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Premier League festive roundtable – Part 1

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Just before the Premier League season hits a busy time with the festive schedule, it is time to reflect on what’s happened so far.

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Below Pro Soccer Talk’s writers discuss the stories of the season so far in Part 1 of our roundtable series while in Part 2, coming up on Dec. 25, we discuss what lies ahead in the second half of the season.

Feel free to get involved in the debate by adding your thoughts in the comments section below.


What has been your favorite moment of the Premier League season so far?

Joe Prince-Wright: A moment from the opening weekend of the season has stuck with me. When Diego Costa scored a late winner for Chelsea against West Ham United in Antonio Conte‘s first game in charge, the Italian coach went crazy right in front of me at Stamford Bridge. He jumped in with the fans to celebrate and the energy was completely different. From that moment Conte was accepted by Chelsea’s fans.

Nick Mendola: I’ll stick with on the field, as little Bradley Lowery’s day at Sunderland was amazing. We’ll go back to Arsenal-Liverpool on Opening Weekend. 4-3, including four second-half goals in 15 minutes and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain answered Sadio Mane’s 63rd minute goal within a minute. Wild.

Matt Reed: Although Bob Bradley gets a lot of the slack for Swansea’s struggles, the team’s comeback against Crystal Palace was not only my favorite moment thus far but my favorite match as well.

Kyle Bonn: I know this is a cop-out answer because it’s not a moment, but it has to be Chelsea’s amazing run. Their performances have been nothing short of stellar, and considering their poor season last year, the job Antonio Conte has done is so impressive.

Which team has surprised you most this season, so far, and why? And which player has come from nowhere to impress?

Joe: Watford. I know they’ve fallen off in recent weeks but I had no idea what to expect from the Hornets with a new manager and plenty of new players. Walter Mazzarri‘s side are difficult to beat and always hang in games. I think a top 10 finish is easily achievable for Watford. In terms of players, I think both Gaston Ramirez and Salomon Rondon have been superb. Ramirez had three seasons at Southampton were he struggled mightily but he’s found his feet at Middlesbrough. As for Rondon, he has the quality to play for a top six team. The chances he gets at West Brom are limited but he’s not settled and scoring goals.

Nick: In keeping with the holiday season, we’ll go with positive surprises. It’s West Brom for me, not just because the Baggies sit eighth, but also the 23 goals scored by Sadio Mane and company. As for players, I’m going to go with Cesar “Dave” Azpilicueta at Chelsea. I knew he was a talent, but he’s been shining in Antonio Conte’s set-up.

Matt: Leicester is an easy answer because it was always going to be difficult to repeat as champions, but I didn’t expect the Foxes to be in the relegation battle considering the squad they have brought back. Michail Antonio had a solid season in 2015/16 but outside of Dimitri Payet he’s been one of the lone sparks for West Ham. With seven goals already this season, Antonio is on pace to shatter his goal total from a season ago while also looking to help the Hammers stay up.

Kyle: To be honest, Chelsea. Who would have backed them to turn things around this fast? And while their team hasn’t exactly come out of nowhere, Eden Hazard‘s triumphant return has been somewhat surprising considering how abysmal he was last season. If you really want to go out of nowhere, Steve Cook of Bournemouth has been one of the most dynamic defenders in the PL this year.

Be honest, did you expect Leicester City to be in a relegation battle?

Joe: I didn’t want to believe it, but I thought it may be inevitable given their squad and how Claudio Ranieri was, understandably, loyal to the title-winning team. Coupled with the Champions League success (I have some issues with that because their group was very weak) it has led to taking their eye off the ball in the PL. I had them finishing 11th in my preseason prediction but I think they’ll be just above the relegation zone.

Nick: No, but I’m not entirely surprised. Somehow I doubt the fan base would trade their UEFA Champions League triumphs for a few more points on the table. We’re still in “once in a lifetime” territory until someone tells them otherwise.

