Premier League Playback: Everton in the mix, miserable Mourinho, basement boys battling

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BEARDLESS HOWARD EXCELS, AS EVERTON ARRIVE

Tim Howard looked ten years younger on Sunday, as the bushy beard was gone and he delivered a sterling display in Everton’s 1-1 draw with Arsenal. Two quick saves off his line in the first-half and a great stop from Aaron Ramsey after the break saw the USMNT ‘keeper one again give the Toffees a solid foundation to build off. Roberto Martinez’ side impressed against the Premier League leaders and in a week where they beat Manchester United away from home and drew with Arsenal at the Emirates, Everton are looking like a top four side in the making.

What will get them to that next level? Clinical finishing, said Howard, when I spoke to him in the tunnel afterwards.

“That’s the one thing, as well as we played in the first half for the possession we had, we didn’t create enough chances. I think nearly at the halfway point [of the season], that’s something we’re looking to get better at. We defended really well, we’ve shown that with the clean sheets that we’ve kept. We have been getting in the attacking third a bunch of times but now we have to try and finish off our chances.”

Howard is right.

For all their early dominance — which frustrated the home crowd mercifully and piled the pressure on the Gunners —  Everton had no real substance to show for a sublime first half display. Both full backs bombed on and provided good crosses but so often not enough men were gambling to get in the box. Ross Barkley was a shining light in midfield and whenever he was on the ball he turned and ran at the Gunners back-tracking defense in one swift movement. Just 20-years-old and already a PL regular and England international, Barkley has the world at his feet. He was handed the man of the match award on Sunday, and in his first post-game interview he looked timid and shy. Everton’s attackers are looking a little like that at the moment, Romelu Lukaku aside, and if they’re going to make it to the Champions League in Martinez’ first season in charge, more goals and a clinical ruthlessness is whats needed.

FULL PREMIER LEAGUE PLAYBACK ARCHIVE

As they bullied Arsenal for vast swathes of their game at the weekend, Everton proved from back to front their capable of sticking with anyone in this league. A work in progress, but after watching them scare the life out of Arsenal, with some fine tuning here and there Martinez’ men could become a work of art.

Premier League Schedule – Week 15

Result Recap & Highlights
Arsenal 1-1 Everton Recap and watch here
Crystal Palace 2-0 Cardiff City Recap and watch here
Fulham 2-0 Aston Villa Recap and watch here
Liverpool 4-1 West Ham Recap and watch here
Man Utd 0-1 Newcastle Recap and watch here
Southampton 1-1 Man City Recap and watch here
Stoke 3-2 Chelsea Recap and watch here
Sunderland 1-2 Tottenham Recap and watch here
Swansea 1-1 Hull City Recap and watch here
West Brom 0-2 Norwich City Recap and watch here

MOURINHO: “WE’RE IN TROUBLE”

After Chelsea’s 3-2 defeat to Stoke City on Saturday, Jose Mourinho resembled a dejected figure. In the cauldron of the Britannia Stadium his saw his sides defense once again succumb to relentless wing-play. In their two away games last week, Chelsea conceded six goals and scored six. That is not a Mourinho team. Not at all. His sides are built on solid defense and are always hard to beat. Not this Chelsea side. Take nothing away from Stoke, they pushed, cajoled and harried the Blues and Oussama Assaidi’s stunning stoppage time howitzer was worthy of winning any game.

But the Chelsea of old would’ve seen this game out with at least a point.

“I don’t feel comfortable enough to tell you what I think about the game,” Mourinho said afterwards. “We’re in trouble. It is a concern [conceding many goals recently]. I don’t like it, I don’t organize my teams to be like this. Sometimes mistakes kill an organization.”

It is that lack or organization that killed Chelsea on Saturday.

Stoke were clever and left men in wide areas that confused Chelsea’s packed midfield of John Obi Mikel, Juan Mata and Ramires and left the defense in a muddle. Take a look at the image on the right.

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(Click  image to enlarge) Notice the space in behind Chelsea’ RB, Gary Cahill (CB) stepping into midfield and Mikel dropping back too deep. This is a mess and happened far too often.

This was after Chelsea went 1-0 up and the Potters were pushing for an equalizer. Time and time again the wide men were left unmarked, look at the space in behind full back Branislav Ivanovic and notice how the right center back, Gary Cahill, has inexplicably pushed up to try and close the ball. Obi Mikel should be doing that but the holding midfield is instead stood almost holding hands with CB John Terry. You don’t need two men to mark Peter Crouch when the ball is in that position. This shape is awful and Chelsea’s defensive problems seem to come from a sheer lack or organization. No wonder Mourinho is miserable, he prides himself on meticulously setting his team out to be impenetrable. Often standing with his hands in his pockets on the sideline, lacking his usual charisma in post-game interviews and sporting bags under his eyes, Mourinho has one heck of a job on his hands with the Blues. It’s a miracle they’re only five points off the top after defensive displays like this.

