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Premier League festive roundtable – Part 2

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We are nearly at the midway point of a fascinating Premier League season. Let’s see what lies ahead.

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Below Pro Soccer Talk’s writers discuss what’s coming up in the second half of the PL season in Part 2 of roundtable, as Part 1 looked at the story so far.

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


Which current midtable team do you expect to be dragged in to the relegation battle? Each season there’s always one which sinks like a stone to the bottom…

Joe Prince-Wright: I actually think Bournemouth may get dragged into it. They’ve just been too inconsistent this season.

Nick Mendola: I’d say West Brom, but they’ve defied me enough already this season. I’ll say Watford, though I think all the teams between 21 and 24 points are safe.

Kyle Bonn: At the moment it looks like Watford. They had a false table position, and despite having a good manager, they are in poor form and could drop to the bottom.

Matt Reed: Watford. I think the Hornets have some solid talent in the squad but their defense has been way too inconsistent so far and that could spell trouble as the season progresses.

The perennial top six is starting to pull away from the rest. How tight do you think this title race will be?

Joe: I think teams will catch up with Chelsea by the end of January and it could all be set for one of the tightest-ever finishes. There’s not much between Chelsea, Liverpool, Man City and Arsenal.

Nick: Very, and I still expect the champion’s point total to be relatively low unless Chelsea is on an almost Invincible-type run.

Kyle: Not close. Chelsea will lose eventually, but they’re running away with it.

Matt: I think as good as Chelsea has played thus far they’ll have to come back down to earth at some point, even if it’s only for a brief period. Liverpool, Arsenal and Man City are too strong for it not to be an intriguing title race, and I think those four teams will be in the mix up until the final weeks of May.

When you look at the schedules for the current top six, which upcoming games stick out to you as particularly pivotal in the title race?

Joe: Chelsea has Liverpool and Arsenal at the end of January and early February and that will be pivotal. I also think Chelsea’s trip to Tottenham on Jan. 4. will be crucial in deciding how the second half of the season will go. For Manchester United, they have Arsenal and Tottenham back-to-back in May which will could be crucial for everyone concerned.

Nick: Liverpool-Man City on New Year’s Day will be a good litmus test, but neither side seems like they’d wilt from a bad result. I’ll go with Chelsea-Arsenal on Feb. 4. It’s the next true big test for the Gunners —look at their schedule… they play almost no one of traditional threat until then — and it’s 10 days before their UCL first leg against Bayern. Talk about a chance to build or break.

Kyle: Chelsea has Liverpool and Arsenal back-to-back at the end of January. That will make or break their title run.

Mat: Liverpool-Man City on New Year’s Eve is the big one, particularly with both sides already having lost ground on Chelsea, but I also like Chelsea-Tottenham a few days later.

Looking at the top players thus far, who do you want to see more from? Who has the most to prove?

Joe: I’d still like to see from Paul Pogba, despite his recent upturn in form. Also, Kevin De Bruyne has faded after a bright start and Harry Kane has to take more responsibility for Tottenham.

Nick: I need more from Harry Kane. We saw how much Spurs struggled without him, but shouldn’t we have seen a big leap once he arrived back at WHL. He may have the most to prove, though it’s between two Everton players as to who has the most to prove: Ross Barkley, who is a shell of his much-lauded star potential, and Romelu Lukaku, who is on the verge of a massive contract but not quite showing the wattage we’ve seen in recent years.

Kyle: To be honest, I think Dimitri Payet has more to offer. He carried West Ham last season, and while he’s been very good statistically, he hasn’t been able to match his match-winning form thus far. Also, Mesut Ozil has come under justifiable fire for laziness in Arsenal’s recent dip, and he needs to prove he still can be their anchor in the attack.

Matt: Harry Kane. Seven goals isn’t terrible through essentially the first half of the season but he’s definitely capable of more and Spurs need him to improve in finishing if they want to contend for a top four place.I think Eden Hazard has really shown his stuff this season and he’ll continue to pile it on to show that 2015/16 was just a minor setback for the Belgian international.

Which team needs to crack on in the second half of the season and fulfill its potential?

Joe: Tottenham. They are extremely talented but have the Champions League exit hit them hard. If Pochettino can boost confidence with a few big wins in January then they can get red hot.

Nick: Spurs. Even more than Manchester United, because Mauricio Pochettino’s set added very little to its well-oiled machine. With Kane and Dembele back, and Toby Alderweireld coming, now is the time to look like the beast that was born last season.

