Premier League Playback: United back in the title race?

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RED-HOT RED DEVILS

As weeks go, you don’t get many better than the one Manchester United has just had.

Jose Mourinho must be full of festive cheer (well, as much as he can be) as his side won three-straight Premier League games in the space of six days to launch themselves firmly back into the top four race and they’re just four points off the top four.

But are they back in the Premier League title race too? Maybe. Just maybe…

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Although Chelsea is sweeping all before them and the Blues have a 13-point over United, surely Antonio Conte‘s side have to endure a rough patch somewhere along the line, right? Logic says that’ll be the case and with other title contenders Manchester City and Arsenal clashing in Week 17 and neither looking like “title material” United’s chances of dragging themselves back into this race have improved drastically. Not much has changed but finally they’re being ruthless in both boxes and getting a bit of luck.

Mourinho’s side have been playing well for many months now but haven’t been getting their just rewards with four home draws on the spin holding them back. They should’ve won all four with luck, poor finishing and decisions going against them. Now, though, their star names are aligning and they’re in the groove, plus decisions from the refs seems to be going in their favor. They’ve gone through the tough times and have come out of the other side swinging.

United’s veteran striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic has said he can “play until I’m 50” after his latest two goals which gave them victory against West Brom on Saturday. Zlatan is flying. He has three goals and an assist in his past two games and has 16 goals for the season in 25 appearances for United. No player in Europe’s top five leagues has scored more goals than Zlatan since the end of November.

Mourinho’s comments on Zlatan following the 2-1 win at Palace last Wednesday were telling and he may now be questioning his decision to give the 35-year-old a rest over the busy festive period.

“I knew the character because at his age, the personality and the passion that plays. The quality is there. I knew he would do what he’s doing,” Mourinho said. “Lots of passion. England is not the best place to be on holiday when a rich guy with a phenomenal career wants a holiday, he doesn’t come to England. You come to England to be in the best difficult league in the world, if you want to prove yourself, if you want to show what you can do. It’s not just about goals. It’s about goals, leadership, motivation. I’m really happy with the guy.”

No wonder he’s “happy with the guy” with stats like these…

It’s not just Zlatan, though. Behind him Paul Pogba has finally found his best position, and partnership, with Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick sitting just behind him. The Frenchman scored one and assisted another against Crystal Palace last week as United now have that Mourinho-esque knack of grinding out wins when they’re not at their best and their key contributors are stepping up and making the difference.

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Alongside that, Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones have forged an unexpectedly solid partnership at the center of United’s defense to as they’ve conceded just three goals in their last five games.

If you look at their run of games over the busy festive period, it’s not inconceivable to believe that United could be on a six-game winning streak heading into their derby against Liverpool on Jan. 15 at Old Trafford.

  • Sunderland (Home) – Dec. 26
  • Middlesbrough (Home) – Dec. 31
  • West Ham (Away) – Jan. 2

If United can pick up another nine points from their next three games, it would be huge. Others around them will drop points in the hectic holiday season and all of a sudden Mourinho will have the one thing managers across the Premier League, and just in general, crave: momentum.

Now, it may be too big of an ask for United to win the league from this far back but a strong battle for the top four is now in the offing. 10 days again when they were nine points off fourth that didn’t look likely.

Maybe, just maybe, we all ruled out United, and Mourinho, too early this season…


CHELSEA “CAN IMPROVE”

The well-oiled machine that is Chelsea just keeps churning out wins. The latest was a 1-0 victory at a foggy Selhurst Park on Saturday against Crystal Palace and Diego Costa (who else?) grabbed the only goal with a clinical finish.

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Costa, 27, has been the main man for the Blues this season with his 13 goals and five assists but now Chelsea must cope without their match winner for the Boxing Day clash with Bournemouth at Stamford Bridge as the “old Costa” arrived as he was booked for dissent and subsequently banned one game for picking up five yellow cards.

N'Golo Kante also misses the game against Bournemouth as Conte must shuffle his pack accordingly. In truth, bringing in Cesc Fabregas for Kante and Michy Batshuayi for Costa should do the trick, especially at home against an inexperienced Bournemouth side.

The bigger story here is this incredible run Chelsea is on. 11 wins on the spin has equaled a club record for most consecutive wins in the top-flight and a win against Bournemouth will set a new club record.

Despite all of that, Conte believe there’s plenty of room for improvement.

