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Playback: Ranking expectation levels of top six

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With the final stretch of the 2016-17 Premier League season here, there’s still plenty of jostling among the top six with Champions League and title dreams on the line.

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Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham, Liverpool and both Manchester clubs are all back where they believe they belong but lofty expectations have been a theme of the season with some teams struggling to live up to them. Fans of all six aforementioned clubs have been scratching their heads for the most part as they try to figure out what a good season looks like.

With Liverpool and Man City drawing at the weekend in a thriller, plus Manchester United, Chelsea and Tottenham grinding out wins and Arsenal losing at West Brom as their woeful run continues, expectations are all over the place at the top with five of the six battling it out for three Champions League spots.

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Below is a look at the current expectation levels for all six “big boys” in the PL as we enter the final nine matchdays of the campaign.

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“Curb your enthusiasm” is perhaps the catchphrase of the past few months for certain clubs…


CHELSEA

Position: 1st (69 points)
Cup competitions: FA Cup semifinal (vs. Tottenham, Apr 22), EFL Cup 4th round
Expectation-o-meter: Climbing, but spot on — A lost season in 2015-16 has lowered expectation levels around Stamford Bridge. Antonio Conte‘s arrival has seen them steadily climb as his team saunter towards the Premier League title and have a 10-point lead with 10 games to go. Seven more victories and Chelsea will be crowned PL champs for the second time in three seasons. However, winning the league and FA Cup double would be the cherry on top and then it’s a case of ‘what next?’ for Chelsea. Next season they’ll be back in the Champions League and expected to make a deep run. New challenges will come Conte’s way in terms of recruitment over the summer with the futures of Diego Costa, John Terry, Cesc Fabrgeas and others to think about. With success, expectation levels rise. So far in this incredible season for the Blues Conte’s biggest trick is perhaps keeping everyone’s feet on the ground. That won’t be so easy next season.


TOTTENHAM

Position: 2nd (59 points)
Cup competitions: FA Cup semifinal (vs. Chelsea, Apr. 22), Champions League group stage & Europa League last 32, EFL Cup 5th round
Expectation-o-meter: Surprisingly low — Now, for some reason Tottenham’s supporters and those around the club aren’t too concerned with them not winning the title. Is that okay? In each of the last two campaigns Tottenham have had a great chance to lift the Premier League. Leicester outlasted them last season and this time around Mauricio Pochettino‘s men will likely come second to Chelsea. Finishing runners up in the PL for the first time ever, and finishing above Arsenal for the first time in over two decades, is obviously a massive achievement. Still, Tottenham need to have their expectation levels increased because they can achieve so much more than just finishing above Arsenal. With a young, talented squad all signed up long-term and a new stadium on the horizon, Spurs are heading in the right direction. If they just come up short in the title race and win the FA Cup, that would be a phenomenal season. The next step: reaching the Champions League knockout stages and winning the Premier League. With Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Hugo Lloris and Toby Alderweireld, the latter is possible. Everyone connected with Spurs just has to believe it a little bit more.


MAN CITY

Position: 3rd (57 points)
Cup competitions: FA Cup semifinals (vs. Arsenal, Apr. 23), Champions League last 16, EFL Cup 4th round
Expectation-o-meter: Way too high — Following the 1-1 draw with Liverpool, Pep Guardiola declared how delighted he was with his Man City side for the reaction following their Champions League exit to Monaco. The fans probably didn’t share that delight. At times this season City have looked unstoppable. On other occasions they’ve looked shambolic. Just when you think Guardiola’s methods are going to conquer all they come crashing down (the UCL exit to Monaco proved that) and things are moving a little slower than everyone expected. City won’t win the league and they’re now in a battle to finish in the top four and also in the FA Cup semis. Pep badly needs to get some silverware on the table and finish in the top four to call this season a success. Defensively, a huge overhaul is needed and the futures of Aguero, Toure and Kompany remains up in the air. Expect the winds of change to blow through the Etihad Stadium this summer but the future looks bright with Gabriel Jesus, Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane kicking on. Yet, this has been far from a smooth ride for City’s fans and owners who have become accustomed to success.


LIVERPOOL 

Position: 4th (56 points)
Cup competitions: EFL Cup semifinals, FA Cup 4th round
Expectation-o-meter: Just about right — Liverpool’s fans got ahead of themselves a little early in the season when Jurgen Klopp‘s side were leading the PL and the fact they had no European competitions to worry about was a big plus. Then Liverpool faded badly at the turn of the year and title talk turned into top four realism. That’s about where this team is at, so no complaints. Reaching a major cup final should’ve been easily attainable too but Klopp knows his team is on the up. Like City, if they can make their defensive unit more solid then that’s where more success will come and the Reds could challenge for a title. That may not be for another two or three years, though. With Klopp in charge, they at least have the right man at the helm and he is delivering an attacking brand of soccer which delights the fans. Brendan Rodgers did that too but now Liverpool’s fans are expecting a little more. If they finish in the top four, recruiting new players (especially top defenders) becomes so much easier for next season.


