Premier League Playback: Officially the closest title race ever, Sherwood the right choice, Cameron prevails

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THE GENUINE SIX-HORSE RACE BEGINS

It’s official, this is the tightest title race in Premier League history.

After Arsenal and Chelsea’s stalemate on Monday, only eight points separate first from eighth in the Premier League. That’s the smallest margin of point differential between the top eight on Christmas Day in PL history. With six realistic title contenders jockeying themselves to jump ahead of the pack. One man named Jose is confident (shock) that his side have what it takes to stay in the hunt. Speaking to myself and other journalists after Chelsea’s unenterprising yet astute 0-0 draw away at Arsenal, Mourinho is pleased with how things stand.

“In the last Boxing Day Chelsea was 11 points away, and out of the title race. This season we are there, we are only two points behind both leaders, we are there. We have reasons to keep going. The best way to finish in the top four and be in the title race, is to stay close. Let’s enjoy the moment.” – Jose Mourinho on Chelsea’s title aspirations

It’s fair to say we’re all enjoying the wide-open title race in the 2013/14 campaign, as the second half of the season is almost upon and six teams now realistic contenders to lift the PL crown. Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea, Man City, Everton and Manchester United are all in the mix. The upcoming festive season is crucial as the likes of Liverpool play City and Chelsea, while United have some fairly easy games against Norwich and Hull coming up.

It’s at this time, the most wonderful time of the year as the song goes, that the PL standings really shake out and the top five or six emerge. By the time a full slate of games are done and dusted on  January 1, that will be the case. The only time it’s ever been this close was back on Xmas day 2002, when the top eight were split by just 11 points as United won the title ahead of Arsenal in second.

(MORE: Latest Premier League standings)

So often this season top teams have cancelled each other out with negative tactics. On rare occasions the likes of City have given it a go and been rewarded but I feel it’s all about staying in touch with your competitors, beating the sides your supposed to beat and nicking draws and setting up to not lost against your direct competitors.

Come the end of the season, we could be in for one heck of a title-race as a mad dash for the finishing lines ensues, following countless apprehensive sideways and backwards moves throughout the course of the season from the elite six.

Hold on to your hats, the pace is about to become relentless.

Premier League Schedule – Week 17

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

SPURS’ SHERWOOD A HIT, WILL IT REMAIN?

A hint of hope glimmers for Tottenham’s fans after their 3-2 win over Southampton on Sunday.

Tim Sherwood’s first Premier League game in charge of Spurs was an audition riddled with miniscule errors but ultimately the final act covered him in glory. A win’s a win, as they say, and with Sherwood officially handed the reigns on Monday night on an 18-month deal, Spurs fans can expect plenty of attacking intent and lackluster defending to come.

With a classic 4-4-2 formation Sherwood’s preferred weapon of choice, the former Blackburn Rovers and Tottenham captain knows what he wants and it’s that direct approach which may unsettle many sides. In the day of the 4-3-3 or 4-5-1 lineups, the move to link up Roberto Soldado and the rejuvenated Emmanuel Adebyaor (frozen out by AVB, he’s scored 3 goals in 2 game since Sherwood took charge) is a bold one.

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Sherwood, who coached at Spurs under Harry Redknapp and played for him at Portsmouth as they surged into the Premier League, resembles his mentor. His gift of the gab, brash confidence and attacking formations display that. Spurs could’ve done a lot worse than give him the job until the end of next season. The man who lifted the title as captain of Blackburn back in ’95 wants a crack at blueprinting Tottenham’s lofty title aspirations over the next few years. Like Redknapp, there’s nothing revolutionary or over-complicated about Sherwood’s philosophy. Perhaps that no-nonsense approach and old school mantra is what’s needed at White Hart Lane, because rugged Southern Europeans with hordes of technical analysts, complicated formations and a continental style setup clearly hasn’t been the flavor of the month in North London.

Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy, you’ve acted quickly, but have you acted correctly?

