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…

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays

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.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score

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.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

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.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

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.

MLS Snapshot: FCD lose 2nd in a row; Fire win 4th straight

AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh
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The game in 100 words (or less): After starting the 2017 season nine games without a loss, FC Dallas, the longest-lasting unbeaten team in MLS, has lost two straight. Saturday saw their unbeaten start come to an end, against the San Jose Earthquakes, just as Wednesday’s trip to Toyota Stadium saw Oscar Pareja’s side drop all three points to the Chicago Fire. All three of the game’s goals were scored during the opening nine minutes, as FCD fought back from 1-0, but couldn’t find a second equalizer on the night. Nemanja Nikolic bagged the opener, his 11th goal in 13 games to extend his lead in the Golden Boot race to two, in the 3rd minute. Roland Lamah brought FCD back to level terms three minutes later, but David Accam restored the home side’s advantage after three more minutes. Nikolic had every opportunity in the world to take his goals tally to a dozen during second-half stoppage time, but Chris Seitz denied the Hungarian international from the penalty spot. For the first time since Sept. 2012, Chicago have won four straight league games, and sit just two points back of Eastern Conference-leading Toronto FC (26 points).

[ WATCH: Chicharito-to-MLS in doubt due to $10M contract demands ]

Three moments that mattered

3′ — Nikolic redirects past Seitz for 1-0 — Nikolic ran 15 yards straight ahead without a single FCD player picking him up or impeding his path to the near post, and they paid for it.

6′ — Lamah taps it in to make it 1-1 right away — Lamah has been quite the disappointment since arriving in Dallas this winter, but he happened to eb in the right place at the right time in this one, as a failed clearance fell to the five-times-capped Belgian international for an easy tap-in, and his first MLS goal.

9′ — Accam cuts inside to make it 2-1 just as quickly — At some point, Accam will be properly rated by the wider MLS audience, as he’s been Chicago’s best player for two full seasons, and has only hit a new high with capable attackers all around him.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Dax McCarty

Goalscorers: Nikolic (3′), Lamah (6′), Accam (9′)

Report: Chicharito-to-MLS in doubt due to contract demands

Photo by Harry How/Getty Images
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While Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez has the feel of the player most clearly destined to play in MLS since Thierry Henry, we might have to wait a little while longer before the 28-year-old Mexican international ditches Europe in favor of a return to North America.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

According to a report from ESPN FC on Thursday, Hernandez is seeking an annual salary “way north of $10 million,” which would shatter the current record contract for an MLS player (Kaka — $7.2 million per year).

Hernandez has one more season left on his contract with Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen. During the summer of 2018 he’ll be available for any club in the world to sign on a free transfer. With Los Angeles FC, the team Hernandez has reportedly been negotiating with for months now, set to debut in MLS in March 2018, chances are they’d like the centerpiece of their squad (and the largest annual investment in MLS history) to be involved on opening day, thus a fee will be required, very likely pushing the club’s total investment (salary plus fee) into the neighborhood of $50 million.

[ WATCH: Giovani dos Santos’ jaw-dropping volley vs. MIN ]

You can see pretty quickly why LAFC might balk at such demands.

With that said, 1) LAFC shouldn’t be surprised by this recent development, given Hernandez’s otherworldly allure within the LA market; 2) to piggyback on no. 1, a player should be paid every cent he’s worth to the club, on and off the field, and there might not be a player in the entire world (this side Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo) who’d make LAFC a bigger hit in LA from day one.

Enrique “more than satisfied” with Barca tenure, eyes one more trophy

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MADRID (AP) Luis Enrique is finally saying goodbye to Barcelona, with one last chance at a trophy.

The Luis Enrique era in Barcelona ends after the Copa del Rey final against Alaves on Saturday, when the coach could cap his three-year stint with a ninth trophy out of a possible 13.

It would be a fitting farewell for him nearly three months after his surprise announcement that he was leaving.

“It would be a special title,” Luis Enrique said.

The former Barcelona midfielder has won nearly everything as the coach, since replacing Gerard Martino in 2014.

He led the team to the treble of the Spanish league, Copa del Rey, and Champions League in 2015. He achieved the league-Copa double in 2016, and began this season with the Spanish Super Cup title, their only trophy so far.

It hasn’t been Luis Enrique’s best season with Barcelona, which was eliminated in the quarterfinals of the Champions League, and lost the Spanish league to Real Madrid last weekend.

“I’m happy and more than satisfied for all the years that I’ve enjoyed with this club,” the 47-year-old Luis Enrique said.

He announced in March he was leaving so he could get some rest.

“I came here to be a leader and I’ve been one. I’m leaving when I think it’s the best time to do it.”

His other titles included the 2015 European Super Cup and the 2015 Club World Cup.

Barcelona has yet to lose a Copa del Rey home-and-away series since he took over, a run of 12 straight triumphs.

“We are all thankful for these three years (with Luis Enrique),” captain Andres Iniesta said. “We have to win one last title to finish the best possible way.”

Barcelona has been in the Copa final in seven of the last nine seasons, including the last four. It has won it a record 28 times, including the last two.

Alaves will be playing in the final of a major tournament for only the second time in its 96-year history. The other was the UEFA Cup 16 years ago, when it lost to Liverpool 5-4 in extra time.

Alaves’ only winner’s trophy is for Spain’s second division. It was a promoted club in Spain’s top division this season after 10 years in the lower divisions, including four in the third tier. It finished ninth in the Liga.

Alaves enters the Copa final boosted from having beaten Barcelona 2-1 at Camp Nou at the beginning of the season.

The coach touted to replace Luis Enrique at Barcelona is Ernesto Valverde, who left Athletic Bilbao this week. An official announcement is expected next week.

Marco Silva leaves Hull; Premier League clubs lining up

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Marco Silva came to the Premier League, he saw the PL, but he didn’t conquer the PL — at least, not yet.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

It was announced on Thursday that the 39-year-old Portuguese manager, who took over last-place Hull City in January, has left the club after succumbing to relegation from the PL. Silva, whose stock rose quickly during his brief stay in England, signed a contract that ran only through the end of the season should they be relegated, thus he’s not sure on options these days. Hull would have undoubtedly welcomed him back for a run at promotion from the Championship next season.

As recently as Wednesday, Silva was expected to be named the new boss at Porto, though various reports stated that talks between the manager and club had broken down.

[ MORE: Terry “couldn’t care less” about criticism of his farewell ]

Watford and Crystal Palace, both of whom are manager-less after Walter Mazzarri was fired and Sam Allardyce resigned, respectively, are said to be extremely interested in Silva’s services.