MAN UNITED

Position: 5th (52 points)
Cup competitions: Europa League quarterfinal (vs. Anderlecht, Apr. 19), EFL Cup winners, FA Cup quarterfinal
Expectation-o-meter: Too high — At the start of the season Mourinho talked about winning it all but it became quickly apparent that he will need plenty of time to turn things around. United’s fans are patient but many expect them to be challenging for the title. That may not happen for another two seasons. Paul Pogba is yet to show his best and without Zlatan Ibrahimovic, where will the goals come from? Work in progress. Top four finish and success in cup competitions would be a very, very good season. Adding a key striker (Antoine Griezmann would be nice) and another top defender is a must over the offseason. Mourinho has things moving in the right direction after Moyes and Van Gaal but this will take them. Baby steps at a club like United are hard to get excited about given their illustrious history.


ARSENAL

Position: 6th (50 points)
Cup competitions: FA Cup semifinal (vs. Man City, Apr. 23), Champions League last 16, EFL Cup 4th round
Expectation-o-meter: Off the charts — Yes. We all know about Arsenal’s fans and their lofty expectations but this season they’ve hit new levels. Not content with being in the FA Cup semis, right in the top four hunt (they have two games in hand on Liverpool) and losing to a very good Bayern Munich outfit in the Champions League, Arsenal’s fans are getting on Arsene Wenger‘s back. Did they really think they could challenge for the title this season? The squad is good but needs an overhaul in key areas. Whether Wenger is the man to do that is neither here nor there. Arsenal’s fans need a serious reality check. Finishing in the top four is not a bad season and unless they spend boatloads of cash (see: Man City, Chelsea) then they won’t win the league. Even Manchester United has found out big spending isn’t the answer.


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.

Manchester projects stutter along for Guardiola, Mourinho

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MANCHESTER — The struggle in Manchester is real.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]

When Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho arrived last summer amid much fanfare the soccer world expected a rivalry rivaling Barcelona vs. Real Madrid in England’s northern powerhouse.

Yeah. About that…

[ MORE: Player ratings in City, United ]

Guardiola’s Manchester City sit in fourth place with five games to go, one place and one point ahead of Manchester United. They were dumped out of the UEFA Champions League and lost in the FA Cup semifinal to Arsenal at the weekend.

Pep’s “total football” approach has hit more than a few snags.

These two teams were supposed to challenge for the title this season but after spending a combined total of almost $400 million on new players they have one trophy between them (United won the EFL Cup) and are scrambling to qualify for the Champions League.

This isn’t how things were supposed to be.

Both managers are big enough names that they will be given plenty more time, and plenty more money, to solve their problems. But if they don’t start the 2017-18 season well then the pressure will mount quickly. Even for these two managerial heavyweights.

When it comes to Pep’s revolution at City he knows the teething problems have been present throughout the season. City have blown teams away when everything clicks but so often, especially at home, it hasn’t. City have drawn seven games at home this season and only United (9) have drawn more in front of their own fans.

Both managers are building bases tentatively but needed extra impetus to help the missing pieces of the jigsaw slot into place.

Speaking to the media after the game, Guardiola was downbeat despite his team seemingly in the driving seat for a top four finish ahead of their crosstown rivals.

“We have tried not just today but all of the season to monopolize the ball. Maybe it is a little bit of a Latin style. I don’t know what it is here in England but we tried to have the ball and attack,” Guardiola said. “Of course you can not expect against a team which is 23 games in a row unbeaten. That means they are good in defense and offensive and create not a thousand, million chances but 15 shots but not on target. It was not enough. We played to win the game. We tried. But again we are not able and we have to look why we were not able to win again. It is one point. The big fight will be until the Watford game.”

Between now and City’s final game of the season they will dominate possession in most, if not all, games but lacking that killer instinct has been their main problem. Gabriel Jesus‘ arrival at the end of this game provides Guardiola hope that the Brazilian teenager can provide a spark. City are arguably further along in their project than Untied but with fit again Vincent Kompany helping to improve Guardiola’s defense in recent weeks, in attack both have struggled.

City and United are the lowest scorers in the top six and United have scored just 50 times this season.