BATTLE OF THE YANKS… CAMERON LANDS THE KILLER BLOW

Compared to recent seasons, the number of Americans in action in the PL has diminished a little, so whenever two come head-to-head, we should embrace it and enjoy two men flying the stars and stripes overseas.

USMNT teammates Geoff Cameorn and Brad Guzan squared off against each other in a Midlands derby at the Britannia Stadium on Saturday, and one man stole the show.

Marauding up and down the right wing all afternoon from full back, Cameron was an effervescent example of American ingenuity and desire. In the first half an over-hit cross, from deep inside Vila territory, looped and swirled in the Staffordshire wind and was dipping into the top corner before Guzan showed off his best Superman effort to keep it out.

Cameron put his hands on his head in disbelief.

But in the second half the former Houston Dynamo central midfielder and center back, who is excelling out of position for the Potters, once again overlapped on the right and delivered a magnificent ball into the dreaded “corridor of uncertainty” that left his U.S. teammate Guzan floundering as Peter Crouch bundled home the game-winner.

Check-mate Cameron. His stock is rising as a spot in the USA’s World Cup roster beckons. U.S. Soccer were happy about their two boys squaring off.

UNITED’S RETURN TO WING WIZARDRY?

Last week away at Villa Park, I noticed Manchester United were putting much more emphasis on getting the ball wide early to feed Adnan Januzaj and Antonio Valencia on the wings. I thought a fresh attacking approach could be fruitful, and shared that in Playback last week.

This week during the comfortable 3-1 win over West Ham, they did it again as Januzaj scored and Valencia helped set up the third by pulling the ball back expertly for the majestic Wayne Rooney to set up Ashely Young for the sealer.

But the stats show differently, as neither excelled when it came to whipping crosses in the box. As you can see from the heat maps for Januzaj (left) and Valencia (right) both marshaled their wings impressively and despite Januzaj drifting inside a little, they kept their width and created space for United’s central players. That helped Wayne Rooney flourish in the number 10 role as the master and creator, as the PL’s leading assist maker laid on two more helpers. However Januzaj failed with four of his crossed and Valencia only completed 29 percent of his 7 deliveries from wide. So old-fashioned wing-play wasn’t exactly flourishing.

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(Click to enlarge) – Januzaj’s heat map prove she has license to roam, but the inside left flank proved incredibly fruitful. Source: Opta
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(Click to enlarge) – Valencia’s heat map shows the huge amount of touches he had in and around the box. Source; Opta

But take those numbers out of the equation, and the clever and intricate flicks, incisive passing and willing running threw me back to a bygone era of Ryan Giggs on one wing and Andrei Kanchelskis on another. Januzaj resembles Giggs with his floaty runs and calm persona, while Valencia’s industry and final ball reminds of their former Russian attacker. It was a joy to watch with Rooney orchestrating play in a central role and the suddenly in-form Danny Welbeck playing on the shoulder of the last defender.

One note: all this attacking fluidity is happening without Robin van Persie, and a against a few whipping boys in Aston Villa and West Ham. Let’s see if United’s settled attacking quadrant can deliver against the big boys in the PL. Promising signs once again for David Moyes.

Notice I hadn’t mentioned his name right until the end of this section, instead of leading off with more misery for him… that’s a refreshing change. Just like the Red Devils wing-play.

FOOTBALL UNITES, AS TAN RETREATS

When many fear all hope is lost for the modern game, something always crops up to give you a feeling that humanity still fights for what’s right.

That happened in Week 17, as fans, managers and players across the country united to let Cardiff City owner Vincent Tan now that he was bang out of order. Sat in the directors box on Saturday like a bond villain with his shades on and wringing his hands visibly in a pair of black leather gloves, Tan depicted his part in the debacle superbly.

After telling his hugely likeable manager Malky Mackay that “he must resign or be fired” via an email, uproar ensued across the Premier League. Fellow managers reacted angrily, Cardiff’s fans protests with signs of “Tan Out” hanging up in the away end at Anfield on Saturday, and although the Bluebirds were undone by Luis Suarez’s sublime first half display (who isn’t these days?) the fight Mackay’s players showed in the second half proved they believe in their manager.

