Liverpool v Chelsea - Premier League

Premier League Playback: Is this the best season in history?

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TITLE RACE BLOWN WIDE OPEN

We thought it was all over… it isn’t now!

Last week Liverpool seemed to have one hand on the Premier League title. All they had to do was grind out a draw with Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea at Anfield on Sunday. Instead, the Reds lost for the first time in seventeen PL matches, as a masterfully manufactured, and utterly Mourinho-esque, display gave Chelsea a stunning 2-0 win to turn the title race on its head.

With just three games to go Manchester City now have a slender advantage in the quest for the PL crown, as City, Liverpool and, to a lesser extent Chelsea, battle it out for the famous trophy.

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Liverpool is still top of the standings, as they sit on 80 points with two games to go. Chelsea sit in second on 78 points with two games to go, while Manchester City are on 77 points but crucially they have three games left to play. The Citizens are in the driving seat, because if they win out, their goal difference is plus-8 over Liverpool. That means baring two mammoth wins for Brendan Rodgers’ side in their final two games, their destiny is no longer in their own hands.

The pressure is now all on City, will they crumble? Not according to Manuel Pellegrini.

“We always trust we can do it,” Pellegrini said. “After we lost to Liverpool I said we had to play three or four games more, each team, and in football all things can happen. We just had to win our games. We’ll see if we cope [with the pressure]. We must win the three games. I repeat: I’ve always said that all big teams must be under pressure to win the title.”

Pressure is building at the top and it is still building at the bottom too as Sunderland, Cardiff, Fulham, Norwich, West Brom and Aston Villa battle it out against the drop. More on that below, but ask yourself this question: is this the best Premier League season in history?

Premier League Schedule – Week 36

Result Recap & Highlights
Arsenal 3-0 Newcastle Recap and watch here
Crystal Palace 0-2 Man City Recap and watch here
Fulham 2-2 Hull City Recap and watch here
Liverpool 0-2 Chelsea Recap and watch here
Manchester United 4-0 Norwich Recap and watch here
Southampton 2-0 Everton Recap and watch here
Stoke 0-1 Tottenham Hotspur Recap and watch here
Sunderland 4-0 Cardiff City Recap and watch here
Swansea 4-1 Aston Villa Recap and watch here
West Brom 1-0 West Ham Recap and watch here

In what other campaign has the title race come down to goal difference, no team has been relegated with just two games to go and the battle for the top four is still, mathematically, open?

I’d argue we are witnessing the best ever season in the PL. Let’s enjoy the climax which is sure to be just as dramatic as the previous 36 weeks of action. This grueling slog which started last August could come down to one final kick in the final second of the final match of the season to decide the champion and who is relegated. That’s drama. That’s pressure. That’s the Premier League.

CHELSEA’S MASTERCLASS: HOW MOURINHO DID IT

If we call Liverpool’s tactics naïve. Chelsea’s were sublime. Time and time again the Blues cut their cloth accordingly and don’t mind digging in and grinding out results when they know that is the best thing to do. That is smart coaching.

For those of you out their screaming ‘anti-football, anti-football’ at the top of your lungs, you’re wrong. To do what Chelsea did on Sunday away at Anfield against a team going for 12-straight wins it extremely difficult and not many other sides can do it in world soccer. The shape, the organization, the discipline, for me it was almost as impressive as watching a team scoring six goals and tearing an opponent apart with scintillating attacking interplay. I say almost because we all love to watch goals hit the back of the onion bag. Yet this was a defensive masterclass, our analysts break it down in the video below.

Chuck in the factor that this mammoth game was sandwiched in-between two UEFA Champions League semifinals against Atletico Madrid and it’s even more impressive. Are you not impressed? Okay, how about this. 20-year-old center back Tomas Kalas was making his full debut at the heart of Chelsea’s defense, regular right back Bransilav Ivanovic slotted into the center, Ashley Cole came in from the cold again to play at left back and Cesar Azpilicueta swapped left back for right back in a totally new back four which looked as if it had played together for years.

In a recent interview with a Czech newspaper, Kalas said the following: “I am a player for training sessions. If they need a cone they put me there instead.” Afterwards I asked Mourinho about Kalas’ superb display at the heart of the Blues’ defense and the Chelsea boss was full of praise for the youngster thrown in at the deep end for just his third Chelsea appearance. The other two were as 89th minute substitutes, by the way.

