Premier League Playback: Top headlines from Week 24

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Gabriel Jesus SUPERSTAR

The kid is special. Very special.

So special that he’s keeping Sergio Aguero, one of the greatest strikers in Premier League history, out of the Manchester City starting lineup.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays

Gabriel Jesus, 19, has scored three goals and added an assist in his first two starts as a PL player, including a stoppage-time winner against Swansea City at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday. Even in his first appearance in the PL he jumped off the bench he scared the life out of Tottenham, scoring a goal which was chalked off for offside.

He has a knack or popping up at the right place at the right time. Is it a knack though?

[ MORE: Guardiola shows glimpse of City’s future ]

It’s rare to see a teenager take games by the scruff of the neck like Jesus has in his first month in England. He joined City from Palmeiras in the summer for $34.3 million but the deal only went through once the January transfer window was opened and he was done leading the Sao Paulo club to the Brazilian title.

He has arrived at City fresh after a mini preseason and with opposition managers and players not knowing much about him, he has that aura of unpredictability. Over time that will erode and he will have to get used to defenders knowing his tricks, runs and his habits. Yet, his work rate and willingness to track back are perhaps his greatest trait and will help him stay one step ahead of his opponents.

[ MORE: Recaps, videos from every PL game in Week 24 ]

That’s why his manager Pep Guardiola has selected him alongside Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling in recent games. Those three possess raw pace and can close down opponents quickly and efficiently, allowing Pep’s masterplan of winning the ball back in six seconds to take place.

Jesus also has that “street fighter” spirit that the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Luis Suarez and Aguero possess. Yet the latter has lost a little of that in recent years and has always been more of a penalty box predator than someone who hustles back to help out. Arsene Wenger has spoken openly about the hunger and desire South American strikers appear to have for the game and scoring goals. Jesus has that in abundance.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]  

Compared to a watermelon last week by Guardiola because he didn’t know what they would get once Jesus arrived in the PL, it’s safe to say they have a rising superstar.

Jesus’ incredible start to life in England means there’s an odd man out: Aguero.

Speaking about his future at City, the Argentine ace hardly wants out but seems ready to reassess his situation in the summer such has been the rapid rise of Gabriel in his place. Aguero’s face on the subs bench when Jesus scored his first goal for City in the 4-0 win at West Ham last week said it all. He has every right to be worried.

“Sometimes this happens. When you’re on the bench you have to wait for your opportunity,” Aguero said. “I have three months to do my best and try to help the team and we’ll see what happens with my future. He [Jesus] is a great player. He’s a very young player but he will learn a lot at City and he will have a great future at the club.”


WHO CAN REPLACE WENGER?

Wenger was a frustrated figure as he sat up in the stands at Stamford Bridge on Saturday.

Serving a four-game touchline ban for pushing fourth official Anthony Taylor in a win against Burnley last month, Wenger was helpless as his Arsenal side were out battled by their London rivals.

[ MORE: Wenger bemoans Chelsea’s first goal ]

12 points behind Chelsea with 14 games to go, the Gunners can kiss goodbye to their title hopes for another season.

That fact has left many questioning what’s next for Wenger. He told reporters he has been offered a two-year extension to remain at Arsenal and with the 67-year-old Frenchman seeing his current deal run out at the end of this season, it will be intriguing to see if he accepts the offer.

He delivers stability, top four finishes and UEFA Champions League appearances, the odd FA Cup victory and an exciting brand of soccer admired across the world. There is plenty to admire about his 21 years in charge of Arsenal.

Then, there’s the lingering fact that they haven’t seriously challenge for the PL title in the last decade. To get to the next level, maybe Arsenal need a change?

They’ve spent big on big players like Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, but has Wenger taken them as far as he can? Will the board stop running the Gunners as a business and pump plenty of transfer funds in and take a gamble on a new manager? Probably not.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

Still, my preference would be for Wenger to move upstairs after this season. He can become the Director of Football and then allow a younger, hungry manager to come in and try to take the Gunners to the next level of challenging for the PL and UCL seriously.

