Look ahead, Premier League: Another chance for a Liverpool breakthrough

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Somewhere over the course of the winter it’s become acceptable to see the Brendan Rodgers Project in a new light. Though the first-year boss ambitiously (if perhaps slightly disingenuously) said his team could finish second this season, most onlookers saw this as another year of transition for the Reds. Disappointments like last Sunday’s at Oldham Athletic still dot Liverpool’s record, but the quality of their play has been encouraging. At their best, Liverpool looks like a Champions League contender, even if that status is still at least a season away. But with that quality apparent now, fans have been left yearning for the type of win that will validate suspicions the team can be as good as they  look.

That win almost came mid-week, but conceding a two-goal lead in London means fans are still wait for Brendan Rodgers’ big breakthrough. After an hour at the Emirates, it looked set to arrive, but goals from Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott salvaged a point for Arsenal. Against the Premier League’s top six, Liverpool is now 0-4-4 this season.

For all the beautiful soccer Rodgers has instilled at Anfield, it’s fair to ask when it means if they aren’t beating top competition. The former Swansea boss was brought in to build something better than Kenny Dalglish had last season. If that requires a transition year, fans seem ready to be patient, but when the results start to hint at a roadblock that defies their talent — the type of block that hints at something mental rather than physical — curiosity’s natural. And at some point, that curiosity becomes a concern.

Rodgers isn’t quite there, yet. Even after capitulating mid-week, he’s still focuing on the positives.

“Normally you would be bitterly disappointed not to have won but I can only be proud of the players,,” Rodgers silver—linings it after the match. “I thought they were absolutely magnificent.”

Those players get their next chance for a breakthrough Sunday at Eastlands. There they’ll face a Manchester City side whose last two performances should engender hope. Their 1-0 win on the 26th at Stoke City came only after Pablo Zabeleta’s late right place, right time goal. Three days later, the Citizens were drawn at Loftus Road, the title aspirants dropping points against the Premier League’s worst team.

The problem’s up front. It’s been 328 minutes since Edin Dzeko scored at Arsenal on Jan. 13, the last time a City forward got on the scoresheet. The last time one of the team’s strikers scored against 11 men in league  was Jan. 1 (Dzeko against Stoke City). Sergio Aguero’s “struggling”, down to 8 goals in 20 games after scoring 23 times in his first Premier League season. Carlos Tévez hasn’t scored in league since Dec. 1, and Mario Balotelli’s no longer on the books.

But if his strike corps is a problem, manager Roberto Mancini’s not admitting it.

“Now we have three strikers,” Mancini said when asked if City tried to acquire another forward. “We have only Premier League and FA Cup, I think that could be enough.”

On Sunday, it just might. In Liverpool’s eight games against the top six, they’ve given up multiple goals seven times, including their Aug. 26 meeting with City. Their 30  goals allowed puts them a respectable eighth in the Premiership, but having conceded half those in  eight games against the league’s best, their defensive record only feeds into the theme: The next step for The Brendan Rodgers project is a breakthrough against one of the league’s top teams.

Elsewhere in England

Saturday

Queens Park Rangers (20th) vs. Norwich City (14th) – Must wins don’t exist in February, but how can QPR be confident they’ll stay up if they can’t beat Norwich City at home? The Canaries last league win was Dec. 12.

Arsenal (6th) vs. Stoke City (10th) – Now four points and two places out of a Champions League spot, the Gunners can’t afford to drop points in these types of games. The last time Stoke took points at Arsenal was 1981 (eight matches).

Everton (5th) vs. Aston Villa (19th) – Not so long ago, this was a battle for non-Big Four supremacy (when there was a Big Four). Now Everton’s competing for Champions League while Villa looks to have reached new lows. In the drop with the worst goal difference in the league, Aston Villa’s no longer one of Everton’s peers.

Newcastle United (15th) vs. Chelsea (3rd) – Who knows what to expect from Chelsea? Would anybody be surprised if they lost this one? Newcastle’s been reinforced by Moussa Sissoko, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, Yoann Gouffran and Mathieu Debuchy in the winter window, giving the Magpies the talent to take advantage of the Blues, particularly if a newly healthy Yoann Cabaye can tilt the battle in the middle. But this is stills not a match Chelsea should be losing. While Newcastle’s intriguing, they aren’t on Chelsea’s level.

