Premier League Playback: Arsenal’s strength in-depth, festive madness, Liverpool’s reality check

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THE GUNNERS DON’T NEED TO SPLASH THE CASH IN JANUARY…

Some of you will read that sub-header with a smirk on your face, but honestly, Arsene Wenger may be able to keep his pennies in his purse in January and still lead Arsenal towards the Premier League title.

Over the Christmas period two new attackers finally arrived, as Theo Walcott scored twice and Lukas Podolski bagged a goal on his return from injury in Arsenal’s 3-1 win over West Ham on Boxing Day.

Those two hold the key to Arsenal’s success in the second half of the season, as both have been missing for lengthy spells and feel like brand new signings for the Gunners faithful.

“Podolski has been out for four months, he has not played one game. I try to get him slowly back to competitiveness and he has shown he can have a huge impact because he can score and make goals – he can give assists. On the pitch at the end we had Podolski and Walcott and Giroud and Ozil and Cazorla.” – Arsene Wenger on Arsenal’s attacking options

Following their win at Upton Park, the Gunners then relied on their leading front man Olivier Giroud to score the only goal of the game as they beat Newcastle on Sunday and went top of the PL standings. But the resurgence of Walcott and Podolski (who admittedly are both used on the wing but can easily be deployed in central roles) is cause for hope for any Arsenal fans fretting about which strikers will arrive at the Emirates in the next month or so.

Wenger doesn’t need to dip his toes into the murky waters of the January transfer window. He’s done that before and failed miserably. Look at the panic buy of Jose Antonio Reyes to name just one example, Wenger could do without wasting another $30 million on a player who won’t help him grab some silverware for the first time in eight years.

(MORE: Latest Premier League Standings)

So if Giroud gets hurt, he could do a lot worse than playing Walcott or Podolski centrally. Both are top internationals for England and Germany respectively, know how to finish and will cause problems for opposition defenses. A few months ago the attacking options at Wenger’s disposal were looking threadbare. The greatest gift Arsenal’s French manager got this Christmas was two top attacking players back to full fitness and his forward line bolstered in the process. And then there’s the likes of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Serge Gnabry waiting in the wings for the second half of the season, too.

Who said Arsenal don’t have enough strength in-depth?

Premier League Schedule – Week 18, Boxing Day

Result Recap & Highlights
Aston Villa 0-1 Crystal Palace Recap and watch here
Cardiff 0-3 Southampton Recap and watch here
Chelsea 1-0 Swansea Recap and watch here
Everton 0-1 Sunderland Recap and watch here
Hull 2-3 Man United Recap and watch here
Man City 2-1 Liverpool Recap and watch here
Newcastle 5-1 Stoke Recap and watch here
Norwich 1-2 Fulham Recap and watch here
Tottenham 1-1 West Brom Recap and watch here
West Ham 1-3 Arsenal Recap and watch here

FESTIVE FEAST DELIVERS

Boxing Day and Week 19 provided two match days of distinction around the holidays. It’s hard to sum it all up in this column, but the incidents, goals and drama we saw epitomized what the festive schedule is all about: unpredictability. Before the Boxing Day madness (the first time in five years that all 20 PL teams have played on the same day, excluding the final day of the campaign) I picked out three things we should watch and here they are.

GOALS -59 balls hit the back of the net in the 20 games that have taken place since Boxing Day, that’s an average of 2.95 goals per game. Not bad at all, plus there were some crazy 5-1, 6-0 and 3-3 score lines to go with it.

RED CARDS –There were four red cards alone on Boxing Day, as Stoke City imploded with two reds in two minutes vs. Newcastle, Antonio Valencia was sent off needlessly and poor Tim Howard was put in an impossible position and got a straight red.

THE UNEXPECTED – Hull City cruising after leading Man United 2-0 after the first 12 minutes on Boxing Day… then losing 3-2. Cardiff City 2-0 up against Sunderland on the 28th… then blowing it by letting in two goals in the final seven minutes. Plus Liverpool lead at Man City and Chelsea but blew it twice to lost back-to-back in three days.

LIVERPOOL REALIZATION: TOP FOUR AT BEST

A spoonful of sugar wasn’t dished out around Anfield during the festive season, just a bitter dose of reality.

The Reds always knew the past few days would have a big say in how seriously we could consider them as title contenders and heck, the way the PL is going this year they still have a great chance. But spirited back-to-back 2-1 defeats away at Manchester City and Chelsea proved that they can’t cut it with the big boys. Not just yet anyway.

