PL Playback: One from six; who are the title favorites?

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MINI-LEAGUES EMERGING

We saw yet another weekend of dominance for the big boys in the Premier League (except for Manchester City) and the gap is growing bigger between the top six and the rest of the league.

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Throughout the entire league there are now three “mini-leagues” which are taking shape in a six-eight-six formation.

Here’s a look at what I’m talking about…

  1. Chelsea – 52 points
  2. Tottenham – 45
  3. Liverpool – 45
  4. Arsenal – 44
  5. Man City – 42
  6. Man United – 40
  7. Everton – 33
  8. West Brom – 29 
  9. Stoke – 27
  10. Burnley- 26
  11. Bournemouth – 25
  12. West Ham – 25
  13. Southampton – 24
  14. Watford – 23
  15. Leicester City – 21
  16. Middlesbrough – 20
  17. Crystal Palace – 16
  18. Hull City – 16
  19. Sunderland – 15
  20. Swansea City – 15

The top six will, obviously, get plenty of the focus from here on out.

Apart from Chelsea still feeding off that incredible 13-game win streak there is little to separate the rest with just five points between second-place Tottenham and sixth-place Manchester United. The middle eight teams are all having “meh” seasons, apart from Burnley who are overachieving, while the bottom six all look destined for a relegation scrap in the closing four months of the campaign with Leicester City struggling to claw themselves away from danger.

This season it seems like the overachieving and underachieving is at a minimum. Things are almost back to normal, especially with the perennial powers, after the madness of the 2015-16 campaign.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings

Yes, the title battle will be intense as Chelsea will, inevitably, drop points along the way and Diego Costa‘s situation has given their title rivals a boost. However, the more intriguing factor could be which two teams miss out on the top four and qualification for the UEFA Champions League.

If Man City’s struggles continue and Pep Guardiola misses out, or if Jose Mourinho and Manchester United don’t push into the top four in the coming months, then those will be huge stories. Yet, it is tough to see any of the current top six dropping many points between now and the end of the season.

It will be a long, hard slog and with UEFA Champions League and Europa League action to kick off next month, along with FA Cup action for all of the top six, the games will come thick and fast.

Who can handle all of this and stay in the hunt?


Chelsea
Position: 1st
Points: 52
Biggest strength: No European action to contend with, 3-4-3 and a strong defensive unit. Antonio Conte has been here before with Juventus and has been influential in their rise to the top.
Biggest weakness: Temperamental stars (I’m looking at you Diego Costa) could go missing either figuratively or literally at any moment. Chelsea need to add a new striker in January to stop that from curtailing their title bid.

Tottenham Hotspur
Position: 2nd
Points: 45
Biggest strength: Harry Kane and Dele Alli are on another level right now but when you look across Spurs’ team, everyone is hitting form at the right time. Walker and Rose at wing-back is a great option to. This team has learned from their title challenge faltering last season and they are without doubt the biggest threat to Chelsea right now.
Biggest weakness: Europa League and injuries. Mauricio Pochettino has said he will go for Europa League success but if injuries start cropping up (Vertonghen could be out long-term) then he will change his mind.

Liverpool
Position: 3rd
Points: 45
Biggest strength: No European action. Plus, Philippe Coutinho has been out injured for almost two months and now looks ready to roll and re-energized. The front four have been so good all season.
Biggest weakness: Fatigue. Even with no added European action, EFL Cup and FA Cup games in recent weeks have shown Klopp’s methods could be too much. Remember how much Liverpool tired last season?

Arsenal
Position: 4th
Points: 44
Biggest strength: Endless talent in attack with Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and even Olivier Giroud now in top form. Skhodran Mustafi has been a huge boost in defense too.
Biggest weakness: Being Arsenal. Logic suggests that a slump is coming up in the second half of the season. Just because, Arsenal. Across the board there are few weaknesses though.

Manchester City
Position: 5th
Points: 42
Biggest strength: Star-studded attackers who can get them out of any mess. It is now time for Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva to turn up. Massive numbers in his squad also helps.
Biggest weakness: Defense. Claudio Bravo has had a nightmare in goal and City’s defense has been far from inspiring as Pep’s masterplan has stalled significantly. Bravo’s struggles has in-turn led to John Stones, Nicolas Otamendi and others crumbling. Pep will never change his philosophy and the way he wants to play. That could mean City pay a big price and finish outside the top four unless they improve drastically in defense.

