Winners and losers: Who defied expectations during the 2013-14 Premier League season

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On the field and off, here’s a quick look back on who exceeded (and failed to meet) expectations during the 2013-14 Premier League season:

On the field

Winners

Adam Lallana, Southampton – Nine goals. Six assists. The 2013-14 season was more than a just a statistical breakthrough for Lallana. It was a springboard to Brazil.

In the process, Lallana’s rise came to symbolize more than one player’s growth. Praise for the Saints attacker became shorthand for acknowledging Southampton’s broader success. Mauricio Pochettino’s team finished eighth while vaulting Lallana, Luke Shaw, Rickie Lambert, and the now injured Jay Rodriguez into the England national team picture.

Daniel Sturridge, Liverpool – Coming into the season, doubts about the post-Chelsea Sturridge centered on whether he and Luis Suarez could reach their potentials in the same attack. You don’t hear those doubts anymore. Still only 24 years old, Sturridge finished the season with 21 goals, with only Suarez eclipsing him on the league’s goal scoring chart.

Curtis Davies, Hull City – Once a promising Luton product that commanded a near-eight figure fee, Davies’ inconsistency eventually saw him out of the Premier League. Bought by Steve Bruce before the season, the 29-year-old’s return the first division turned into best season of his career. In addition to team of the year consideration, Davies earned calls for a spot in Brazil.

Luis Suarez, Liverpool – The Premier League hasn’t seen a weapon this dangerous since Didier Drogba’s peak. Suarez finished the season with 31 goals, becoming the seventh player in league history to join the 30-goal club.

source: APLosers

Marouane Fellaini, Manchester United – Just as Lallana came to symbolize Southampton’s rise, Fellaini represented Manchester United’s fall. Following David Moyes to Old Trafford, Fellaini vacillated between injured and ineffective. The Belgian only made 12 starts, but for some Red Devils’ supporters, that was 12 starts too many.

Roberto Soldado, Tottenham Hotspur – It was two months into Soldado’s Premier League career before the Spaniard scored from open play. Though he finished the season with six goals, four came from the spot, with the former Valencia forward eventually playing his way out of Spain’s World Cup squad.

Jozy Altidore, Sunderland – For the second time, Altidore took a crack at the Premier League, and for the second time, the U.S. international failed to produce. After a one-goal season, Altidore has two goals in 62 Premier League appearances.

Nicolas Anelka, West Brom – Anelka’s odyssey from Chelsea to China, Turin to The Hawthorns came to a disturbing end. Thanks to the former French international, Premier League fans became familiar with the quenelle.

source: Getty ImagesOn the sidelines

Winners

Tony Pulis, Crystal Palace – A club like Stoke may have the luxury of turning its back on a manager like Pulis, but for Crystal Palace, he proved a savior. In last place at the time of his appointment, the Eagles finished 11th, nine months after most pundits predicted they’d go down.

Roberto Martinez, Everton – Despite winning last year’s FA Cup, plenty of doubts surrounded Martinez after Wigan’s relegation. In David Moyes’ wake, the former Swansea City boss revolutionized the Toffees, leading them to their best Premier League point total.

Gus Poyet, Sunderland – The Uruguayan’s stock was on the rise before his time at Brighton came to a sudden end. At Sunderland, he was brought in to clean up the mess. With his in last place come mid-April, Poyet engineered a spring 180, with four straight spring wins securing another season in the Premier League.

Mark Hughes, Stoke City – Hughes’ departure from Fulham in search of a bigger job turned into an embarrassing move, but after Peter Coates picked him to change Stoke’s approach, the former Blackburn and Manchester City boss was redeemed. The Potters’ transition away from Pulis’s blunt approach saw Hughes guide the team to ninth – the team’s highest finish since 1975.

source: Getty ImagesLosers

Paulo Di Canio, Sunderland – The Italian manager’s Sunderland tenure came to an end five games into the season, after only 12 games in charge, overall. Repeatedly speaking out against the club in the wake of a player revolt, Di Canio ensured he won’t be back on a Premier League sideline anytime soon.

Andre Villas-Boas, Tottenham Hotspur – Turns out the player culture around Chelsea wasn’t the only problem. Given a second Premier League chance by Daniel Levy, the former Porto boss make if half-way through season two before losing his job.

Michael Laudrup, Swansea City – In year one, the Danish great led Swans to a League Cup. In season two, however, the club needed to go in another direction. Mentioned in connection with bigger jobs last summer, Laudrup is now out of a job entirely.

