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.

Hasenhuttl promises Southampton’s best XI for Pompey clash

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Southampton play against Portsmouth for the first time in over seven years on Tuesday as the South Coast derby returns.

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The two South Coast cities are just 18 miles apart and the port cities just do not like one another. Not one bit.

Premier League Saints head to League One Pompey as the red hot favorites to advance to the last 16 of the League Cup, but with local pride on the line and two fired-up fanbases expectant, Saints boss Ralph Hasenhuttl knows it will not be easy.

That is why he is picking his best possible team.

“I will pick the strongest XI that I can put on the pitch because we know about the importance of the game,” Hasenhuttl said.

Hasenhuttl confirmed that Nathan Redmond may only be on the bench to start with as he rushed back to play in the 3-1 defeat to Bournemouth on Friday, while star winger Moussa Djenepo remains out injured with a muscle problem.

Focusing on what will be a lively atmosphere at Fratton Park, Hasenhuttl called for calm from both sets of fans.

“What I want to see is a football celebration. From two teams who do everything to win. This is what I want,” Hasenhuttl said.

Local pride is on the line on and off the pitch, and Pompey v. Saints is a fixture which is rarely played due to both teams either falling on tough times or having the best years at totally different times.

In the past 31 years there have been only 10 games between these teams. That makes the passionate derby even more intense.

The pressure will be on Saints to win big, and if they don’t then Hasenhuttl and his players know extra pressure will be piled on them for the rest of their Premier League season.

VIDEO: Every Premier League goal from Matchweek 6

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Matchweek 6 was a beauty across the Premier League, and in case you missed anything, here is every goal scored.

Click on the video above to watch the action, as Man City won 8-0, Liverpool edged out Chelsea, West Ham stunned Man United, Arsenal launched a stunning comeback against Aston Villa and so too did Leicester City against Spurs.

And that’s just naming a few highlights from the 10 games.

What a weekend.

Mexicans Abroad: Weekend Roundup

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It looked as if Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez had scored his first goal for his new club Sevilla, at the expense for a former one, Real Madrid. Until it was taken away.

Chicharito came off the bench for Sevilla for a second-straight game and did his best to make an impact, but his offside goal aside, Sevilla slumped to a 1-0 defeat. Elsewhere, Edson Alvarez played in his first Eredivisie derby as Ajax took a 1-1 draw away from a trip to PSV Eindhoven.

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


Serie A

Hirving “Chucky” Lozano, Napoli — Lozano came off the bench on Sunday for Napoli in the 73rd minute of it’s 4-1 win over Lecce.

Premier League

Raul Jimenez, Wolverhampton Wanderers — Jimenez started but was subbed off in the 76th minute of Wolves 1-1 draw with Crystal Palace. Jimenez now hasn’t scored in three-straight games in all competitions since the international break.

La Liga

Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, Sevilla — Chicharito came off the bench in the 69th minute against his former club, and even appeared to score the game-tying goal. Alas, it was ruled out for him being offside.

Hector Herrera, Atletico Madrid — Herrera finally made his first start for Los Colchoneros on Saturday in a scoreless draw with Celta Vigo. Herrera went 60 minutes before being substituted.

Andres Guardado, Real Betis —  The veteran midfielder returned to the starting lineup on Friday in a scoreless draw with Osasuna. Guardado played 78 minutes and picked up a yellow card.

Diego Lainez, Real Betis — The 19-year-old make the 18, but didn’t take the field against Osasuna.

Nestor Araujo, Celta Vigo — Araujo started and went the full 90 against his international teammate Herrera and Atletico Madrid in a scoreless draw. Araujo shut down an offense that includes Joao Felix, Diego Costa, Angel Correa and Alvaro Morata.

Eredivisie

Erick Gutierrez, PSV Eindhoven — Gutierrez made his return to the PSV gameday squad on Sunday for De Topper against Ajax. However, he didn’t make it off the bench.

Edson Alvarez, Ajax — Alvarez started and played the full 90 minutes in the 1-1 draw at PSV.

Primeira Liga

Jesus “Tecatito” Corona, FC Porto — Starting at right back again, Tecatito went 76 minutes and picked up a yellow card in Porto’s 2-0 win over Santa Clara.

Jupiler Pro League

Omar Govea, Zulte Waregem — Govea made the gameday squad but didn’t appear in Zulte’s 2-2 draw with Genk.

Elsewhere around the globe:

Hector Moreno, Al Gharafa   On Thursday, Moreno started and played 81 minutes in Al Gharafa’s 3-1 win over Al Ahli.

Juan Gerardo Ramirez Alosno, Roda JC — The 21-year-old fullback was left on the bench in Roda’s 3-1 defeat to Utrecht II on Friday.

Carlos Fierro, San Jose Earthquakes – Dressed but didn’t play in the Quakes’ 3-1 loss to Atlanta United.

Carlos Vela, LAFC – Vela scored a penalty kick goal to help save a point for LAFC against Toronto FC in a 1-1 draw.

Jonathan Dos Santos, LA Galaxy – Dos Santos started and went the full 90 minutes, picking up a yellow card, as the Galaxy beat the Montreal Impact, 2-1.