Manchester United
Position: 6th
Points: 40
Biggest strength: Superstars Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba, plus Mourinho’s experience at grinding out wins.
Biggest weakness: Not finishing teams off and, again, the Europa League. Mourinho has and will continue to cut some deadwood from his squad. That means he will use plenty of the same players for EFL Cup, FA Cup and Europa League games. Can he balance this out to help United get right back in the top four mix? A title push seems out of the question now as they’re 10 points, but with nine wins on the spin in all competitions before the last game against Liverpool, they are in form and arguably have a better chance than Man City of overhauling that deficit.


KLOPP NOT CORRECT TO CALL OUT LONG BALL

Following Liverpool’s 1-1 draw at Manchester United on Sunday, Reds boss Jurgen Klopp took exception to United’s direct approach in the final 20 minutes of the game.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned on United vs. Liverpool ]

Let’s call it what it was. Mourinho went direct for the entire second half. Eventually it paid off when substitute Marouane Fellaini hit the post with a header and Zlatan Ibrahimovic stooped to head home the equalizer in the 84th minute, even if Antonio Valencia was slightly offside when the initial cross came in.

[ MORE: Player ratings – United vs. Liverpool ]

Klopp looked agitated, frustrated and annoyed afterwards as he told multiple news outlets that Liverpool “were the better team who had the better plan” plus kept slamming United for using long balls late on. He was probably also still smarting a little over the Joel Matip situation as he could be out for another month and Liverpool missed him once again at the heart of their defense. Matip’s height would’ve helped Klopp significantly with United’s direct approach late in the game.

[ MORE: Klopp slams “long ball” United ]

Klopp won the tactical battle to start with as Liverpool lined up with a diamond formation in midfield and nullified the impact of Michael Carrick and Paul Pogba, but Mourinho changed things up and went direct, not allowing Liverpool’s high-press to catch out his defenders as they bypassed midfield. Mourinho did what he had to do to get a draw, just like he did at Anfield.

United actually played 89 long balls against Liverpool, more than any other team in any PL games in Week 21. Guess what? It worked. It wasn’t the best United will ever play but they now look much harder to beat even if Paul Pogba had a nightmare and their front three were largely kept quiet.

After the draw, Klopp was most likely just trying to make a point that although his side have not won any of their last four games in all competitions, they should still be admired. They should. The progress Liverpool has made under him in just over a year has been huge but United and Mourinho reminded him that there is more ways to score goals and get points than relying on Gegenpressing.

Zlatan summed it up best when describing how United got back into the game as a big derby ended honors even and both managers were upset with dropping points as Chelsea’s gap at the top grew.


WHAT NOW FOR GUARDIOLA?

Pep Guardiola has all but given up hope of winning the Premier League title in his first season in England.

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Guardiola, 45, looked 10 years older when speaking post-game at Everton on Sunday as his side were hammered 4-0 by the Toffees in an inept display which showcased all of their weaknesses.

The much-lauded coach was supposed to turn City into not only the champions of England but also Europe. It’s not going to plan, at all, and especially in defense.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]  

After he suffered his worst-ever league defeat as a manager, plus City’s heaviest league defeat since 2008, Pep was asked if their title bid was over.

“Yes. Ten is a lot of points,” Guardiola said. “The second one [Tottenham] is three points. We have to see. I spoke to my players the last three weeks or a month, forget about the table. Focus on the next game and try to do our best to win the games and after that at the end of the season we are going to evaluate how our level and performance was — how was the coach, how was the players and after we are going to decide.”

Although it may seem like too early for City — don’t forget, they were the preseason favorites who won their first 10 games in all competitions under Pep to start the season — to concede the title, it is perhaps telling that Guardiola is already looking resigned to just challenging for the top four.

He knows that if he stays with his passing philosophy out of the back that his team will be susceptible to fast, strong, counter-attacking teams like Everton. There are plenty of teams who deploy those tactics in the PL — Tottenham, Chelsea, Leicester to name a few — and have had great success doing it against City. Guardiola will never play like that and his style is something which led Barcelona and Bayern Munich to glory and often eviscerating English teams in the Champions League.