In the video above Diego Simeone and Ronald Koeman were suggested by Kyle Martin and Robbie Mustoe as good replacements for Wenger. I agree with that. Yet, how likely is it for either of them to join if Wenger is still hovering around in the background?

Perhaps what Arsenal needs most is a clean break from Wenger. After 21 years that’s a huge call for Chief Executive Ivan Gazidis to take and it will be one with plenty of risk as Wenger guarantees top four finishes and the vast riches which come with UCL action year after year.

Isn’t it about time Arsenal tried something different to change the status quo? If they fall out of the top four it would be a huge hit but at least they would have tried to move things off. Being stuck in the limbo of not being brave enough to go for trophies with conviction and settling for second best is perhaps one of the most frustration things for fans of any team.

Wenger has delivered plenty but as his teams’ performance showed at the weekend, he is long way away from delivering another elusive PL title. This may well be the final few months of his time at Arsenal.


RUTHLESS CONTE

Across London another manager is seeing his full throttle approach working. Literally.

Grabbing his assistant Angelo Alessio by the back of the neck and forcing him down the touchline in the first half, Antonio Conte looked like a man possessed after his side nearly conceded from a set piece situation.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned from Chelsea’s win ]

Conte is in the zone, even if he occasionally oversteps the mark. His celebration when Eden Hazard‘s sublime individual goal went in said it all. He jumped head first into the fans by the bench as Chelsea lead second-place Tottenham by nine points with 14 games to go.

It would be okay if the engraver of the PL trophy is already etching “Ch…” into the stone on the base of the silverware.

Conte laughed when asked about the incident from the first half of the win against Arsenal, as the man who has guided Chelsea to 16 wins in their last 18 games since they lost to the Gunners in September has everyone hanging on his every word.

“Angelo Alessio is always a victim,” Conte laughed. “During the corner I wanted to change some of the position because in the second corner Arsenal had six men and we lost a man at the edge of the box and it was very dangerous. I tried to shout to my players and I tried to tell my assistant to send this message to change the situation. But, when I understood the message was not right and they almost scored a goal, I thought to send a message. Angelo he knows me very well. He knows my passion in this moment. It is very important to keep the concentration not only with the players but all of the assistants and the staff. We win together and lost together. Always.”

That attention to detail and incredible passion Conte shows running up and down the touchline is what will win Chelsea the title.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings

Conte is ruthless and his team are ruthless. They didn’t let Arsenal rest for a second and the excellent N'Golo Kante broke up play time and time again with Hazard, Pedro and Diego Costa at their best to punish the Gunners’ slack defending.

Conte’s title procession with Chelsea has begun as they start a very favorable run of six games against Burnley, Swansea, West Ham, Watford, Stoke and Crystal Palace. By the time they face Manchester City on Apr. 4, the title could be sewn up.


LEICESTER IN FREEFALL

Leicester City’s problems are plentiful.

The reigning champions are in real danger of relegation from the Premier League.

[ MORE: Why are Leicester in a relegation battle? ]

A hero to zero narrative is being put together at the King Power Stadium and manager Claudio Ranieri doesn’t appear to know how to stop the FOxes hurtling towards th ebottom three. Leicester were soundly beaten by Manchester United 3-0 on Sunday. There’s no shame on that because Jose Mourinho’s men are on a roll. That said, Leicester has now lost five-straight games in the Premier League and they’ve conceded 10 goals across that span, scoring zero.

With a massive relegation battle at Swansea City coming up this Sunday (Watch live, 11 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) Ranieri knows a defeat to the resurgent Swans could be the end of his fairytale with the Foxes. Perhaps more likely his time in charge will end if they lose at Swansea and then against Sevilla in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 tie.

That’s right. Despite their struggles in the PL, Leicester are still in the last 16 Europe’s elite club competition.

Yet all of their focus should be on staying in the PL and the article above looks deeper into the reasons for their shocking demise. Given the quality of their squad, should Leicester really be finishing any higher than 10th in the PL table? Probably not.

Still, the expectations have risen after last season and the fact that they are two points off the bottom and one point from the bottom three suggests it is time for the Foxes to buckle up for the bumpy ride ahead.