Reading (17th) vs. Sunderland (11th) – How has this happened? Reading hasn’t been much different after their rough start, yet they’re getting better results. Seven points in their last three and have allowed them to claw out of the drop. The pack has come back to them, something you can also say about Sunderland. They also have seven in their last three, they’ve climbed to 11th, and while they’re now finding more goals (and turning draws into wins), it’s difficult to say things have truly turned around. Both these teams are  taking advantage of a weak bottom half.

West Ham United (13th) vs. Swansea City (8th) – The Hammers have hit a wall. After a strong start to the season, they closed January with three loses in four, conceding 12 times. Swansea ran out 3-0 winners in the teams’ August meeting. Undefeated in league since Dec. 16, this could be another convincing result for Swans.

Wigan Athletic (18th) vs. Southampton (16th) – Two weeks ago this would have been one of the more obscurely attractive matches in the schedule, but with Nigel Adkins asked to give way for Mauricio Pochettino, we’re no longer guaranteed two styles that augur a beautiful game.

Fulham (12th) vs. Manchester United (1st) – I refuse to say anything predictive about #FlawedButFabulous. Fulham, on the other hand, are another illustration of England’s weak bottom half. As much as they’ve struggled this season, they’re still 12th.

Sunday

West Bromwich Albion (9th) vs. Tottenham Hotspur (4th) – Lewis Holtby’s arrival will probably mean an even greater playing time struggle for Clint Dempsey, but the German playmaker is exactly when Spurs need. This Sunday’s match may provide a perfect example. On the road against a team whose tactics could have previously exposed Spurs’ occasional lack of creativity, Holtby may provide a dimension that forces opposing managers to reconsider laying of Spurs and daring them to craft a killer ball.

Griezmann gives Barcelona first leg draw with Napoli (video)

Napoli v. Barcelona recap and video highlights
Photo by CARLO HERMANN/AFP via Getty Images
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Antoine Griezmann scored in the second half to earn Barcelona a 1-1 draw with Napoli in a UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg at the San Paulo Stadium on Tuesday.

Dries Mertens scored a beautiful opener for Napoli, who heads to the Camp Nou for a March 18 second leg.

Arturo Vidal was sent off in the 89th minute for a second yellow card, and Sergio Busquets picked up a yellow which will cost him the second leg.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Gennaro Gattuso’s plan was to limit Barcelona’s shots, and it worked well in the first half.

Mertens got his goal on one of only five shots in the half, the only two on target coming via Napoli.

How a tale can turn on a moment, though, as Nelson Semedo set up Griezmann’s second-half marker to give Barca a useful away goal.

Barca was much better in the second half but could not find a second away goal.

Here’s the goal of the day, and it belongs to Mertens.

Bayern Munich puts Chelsea in three-goal hole

Bayern Chelsea
Photo by Harriet Lander/Copa/Getty Images
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Too easy.

Serge Gnabry scored off a pair of Robert Lewandowski assists as Bayern Munich earned a 3-0 first-leg lead over Chelsea in the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 on Tuesday.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Chelsea played the last dozen minutes down a man; Marcos Alonso was sent off via VAR for contact to the face of Robert Lewandowski away from the play. He’ll miss the second leg, as will Jorginho after collecting another yellow card.

Lewandowski capped off the scoring to make Chelsea’s task even more difficult heading to the Allianz Arena for the March 18 second leg.


Three things we learned

1. Bayern loves London: Just under five months ago, Bayern Munich buried Tottenham Hotspur in North London in a seven-goal show. This wasn’t quite that, but the Bavarians out-classed a Chelsea side which had few answers for Hansi Flick’s tactics. Bayern has hung 10 on London.

2. Ex-Gunner Gnabry runs the show: Gnabry scored just one goal in 14 appearances over four years between Arsenal and West Brom, and is making up for lost time during this season’s Champions League. He scored four times and added an assist when Bayern visited his former North London Derby rivals. This time, it was two goals in four second-half minutes at Stamford Bridge, the German playmaker contributing plenty in the defensive half.

All it took was one slip from Cesar Azpilicueta to start the scoring.