“The run is fantastic. Congratulations to my players, not me. I am pleased for them because they deserve this,” Conte said. “I see every single moment, every day. It is commitment, the way we prepare for the game and the way they fight. I am pleased for the fans who are fantastic home and away and who push us.

“We can improve though. You can always improve in different aspects. I am pleased with this level we have reached and with work we can improve. It is important to understand we are only at the 17th game in the season. There are two games before the half way. We are working very well and are in a good position. We must not look at he table and continue. We must not look at our rivals and continue work hard ourselves.”

Conte is not a man who rests on his laurels but his side is certainly looking close to unstoppable. The defense looks rock solid. Their midfield balance is spot on. Their attacking players are in sync and scoring vital goals when they need them. Simply put, everything is going right for Chelsea.

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With no European action this season they look sharp, but most of all the players look hungry to prove all the doubters wrong from last season. Conte is harnessing that hunger and unleashing it expertly in the incredibly efficient 3-4-3 system. The passionate Italian coach isn’t getting ahead of himself as his comments about still needing to improve reinforce.

Don’t look at the stat below, Antonio.

With a six point lead at the top, his boys don’t have a hand on the trophy just yet. Maybe just a pinky finger?


RODRIGUEZ’S RECOVERY

One of the more heartwarming moments for fans of any team arrived this weekend.

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Southampton’s striker Jay Rodriguez was a man on the cusp of heading to the World Cup in April 2014. He was in the form of his life as Saints challenged for a top six finish under then manager Mauricio Pochettino.  He then ruptured his ACL when landing awkwardly and it’s been a long 32 months on the road to recovery for Rodriguez after he also suffered from a lengthy foot injury following his initial return.

This season the 27-year-old has looked rusty and lacking in confidence for Saints whenever he’s played and he missed glorious chances in the last two games against Middlesbrough and Stoke City where he seemed to be thinking about the finish too much. On Sunday against Bournemouth, just his third Premier League start of the season, he scored his first brace in the Premier League since March 2014.

Rodriguez is back.

His second goal was an instinctive volley from 20-yards which flew into the top corner. Jay Rod is finally back and Saints’ fans were delirious at the Vitality Stadium as he handed them an early Christmas present with a comeback 3-1 win over South Coast neighbors Bournemouth to push them up to seventh in the table.

[ MORE: A brewing rivalry – Bournemouth vs. Southampton

Seeing the Bournemouth players and even referee Mark Clattenburg congratulating Rodriguez on his return to form was a great moment. They understand what he’s been through to get back to his best.

As for Rodriguez, his return to form is timely for a Southampton side without Charlie Austin for at least three months following his need for shoulder surgery.

That’s robbed Saints of their top scorer this season but in Rodriguez they have a mobile forward who can chase down lost causes and now he’s knack for scoring is back.

After the derby win for Saints, ProSoccerTalk spoke to Saints’ manager Claude Puel who was delighted for his No.9 in what he hopes is the rekindling of Rodriguez’s career.

“I enjoy for Jay. It’s fantastic and it’s a good thing for the team. Jay can do strong work for three or four games after the injury of Charlie. He gives the good attitude, good work, good movement and good pressing every time. Today he deserve it and this is fantastic for him and for the team. All of this gives him confidence for the future,” Puel said. “The second goal came after the first, but the first gave him the confidence to try the second and it’s a fantastic goal.”

In soccer, confidence is key and fitness is vital. Rodriguez knows that better than anybody.

Premier League Playback comes out every week as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here.

Who will be the winners in Virgil van Dijk situation?

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The situation surrounding Virgil Van Dijk is fast becoming the transfer saga of the summer in the Premier League.

[ MORE: Chicharito to West Ham ]

Last week Southampton’s captain told his manager Mauricio Pellegrino that he wants to leave the club and he has now been told to train on his own back in England while Saints are on tour in France.

Van Dijk, 26, has been chased by Liverpool but Jurgen Klopp‘s men were forced to issue a public apology in early June stating that would “end their interest” in the player following a complaint from Southampton to the Premier League about an alleged illegal approach.

For most of preseason VVD has trained with Saints but the first warning signs arrived on their last trip to Austria where he did not play in their preseason friendly as he was said to be still recovering from a foot injury he suffered in January.

Now the Dutch international center back is effectively on strike at Southampton but with a $70 million pricetag around his neck and Liverpool, his preferred destination, seemingly out of the picture, he doesn’t have a lot of options. Chelsea and Manchester City were said to be interested but they have spent big elsewhere on defenders, so it’s Liverpool or bust for van Dijk.

