Philippe Coutinho, Steven Gerrard

Premier League Power Rankings: Liverpool or Chelsea for the title? – Week 34

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The business end of the Premier League season is upon us, and we’re still waiting for any of the positive or negative transactions to be confirmed.

At both ends of the standings question marks still remain, as the title chase and relegation battle are reaching their climax.

Liverpool and Chelsea are holding their nerve but Manchester City are struggling to stay in the race for the crown after two games without a win. At the bottom Fulham and Cardiff have given themselves a fighting chance with vital wins, as they’ve dragged plenty of other teams back into the scrap against the drop.

(MORE: Premier League Power Rankings archive)

Each week we put our neck on the line to analyze the strength of each Premier League team, forget about the official league standings (here they are in case you actually do want them) that doesn’t mean squat.

The Power Rankings take into account the strength of schedule, injuries, suspensions, playing well but still losing and plenty of other variables. The W-D-L bracket shows each PL team’s current record and you can now see how many spots each team has moved, up or down, from week-to-week.

Let’s get to it!

RANKING
Up/Down

source:

1 Liverpool: That can’t do it, can they? Every week Liverpool are expected to slip up, and yet they keep on trucking. Their huge 3-2 win vs. Man City has put them in the driving seat with four games to go. Plus the hugely emotional 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster is spurring them on to glory. Norwich away this weekend for Brendan Rodgers’ men. (24-5-5)
source:  2 UP 1
Chelsea: The Blues are getting it done under Mourinho, as the ground out a crucial 1-0 win on the road against Swansea. You don’t win prizes for beautiful performances at the stage of the season… Chelsea wouldn’t win any. Sunderland at home should be a routine win, then it’s the Champions League semis for Jose Mourinho’s boys. (23-6-5)
source:  3 DOWN 1
Manchester City: A bad, bad week for the Citizens, as first they lost away at title rivals Liverpool and then they chucked away two points at home to bottom club Sunderland. Manuel Pellegrini’s side are unraveling before our eyes. West Brom at home this week must yield a win, otherwise it is curtains for City. (22-5-6)
source:  4 UP 1
Arsenal: The Gunners ground out a 3-1 win over West Ham on Tuesday and are buoyant after reaching the FA Cup final last week. After Everton’s slip up against Palace, Arsene Wenger’s side now know if they win their last 4 games, they’re in the UCL next season. (20-7-7)

