Playback: Top five festive takeaways

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1. TOP FOUR RACE NOW THE FOCUS

Manchester City may have dropped points for just the second time this season over the festive period (they came seriously close to losing in their 0-0 draw at Crystal Palace) but they now have a 15-point lead atop the Premier League table.

Pep Guardiola‘s boys can start planning which suit they will wear for the open top bus parade around Manchester and switch some focus towards completing a historic quadruple. On this form, they can do it, but injuries must be kinder to them.

The race for who will finish behind City and in the top four is far from over.

Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham and Arsenal all dropped points and they’re all stumbling over each other to try and seal their spot in the top four.

United’s three draws and then a win against Everton saw them go unbeaten but Mourinho’s men are stumbling at precisely the wrong time of the season.

Chelsea seem the most likely to chip away at Man City’s lead, but they put in a shaky defensive display a Arsenal to draw 2-2 in an epic encounter. Still, Antonio Conte‘s men seem to have the staying power to finish in second ahead of United. So, that’s the top three sorted.

The race for fourth will go down to the wire, once again, and Liverpool probably have the edge given their scoring power, yet Tottenham have Harry Kane, more on him shortly, and Arsenal are, well, Arsenal. They’ll hang in there until the bitter end and somehow have a chance of still finishing in the top four on the final day. That’s just what happens.

What we learned over the festive period is that United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Spurs and Arsenal are all capable of putting in error strewn displays and down that stretch that means squandering plenty of points to thicken the top four plot further. This will be fun.


2. HARRY KANE IS A WIZARD

We are witnessing something magical with Harry Kane. The man is a machine and he capped a fine 2017 in record-breaking fashion.

Kane scored back-to-back hat tricks on Dec. 23 against Burnley and Dec. 26 against Southampton to take his tally to 39 in the Premier League in 2017, setting a new record for the number of goals scored in a calendar year.

Many thought Alan Shearer’s record of 36 would never be broken. Kane also ended 2017 ahead of the likes of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Robert Lewandowski.

Yep, he is no longer a “one season wonder”…

Still just 24-year-old, Kane must have Shearer’s record as the PL’s all-time leading goalscorer (260) on his mind.

Kane has 96 L goals in 137 appearances, so if he keeps his current pace of 0.70 goals per game going he will reach that amount in about six seasons. A huge ask, but Kane has all the attributes to break every PL goalscoring record ever set, if, of course, he stays at Spurs. We will leave that debate for another day, but if he keeps this up, Real Madrid et al. will be handing Spurs a blank check for Kane…

After his record-breaking hat trick against Southampton on Boxing Day, Pro Soccer Talk was among the media members in the mixed zone at Wembley who had the chance to speak with Kane.

“When you look at Messi and Ronaldo, I’ve obviously still got a long way to go before I can be compared to them but it’s a start and that’s what I want to do, keep improving and be up there one day,” Kane said. “That’s always the goal, to be bracketed with the best players in the world. Messi and Ronaldo have set that standard for so long now. To nick ahead is something I’m proud of and it’s just the start for me. I want to do it year in, year out. They’ve done it for eight, nine years now so be classed in that bracket, that’s what I’ve got to do. That’s my aim.”

Does anybody think he actually won’t achieve it?


3. SWASHBUCKLING ARSENAL UNLUCKY

This was not a happy festive period for Arsenal and Arsene Wenger.

They did everything they could to make their charge into the top four but two crucial decisions went against them and Wenger now has a three-game touchline ban for his actions (and possible more given his comments after the draw with Chelsea) to think about just how unlucky his boys were with the penalty calls against West Brom and Chelsea.

Arsenal should have won all four of their festive games. Simple.

Instead, they won one and drew three which saw them lose further ground on the top four. They’re now five points off fourth-place Liverpool and although that gap isn’t insurmountable, at all, the Gunners know they should be in a better position than they currently are.

That’s down, largely, to defensive mistakes once again coming back to bite them, but there are promising signs for Wenger. Mesut Ozil is back to his best. Jack Wilshere is looking sharper each and every game he plays. And even Alexis Sanchez has delivered after a drop in form in early December.

