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Defensive regression biggest culprit of Leicester collapse

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Rome wasn’t built in a day, but Leicester City’s title run last season seemed to be.

They have both gone up in flames just as quickly.

Leicester City is fighting relegation just a season removed from one of the most improbable championship campaigns of all-time. Plenty has been written about the reasons for their continuing collapse. Some have blamed manager Claudio Ranieri, hailed as a hero less than a year ago. Others point to the utterly eye-opening goalless streak, now at an ugly 610 Premier League minutes thanks in large part to the sudden ineptitude of Riyad Mahrez. Many point to the departure of midfield adhesive N'Golo Kante, who is nearing a second title in two seasons.

[ RECAP: Leicester City falls to Swansea City, fifth loss in a row ]

Those would all have merit. However, the overwhelming perpetrator is a massive regression of the back line, and unlike the other factors which have seemingly come from nowhere, this one we all should have seen coming.

Robert Huth, Christian Fuchs, and captain Wes Morgan played a combined 9,550 Premier League minutes last season as both Huth and Morgan played every tick of the clock. This year, those three players are 32, 30, and 33 years old. How the Leicester City board never found capable replacements or backups for those players is mind-boggling. Could we really have expected that trio to continue playing at an all star level as they climbed further above the 30-year-old mark?

[ LISTEN: 2 Robbies talk Leicester City ]

Squawka Statistics ranks Leicester City as the third-worst defensive team in the Premier League by its Performance Score, but it shows directly on the pitch as well. Fuchs was undressed in the recent 3-0 loss to Manchester United, and was yanked at halftime in the loss to Swansea on Sunday. Huth has looked slower and slower, and should have been sent off by referee Jon Moss for a terrible challenge on Swans midfielder Tom Carroll. Morgan should have been called for a handball when he clumsily went to ground to block a shot. The mistakes are there for all to see, and they’re getting more and more glaring.

Sky Sports tweeted this out on Saturday before the Swansea loss. It’s meant to put the loss of Kante into an image, but doesn’t this simply serve to display the defensive frailties? Look at the massive increase in defensive errors leading to goals.

It must be said that the disappearance of both Mahrez and Jamie Vardy is a troubling trend, and Leicester can’t win if they can’t score, that much is true. As the club grows increasingly incapable of scoring goals against Premier League opposition, their chances of survival get slimmer and slimmer, and the pair may end up finding themselves benched, Mahrez just a year removed from winning Player of the Season.

Ultimately though, the defense must improve if the club is to survive, and it likely won’t come with Huth, Fuchs, and Morgan all on the field together. Expect them to start seeing less time, with Ranieri saying after the Swansea loss, “Am I too loyal to my players? I could be, could be. It is difficult when you achieve something so good. You want to give them one chance, two chances, three chances. Maybe now, it is too much.”

The club failed to strengthen in this department in January, and ultimately Ranieri may be unfairly blamed for the sudden ineptitudes of the squad he led to the title just a year ago.

Jurgen Klopp hails “perfect day” for Liverpool

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Jurgen Klopp has had far from an ideal week but his Liverpool side ruthlessly dispatched Southampton at Anfield to end it on a high note.

[ MORE: Liverpool batter Saints ]

Klopp was sent to hospital earlier this week when he felt unwell but the German coach was given a big boost as Mohamed Salah scored twice in the first half, which included a stunning opener, and Philippe Coutinho finished Saints off in the second half as the Reds eased to victory and stayed in touch with the chasing pack behind runaway leaders Manchester City.

Speaking to the BBC after the game, Klopp was happy with what he saw from his side after he was fit enough to be on the bench on Saturday.

“Difficult game, Southampton are a really good football side. It was an open game, we had more chances before we scored. We need to be patient in a lively way,” Klopp said. “The first goal, wow, I have nothing to do with the goal and the second was a fantastic pass and Mo Salah makes great runs. We could have scored more often but it was a perfect day for us.”

Klopp, 50, sees his side just three points off second place after 12 games of the Premier League season, while his side remain firm favorites to qualify for the UEFA Champions League Round of 16.

So far, so good.

Yes, Man City will take some catching (and a collapse of their own) but Liverpool’s aim should be to secure a second-straight top four finish and go from there.

With Sadio Mane, Salah, Coutinho and Roberto Firmino in the form they showed on Saturday, plus a fifth clean sheet in six PL games this season at Anfield, the defensive woes Klopp’s team have faced away from home this season aren’t troubling them at home.

