Premier League Relegation Watch: Matchweek 35

Leave a comment

Matchweek 35 marks the weekend when 20th place Reading and 19th place Queens Park Rangers, both on 24 points, must win to avoid being relegated. If either club has a result go against them over the next four matches, they will be mathematically eliminated from the top-flight.

The relegation focus, therefore, shifts to the other seven clubs that could potentially fill that fatal final spot in the drop zone. Here’s a look where each of the competing clubs stand going into this weekend’s fixtures.

Wigan Athletic (18th place; 33 played; 31 points)

Hardly a stranger to a relegation battle the Latics have lost two straight matches (0-1 to City and 0-2 to West Ham) and haven’t won a game since the 1-0 victory over Norwich on March 30th. Roberto Martinez’ men have been distracted from the Premiership due to their achievements in the FA Cup, where they are set to face Manchester City in the final on May 11th.

This weekend Wigan takes on a Tottenham side that can’t afford to drop points as they hunt down a spot in next year’s Champions League. Despite the competitive matchup it’s one that Wigan is capable of handling as they’ve taken points in six of the last ten meetings with Spurs.

A loss to Tottenham wouldn’t spell doom for Martinez’ side as their remaining schedule provides a game in hand and opponents with whom they are much better matched: West Brom (A), Swansea (H), Arsenal (A) and Aston Villa (H).

Aston Villa (17th place; 34 played; 34 points)

Three points clear of Wigan is Aston Villa, who welcome Paulo Di Canio’s Sunderland side to Villa Park for a six point relegation belter. Paul Lambert’s squad has only managed a single victory the last five times the Black Cats have visited the Midlands. But with Gabriel Agbonlahor’s return from a groin injury to play 90 minutes against Manchester United on Monday, the Villains have a fully fit squad for Sunday’s clash.

With Wigan’s game in hand, Villa can’t afford to drop points in this fixture before they see the season out away at Norwich City, home against Chelsea and away at Wigan.

Newcastle United (16th place; 34 played; 37 points)

Newcastle will be the first side to face a Liverpool sans Luis Suarez and will be hard-pressed to take full advantage. To do so, they must contain Daniel Sturridge, who will be deputizing, as well as the oft-injured Fabio Borini, who may see the field in a substitute role if he passes a late fitness test. For Newcastle, they’ll welcome the return of Cheick Tiote and captain Fabricio Coloccini while Hatem Ben Arfa will look to capitalize on his return to fitness.

Even on points with Sunderland and Stoke, the Magpies must grab a point this weekend as their remaining schedule is anything but easy: West Ham (A), QPR (H) and Arsenal (A).

Stoke City (15th place; 34 played; 37 points)

Another six point gripper is set when Stoke welcome Norwich City to the Britannia. After a seven match winless streak saw the Potters position in mid-table drop like a stone, Tony Pulis’ side managed to get themselves back on track with a 2-0 victory over QPR last week. To reproduce the feat Stoke may have to do so without the likes of Matthew Etherington, Marc Wilson, Charlie Adam and Cameron Jerome, who are all struggling with injuries.

Stoke’s remaining schedule (Sunderland (A), Spurs (H), Southampton (A)) affords them little room for error and a point against the Canaries could prove vital in securing their status in the top-flight.

Sunderland (14th place; 34 played; 37 points)

Consecutive shutout victories against Newcastle and Everton has spirits high at the Stadium of Light and a victory against Aston Villa would bring Paulo Di Canio’s side even on the magic point mark of 40 points. To make that happen the Black Cats will need to get by an inconsistent Villa side with their back to the walls.

Sunderland will feel this is the fixture that will secure their place in next season’s Premier League but a mild end of season schedule (Stoke (H), Southampton (H), Spurs (A)) means the Black Cats are not yet in “must-win” territory.

Norwich City (13th place; 34 played; 38 points)

The last time these two sides faced off at the Britannia it was a tight affair only separated by Matthew Etherington’s 72nd minute strike. The Canaries will hope to reverse their fortunes this time around but if they’re to do so it may be without defender Michael Turner, who manager Chris Hughton has deemed “touch and go” to feature.

Norwich’s remaining schedule provides them with two strong outs to the 40 point mark, home fixtures against Villa and West Brom, before finishing the season away at City.

Southampton (12th place; 34 played; 39 points)

Southampton’s return to the Premiership has resulted in some glorious football and memorable wins. But the Saints job is not yet done as they need a single point to ensure their survival in the top flight. Saturday’s fixture against mid-table West Brom provides the perfect opportunity to do so and with a fully-fit squad Mauricio Pochetino’s men will have no excuse but to execute.

If they’re unable to produce this weekend, things could get tricky for the Saints as competitive fixtures await against Spurs (A), Sunderland (H) and Stoke (A).

CCL: Toronto FC embarrassed in 4-0 defeat in Panama

AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco
Leave a comment

As far as Toronto FC are concerned, 2018 never actually ended and appears set to continue for the rest of eternity.