Guardiola’s team isn’t eviscerating anyone on a weekly basis in the PL right now. Right now, it’s the other way round.

When it clicks their style of play looks beautiful but City is too inconsistent and as soon as they go a goal behind they are lacking in confidence and crumble. Make no mistake about it, this is Pep’s biggest challenge of his managerial career but a country mile. He knows it. You can see it in his eyes. He knows he doesn’t possess the players, in defense at least, to carry out his style and he can’t do too much about it. He will never change his ideals no matter the intense criticism coming his way.

[ MORE: Premier League stats

Right now, many would say he’s failing in the PL and at City. Big time. Yet, let’s give him until the end of the season because an appearance in the UCL semifinals and a runners up spot really wouldn’t be too disastrous. Yet with defending like this and Bravo conceding almost every shot which goes on target right now, those targets seem rather lofty and a long way off for this talented yet tainted City outfit.


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.

MLS Snapshot: FCD’s winless skid hits 10 in loss to MNUFC

Photo credit: Minnesota United / @MNUFC
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The game in 100 words (or less): Just when FC Dallas think they’ve hit rock-bottom, the fall a little bit farther. Oscar Pareja’s side saw its winless skid hit 10 games on Saturday, with a 4-1 loss away to Minnesota United, a side themselves with all of three wins from their last dozen games. Gone now are the games in hand that buoyed FCD’s hopes just a few weeks ago, as they’re now level on games played with many of the sides presently ahead of them in the race for a Western Conference playoff spot, save for Real Salt Lake (level on points) and the San Jose Earthquakes (one point ahead). Following their sixth loss in 10 games, FCD remain eighth in the West, a point behind the Houston Dynamo for the sixth and final playoff place (RSL play later on Saturday with a chance to go fifth themselves. Minnesota, meanwhile, distance themselves from the 10th-place LA Galaxy and sit just six points behind FCD, having rebounded nicely after an appalling start to their expansion season.

[ MORE: MLS weekend preview — ATL host MTL; RSL desperate vs. SEA ]

Three Four Five moments that mattered

14′ — Akindele arrives late, slams home for 1-0 — Tesho Akindele waltzed through the penalty area, unnoticed and unmarked, before arriving at the top of the six-yard box just in time to meet Michael Barrios’ cross.

24′ — Ramirez finishes after a beautiful through ball sets him up — Kevin Molino picked the right pass, and played it perfectly (with a bit of help from Walker Zimmerman), and Christian Ramirez made no mistake with the finish.

35′ — Ibarra volleys past Gonzalez to make it 2-1 — Ramirez turned provider on Minnesota’s second goal, lofting the ball into the penalty area for Miguel Ibarra, whose first-time take beat Jesse Gonzalez to put the home side ahead.

68′ — Shuttleworth denies Diaz from the spot — Two games, two saves from the penalty spot for Bobby Shuttleworth.

71′ — Finlay finishes some fancy build-up for 3-1 — Heartbreak on one end of the field, heartbreak on the other end of the field. Anything and everything that could go wrong for FCD, continues to go wrong for FCD.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Christian Ramirez

Goalscorers: Akindele (14′), Ramirez (24′), Ibarra (35′), Finlay (71′), Danladi (88′)

MLS Snapshot: Fire lose again, continue slide into KO round

Photo credit: MLS / @MLS
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The game in 100 words (or less): The Chicago Fire’s slide toward the mean — some might call it regression, indicating maybe, just maybe, they overachieved during the first half of the season — continued on Saturday, following a brief reprieve to begin the month. Veljko Paunovic’s side lost its seventh game in 11 outings, falling 3-1 away to the Philadelphia Union. Bastian Schweinsteiger remains sidelined with a calf injury, but the rest of Chicago’s key figures — Nemanja Nikolic, Dax McCarty, David Accam and Matt Polster remain in place. Chris Pontius did the majority of the damage on Saturday, bagging Philadelphia’s first two goals, followed by CJ Sapong for the third. Luis Solignac grabbed a consolation goal inside the final 25 minutes, but the damage had been done. The result means Chicago (48 points) remain third in the Eastern Conference, still four points back of New York City FC and just two points clear of Atlanta United, who have two games in hand.

