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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.

Report: Arsenal interested in Leicester keeper Kasper Schmeichel

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According to a report by The Sun, Arsenal is monitoring the progress of Leicester City goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel.

The rumor does make sense. With Petr Cech at 34 years old and having a poor season in front of net and backup David Ospina failing to challenge him for the starting job, the Gunners are looking elsewhere to bring in a potential future starter.

Schmeichel has been one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League the past two seasons. Last season he led the Foxes to the Premier League title, organizing a stunningly good defensive line of patchwork players. This season, the defense has largely regressed and let Schmeichel down, but he has still performed well and has the metrics to remain one of the league’s top shot-stoppers.

The Danish keeper is 30 years old himself, but that puts him in his prime for a goalkeeper. He has been with Leicester City since 2011, and he will tick 250 appearances for the club with his next match. Schmeichel was rumored to be a member of the secret player delegation that worked hard to see Claudio Ranieri pushed out of the club, a sentiment which he and the other players have strongly denied.

Still, with an improbable Premier League title in hand and an appearance in the Champions League quarterfinals now on the cards, there probably isn’t much else for him at Leicester City. It’s possible Schmeichel could look to bank on his past performances and secure a move to a bigger club this summer.

Should Arsene Wenger stay with Arsenal past this season, a possibility that looks more and more likely, he could look to move on from Cech despite signing the former Chelsea goalkeeper just two summers ago.

Diego Costa injured, but will stay with Spain squad for friendly

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Chelsea striker Diego Costa pulled up in Spain training on Sunday, and with the Blues in first in the Premier League and Costa in great form, there were obvious concerns.

With Costa struggling with leg and ankle injuries, the RFEF informed Chelsea that there was an issue, and Costa was pulled from training and sent for tests. X-Rays at the local hospital in Madrid were negative, and he’s rejoined the squad.

According to the RFEF, doctors will continue to monitor the 28-year-old and he will continue with the national team for the rest of the international break. With a World Cup qualification win over Israel already in the books and just a friendly against France to go on Tuesday, it’s odd that Spain would risk Costa moving forward, but they will continue to keep him around.

Costa has scored 18 goals this season to lead the Blues, and he scored in the win over Israel. Spain takes on France in Saint-Denis on Tuesday, with both teams leading their World Cup qualification groups. Spain has a goal-differential lead on Italy with both teams miles above the rest of the Group G, and France is ahead of Sweden by three points in Group A, with the Netherlands back in fourth.

Foul or flop? Player “headbutts” referee, is sent off

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Well, there must be something in the water down in Brasilia, because things got a little weird this evening.

Flamengo drew with Vasco da Gama 2-2, but that was just the start.

In the 54th minute, with Vasco da Gama leading 1-0 at Estadio Nacional Mané Garrincha, 36-year-old Luis Fabiano was sent off for “headbutting” the referee. Headbutting is in quotes because looking at the video, it certainly appears there was little to no contact, and the referee flops.

Yes, the referee flopped. Take a look:

To be fair, Fabiano was already on a yellow, so getting in the referee’s face even without the headbutt/pelvic thrust would likely still have seen him sent to an early shower.

So the former Porto and Sevilla man was sent off, and Vasco da Gama was down to 10 men. Immediately after the red card, Flamengo took advantage, powering in a pair of goals via Willian Arao and Orlando Berrio to take the lead 2-1. But Vasco wouldn’t quit, and they earned a penalty five minutes into stoppage time, which Nene buried for the 2-2 draw.

To top things off, a player named Yago Pikachu scored the opener for Vasco da Gama, which was followed by a delay in the game seven minutes later after a power surge in the stadium. Go figure.

Lletget diagnosed with foot sprain, escaping further damage

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Word has arrived from the LA Galaxy camp that will see USMNT fans feel relieved as Sebastian Lletget has escaped the news many feared.

The young attacker was impressive in the first 18 minutes of the United States’ 6-0 win over Honduras, but was injured minutes after scoring the opening goal and could not continue. Replays showed that Lletget got his foot caught underneath a defender in the process of a hard challenge on the right wing.

There was concern that Lletget would be out for a significant amount of time, but the Galaxy announced that after testing over the weekend, Lletget did not suffer any structural damage and was diagnosed with a left foot sprain.

[ MORE: USMNT adds Paul Arreola to roster, drops Lletget, Brooks, Morris ]

Lletget will visit a specialist on Monday to determine a plan for recovery, and it’s possible that he will still have to miss some time in the near future. The Galaxy visit Vancouver on Saturday, and his status for that match has to be considered up in the air. They then host Montreal on April 7.

While Lletget obviously misses out on the next USMNT game at Panama on Tuesday having already been dumped from the roster, he will most definitely be available for the June games against Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico, and will likely be an option for Bruce Arena given the manager’s history with Lletget at Los Angeles.

The United States have been struck with a collection of injuries that all occurred just before the international break, hampering the squad significantly. Bobby Wood, Jordan Morris, and Fabian Johnson all went down in the days before reporting for international duty, and the team lost Lletget and John Brooks in the Honduras win. Lletget’s departure could see Alejandro Bedoya into the starting lineup on Tuesday, with the Union midfielder having replaced Lletget in the Honduras match. Also in contention is Jermaine Jones, who could come in after his suspension and push Darlington Nagbe onto the wing.