[ MORE: Jurgen Klinsmann received $3.35M settlement from U.S. Soccer ]

After losing the 2018 CONCACAF Champions League final to Chivas de Guadalajara on penalty kicks, the then-defending MLS Cup champions proceeded to ninth in the Eastern Conference and miss the playoffs by 14 — fourteen — points.

Fear not, though, for the most recent offseason would be a time for rebuilding to make one final push for trophies during the Sebastian Giovinco/Michael Bradley/Jozy Altidore era. Except, the exact opposite of that occurred: Giovinco left for Saudi Arabian side Al-Hilali; Victor Vazquez departed for Kuwaiti side Al-Arabi; Laurent Ciman and Terrence Boyd were the big arrivals this winter. A net-negative, to state the painfully obvious.

[ MORE: Liverpool draw Bayern Munich | Barcelona held by Lyon ]

Then, on Tuesday, things got worse — so, so much worse. Playing away to Panamanian side Independiente in the CCL round of 16, Greg Vanney’s side conceded four (quite spectacularly) poorly defended goals en route to a 4-0 defeat that has them all but eliminated before even stepping foot on their home field next Tuesday.

If you’re into watching that sort of thing, have a quick look below…

Boyd sent a penalty kick into orbit, just before halftime when the score was still just 1-0, thus setting in motion the Reds’ total collapse over the final 45 minutes.

There have been some embarrassing showings by MLS sides in CCL over the years, but what TFC did on Tuesday ranks right down near the bottom of anything we’ve ever seen.

Champions League preview: Man City visit Schalke; Atleti v. Juve

Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Manchester City’s quest for European glory resumes on Wednesday, when the reigning Premier League champions travel to Gelsenkirchen, Germany, to take on a struggling Schalke side in the UEFA Champions League round of 16.

[ MORE: Liverpool blunted by Bayern, and vice versa, in first-leg draw ]

Schalke sit 14th in the Bundesliga with barely a point per game (23 from 22 games) nearly two-thirds of the way through a disastrous league season. Manager Domenico Tedesco’s position will surely come under consideration this summer, though he could do himself a massive favor by knocking off a heavy favorite to reach the Champions League quarterfinals.

Man City come into the first leg in fine form, having won 12 of their last 13 games (all competitions) after their season nearly went up in smoke back in December. Sergio Aguero’s red-hot finishing touch has been at the center of recent successes, with the Argentine scoring in five of his last six appearances (nine games during that time, including a pair of hat tricks). City will, however, be without the services of three key figures: left back Benjamin Mendy (knee), forward Gabriel Jesus (hamstring) and center back John Stones (groin); meanwhile, Vincent Kompany (muscular strain) has been passed fit and made the trip to Germany.

[ MORE: Lyon strong at home, hold Barcelona to 0-0 draw (video) ]

All Atletico Madrid have to do to compete in this season’s final at their brand new Wanda Metropolitano Stadium in the Spanish capital is run through three home-and-away ties over the next three months, beginning with seven-time reigning Serie A champions Juventus. To further complicate matters, the Bianconeri are now led by Atleti’s old nemesis, Cristiano Ronaldo, from his days at Real Madrid. On the plus side, Atleti haven’t lost a home knockout game in 22 years, so they’ll almost certainly head to Turin with a puncher’s chance of sneaking through.

Massimiliano Allegri and Juve, on the other hand, intend to leave little to chance in the second leg on March 12.

Our team is growing physically, mentally and technically and we have to keep going as we enter the most important stage of the season,” the Juve boss said this week. “We have to be focused, knowing that we face a compact team that make the most of set pieces, and who in recent years have achieved a lot of good results in Europe. I wouldn’t take a draw now — I said to the lads that it’s important to score goals.”

Sarri an isolated manager after Chelsea fans turn on him

Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
2 Comments

LONDON (AP) The volley of abusive chants from Chelsea supporters were aimed in a different direction this time. Toward the sideline at Stamford Bridge.

[ MORE: Liverpool blunted by Bayern, and vice versa, in first-leg draw ]

Players were spared on Monday, there was no need to dig out the “rats” banners from 2015, and supporters seem just fine with Eden Hazard and Co.

Typically loyal to their managers — and there have been a dozen alone this century — many Chelsea fans instead seem to be done with Maurizio Sarri even before the end of his first season in charge.

Losing in the FA Cup to Manchester United was the breaking point, even if it wasn’t a complete rout. The cup competition is low on Chelsea’s priority list — winning it wasn’t enough to save Antonio Conte last season — but the end of that quest only adds to the despair.

In this rebuilding season, winning the Premier League — as Conte did in 2017 before finishing fifth the next year — couldn’t have been expected given the strength of Manchester City. But neither was a slide to sixth in the standings and a scramble for one of the four Champions League places.

“I am worried about the results,” Sarri said after Monday’s 2-0 loss to United. “Not about the fans.”

But the mutinous atmosphere won’t be lost on owner Roman Abramovich, who has spent the year watching from afar because the British government stymied the Russian billionaire’s visa renewal. That offshoot of the London-Moscow diplomatic dispute feeds the uncertainty at Chelsea.