Kyle: Tottenham. They’ve been struggling to scrape out results against lesser team, and have lost close results to teams at the top. They need to turn those close losses to into results or they could end up back in the Europa League next year, or worse.

Matt: Man United. When you have Jose Mourinho as the manager and spend excessive money to bring in Zlatan, Pogba and others the target is always on your back in terms of the success that you bring. I think the Red Devils definitely need to finish top four this season or else it will be a similar failure to that of a year ago when the squad was nowhere near as loaded with talent.

Out of the top names coaching in the Premier League, (Guardiola, Mourinho, Conte, Wenger, Klopp, Pochettino, Koeman) who has the most to prove?

Joe: Guardiola. I think the players are still struggling to grasp what he’s asking them to do. I respect his stubbornness but he really needs to figure out a way to grind out wins against high-pressing teams. I also think Ronald Koeman has a lot more on his plate than he thought at Everton. Big things were expected and if they finish in the bottom half, the fans will become restless.

Nick: Pochettino and Koeman, with the obvious acknowledgment that should Mourinho not find his footing in the Top Four he’ll have failed at two-steps with two sets of superstars. That said, to say he still has things to prove in football feels a bit of an overreach for me (though I’m willing to be wrong!).

Kyle: Has to be Pep. He has been openly defiant to those who question his tactics and selection, and he has yet to prove it will work in the Premier League.

Matt: I think it’s definitely Mourinho. He’s the “Special One” and the manager that was supposed to come in and immediately fix United’s problems. A lot of this has to do with the fact that he’s coaching at United, but that comes with the territory.

If you could be one Premier League manager, who would you be? Who is in the best position almost at the halfway point?

Joe: Jose Mourinho. I think United is gathering steam and pretty soon Jose will be the one laughing at his haters.

Nick: Eddie Howe. He plays attractive football and would be among the top candidates for any job should it open. Plus, the Cherries are still “small” enough that losses are viewed with a bit of a shrug while big wins are lauded.

Kyle: Arsene Wenger. He has great job security and a great squad.

Matt: It has to be Antonio Conte. He’s already shown not only that he can find success in a new surrounding at Stamford Bridge but also that he can do so after finding troubling times. The switch to the 3-4-3 showed that the Italian can adapt when things aren’t going the way of Chelsea and that’s very important in a league that is full of surprises.

Same question, but which player would you want to be right now in the Premier League?

Joe: Diego Costa. Next question…

Nick: Zlatan. Because.

Kyle: It must be fun to be Eden Hazard!

Matt: Probably anyone on Chelsea, but Diego Costa in particular. Almost everything he touches goes in the net and with the backline he has behind him the Spaniard doesn’t have to worry a lot about conceding.

Which team needs to spend the most in the Premier League in January?

Joe: Swansea needs to invest in two new central defenders, a striker and a holding midfielder. Aside from that, Manchester United also need to add another striker to support Zlatan.

Nick: I’m going to leave the big boys alone for this one. Everton needs injections of pace with Yannick Bolasie out and Barkley struggling. But the true answer would be the bottom three, as Sunderland, Swans, and Hull simply are competing at a talent disadvantage right now.

Kyle: Who needs the most? Swansea. Who can realistically spend the most? Manchester City needs a few key expensive pieces.

Matt: Man United. There are always big expectations at Old Trafford and they surely haven’t been met yet in Jose Mourinho’s first season.

Out of the big boys, what does Man City, Chelsea and Liverpool need in the transfer window?

Joe: Man City need a big-time center back (maybe two). Chelsea need a striker who can step in for Costa and is okay with being a back up. Maybe a veteran forward? Liverpool need a new center back and maybe a goalkeeper.

Nick: Man City could use a center back with experience. Chelsea is fine, honestly. The Reds need some help at fullback.

Kyle: City needs a true defensive midfielder. Liverpool needs a defender. Chelsea needs to keep doing what it’s doing, but they could use a central defender for the future.

Matt: Other than Liverpool, I think both Man City and Chelsea are really set outside of adding a few small pieces for depth. If Liverpool can strengthen the backline a bit then they will surely be one of the teams to beat.

Do Arsenal, Manchester United and Tottenham need to strengthen too?

Joe: Arsenal should be okay. Tottenham have locked up players to new deals and a wide-man could be the only way they’d strengthen. For United, a new striker, holding midfielder and center back should be top of the shopping list.

Nick: I’d like some title-winning experience for Arsenal, while Spurs just need to get healthy. Manchester United needs support at center back with Eric Bailly skipping town for the Africa Cup of Nations, and most of the names they add aren’t names any club would turn down!

