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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Building a team: LAFC kicks off with its first practice

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LOS ANGELES (AP) Diego Rossi drew the attention of scouts worldwide last year while playing a prominent role in Penarol’s championship season in his native Uruguay.

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So why would a touted teenage striker choose to continue his rising career at Los Angeles Football Club, which has never played a game and hasn’t even revealed its jersey?

“To write the history,” Rossi said Monday after the first training session in franchise history.

Nearly 39 months after a deep-pocketed ownership group secured Major League Soccer’s 23rd franchise, LAFC finally took the field on a sunny January morning at UCLA for its inaugural workout under coach Bob Bradley.

The club doesn’t yet have a fully stocked roster or a finished stadium, although both of those projects will be completed shortly. Building a true team will take a bit longer, but Bradley is confident he has a group that can make an immediate impact in the growing North American league.

“I’ve seen a lot of first days, but I thought overall, there were some good signs,” said Bradley, the former boss of Swansea City and the U.S. national team. “Of course, I see all the things that still need work, so there was a little bit of yelling and screaming and demonstrating, but that’s all part of the work every day.”

Bradley is the only coach in MLS history to win a title with an expansion club, leading the Chicago Fire to a championship in 1998. He hasn’t coached in his domestic league since leaving Chivas USA in 2006, but LAFC seems to have the ingredients to build another compelling team immediately .

LAFC might not have jerseys yet, but Rossi’s shorts featured a No. 9, underlining his expected role as the striker. The No. 10 shorts were worn by Carlos Vela, the versatile Mexican playmaker who left La Liga’s Real Sociedad to become LAFC’s first designated player.

Rossi and Vela could be a compelling tandem, but they’re only part of a roster already studded with international talent including Belgian defender Laurent Ciman, Egyptian midfielder Omar Gaber, Costa Rican forward Marco Urena, Ghanaian forward Latif Blessing and Americans Benny Feilhaber and Walker Zimmerman.

“The (other) players’ names come pretty easy to me,” said Feilhaber, a UCLA product who had mixed emotions about leaving Sporting Kansas City after five seasons. “We’re still getting to know each other, but it’s fun to get out on the field with players that are as talented as this. We’re just getting our feet wet, but it’s going to be exciting.”

Gaber played for Bradley on the Egyptian national team, and he was excited when LAFC acquired him from FC Basel in Switzerland’s top league.

“Once they started to speak with me, I felt they are so professional,” Gaber said. “I felt for sure I had to come. Yes, maybe it’s a risk to be with a new club, but we have very good players, coaches and staff. The people are so professional. We have big ambitions, and we want success. I am sure we will achieve good things together.”

LAFC isn’t done building, either.

Rossi filled the club’s second DP spot, but a third remains open. The club hasn’t decided whether to fill it now or after the World Cup, but there’s little doubt LAFC has the financial might to contend for top MLS-level talent.

The club’s resources also will be on display in late April when Banc of California Stadium opens in downtown Los Angeles. Located next-door to the historic Coliseum, LAFC’s privately funded, soccer-specific home is expected to be a festive gathering place for LA’s burgeoning downtown population of relocated professionals and locals alike.

After a handful of preseason friendlies, LAFC will open its first season with six road games, starting in Seattle on March 4 and including its first date with the LA Galaxy on March 31.

“I’m excited about the potential of this club,” Vela said. “I think it’s going to be incredible.”

Chelsea update on transfer deals for Dzeko, Palmeri

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Chelsea are keeping their cards close to their chest when it comes to the potential arrival of Roma duo Edin Dzeko and Emerson Palmeri.

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It has been reported that Chelsea have bid $72.5 million for the pair, with Dzeko, 31, fitting the ball for the target forward they’ve been searching for.

Speaking to the media ahead of Chelsea’s League Cup semifinal second leg at Arsenal on Wednesday, Conte was tight-lipped over the approach for Dzeko and left back Palmeri.

“I don’t know. As you know very well about the transfer market, if there are news the club will inform you,” Conte said.

As for Roma, they have acknowledged that Dzeko, the former Manchester City striker, has been impacted by the talks surrounding his future.

Speaking ahead of their game against Sampdoria on Wednesday, manager Eusebio Di Francesco had the following to say about Dzeko’s future.

“As things stand at the moment, he will. Obviously I’m going to have to assess things and see what frame of mind he’s in. I’ll speak to him about it,” Di Francesco said.

With Roma fighting for the Italian title and in the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League, it’s tough to understand why they would want to offload Dzeko in January. However with Dzeko now 31, Roma could recoup all of the $40 million they paid to Man City (and then some) for the Bosnian forward in 2015. That’s a decent deal for them after getting two-and-a-half seasons and 61 goals in 117 appearances in all competitions (46 goals in 88 Serie A games) from Dzeko.

The man who won the Premier League title twice with Man City may also feel like he has a little left to prove in England as he fell behind Sergio Aguero and many others in the pecking order towards the end of his time at the Etihad Stadium. It is also believed Dzeko will almost double his wages if he moves from Roma to Chelsea.

With Peter Crouch and Andy Carroll mentioned as potential signings for Chelsea as Conte looks for a big man to mix up his attacking options, Dzeko is by far the most prolific name mentioned and he must have previously impressed Chelsea this season after scoring twice against them in a 3-3 Champions League draw at Stamford Bridge in October.

Alvaro Morata is out of form and has struggled with injuries, plus Michy Batshuayi has struggled to deliver whenever he has stepped in so far so this season, getting a reliable back-up striker has become the main aim for a Chelsea side in third place in the Premier League table and still in the FA Cup, League Cup and Champions League.