[ MORE: Lyon strong at home, hold Barcelona to 0-0 draw (video) ]

Without fan backing, the 60-year-old Sarri — without a trophy in his career — looks isolated and exposed. The much-vaunted “Sarriball” is now part of the vocabulary of vitriol in chants — with added expletive.

It’s reminiscent of Rafa Benitez‘s interim title being used against the caretaker coach five years ago. Even in the darkest days of Jose Mourinho’s second spell in charge — as Benitez’s successor — it was the players who were blamed. Cesc Fabregas, Diego Costa and Hazard were branded “rats.”

Hazard is the only one of the trio still on the team — not that he gives the impression of wanting to stick around. The Belgium winger has avoided committing his future to Chelsea and has openly stoked talk of a transfer to Real Madrid.

Much like Madrid, Chelsea oscillates from glory to gloom under a conveyor belt of managers.

There’s also a regular flow of trophies, albeit only potentially secondary ones this season. Chelsea can still win the League Cup by beating Manchester City on Sunday and remains in contention in the Europa League.

While Madrid dropped to sixth place at one point this season in the Spanish league, the team hauled itself back up to third. Chelsea, which has won the Premier League five times since 2005, hasn’t been as successful. In the last month, the London club has lost to Arsenal, Manchester City — a 6-0 humiliation — and even to an ostensibly inferior Bournemouth.

For the stubborn Sarri, there seems to be no alternative to the “Sarriball” pressing tactics that helped his Napoli team push Juventus hard for the Italian title. Just a repetitive sequence of decisions.

– a reluctance to trust young players like Callum Hudson-Odoi.

– a determination to shoehorn Jorginho into defensive midfield, forcing N'Golo Kante out of position in favor of the recruit from Napoli.

– persisting with a back four after a three-man defense proved so effective for Conte.

– substitutions repeated in like-for-like changes. If it’s not Ross Barkley replacing Mateo Kovacic in central midfield, then they are interchanging the other way – 20 times this season. Pedro Rodriguez and Willian have swapped places 14 times.

For all the problems, it’s easy to forget that it took Chelsea three months to lose a game as Sarri started on an 18-match unbeaten run. Losing to Tottenham in November now seems to be a significant turning point.

Before that 13th game, Chelsea was in third place and had scored 27 and conceded only eight times in the league. Since then, Chelsea had netted 18 and conceded 21.

The cups will now define Sarri’s future, and it’s one down and two to go this week.

Chelsea holds a 2-1 lead over Malmo in the Europa League heading into the second leg of the round of 32 on Thursday before the League Cup final against City at Wembley Stadium on Sunday.

“The most important thing now is to stay calm, train really hard and recover our best football and our best feeling,” Pedro said, “because if not, we are in trouble.”

More specifically, Sarri will be.

First-leg draw “not the worst, not a dream result” for Liverpool

Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images
Leave a comment

If indifference — and its inherent lack of feeling — could be classified a feeling, it’s the one most Liverpool players, and manager Jurgen Klopp, would use to describe their collective mood following Tuesday’s 0-0 home draw with Bayern Munich in the UEFA Champions League round of 16.

[ MORE: Liverpool blunted by Bayern, and vice versa, in first-leg draw ]

While the high-quality chances weren’t quite there for a meeting of two sides the magnitude of Liverpool and Bayern, the frenetic pace and end-to-end nature was still on display, which did plenty to keep a scoreless draw plenty entertaining for the neutral observers.

Speaking after the game, Klopp said it “wasn’t a dream result,” but also called it “a good one.” Wishy-washy — quotes from the BBC:

“From a result point of view, it’s OK. It’s not a dream result, but it’s a good one.”

“We made life more difficult with the last pass today – about 10 or 12 times a promising situation [fizzled out]. We can play better. We should play better.

“In the first half we had the bigger chances. I can’t remember any chances for either side in the second half. It wasn’t a Champions League night from that point of view.”

Midfielder and captain Jordan Henderson, who, it must be said, was a titan for the Reds on Tuesday, called it “not the worst result in the world.” Noncommittal.

“It’s not the worst result in the world. The performance level was good but we lacked that bit in the final third.”

“We’re disappointed not to score. But we kept a clean sheet and defended well. We had enough chances, especially in the first half.

“They’re a good team, they’re going to keep the ball. At times we found it frustrating. We were a bit unlucky in front of goal.

“It’s still alive. We’ve got games before the second leg. We’ve got to be confident still. It’ll be difficult but we have experience in the Champions League. We can go there and hurt them.”

In fairness, all of the above is true. The feeling of Liverpool having left so much on the table stems from how effervescent they were en route to reaching last season’s Champions League final. To see them struggle so early in the knockout rounds was, even after just one deep run a year ago, a bit jarring and unsettling.

[ MORE: Lyon strong at home, hold Barcelona to 0-0 draw (video) ]

Take into consideration the 10 days they had to prepare between games, and you get the feeling that Klopp and Co., know they needed to do so much more to give themselves a better chance of advancing to the quarterfinals.

The second leg is set for the Allianz Arena on March 13.