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.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

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.

Lletget diagnosed with foot sprain, escaping further damage

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Word has arrived from the LA Galaxy camp that will see USMNT fans feel relieved as Sebastian Lletget has escaped the news many feared.

The young attacker was impressive in the first 18 minutes of the United States’ 6-0 win over Honduras, but was injured minutes after scoring the opening goal and could not continue. Replays showed that Lletget got his foot caught underneath a defender in the process of a hard challenge on the right wing.

There was concern that Lletget would be out for a significant amount of time, but the Galaxy announced that after testing over the weekend, Lletget did not suffer any structural damage and was diagnosed with a left foot sprain.

[ MORE: USMNT adds Paul Arreola to roster, drops Lletget, Brooks, Morris ]

Lletget will visit a specialist on Monday to determine a plan for recovery, and it’s possible that he will still have to miss some time in the near future. The Galaxy visit Vancouver on Saturday, and his status for that match has to be considered up in the air. They then host Montreal on April 7.

While Lletget obviously misses out on the next USMNT game at Panama on Tuesday having already been dumped from the roster, he will most definitely be available for the June games against Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico, and will likely be an option for Bruce Arena given the manager’s history with Lletget at Los Angeles.

The United States have been struck with a collection of injuries that all occurred just before the international break, hampering the squad significantly. Bobby Wood, Jordan Morris, and Fabian Johnson all went down in the days before reporting for international duty, and the team lost Lletget and John Brooks in the Honduras win. Lletget’s departure could see Alejandro Bedoya into the starting lineup on Tuesday, with the Union midfielder having replaced Lletget in the Honduras match. Also in contention is Jermaine Jones, who could come in after his suspension and push Darlington Nagbe onto the wing.

Southgate can see Defoe in England squad long-term

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Gareth Southgate praised Jermain Defoe after his contributions to England’s 2-0 win over Lithuania on Sunday, but accidentally put a condition on his position in the squad.

The 34-year-old scored the opening goal and contributed heavily to the buildup of Jamie Vardy‘s score, and Southgate was happy that his decision to play an in-form striker paid off.

“If he scores like he is in the Premier League, there’s no reason why he wouldn’t be,” Southgate said. “We’re never able to pick a full cohort, so it’s important we can call upon the likes of Jermain and he can have the impact like he did today.

“I think we’ve got to look every time we get together as to who is in form. I don’t know if we can have a distinct pecking order because players who are playing well deserve the opportunity. If we are going to be successful, we have to have that competition for places. The reality is we will always lose players to injury.”

[ MORE: Defoe walks out Bradley Lowery before England game ]

A reporter asked him to clarify why he specified that Defoe should be scoring in the Premier League, and with his club Sunderland under heavy threat of relegation, Southgate admitted he let one slip.

“I walked into that,” Southgate said. “I guess the ideal world for all our players is they are playing regularly at a high level. The flip-side is we don’t have a huge pool of players to pick from.  We have to balance off a few different things. I can’t constrain myself on selection entirely, but I know ideally what I’d like to have. His performances and his goalscoring form this season have counted for him.”

Defoe has 14 goals in 28 Premier League appearances for Sunderland this season, but he’s proved the Black Cats’ only threat as they sit bottom of the league table with 20 points. Defoe has become the center of opposition game plans, and as a result he’s slowed down, with just two goals in his last seven games, and the club has little else to pick up the slack.

Still, at 34 years old, many wonder how much longer Defoe can contribute, and if he’ll be a viable option for next year’s World Cup.

Group F gets messy as Slovakia and Scotland grab wins

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England is in control at the top of Group F, but below them things are beginning to get complicated.

Despite the absence of Marek Hamsik due to a last-minute injury, Slovakia defeated Malta 3-1. They took the lead just 97 seconds in as Vladimir Weiss put the visitors in front with a beautiful curling strike from outside the box. Malta struck back through domestic striker Jean Paul Farrugia in the 14th minute, but that was all Malta could muster.

Slovakia would go ahead just before halftime as FC Copenhagen midfielder Jan Gregus put them in front in the 41st minute. The speculative shot from Gregus came from a great distance out, and as it skipped across the ground, it appeared Malta goalkeeper Andrew Hogg saw it late, as his dive was poor and it skipped off his hands and in.

Both teams ended with 10 men on the field, as Farrugia was sent off with 16 minutes to go for a second yellow, and Adam Nemec saw the same fate in injury time, but before he was sent off, Nemec was there to kill the game off in the 84th minute.

That put Slovakia up to nine points, and it moved them into second place thanks to late drama in Glasgow. Chris Martin gave Scotland all three points with an 88th minute strike as the home side won 1-0 over Slovenia, who dropped from second to third with the loss. The Fulham striker got a beautiful feed through the back line from Stuart Armstrong, and while his shot wasn’t terribly accurate, it was enough to win the game as Slovenia goalkeeper Matus Kozacik gave it a poor effort.

The win for Scotland pulls them above Lithuania and into fourth, a point back of Slovenia in third.

Wasteful Poland snatches late 2-1 win at Montenegro

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Poland was in control for much of the game, but failed to finish in front of net until Borussia Dortmund full-back Lukasz Piszczek found the winner with eight minutes to go as the visitors increased their lead at the top of World Cup qualification Group E.

Robert Lewandowski put Poland in front five minutes before halftime with a brilliant free-kick that left Montenegran goalkeeper Mladen Blozovic completely baffled, but Montenegro looked sturdy at the back for much of the game and dangerous on the counter. They’d hit just past the hour mark as Stefan Mugosa headed in to level the score.

Lewandowski had a pair of massive chances in the second half, but couldn’t get either to go down as Blozovic was there to turn him away, and Montenegran defenders cleared off the line as well. Luckily for Poland, they had Piszczek who burst down the right to beat Aleksandar Sofranac, and he produced a stunning finish looped over the closing Blozovic from a tight angle, dinked off the far post, and into the back of the net.

That would do it for Montenegro who had little attacking ability outside of their countering abilities, and with Poland happy to ease out the clock, the hosts didn’t have enough.

The win pushes Poland six points clear at the top of Group E, a sizeable lead with five matches remaining. The battle for the second-place spot is tight, with Montenegro still in command on seven points, level with Denmark but ahead on goal differential. Armenia and Romania are even with six points each.