BOTTOM CLUBS UP FOR THE BATTLE

What a good weekend it was for the PL’s bottom clubs (except for Sunderland, sorry Mackems fans) as Crystal Palace, Fulham, Stoke and Norwich all won to ease the pressure on their relegation struggles. Being in and around the bottom around Christmas, historically, isn’t a good place to be. Only one side in PL history (West Brom in 2005) has avoided relegation when being bottom of the standings on Christmas Day. There’s a mad scramble to get away from the basement door to the Championship.

MORE: Latest Premier League Standings

So to see Palace picking up their second win in as many games under new boss Tony Pulis, Fulham totally dismissing Aston Villa in a first win for Rene Meulensteen, Stoke dispatching Chelsea and Norwich traveling to West Brom and beating the Baggies, shows that this seasons relegation scrap has plenty more twists and turns in it. The basement boys are up for the battle and will fight for their lives. Five points separating West Brom in 15th and Fulham in 19th shows how tight it is. Hope springs eternal and after this weekend, Christmas for fans of those struggling teams we mentioned is set to be a lot brighter.

FESTIVE SEASON TO SEPARATE PRETENDERS

Talking of the impeding festive season, come on scrooges out there, you know you love it, take a look over the following fixtures. One thing springs to mind when I have a gander, after the festive period, we’ll have a much better idea who’s for real at the top of the table and which teams stock will be falling lower than a scarf salesman in the post-festive shopping season.

  • Tottenham v Liverpool – December 14
  • Man City v Arsenal – December 15
  • Arsenal v Chelsea – December 23
  • Chelsea v Liverpool – December 29
  • Man Utd v Tottenham – January 1

In just over two weeks of fixtures, some sides will drop out of the title race altogether, others (Arsenal and Liverpool in particular) could strengthen their title credentials considerably.

MOYES TAKES THE BLAME, SO HE SHOULD…

On Monday David Moyes took one for the team after saying he takes “complete responsibility” for Manchester United’s terrible start to the season. It’s a noble act that many would see as deflecting the pressure away from his players and protecting them, something Sir Alex Ferguson was a master at. But there’s something less noble about Moyes taking responsibility, when in reality the problems probably has a lot to do with his ineptitude for change. For me, unless United score early in games, there’s often no plan B. That was the case against Newcastle on Saturday as the longer the game remained at 0-0, the home side were panicking and the substitutions from Moyes were poor. Bringing on defensive midfielder Anderson… when you needed a goal to stop United losing their second-straight home league game for the first time since 2002, nah, that’s not right.

Stop panicking Moyesy, positive subs and positivity is needed to help alter United’s worrying trend. They sit in ninth and are 13 points off league leaders Arsenal after another defeat. Worryingly, without the injured Wayne Rooney they looked lost going forward as they had the lowest number of passes in the final third of any team in the PL over the past weekend with just 93. I urged more attacking impetus from United in the last edition of Playback, that fell on deaf ears and I still believe more emphasis on attack needs to prevail at Old Trafford. The stat below from our mates at Opta says it all…

Neymar’s Champions League ban reduced

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Neymar will be able to feature in four of Paris Saint-Germain’s UEFA Champions League group stage games.

[ MORE: UCL score picks ]

PSG, who kick off their Group A games against Real Madrid on Tuesday, appealed against Neymar’s ban after he took to social media to criticize the officials following their Round of 16 second leg defeat to Manchester United last March.

Initially he was banned three games by UEFA, but after a successful appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), he will now be available for four of their six UCL group games as they also face Galatasaray and Club Brugge.

After scoring a sensational overhead kick goal in stoppage time on his return to action for PSG on Saturday, all of a sudden things are looking a lot rosier for Neymar.

That said, his wishes to move on this summer haven’t been forgotten by PSG’s Ultras. During their win against Strasbourg at the Parc des Prince they hurled abuse at him and held up banners lashing out at the Brazilian superstar.

Schedule for 2019 Club World Cup announced

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The schedule for the 2019 FIFA World Club Cup has been confirmed.

Liverpool will represent UEFA in the global competition in Qatar from December 11-21, as Jurgen Klopp‘s side will play at least two games.

The Premier League side will face either Liga MX side Monterrey or the winner of Al Saad SC/Hienghene Sport in the semifinal on Dec. 17, then four days later will play in either the third-place match or the final.

Below is the schedule in full.


First round
Match 1: Al Sadd SC v Hienghene Sport – December 11

Second round
Match 2: Monterrey v. Winner of Match 1 – December 14
Match 3: AFC Champions v. Esperance Sportive de Tunis – December 14

Fifth-place match
Match 4: Loser Match 2 v. Loser Match 3 – December 17

Semifinals
Match 5: CONMEBOL champions v. Winners of Match 3 – December 17
Match 6: Winners Match 2 v. Liverpool – December 18

Third-place match
Match 7: Loser Match 6 v. Loser Match 5 – December 21

Final
Match 8: Winners Match 6 v. Winners Match 5 – December 21

Rooney lambasts MLS over domestic salaries

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It is quite clear Wayne Rooney is leaving Major League Soccer in December to head back to England.

Before he leaves for a player-coach role at Derby County, he’s hellbent on having his say. He is keen to air some grievances.