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5 DOWN 1  Everton: Roberto Martinez felt his side were “fearful” vs.  Palace, as the Toffees came unstuck in a shock home defeat. Now their UCL destiny lies out of their hands and with both Manchester clubs still to come, their season could fizzle out. Regardless, it has been a great season but that ‘what if’ feeling could be hanging around. David Moyes is heading back to his old club this Sunday. (19-9-6)
source:  6
Tottenham: Spurs are battling away but draws against the likes of West Brom won’t get you in the top four. The North London club did come from 3-0 down to draw 3-3, but still, you shouldn’t be 3-0 down to the Baggies. London derby against Fulham this weekend. Tim Sherwood’s side HAVE to win to keep their top four hopes alive. (18-6-10)
source:  7 UP 2 Stoke City: Mark Hughes has worked wonders at the Britannia, as the Potters have won five of their last seven. Solid at the back but playing some nice stuff going forward, Stoke have finished the season superbly. Tricky trip to Cardiff this weekend. (11-10-13)
source:  8 DOWN 1
Southampton: Saints’ season is in danger of petering out, as the South Coast club seem to have already put their flip flops on and dusted off their bucket and spade. A shock home defeat to Cardiff means they will finish anywhere from eighth to tenth. That’s guaranteed. Aston Villa away for Mauricio Pochettino’s boys. (13-9-12)
source:  9 UP 2
Crystal Palace: The Eagles are safe! Tony Pulis has worked wonders at Selhurst Park, as many are calling for him to be manager of the season. Four wins on the spin, with Jason Puncehon scoring 4 goals in 3 games, has seen the Eagles soar to midtable. West Ham away this week. (12-4-18)
source:  10 DOWN 2
Manchester United: Okay, so United didn’t play last week, but they are struggling their way into the final few weeks of the season. After losing to Bayern Munich there’s been a somber mood about the place. Can Moyes’ men grab him a win on his return to Everton this weekend? (17-6-10)
source:  11 DOWN 1 West Ham: The Hammers put on a brave fight against Arsenal in midweek but after Matt Jarvis’ opener, who later should have won a controversial PK, the Irons were beaten. London derby vs. Palace should be lively at Upton Park. (10-7-17)
source:  12
Hull City: The Tigers are going to Wembley! Congrats to Steve Bruce and his side as they will play in the club’s first-ever FA Cup final. They face Arsenal this weekend at the KC Stadium in a dress-rehearsal of the final in what will be an intriguing encounter. (10-6-17)
source:  13 UP 3
Fuham: Felix Magath is working his magic at Fulham with the Cottagers sensing the great escape is on. A narrow win over Norwich was their second-straight PL victory, as they’ve hit a good run of form at the perfect time. Tough trip to Spurs next up, yet Fulham are just two points from safety. (9-3-22)
source:  14
Aston Villa: Paul Lambert has had to sack his two assistants this week and turmoil is in the air at Villa Park. Four straight defeats for the Villans and they face Saints at home this weekend. Must win. (9-7-16)
source:  15 DOWN 2
Newcastle: The Toon continue to drop as Pardew’s men have lost four games in a row. Swansea at home this weekend for the Geordies but they are in free fall at the moment. (14-4-16)
source:  16 DOWN 1
Swansea City: Swansea head to St. James’ Park after a narrow home defeat to Chelsea. Garry Monk’s side have been dragged back into the relegation battle and are now just three points above the drop zone. (8-9-17)
source:  17
West Brom: Pepe Mel’s side threw away another nailed-on win, as they blew it at home against Tottenham. Will letting a 3-0 lead slip come back to haunt the Baggies at the end of this season? The draw specialists won’t get much from Man City this weekend. (6-15-12)
source:  18 UP 2
Cardiff City: Ole Gunnar Solksjaer can see a glimmer of hope after the Bluebirds beat Saints 1-0 away from home. Now can they follow that up by beating Stoke in the Welsh capital? If they do, they have a great chance of staying up. (7-8-19)
source:  19
Sunderland: Gus Poyet’s side battled to a brave 2-2 draw with Man City away in midweek and should’ve probably won had Vito Mannone not made a late error. Can they recreate their heroics away at Chelsea? (6-8-19)
source:  20 DOWN 2
Norwich City: The Canaries were the better team against Fulham, but lost. New manager Neil Adams needs three points, fast, if he’s going to keep this sinking ship from going under. Facing the league leaders Liverpool at home isn’t ideal. (8-8-18)

Claudio Ranieri dug his own grave at Leicester City

BOURNEMOUTH, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 13:  Christian Fuchs of Leicester City reacts during the Premier League match between AFC Bournemouth and Leicester City at the Vitality Stadium on December 13, 2016 in Bournemouth, England.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
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Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri admitted last week that he’s been too loyal to his title-winning players who aren’t performing up to standards this season. He followed that up by handing starting spots to out-of-form Christian Fuchs, Jamie Vardy, and Wes Morgan in the Champions League loss to Sevilla.

Now Ranieri has been sacked. It’s a sad story, but it’s easy to see why.

Should the eventual replacement truly hope to salvage Leicester City’s Premier League status, he must do what Ranieri failed to, and what he will be better equipped to do: put aside loyalties built from overachieving last season and and sit both Fuchs and Morgan, two critical players from last season’s incredible run who have sorely underperformed since. Just against Sevilla on Wednesday, Morgan gave away a blatant penalty with an ugly, petulant hack at Joaquin Correa’s legs, while Fuchs completely misjudged a cross en route to Pablo Sarabia’s opening goal.

Both have been equally as miserable in Premier League play. Morgan, the Leicester City captain, has looked every bit of his 33 years old, lumbering around the pitch unable to keep up with attackers slicing through the box. His successful tackle percentage is just 33%, and his pass accuracy is 69%, a shambolic combination for a defender. Fuchs, meanwhile, has been just as bad. Turning 31 himself in April, Fuchs was one of the worst players on the pitch in the 3-0 loss to Manchester United, and was yanked at halftime in the 2-0 loss to Swansea as he continued to struggle.

