Premier League Playback: S.A.S. returns, grinders prevail, drop zone despair

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S.A.S. RETURN TO RENEW LIVERPOOL’S TITLE HOPES

Sunday against Stoke City, Liverpool proved offense is the best form of defense. The Reds smashed five past the Potters to climb back into the top four of the Premier League table. The win was important, especially given the fact they’d never won at the Britannia in the PL era, but more important than the three points was the reemergence of the now famous S.A.S. partnership that’s been on hiatus for a few months.

Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge were reunited in the second half against Stoke and it didn’t take long to score as they almost instantaneously they set up each another for a goal apiece. That telepathic understanding, which has been evident since the end of the 2012-13 season, clicked back into place. If Liverpool are to finish in the top four and challenge for the title, Suarez and Sturridge need to stay fit because that’s Brendan Rodgers’ X-factor.

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[Click to Enlarge] – Suarez’s heat map vs. Stoke. Source: Opta.
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[Click to Enlarge] – Sturridge’s heat map vs. Stoke. Source: Opta
As you can see from the heat map of Suarez on the left and Sturridge on the right, both players seemed to frequent the same areas of the pitch; they link up and dart in and out of the same spots cohesively. Many striker partnerships have a little and large combination, but Suarez and Sturridge play very similar styles. Both are relentless in their quest to score goals and open up gaps for each other to exploit. In just 23 second-half minutes the partnership tore Stoke apart as Suarez scored twice and extended his season tally to 22 (becoming the fastest player in PL history to reach 20 goals in a season), while Sturridge isn’t far behind with 10 strikes (one vs. Stoke). Thirty-two of Liverpool’s 51 goals this season have come from these two.

Evident from Liverpool’s stunning 5-3 win over Stoke is the intricate link-up play that’s defined the S.A.S. partnership. Sturridge didn’t even look at where Suarez was before neatly flicking the ball into his path for Liverpool’s fourth; Suarez lobbed the ball perfectly into Sturridge’s path for the fifth and final goal. They’re tuned into the same wavelength.

Relive that fine attacking performance from Liverpool in the video above, as the Reds sit well within reach of their top four dream… and perhaps more.

Premier League Schedule – Round 21

Result Recap & Highlights
Aston Villa 1-2 Arsenal Recap and watch here
Cardiff 0-2 West Ham Recap and watch here
Everton 2-0 Norwich City Recap and watch here
Fulham 1-4 Sunderland Recap and watch here
Hull 0-2 Chelsea Recap and watch here
Man United 2-0 Swansea Recap and watch here
Newcastle United 0-2 Man City Recap and watch here
Stoke 3-5 Liverpool Recap and watch here
Southampton 1-0 West Brom Recap and watch here
Tottenham 2-0 Crystal Palace Recap and watch here

GRINDING OUT WINS ORDER OF THE DAY

Chelsea are sitting on the heels of Manchester City and Arsenal in the race for the Premier League title, and it’s the ability of Jose Mourinho’s men to grind out crucial victories that’s made them become many people’s favorites for the crown.

They did just that once again on Saturday, as they wore down a stubborn Hull City side that were content to ‘park the bus’ and let Chelsea do all the attacking. Two superb strikes from Eden Hazard and Fernando Torres did the business, as that extra bit of class you get for splashing out $40-50 million on individuals shone through.

Composure is also needed, and that’s something Chelsea had in abundance against Hull as the Blues won their fourth straight. Mourinho announced his pleasure at seeing his sides mature performance.

“We never lost our balance, we kept our shape tactically, and we didn’t give them opportunities to score. In the second half when we had a little bit more of the ball we intensified the game and recovered the ball higher, so I think normally the tendency would be for a goal. After that goal I was happy because we were in control, we didn’t go to defend. We controlled the game well.”

Grinding out wins could also apply to: Manchester City in their shutout win over Newcastle (more on that later); Manchester United thwarting Swansea in a much-needed 2-0 win; Arsenal beating Aston Villa away; and Everton grinding out another three points at Goodison Park. The top seven teams in the PL all won this weekend, showing that this stretch between now and April is vital if teams are going to be top four contenders. The big bucks from the Champions League is what they all want and to get that sides need consistency, via dogged defensive displays and clinical finishing.

