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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.

Sky Blue’s Sam Kerr named NWSL league MVP for 2017

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CHICAGO (AP) Sky Blue FC forward Sam Kerr has been named the National Women’s Soccer League’s Most Valuable Player for this season.

Kerr, a standout on the Australian national team, had a league-record 17 goals and became the league’s fifth Golden Boot winner to also be named MVP.

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

She became the first NWSL player to score four goals in a game on Aug. 19 against the Seattle Reign. Kerr rallied Sky Blue from a 3-goal deficit to beat the Reign 5-4.

Kerr’s award was announced Friday. The league had earlier announced the season’s other award winners: North Carolina’s Abby Dahlkemper was named Defender of the Year, teammate Ashley Hatch was named Rookie of the Year, Portland’s Adrianna Franch was named Goalkeeper of the Year and the Thorns’ Mark Parsons was named Coach of the Year.

The Mendy Effect: Pep praises injured back

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Full back Benjamin Mendy cost Pep Guardiola and Manchester City $68 million, but perhaps he’ll be just as valuable as a very expensive sports psychologist.

The “Shark Team” member was amusing on social media even before his ACL injury sent him to the sidelines until at least April, but he’s become a must-follow Twitter fixture with his in-game messages (See some of his work below).

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

City faces Burnley at 10 a.m. ET Saturday (Watch live on CNBC and online via NBCSports.com).

It’s fairly clear his act has translated in private, too, as apparently Mendy is just as good in group messages (Let us in, Pep. We won’t tell anyone). From ManCity.com:

“Usually, players who are out for a long time with injury are sad. They sometimes train apart and feel isolated.

“Mendy decided to be present. He is communicating on social media, WhatsApp and he calls his teammates and messages me. He is going to be so important outside the pitch because people like him make the atmosphere much better.”

It’s not surprising for anyone who’s been following the former Le Havre, Marseille and Monaco man.

Keep in mind, these Tweets below are from the last few days alone!

Ozil to Manchester United?!? Wenger reacts to gossip

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Sometimes, even the biggest Arsene Wenger detractors have to feel for the guy.

Coming off a thrilling late win in Serbia, one that saw Olivier Giroud cap off a team goal straight out of the creative Wenger playbook, the manager should’ve been discussing how to stretch those good vibes into this weekend’s visit to Goodison Park.

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

Yet no. Instead of talking about how the Gunners would respect the struggling Toffees, Wenger had to address speculation from several outlets claiming Mesut Ozil would move to Manchester United, perhaps as soon as January.

Feeling it? No, no Wenger was not feeling it. From Arsenal.com:

“We have to deal with all kinds of speculation when the players are at the end of their contracts. On the other hand, to be professional is to give 100 per cent as long as you are somewhere. For the rest, we came out many times and said that’s the situation. It [the media] can come out tomorrow and say that he extends his contract here. It will be exactly the same, it will not change anything. When you play the next game, commit 100 per cent. … When a player plays for Arsenal Football Club, his commitment cannot be linked with the length of his contract, it has just to be linked with the responsibility and the ambition he has to win the football game.”
Of course most big clubs have to deal with such drama on a year-to-year basis and, yes, having Ozil and Alexis Sanchez still in town was completely avoidable. But the idea that Ozil could leave, for free, to Manchester United? We’re sure Gooners the world over will be thrilled with the gossip.

MLS Decision Day preview: Much at stake

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Four teams can claim a Western Conference second round berth, while four more can earn a valuable first-round bye in the East.

Yep, there’s plenty to play for beyond the West’s final playoff spot Sunday during Major League Soccer’s Decision Day, when every team will take the pitch for 4 p.m. ET kickoffs.

[ MORE: Conte feels pressure ]

Here’s what we do know regarding the playoffs:

  1. Supporters’ Shield winning Toronto FC gets a first round bye, while No. 6 seed New York Red Bulls are headed to the road for a first round playoff
  2. New England, Montreal, Philadelphia, Orlando, DC, Minnesota, Colorado, and LA will not make the playoffs
  3. Full stop.