It’s surprising that Ranieri had kept faith in the two players after his comments on loyalty. One of the truest managers to his word in European soccer, the Italian said two weeks ago, “I could be [too loyal], could be. It is difficult when you achieve something so good, you want to give them one chance, two chances, three chances. Maybe now, it is too much. Of course I must change something because it is not possible to continue in this way.” He never backed up his words.

They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Ranieri had started his two aging defenders time and time again hoping they will recapture last season’s lightning. That’s flat out not happening. Just prior to Ranieri’s comments on loyalty, I wrote about how the failing defense was most responsible for this season’s struggles. Since that moment, despite both the obvious shortcomings of which were written and the manager’s statement on failing loyalty, nothing has changed.

Now, after they struggled again midweek, the two must sit immediately to avoid the otherwise inevitable. The last time Christian Fuchs started the game on the bench was the last time Leicester City won in the league, when young Ben Chilwell started at left-back and the Foxes shut out West Ham. Wes Morgan hasn’t sat a single minute in Premier League play, but he was rested for an FA Cup win over Derby County plus the subsequent loss to Millwall.

No, the manager can’t step out on the field and perform. He must be judged by the players he puts on the pitch, his tactics on the field, and his man-management off the pitch. Ranieri will always have last season, but he never left the title run behind. With Fuchs and Morgan – and to an extend Vardy as well – failing to perform to the standards of a Premier League team, Ranieri failed to leave last season in context and base his decisions in the present on what stared him right in the face.

Obviously this won’t solve the problem up front, with the Foxes still goalless in league play since Islam Slimani‘s winner against West Ham an appalling 610 minutes ago. The midfield is being overrun, the attack can’t deliver a competent cross, and set pieces appear to be the only time Leicester looks dangerous. Still, if the Foxes are to give themselves a chance of survival, now it’s up to the new manager to do what is right.

Claudio Ranieri will always be remembered for what he was able to achieve rather than what he was not. There’s plenty that isn’t his fault: the full makeup of the squad, the sale of N'Golo Kante, the failure by the board to truly spend the newfound coffers wisely. The end to the Italian’s Leicester City story is a sad, harsh one, but he only has himself to blame.

Claudio Ranieri sacked by Premier League champions Leicester City

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Leicester City’s incredible title run last season has come crashing down.

With the club battling relegation, Matt Lawton of the Daily Mail is reporting that the Foxes have fired manager Claudio Ranieri, who engineered last season’s improbable Premier League Championship.

This year, things have been completely opposite, with the club just a single point above the relegation zone. The team has lost five straight matches in Premier League play – six in all competitions – and has not scored a single goal in 610 league minutes, a span of nearly seven full games.

[ MORE: Why the decision to sack Ranieri was correct ]

Leicester makes the decision on the heels of a 2-1 loss to Sevilla in Champions League play that saw the Foxes lose but salvage an away goal by Jamie Vardy.

The decision means the previous two managers to lead his team to a Premier League title have been sacked during the following season. Jose Mourinho was fired by Chelsea in the midst of last season with the club en route to an eventual 10th place finish.

UPDATE: The decision has been confirmed by the club.

“Domestic results in the current campaign have placed the Club’s Premier League status under threat and the Board reluctantly feels that a change of leadership, while admittedly painful, is necessary in the Club’s greatest interest,” the club wrote in a statement.

“It was never our expectation that the extraordinary feats of last season should be replicated this season. Indeed, survival in the Premier League was our first and only target at the start of the campaign. But we are now faced with a fight to reach that objective and feel a change is necessary to maximize the opportunity presented by the final 13 games.”

The club said that Assistant Manager Craig Shakespeare and First Team Coach Mike Stowell will take charge on an interim basis until the new permanent manager is found, with Monday’s Premier League game against Liverpool their first task.