David Moyes, Manchester United – The long-time Everton boss proved the same man with the Red Devils that he was at Goodison Park. Unfortunately, it was a terrible fit. For all his success at Everton, Moyes will forever be known as the man who took Manchester United to seventh place, the club’s worst finish in 24 years.

source: Getty ImagesIn the standings

Winners

Everton – The Toffees only finished one place better than they did in 2012-13, but the manner in which they did so has rejuvenated the club. People are no longer dwelling on Everton’s limitations. They’re talking about the club’s potential.

Stoke City – Had Stoke finished in the bottom half of the table, 2013-14 would have still been considered progress if the team played a better brand of soccer. Under Hughes, the Potters not only began that stylistic transition but also climbed the table. By season’s end, Stoke was only six points behind a much more ballyhooed Southampton.

Crystal Palace – In August, some though Cardiff’s spending has produced a survivor, while fewer had faith in Hull. Almost nobody, however, thought Crystal Palace would stay up. Thanks to Pulis’s appointment, the Selhurst faithful will enjoy another season in the Premier League, having defied expectations with a finish just outside the top half.

Liverpool – Ten days removed from its collapse at Selhurst, Liverpool’s disappointing finish obscures the fact that Brendan Rodgers’ team was the story of the season. In a league that’s rarely has surprise title contenders, the Reds jumped from seventh to within two points of the crown.

source: Getty Images

Losers

Manchester United – Following in the rivals’ footsteps, United fell from its perch among the league’s elites, but whereas the Liverpool’s’ fall came after a series of poor choices by Rafa Benitez, one choice undid the Red Devils. Liverpool spent four seasons outside the top four. Manchester United will hope for a quicker response.

Fulham – Blame Michael Jackson, blame the three managers who couldn’t turn the team around, or blame the new owner. In fact, blame them all. The Cottagers ended up five points from safety, giving up 85 goals while punching their ticket to the second division.

Norwich City – The acquisitions of Ricky van Wolfswinkel, Johan Elmander, and Gary Hooper should have provided enough goals to avoid relegation. Instead, thanks in part to Chris Hughton’s conservative approach, the Canaries only scored 28 goals, losing six of their last seven en route to the Championship.

Tottenham Hotspur – Spurs sold Gareth Bale, but as Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal showed, it’s possible to compete for Champions League without the Welsh international. Tottenham had the talent but never found the right formula, with a series of one-sided results against the league’s top teams forcing Spurs to regroup.

source: Getty ImagesFar afield

Winners

John Henry, Liverpool – Whoever returned Liverpool to glory would also win Anfield’s hearts. While Rodgers has received much of the credit, Henry’s also gotten his due. His management team’s first choices weren’t the right ones, but four years after purchasing the club, Henry and Fenway Sports Group have made the Reds title contenders. And they’re back in Champions League.

Peter Coates, Stoke City – His decision could have blown up in his face. Pick the wrong man to replace Tony Pulis, and Stoke would go down. For Coates, however, change was worth the risk. For the first time in 39 years, the Potters finished in the first division’s top half.

The Class of `92 – From their deal to buy Salford City FC, to Gary Neville’s continued, prominent place in English soccer, to Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt, and Paul Scholes’ seats on United’s bench, the club’s famous Class of `92 class returned in more than just documentary form. Their influence off the pitch may never match their impact on, but Manchester United’s golden generation will continue to play a role around the Premier League.

Gareth Bale, Real Madrid – When Bale arrived at White Hart Lane, he was a left back/left winger project, albeit one with tremendous potential. At the beginning of the season, Tottenham cashed in on their investment with a world record transfer fee, giving Bale a path to the Champions League final.

source: Getty ImagesLosers

Alex Ferguson – Moyes wasn’t the only manager whose legacy was harmed by his move. Once his poor fit at Old Trafford became apparent, fans started questioning the man who picked the former Everton boss for Manchester United’s post. For all the right choices Ferguson made at United, his final call was the wrong one.

Assem Allam, Hull City – Allam’s quest to change his club’s name to Hull Tigers was eventually rejected by the Premier League. Along the way,  the team’s owner alienated many of the club’s long-time fans. It almost feels awkward calling them “Tigers” after this year’s ordeal.

Randy Lerner, Aston Villa – News of Villa’s impending sale was met with hope, not trepidation. The reaction was telling. Three straight relegation battles have left supporters disillusioned. Now they’re counting on new ownership to resuscitate the club.

Vincent Tan, Cardiff City – The Bluebirds’ eccentric owner was the object of ridicule during his battle with Malky Mackay. Once the former Cardiff manager was gone, Tan’s true troubles began. After convincing Ole Gunnar Solksjaer to join up, Tan saw his club sink to the bottom the table, relegating the second division winners back to the Football Championship.

Top PL Storylines: Merseyside Derby, relegation special

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The international break is over and the Premier League is back.

