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.

Sounders nearing potential game-changing transfer for Gonzalez

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And another one.

Major League Soccer’s trend of adding younger players still entering their prime is set to continue with a significant Seattle Sounders acquisition from Dynamo Kyiv.

Derlis Gonzalez is the name, and you may recall it from Copa America Centenario scouting reports. The Paraguayan 23-year-old has four goals for his country, including markers against Brazil and Argentina.

[ MORE: Gold Cup Final preview ]

Gonzalez joined Benfica in 2012, taking a pair of loan seasons before moving to Basel in Switzerland. He moved to Ukrainian champs Dynamo in 2015, and operates as a left wing with the ability to play central or right if necessary.

Sounder At Heart says Gonzalez will play in Dynamo’s UEFA Champions League match against Young Boys on Wednesday before jetting to Seattle. In 21 UCL appearances, Gonzalez has five goals and three assists. He’s scored against Real Madrid, Besiktas, and Porto on two occasions.

So, yeah, this would be a significant addition for not just the Sounders but MLS. Bravo. The transfer fee is will also be an interesting figure.

Roma edges Tottenham in wild ICC affair

Twitter/@ASRomaEN
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Tottenham opened its 2017 International Champions Cup account in style on Sunday, however, the reigning Premier League runners’ up had no such luck at Red Bull Arena.

[ MORE: Chelsea falls 3-2 to Bayern in Singapore ]

Italian giants AS Roma knocked off Spurs, 3-2, on Tuesday night in New Jersey after Marco Tumminello’s 92nd minute finish dismissed a late push by Tottenham.

The sell-out crowd of 26,192 witnessed a largely dominating performance from Roma, who bounced back well from their opening ICC defeat against PSG — which came last Wednesday on penalty kicks.

Spurs fell behind after just 13 minutes when American defender Cameron Carter-Vickers was caught with his hand away from body, thus drawing a penalty kick for Roma.

Perotti stepped up to the spot on the ensuing kick, before burying the attempt for the Italian side’s opener.

Meanwhile, second-half substitute Under pounced on a rebound in the 70th minute to double the Roma advantage.

Spurs looked more dangerous in the second stanza, with Harry Kane and Dele Alli creating more attacking chances for the PL club, but Roma’s back line stood tall on several occasions.

Mauricio Pochettino‘s side finally found a breakthrough with under four minutes remaining after Harry Winks blasted home a close-range shot following a scrum inside the Roma penalty area.

Vincent Janssen did the unthinkable, leveling the match up in stoppage time for Spurs, however, it wasn’t enough as his finish was cancelled out just seconds later by Tuminello.

Tottenham will continue its ICC campaign on Saturday against fellow PL side Manchester City, while Roma turns its attention to defending Serie A champions Juventus the following day in an all-Italy affair.

Report: Galaxy seal capture of Villarreal’s Jonathan Dos Santos

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The rumors look set to come true: A report from Goal.com’s Ives Galarcep says the LA Galaxy have doubled their Dos Santos with a $5 million purchase of Jonathan Dos Santos from Villarreal.

Jonathan joins older brother Giovani with the Galaxy, and if he has half the impact of his sibling it’s going to be a high-flying half-season for Los Angeles.

[ MORE: Gold Cup Final preview ]

Jonathan Dos Santos is an organizing center midfielder with offensive upside; For a quick Premier League comparison, think Danny Drinkwater or James McCarthy. The 27-year-old has 29 caps for Mexico, and played in four of El Tri’s Confederations Cup matches this summer.

He’ll help facilitate chances for star attackers Romain Alessandrini, Giovani Dos Santos, and — hopefully — Gyasi Zardes.

Giovani has 23 goals and 18 assists in 52 games for the Galaxy.

Bruce Arena blends intense demands with humor to lead USMNT

AP Photo/Mark Humphrey
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SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) Bruce Arena bites his fingernails religiously, a habit he has had since age 10.

Among some other unmentionables.