Southampton’s journey goes full circle

BOURNEMOUTH, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 18:  Jay Rodriguez of Southampton (C) celebrates scoring his sides second goal with Maya Yoshida of Southampton (R) during the Premier League match between AFC Bournemouth and Southampton at Vitality Stadium on December 18, 2016 in Bournemouth, England.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
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It was the spring of 2010, March 28 to be exact, when it truly felt like Southampton Football Club was starting to stir back to life.

[ MORE: Projected lineups for EFL Cup final ] 

In front of 73,476 fans at Wembley Stadium (over 44,000 were Saints fans, plus many more embedded in the away end due to ticketing regulations) a side managed by Alan Pardew which included Morgan Schneiderlin, Jose Fonte, Adam Lallana, Michail Antonio and Rickie Lambert beat Carlisle United 4-1 to win the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.

Seven years later they’re preparing for their first major final since 2003 and just their fourth in the past 41 years, as they face Manchester United at Wembley Stadium on Sunday.

Like a host of mid-size clubs in England, Southampton have historically felt they deserve to at least be in the top-flight and to each season challenge the established elite to win a trophy or at the very least reach a Wembley final. Now, after a humbling journey, they’re back to that.

Back in March 2010 Markus Liebherr (pictured, below) stood alongside the Southampton players lifting the JPT trophy in front of the Royal Box at Wembley. Liebherr single-handedly saved the club from extinction in 2009 when he bought them after they plunged into administration and were languishing in the third-tier of English soccer.

The billionaire businessman sadly passed away at the age of 62 in August 2010, leaving the club in the hands of his family, but as he took photos on his small personal camera of his team celebrating with the JPT trophy, over 44,000 fans celebrated in a sea of red and white at Wembley chanting his name. They knew the journey back to the top-flight, where they had previously spent 27-straight seasons, had begun.

Roll the clock forward seven years and a lot has changed, but a similar sea off red and white will adorn half of Wembley on Sunday as Saints requested a kit change to a special third-kit of white with red. Comparisons to the JPT final of 2010 will be made by many.

The trophy they’re competing for may be different this time around but the same feelings are present. Optimism is in the air for what lies ahead not just this weekend but for the future.

Saints were rescued in 2009 by German billionaire Markus Liebherr. Cortese was his right hand man and controlled the running of the club. Sadly Mr. Liebherr died in 2010, leaving the club in his daughter's hands.
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Liebherr’s legacy lives on (his name is still sung at every game by Southampton’s fans) heading into just the second League Cup final in their 131-year history. Their last appearance came back in 1979 when they lost to Nottingham Forest 3-2, just three years after they stunned Manchester United 1-0 to win the 1976 FA Cup as a second-tier club. Up until this point that was Southampton’s finest hour and the current squad would be held in the same regard if they could beat Man United for another famous final win.

All week Saints legends of that 1976 team have popped up on TV, only too happy to acknowledge and talk about Southampton’s one and only major trophy which was won in remarkable fashion due to Bobby Stokes’ second half goal. That underdog spirit from ’76 will be in full force once again among their 33,000-plus fans at the home of English soccer this weekend.

Saints are back where they feel they belong.

“It’s about time we should really get to a final,” club captain Steven Davis told Pro Soccer Talk after their quarterfinal win at Arsenal in December, which then led to a semifinal against Liverpool which Saints impressively won over two legs.

Their journey to the EFL Cup final has been just as impressive as they’ve beaten Premier League opposition on every step of the way without conceding a goal, just the second team in history to reach a League Cup final doing so.

Their journey from a third-tier team in 2009 to a team now consistently finishing in the top 10 of the Premier League and aiming for a third-straight season with European qualification has been arduous, even if it has seemed rapid.

It has been riddled with high-profile departures, changes and lofty expectations. Saints have met most of the latter and dealt with the former admirably.

Behind-the-scenes many have worked tirelessly to drive them back to become an established Premier League team, with Executive Chairman Les Reed taking over the leading role and putting in place an envious scouting network and academy system which consistently produces gems.

Heading into Sunday’s clash against powerhouse Manchester United, the fans, players and current manager, Claude Puel, know that Jose Mourinho’s superstars are the heavy favorites.

They’re fine with that.