SUPER BOWL THROUGH THE PL

After Tom Brady and the New England Patriots launched an incredible comeback to win Super Bowl LI on Sunday, plenty of Premier League players were pumped to see the Pats win a fifth Vince Lombardi Trophy.

[ MORE: PL reacts to Super Bowl 51 ]

Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois flew to Houston to watch Super Bowl 51 (via a quick stop off at Madison Square Garden on Saturday to take in a Knicks game) just over 24 hours after starring in the Blues’ big 3-1 win against Arsenal in the Premier League.

Meanwhile Tottenham Hotspur striker Harry Kane is a huge NFL fan and could not contain his delight that his beloved Pats had sealed the massive comeback win.

We know Kane will definitely by heading to more than a few NFL games when they’re played at the new White Hart Lane Stadium from 2018 as Tottenham’s landmark deal with the NFL kicks off…


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.

Electricity restored at Maracana after some late bills paid

This Feb. 2, 2017 shows Maracana stadium with a dry field in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Stadium operators, the Rio state government, and Olympic organizers have fought over $1 million in unpaid electricity bills and management of the venue. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)
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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Rio’s electricity utility has turned the power back on at the famous Maracana stadium after it was shut off for almost a month in a dispute over $1 million in unpaid bills.

The utility on Thursday said power had been restored after the stadium operator paid 1.3 million reals ($430,000) in late bills from November through January. It was shut off on Jan. 26 in the dispute.

The utility said it is still negotiating for 1.8 million reals ($600,000) in unpaid bills from the organizing committee of last year’s Rio Olympics. Rio 2016 organizers still owe millions to companies which helped prepare the Olympics and Paralympics

The stadium has been vandalized over the last month with seats torn out, televisions stolen and the grass field left untended.

VIDEO: FC Dallas youngster Kellyn Acosta unleashes howitzer goal

Arabe Unido goalkeeper Miguel lloyd (1) reaches up to block a shot from FC Dallas as defender Rigoberto Nino (2) and FC Dallas' Kellyn Acosta (23) watch in the first half of a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals soccer match, Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017 in Frisco, Texas (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
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With FC Dallas taking on Panamanian club Aribe Unido in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League, 21-year-old Kellyn Acosta grabbed a second for the Major League Soccer club 10 minutes past halftime.

It wasn’t just any old goal. It was a STRIKE.

The Texas native trailed the play, and with Roland Lamah shut off in the box by solid man-marking on the ball, Acosta was there to provide an outlet, and he blasted a vicious strike into the top-left corner. The find by Lamah was a smart one with a host of defenders closing in, and his calm demeanor was rewarded as his teammate launched a rocket into the back of the net.

The goal is a fodder for those who believe Acosta, who has played full-back for much of his career, should be a midfielder instead. His positioning and ability to trail the play with deadly accuracy is what makes this goal so special.

Acosta would bag a third in the dying minutes of the game, giving FC Dallas a 3-0 lead to take on the road as they travel to Panama for the second leg on March 1st.

Top Premier League Storylines – Week 26

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 08:  Claudio Ranieri, manager of Leicester City speaks with his players during the break in extra-time in the Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round replay match between Leicester City and Derby City at The King Power Stadium on February 8, 2017 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
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Well. This weekend’s return of Premier League action was already slated to be an exciting one, but now with today’s enormous bit of breaking news, it has become even more intriguing.

[ WATCH: Previewing every match in Week 26 ]

There’s plenty to discuss at the top of the Premier League table, as Arsenal and Spurs look to heal their European wounds, but it’s what’s at the bottom that has everyone talking today.

How will Leicester City react after the firing of Claudio Ranieri?

Leicester City vs. Liverpool —  3:00 p.m. EDT Monday on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Well. The Foxes had their work cut out for them coming into this match already, but now it has a whole new flavor. Claudio Ranieri has been dismissed just nine months after winning the Premier League title, and sitting just a point off the drop coming into the weekend (and inside the relegation zone coming into the match?) Leicester City will be lead into King Power Stadium by Assistant Manager Craig Shakespeare and First Team Coach Mike Stowell.