“Beautiful. Beautiful,” Mourinho said. “Before the match we were laughing about it because big guys like Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole they had their debuts in the Premier League against small teams. And then this kid, Liverpool, Anfield, it is beautiful for him. He will not forget it.”

I was at Anfield on Sunday to watch Mourinho’s men undertake a grueling task. They time-wasted, they antagonized the home crowd and they got under the skins of Liverpool’s players and coaching staff. That was the plan. It worked perfect for Chelsea.

source:
Click to enlarge – Average position of Chelsea’s players vs. Liverpool.
source:
Click to enlarge – Average position of Liverpool’s players vs. Chelsea.

When Liverpool’s right back Glen Johnson made a raking crossfield pass in the second half, it illustrated Chelsea’s compactness perfectly. The back four of Azpilicueta, Ivanovic, Kalas and Cole slid over seamlessly. In front of them the impressive Nemanja Matic and John Obi Mikel (more on their heroics in “three things we learned” right here) sat to clog up spaces for through balls and Chelsea’s wingers, Mohamed Salah on the right and Andre Schurrle on the left, tucked in as full backs. If you look at the picture on the left, you can see the average positions of Chelsea’s players against Liverpool.

You can see that Cole is tucked in almost in line with the left post, while Azpilicueta isn’t hugging the line at all. They entire back four sat on the edge of their penalty box, with Mikel, Matic and even Frank Lampard stationed in front of them.

The shape was sublime and completely nullified the threat of Liverpool’s attackers. In recent weeks both Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho have tucked inside and tried to play in behind Luis Suarez, they did that again on Sunday as you can see on the right from their average positions. Why did Rodgers not ask his men to go wide? They simply gave up.

Mourinho sacrificed the space on the flanks to let Liverpool whip crosses into the box. In open play, Liverpool haven’t got players who can rise high and head home. Sure, they are a threat from set pieces with their center backs going up for corners and free kicks. Yet time and time again they got the ball wide and floated balls in that either Ivanovic or Kalas cleared, or the hugely experienced goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer claimed with ease. It frustrated Liverpool’s lively wingers and they drifted inside to get on the ball. That’s exactly what Mourinho wanted.

When Chelsea broke and scored the second goal to wrap up the victory late on, take a look at Mourinho’s celebration in the video below, right in front of the home fans, as the Blues boss overcame the jibes about his tactical approach and his illness which had kept him away from the team leading up to the game, to put a huge dent in Liverpool’s title ambitions.

STEVEN GERRARD’S SLIP, LIVERPOOL’s NAIVETY

As captain fantastic Steven Gerrard slipped and stumbled before losing the ball as the last man just before half time at Anfield on Sunday, the home crowd held their breath as Demba Ba homed in on Liverpool’s goal. Chelsea towering striker then coolly slotted the ball past the onrushing Simon Mignolet and then… silence. Apart from the dull cheers of Chelsea traveling contingent in the far corner of the ground, the majority of the 44,000 plus fans inside Anfield were stunned.

source: AP
Gerrard’s slip let in Ba to set Chelsea on their way. Should the Liverpool skipper take the blame?

If any other player other than Steven Gerrard had made that mistake, at that crucial point of a game that was so pivotal in the title race, they would’ve be hung, drawn and quartered by the Liverpool faithful. Gerrard is more than just a player, he is the club’s inspirational leader who embodies the ethos and identity of Liverpool Football Club. Instead, as Anfield awoke from its stunned silence, the Kop began to chant Gerrard’s name. “Steve Gerrard, Gerrard,” as the England captain proved his immortality with Liverpool’s fans.

He made a mistake, but he’s made several high profile errors before. most notably two eerily similar back passes which were intercepted by first Thierry Henry in England’s opening group game of Euro 2004 and then when Liverpool were leading Arsenal late on in 2005 at Highbury. That’s right, we remember those two instances because they were so rare. They stick out like a sore thumb because 999 times out of 1,000 Gerrard makes the right decision, the right pass and the right move.

Whatever way you slice it up, Gerrard’s slip let Manchester City back into the title race. Liverpool’s manager still didn’t blame his skipper afterwards.

“This was a boy who has picked up this club time and time again,” Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers said. “It was unfortunate. There is certainly no blame. We are in the position we are in because of him, he has been instrumental for us this season. It is just unfortunate he slipped over, it could’ve happened to anyone.”

