Death rattle of Manchester City’s title defense goes quiet at Southampton

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Given the miraculous way Manchester City won last year’s title, we’ve been cautious about calling the English Premier League race, but at some point we have to stop living in the past. Last year’s Manchester City team was capable of tracking down Manchester United and finding a stoppage time title winner on the season’s last day, but this team bares little resemblance to them. Most of the names are the same, and the general (squint your eyes) style of play is identical, but as full-time blew on Southampton’s 3-1 win over the visiting Citizens, the defending champions looked incapable of defending their title.

Now the math’s become daunting. The Citizens came into the day nine points back of league-leading United, who host Everton tomorrow. It’s the same lead Barcelona holds over second place Atletico Madrid in Spain, a race few consider viable. If the Red Devils get a result tomorrow, only Bayern Munich will have a larger lead among Europe’s top five leagues. The Premier League race may not be truly mathematically over, but in the parlance of the sport, it is done and dusted. If City makes this a race, they’ll be rising from the dead.

(MORE: Bale double downs Newcastle.)

The holders were second best from the opening kickoff, with Saints taking advantage of an early Gareth Barry giveaway and some slack defending to go up in the seventh minute. James Puncheon punched Southampton in front. Steven Davis doubled Saints’ lead in the 22nd before Edin Dzeko gave City momentary life, scoring in the 39th.

Then Barry, capping an uncharacteristically poor performance, provided a perfect finish to Ricky Lambert’s 48th minute cross, beating Joe Hart to put Southampton up 3-1 and deal his team a demoralizing blow.

Southamption is a better team than their 15th-place record suggests, and with a progressive style of play that challenges teams expecting reverence from their opponents, you can see why they gave City trouble. Still, a more ready reason for City’s failures rests with the men from Manchester. They are just nowhere near as good as they were last year. The strength and constant imposition that defined last year’s squad as been replaced with a dependence on resilience and ingenuity, a dependance that’s failed to carry then through the season. They’re a different team, a worse team, and a squad that’s not going to replicate last year’s miracles.

(MORE: Chelsea back into the win column | Arsenal hold on at Sunderland.)

Out of Europe, too far behind Manchester United, and in no danger of falling out of the top four, all that’s left is for City to reclaim the FA Cup. They travel to Elland Road to face Leeds United next weekend. After that, they enter the ennui-laden state of a disappointing squad forced to cast their eyes to next year four months too soon.

Report: Newcastle activates $12m release clause of ex-Arsenal youth

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Reports out of Turkey say Newcastle United have finally struck the transfer market for a new No. 10.

[ MORE: West Ham adds Diop ]

Aksam reports that Rafa Benitez got the Magpies hierarchy to activate a near $12 million release clause for Besiktas midfielder Oguzhan Ozyakup.

The 25-year-old was part of Arsenal’s youth set-up until 2012, making two League Cup appearances in 2011-12 before moving to Besiktas.

Dutch-born Ozyakup is 35-times capped with a goal for Turkey, twice captaining the Crescent-Stars.

Ozyakup lost playing time to Talisca this season, and registered just four assists in 24 appearances. In 219 appearances for Besiktas, he’s posted 27 goals with 50 assists.

Like the move for Newcastle?

Lukaku pens inspiring post on hard-scrabble upbringing

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Manchester United and Belgium striker Romelu Lukaku has an inspiring and emotional post in The Players’ Tribune which tugs at the heart strings and explains his competitive fire.

[ MORE: West Ham adds Diop ]

Lukaku talks about how his family’s poverty caused him to become a fierce competitor in the hopes of meeting his dreams head-on and providing for his family.

The Belgian, 25, scored twice in his side’s 3-0 World Cup-opening win over Panama earlier this week, and is now far removed from his youth, but he tells his story as if it lives fresh in his mind.

From The Players’ Tribune:

There were even times when my mum had to “borrow” bread from the bakery down the street. The bakers knew me and my little brother, so they’d let her take a loaf of bread on Monday and pay them back on Friday.

Lukaku also talks about racism in football, his debut for Anderlecht, and that aforementioned competitive drive. It’s 100 percent worth the read.

West Ham signs club record center back from Toulouse

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West Ham has reportedly set a club record with its latest signing under new manager Manuel Pellegrini.

Issa Diop is the player, the 21-year-old Toulouse captain and center back costing the Irons around $29 million.

[ MORE: Arsenal signs Leno ]

Diop scored three goals with an assist and eight yellow cards in 31 Ligue 1 matches this season, giving the young defender 95 apps, six goals, three assists, and 23 yellows since debuting with the senior team at 18.

Capped by France at every level below the senior team, Diop’s 2.2 interceptions per game ranked sixth in Ligue 1.

Toulose finished 18th in Ligue 1, but won its promotion/relegation playoff to stay in the French top flight.

From WHUFC.com:

“I am very happy to sign for such a historic, English club, and I hope to show my best here. I am a very ambitious player and West Ham is a very ambitious club, as we’ve seen with the appointment of the new coach. I hope to help the team win lots of games and make the fans happy.”

Layla’s Occasionally Unbiased Football Show: Episode 3

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In the third episode of Layla’s Occasionally Unbiased Football Show, England pulls out a massive win while VAR finds its way into the World Cup spotlight.

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ] 

There will be plenty more to come over the next few weeks, with the show coming via the Men In Blazers.

Click play on the video above to watch the first episode in full.