Liverpool stopped a five-match winless streak last time out with a quality 2-0 win over Tottenham, but the Reds defense has been leaky all season, and if Leicester is to break its horrid 610-minute goalless streak, it would be here. The Foxes are without a win in five and have not scored a Premier League goal in all of the 2017 calendar year. Can they respond and begin to play for themselves rather than their former manager?

Can Dele Alli and Tottenham bounce back?

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Stoke City — 8:30 a.m. EDT Sunday on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Spurs looked like they had rediscovered their Champions League form with a comprehensive smothering of Championship side Fulham in the FA Cup. Then, they welcomed KAA Gent to Wembley and promptly lost their heads. Dele Alli was sent off for one of the worst challenges you’ll see, and Spurs were vulnerable as a result, crashing out of the Europa League.

Now, Mauricio Pochettino must regroup the squad and get them ready to host Stoke, a team they clobbered 4-0 in the third match of the season. The squad is still healthy, and the loss of European play may actually help them in the long run. Here, however, it provides them with negative form and a short prep time. They need this one badly to solidify a top four place moving forward, can Poch turn it around?

Can Sunderland get a result against surging Everton?

Everton vs. Sunderland — 10:00 a.m. EDT Saturday on NBCSports.com

Hull City hosts Burnley. Crystal Palace welcomes Middlesbrough. With those two fellow occupants of the relegation zone playing at home against lower-half sides, the spotlight is squarely on Sunderland. The Black Cats have a tough matchup, on the road at Everton.

The Toffees haven’t lost a Premier League match since falling to Liverpool in mid-December, and have scored 19 goals in the eight matches since that blemish. With that in mind, Sunderland must get some kind of a result to pull off the bottom of the Premier League table. Can they snatch points at Goodison Park?

EFL Cup final could leave Chelsea well out in front

Chelsea vs. Swansea City — 10:00 a.m. EDT Saturday on NBCSports.com

Chelsea is already eight points ahead of the pack and looks to be the clear favorite to win the Premier League title. It could get even clearer after this week. Manchester United is off, Manchester City is off, and Arsenal is off. Couple that with Tottenham struggling and Liverpool facing a desperate Leicester City side, and it’s entirely conceivable that a win for Chelsea over Swansea City could leave the Blues as far as 11 points clear at the top of the table, albeit a game ahead of some. That would all but wrap things up, wouldn’t it?

Mario Balotelli handed 2-match ban for abusing referee

FILE- In this Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016 file photo, Nice's forward Mario Balotelli, of Italy, reacts during the Europa League group I soccer match between OGC Nice and FC Salzburg, in Nice stadium, southeastern France. Nice striker Mario Balotelli’s teammate Alassane Pleas has confirmed he heard Bastia supporters racially abusing Balotelli with monkey chants during the league match on Friday, Jan. 20, 2017. (AP Photo/Claude Paris, File)
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After being sent off for referee abuse in last weekend’s Ligue 1 win over FC Lorient, Nice striker Mario Balotelli has been handed a two-match ban.

Balotelli earned his second red card of the season in the 69th minute of a 1-0 win that kept Nice within striking distance of the leaders Monaco. It was his second straight red and third sending-off of the season, having already been dismissed in reverse fixture against Lorient after a pair of yellows in the final three minutes of the game.

After the mercurial Italian’s hot start to the season, he has just one goal in the last two months, the third in a 3-1 win over Guingamp. He has not scored a point-winning goal since bagging both in a 2-1 win over Dijon back on December 18th.

Balotelli’s agent, the well-known Mino Raiola, was so frustrated with his client’s continual dismissal problems that he told French media conglomerate RMC Sport that the solution to Balotelli’s problems is to “cut out his tongue.”

“I have already found the solution: you have to cut out his tongue,” Raiola said bluntly. “To play soccer, there is no need for language! In all seriousness, he knows he made a big mistake and he has no excuse. He knows he needs to improve that. He is very sad for him, for the team.”

The suspension leaves Balotelli on the sidelines for tomorrow’s match against 11th placed Montpellier and then on March 4th at 17th placed Dijon. Nice sits in third, level on points with 2nd placed PSG and three back of leaders Monaco.