Can Liverpool recreate last season’s Premier League magic?


What do you get when you take the Player of the Season, add an unclogged fixture schedule, a pinch of tactical genius, a cup of top goalkeeping, sprinkle in a dash of youthful talent, and garnish with a seasoned on-the-field leader?

Why, you come a slip away from a Premier League championship, of course.

Unfortunately, with last year fallen through the grasp and gone forever, some of those ingredients are missing now, and Liverpool can’t exactly go to the grocery store and pick up another Luis Suarez out of the bread aisle.

Liverpool’s magical season last year should have earned them the Premier League title, except for the part where it didn’t. Now, with it all to do again, it will be hard for the Reds to repeat everything that helped move them to the top.

Now don’t get me wrong, they earned every bit of their second-place finish, and probably should have won it all.

But there were plenty of contributing factors that are no longer around in the brand new season.

First, every team around them got better. Arsenal got better. Manchester United got better. Chelsea got better. Manchester City got marginally better with an already loaded squad. Tottenham will be better. Last season, it seemed nobody wanted to win the league, but somebody had to. This year, that won’t be the case.

Another ingredient to last season’s success was their lack of other fixtures to keep the squad tied down, draw their attention away, and tire the players. They weren’t playing in Europe, were knocked out in the fifth round of the FA Cup, and eliminated in the third round of the League Cup. Across those two domestic competitions, they played just five matches.

This season, all that appears to be different. They’ll have the Champions League to contend with (not that that’s a bad thing by any means, but in a vacuum, it can only distract from their domestic season), and surely will look to progress further in the cup competitions.

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With Luis Suarez gone, the Liverpool attack is Daniel Sturridge’s to command, but his teammates will be needed to relieve some pressure.

But through it all, when asked about what his goals were next season, the only one manager Brendan Rodgers mentioned was the same one he targeted last year. “The first aim is to qualify for the Champions League, and then try to build your way up through. That’s what we did last year, going into every game just focusing on the next game.”

Despite all this, Rodgers doesn’t believe there will be much of a change. “There’s no great difference [from last season],” he told me after Liverpool’s win over AC Milan in Charlotte. “We’ve brought players in that understand the way of working, and obviously there are a lot of players that were retained from last season.”

But then, he recanted just a touch and admitted one difference. One key difference that may just be what the club needs to make up for what they no longer have on their side. “I think what we have this year, we have a greater belief. We were probably surprised for most of last season.”

He then talked about their preseason game against the Italian side. “I think you see tonight with the level of our football…what pleased me tonight was their maturity.”

It will be just that, the club’s experience of having challenged for the title last season, that will carry them through any sort of similar situation this season, should one arise.

Younger players such as Raheem Sterling, Jordan Henderson, Joe Allen, and Jon Flanagan will have to help take some of the pressure off Daniel Sturridge’s shoulders, and having been through last year’s title fight gave them a priceless wealth of knowledge.

It’s hard to imagine a scenario this year where other clubs haven’t surpassed Liverpool with big-money purchases from abroad and a level playing field in the fixture congestion department. Hard, but not impossible. And even if Liverpool finish as low as fourth, and do maintain their Champions League status, the atmosphere surrounding supporters should be positive.

Brendan Rodgers has, since his arrival, instilled a belief of the long-term project. And even if this club takes a step or two backwards this season, that gold nugget at the end of the tunnel is still very much intact.

And who knows. After laying out next season’s goals, Rodgers said with a smile, “It’s very difficult to forecast in football.” True that. Maybe this season, Gerrard will stay on his feet, and the slipper will fit.

Podolski goal powers Vissel Kobe to 1st win in J-League

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KOBE, Japan (AP) German striker Lukas Podolski scored late in the second half on Sunday as Vissel Kobe beat Cerezo Osaka 2-0 for its first win of the J-League season.

Naoyuki Fujita gave the hosts a 1-0 lead in the 33rd minute and Podolski secured the win on a left-foot shot with eight minutes remaining in regulation.

It was the first goal of the season for Podolski, who last year moved from Turkish club Galatasaray after signing a deal with Kobe estimated to be worth $5.3 million.

Elsewhere, Thai midfielder Chanathip Songkrasin scored late in stoppage time to lift Consadole Sapporo to a 2-1 win over V-Varen Nagasaki.

Takuma Abe scored midway through the second half to give Vegalta Sendai a share of the points in a 1-1 draw with Shimizu S-Pulse, while Diego Oliveira scored his first goal of the season as FC Tokyo beat Shonan Bellmare 1-0.

Mu Kanazaki scored the only goal as Kashima Antlers beat Sagan Tosu 1-0, Gamba Osaka and Kashiwa Reysol finished 2-2 and Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Jubilo Iwata ended in a goalless draw.

LIVE, FA Cup: Leicester v. Chelsea

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Leicester City host Chelsea at the King Power Stadium on Sunday (12:30 p.m. ET) in an FA Cup quarterfinal clash between two Premier League clubs.

