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.

Liga MX wrap: Pachuca earns first win, Leon stays unbeaten

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All of Saturday’s action from around Mexico’s top flight…

Pachuca 3-1 Lobos BUAP

A strong first-half push from the hosts was all Pachuca needed on Saturday night to earn their first victory of the 2018 Clausura season. Angel Sagal brought the home side in front after just 10 minutes off of a near-post header, before Pachuca’s lead soon doubled 14 minutes later from the penalty spot when strike Franco Jara converted on the dead-ball attempt.

Just prior to halftime, Pachuca was out to a 3-0 advantage when 20-year-old outside back Erick Aguirre tallied his first goal for the club.

Last-place side Lobos got on the board three minutes into the second stanza via a finish from Heriberto Olvera, however, it wasn’t enough to provide anything more than a consolation for the visiting side.

Necaxa 1-3 Chivas Guadalajara

Mexican international Alan Pulido made it a dream start for the visitors from Guadalajara at the Estadio Victoria, however, that lead was cancelled out in first-half stoppage time after Carlos Gonzalez leveled the match up at 1-1.

The difference proved to be with 25 minutes left to play, when a goalkeeping error by Marcelo Barovero allowed Chivas to regain possession inside the Necaxa penalty area, before Ronaldo Cisneros tapped home the winner.

Then, a third goal came just prior to the end of regulation when Edwin Hernandez killed the game off for Matias Almeyda’s men, who also earned their first victory of the Clausura season.

Rest of Saturday’s Liga MX action

Cruz Azul 0-0 Club Leon
Queretaro 0-0 Tigres UANL
Monterrey 0-0 Club Tijuana

Sunday’s matches

UNAM vs. Club America — 1 p.m. ET
Santos Laguna vs. Morelia — 7 p.m. ET

The 2 Robbies: Alexis/Mkhitaryan transfer saga and more

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Robbie Mustoe and Robbie Earle recap all the key stories from the latest Premier League Saturday fixtures including Manchester City’s 3-1 win over Newcastle (0:20), Chelsea’s 4-0 victory at Brighton (10:15) and the latest on the Alexis Sanchez/Henrikh Mkhitaryan saga after wins for Arsenal and Manchester United (19:00). Plus, a closer look at the bottom of the table and thoughts go out to James McCarthy after his serious injury against West Brom (29:00).

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

All of the The 2 Robbies content can be accessed by clicking on this link:

Click here for The 2 Robbies archive ]

Follow them on Twitter @The2Robbies

Video: Stoke’s Imbula scores stunner on loan at Toulouse

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Stoke City supporters know the name Giannelli Imbula, and perhaps they’ll be clamoring for the Frenchman to return to the bet365 Stadium if he can score more goals like this.

[ MORE: PL Roundup — Top three all victorious; Gunners thrash Palace ]

The holding midfielder is currently on loan with Ligue 1 outfit Toulouse, and for the first time this season, Imbula opened his goalscoring account in some fashion.

Right on half-hour mark, Imbula unleashed a left-footed strike from nearly 40 yards out to give Toulouse the lead over Montpellier (below).

Imbula joined Stoke during the 2015/16 PL season, and has made 26 appearances for the Potters in his time with the club, prior to his loan to France.

Willian proves he’s Chelsea’s x-factor against Brighton

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There’s a considerable difference when watching a Chelsea team that plays with and without one of its Brazilian influences in the attacking part of the field.

Willian — who first debuted for the Blues back in 2013 — hasn’t always managed to be a regular starter for Chelsea, whether it was Jose Mourinho, Guus Hiddink or current manager Antonio Conte at the helm, though.

[ SOURCES: Jack Harrison expected to join Stoke City this winter ]

The 29-year-old plays with considerable flair, something that certainly isn’t uncommon amongst many players that have grown up in Brazil.

At times Willian’s overconfidence is a significant blessing, and at others it can be considered a curse, however, the former Corinthians player’s presence is something that Chelsea needs now more than ever.

That was on display on Saturday during the side’s 4-0 win at Brighton, a match in which Chelsea dominated from start to finish with Willian on the pitch. While the performance cannot solely be attributed to the attacking midfielder’s showing, it’s easy to argue that the Blues midfielder is becoming the club’s biggest x factor — one that can determine the outcome of a match.

Just look six minutes into the match, when the Blues put together one of the best team goals you’ll see in a match this year (or any year for that matter), which of course, was started and finished by none other than Willian.

What stands out about the play isn’t the brilliant slicing shot into the near post corner by the veteran playmaker, but instead the confidence that Willian exudes and brings to a Chelsea lineup that has plenty of talent to be considered one of the best teams in England and all of Europe.

After all, Conte’s group is just a season removed from winning the Premier League and still sits inside the top three in the world’s top league.

Then, there’s the Blues’ third goal against Brighton, which was set up by a smart, and instinctive, through ball played into the path of Eden Hazard by Willian (below).

Even though Hazard ends up with a ton of time on the ball to make his next decision, which was ultimately to cut inside on his preferred right foot, the run by Willian towards the end line dragged a defender away from the Belgian international — allowing the sequence to progress.

Arguing Willian’s importance isn’t a knock on Hazard — a world-class player in his own right — or Alvaro Morata, who has had the intolerable task of replacing a key player like Diego Costa.

Instead, it simply shows that Chelsea has a plethora of talent, and that some of the club’s attacking struggles throughout the 2017/18 season can be chalked up to Willian being left out of the starting XI on a regular basis.

[ MORE: Sergio Aguero continues to display brilliance for Man City ]

The Brazilian international has scored eight goals and added seven assists this season in all competitions for the Blues, despite only starting 19 matches.

The mind of manager Conte is an ever-changing one, so maybe Willian still doesn’t get the starting nod on an every week basis, but just by watching the team’s performance at the Amex Stadium it’s quite hard to argue against the player being on the field as much as possible.