Brendan Rodgers’ side looked sharp and dominated large spells against City and Chelsea but they lacked a cutting edge as Luis Suarez’ one-man band was locked down by two or three defenders marking him at a time. That allowed the likes of Philippe Coutinho, Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling to get more chances in on goal but they simply weren’t clinical enough when it mattered. I can’t help but think that if Daniel Sturridge and Steven Gerrard would’ve been around and not injured, then Liverpool could be sitting top of the standings heading into 2014… instead they’re in fifth. That shows the small margins were dealing with this campaign.

Premier League Schedule – Week 19

Result Recap & Highlights
Aston Villa 1-1 Swansea Recap and watch here
Cardiff 2-2 Sunderland Recap and watch here
Chelsea 2-1 Liverpool Recap and watch here
Everton 2-1 Southampton Recap and watch here
Hull 6-0 Fulham Recap and watch here
Man City 1-0 Crystal Palace Recap and watch here
Newcastle 0-1 Arsenal Recap and watch here
Norwich 0-1 Man United Recap and watch here
Tottenham 3-0 Stoke Recap and watch here
West Ham 3-3 West Brom Recap and watch here

RELEGATION BATTLE JUST AS TIGHT

So, this is the time of the season where the title race intensifies and the top five or six sort themselves out and pull away from the few hopefuls dragging on their coattails in the top half of the standings.

But let your eyes wander down a little… yeah, that’s right. There’s an almighty scrap about to take place at the bottom as a relegation battle.

Below is a snapshot of the bottom seven, as Sunderland somehow clawed themselves right back into things with a win at Everton on Boxing Day, followed by a marvelous two goal salvo in the final seven minutes to break Cardiff City’s hearts and drag the Bluebirds deep into the mire. Around them West Brom and West Ham scrapped it out in a fantastic 3-3 draw at Upton Park, while the likes of Norwich and Crystal Palace put up valiant efforts against the Manchester giants. Get ready folks, these small teams fighting it out at the bottom will be going hell for leather every single week in the second half of the season as they best form of defense is attack for these chaps.

In previous years there’s always been one side that’s been utterly doomed and never looked like staying up. Last season it was QPR and Reading, before that it was Wolves. But at the halfway point in 2013/14, only five points separates Sunderland in last place with Norwich in 14th, while just ahead of them Swansea, Stoke and Aston Villa are looking worriedly over their shoulders.

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Click to enlarge: The bottom seven are clustered tightly as we usher in 2014.

Who’ll be safe will only become more apparent as the winter months leave us behind and the relentless rain of an early English spring help the negative vibes soak into fans of teams embroiled in yet another relegation battle. This is unlikely to be sorted out before the final weekend of the season. That’s the beauty of it, this season nobody knows what will happen.

HUDDLESTONE HAS A HAIRCUT… AS HULL LEAD PROMOTED SIDES

After 54 games without a goal, Tom Huddlestone’s hair has become more of a feature than his vast spectrum of passes and impressively destructive displays in the middle of the pitch. But following his strike in Hull’s 6-0 shellacking of Fulham on Saturday, which also happened to be his 27th birthday, Huddlestone raced to the bench and grabbed a pair of scissors as his entangled locks were lopped away mercifully.

Sadly, a lonesome pair of shears has sat on the bench for quite some time now, as the former Tottenham midfielders strike was his first goal since April 2011. Since then he’s had a long-standing wager that he won’t cut his hair until he scored… he possesses a rasping right foot and I’d hazard a guess that he didn’t think it would take almost two and a half years to get his barnet trimmed.

Huddlestone was carrying on with his “no haircut ‘til I score” stance as charities were benefiting from the donations people sent in from all over the world. It was a bit of good fun that was for a good cause and sealed an utterly superb end to 2013 for Hull City AFC. Now Huddlestone can get back to the important things in life… speaking to his barber again and choosing a new hairstyle.

And just a word on Hull’s remarkable season so far, out of the three promoted teams many expected them to flounder the most with their heavy-handed, route one approach not the way modern PL sides are set up… how wrong those doubters were. Steve Bruce has built a robust squad that’s hard to beat at home and can cause plenty of problems with a direct style of play. While their fellow newly-promoted friends Cardiff City and Crystal Palace are embroiled in a relegation battle, Hull sit in 10th spot with 23 points from their first 19 games. Hats off to the Tigers.