That said, the main problem for United in recent weeks has been injuries (Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Marcos Rojo out for the season, joining Chris Smalling and Phil Jones on the sidelines) which have compounded their own ability to not finish teams off as a league-high 13 draws has Mourinho wondering what if.

United’s run to the Europa League semifinals has provided Mourinho with a “get out of jail free” card as they’re favorites to win Europe’s second-tier tournament and qualify for the UEFA Champions League through the backdoor. Fans of the Red Devils sing about Jose making them play “the United way” but the chant has become halfhearted and hollow recently.

United are 24 games unbeaten in the Premier League, the longest run in Europe’s top five leagues and they’ve equaled their longest ever unbeaten run in a top-flight campaign.

It doesn’t feel like it though.

Mourinho’s men recorded just 30.8 percent possession on Thursday, their lowest total since Opta started recording that metric in 2003. United are not a fun team to watch right now but they’re grinding out results until Mourinho can find a long-term solution to have them back among the elite. Until then he has the huge number of games they’ve played this season and their long injury list to blame.

“We will fight until the end – today we lost two more players – Timothy Fosu-Mensah had an important injury in the last action of the game and Fellani is suspended,” Mourinho said. “We are going down in terms of the number of players. It is very difficult for us but the character is amazing and I’m very proud of the boys.”

The feel-good factor wasn’t there on both sides of the Manchester divide at the Etihad Stadium.

Despite their pedigree Guardiola and Mourinho have plenty to prove to both sets of supporters as the two most successful and talented managers of their generation are finding that Manchester is not their heaven.

Not yet anyway.

These projects are very much a work in progress and when they next meet in July in preseason in the USA both clubs will have new players, a fresh start and more sky-high targets to reach.

The managers of City and United will be the same next season but they’ll both be under that much more pressure after a stuttering start to life in what was supposed to be a new era of Manchester becoming the soccer Mecca of the world.

Guardiola and Mourinho leave close to each other and this week Guardiola revealed the duo say hello and share pleasantries when they meet on the street.

They shouldn’t expect the same niceties from the general public in Manchester for much longer if trophies and title challenges don’t materialize.

Guardiola “satisfied” with derby draw; “It’s not easy” to play United

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Manchester City control their own destiny in the Premier League’s race to finish inside the top-four this season.

With five games to go, Man City sit fourth in the league table — just a point back of third-place Liverpool (with a game in hand), and a point ahead of fifth-place Manchester United after the two sides drew 0-0 on Thursday — and that fact has had an unbelievable calming effect on first-year City boss Pep Guardiola.

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Speaking in his post-game television interview, Guardiola seemed much happier and looser than you might expect a manager to be when he’s only just left the field of a heated rivalry game, against his personal nemesis, and failed to convert in one of 19 shots (6 on target) into the game’s decisive goal.

“We can’t forget against which team we played today — [they’re] 23 games in a row without defeat. We created enough chances to score, we created two [clear-cut chances]. In terms of statistics and the way we played, especially the approach, I am so satisfied.”

“I am satisfied, because I know how difficult it is to play against Manchester United — how aggressive they are. It’s not easy when you face 10 players behind. It’s not easy, and you have to always be in a good position to avoid a counter-attack with (Anthony) Martial and (Henrikh) Mkhitaryan. … We have the talent, but sometimes it’s not easy against so many players there.”

“We all have tough games coming up now and we know it’s not an option to not win these games. Every game is important.”

[ MORE: Mourinho pins blame for Fellaini’s red card on Aguero ]

It’s true that City had the best only real chances throughout the game, but just think of the joy Guardiola might be experiencing right now had Sergio Aguero found pay dirt with just one of his eight shots on the night (two on target) to push his side third in the league table, four points clear of United in fifth.

Mourinho: Fellaini headbutt “a bit of a red card,” a bit of Aguero acting

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Following his side’s 0-0 draw away to Manchester City in the Manchester derby on Thursday, Jose Mourinho has done precisely what we would have expected of him — precisely what he’s done his entire career; precisely what a manager is supposed to do — with regards to Marouane Fellaini‘s red card for a headbutt on Sergio Aguero: he defended him.

