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.

VIDEO: Goalkeeper sends Memphis Depay flying with skillful touch

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Former Manchester United attacker Memphis Depay has one of the brightest spots for Lyon this season that sees them battling with Monaco and Marseille for 2nd place behind a dominant PSG. He has scored 15 goals and assisted 11 others this Ligue 1 campaign, adding to his tally just four minutes into Friday’s 5-2 win over Dijon, the sixth win in a row for the club that pulled them within a point of Monaco.

However, there was a moment to forget for Depay in the victory as well.

With the score still at 1-1 in the 19th minute, Depay was sent high up the pitch to press Dijon goalkeeper Baptiste Reynet, owner of the leakiest net of the Ligue 1 season. Nevertheless, sometimes the underdog prevails, and that’s what happened as Depay flung himself at the ball to put Reynet under pressure.

One silky touch by the netminder was all it took for Depay to end up on his backside.

The 24-year-old Dutch winger has had a fantastic season and one that could potentially propel him back to the biggest stage and a bigger paycheck, but for now, we can all poke fun at his misery in the moment.

Dortmund admits interest in signing Batshuayi permanently

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Michy Batshuayi might be out for the season with a serious ankle injury, but he may have already done enough to earn a permanent move to Borussia Dortmund.

The Chelsea striker moved on loan to the Bundesliga side in January and made an immediate impact, scoring two goals on his debut, and ultimately wound up with seven goals in 10 Bundesliga games before his ankle injury brought his season to a close. Now, the Dortmund front office is speaking very highly of the Belgian goalscorer, not so subtly hinting that they will take an aggressive approach this summer.

The interest to sign him is there,” said Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke. “But first we have to wait and see who will be Chelsea’s coach next season. Then we’ll start looking.”

Chelsea has Antonio Conte currently at the helm, but there are strong rumors that the Italian will depart at the end of the season as the Blues sit comfortably outside the Champions League places. Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich is known for his quick trigger, and despite Conte winning the Premier League just last season, this year’s disappointment will likely not be tolerated.

That yet-to-be-determined future has a significant impact on Batshuayi’s future, as Watzke mentions. The new Chelsea boss could take a liking to Batshuayi, which could complicate his permanent move. In addition, it’s possible that current players on the Blues roster could depart, like Alvaro Morata, Olivier Giroud, or Willian, making Batshuayi’s place at Chelsea more tenable.

There’s plenty to be sorted out in the coming months, but with Batshuayi’s 10-game performance at Westfalenstadion at the forefront of Watzke’s mind, it’s clear there will be potential here as the summer draws near.

Sessegnon scores 15th as Fulham equals Man City unbeaten mark

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Fulham equalled the longest unbeaten run in the English top four tiers this season as it defeated sixth-placed Millwall 3-0 on the road to increase its streak to 22 games without a loss and moving the club into position for automatic promotion.

The Whites have not lost since December 16th when they fell 1-0 to relegation-threatened Sunderland. The unbeaten streak matches Manchester City’s run of 22 games to start the Premier League campaign before a 4-3 loss to Liverpool in mid-January broke the spell.

Highlighting the match was the game’s opening goal from 17-year-old Ryan Sessegnon, the young defender’s 15th goal of the Championship season. Just a week ago, Sessegnon was named a finalist for PFA Player of the Year alongside Harry Kane, Leroy Sane, and Raheem Sterling. Also scoring in the win was Newcastle loanee Aleksandar Mitrovic who has bagged 11 goals in 15 matches since moving to Craven Cottage on Deadline Day of the winter transfer window, sparking talk of a possible permanent move should the Whites find themselves promoted at the end of the season. Fulham has not trailed a single second since he stepped on the field for his club debut.

Manager Slavisa Jokanovic has the team firing on all cylinders, outscoring opponents 49-14 during the unbeaten streak and racking up 56 out of a possible 66 points, with just five draws blemishing an otherwise perfect record. The club has scored first in 15 straight matches, and has not trailed since drawing level in the closing minutes of a 2-2 draw with Hull City on December 30th. The only teams in the top four leagues to score more goals than Fulham since Jokanovic took over are Liverpool and Manchester City.

USMNT defender Tim Ream has been arguably the club’s most valuable player during the streak, locking down a defense that has picked up 11 clean sheets during the unbeaten run. Ream has played in all but two league matches this season, completing the full 90 minutes in all 41 of his appearances thus far. He has been voted Man of the Match five times this season by the fans on the team’s official website, most recently in a 1-0 victory over Reading on April 10th. He also grabbed the award in a 2-0 win over Championship title winners Wolves on February 24th, a game that saw the Whites out-possess and out-shoot the league champions. Ream had this stunning goal-line clearance in the victory over Millwall on Friday, saving Fulham’s bacon with goalkeeper Marcus Bettinelli on the ground after an acrobatic save.

Fulham still has work to do in the Premier League promotion picture, despite the spectacular form. They sit in 2nd position as it stands, leading Cardiff City by two points, but Cardiff has yet to play this weekend, giving them a massive two games in hand. Fulham could ultimately be done in by a slow start to the season that saw them win just twice in the first nine matches of the season as the squad adjusted to a host of new additions. In addition, Fulham suffered a disappointing draw last time out against Brentford as the Bees scored in the 94th minute to deny Fulham all three points, a massive blow to their automatic promotion hopes. Still, Fulham would be considered favorites in any potential playoff run, with Aston Villa, Middlesbrough, and Millwall currently the other teams in playoff positions.

There’s plenty on the line for the club over the next few weeks. Should Fulham fail to gain promotion, it could be a massive blow to the club as Sessegnon could be lured away from Craven Cottage, with Jokanovic and playmaker Tom Cairney also likely to garner speculation of a departure over the summer if the club was to remain in the Championship.

Espanyol fires former Watford manager Quique Sanchez Flores

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Espanyol says it has fired manager Quique Sanchez Flores with the club slumping in the Spanish league and in danger of facing a relegation fight to end the season.

Espanyol announced the decision on Friday, adding sports director Jordi Lardin has also been let go.

Sanchez Flores, a former manager of Atletico Madrid, Valencia and Watford, among other clubs, coached the Barcelona-based club for the past two seasons.

Reserve team coach David Gallego will take over for the remaining five rounds of the season, starting with a visit to Girona on Sunday.

Espanyol hasn’t scored a goal in five matches, and has only two wins in the last 15 rounds. It is in 16th place, nine points from the drop.