[ LIVE: Leicester v. Chelsea ]

Claude Puel has Leicester in eighth in the Premier League table and the Foxes can smell an upset with Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez in fine form.

Chelsea have had a long week with Antonio Conte‘s men going to Barcelona and being taught a lesson by Lionel Messi as they crashed out of the UEFA Champions League but played well apart from Messi’s heroics. Conte’s admission that he doesn’t see the FA Cup as being too important may give Leicester an extra boost.

In team news Leicester start Kelechi Iheanacho up top after his fine display off the bench last week, while Chelsea are pretty much at full strength with Cesc Fabregas dropped, Thibaut Courtois rested and Alvaro Morata starting up top.


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Hughes defiant after debut win as Saints boss

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Mark Hughes got off to the perfect start at Southampton as the new manager led his team to the FA Cup semifinals.

Saints beat third-tier Wigan 2-0 at the DW Stadium on Sunday to reach the last four of the FA Cup for the first time in 15 years. They are in the relegation zone in the Premier League but are two points from safety with a game in hand.

Second half goals from Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Cedric did the job for Southampton as Hughes’ side weathered and early Wigan storm. Speaking to the BBC after the game, Hughes, who was sacked by Stoke in January, was in a defiant mood.

“People have questioned this group before I arrived and maybe questioned my appointment as well. It is only a start but a statement of intent,” Hughes said. “We have work to do in the Premier League but we will enjoy this moment. A Wembley semifinal which will be a great experience for our fans.”

Hughes’ side did what Bournemouth, West Ham and Manchester City couldn’t in knocking Wigan out of the FA Cup as Paul Cook’s team fairytale run was ended.

In truth Saints could’ve won by a more comfortable scoreline in the second half as Manolo Gabbiadini had a penalty kick brilliantly saved by Christian Walton, but given Wigan’s dominance in the first half, 2-0 was a fine result. Saints looked more dangerous in a 4-4-2 formation and Hughes knows there is plenty more work to do but confidence will perhaps grow with a trip to Wembley coming up.

When it comes to Hughes’ future at Saints he only has a deal until the end of this season. He has eight games to turn their fortunes around following Mauricio Pellegrino‘s firing earlier this week after just five wins in 30 PL games this season.

It appears that Hughes believes he can not only get the Saints out of trouble but also make some waves in the FA Cup semifinals at Wembley next month.

“It has been a difficult week for the guys,” Hughes said. “I am really pleased with the amount of talent I have to work with with this group.”

Southampton beat Wigan, reach FA Cup semis

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  • Wigan’s fairytale ended
  • Hojbjerg, Cedric score first Saints goals
  • Saints reach FA Cup semifinal for first time since 2003
  • Gabbiadini’s penalty kick saved

Southampton beat third-tier Wigan Atheltic 2-0 at the DW Stadium on Sunday as Mark Hughes‘ first game in charge ended in a victory in the FA Cup quarterfinal.

Saints were second best in the first half but Wigan spurned several chances, while Southampton went ahead via Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg‘s first goal for the club as he finished well from a corner.

Christian Walton then saved Manolo Gabbiadini‘s penalty kick brilliantly but a late goal from Cedric Soares sent Saints into their first FA Cup semifinal since 2003.

For Wigan, their fairytale run is over as they knocked out Bournemouth, West Ham and Manchester City to reach the last eight.

Wigan started well enough as the Latics settled into the game on a difficult surface. Southampton caused some problems for Wigan goalkeeper Walton who dropped a cross but Guido Carrillo couldn’t make the most of it.

Will Grigg then raced clear after a rapid counter from Wigan and his shot was deflected wide with Southampton caught out. Soon after another deflected shot found Cheyenne Dunkley in the box but he couldn’t get anything on the ball with the goal gaping. A massive chance for Wigan.

Gary Roberts then had another great chance for Wigan as a loose ball found him in the box but he looped his effort over the bar. The Latics continued to look the better team and took the game to Saints with 10 corner kicks, as Max Power’s corner almost crept in at the near post.

Jacobs curled a shot just over after half time as Wigan threatened but Southampton improved. Sofiane Boufal curled a free kick onto the top of the net and then Gabbiadini had a glorious chance.

Dan Byrne accidentally played in Southampton’s Italian striker and 10-yards out he only had to beat Walton but Wigan’s goalkeeper produced a fine stop.

Walton denied Hojbjerg’s header soon after as Saints cranked up the pressure and from the resulting corner they took the lead.

Dusan Tadic‘s corner found Hojbjerg and he finished well to score his first goal for the club and the first of Hughes’ reign.

Southampton should have sealed it late on as Gabbiadini was brought down in the box but his penalty kick was superbly saved by Walton to keep the score at 1-0.

Wigan threw everything at Saints late on as Noel Hunt almost equalised but the visitors broke and sealed the game.

Nathan Redmond released Cedric and the right back, in the left wing position, ran free and finished superbly to make it 2-0 and send Saints to Wembley.