Their swashbuckling displays against Liverpool (recovering well after a shaky first half) and Chelsea at the Emirates during the festive break produced two of the best games we’ve seen this season in the PL. But Arsenal have now played Tottenham, Man United, Liverpool and Chelsea at home this season and won just one of those games. They should have won all four but came up against inspired goalkeeping from David De Gea and Thibaut Courtois, plus harsh decisions going against them.

Was Wenger right to blow his top as he criticized referees after the draws on New Year’s Eve and Jan. 3? He felt like he had to and given the way he saw his team play, you can understand why he’s feeling hard done by as to how their festive period played out.


4. Paul Pogba SHOULD PLAY ON THE LEFT

In a 45 minute spell the real Paul Pogba returned. It was magical.

After a frustrating festive season for Manchester United, Pogba dazzled in the second half of their 2-0 win against Everton at Goodison Park on Jan. 1.

The Frenchman, 24, started on the left of a midfield three and was given license to roam out to the left flank with Jesse Lingard cutting inside. It worked perfectly and looked as though a switch had been flicked in Pogba’s head.

This was why United paid a then word-record fee of $120 million to Juventus for Pogba in the summer of 2016. At Juve, Pogba’s position was on the left of a midfield three and I remember one Champions League game in 2015 where he turned it on in in the second half and ripped Manchester City to shreds.

So often used as a deep-lying central midfielder by Mourinho since he arrived United, much has been made of Pogba’s inability to grab a game by the scruff of the neck in the chaos of the engine room. He looks more fluid out wide and he is able to damage opposition defenders with his pace, power and trickery.

Pogba was criticized by United legend Paul Scholes on Dec. 28 for his performances in their three-straight draws over the festive period against Leicester, Burnley and Southampton, but he correctly received plenty of plaudits for his display against Everton.

Mourinho simply has to use this 4-3-3 system going forward and line up Pogba on the left of a midfield three.


5. PICK 3 FROM 11 FOR RELEGATION

One of the clearest takeaways from the festive period was this: we have no idea who will be relegated when the season ends on May 13.

Sure, there’s a little daylight to Swansea City and West Brom at the bottom but they’re only four points from safety.

Above them the likes of Stoke City and Southampton are bang out of form, have managers being lambasted by fans and look bereft of a general plan. Stoke and Saints are in big, big trouble and they have zero momentum.

West Ham and Crystal Palace are the form teams in the bottom half after managerial changes, while the likes of Watford, Huddersfield, Newcastle, Bournemouth and Brighton are still looking nervously over their shoulders. Everton, in ninth place on 27 points, are probably the cutoff but if the Toffees embark on another huge slump they may get embroiled in a battle against the drop.

If you had to pick three teams right now to go down, who would you go with? I’d go West Brom, Swansea and probably Bournemouth. But this festive period has shown us the relegation scrap is now between 11 teams.


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

Vancouver adds versatile Juarez, formerly of Monterrey, Celtic

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Efrain Juarez is bringing his game to Major League Soccer.

[ MLS: 2018 Mock SuperDraft ]

The 39-times capped Mexico veteran has inked a deal with the Vancouver Whitecaps, joining a strengthened unit which came within a point of winning the West last season.

Juarez, 29, was unveiled as a midfielder by the ‘Caps, though he’s primarily played right back in his club career. He’s played at Celtic, Real Zaragoza, Club America, Monterrey, and Pumas.

Last capped by El Tri in 2012, Juarez has played every position except goal, center attacking mid, and center forward in his career (picture a ‘U’ on the pitch).

“I’m so happy and excited for this new stage in my career,” Juarez said. “It’s an opportunity for me to keep growing in a new league and to be a part of an amazing club in Vancouver. From the moment they showed interest me, Carl Robinson and the Whitecaps staff have made me feel very important. I promise to put all my effort into this club and do my best to help us achieve our goals.”

VIDEO: Asensio goal ends Real Madrid’s winless run

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Marco Asensio’s eighth goal of the season and second of this Copa del Rey put an end to an unlikely Real Madrid winless run in a 1-0 victory at Leganes.