So, yes, this will be fun.

First, let’s look at the Eastern Conference Standings ahead of Sunday’s extravaganza:

Eastern Conference
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Toronto FC 33 20 8 5 72 35 37 13-3-1 7-5-4 68
x – New York City FC 33 16 8 9 54 41 13 10-4-2 6-4-7 56
x – Chicago 33 16 7 10 61 44 17 12-3-2 4-4-8 55
x – Atlanta 33 15 9 9 68 38 30 11-2-3 4-7-6 54
x – Columbus 33 16 5 12 51 47 4 12-2-3 4-3-9 53
x – New York 33 13 8 12 51 46 5 9-6-2 4-2-10 47

— New York City FC controls its bye destiny, though Columbus could join them on 56 points and would pass them on tiebreakers (wins).

— If that happens, Chicago could claim the second bye with a win or draw in Houston (The Fire owns the goal differential tiebreaker).

— If New York City and Chicago lose or draw, Atlanta could finish second with a home win over TFC.

— Columbus can finish second with a win and non-wins for Chicago and Atlanta.

Western Conference
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
x – Vancouver 33 15 7 11 49 47 2 9-5-3 6-2-8 52
x – Portland 33 14 8 11 58 49 9 10-4-2 4-4-9 50
x – Seattle 33 13 11 9 49 39 10 10-5-1 3-6-8 50
x – Sporting KC 33 12 13 8 39 27 12 10-6-1 2-7-7 49
x – Houston 33 12 11 10 54 45 9 11-4-1 1-7-9 47
San Jose 33 12 7 14 36 58 -22 9-5-2 3-2-12 43
FC Dallas 33 10 13 10 43 47 -4 7-7-2 3-6-8 43
Real Salt Lake 33 12 6 15 47 54 -7 8-4-4 4-2-11 42

Byes

— Vancouver finishes first with a win or draw at Portland. The ‘Caps could finish as low as third with a loss to Portland and a Seattle win versus Colorado.

— Portland finishes first — and wins the Cascadia Cup — with a win over visiting Vancouver.

— Seattle can claim a first round bye with a win over visiting Colorado and a Vancouver win over Portland.

— Sporting KC can finish second with a win at Real Salt Lake and non-wins for Portland and Seattle.

Final playoff spot

— San Jose claims the sixth seed with a home win over Minnesota. They can also finish sixth with a draw joined by non-wins for FC Dallas at home to LA and Real Salt Lake at home versus SKC.

— FC Dallas claims the sixth seed with a win over LA and a San Jose draw or loss versus Minnesota. FCD gets sixth with a draw, and a San Jose loss coupled with a RSL loss or draw versus SKC.

—  Real Salt Lake gets sixth with a win over SKC, and non-wins from San Jose and Dallas. RSL could also get sixth with a draw and losses for San Jose and Dallas.

(Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images)

Schedule
FC Dallas vs. LA Galaxy
DC United vs. New York Red Bulls
San Jose vs. Minnesota United
Real Salt Lake vs. Sporting KC
Houston vs. Chicago
Seattle vs. Colorado
Philadelphia vs. Orlando City
Portland vs. Vancouver
Montreal vs. New England
New York City vs. Columbus
Atlanta vs. Toronto

Predictions

— NYCFC hangs on for a draw against Columbus, earning a bye, leaving Chicago to host New York Red Bulls and Atlanta off to Columbus for the first round of the playoffs (We have Toronto beating Atlanta on Sunday).

— Vancouver and Portland draw, while Seattle beats Colorado. The ‘Caps and Sounders get byes, while Seattle takes back the Cascadia Cup.

— San Jose beats Minnesota, gaining the West’s sixth seed. The Quakes head to Portland for the first round, while SKC hosts Houston.