[ MORE: MLS weekend preview — ATL host MTL; RSL desperate vs. SEA ]

Three moments that mattered

10′ — Pontius heads the cross home for 1-0 — Keegan Rosenberry cut inside and delivered a delicate, left-footed cross into the box. Pontius got away from his man and met the ball with his head at the top of the six-yard box.

55′ — Pontius again, this time on the rebound — Fafa Picault’s shot was saved by Matt Lampson, but no one followed up to boot the rebound clear. Pontius reacted quickest, and the lead was two.

64′ — Sapong pokes it home for 3-0 — This is Sapong’s 14th of the season, tying Sebastien Le Toux’s club record (2010), and reminded me once again the Peter Vermes insisted on playing Sapong as a winger for multiple seasons before trading him.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Chris Pontius

Goalscorers: Pontius (10′, 55′), Sapong (64′), Solignac (67′)

Serie A: Dybala scores two more, Juve win 4-0; Napoli perfect, too

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MILAN (AP) Paulo Dybala continued his astonishing start to the season as he netted twice to help Juventus beat 10-man Torino 4-0 in a Serie A derby on Saturday.

Miralem Pjanic and Alex Sandro scored the others after Torino midfielder Daniele Baselli was sent off after 24 minutes of the Derby della Mole.

[ PL ROUNDUP: Goals galore on a wild Saturday ]

Dybala took his tally to 10 goals in the opening six league matches, just one less than he scored in the whole of the last campaign.

Juventus stayed perfect in Serie A, as did Napoli which won at Spal 3-2 earlier.

Roma, which has played a match less, remained six points behind after beating Udinese 3-1.

Torino shot itself in the foot early on, first by gifting Juventus the lead as Baselli and Tomas Rincon gave away possession and Dybala drilled into the bottom right corner from the edge of the area.

Matters grew worse for Torino eight minutes later when Baselli, who had already been booked, clumsily clattered into Pjanic and he was shown a second yellow card and dismissed.

[ PL ROUNDUP: Goals galore on a wild Saturday ]

“I was too eager for the derby, I cared too much about this game. I made a mistake. I apologise to my teammates, our fans, the club,” Baselli wrote on Twitter.

Pjanic doubled Juve’s lead shortly before halftime, curling into the left side of the net after Juan Cuadrado cut back a cross.

Sandro headed in a corner in the 57th and it could have been more for Juventus but Torino goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu pulled off some fine saves, and Mario Mandzukic hit the post.

In stoppage time, Dybala dinked the ball over Sirigu after good linkup play between Pjanic and substitute Gonzalo Higuain.

Algeria left back Faouzi Ghoulam was the unlikely match-winner for Napoli seven minutes from time, with a run from the halfway line.

[ MORE: Mauricio Pochettino — “I am in love with Harry Kane” ]

“If Spal plays like this all year, this will be a difficult place,” Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri said.

“We don’t feel we’re the `anti Juve,’ we’re a team which is getting a lot of points and we have improved in comparison to the past years: We are more able to withstand negative moments of matches.

“We have had a good start, that gives us confidence and enthusiasm to continue working.”

Spal lost its previous three matches but took a surprise lead early when Mirco Antenucci rolled the ball across for Pasquale Schiattarella, who is from Naples, to smash it into the bottom left corner.

The home side’s lead lasted only 77 seconds. Lorenzo Insigne curled an effort inside the near post.

Spal was causing Napoli problems but it was the visitors who led in the 71st when Jose Callejon headed in Ghoulam’s cross.

[ MORE: Mourinho bewildered by sending-off; Man United beat Southampton ]

Federico Viviani put Spal back on level terms seven minutes later with a free kick but Ghoulam scored what was to be the winner shortly after.

Stephan El Shaarawy scored twice to keep up the pressure on Napoli and Juventus.

All the Roma goals came in the first half, with El Shaarawy pouncing after Edin Dzeko‘s opener.

Capital side Roma has played a match less than most Serie A teams coming into the weekend, as its fixture at Sampdoria was postponed because of bad weather.