Following the match the proud Scot remained defiant as he insisted he would not resign and walk away from his staff, the fans and players. The rest of the soccer world collectively nodded their head in appreciation for the impeccable characters he’s shown throughout this testing time.

Mackay clearly isn’t Tan’s man but right now, he’s the man of the people.

The Playback comes out every week and takes a different look at all the action from the Premier League weekend.

Americans Abroad: Gall scores; Weah returns from injury

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Two USMNT names resurfaced over the weekend – for all the right reasons.

It’s been an overall quiet year for Romain Gall in Sweden, but the 25-year-old managed to challenge the narrative by scoring in Malmo’s cup bout.

While in France, Timothy Weah made a much-anticipated return from injury in Lille’s 2-1 loss. The 19-year-old played 10 minutes after being out for six months.

Here is a list of several other USMNT affiliates making a name for themselves (or not) abroad this weekend.

Premier League

Christian Pulisic, Chelsea — Pulisic is still recovering from his injury and will miss Monday’s game against Manchester United.

DeAndre Yedlin, Newcastle — Yedlin didn’t dress in Newcastle’s 4-0 loss to Arsenal on Sunday.

Indiana Vassilev, Aston Villa — Vassilev didn’t dress in Aston Villa’s last-minute 3-2 loss to Tottenham on Saturday.

EFL Championship

Antonee Robinson, Wigan Athletic —  For a second weekend in a rown Robinson did not dress for Wigan. The failed move to AC Milan is apparently still haunting him.

Duane Holmes, Derby County — Holmes started and played 29 minutes before leaving with an ankle injury on Saturday.

Matt Miazga, Reading (loan from Chelsea) — The 24-year-old is out with a hamstring injury. There is no timeline on his return.

Eric Lichaj, Hull City — The defender is out for the season after sustaining an injury.

Geoff Cameron, QPR — The 34-year-old defender started and played 90 minutes in QPR’s 4-2 win over Stoke City.

Tim Ream, Fulham — Ream started and played 90 minutes in Fulham’s 3-0 loss to Barnsley on Saturday.

Cameron Carter-Vickers, Luton Town (loan Tottenham Hotspur) — Carter-Vickers started and played 90 minutes in Luton’s 1-0 win over Middlesbrough.

Bundesliga

Timmy Chandler, Eintracht Frankfurt Chandler started and played 90 minutes in Franjfurt’s 4-0 loss to Borussia Dortmund.

John Brooks, Wolfsburg – The 26-year-old defender started and played 90 minutes for the time since January 18. Wolfsburg won 3-2 over Hoffenheim.

Weston McKennie, Schalke —  McKennie started and played 90 minutes in Schalke’s 0-0 draw with Mainz.

Zack Steffen and Alfredo Morales, Fortuna Dusseldorf — Steffen is out with an injury, while Morales started and played 90 minutes on Saturday.

Josh Sargent, Werder Bremen  Sargent came off the bench and played 25 minutes in Werder Bremen’s 3-0 loss.

Tyler Adams, RB Leipzig — Adams is out with an injury. There is no timeline on his return.

Fabian Johnson, Borussia Mönchengladbach Johnson dressed but didn’t feature for Borussia Monchengladbach.

Eredivisie

Sergino Dest, Ajax — Dest started and played 90 minutes in Ajax’s 3-0 win over RKC Waalwijk.

Haji Wright, VVV-Venlo — The 21-year-old striker was on the bench but didn’t feature on Friday.

Ligue 1

Timothy Weah, Lille — After a six-month absence, Weah featured for Lille in official competition. The attacker played the final 10 minutes in Lille’s 2-1 loss to Marseille.

Theoson Jordan-Siebatcheu, Rennes — Jordon-Siebatcheu started and played 56 minutes in Rennes’ 1-0 loss to Stade Reims.