Like a free-spirited floor manager who is working out his notice before moving on, Rooney has once again taken a shot at MLS. This time he has hit out over salaries domestic players in the U.S. and Canada receive.

In an interview with ESPN, Rooney, 33, doubled down after his recent criticism of travel issues regarding charter flights not being available for all away trips.

“I feel that American players get underpaid,” Rooney said. “I feel they deserve to get more money to stay in line with football in the rest of the world and in terms of the American sports. I’m not saying it to benefit me, I obviously won’t be in the league next season. I think it’s only fair to those players who are putting in the same work as all have to earn the right to earn more money for doing it.”

Has Rooney got a point? He has, but it is a complex area to delve in to.

With more money set aside in recent seasons for Targeted Allocation Money (TAM), it is easier for MLS franchises to spend more money on overseas additions, and they often do that rather than use it on domestic players.

If you are a non-Designated Player in MLS, the maximum salary you can earn is $10,192-a-week. Rooney, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and others clearly don’t have to worry about their salary as DPs, but it is commendable that they are lending their voices to the cause. Rooney could just sit their and take his DP salary, but he’s not. So, he’s obviously seen something that needs to be addressed.

Do MLS players deserve to be paid higher? Of course. But it is still a growing league and is far away from the average salary in Europe’s top leagues. The average wage in MLS is around $7,000 per week, while in the Premier League it is around $70,000 per week.

With MLS expanding to new markets and attracting new interest from all over the globe, you’d expect the players who helped make the league what it is, the veteran U.S. and Canadian players, to be rewarded for their loyalty. But in the current system, it doesn’t work like that.

Why is Rooney speaking out now? The current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) runs out on Jan. 31, 2020 and there is talk of a strike unless more charter flights and freedom of movement between MLS teams is granted.

Given his profile, having Rooney lead the charge makes sense. Expect to hear a lot more about the MLS’ upcoming CBA talks with the MLS Players Association (MLSPA).

Inter’s Conte fumes over media’s fixation on formations

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ROME (AP) Only three rounds into his Serie A return, new Inter Milan coach Antonio Conte is already fed up with the local media’s obsession with tactics and the “modulo” – Italian for formation.

Known for his three-man defense, Conte was asked if he would change to a more traditional four-man backline.

“Only in Italy are we fixated on formations,” Conte snapped at a reporter’s question over the “modulo.” “I’ve coached in England and they’re not the least bit interested in that there. I want to see courage and intensity, which we’re trying to express. The rest is all crap.”

When Conte guided Juventus to three straight Serie A titles from 2012-14, his “BBC” defense of Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini was the backbone of the club’s success.

When he took over Chelsea in 2016, he used a 4-1-4-1 formation during dispiriting early-season losses to Arsenal and Liverpool before quickly changing to a 3-4-2-1 with David Luiz, Cesar Azpilicueta and Gary Cahill going on to anchor the defense in a campaign that ended with the Premier League title.

At Inter, Conte is using Diego Godin, Stefan de Vrij and Milan Skriniar to anchor a 3-5-2 and Inter has started with three wins from three matches to open up a two-point lead over Bologna and eight-time defending champion Juventus.

It’s the first time Juventus has not been atop the standings since March 2018.

Inter’s early success will be tested against struggling AC Milan in the city derby on Saturday.

“Modern football evolves and you have to keep up with the times,” Conte said. “Enthusiasm isn’t tied to results but rather what we’re trying to do. Rome was not built in a day.”

MANDZUKIC TO QATAR?

Mario Mandzukic could be on his way to Qatar after being left off Juventus’ squad for the Champions League group stage.

“There are market opportunities that present themselves. Mario has been a very important player for us over the years, he proved himself at every level, there is a possibility and in agreement with him, the coach and his agent, we decided it was best he didn’t come on this trip,” Juventus sporting director Fabio Paratici said before Juve’s scoreless draw at Fiorentina on Saturday, confirming that there was an offer from Qatar for the striker.

Mandzukic scored goals in the double figures across all competitions for Juventus each of the past four seasons but new coach Maurizio Sarri has preferred to use Gonzalo Higuain in support of Cristiano Ronaldo this season.

Midfielder Emre Can was also left off the Champions League squad, and had to apologize to the club after saying he was “furious” over the decision.

WOMEN’S SERIE A

Italy’s run to the quarterfinals of the Women’s World Cup has put more of a spotlight on the women’s Serie A.

The 12-team league opened its season over the weekend with the three favorites, two-time defending champion Juventus, AC Milan and Fiorentina the only teams to post victories.

Juventus’ 2-1 win over Empoli and Milan’s 3-0 shutout of Roma were shown live on Italy’s Sky satellite TV service Saturday and Sunday, respectively.

Fiorentina’s 4-2 derby victory at Florentia San Gimignano was broadcast live via the club’s Twitter feed .

The Gazzetta dello Sport had a full page of coverage Sunday and Monday.

Inter Milan, making its debut in the top division, drew 2-2 with Verona.

Among the national team players to score were Cristiana Girelli for Juventus and Milan captain Valentina Giacinti, who led the league with 21 goals in 21 matches last season.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Andrew Dampf on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/AndrewDampf