[ MORE: What’s left for each PL club? ]

This stretch run begins now, as teams have around eight more matches left in league play with which to move up or down. Who will climb the table, and who will lose spots? The best picks are below:


Merseyside clubs clinging to European places

Liverpool vs. Everton — 7:30 a.m. EDT Saturday online via NBCSports.com

Everton and Liverpool doesn’t need any sideshows to hype up the heated rivalry, but a little added spice won’t hurt anything. Spice is what we have as the two teams clash at Anfield Saturday as both teams are battling for European places.

Liverpool comes into the game in fourth, four points ahead of Manchester United for the final Champions League spot. A return to Europe’s top competition is overdue for Jurgen Klopp and the Reds, having made the tournament just once since 2010. It’s been a dogfight all year at the top of the table (aside from Chelsea, of course), and Liverpool is right in the mix. A misstep here would give Manchester United the chance to climb just one point back, really putting on the pressure. For Everton, they sit in seventh, level with Arsenal on points and just two behind Manchester United. They still have a good shot at Europa League play, and any spot in a European competition is a welcome moment for an Everton team that has appeared just once since 2010.

Both teams have to contend with injuries suffered over the international break. Everton’s Seamus Coleman is out at least for the rest of the season after his nasty leg break, while Liverpool will miss Adam Lallana who aggravated a muscle injury while on duty with England and will likely be out a month.

Will Arsenal or City turn their season around?

Arsenal vs. Manchester City — 11:00 a.m. EDT Sunday online via NBCSports.com

Arsene Wenger continues to find himself under more and more pressure. It seems Pep Guardiola takes one step back for every one step forward. As the two managers meet at the Emirates on Sunday, will either man manage to get a high-profile win to boost its season’s fortunes?

The Gunners are in serious peril. Wenger has never missed the Champions League in his 20 seasons in charge, but that could all change this year as Arsenal sits in 6th on 50 points, six back of fourth position. There is little to no room for error the rest of the way, and even against a strong opponent, the Gunners cannot afford to drop more points. For Pep Guardiola, City still sits in an envious position in third place and five points clear of dropping off the top four, but it’s not been without bumps and bruises. City is without a win in its last three matches, having dumped out of the Champions League and drawn a pair in league play over that time. Both managers are struggling. Will either turn things around?

A relegation special

Swansea City vs. Middlesbrough — 8:30 a.m. EDT Sunday online via NBCSports.com

Middlesbrough is in the relegation zone. Swansea City isn’t out of the weeds yet. Premier League status could be on the line.

As the two teams meet at the Liberty Stadium, Middlesbrough can go a long way towards climbing out of the bottom 3, while Swansea City can build space from it. Boro sits in 19th place, on 22 points, five back of safety. In that final safe spot is Swansea, on 27 points, and depending on the results of this match, things could get hairy for the loser. A draw helps nobody, so expect both sides to go all out.

Spurs with a tough road test

Burnley vs. Tottenham — 10:00 a.m. EDT Saturday online via NBCSports.com

Spurs sit in second, 10 points off the top but in control of the tight Champions League battle. Yet, they face a difficult challenge on Sunday. Burnley has lost just twice all season long at home, the latest coming January 2nd. Their away form has been miserable, but at home, they’re a completely different team.

Enter Tottenham, who has won three Premier League games in a row, but it’s not all rosy for the title contenders. They’re still without Harry Kane, who has returned to light training but still remains sidelined with his ankle injury. Sean Dyche can coach with the best of them in the English top flight, and it remains to be seen if Mauricio Pochettino can break down a strong Clarets defense. Spurs managed a 2-1 home win over Burnley, but a similar performance won’t get it done at the fortress of Turf Moor.

Former DC United keeper sues club plus Espindola, Olsen

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Former DC United goalkeeper Charlie Horton has filed a lawsuit naming D.C. United and Major League Soccer defendants along with Fabian Espindola and manager Ben Olsen.

The lawsuit alleges assault by Espindola which left Horton with career-ending concussion symptoms which he claims still haunt him today. Horton, born in London, was on D.C. United’s roster in 2016, but never saw the field as he failed to crack the pecking order which boasted Bill Hamid, Tally Hall, and Andrew Worra. Eventually, Horton was sent on loan to the Richmond Kickers to gain playing time.

According to the lawsuit, Espindola attacked Horton at the team training facility in late March of 2016 after an argument involving an incident in training weeks earlier. Horton did indeed officially miss seven weeks with a concussion that season, the first of two injuries he suffered that year (a broken hand ended his season).