As for Palmeri, the deal for the Brazilian born left back, 23, will see him become a valuable squad member and add depth at left wing-back with no real options to back up Marcos Alonso. Think of a left-footed Davide Zappacosta who steps in admirably for Victor Moses at right wing-back whenever needed.

With Cesar Apzilicueta now a permanent fixture at center back, Conte needs help at left back, especially as he revealed on Tuesday that a loan deal for Kenedy to Newcastle United is all but complete.

Arsenal confirm talks over Aubameyang transfer

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Arsene Wenger has confirmed that Arsenal are in negotiations with Borussia Dortmund over signing striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

Arsenal’s CEO Ivan Gazidis and their new Director of Recruitment, Sven Mislintat, are in German to talk with Dortmund about a deal for the 28-year-old Gabonese forward.

Aubamyenag hasn’t played in Dortmund’s last two games, first due to a disciplinary problem and he was then left out of their squad to face Hertha Berlin last Friday due to a lack of focus. The man who has scored 141 goals in 212 appearances for Dortmund in all competitions since 2013 seems to be edging his way out of the Westfalenstadion.

Asked if he was confident that the reigning Bundesliga top goalscorer would arrive at Arsenal during the January window, here’s what Wenger had to say.

“Confident or not confident, I don’t know. You never know how close you are,” Wenger said. “This is the kind of thing – he is one of the possible movements, but we have other things in mind as well. We have plenty of opportunities and the final decision is not made. At the moment we are not close to any deal, Aubameyang or anybody else.”

Okay, Arsene, so you may have other targets too. You sly fox…

But seriously, it seems like Arsenal have gone all in on Aubameyang and given his goalscoring record over the past five seasons, who can blame them? Here comes the juicy stuff.

Reports have stated that Dortmund wanted Olivier Giroud plus cash in exchange for Aubameyang, but Wenger said that negotiations aren’t yet at that stage.

Various reports over the weekend suggested that a fee of close to $70 million would nab Aubameyang from Dortmund, but it is believed Arsenal have offered close to $61 million so far.

The languid forward is a good friend of new Arsenal signing Henrikh Mkhitaryan as the duo wrecked havoc during their time together at Dortmund, and having Ozil and Mkhitaryan thread balls into Alexandre Lacazette and Aubameyang will leave Gunners fans salivating uncontrollably.

Stop drooling. Whip your keyboard or smartphone clean. But if Arsenal pull off this deal for Aubameyang, it could well signal a new era of challenging for the top four seriously and getting themselves back into the title conversation.

Yes, they’ve lost a final talent in Alexis Sanchez in the swap deal with Mkhitaryan, but they also gained a fine playmaker who will slot into their style of play seamlessly and they could have one of the most lethal marksman in world soccer on his way.

An intriguing final eight days of the window away with Wenger, Arsenal and Aubameyang.

List of top 30 richest clubs in world revealed

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10 Premier League were listed among the top 20 richest clubs in the world, with 14 PL clubs in the top 30.

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Deloitte released their Football Money League findings after analyzing the financial performance of clubs across the world for the 2016-17 season, with Manchester United coming out on top for the second season on the spin and the 10th time overall.

However, United were less than $2.2 million ahead of Real Madrid who finished in second, as the reigning European and Spanish champions switched places with third-place Barcelona. Bayern Munich and Manchester City rounded out the top five in fourth and fifth place respectively.

14 PL clubs were in the top 30, an increase from 12 this time last year. Arsenal were in sixth, Chelsea in eighth, Liverpool in ninth, Leicester in 14th, West Ham in 17th, Southampton in 18th and Everton in 20th.

Southampton are the only newcomer into the top 20, with Saints benefiting from their eighth-place finish in the PL last season, their fourth-straight finish in the top eight of the Premier League table, plus their appearance in the Europa League for a second-straight season. The South Coast boom in the PL also saw Bournemouth as the only debutants in places 21-30 with the Cherries now the 28th richest club on the planet, with Crystal Palace, West Brom and Stoke also among the top 30.

A noticeable trend is that Italian giants AS Roma and AC Milan both slipped out of the top 20, while just one team from France featured in the top 20 (Paris Saint-Germain), plus three teams each from Italy, Germany and Spain.

Below is a look at the top 30 and how much revenue they generated in 2016-17, with a more in-depth look at the top 20 available here via Deloitte.


  • 1. Manchester United: $828.4 million
  • 2. Real Madrid: $826.2.m
  • 3. Barcelona: $794m
  • 4. Bayern Munich: $720m
  • 5. Manchester City: $646.4m
  • 6. Arsenal: $597.1m
  • 7. Paris Saint Germain: $595.5m
  • 8. Chelsea: $524.2m
  • 9. Liverpool: $519.6m
  • 10. Juventus: $496.9m
  • 11. Tottenham: $435.5m
  • 12. Borussia Dortmund: $407.3m
  • 13. Atletico Madrid: $333.7m
  • 14. Leicester City: $332m
  • 15. Inter Milan: $321m
  • 16. Schalke: $281.9m
  • 17. West Ham: $261.3m
  • 18. Southampton: $259.8m
  • 19. Napoli: $245.8m
  • 20. Everton: $244m
  • 21. Lyon: $242.9m
  • 22. AC Milan: $234.8m
  • 23. Zenit St Petersburg: $220.9m
  • 24. Roma: $210.4m
  • 25. Borussia Monchengladbach: $207.5m
  • 26. Crystal Palace: $200.8m
  • 27. West Bromwich Albion: $196.6m
  • 28. Bournemouth: $195m
  • 29. Stoke City: $193.9m
  • 30. Benfica: $193.1m