Kyle: United badly needs a defender or 4. Tottenham needs a creative force.

Matt: Yes. I’d say Arsenal and Spurs are more ready-made but United can certainly add some pieces to help spark the attack. Outside of Ibrahimovic, they have looked really stagnant at times in creating chances.

Based on current form and almost being at the halfway point, are you changing your mind about your preseason top four picks?

Joe: I had Man City-Man United-Chelsea-Arsenal as the top four preseason. I think I would bring in Liverpool for Man United and swap Chelsea and Man City. Tottenham finishing in the top four and above Arsenal could happen, but we all know how that usually works…

Nick: I went United-City-Spurs-Chelsea. I’d like to change the order, as I thought it would take Chelsea longer to adjust to Conte. I’d also favor being allowed to move Liverpool or Arsenal in for Spurs. If you asked me now. I’d say Chelsea-City-United-Arsenal. Have you SEEN Arsenal’s schedule for the next six weeks?

Matt: Other than maybe swapping Arsenal in place of Spurs I’m pretty confident with my picks so far.

What about your preseason relegation picks, any changes there?

Joe: I picked Burnley, West Brom and Hull to go down. West Brom won’t go down, while Burnley is slowly slipping back and Middlesbrough will struggle for goals. I think Burnley, Boro and Bournemouth will go down.

Nick: I said Watford-WBA-Hull. Now I’ll say Sunderland-Boro-Hull (assuming Swans buy defenders. Maybe 12 of them).

Matt: I was so wrong about West Brom but Hull and Burnley look like decent picks at the moment.

Finally, what is your crazy prediction for the second half of the Premier League season? 

Joe: Bournemouth to get relegated is a pretty crazy pick. So that’s mine.

Nick: Buoyed by a 15-goal finish from Andy Carroll — and after holding onto Dimitri Payet — West Ham runs to a Europa League place.

Kyle: I don’t really have a crazy pick, but I do think Leicester City will finish in the top half and Chelsea will run away with the title.

Matt: Leicester gets its act together and finishes top six. They’re 13 points behind sixth spot at the moment but with the team that Claudio Ranieri has in place it isn’t too far-fetched to believe that they can mount a comeback. I mean, they are the champions.

Pique with the scoop? Neymar “staying” at Barcelona

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While the entire world waits for official word — any word, really — on the possible world record-shattering transfer of Neymar from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain, Gerard Pique just became the world’s most appreciated breaker of transfer news.

[ MORE: Sunday’s transfer rumor roundup | Saturday | Friday ]

Pique, Neymar’s teammate for four seasons at Barca, tweeted (and posted to Instagram) a photo of himself and Neymar, captioned, “Se queda,” or, “He stays.”

[ MOURINHO: United not signing Bale | De Gea not going anywhere ]

Whether he stays or goes this summer, Neymar is about to get paid, and deservedly so. An unquestionable top-five (or -three?) player in the world, he doesn’t turn 26 for another seven months. There has to be someone awaiting the passing of the torch from Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, both four years Neymar’s senior, some day soon(-ish), so it should come as no surprise that Barca appear to have moved heaven and earth to retain their Brazilian superstar.

Mourinho “guarantees” De Gea won’t go to Real Madrid

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Jose Mourinho has always said what he wants, when he wants, how he wants — especially when he’s working an ulterior motive.

[ MORE: Sunday’s transfer rumor roundup | Saturday | Friday ]

Example no. 6,394: the Manchester United manager’s comments regarding the future of goalkeeper David De Gea, who has long been linked with a move to Real Madrid, which just so happens to be one of Mourinho’s former employers. Long story short, “It ain’t happening” — quotes from the Guardian:

“I can guarantee that he’s not going this season, that I can, and my feeling is it will be very difficult for him to go. Because he’s a very honest boy, very straight.”

“He was contacted for a long time [by Real]. The club was close, then we open because I always have this feeling of when a player has a desire to go I don’t like to stop players to go because in the end you don’t get what you expect from them if they want to move and they don’t.

“I don’t think the feeling from him [towards Real] is very good. I see him very happy and focused and working better than ever so for me 100% he stays with us.”

[ MORE: Man City make a dream come true… for $35 million ]

De Gea has two years remaining on his current contract (with an option for one more), which he signed shortly after United and Madrid’s deadline-day debacle of 2015.

Roma’s Moreno happy as Mexican ambassador to Serie A

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Hector Moreno knows his move to AS Roma is a big deal for him, his club, and his country.