Then Rodgers went on a rampage against Mourinho and Chelsea’s defensive tactics. We all know Rodgers loves to play attacking soccer, but what he said about his former employers was just plain wrong. Criticizing Chelsea’s style and saying “it is not difficult to coach” was a mistake from Rodgers. He set up his side naively on Sunday, as Liverpool went for the win when all they really needed was a draw. Rodgers’ flamboyant nature to persist with a swashbuckling style when Liverpool only needed to pick up a point was naïve. He should have resisted the urge to play Coutinho and Sterling from the start and tried to have coaxed Chelsea out of their ultra-defensive setup by keeping the ball at the back. The apprentice failed to handle the master’s tactics, as Liverpool must now rely on others slipping up if they’re going to win the title.

“You saw it today, there was probably two buses parked today instead of one,” Rodgers said. “It is a style of football. It is totally the opposite of what we want and our offensive mentality and direction. Give credit to them they won the game with bodies back in but it is not difficult to coach… 10 players on the edge of their penalty box. I was disappointed, with it. They got booked for time-wasting in the 93nd minute. Everyone could see from the start that was the plan, to frustrate.”

RELEGATION: SUNDERLAND & WEST BROM SURGE, FULHAM COLLAPSE

It was a big weekend for the bottom clubs in the PL last weekend, as Sunderland and West Brom have themselves every chance of getting out of trouble. As for Norwich, Fulham and Cardiff, only two games separate them from the dreaded drop.

Sunderland are in sensational form, as the Black Cats looked dead certs to stay up after a mammoth week for Gus Poyet’s men. Two weeks ago, it wasn’t looking so pretty for the Mackems as following their 5-1 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur I was in Poyet’s press conference where he said it would take a “miracle” and something “unique” for Sunderland to stay up. Well Gus, you have your miracle. Almost. Look at the image above and you can see how tight this race against relegation is. Wowza.

The Black Cats have drawn away at Man City, beat Chelsea away and then smashed sorry Cardiff 4-0 at home on Sunday. Sunderland are out of the relegation for the first time since February 10, as Connor Wickham has emerged as an unlikely hero with five goals in his last three games. As for the Baggies, they ground out a crucial win over West Ham thanks to Saido Berahino’s early goal. That 1-0 win lifts Pepe Mel’s side four points above the bottom three with a game in hand. They should, should being the operative word, be safe. As for Norwich, they slip into the drop zone on goal difference after losing to Manchester United and the Canaries’ final two games are against Chelsea and Arsenal. Villa are only two points above Norwich, as Paul Lambert’s side haven’t won in six and were hammered 4-1 away at Swansea as their woeful end to the campaign continues.

Then we come to Fulham. Felix Magath’s side blew their chance to get out of the bottom three on Saturday, big time. Leading 2-0 with 15 minutes to play against Hull City, the Cottagers hit the self-destruct button as calamitous defending saw them drop deeper and deeper, as the Tigers pounced twice late on to bag a 2-2 draw and deal Magath’s men a hammer blow.

Rebecca and the boys analyze the relegation run-in above, as this crazy PL season keeps twisting and turning right until the very end.

Premier League Playback takes an alternative look at all the weekend’s action from the PL, it comes out every week.

‘The Workers Cup’ sheds light on migrant workers in Qatar

DOHA, QATAR - APRIL 09: Migrant workers play football on an area of wasteland beneath the sky scrapers of Doha's West Bank on April 09, 2016 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images)
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PARK CITY, Utah (AP) Director Adam Sobel never intended to end up in Qatar, but it was 2010, jobs were scarce in the U.S. and his longtime girlfriend – now his wife – had just been offered a job teaching at a Northwestern University Qatar. So they went.

[ MORE: Man City, Spurs draw and more in Saturday’s PL action ]

While there, Sobel found work with a local production company that did news stories and documentaries for outlets like BBC, CNN, and HBO. One particular story was requested frequently: That of the migrant workers who were building the facilities for the 2022 Qatar World Cup. He didn’t know it at the time, but the assignment would ultimately provide the foundation for his documentary, “The Workers Cup,” which premiered Thursday night at the Sundance Film Festival.

“Because the subject is so sensitive and because media restrictions were so significant, we either had to hide people’s identities or work undercover. The human touch was lost,” Sobel said. “We wanted to do something that went much deeper than that and really honored the workers for their sacrifices and their hopes and their dreams rather than doing something that just saw them as victims … I wanted to build empathy for the workers instead of sympathy.”