However, the lawsuit states that Horton was not entered into MLS concussion protocol immediately, instead allowed to practice that day and only entering protocol and missing time when he reported his symptoms the following day. Horton was cleared to play in May, and was then sent on loan to Richmond.

The lawsuit states that the lingering concussion symptoms caused the end of Horton’s career. “Due to the severity of his ongoing post-concussive neurological symptoms, which directly inhibited his ability to perform at a level necessary to continue his professional career, Mr. Horton was forced to officially retire from professional soccer.”

Horton claims that Espindola’s attack was a blindsided attack, an elbow to the temple after Horton had turned to walk away from the altercation.

Manuel Neuer injured, will miss two games

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A long streak will come to an end on Saturday when Bayern Munich hosts Augsburg at Allianz Arena.

Manuel Neuer, who has started 65 straight Bundesliga matches for Bayern, will be forced to the bench after injuring his foot in training on Wednesday. That means a streak of 5,850 straight minutes played will be snapped.

The injury required minor surgery, which was performed by club doctor Markus Walther, and a club release said it “went optimally.”

The injury will see Neuer miss at least the Augsburg match plus the midweek visit to Hoffenheim. That leaves the two big matches up in the air, with Bayern set to travel to Westfalenstadion to take on Borussia Dortmund on April 8th, followed closely by the first leg against Real Madrid in the Champions League quarterfinals the following Tuesday. There was no mention of either game in the club release.

The last time Neuer missed minutes in a Bundesliga game was a home game against Eintract Frankfurt on April 11, 2015. The last time the 31-year-old missed more than three league games in a season was 2008/09 when he played for Schalke and missed the first six games of the year with a broken foot.

With the club 13 points clear at the top of the Bundesliga table, the injury is likely to have little effect on the final league standings, but should Neuer end up out for either the Dortmund game or, more importantly, the match against Real Madrid, it could affect the club’s position in the Champions League.

World Cup expansion will destroy regional qualifying

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On Thursday, FIFA announced a preliminary plan to expand the World Cup to a whopping 48 teams, starting in 2026 if the approval process goes as planned.

Every continental region is gaining slots, with CONCACAF nearly doubling its allotment, Africa adding four teams, and Europe gaining three. 46 teams would make the tournament outright, while another two would come from a six-team playoff.

The early outlook was met with cautious optimism across the soccer community, and there’s no doubt that the World Cup itself would benefit from expansion, with not only a significantly increased revenue stream for the FIFA brass to gawk at, but also viewers will gain from added entertainment, a la March Madness as smaller countries gain access to opportunities to shock larger nations in front of a grander audience.

[ MORE: FIFA announces World Cup expansion details ]

Despite the obvious gains, what gets completely and utterly dismantled is the qualification stage. In exchange for a month of tournament-style wackiness, not only does making the World Cup completely lose any remaining pedigree, but the qualification stage becomes an afterthought for continental powerhouses.

This particularly applies to CONCACAF, where currently the final round of qualification features a six-team round-robin. The way it stands currently, the usual bunch can often overcome minor slips to qualify on a regular basis, but as we’re seeing with the United States, at least things are interesting for the opening few rounds and questions often remain throughout the entire process. Just last cycle, we saw Mexico qualify thanks to the United States’ generosity with a last-second goal against Panama to send their southern neighbors through. Bottom line: it’s not always easy.

Now, with the new system, a massive total of six teams will make the finals, leaving almost no doubt about the fates of those at the top. Mexico and the United States will be shoo-ins, leaving the qualification process a near-afterthought. Sure, countries that don’t always see the final rounds will now have an increased shot, and that’s a great development for the growth of the game worldwide, but it comes at a great price. Now, instead of the ability to lure casual World Cup-only fans with meaningful games between tournaments, national teams will be left with a shell of the old qualification process to slog through.

Looking to Europe, already teams like France, Spain, and Germany are running away with their groups in the current format. Add three more slots to the mix, and even the next tier of countries like England, Poland, and Italy will be given near-automatic spots. Group G currently sees Spain and Italy battling for the automatic berth, with the runner-up left with a chance at disappointment in a one-game playoff. Now, with the new system, the life is sucked from the process, and teams are left with glorified friendlies.

In South America, four (usually five) teams make the tournament. That often leaves a top team sweating it out near the end of the cycle, with Argentina currently tugging at its collar having slipped in recent qualifiers. Add two more automatic slots, and you can kiss the drama goodbye. As it stands, Argentina – despite three losses in its last five matches – would still be four points clear of danger.

tl;dr version: It’s no fun anymore.

Nobody is surprised by FIFA’s pursuit of yet another way to increase revenue; we’ve seen it countless times before. Unfortunately, the price is high, as the 3-1/2 years between would entirely fall apart.