3. Chelsea’s backs torn apart: It’s difficult to find any fine individual performances from the Blues aside from Mateo Kovacic, though Mason Mount had his moments, but the worst days came from the back three. Bayern was credited with a half-dozen big chances via Sofascore, and the visitors took a whopping 11 shots inside the box.

Man of the Match: The 30-year-old Muller was everywhere early, but it’s difficult to give this to anyone but Gnabry or Lewandowski. We’ll give it to the German.


Kingsley Coman was the first to scare the opposition, working a long 1-2 with Thomas Muller before thumping a low shot wide of the near post in the 12th minute.

Chelsea backstop Willy Caballero made a sliding trail leg save on Robert Lewandowski in the 28th.

Muller then swirled a shot around Caballero but just past the far post before heading off the cross bar in the 35th.

Chelsea got a prime moment in the 48th minute, but Mason Mount was dispossessed and Manuel Neuer stymied Ross Barkley.

Gnabry then stole the ball in Chelsea’s half and worked a 1-2 with Lewandowski to put Bayern on the board.

Mount latched onto a big mistake from Joshua Kimmich but badly missed his bid to catch Neuer out of the goal.

Canadian phenom Alphonso Davies produced the third goal with a roaring run down the left flank, crossing to Lewandowski for the goal.

PL Club Power Rankings: Week 27

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The latest batch of Premier League Club Power Rankings has the season’s biggest surprise dipping a bit while serial grinders Burnley head back up the list.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Green: New season-high ranking
Red: New season-low

[ MORE: PL Club Power Rankings archive ]


20. Norwich City — The Canaries’ defense is covering the club in coal.
Last week: 20
Season high: 10
Season low: 20
Last match: Lost 3-0 at Wolves
Up next: 3 p.m. ET Friday v. Leicester City

19. Aston Villa — Did Dean Smith‘s strong words wake ’em up? We won’t know until after the League Cup Final, where everyone will be amped.
Last week: 14
Season high: 6
Season low: 19
Last match: Lost 2-0 at Saints
Up next: 4 p.m. ET March 9 at Leicester City

18. Watford — The new manager bounce is super dead.
Last week: 18
Season high: 13
Season low: 20
Last match: Lost 3-0 at Manchester United
Up next: 12:30 p.m. ET Saturday v. Liverpool

17. Bournemouth — The schedule is not forgiving, which makes the 3-0 loss to Burnley all the more sickening for fans of the Cherries.
Last week: 15
Season high: 6
Season low: 18
Last match: Lost 2-1 at Sheffield United
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday v. Chelsea

16. West Ham United — An improved performance from Moyes’ boys, even if all they’re doing is not winning.
Last week: 19
Season high: 5
Season low: 20
Last match: Lost 3-2 at Liverpool
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday v. Southampton

15. Newcastle United — Woeful versus Palace, and are in dire need of looking like a proper football team when Burnley visits St. James’ Park this weekend. If they can’t do it versus the Clarets, who don’t really require the ball, maybe they can’t do it. Not safe yet.
Last week: 13
Season high: 11
Season low: 20
Last match: Lost 1-0 at Crystal Palace
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday v. Burnley

14. Crystal Palace — The Eagles were all over Newcastle, but should be alarmed to only score once. Wilfried Zaha is a mess, but perhaps the M23 Derby will sort him out.
Last week: 16
Season high: 5
Season low: 18
Last match: Won 1-0 v. Newcastle United
Up next:  7:30 a.m. ET Saturday at Brighton

13. Brighton and Hove Albion — Three-straight draws, but Graham Potters’ men still have not won in 2020. It’d be a shame if they slipped out of the top flight.
Last week: 17
Season high: 6
Season low: 18
Last match: Drew 1-1 at Sheffield United
Up next: 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday v. Palace

12. Southampton — Totally dominant v. Villa, a trip to West Ham could be a goal fest.
Last week: 12
Season high: 7
Season low: 20
Last match: Won 2-0 v. Aston Villa
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday at West Ham

11. Sheffield United — No shame in just getting by, but Chris Wilder‘s men are looking a bit less like a Europa League side in recent weeks.
Last week: 6
Season high: 5
Season low: 17
Last match: Drew 1-1 v. Brighton
Up next: 10 a.m. ET March 7 v. Norwich City