Matt: In our preseason rankings I predicted Leicester would finish top 10 once again but winning the title was always going to be unrealistic. I never thought the Foxes would be in the relegation battle at this stage of the season considering the talent that Claudio Ranieri still has at his disposal.

Kyle: Did I expect them to be in a relegation battle? No. But I absolutely expected them to struggle at times. European play is a huge strain on clubs without the spending power to purchase top-level depth. They’ll be fine. They won’t be relegated. Don’t be shocked to see a late-season surge once they’re bounced from the Champions League.

Why hasn’t Pep Guardiola‘s tactics swept the Premier League before him? Is there an easy answer here?

Joe: No easy answer but the main issue has been in defense. Pep is forcing players to try and do something completely different than any other Premier League team. He wants his side to play out from the back and invite pressure in dangerous situations. Most PL clubs are extremely good at pressing high and pinning teams in. I think so far Guardiola has stuck to his principles admirably but he will have to tweak them, at least this season, if he wants to finish in the top four or challenge for the title. City doesn’t have the players fit and available to play the way he wants to in defense.

Nick: Can I be a little brash? John Stones may one day be Gerard Pique, but he certainly is nowhere near the standard right now. Claudio Bravo will settle into a groove at some point, but Joe Hart and (insert veteran CB here) would have City knocking on Chelsea’s door.

Matt: I think Guardiola takes a lot of flack because of the lofty expectations people have bestowed upon him in the past. The Premier League is one of the few leagues where even the champions typically suffer a rough spell at some point throughout the campaign and while City isn’t atop the table at this point they are still firmly in the title chase.

Kyle: His tactics don’t fit the PL. His gameplan is to possess teams to death and finish clinically. Problem is, his team hasn’t been able to finish as well as they should, and the Premier League is full of teams that embrace a bunker-and-counter mentality, and it’s frustrated a City team that doesn’t have a midfield destroyer to break up counters.

Jose Mourinho and Manchester United is gathering steam. What has impressed you most about them thus far?

Joe: I’ve been impressed with the way the players have pulled together to grind out results. Mourinho has chopped and changed the team but whoever has come in looks like they want to fight for the shirt. With his off-field antics leading to bans and fines, Mourinho is also creating a siege mentality. Although I don’t condone that kind of behavior, I think it has worked wonders to get the players on his side early on in his reign at Old Trafford.

Nick: I love when an egomaniacal star backs up his bluster, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the truth. But the way Mourinho has maneuvered talent like Juan Mata and Ander Herrera while dealing with the guff the press and fans love to give him has been a fascinating thing to follow. Hes not done half bad.

Matt: Has to be the team’s persistence. Even though Mourinho and United have had plenty of struggles thus far, they are finding their form and it’s still early enough in the season where they can make up ground in the title race.

Kyle: Their ability to get Zlatan consistently in the attack is impressive. He’s one of their only finishers, and yet they consistently have him involved. Hard to do when teams are gameplanning around him.

Conversely, where do they need to improve to challenge for titles again?

Joe: Up front. If Zlatan has an off day, I struggle to see who else can step in to deliver the goals. Martial, Rashford and Rooney aren’t the most clinical so I think if United can get in another predatory finisher in January, they should do it. They create so many chances and were hurt badly during that run of four home draws where they should’ve won each game.

Nick: More consistent play on the outside would help, from back to wings.

Matt: United still lacks a compliment to Zlatan Ibrahimovic up front. Even though the backline has gone through its share of injuries this season it’s the attack that has disappointed me the most.

Kyle: They need better defensive reliability if they are going to shut down once they have a one-goal lead.

Let’s talk about United’s rivals Liverpool. Is this what we expected from Jurgen Klopp? Can they mount a serious title challenge with a creaking defense?

Joe: You can see this is a Klopp team from the first whistle of every game they play. It has taken 12 months but the players are all-in and Klopp is ready to push for a title push. The defensive issues are concerning but they’re capable of scoring three or four goals every game. I think they can go all the way.

Nick: This is almost exactly what I expected from Klopp, to a T. They can challenge for a title, but look more like a lower top four contender on the whole right now.

