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.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

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.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

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.

Pep celebrates another historic Man City performance

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Pep Guardiola was thrilled with his club’s response to sealing the Premier League title: More dominance.

[ RECAP: Man City 5-0 Swans ]

Man City battered Swansea City 5-0 at the Etihad Stadium on the strength of goals from five different players.

“From the first minute to the last one, we played what we have shown in the season,” Guardiola said on NBCSN after the match. “(We scored) a lot of goals and we didn’t concede. We play to keep improving our game here and for the next season.”

Guardiola could hardly differentiate between the club’s stylish Sunday goals, saying, “The first one, the second one, of course the third one. … The Yaya pass was amazing. All the goals were so good.”

And he was also pleased with the support from the Etihad Stadium crowd, though he admits he was grateful to escape before the City faithful stormed the pitch.

Guardiola said he thinks the supporters are still behind their team despite the decisive UEFA Champions League loss to Liverpool because of how hard City plays week-in and week-out.

“That’s happened because they know that we are not liars in the way we want to play,” he said. “They know that we tried our best from the beginning to the end. We knew from the beginning how happy they were.”

Conte relishing renewal of Mourinho rivalry

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LONDON —  Antonio Conte versus Jose Mourinho. Chelsea versus Manchester United.

The FA Cup final on May 19 will be some showdown between two Premier League giants as Chelsea breezed past Southampton 2-0 in their semifinal at Wembley on Sunday.

Conte against Mourinho is a battle which has become increasingly feisty over the past two seasons as they’ve had public spats and insulted one another.

Speaking after the game, Conte was asked about his relationship with Mourinho and potential fireworks on the sidelines, as well as on the pitch, during the final.

“With Jose [Mourinho], we have clarified the situation and that is the most important thing. There is not a problem between him and I,” Conte said. “I think this is a final between two great teams. In my mind I can tell you last season we arrived as favorites against Arsenal. I think in this season season we are not arriving as favorites but as you know very well, last season we lost the cup.”

Conte then revealed he respects Mourinho despite the words the two had earlier this season.

The Italian coach responded to Mourinho’s comments about him, and other PL managers, acting like “clowns” on the sidelines by saying Mourinho was a “fake, little man” as United’s manager also hit out and made a remark about Conte’s involvement in a previous match-fixing investigation.

“We are talking about two managers with a strong character and about two winners and when your mind, your heart, your blood and there is the will to win, for sure we want to try to win this trophy,” Conte said. “The same way Manchester United wants to achieve this. I have great respect for United’s story, for Mourinho’s story. I think they have the same respect for Chelsea’s story and my story.”

Let’s see if that respect is on show during what should be a fantastic final next month as it could well be Conte’s final game in charge of Chelsea.

Man City 5-0 Swans: Royal blowout

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  • Swans give guard of honor
  • Four different goal scorers
  • Fabianski saves PK

Five different players scored as Manchester City hammered Swansea City 5-0 at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday.

Fans flooded the pitch after the final whistle, many congregating around a surprised Benjamin Mendy in his return from injury.

Kevin De Bruyne scored the highlight reel goal, with David Silva, Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus, and Bernardo Silva also scoring for the Premier League champions in their first match since sealing the title through a Manchester United loss to West Brom.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Man City put together another brilliant team goal to open the scoring, with Kevin De Bruyne playing Raheem Sterling toward the end line and David Silva burying Sterling’s cutback in the 12th minute.

Sterling made it 2-0 in the 16th minute, capping off a 1-2 between Fabian Delph and David Silva with a back post tap-in.

Lukasz Fabianski caught a curling effort from Bernardo Silva as the match reached the half hour mark. He’d stop De Bruyne two minutes later.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

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De Bruyne scored an otherworldly goal from 25 yards in the 54th minute.

Swansea almost had an answer through Ki Sung-yeung’s corner kick, but Alfie Mawson headed over the bar.

Federico Fernandez conceded a penalty kick to Sterling, and Jesus saw his chance saved by Fabianski. That didn’t stop Bernardo Silva from carving a rebound goal for 4-0.

Benjamin Mendy made his long-awaited return from injury with a 75th minute substitution for Delph.

Fellow substitute Phil Foden took a play started by Yaya Toure and nearly found an assist when Fabianski caught Jesus’ header.

Jesus got his goal when he popped Toure’s scooped past over Fabianski in the 88th.

WATCH: De Bruyne thunders another distance goal for Man City

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The voters have already marked their ballots, but Kevin De Bruyne sent out a “Don’t forget about me” to Premier League Player of the Year debaters on Sunday.

[ RECAP: Arsenal 4-1 West Ham ]

With Man City already in full control of visitors Swansea City, the Belgian playmaker lashed a 25-yard beauty beyond the reach of Lukasz Fabianski.

According to Opta, it’s De Bruyne’s PL-leading fifth goal from outside the box. He has eight league goals and 15 assists this season.