10. Burnley — Wins are wins are wins are wins, and we can no longer discount anything Burnley is doing just to lean on stats. Sean Dyche is Cinderella Man.
Last week: 11
Season high: 5
Season low: 17
Last match: Won 3-0 v. Bournemouth
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday at Newcastle United

9. Everton — Carlo Ancelotti will be truly let down by the lack of stops versus Arsenal to kickstart a brutal run of fixtures. Manchester United home, Chelsea away, Liverpool home are up next.
Last week: 5
Season high: 5
Season low: 19
Last match: Lost 3-2 at Arsenal
Up next: 9 a.m. ET Sunday v. Manchester United

8. Arsenal — With West Ham, Brighton, Saints, and Norwich next, the win over Everton could be a real springboard for a surprising top four run.
Last week: 8
Season high: 4
Season low: 13
Last match: Won 3-2 v. Everton
Up next: 10 a.m. ET March 7 v. West Ham

7. Wolves — Huge Top four six-pointer at Spurs on Sunday, and Wolves will be grateful they’re bringing a 4-0 advantage to Espanyol on Thursday. Will Nuno Espirito Santo actually rotate?
Last week: 9
Season high: 3
Season low: 17
Last match: Won 3-0 v. Norwich CIty
Up next: 9 a.m. ET Sunday at Spurs

6. Leicester City — The Foxes’ next four matches are against relegation candidates. Let’s see if Brendan Rodgers can get the boys looking like a top four side again.
Last week: 4
Season high: 2
Season low: 10
Last match: Lost 1-0 v. Man City
Up next: 3 p.m. ET Friday at Norwich City

5. Manchester United — Bruno Fernandes is the real deal.
Last week: 10
Season high: 2
Season low: 16
Last match: Won 3-0 v. Watford
Up next: 9 a.m. ET Sunday at Everton

4. Tottenham Hotspur — Very fortunate on so many levels to not have been walloped by Chelsea.
Last week: 3
Season high: 2
Season low: 16
Last match: Lost 2-1 at Chelsea
Up next: 9 a.m. ET Sunday v. Wolves

3. Chelsea — A much-needed win over an old friend, sweeping Jose Mourinho to firm up top four credentials.
Last week: 7
Season high: 2
Season low: 12
Last match: Won 2-1 v. Spurs
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday at Bournemouth

2. Man City — It’s all about the UCL for a club which is clearly one of the two best in the Premier League but miles off the title.
Last week: 2
Season high: 1
Season low: 6
Last match: Won 1-0 at Leicester City
Up next: 12:30 p.m. ET Sunday at Manchester United

1. Liverpool — For maybe the first time this season, Liverpool looked like it thought it could walk into a venue and win on its jersey alone. They were awakened before it was too late.
Last week: 1
Season high: 1
Season low: 3
Last match: Won 3-2 v. West Ham United
Up next: 12:30 p.m. ET Saturday at Watford

UCL, Live: Chelsea v. Bayern; Napoli v. Barcelona

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The 2019-20 UEFA Champions League is back and the Round of 16 games continue this week as Chelsea host Bayern Munich and Barcelona head to Napoli in what should be two epic battles.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores

This is arguably the biggest test yet for Frank Lampard‘s Chelsea youngsters as they face the German giants Bayern who are in imperious form in Europe and have Robert Lewandowski leading their charge. What Chelsea lack in experience they make up for in talent and despite some attacking injuries, Lampard will be keen to take the game to Bayern at Stamford Bridge. Given Chelsea’s defensive flaws so far this season, their best form of defense is attack.

Lampard knows Chelsea must lock down Lewandowski and his battle with Antonio Rudiger is one, among many, we are really looking forward to.

[ MORE: Which Premier League team(s) will reach last eight? ]

Elsewhere, Barcelona warmed up for their big trip to Napoli in fine style as Lionel Messi scored four times in a thumping win against Eibar in La Liga on Saturday. Messi, 32, will be Barca’s main men in the cauldron that is the Estadio San Paolo and despite their patchy form in Serie A, Gennaro Gatusso’s Napoli are a dangerous proposition in the Champions League. Especially at home in Naples.

Below is the full schedule for the two UCL last 16 first leg games on Tuesday, with bothgames kicking off at 3 p.m. ET. You can follow the action live by clicking on the link above.


Tuesday Champions League action

Chelsea v. Bayern Munich
Napoli v. Barcelona