Honorable Mentions

Romain Gall, Malmo — Gall played the final 31 minutes in Malmo’s 8-0 thumping of Syrianska and contributed a goal.

Richard Ledezma, Jong PSV — Ledezma played 60 minutes and scored a goal in Jong PSV’s 1-1 draw with FC Eindhoven. The attacker missed out the final 30 minutes after seeing a straight red card. 

Premier League Preview: Chelsea vs. Manchester United

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Manchester United look to leave a poor three-match streak behind as they travel to Stamford Bridge to take on Chelsea  (Watch live at 3:00 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com).

The last time both teams faced off was during the season’s opening matchweek, which saw the Red Devils steamroll Chelsea 4-0 at Old Trafford.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ] 

Since, United’s quality hasn’t been the same, slipping to ninth in the league, while the Blues have maintained themselves in the European competition conversation throughout the majority of the season.

A win for either side at this point of season will provide a huge morale boost, as both teams go into Monday’s match without a win in three bouts.


Injuries/suspensions

Chelsea: OUT —  Pulisic (groin), Van Ginkel (knee) QUESTIONABLE — Abraham (knock), Giroud (knock), Loftus-Cheek (calf)

Manchester United: OUT — McTominay (knee), Tuanzebe (thigh), Pogba (ankle, 5 Mar), Rashford (back), Fosu-Mensah (match fitness), Grant (surgery) QUESTIONABLE — Ighalo (match fitness)


Probable lineups

Chelsea: Arrizabalaga; Azpilicueta, Rudiger, Tomori, James; Kante, Jorginho; Hudson-Odoi, Mount, William; Abraham.

Manchester United: De Gea; Williams, Maguire, Lindelof, Wan-Bissaka; Fred, Matic; Greenwood, Fernandes, James; Martial


What they’re saying

Chelsea’s Frank Lampard on dropping Kepa Arrizabalaga last weekend: “It wasn’t about giving him a jolt. It was just a selection on that day. I want everyone’s reaction spot on. I know how it will feel for him. I had it in my career, it is part and parcel. I am pleased with the reaction.”

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on Odion Ighalo: “As a striker you get thrown on out there and it might be he’ll have to come off the bench, give us a goal and he does whatever he does.”


Prediction

Chelsea will be in front of their supporters on a Monday night with Manchester United in town. That scenario tends to go well for the Blues more often than not. Chelsea, 2-1.

Mexicans Abroad: Rodolfo Pizarro’s goalscoring start headlines handful of debuts

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A handful of Mexicans abroad debuted with their respective clubs over the weekend, but none were at par with Rodolfo Pizarro’s.

The 26-year-old attacking midfielder scored on his fourth touch as an Inter Miami player, two minutes after coming off the bench. Pizarro’s right-footed strike proved to be historic, as it became the first official goal in club history.

Also on Saturday, in different regions of the United States, Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and Alan Pulido, respectively, made their debuts. Chicharito played 78 minutes in Los Angeles Galaxy’s 2-1 preseason loss to Toronto FC, while Pulido logged 61 minutes in Sporting Kansas City’s scoreless bout.

Qatar’s new marquee star, Marco Fabian, debuted in Al-Sadd’s hard-earned cup win.

Here is a list of several other Mexico national team affiliates making a name for themselves (or not) outside of Mexico this weekend.


Premier League

Raul Jimenez, Wolverhampton Wanderers —  Jimenez started and played all 90 minutes in Wolves’ 0-0 draw against Leicester City. The forward registered four shots off target and one blocked.

La Liga

Hector Herrera, Atletico Madrid —  Herrera was not called up by Diego Simeone for Atletico Madrid’s draw against Valencia on Friday.

Andres Guardado, Real Betis —  Guardado dressed but didn’t take the field on Sunday.

Diego Lainez, Real Betis — The 19-year-old was is out after undergoing appendicitis surgery.

