is feeling the heat.

“What United produce now is defensive football,” van Gaal said. “I always played attacking football. The proof is that the opposition were always parking the bus. They don’t do that now because Jose Mourinho plays so defensive.”

To van Gaal’s point, Manchester United is seventh in the Premier League in possession, holding 51% possession this season. They were out-possessed by Manchester City 65-35 at Old Trafford over the weekend. Meanwhile, van Gaal’s last full season with Manchester United, the 2015/16 season, saw the Red Devils hold 54%, which ranked third in the Premier League, just a percentage point behind leaders Arsenal. However, van Gaal’s United ranked 15th in the Premier League in total shots, while Mourinho’s United this season ranks sixth at this point.

Van Gaal made sure to point out he prefers their cross-town rivals.

“I would rather watch City play than United. You need quality in a squad and it’s clear City have a better squad.”

Conte blames fatigue for dip in Chelsea form

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Antonio Conte has figured out what is plaguing his Chelsea side as they sit 14 points back of Premier League leaders Manchester City.

“I think when you play every three days, it is impossible to have a training session and to work on the physical aspects,” Conte said in his pre-match press conference as the Blues get set to play Huddersfield Town on Tuesday. “It’s impossible. It’s impossible because you have to prepare with the players for a game every three days.”

Chelsea has yet to find itself eliminated from a single competition, drawn against Barcelona in the Champions League while navigating fixtures across all four competitions.

And yet, this is nothing new for Conte. The Blues boss is more than familiar with fixture congestion, having taken charge of Juventus and regularly competing at a high level on multiple fronts. In 2012/13, he won the Serie A title, won the Supercoppa Italia, and reached the quarterfinals of the Champions League.

However, this is new for Conte at Chelsea. Last season, the Blues did not take part in a European competition thanks to their disastrous season the previous year. While they reached the FA Cup final, they were knocked out of the EFL Cup in the 4th round.

“We have to try to do our best,” Conte said. “For sure, some players can be tired, that’s normal because some players are playing from this summer and our tours in China and Singapore. It’s normal. But I repeat we have to find the best solution. We have to find more rotations. I’m doing this, we will try and do our best with hunger and desire. We will fight.”

As an example, Conte said Alvaro Morata will miss the match on Tuesday against Huddersfield Town due to fatigue, with the Spaniard battling a slight back injury. “Morata is out. He is a bit tired and he has a problem in his back.