That may seem like a bit too much aggrandization, but Moreno joins the biggest club of his accomplished European career. That club nearly ended the scudetto reign of Juventus last season, coming as close as anyone in recent history.

And he’s the first Mexican to play for Roma, a club a bit higher in the pecking order than the homes for previous El Tri members in Serie A (Carlos Salcedo went on loan to Fiorentina last season, while Miguel Layun spent time at Atalanta and Rafa Marquez played three seasons at Verona).

[ MORE: Strootman loving life at Roma ]

“I know what people expect from me, and the people in Italy will look back at Mexico as a place to find good players if I do well,” Moreno told ProSoccerTalk ahead of the club’s second Stateside match of the International Champions Cup, Tuesday versus Tottenham Hotspur at Red Bull Arena.

“Football in Mexico is lived with so much passion. It’s so important.”

What they’ve seen from the 29-year-old center back gives them every reason to be proud. Moreno has won the Eredivisie with two clubs (AZ Alkmaar and PSV Eindhoven) and was Espanyol’s Player of the Year during his first of three campaigns in La Liga.

Moreno’s offensive acumen shone through his second stint in Holland, and the center back who also plays some left back scored seven goals last season.

(Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

When Roma came calling, he had little hesitation.

“It’s something I have wanted my entire career, for an opportunity like this,” Moreno said. “It’s an amazing challenge to keep going forward in my career.”

Moreno captained El Tri in a 1-1 draw against the United States in World Cup qualifying on June 12, and the Roma signing was announced on June 13. Five days later, he was pushing Mexico over the line with a stoppage time goal against Portugal at the Confederations Cup.

[ MORE: Pallotta’s Roman vision ]

Again, this was about a statement for both him and his country, especially with Mexico in pole position to finish first in CONCACAF World Cup qualification and the desire to make it past the Round of 16 for the first time in seven tournaments.

“It was a great moment and the feeling was amazing because we fought so hard and we didn’t expect to lose,” Moreno said. “It looks easy to say but with Ronaldo, Ledesma, Pepe, at the end we got a result that we deserved.

“And this will probably help the team to know where we stand because in CONCACAF qualification for World Cup we are almost there and in all due respect it’s a different quality of play than CONCACAF. You can see where you stand and what you have to improve to be on the level. It is the dream forever that we can go to the fifth game, and we can do that in Russia. We’re going to work hard and I hope we can make it.”

[ MORE: Conte names Gary Cahill new Chelsea captain ]

It may surprise some to hear that Moreno also hopes El Tri’s heated rivals in the U.S. qualify for Russia as well.

“I hope so,” Moreno quickly replies. “It would make a good tournament. They always make it through and they have such a good team. It’s always (the hope) that Mexico and U.S. can meet in the World Cup, because they have such good talent as well.”

Roma faces Spurs in New Jersey on Tuesday before a July 30 battle with Juventus at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough.

What’s another $35 million? Man City sign Danilo from Real Madrid

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MANCHESTER, England (AP) Danilo will be fulfilling his ambition to play under Pep Guardiola after signing for Manchester City from Real Madrid on Sunday.

[ MORE: Sunday’s transfer rumor roundup | Saturday | Friday ]

The versatile Brazilian defender, who can play on either flank as well as at center back, signed a five-year contract to increase City’s threadbare options at full back.

“There has been strong interest from other clubs, but it has always been my ambition to play for Pep Guardiola,” Danilo said. “As soon as I heard of his interest, I knew immediately I wanted to be a City player.”

City has a shortage of wide defenders after releasing Gael Clichy, Pablo Zabaleta and Bacary Sagna last month and then allowing Aleksandar Kolarov to move to Italian side Roma on Saturday. Kyle Walker, who joined from Tottenham, was the only other full back available to City manager Pep Guardiola before the signing of Danilo.

[ MORE: Mourinho quells speculation of Gareth Bale to Man United ]

“Football is very dynamic and it requires quality players in every position, so I think a player who can play in different positions at a good level has an advantage, and becomes very important for the team as well,” said Danilo, who is awaiting his British work permit. “I prefer just to play. I don’t have a favorite position. I am used to playing as right-back but any time I’m on the pitch in the starting 11, I’m always happy.

“He (Guardiola) told me I’m ready and that I can play in several positions, right back, left back, midfield. I just hope to help him out as he expects.”

Danilo is leaving Madrid two years after joining from Porto, having won back-to-back Champions League titles and the Spanish title once. Financial details of the transfer to City were not disclosed.