Uriel Antuna, LA Galaxy – Antuna started and scored the game-winning goal for the Galaxy off an assist from Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the Galaxy’s 2-1 win over the Montreal Impact.

Americans Abroad: Weekend Roundup

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One of the youngest Americans playing abroad had arguably the biggest weekend of any of his USMNT-eligible teammates.

Playing in his first derby for Ajax against PSV in league play, Dest started and set up teammate Dusan Tadic for a goal. Interestingly, with the Netherlands FA working to get Dest to commit to the Oranje moving forward, Dest had the chance to match up against Denzel Dumfries, the current first choice right back for the Netherlands.

The other big story? Christian Pulisic didn’t play again. More on that below.

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 made the bench but didn’t appear for a third-straight match. Lampard explained to our own JPW why Pulisic has been on the sidelines.

DeAndre Yedlin, Newcastle — The fullback returned to training following a serious groin injury. There’s no timeline on his return yet, however.

EFL Championship

Antonee Robinson, Wigan Athletic — Robinson is a fixture at Wigan. The young left back started and played the full 90 minutes as Wigan picked up a win over a top-ten opponent, Charlton Athletic

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

Eric Lichaj, Hull City — The Tigers captain started and played the full 90 minutes in Hull City’s 3-0 win over Luton Town.

Geoff Cameron, QPR — The 34-year-old defender started at centerback and went the full 90, picking up a yellow card in QPR’s 2-1 win over Millwall.

Tim Ream, Fulham — Ream started and played 90 minutes in Fulham’s 1-1 draw at Sheffield Wednesday.

Cameron Carter-Vickers, Stoke City (loan Tottenham Hotspur) — Carter-Vickers started and went the full 90 minutes as Stoke City picked up just its second point of the season in a scoreless draw with Brentford.

Duane Holmes, Derby County — Holmes made his second-straight start after coming back from injury, and his first 90 minutes on the pitch as Derby County secured a last-gasp 1-1 draw with league-leading Leeds United.

EFL League One

Lynden Gooch, Sunderland – Gooch started and played the full 90 minutes, though Sunderland needed a last-minute goal from Aiden McGeady to draw at Bolton. .

Bundesliga

Weston McKennie, Schalke —  McKennie started, picked up a yellow card in the second half and then was substituted in the 76th minute, before Schalke scored a late winner in a 2-1 victory over Mainz.

Zack Steffen and Alfredo Morales, Fortuna Dusseldorf — Steffen started and played all 90 minutes in Fortuna Dusseldorf’s 2-1 defeat to rivals Borussia Monchengladbach. Steffen recorded a handful of incredible, point-blank saves to keep Fortuna in the game. Morales did not dress again.

Josh Sargent, Werder Bremen  With an injury crisis, Sargent got the start and played 80 minutes. Unfortunately for Sargent and Werder, they were routed by Leipzig – even without Tyler Adams.

Tyler Adams, RB Leipzig — Adams remains inactive with a groin injury. There’s no timeline on his return.

Fabian Johnson, Borussia Mönchengladbach Johnson didn’t make Borussia Monchengladbach’s 18 for their match against Fortuna Dusseldorf.

Timmy Chandler, Eintracht Frankfurt — The veteran defender entered off the bench in the 83rd minute as Eintracht secured a massive 2-2 draw with Borussia Dortmund.

Julian Green, Greuther Furth – The 24-year-old midfielder started and played the full 90 minutes for Greuther Furth. Unfortunately, they lost 2-0 to league-leading Stuttgart in the 2. Bundesliga.

Eredivisie

Sergino Dest, Ajax — Dest started at right back in his first edition of “De Topper,” starring as Ajax drew 1-1 at PSV Eindhoven. Dest played the full 90 minutes and had an assist on Dusan Tadic’s goal.

Haji Wright, VVV-Venlo — The 21-year-old striker came off the bench in the 71st minute of VVV’s 1-0 loss to Willen II.

Desevio Payne, FC Emmen — The U-23 MNT fullback was left out of FC Emmen’s 18 once again. 

Ligue 1

Timothy Weah, Lille — Weah remains sidelined with a muscular injury. There’s no timeline on his return.

Theoson Jordan-Siebatcheu, Rennes — Siebatcheu made the 18 but did not feature in Rennes 1-1 draw with Lille.

Honorable Mentions:

Chris Richards, Bayern Munich II – The young Alabama native started and played the full 90 minutes as FC Bayern II defeated FC Ingolstadt, which was in the 2. Bundesliga just last season.

Andrija Novakovich, Frosinone – The 23-year-old striker, now in Serie B after five seasons on the books with Reading, made his first start for Frosinone, going 55 minutes in a 1-1 draw with Venezia.

Giovanni Reyna, Borussia Dortmund U-19 – Reyna started, scored, and played 77 minutes in Dortmund U-19s 6-1 win over Leverkusen. The 16-year-old attacker also scored earlier in the week in a 2-1 win over Barcelona U-19s in the UEFA Youth League.

Luca De La Torre, Fulham Reserves – Luca de la Torre is still stuck at Spurs without getting first team minutes, but he had a night to remember in the PL2. The 21-year-old midfielder scored the first, and game-winning-goal in a 90-minute performance as Fulham beat Reading U-23s, 5-4.