Matt: Coming into the season I figured the backline would be porous but I still believe Liverpool can make a legitimate run at the title because of how strong the attack is.

Kyle: Well, no, but they’ve weathered the storm so far, and it hasn’t reared its head too strong. If Klopp doesn’t strengthen in January, it will eventually cause title-breaking problem.

While we’re on the subject of title contenders, Chelsea sits top at Christmas with a six point lead. Is that more to do with new manager Antonio Conte? Or more about Chelsea’s players getting their act together?

Joe: It’s both but you can’t underestimate Conte’s impact. Like I mentioned before, from day one he’s been a breath of fresh air. He eased himself in too, playing a back four and then switching to a back three for this incredible run of 11-straight wins. Conte let the players have a voice and then said ‘okay, now, let’s do it my way.’ It has worked, masterfully. We all knew the talent was there for Chelsea. Now they have a leader they believe in. Somewhere Jose Mourinho is shaking his head in disbelief.

Nick: Last season was embarrassing for Chelseas players, who bailed on Jose Mourinho and then yawned their way through an improved run under Guus Hiddink. I think Conte’s been given the keys to the kingdom in terms of manager vs. player power, and adding N’Golo Kante cannot be understated. So, a mix of both.

Matt: I think it’s a combination of things but there’s no question that the players love playing for Conte in the system that he has implemented. Even when Chelsea was winning games before the 3-4-3 switch they were far less convincing than now. That doesn’t even mean scoring a lot of goals but more so how strong they look defensively.

Kyle: It’s both. Hazard had come to life again, and this team was always going to revert back to a dominant state, but Conte had to be lauded for his immediate impact when Pep and Mourinho have struggled with their new teams.

Arsenal and Tottenham are the other title contenders. Which north London club has impressed you more so far, and why?

Joe: Very close call. Tottenham are gathering steam in the PL but crashing out in the Champions League group stage was a huge disappointment. Arsenal has Bayern Munich in the UCL knockouts and is starting to stall in the PL. It’s about what you’d expect from both clubs. I’m a hard man to please, but if I had to pick one team I’d say Arsenal because Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez (despite their contract negotiations) are on fire. If they can stay red-hot, Arsenal has a chance to challenge for the title should Chelsea stumble.

Nick: Arsenal. Tottenhams defense is fine, but there’s something missing from their mix. Right now, it’s probably simply Harry Kane reminding his form, but for a while it was just “Wait for Dembele to return”. Arsenal’s recent “stumbles” aside — there’s nothing wrong with losing to Everton — Arsene Wenger is pushing most of the right buttons, the Shkrodan Mustafa transfer is an unqualified success, and Theo Walcott is for the moment delivering. Gooners can feel good enough right now.

Matt: I’d say Arsenal because of the injuries they’ve gone through this season but their form of late has been far too poor for me to consider them title contenders.

Kyle: Easily Arsenal. Tottenham has struggled on all front for weeks now, and their form is worrying. The Gunners are a mentally weak side, but seem the stronger team of the two.

From what you’ve seen so far, are there any teams aside from the current top six who will challenge for a top four spot?

Joe: Not really. At this point I think the traditional top six are locked in after their big spending and managerial changes over the summer. They finally got their act together. Southampton and Everton could push them, but Everton would need to address the defensive issues and Saints need to find more goals. Neither of those problems are easily to fix midway through the season, no matter how much you spend in January.

Nick: I wouldve said Everton, but the Yannick Bolasie is a hammer blow to their attack. Unless Ross Barkley turns it around, I expect the current Top Six to be the sextet we hear from all season (Again, I worry about Spurs).

Matt: I think Everton could be in the mix for top six if Ronald Koeman regroups his side. With one of the PL’s top scorers in Romelu Lukaku, I believe the Toffees have enough offensive firepower in order to contend.

Kyle: No.

The relegation battle is a bit of a mess right now. Which team down there have you been most disappointed with?