Now that he’s an outcast at Southampton, many would suggest that’s that for van Dijk at Saints. Hold your horses.

As often as Southampton have sold star players over the past five seasons (Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw, Dejan Lovren, Nathaniel Clyne to name a few) they’ve also held firm when they wanted to. They insist van Dijk is not for sale and have done so since late last season season when Pro Soccer Talk spoke to their chairman Ralph Krueger.

“We do not need to sell a player this summer,” Krueger said. “Any transfer in and out now will be to increase the quality of the squad and do what is best for the club. I have to tell you, straight up, we do not have to sell anybody. We will do our best to retain the core, solidify the core and move with some synergy into next season.”

With past players Morgan Schneiderlin, Victor Wanyama and Sadio Mane, they were all told to give Saints one more season before moving on to some of the biggest clubs in the world in Manchester United, Tottenham and Liverpool respectively. They did that and had their best seasons in a Southampton shirt knowing they were in the shop window and great play would help shape their future.

Could the same happen with van Dijk? This situation is slightly different but Saints have no interest whatsoever in selling him.

The Dutchman signed a new five-year contract last summer and has been named team captain following his impressive displays since arriving from Celtic in the summer of 2015, plus he also signed on with a new agent over the summer. He is the face of this team and settling back into the squad and being accepted by fans just a few weeks after stating he did not want to play for the club won’t be easy.

An added layer to all of this is that it’s Liverpool involved, the club who has bought more Southampton players than any other over the past four seasons, plus some of Liverpool’s club legends have spoken in the media and told Van Dijk to go on strike. Animosity levels are high.

It’s unlikely van Dijk will be adored by Southampton’s fans anytime soon, and if he leaves he will booed and jeered just like Lallana and Lovren who reportedly pushed for a move away in 2014 and are still given that treatment every time they touch the ball from Saints’ fans.

Van Dijk’s name was sung loudly at every Southampton game and he is the one true world-class player they possess. They still possess him, but the dilemma for Saints here is do they buckle to pressure and sell him or do they keep hold of van Dijk and hope he changes his mind and wants to play for the club again?

If he doesn’t do the latter he will rot in the reserves while being one of the top earners at the club. Nobody wants that. Not van Dijk. Not Southampton. Nobody. But Saints can live with it if they have to.

That’s why they will hold out and hope that time away from the team will sway VVD’s mind into sticking around and help them push for another top 10 finish under new manager Pellegrino.

It is tough to stand in the way of a player when a team can offer him UEFA Champions League action and his talent clearly deserve that, but if Southampton don’t want to sell him, why should they?

Many would suggest player power is at an all-time high in the PL with contracts not worth the piece of paper they’re written on. Yet if you look around the league there are similar situations playing out at mid-sized clubs who are now benefiting financially from the PL’s riches and have no need to sell their stars to fund new signings and other projects.

Swansea are holding on to Gylfi Sigurdsson despite his refusal to go on their U.S. tour. Leicester aren’t prepared to sell Riyad Mahrez on the cheap despite his public declaration he wants to leave. And then there’s Southampton who don’t want, or need, to sell van Dijk.

Yes, Southampton are playing hardball and their manager Pellegrino has taken the drastic action to cut van Dijk from first-team training for the foreseeable future, but what else could they do? If it was any other player wanting to leave they would do the same.

Speaking to local journalists from the Daily Echo last week about his decision, Pellegrino summed up the situation, and his strong stance, perfectly.

“The club was clear. The club told me they will not sell Virgil,” Pellegrino said. “I translated the idea of the club to the player and for me it was easy because I had to manage the dynamic of the team. Now he is not involved with the team because psychologically he is not 100 per cent. If you are not 100 per cent with the team I need to work with the players who are 1000 per cent to defend Southampton. It’s easy for me.”

These situations are never fun for anyone involved but van Dijk now has a decision to make. Southampton have made theirs and he is not for sale.

It’s now up to van Dijk to accept that or continue to refuse to play to force a move away. It may eventually happen later in this window or even in January, but he will lose not only playing time but respect from all corners.

Chelsea lose to Bayern Munich in Singapore

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Bayern Munich beat Chelsea 3-2 in an entertaining Inernational Champions Cup clash in Singapore on Tuesday.

[ MORE: Mbappe to Real Madrid?