“Are you kidding me? I’m sure there’s plenty of those,” the U.S. coach acknowledged with a chuckle, “I don’t make that public information, though.”

Arena walks across midfield soaking in the California sun and surveying the scene as his players take a lap and begin stretches ahead of training on a practice field adjacent to Avaya Stadium, home of the San Jose Earthquakes.

[ MORE: PST’s Gold Cup Final preview ]

He crosses his arms and paces – side to side, forward and backward – eyes up always. He shifts his hands to his hips and steals a glance downfield to where the goalkeepers are doing individual work.

“I’m thinking about my investments and retirement and things like that,” Arena cracked, then added: “I’m observing the players and looking at their habits, trying to learn as much as I can about players on a daily basis. It’s not only game day. When you have a team and there’s 23 players, every player is important. So sometimes your contributions aren’t only on game or on the field and it’s other things. You look at the qualities of players both on and off the field.”

With his quick wit off the field and demanding nature on it, Arena has instilled a calm and a swagger the U.S. squad needed, and that has bred success again after fans reached panic mode. Now, Arena can become the first to coach three CONCACAF Gold Cup titles if the Americans can beat surprising Jamaica on Wednesday night. The U.S. won under Arena in 2002 and `05.

“I came in with Bruce in January and I think initially you saw someone who’s trying to get points across and be pretty serious about it, but as we realized his demands and his intentions he’s been able to kind of dial it back a little bit,” midfielder Graham Zusi said. “Very dry, good sense of humor. It’s important, especially in these long camps, to have some kind of comic relief as well.”

[ MORE: How will USMNT line up? ] 

On Monday, Arena reminded his players it was here in the Bay Area where the Americans regained momentum in March by beating Honduras 6-0 in a World Cup qualifer.

Arena, a member of the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame who turns 66 in September, has led the team to an 8-0-5 record since he returned in November for a second stint as coach, replacing Jurgen Klinsmann after the Americans’ first 0-2 start in the final round of qualifying in the North and Central American and Caribbean region.

“Four months ago we were rebuilding our program, a program that was in desperate shape of being in a position to qualify for a World Cup and all other things,” Arena said. “We’ve made great strides over the last four months. This is a great opportunity for us to continue to make progress. We’d love to win the Cup.”

The U.S. is seeking its sixth Gold Cup title and first since 2013. Nine different players have scored so far this tournament, most notably Clint Dempsey‘s record-tying 57th goal in a 2-0 semifinal win against Costa Rica on Saturday that matched Landon Donovan’s mark.

[ MORE: Van Dijk to Liverpool after all? ]

“Coming into the situation, into the job, we were in a tough spot,” Dempsey said.

Under Arena, the Americans have momentum again regardless how Wednesday turns out. Qualifying resumes with matches against Costa Rica on Sept. 1 at Harrison, New Jersey, and four days later at Honduras. The hex concludes against Panama on Oct. 6 in Orlando, Florida, and at Trinidad and Tobago four days after.

“It’s a good group of guys, let’s start there,” veteran goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “But Bruce has kind of come in and kind of took the edge off a little bit. That’s who he is as a person, that’s how he manages us, and he’s kind of allowed us to be ourselves and have that swagger. The one thing I would say about Bruce, which has kind of always been the case but more so now, I think he is more relaxed off the field and much more demanding on the field. He’s always kind of had that balance but it’s more extreme now, and it’s a very good thing. He asks the world of us on the field, whether it be training or games he asks us for 110 percent every day, and then when you’re off the field he’s joking, he’s very jovial and he kind of lets us be who we are.”

Arena took over with little room for error. A decade ago, he never would have envisioned himself in this spot now.

“I’m enjoying it, and I’ve always thought about what I was going to do in my mid-60s,” Arena said. “I thought I was going to retire at 55, so I’m a little bit behind schedule right now. Probably going to keep going for a while, doing something. I’m thinking from what I can tell I probably could be a sportswriter and do pretty well.”

Then added with one of those sly grins, “Nah, I’m only kidding.”