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.

Transfer Rumor Roundup: Lemar to Arsenal; Aubameyang to China

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According to the Daily Mail, Arsenal are close to signing Monaco and France winger Thomas Lemar, 21, for $42 million.

Lemar shone for the French champions last season and will have already endeared himself to Gunners fans after scoring home and away against Tottenham Hotspur in the UEFA Champions League group stage last season, as Monaco reached the semifinals.

With Kylian Mbappe, Bernardo Silva and Radamel Falcao getting plenty of the headlines, Lemar’s displays flew under the radar. It seems like Arsene Weneger was watching.

Lemar scored 14 goals and added 17 assists in 55 games for Monaco last season and his intelligent wing-play could help freshen up Arsenal’s attack. Per the report, swapping Champions League action for the Europa League with Arsenal is not a problem for Lemar who broke into the French national team back in November.

Able to play on either wing or centrally, Lemar’s ability to possess the ball as well as find pockets of space behind full backs suggest he’d be a good fit for the Gunners. Would his arrival mean the end for Theo Walcott, Olivier Giroud or others?


Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City target Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is being linked with a move to Chinese Super League side Tianjin Quanjian.

Reports in multiple outlets stated that the Borussia Dortmund striker, 28, could be heading to China in the next few days for a fee of $91.9 million with the Gabon international set to earn an incredible $33.6 million a year in wages.

Aubameyang posted a cryptic message on his Instagram account on Tuesday stating he was “ready for new adventures” and it appears he is the latest high-profile name to leave Europe for China.

Ready for new adventures #aubameyang #holidays #pea17

A post shared by Aubameyang (@aubameyang97) on

The Bundesliga golden-boot winner for 2016-17 (he had 31 goals in 32 games) has scored 120 goals in 189 games for Dortmund since joining from Saint-Etienne in 2013. That form led to reports that Liverpool, Man City and Paris Saint-Germain were all prepared to offer big money to sign the lanky forward this summer, but none of those clubs can compete with the huge sums on offer from Tianjin.

Southampton’s days of selling over?

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Southampton are no longer a selling club. At least, not right now.

[ MORE: Latest transfer news ]

Executive Director Les Reed told Sky Sports in the UK that Saints will not be selling Virgil Van Dijk or Cedric Soares this summer, despite constant reports linking the duo with a move away from St Mary’s.

Speaking about the “bold” decision to fire Claude Puel and hire Mauricio Pellegrino over the summer, the main decision maker at Southampton said he hoped hiring Argentine coach Pellegrino would bring “stability” to the club which has so often lost star names since returning to the PL in 2012.

Reed further reinforced Saints’ solid stance that no stars will depart this summer, starting with Van Dijk and Soares.

“None of those players are for sale. I can’t make it any plainer than that and that’s the way we mean to go forward,” Reed said. “We built this squad over some time and think we have a strong squad. We will fine-tune it but, other than that, we are looking forward to a very competitive season next year and we plan to go forward on that basis. There may be players that go on the basis it is the right thing for them and the club at that given time, but we don’t expect that to be wholesale and this is simply doing sound business in the transfer window.”

The main thing for teams like Southampton is that selling players will no longer significantly boost their financial power. After finishing in the top eight of the Premier League in each of the past four seasons, plus having long-term deals with Under Armour, Virgin Media and many other sponsors, they’re set up to try and compete with the PL’s elite, as are each team who have benefited from the huge financial deals the PL have enjoyed over the past few years.

Plus, they are still in negotiations with Chinese investors Lander Sports about majority ownership potentially switching from the Liebherr family to give them more funds to invest in their squad. Saints believe they are ready to kick on to the next stage and aren’t willing to give up any more of their gems.

ProSoccerTalk spoke with Saints chairman Ralph Krueger in May and he was pleased to see several of Saints’ current stars locked down to new contract — Van Dijk, Oriol Romeu, Ryan Bertrand, James Ward-Prowse and Fraser Forster all have new long-term deals — and insisted nobody needed to be sold. Saints have said this in the past but this time it feels a little different, and more serious.

After making princely sums for Sadio Mane, Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, Luke Shaw and Morgan Schneiderlin in the past, plus moving on Nathaniel Clyne, Victor Wanyama and Graziano Pelle who were entering the final year of their contracts for sizable fees, Saints have a reputation as being an easy target for the PL’s top six to buy from.

Yet, with Liverpool forced to apologize after their alleged illegal pursuit of Saints’ star man and captain Van Dijk earlier this month, it appears the South Coast club is getting serious about their best players not being unsettled and remaining at Southampton. Van Dijk’s transfer value is set to be north of $75 million, and it now appears that Southampton will turn down any offer for their classy Dutch center back. That’s a huge shift in club policy, with Saints labeled a selling club for much of their recent history as Alan Shearer, Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are just a few of the star names who moved on from Saints in the past.