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 28: Southampton celebrate after winning the Johnstone's Paint Trophy Final between Southampton and Carlisle United at Wembley Stadium on March 28, 2010 in London, England. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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Of course, Liebherr’s investment in Southampton brought financial wealth and the ability for Saints to build a stunning new training center (the main building of which is named the Markus Liebherr Pavilion) to house its world renowned academy, but it also allowed them to step back to where the fans and club felt they belonged. And then some.

Saints splash middle-range cash to sign stars from Europe others don’t want to take a risk on (see: Sadio Mane, Dejan Lovren, Graziano Pelle) then spend time developing them before often selling them on for a huge profit. Their model is admired across the world and both financially and on the pitch it has created great success for a club of Southampton’s size and stature within the Premier League. It’s true that they spent most of their previous time in the Premier League from 1992-2005 battling relegation but now they’re back, they’re hungry to squeeze every ounce of potential out of the club. They’re doing it.

Sure, this season they’ve slumped a little in the Premier League, with the rigors of the Europa League group stage, an EFL Cup run and untimely injuries thwarting the progress of Puel’s men in the Frenchman’s first season in charge. Yet, they’ve carried on progressing in other ways off the field with huge commercial deals with companies such as Virgin Media, Under Armour and others continuing their impressive growth, plus talk of huge investment from China ongoing.

On the pitch the signings of attackers Sofiane Boufal and Manolo Gabbiadini look like very shrewd investments, once again, while they possess hugely profitable talents in Virgil Van Dijk, Oriol Romeu and Dusan Tadic as a smattering of academy products continue to develop into steady PL players.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - JANUARY 25: Shane Long of Southampton (not pictured) celebrates with team mates after scoring his sides first goal during the EFL Cup Semi-Final Second Leg match between Liverpool and Southampton at Anfield on January 25, 2017 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
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Saints have locked down top talent (Tadic, Shane Long, Van Dijk, Davis, Ryan Bertrand) to new deals and the future is looking steady and secure. Yet, there’s just been one thing missing in their rise through the leagues and into Europe over the past few years: silverware.

Speaking to journalists in the tunnel at the Emirates Stadium earlier this year after Saints had beaten Arsenal in the quarterfinal on their march to Wembley, England international Ryan Bertrand explained that the players knew it’s about time the club got back to a final.

“It would be massive [to win the EFL Cup]. For the club, the massive rise that they’ve had from League One, as soon as the switch has turned they’ve seen success after success,” Bertrand said. “It’s not something that’s overdue, the silverware, but it is something that’s about the right time.”

It has taken them time but now they’re back where they believe they should be, a team which can finish just outside the perennial top six and challenge for trophies. On their day Saints can beaten any team in the Premier League and they’ve done it in this cup run, dispatching Arsenal and Liverpool in the last two rounds to get to this point.

Whatever happens on Sunday at Wembley, Southampton’s progression into a top 10 side in the Premier League that can challenge for trophies should not be overlooked.

Just under seven years on from winning a trophy solely consisting of teams from the third and fourth tiers of English soccer, Southampton can secure their first piece of major silverware since 1976 and just the second-ever in its history.

It will be a big ask to beat a Man United side which has lost just once in their last 25 games in all competitions but then again, Southampton are used to upsetting the odds and proving everyone wrong.

They’ve spent seven-straight years doing just that.

Sunday’s final represents the biggest stage yet for Southampton to show just how far they’ve come since their second-coming began almost seven years ago at Wembley Stadium.

This journey has gone full circle.

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 28: Southampton captain Dean Hammond and goalkeeper Kelvin Davis lift the trophy after winning the Johnstone's Paint Trophy Final between Southampton and Carlisle United at Wembley Stadium on March 28, 2010 in London, England. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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Men In Blazers podcast: Clattenburg, PieGate, Lincoln

BURNLEY, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 18:  The Lincoln City team celebrate their win in the changing room after The Emirates FA Cup Fifth Round match between Burnley and Lincoln City at Turf Moor on February 18, 2017 in Burnley, England.  (Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images)
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Rog and Davo celebrate Mark Clattenburg’s decision to postpone his Saudi Arabian sojourn, go all Woodword and Baldstein to investigate #PieGate and celebrate non-League Lincoln City’s FA Cup triumph over Burnley.

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