Dzeko seems determined to retain the Serie A top goalscorer award he won last year and he opened the scoring with his fifth goal in three matches.

La Liga: Own goals help Barca stay perfect; Atleti, Real win

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GIRONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona was helped by two own goals from Girona as it eased to a 3-0 win and kept its perfect record in the Spanish league on Saturday.

Barcelona increased its lead of the league to four points after Atletico Madrid beat Sevilla 2-0 to leapfrog the Andalucian club into second place.

Barcelona went ahead at Montilivi Stadium when Girona defender Aday Benitez deflected Jordi Alba’s off-target shot back into his net.

Barcelona’s Luis Suarez and Aleix Vidal did more to help provoke a second goal three minutes after halftime, when Suarez deftly let Vidal’s dangerous short pass go through his legs, where it hit surprised goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz and went into the net.

Suarez capped Barcelona’s sixth victory in as many league matches – to go with a victory over Juventus in the Champions League – when he was left all alone to take Sergi Roberto’s lobbed pass and beat Iraizoz.

It was a second goal in six matches for Suarez, who missed two matches because of a right knee injury.

The decision by Girona coach Pablo Machin to man-mark Lionel Messi with Pablo Maffeo succeeded in preventing the Barcelona star from adding to his best ever start to a Liga. Messi scored nine goals in the first five rounds.

“Messi worked for the team,” Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde said. “I like the team spirit we are showing. We are mentally focused to get to work.”

Girona, which is playing in its first season in the topflight, was left in 15th place with just one win.

Barcelona visits Sporting Lisbon in the Champions League on Wednesday.


BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Real Madrid turned to new midfielder Dani Ceballos to help it get back on the winning path in the Spanish league on Saturday.

The midfielder made the most of his first start for Zinedine Zidane’s team by scoring twice to lead a 2-1 victory at winless Alaves.

The win came three days after Madrid lost 1-0 at home to Ceballo’s former team, Real Betis. That slip combined with a pair of home draws left the defending champions trailing leader Barcelona.

Madrid cut the difference with Barcelona to four points before the pacesetter visited Girona later.

Ceballos struck in the 10th minute and restored the defending champions’ advantage two minutes before halftime.

Ceballos received a pass from Marco Asensio, fought through a tackle, and shot just inside the post for the opener.

Manu Garcia responded by ending Alaves’ long scoring drought. His powerful header from a cross by Munir El Haddadi was the Basque Country club’s first goal of the season.

But Ceballos put Madrid back in charge when he fired in a ball that goalkeeper Fernando Pacheco spilled when he collided with a teammate while defending a cross.

Alaves almost leveled late when substitute Alfonso Pedraza twice hit the woodwork.

Cristiano Ronaldo also hit the goal-frame twice in the second half as the Madrid forward seeks his first goal in the league after he was suspended for the first four rounds for pushing a referee.

Diego Costa watched as his soon-to-be teammates on Atletico Madrid dealt Sevilla a 2-0 defeat and leapfrogged the Andalucian side into second place.

Antoine Griezmann and Yannick Carrasco scored in the second half while Costa watched from the stands of the club’s new Wanda Metropolitano Stadium.

Carrasco raced around Steven N’Zoni to reach a through pass from Luciano Vietto. Carrasco avoided sliding goalkeeper Sergio Rico and pushed the ball into the empty net.

The Belgium winger also started the attack that led to the second goal. Carrasco made a run into the area before crossing for Griezmann, who fought to keep control of the ball before he exchanged it with Filipe Luis and fired under Rico.

Sevilla fell to third, one point behind Atletico.

Atletico reached a deal with Chelsea this week for Costa to return to his former club.

Atletico will host Chelsea in the Champions League on Wednesday.

Diego Rolan scored a double to help Malaga rally from a two-goal deficit in the final minutes and earn a 3-3 draw with visitors Athletic Bilbao.

Bilbao went ahead thanks to an early penalty converted by Aritz Aduriz before Rolan made it 1-1 for Malaga.

Inaki Williams then netted twice for Bilbao, but Malaga scored twice in the final 10 minutes to secure its first point of the season after it lost its first five matches.