The film centers on the multinational men, from Kenya, Ghana, India and the Philippines, who have given their lives over to slavery-like contracts and dangerous conditions to build the stadiums from the ground up. One man, Kenneth, who was a soccer player in Ghana, shares his story about how a recruiter had told him that if he came to Qatar, he’d get a club soccer contract. It was a lie, and now he’s stuck in Qatar under horrific circumstances.

“We’ve had a lot of context about how the recruiting agents are selling a false bill of goods but certainly I didn’t expect that to be wrapped up in a professional soccer contract,” Sobel said.

The title of the documentary refers to the FIFA-sponsored “workers cup” whereby teams from different construction companies play against one another in a tournament. For men like Kenneth, it takes on a greater poignancy. Yes, it’s a welcome distraction from the conditions, but the fact remains that they are still stuck there.

“We saw (the tournament) as an opportunity because we knew they were interested in promoting this and showing to the world that workers welfare standards were improving,” Sobel said. “There was a definite PR angle there that we took advantage of and we somehow managed to stick around and keep shooting in the camps. We were able to actually get pretty close to the story.”

Sobel worked on the documentary for three years, and kept it completely secret for two due to the sensitive nature of what he planned to show and the strict media standards in the country. He’s excited that his subjects are getting their voices heard at Sundance.

“It’s a story about these guys whose lives have been sacrificed in some way for our own entertainment and that in and of itself reveals that we’re all complicit in the system,” Sobel said. “This is a story of globalization.”

Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/ldbahr

French league responds after Mario Balotelli racially abused

FILE - In this Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016 file photo, Nice's Mario Balotelli controls the ball during the Europa League group I soccer match between OGC Nice and FC Salzburg, at the Nice stadium, southeastern France. Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura says he will talk to forward Mario Balotelli before the Azzurri's next set of matches in March. Balotelli has revived his career in France, scoring eight goals in as many matches for Nice, but has not played for Italy since the 2014 World Cup. (AP Photo/Claude Paris, File)
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PARIS (AP) The French league will open an investigation after Nice striker Mario Balotelli spoke out against Bastia fans he said made monkey noises during a match on Friday night.

[ MORE: City, Spurs draw, Reds fall to Swansea in Saturday’s PL action ]

In a brief statement Saturday afternoon, the French League said it “deplored all of the incidents” that happened on Friday. Before the match, Nice’s team bus had been pelted by stones as it arrived at the stadium.

[ MORE: Saturday’s results from around the Bundesliga ]

The LFP’s disciplinary committee will start looking into the matters when it convenes on Thursday and once it has received further information from officials and both clubs.

Balotelli wrote a message on his Instagram and Twitter pages earlier on Saturday, describing the abuse he heard during the 1-1 draw at the 20,000-capacity Armand Cesari stadium in Corsica and complaining that the French league had not acted swiftly enough.

“Is it normal that Bastia supporters make monkey noise (and) `uh’ `uh’ for the whole game and no one of the `commissions discipline’ say nothing?” Balotelli wrote, referencing the French league’s disciplinary committee. “So is racism legal in France? Or only in Bastia? Football is an amazing sport. Those people like Bastia supporters make it horrible!”

Balotelli, 26, the son of Ghanaian immigrants to Italy, concluded his post by writing in French that what happened was “une vrai honte,” or a total disgrace.

Nice’s official Twitter account shared Balotelli’s message. On its website, the French Riviera club threw its support behind Balotelli.

“Nice, which already had stones thrown at its bus before the game, is outraged by what happened to its players on Friday night, and in particular to Mario Balotelli,” a statement read.

Bastia did not immediately respond to an email from the AP seeking a response to Balotelli’s claim.

Balotelli joined from Liverpool on a free transfer in August and has scored eight league goals in 10 games to help Nice challenge for the title.

He did not say in his message whether or not he had informed referee Clement Turpin, who had the authority to stop the game, of the crowd’s actions. Commentators from broadcaster Canal Plus, which covered the game, made no mention of any racist abuse during the match.

In May 2013, when playing for Italian side AC Milan, Balotelli was subject to racist abuse from visiting Roma fans, causing the Serie A game to be briefly halted by the referee during the second half after warnings to stop the abuse were made throughout the stadium. Massimiliano Allegri, Milan’s coach at the time, made stinging comments against those who had racially abused Balotelli.