Nestor Araujo, Celta Vigo — Araujo played a vital part in La Liga’s most surprising outcome of the matchweek – Celta’s 2-2 draw with Real Madrid. The defender recorded eight clearances, one interceptions and two tackles throughout the 90 minutes.

Serie A

Hirving “Chucky” Lozano, Napoli —  Lozano, Napoli’s most expensive player in team history, was not called up by Gennaro Gattuso on Sunday. The 24-year-old and the Italian manager seem to be on different pages, and the situation doesn’t appear to be getting better with time. It might be time to panic for Lozano’s development in Italy.

Primeira Liga

Jesus “Tecatito” Corona, FC Porto — Tecatito started and played 84 minutes in Porto’s 2-1 victory over Vitoria, which was marred by racist abuse towards Moussa Marega by Vitoria supporters.

Eredivisie

Erick Gutierrez, PSV Eindhoven —  Gutierrez played the final five minutes of PSV’s 3-0 thumping of AOD Den Haag.

Edson Alvarez, Ajax — After several weeks of little activity, Alvarez seems to be making his way back into Ajax’s starting lineup. On Sunday, the Mexican defender played his second set of 90 minutes in four days.

Jupiler Pro League

Omar Govea, Zulte Waregem — Govea played 76 minutes in Zulte’s 2-1 loss on Sunday.

Major League Soccer

Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, LA Galaxy – In front of a semi-full Dignity Sports Park, Chicharito made his Los Angeles Galaxy debut. The storied forward, however, failed to score despite seeing a decent amount of chances. Galaxy open the MLS season against Houston Dynamo on February 29.

Rodolfo Pizarro, Inter Miami – It took two minutes for an Rodolfo Pizarro to score on his unofficial Inter Miami debut. Ironically, the brand-new MLS franchise has yet to announce the signing of the 26-year-old from Monterrey.

Alan Pulido, Sporting Kansas City – Pulido played 61 minutes in SKC’s scoreless, preseason draw against Real Salt Lake.

Elsewhere around the globe:

Ulises Davila, Wellington Phoenix – Davila played all 90 minutes in Phoenix’s 1-0 victory over Melbourne City. The attacker also managed to pick up a yellow card throughout the match.

Marco Fabian, Al-Sadd – Fabian debuted for Xavi’s Al-Sadd on Saturday, playing all 120 minutes in his team’s win via penalties.

Hector Moreno, Al-Gharafa – Moreno and Al-Gharafa were inactive this weekend.

La Liga roundup: Celta spoil Hazard’s return in Real Madrid draw

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Real Madrid’s draw against relegation-battling Celta Vigo highlights La Liga’s Sunday action.

[ FOLLOW: PST’s La Liga coverage ]

Real Madrid 2-2 Celta Vigo 

Celta’s Santi Mina scored in 85th minute to give a depleted Celta Vigo a precious point at the Santiago Bernabeu, spoiling Eden Hazard‘s return to Real Madrid’s lineup after a notable absence.

Madrid’s eighth draw of the season moves champions Barcelona just one point behind Zinedine Zidane’s side.

Returning from ankle injury that kept his out of action for three months, Hazard returned to the pitch in fine style, leading all players on the field in chances created with three and earning a penalty that Sergio Ramos converted to put Real Madrid ahead.

Hazard – and all of his flair – left the field in the 70th minute, granting Vinicius Junior the final 20 minutes of the match.

Ramos’ sixth goal of the season builded on Toni Kroos’ left-footed strike early in the latter half of the match. Real Madrid, more or less, were cruising against Celta, who had a goal to their name following Fyodor Smolov’s early opener.

Celta, who had arrived in Madrid in 18th place and had lost their last seven at the host’s home, were destined to do the unthinkable. Denis Suarez and Mina – both utilized as substitutes – paired up for the equalizer with five minutes to go, spoiling Hazard’s return.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Sevilla 2-2 Espanyol

Leganes 0-0 Real Betis 

Athletic Bilbao 0-1 Osasuna