Whether or not this new policy can help them break through the glass-ceiling of sixth place (where they finished in 2015-16) and challenge regularly for a European spot remains to be seen, but after years of making big profits on their best players Southampton finally seem to be putting a halt to moving on stars consistently and replacing them with plenty of new gems each season.

That model has worked well for them financially, but last season’s regression — despite reaching the EFL Cup Final and having a Europa League campaign to negotiate they still finished eighth in the PL, but totaled 17 fewer points compared to their previous campaign — suggests they’re at a crucial point in their plans to become a regular contender to push into the top six.

Delivering Europa League action each season is the aim and Pellegrino will have a tough enough task to achieve that in his first season coaching in England.

That said, his task will be made much easier if Van Dijk, Soares and Co. do stick around as Southampton state they will.

Report: Wesley Sneijder close to LAFC move

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Dutch legend Wesley Sneijder is close to signing for Los Angeles FC.

[ MORE: Latest transfer news

A report from ESPN states that Sneijder, 33, will sign a two-year deal with LAFC and become a Designated Player for the team who will enter Major League Soccer in 2018.

Per the report, Sneijder has been offered a deal worth $3.5 million a year to join LAFC and he would link up with the squad in January 2018 ahead of their debut season in MLS.

Having a star of Sneijder’s size will certainly attracted plenty more interest in LAFC, plus he’s still a mainstay for the Dutch national team as he has 131 caps with 31 goals for the Oranje and his quality as a deep-lying playmaker is undisputed.

The former UEFA Champions League winner has enjoyed an illustrious career in Europe, winning trophies at Ajax, Real Madrid, Inter and Galatasaray. He won the UCL with Inter in 2010 as he was a pivotal part of Jose Mourinho’s treble-winning team. Sneijder has spent the past five seasons playing in Turkey for giants Galatasaray.

Sneijder would become LAFC’s first DP signing and although the newly-formed club do not yet have a head coach, who wouldn’t want to work with Sneijder in MLS?

With the Banc of California Stadium set to be ready for the start of the 2018 MLS season, excitement is building in LA.

Sneijder’s arrival would help that grow further as one of the premier playmakers of the past decade will get to strut his stuff in MLS. Whether he turns out to be as influential a DP as the likes of David Villa or Kaka remains to be seen, but LAFC are clearly willing to back up their grand plans with grand signings.

Six charged over Hillsborough disaster

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Six individuals, including four former members of the South Yorkshire Police (SYP), have been charged over the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 which left 96 Liverpool fans dead.

Former SYP Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, who was the match commander of the FA Cup semifinal which saw 96 fans crushed to death, will face charges of manslaughter by gross negligence of 95 of the victims. For legal reasons Duckenfield has not been charged over the death of the 96th victim, Tony Bland, who died four years after the tragedy.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) must apply to the High Court to lift an order imposed on Duckenfield after he was prosecuted privately in 1999. That must be removed before he can be charged with 95 cases of manslaughter.

Families of the victims gathered in Warrington, England on Wednesday and were told about the charges by the CPS, who later released the following statement.

Other individuals who will be prosecuted include the former Chief Constable of Merseyside and West Yorkshire police, Sir Norman Bettison, who is facing four charges misconduct in office following the disaster, while former SYP Chief Superintendent Donald Denton and SYP Detective Chief Inspector Alan Foster have both been charged with perverting the course of justice.

Former Sheffield Wednesday chief executive and designated safety officer Graham Mackrell has been charged with breaching the terms of the stadium’s safety certificate and failing to take reasonable care under the the Health and Safety at Work act, plus SYP solicitor, Peter Metcalf, has also been charged.

The families of those who perished at the Leppings Lane end of Hillsborough over 28 years ago have fought for justice ever since with Liverpool Football Club and the wider soccer community supporting the families in their battle.

From 1991 until 2014 they struggled to cope with the cost of a lengthy legal battle, but that all changed as the UK government have funded the legal costs for all the victims families with the total investigation now spanning four-and-a-half years and costing over $128.2 million.

Last April a verdict of “unlawful killing” was reached for the 96 victims after a new inquest was launched into the deaths following the original verdict from 1991 being quashed by the High Court in 2012 after a report from the Hillsborough Independent Panel.

The new inquest then prompted a new police criminal investigation as Operation Resolve was set up to determine what led up to the deadly crush, and the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) then investigated what happened after the tragedy and allegations that SYP had perverted the court of justice and tried to cover up their own responsibility.

The defendants, apart from Duckenfield, will appear in Warrington Magistrates Court on Aug. 9.