Joe: Crystal Palace. Now without Alan Pardew, this could go south fast. With Christian Benteke and Yohan Cabaye, I’m seeing players who are on big money not stepping up to the plate and delivering. The fans at Selhurst Park are superb and they deserve more. It was a shame to see Pardew go because everyone wanted him to be the hero to lead them into a new era but it wasn’t to be. Now, it’s all about survival and if Sam Allardyce comes in you can expect direct soccer to return. Luckily they have the wingers and Benteke to implement that style. Still, incredibly disappointing.

Nick: Leicester is the easy answer, and I’m going to not count West Ham (who I’m not worried about in terms of relegation). I’ll go with Palace, who has been fun to watch with the ball (although why is Andros Townsend on the bench so often?!?) but miserable in defense. Every game is, “We deserved better”, which was a bit too comfortable coming out of Alan Pardew’s mouth.

Matt: Hull. After the way the team started the season it looked like Mike Phelan‘s side was going to be able to rally around him but the Tigers simply don’t have the attacking support necessary to win matches on a consistent basis.

Kyle: Hull looks the most likely to go down, but I’ve been very disappointed with Swansea. Their squad is poorly constructed, but I would not have thought it was relegation quality, and they followed up an energizing win over Sunderland with a return to more dumpster-fire performances.

Bob Bradley’s had a tough time thus far at Swansea. What have you made of his start to life in the Premier League? Is the American getting a rough deal?

Joe: I think he deserves until the end of the season before we can pass judgement. Swansea’s owners should look at Aston Villa last season and other relegated clubs in the past. Having three or four managers in a season doesn’t work. Swansea has improved in certain games and looked shocking in others. That all comes with a new system and new players playing together after a new manager comes in. Bradley has had 10 games at this point. He probably should have won three or four with the performances but has won twice. The defensive mistakes are the biggest issue to address in January and as for the scrutiny about him being the first-ever American coach in the Premier League, Bradley can handle that.

Nick: Fine enough in attack, but the back line is a total nightmare. For now, I’m 100 percent willing to pin their awfulness down to a poor offseason. Letting Ashley Williams walk without a serious replacement shows the board needed to give a bit more authority to Francesco Guidolin (or resist the urge to keep him on altogether). Bob Bradley deserves a transfer window, no doubt. His backs are a nightmare. Federico Fernandez is lost without a decent CB next to him, and Jordi Amat has made some baffling decisions.

Matt: I think it’s really unfair to place a hefty amount of the blame on Bradley given the team he’s working with. Swansea lost its top scorer before the season even began when Andre Ayew left for West Ham, and the club did very little to replace him. It’s going to be a season likely full of more downs than ups but I believe Bradley has a future in the Premier League as manager whether it’s with the Swans or another club.

Kyle: The American *was* getting a rough deal, and walked into a difficult situation, but now his performances in the last few weeks have become harder and harder to defend.

From what you’ve seen so far, which team and player is the most underrated in the Premier League as we enter the halfway point?

Joe: As for the team, I think Southampton has been written off by many people too early. I expect them to have a strong second half of the season. As for the players, I would say Ander Herrera at Manchester United doesn’t get the credit he deserves. He’s been influential in United’s recent good run.

Nick: As crazy as it sounds, I think the a right answer might be Manchester United (and my second submission would’ve been Chelsea!). The Red Devils have generated loads of chances and will be much improved once its CB health is improved. But I’m going to give a more under-the-radar answer and say two South Coast teams in Bournemouth and Southampton. Eddie Howe continues to a magnificent job with the nascent PL Cherries, while Ralph Krueger’s Saints continue to weather the cherry-picking (pun intended) of their talent each year.

Matt:I don’t think Southampton has earned enough credit this season, even after having had a strong campaign in 2015-16. The Saints have had trouble finishing off chances in the attack but have been one of the most defensively sound teams in the PL.

Kyle: I would say Bournemouth but they’re getting the recognition they deserve. The most underrated team is probably Southampton, who can expect an uptick in form now that Europe is in the rear view mirror. Unless they lose Van Djik or Fonte in January. Then maybe not.

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.