EVERTON AND SOUTHAMPTON SEND US OUT IN STYLE

Two of the seasons surprise packages put on a show at Goodison Park to see out 2013, as Everton beat the Saints 2-1 in an end-to-end clash that warmed the hearts of soccer purists. Intricate one-two’s, fast flowing counter attacks and possession built from the back ruled the day. Sprinkle into the mix a whole host of English talents and there’s hope for the English national side in Brazil this summer, at least if some of these players on show make the plane. Leighton Baines, Ross Barkley and even Leon Osman were superb, while Southampton’s Adam Lallana (who got married on Christmas Eve to avoid a clash with the World Cup), Luke Shaw, Jay Rodriguez and Rickie Lambert all put in a good showing. Three fantastic goals were scored as Everton closed out the year by moving into the top four and above their arch-rivals Liverpool. The Saints finish 2013 in ninth, as you get the feeling that we’re only at the start of Mauricio Pochettino’s revolution at St. Mary’s. Two great teams who play soccer intelligently and are easy on the eye, it was hard not to drool watching some of that match.

This was also a glimpse into the future of the PL, as young English talent is being directed by young foreign managers (Roberto Martinez and Pochettino) who’ve got a track record of getting the best out of youngsters. Expect the Toffees and Saints’ model to be copied by many PL sides in the coming years.

Watch all the action from week 19 below, as we’ve reached the halfway point of the PL season. Here’s to hoping the second half of the campaign is just as dramatic as the first. Happy New Year to you all out there and don’t forget to celebrate New Year’s Day in the best way possible, a full slate of PL games live on NBC Sports!

Premier League Playback takes an alternative look at all the weekends actions from the PL, it comes out every week.

Liverpool squanders lead as Shrewsbury forces FA Cup replay

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Liverpool may be crushing the Premier League, but League One side Shrewsbury Town wasn’t phased facing the juggernaut at its home ground New Meadow, not even after falling 2-0 down on a horrid own-goal. Instead, the hosts came back to draw 2-2 and force an FA Cup fourth round replay at Anfield.

Liverpool started a youthful lineup that featured youngsters Curtis Jones, Neco Williams, Pedro Chirivella, and Harvey Elliott mixed in with Takumi Minamino, Divock Origi, and Dejan Lovren. The opener came in the 15th minute via 18-year-old Jones who slurped up a fabulous through ball from Chirivella and slotted it home from a tight angle past a charging Shrewsbury goalkeeper Max O’Leary.

[ EARLIER: Man City torches Fulham | Man United hammers Tranmere ]

The second came just seconds after the second-half restart on a comical own-goal as former Manchester United defender Donald Love poked a Williams cross into his own net under absolutely no pressure. It was a brainless decision as it appeared Love meant to poke the ball behind for a corner, but with nobody nearby, he somehow finished into the lower left corner instead.

After Liverpool doubled its lead at 2-0, Shrewsbury came to life and began to challenge the young Liverpool lineup. Callum Lang found himself through on goal with a great chance to bring the hosts back into the match, but his one-on-one change was saved by the fingertips of a diving Adrian. Shrewsbury did eventually cut the lead in half after Yasser Larouci cut down Josh Laurent in the penalty area and substitute Jason Cummings slotted home the chance from the spot.

The Shrews were a tough out with confidence back high after the goal, O’Leary made a fantastic diving save to stop Divock Origi. He booted down the field and and they drew level in the 75th minute as Cummings grabbed his second as he brought down a long ball and split the Liverpool defensive duo Williams and Lovren. Once past the Liverpool defenders he slotted home cooly past Adrian to equalize.

Jones nearly won it for Liverpool late as the ball squirted across the line in a goalmouth scramble, but his sliding effort was blocked off the line by a Scott Goldbourne tackle.

Transfer Rumor Roundup: Eriksen to Inter nearly complete, Spurs looking for replacement

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Tottenham Hotspur is in the news on multiple fronts this Sunday morning, for both incoming and outgoing transfer rumors.

Christian Eriksen, who has been heavily linked with a move to Inter, is nearing the completion of that deal, according to Inter CEO Beppe Marotta who went public with the news. “We are not hiding, we have been negotiating with Tottenham for some time,” Marotta told DAZN about the Eriksen move. “I am optimistic, I hope to conclude as quickly as possible. I am confident that it can be resolved in the next few days.”

Despite all the speculation, Eriksen has been playing for Spurs, but he was held out of the squad for Saturday’s 1-1 FA Cup draw with Southampton. Gianluca di Marzio reports that talks have progressed to the stage where Eriksen is expected in Italy today for a medical.

The 27-year-old’s contract is up at the end of the season, and Spurs clearly wished to offload him early rather than see him leave for nothing. However, the delay Marotta suggested is reportedly due to Spurs hoping to secure an attacking replacement. Reports state their talks for Real Sociedad striker Willian Jose have fallen flat, while Spurs have reached out to PSV about Steven Bergwjin and continue to hold interest in AC Milan striker Krzysztof Piatek.