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Speaking in his post-game television interview, Mourinho said he wouldn’t comment on the incident, which left Manchester United with 10 players for the final six minutes of the game, because he hadn’t seen it on television. He then proceeded to comment on the incident, calling it “a bit of a red card and a bit of a very smart, very experienced Argentinian player.” As for the rest of United’s game plan, which left them wholly incapable of attacking throughout the game, well, they tried. They really tried…

“I don’t say, because I didn’t watch it on TV. I spoke with Marouane; he’s very disappointed, he feels it’s a red card because he’s Marouane Fellaini. I spoke with Martin [Atkinson]; Martin told him in his opinion it’s a red card. I didn’t watch, but I can guess it’s a bit of a red card, and a bit of a very smart, experienced Argentinian player” [smile]

“We wanted to do more in terms of attacking, we wanted to exploit more on the count-attack. We did that in the first half, we had very good control of the game in the first half. The second half was more difficult. In the end, we have one player less, [it was] even worse, so we had to make the right decision to fight hard to have a point.”

“They started slow, the pushed us hard, they pressed higher. At the same time, we were not able to have the ball and move the ball well. … I prefer to say that the qualities of the players on the pitch, especially in the midfield, we missed a little bit of that quality, to have the ball, to start moving the ball, to connect with the attacking players.”

[ MORE: Guardiola “satisfied” with draw; “It’s not easy” to play United ]

Aguero’s embellishment is quite clear if you watch the above video, but the fact remains there would have been nothing to embellish if Fellaini hadn’t headbutted him. On second thought, that didn’t stop Alexis Sanchez, so perhaps he still would have wound up on the ground, clutching his face.

Player ratings from Man City v. Man United

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MANCHESTER — A tight Manchester Derby saw City and United settle for a 0-0 draw with the home side wasting several glorious chances.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ] 

Both Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho will be relatively pleased with the point which leaves the top four race wide-open with five games to go.

Here’s how each player marked out of 10.


MANCHESTER CITY

Claudio Bravo – 5 – Subbed off late on with a calf injury. Made a mess of a first half cross and didn’t have much else to do.

Pablo Zabaleta – 6 – Did okay defensively but a few loose balls in attack stopped City building up attacks.

Vincent Kompany – 8 – Superb display as he came through three games in 10 days. Held City’s backline together, once again.

Nicolas Otamendi – 6 – Struggled to cope with Rashford’s pace initially but recovered well. Gave away plenty of fouls.

Aleksandar Kolarov – 5 – Like Otamendi, struggled with pace of Rashford and was loose with the ball at his feet.

Fernandinho – 6 – Typically combative display in the heart of midfield from the Brazilian.

Raheem Sterling – 6 – Drifted in and out of the game and couldn’t get the better of Darmian.

Yaya Toure – 6 – Had little time on the ball in a congested midfield. Showed plenty of fighting spirit against Herrera.

Kevin De Bruyne – 7 – Always had that extra bit of quality to frighten United. Great ball in but Aguero hit the post and hit another just wide.

Leroy Sane – 6 – A rare off night for Sane as he was subbed out in the second half. The German winger never quite got going

Sergio Aguero – 6 – Had so many chances to score and wasn’t clinical. Drilled so many efforts over the bar and should’ve scored early.

Subs
Willy Caballero on for Claudio Bravo – 6 – Had little to do.
Jesus Navas on for Leroy Sane – 6 – Some good deliveries from wide areas late on.
Gabriel Jesus on for Raheem Sterling – 7 – Looked lively in his late cameo and thought he’d scored a late winner with a fine finish.


MANCHESTER UNITED

David De Gea – 6 – Made one good stop from Aguero early on but wasn’t troubled apart from that.

Antonio Valencia – 6 – Fine in defense but offered little in attack.

Eric Bailly – 7 – Stood up to the task of marking Aguero and made a fine sliding tackle in the first half. Held things together. Just.

Daley Blind – 6 – Didn’t have much to do but defended well when he had to.

Matteo Darmian – 5 – Was given a tough time by Sterling, De Bruyne and Navas.

Michael Carrick – 6 – Solid in midfield as he tried to get attacks going but space was clogged up.

Anthony Martial – 6 – Worked hard out wide but had little chance to spring counters. Steady.

Ander Herrera – 7 – A typical terrier-like display in midfield. Stopped Yaya Toure marauding forward.

Marouane Fellaini – 4 – Couldn’t influence the game other than stupidly hacking down Aguero and then headbutting him.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan – 5 – Hardly had a kick and couldn’t troubled City’s defense on the break. Not his type of game.

Marcus Rashford – 8 – Standout player on the pitch in the first half. His raw pace frightened the life out of City.

Subs
Jesse Lingard on for Anthony Martial – 5 – Just sat in and helped out defensively.
Timothy Fosu-Mensah on for Henrikh Mkhitaryan – 5 – Helped out defensively when it was needed late on.
Ashley Young on for Marcus Rashford – N/A – Used as a time-wasting tactic.