Next up is Chelsea at home for Liverpool, which will be a supreme test of their newfound defensive solidity at home. Their results against title contenders this season have been up and down with a draw against Manchester United, hammerings at Tottenham and Man City and a thrashing of Arsenal at home.

Liverpool’s clash against top four rivals Chelsea is followed by five winnable games before they travel to Arsenal on Dec. 22.

Between now and then we will see if Liverpool’s season will amount to more than just a top four challenge. Saturday’s shellacking of a lackluster Southampton may have been “perfect” but a much tougher test awaits next week against a rejuvenated Chelsea side who have Alvaro Morata and Eden Hazard purring in attack

Can Liverpool’s oft-fragile defense cope? We are about to find out.

Burnley’s Barnes: “Can we finish the season now?”

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Ashley Barnes broke his season duck in classy fashion, scoring and adding an assist as Burnley stayed in the thick of the race for Europe with a 2-0 win over Swansea City at Turf Moor on Saturday.

[ RECAP: Burnley 2-0 Swans ]

The win shouldn’t be a surprise, as Burnley is humming in style. The Clarets entered the day with a win at Chelsea and draws at Liverpool and Spurs, so why would a visit from Swansea lead to anything than three points.

It’s dream world, really.

From the BBC:

“We’re on a fantastic run. We’re working hard every day and today we were different class.

“Can we finish the season now? No, I’m kidding. there’s still a long way to go and we need to pick up as many points as possible.”

Every win makes more and more believers of the Burnley Football Club. Perhaps more important to the Clarets, each win makes it less likely that Sean Dyche will leave the club for a better gig (Everton), at least right now.

Crystal Palace 2-2 Everton: Toffees battle back for point

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  • Eagles took lead through McArthur, Zaha
  • Baines, Niasse equalized
  • Palace remain bottom of PL table

Crystal Palace and Everton played out an entertaining 2-2 draw at Selhurst Park on Saturday.

The Eagles twice took the lead in a wild first half with James McArthur giving Palace the lead less than a minute in but Leighton Baines soon equalized from the penalty spot. Wilfried Zaha made it 2-1 but Oumar Niasse equalized right on half time and it finished 2-2 after a tense second half.

With the point Palace stay bottom of the table on five points, while Everton are in 16th place on 12 points.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

A rapid start to the game saw Palace take the lead with just 51 seconds on the clock.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek‘s shot was saved by Jordan Pickford but McArthur was on hand to tap home and give the Eagles an early lead.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Soon after Everton were level as Oumar Niasse went down under Scott Dann‘s challenge in the box and Baines smashed home the spot kick. 1-1 with less than seven minutes in.

10 minutes before half time Palace retook the lead as Joel Ward’s cross found Zaha and his flick beat Pickford to make it 2-1. Just when it looked like Palace would lead at half time, Everton leveled.

Julian Speroni had a howler as he gave the ball straight to Idrissa Gana Gueye who played it to Gylfi Sigurdsson who put it on a plate for Niasse to make it 2-2. The Senegalese forward came so close to joining Palace on Transfer Deadline Day back in the summer and came back to haunt them.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ] 

A tense second half saw plenty of players booked in the rain in south London as Palace pushed hard for the winner with Loftus-Cheek going close but Everton’s defense held firm.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Late on Christian Benteke, on his long-awaited return from injury, also went close for Palace but the game ended even at Selhurst.

WATCH LIVE: Manchester United vs. Newcastle United

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Paul Pogba returns for Manchester United, who welcomes Newcastle United to Old Trafford on Saturday (Watch live at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

Zlatan Ibrahimovic makes the bench for the Red Devils, which also has Ander Herrera and Jesse Lingard as options.

Rafa Benitez will look to best his old nemesis with Dwight Gayle and Joselu up top.

LINEUPS

Manchester United: De Gea; Valencia, Lindelof, Smalling, Young, Matic, Pogba, Mata, Rashford, Martial, Lukaku. Subs: Romero, Rojo, Shaw, Fellaini, Herrera, Lingard, Ibrahimovic.

Newcastle United: Elliot; Yedlin, Lejeune, Clark, Manquillo; Ritchie, Hayden, Shelvey, Murphy; Gayle, Joselu. Subs: Darlow, Gamez, Mbemba, Diame, Aarons, Perez, Mitrovic.