[ MLS: 2018 Mock SuperDraft ]

The 21-year-old darted in front of a defender to volley home from in-tight, giving Real Madrid a first leg lead in the tournament quarterfinals.

More importantly, perhaps, it gives struggling Real a boost in morale after draws with Celta Vigo and Numancia, and a loss to Villarreal.

Real is home to Deportivo de la Coruna in La Liga before hosting Leganes in the second leg.

Hopeful Newcastle buyer Staveley: Offer still on the table

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Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley is probably happy that his for-sale club is away this weekend, even though his side’s up against Manchester City.

[ MORE: Top PL storylines — Week 24  ]

That’s because hopeful buyer Amanda Staveley has responded to claims that her hopeful takeover of the team won’t be happening any time soon.

Talks had stalled, said Tuesday reports, much to the chagrin of an #AshleyOut brigade that at times can make Arsenal’s #WengerOut brigade look like a yard full of happy puppies.

A “source” had said, “Attempts to reach a deal have proved to be exhaustive, frustrating and a complete waste of time,” but Staveley shot back on Thursday to reignite the fire. From the BBC, taken from The Times:

“Our bid remains on the table. This is an investment, but it has to be a long-term investment. Newcastle would be run as a business, but we want it to be a successful, thriving business that is an absolutely integral part of the city.”

She also said that popular manager Rafa Benitez is integral to her interest in the team, and that fact combined with her insistence that an offer remains on the table will have many Newcastle fans seething with current ownership (and there have been protests for years). It’s Ashley’s move now.

2018 MLS Mock Draft: LAFC, Galaxy hold the keys

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Major League Soccer’s latest batch of hopeful rookies learn the next steps of their professional careers beginning Friday with the first two rounds of the MLS SuperDraft.

There are several intriguing prospects, including accomplished Stanford center back Tomas Hilliard-Arce and dangerous Michigan winger Francis Atuahene.

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An MLS mock draft is always tricky given the wildly varying opinions on players from the college game. This year, it’s even trickier as clubs without picks and some with multiple first round picks may be looking to move up and down even more than the norm.

Here’s how we think the draft could play out:

  1. LAFC – Tomas Hilliard-Arce, CB, Stanford
  2. LA Galaxy – Jon Bakero, FW, Wake Forest
  3. DC United – Francis Atuahene, FW, Michigan
  4. Montreal – Joao Moutinho, LB, Akron
  5. Minnesota – Wyatt Omsberg, CB, Dartmouth
  6. Orlando City – Ema Twumasi, FW, Wake Forest
  7. Montreal – Chris Mueller, FW, Wisconsin
  8. New England – Mo Adams, MF, Syracuse
  9. New England – Chris Lema, MF, Georgetown
  10. Real Salt Lake – Justin Fiddes, LB, Washington
  11. FC Dallas – Marcelo Acuna, FW, Virginia Tech
  12. San Jose – Brandon Bye, RB, Western Michigan
  13. Sporting KC – Ed Opoku, FW, Virginia
  14. Atlanta – Alex Roldan, MF, Seattle
  15. Chicago – Mason Toye, FW, Indiana
  16. New York Red Bulls – Alan Winn, MF, North Carolina
  17. Vancouver – Tristan Blackmon, RB, Pacific
  18. Sporting KC – Jon Gallagher, FW, Notre Dame
  19. New York City FC – Daniel Musovski, FW, UNLV
  20. Houston – Mo Thiaw, FW, Louisville
  21. Columbus – Brian White, FW, Duke
  22. Seattle – Tim Kubel, MF, Louisville
  23. Toronto FC – Oliver Shannon, MF, Clemson

There are a few players to keep an eye on for the later rounds that I won’t project for the first round due almost exclusively to first person bias (Some I’ve seen play in college, others at other levels). Afonso Pinheiro from Albany produced like crazy until this season, and Bowling Green defender Alexis Souahy has a skill set that could really transmit to the MLS level.

Mac Steeves (Providence) is a prototypical big body scorer, while Evansville’s heady Ian McGrath has a flair for the absurd and can play almost every position up the center of the pitch. Charleston’s Thomas Vancaeyezeele was a D-2 monster and is probably worth a shot earlier than people suspect.