The German giants struck three times in the first half four with Rafinha opening the scoring and Thomas Muller grabbing two for himself.

Antonio Conte‘s side were stunned but pulled back a goal just before half time with Marcos Alonso hammering home. New $95 million signing Alvaro Morata made his Chelsea debut in the second half but it was Michy Batshuayi who scored his second goal in as many preseason games to make it 3-2.

Next up for Chelsea is a game against Inter Milan in Singapore on Saturday before they head back to the UK for the Community Shield against Arsenal at Wembley on Aug. 6.

Chelsea went behind early on as Rafinha put the German champions 1-0 up with a low shot from the right which took two bounces and skipped inside the far post and past Thibaut Courtois.

Soon it got worse for Chelsea as Muller scored twice in quick succession, the first a volley from Franck Ribery’s fine cross, the second a brilliant curling effort from over 25 yards out to give the Germans a 3-0 lead with just 27 minutes on the clock.

Chelsea improved before half time with Conte’s men creating chances on the break and Alonso then smashed home Victor Moses‘ cross as the Blues trailed 3-1 at the interval.

Both teams soon made subs with Kingsley Coman replacing Robert Lewandowski for Bayern, plus David Luiz came on for Andreas Christensen and Alvaro Morata made his Chelsea debut, replacing the impressive Jeremie Boga.

Gary Cahill then denied James Rodriguez with a great block but Chelsea couldn’t find a way back into the game as Morata lined up on the left of a front three with Michy Batshuayi in the middle.

Batshuayi went close to pulling another goal back but couldn’t get on the end of a cross, then James’ twice went close for Bayern but Courtois denied him.

Luiz hit the post for Chelsea late on and then Batshuayi finished after Morata’s flick on from a Cesc Fabregas corner to make it 3-2, but the west London club couldn’t grab an equalizer and tasted defeat for the first time in preseason after beating Arsenal 3-0 in their opening last weekend.

PHOTOS: Man City reveal stunning new away kit for 2017-18

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Is it pink? Is it maroon? Let’s go with cerise…

Whatever color it is, Manchester City have a bold look for their new away kit for the 2017-18 season.

[ MORE: New PL kits for 2017-18 season

City revealed their new jersey on Tuesday with Pep Guardiola‘s men taking on Real Madrid in Los Angeles on Wednesday.

Plenty of new names will be on the back of these jerseys with Guardiola making five big-money signings so far this summer with Kyle Walker, Benjamin Mendy, Danilo, Ederson and Bernardo Silva all arriving for a total of $265 million.

Here’s the new away kit they’ll be wearing next season.

 

Report: Kylian Mbappe to Real Madrid for $208 million

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Reports in Spain say Real Madrid have agreed a fee of $200 million for Monaco teenager Kylian Mbappe.

[ MORE: Chicharito to Hammers ]

Marca claims that the two-time reigning European champions have agreed the fee with Monaco just days after the French champs made a formal complaint to FIFA about illegal approaches towards Mbappe and his representatives.

Per the report Mbappe will sign a six-year deal and earn $8.1 million net per year at the Santiago Bernabeu.

If it went through the transfer would be a clear world-record by almost doubling the fee Manchester United paid Juventus for Paul Pogba last summer, however via Sky Sports in the UK, Monaco have denied any deal has been agreed for Mbappe.

Mbappe, 18, burst onto the scene last season, scoring 26 goals as Monaco won Ligue 1 and reached the UEFA Champions League semifinals.

After selling Bernardo Silva and Benajamin Mendy to Manchester City for a combined total of $123 million, plus Tiemoue Bakayoko to Chelsea for another $55 million, Leonardo Jardim is seeing his talented squad ripped apart.

That said, the likes of Fabinho, Thomas Lemar and until this point Mbappe are still around at the Stade Louis II.

Mbappe has been chased by Manchester City, Arsenal, Paris Saint-Germain and Real all summer long with the powerful, pacey French international able to lead the line and finish clinically when given the chance.

He is mature beyond his years but this bid from Real seems outrageous after just one season in the spotlight for Mbappe.

That said, Zidane’s men have offloaded plenty of talent this summer with Danilo and Alvaro Morata sold, plus James Rodriguez sent on loan to Bayern Munich for two years. The departures of Morata and Rodriguez suggest space has been opened up for Mbappe’s arrival.

Given his form last season he would certainly flourish at Real and with Cristiano Ronaldo now 32 and Karim Benzema 29, the Spanish champs have to start planning for the future.