Bastia was docked two points by the LFP in the 2007-08 season after its fans racially abused Burkina Faso forward Boubacar Kebe by holding up a banner during a second-division home game against Libourne. The kickoff was delayed by a few minutes until the banner aimed at Kebe was removed.

PL Sunday preview: Chelsea looks to extend lead, Gunners host Burnley

HULL, ENGLAND - MARCH 22:  Diego Costa of Chelsea (2L) celebrates with Filipe Luis (L) and Cesc Fabregas (2R) as he scores their second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Hull City and Chelsea at KC Stadium on March 22, 2015 in Hull, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Antonio Conte‘s Chelsea received everything they wished for on Saturday after several of the Premier League’s big boys all dropped points in crushing fashion.

Now, the Blues have the opportunity to extend their gap at the top of England on Sunday while two other matches are slated on the day.

[ MORE: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Southampton vs. Leicester City — 7 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

The Saints will have to make do without one of its most important defensive figures following the sale of Jose Fonte, however, Claude Puel‘s men won’t have to deal with several of Leicester’s attacking threats as the African Cup of Nations rolls on. Riyad Mahrez, Islam Slimani and Daniel Amartey will each be absent for the Foxes as they play for their respective sides at the tournament.

Southampton has taken points against Leicester in four straight PL fixtures (1 W, 3 D), however both sides have been vastly inconsistent in form throughout the campaign. Leicester striker Jamie Vardy and his side continue to struggle, with the Englishman having posted just five goals this season after netting 24 in league play a season ago.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Man City, Spurs finish level ]


Arsenal vs. Burnley — 9:15 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

The Gunners are unbeaten in five straight matches against Burnley, and Sunday presents the chance for Arsene Wenger‘s side to win its fifth consecutive fixture against the Clarets. Wenger’s men currently sit eight points behind league leaders Chelsea, and after the rest of the the PL’s title contenders slipped up on Saturday the Gunners will be looking to avoid any stumble at the Emirates Stadium.

Olivier Giroud is expected to be back for Arsenal, while Hector Bellerin, Kieran Gibbs and Francis Coquelin are also healthy once more. Meanwhile, the Clarets are said to be expecting Dean Marney, Ashley Barnes and Johann Berg Gudmundsson back in the squad after missing the team’s FA Cup victory during the midweek.

[ MORE: WATCH — Wayne Rooney’s top Man United goals ]


Chelsea vs. Hull City — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

The Blues will be expected to take advantage of this match but all eyes will be on Antonio Conte’s team sheet, particularly with close attention on Diego Costa. The Spaniard was said to have missed the team’s last PL match due to a back injury, although reports have also suggested interest from China. Chelsea has yet to lose to Hull in nine PL fixtures, having won seven encounters and drawn the other two matches.

Meanwhile, Hull could have some of its reinforcements available on Sunday, including Olympiakos defender Omar Elabdellaoui. The Tigers will have a massive task at hand against the Blues, who have won 14 of their last 15 league matches. Marco Silva’s side currently sits in the relegation zone, however, a victory could propel the team above both Crystal Palace and Swansea City.

Watch: USMNT midfielder Hyndman provides assist in Rangers debut win

United States midfielder Emerson Hyndman (8) gets past Cuba defender Adrian Arturo Diz Pe during the first half of a CONCACAF men's Olympic qualifying soccer match Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015, in Kansas City, Kan. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
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Well, it didn’t take long for Emerson Hyndman to make an impression at his new club.

[ MORE: Man City, Spurs finish level in Saturday’s PL action ]

The U.S. Men’s National Team midfielder provided the game-winning assist for Scottish side Rangers in Saturday’s 2-1 Scottish Cup win over Motherwell after picking out Kenny Miller for his second goal of the match.

[ MORE: Ghana books place in AFCON quarterfinals, Egypt edges Uganda ]

Hyndman, 20, joined the Scottish giants in January after coming over on loan from Premier League side Bournemouth. The rising USMNT attacker only made three appearances for the Cherries prior to completing the loan move to Rangers.

The former FC Dallas academy product has risen through the USMNT set up over recent years, appearing for the Under-17, U-20 and U-23 sides before Hyndman earning his first cap with the senior team in 2014.

Check out Hyndman’s game-winning assist below.