Tottenham has also reportedly been in contact with Juventus, according to tabloid reports in England. It would cost Spurs around $33 million, a win for Juventus given they signed Can on a free transfer in the summer of 2018. The 26-year-old midfielder has yet to earn a consistent place on the Juve squad packed with midfielders, with just eight Serie A appearances this season.


Leicester City is in a fight for the top four, but the Foxes have come down to Earth a bit in Premier League play, having picked up just 10 points in their last eight matches. That could push Leicester to make a move for a January reinforcement, and they have been linked with young French midfielder  Ibrahima Diallo.

According to a report in France, Leicester City submitted a $17.6 million bid for the 20-year-old who plays for Ligue 1 club Brest. The former Monaco youth product has 18 appearances for the 13th placed side, playing 90-minute shifts in nearly all of those.

Unfortunately for Leicester City, the report states that Diallo is wary of a move too soon in his career, wanting to finish out the year. That’s still workable, with the possibility of a permanent deal to Leicester City in January followed by a loan back to Brest for the remainder of the season, if that placates the player.


Italian outlet Gazzetta dello Sport is confident that Everton will move forward with the pursuit of Inter midfielder Matias Vecino before the January deadline.

The Sunday edition of the publication claims that Inter received an offer for the 28-year-old Uruguayan who’s made 14 appearances for Inter this season but has recently been out of the squad the last few weeks. The report says he’s interested in a move to Everton, and therefore the Toffees have gone forwad with a bid.

Manchester United drops Tranmere Rovers 6-0 in FA Cup

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Attacking drought for Manchester United? Not to worry, call on the defenders.

Harry Maguire, Diogo Dalot, and Phil Jones all scored brilliant first-half goals as Manchester United dropped League Two side Tranmere Rovers 6-0 to advance to the FA Cup fifth round. The Prenton Park pitch was in horrendous shape after heavy rain, but that didn’t stop Manchester United’s spectacular finishing in an offensive onslaught.

[ LIVE: Follow all the FA Cup scores here ]

Maguire was first up, picking out the opening goal on an absolute thunderbolt from outside the top of the box that weaved away from Tranmere goalkeeper Scott Davieson and tucked into the top-right corner. The goal is his first for Manchester United and first overall in nearly a year, last scoring for Leicester City on January 30 of last year against Liverpool in a 1-1 draw.

Dalot found the back of the net next, a fabulous run through the top-right corner of the box that finished with a mesmerizing backheel to get away from his defender, finally rifling a howitzer into the far right corner of the net. Jesse Lingard soon got on the scoresheet himself, delivering a curler off a Maguire run through the middle as he picked up his first Manchester United assist and helped the Red Devils go 3-0 up before the 20 minute mark.

Jones picked out a fabulous header off an Andreas Pereira cross, meeting the ball past the far post and seeing it soar majestically into the top-left corner. Anthony Martial made it 5-0 before halftime, delivering a curler from near where Maguire scored his. After the break, substitute Tahith Chong was brought down by Davieson in the box, allowing Mason Greenwood to score from the spot.

Lyon winger Terrier stretchered off after collapsing

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A scary moment gripped Lyon’s home match against Toulouse as winger Martin Terrier was stretchered off after collapsing off the ball in the 26th minute.

Television cameras caught Terrier slowly bend forward then collapse backwards, lying motionless as his Lyon teammates immediately reacted with concern. After appearing unconscious for several seconds as teammates turned him on his side, the 22-year-old then woke violently, causing more concern.

Eventually, Terrier was conscious as he was loaded onto a stretcher and taken off the field, with his close friend Moussa Dembele visibly emotional on the pitch. Play resumed and Lyon took the lead just three minutes later through Maxwel Cornet.

The club released a statement on Terrier’s status at halftime, delivering good news that he was awake and recovering under close supervision. Lyon confirmed that Terrier had suffered a Vasovagal syncope, which results in sudden loss of blood pressure and heart rate which leads to fainting. A Vasovagal syncope often occurs from a trigger or stimuli – often the sight of blood or other extreme emotional distress – which causes the cranial nerve to react. It’s unclear what caused Terrier to faint, but he was shown breathing heavily in the immediate aftermath.

Karl Toko Ekambi came on for Terrier, making his club debut after joining last week on loan from Villareal.

A Lille youth product, Terrier joined Lyon from Strasbourg in the summer of 2018 and has been a major component of their recent success. He has made 16 Ligue 1 appearances this season, and while he hasn’t scored yet in league play, he has four goals in eight appearances across all other competitions, including a goal in four Champions League appearances.