Expect plenty of 2-0, 1-0 and 2-1 results for Chelsea, Arsenal, City and co. from here on out.

RELEGATION BATTLE – WHO WILL GO DOWN?

The big boys are grinding out wins at the top of the PL table, but it was a huge weekend at the bottom of the standings. Which teams will fall short? Wins for Sunderland and West Ham dragged another four teams into the scrap, as any team from Hull City in 10th to bottom side Crystal Palace could face the dreaded ‘R’ word come May time. Just six points separates the bottom 10 and it could all change in an instance.

I have a feeling this relegation battle will encapsulate the final month of the season more so than the title race, as some massive clubs are fighting for their lives. Now more than ever, with the huge financial incentives dished out in the PL, the future of certain teams are defined by hitting the magic 40-point marker and staving off the threat of finishing in the bottom three. Fans of teams in the bottom half are having sleepless nights already, I can guarantee it. Below our analysts break down the drop zone picture, after Round 21.

West Ham have been the biggest sliders. Manager Sam Allardyce has been on the ropes for months with his injury-ravaged squad decimated and results going against the Hammers. The dreaded vote of confidence came from the owners last week, and West Ham were beaten 5-0 by Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup and 6-0 by Man City in the League Cup. So Saturday’s 2-0 PL win away at Cardiff City was much needed as West Ham finally showed some steal in their often flimsy defensive unit and Andy Carroll returned from injury. Hope for the Hammers… and Big Sam.

Then there was Sunderland, with arguably the win of the weekend in a high-pressure encounter down at Craven Cottage. Gus Poyet’s side knew three points would drag them off the bottom and in the process the gap has closed right up. Adam Johnson’s hat trick, with many saying England should give him another chance, did the damage as Rene Muelensteen’s Fulham looked in disarray. With a muddle of people involved (Ray Wilkins and Alan Curbishley employed to assist operations in West London) alongside Muelensteen it seems as though American owner Shadid Khan doesn’t fancy Sir Alex Ferguson’s former assistant. Muelensteen is stumbling with the Cottagers, but the beauty of it is that they aren’t doomed. Not yet, anyway.

More: Latest Premier League Standings

West Bromwich Albion, Norwich City, Swansea, Aston Villa and Stoke City are looking nervously over their shoulders as teams entrenched in the bottom three for most of the campaign make a surge for survival in the second half of the season. You think this relegation battle is interesting? Just wait for the twists and turns over the next few months…. This is only the start. I love it. Expect to hear plenty of managers mumbling the words “staying up is like winning the title for us” and other clichés murmured out of desperation and hope more than anything. That dreaded ‘R’ word will become a frequent in your vocabulary between now and May, if it isn’t already.

OFFSIDE RULE UNCERTAINTY REARS ITS UGLY HEAD

St. James’ Park erupted just before half time on Sunday, as captain Cheick Tiote hammered a sizzling left-footed strike into the far corner to draw Newcastle level against Manchester City. Or so they thought.

Tiote had already wheeled away and was amongst the Newcastle bench hugging his teammates and Magpies manager Alan Pardew had a huge grin in his face. That was quickly erased. Referee Mike Jone consulted his linesman and ruled out the goal for Yoann Gouffran apparently interfering with play, and Man City ‘keeper Joe Hart, from an offside position Though the ball whizzed past Gouffran and Hart ferociously, both of them where nowhere near the actually trajectory of Tiote’s pile driver. But Jones ruled Gouffran to be interfering with Hart’s line of vision and disallowed the goal. What a poor decision from the ref.

Cue a solid 5-6 minutes of booing from the famously vociferous Newcastle fans. They were not happy. Neither was manager Pardew who told Jones exactly what he thought at half time as the ref walked down the tunnel:

“The linesman’s right and you’re wrong. The linesman is right and you’re wrong. You know that!”

Pardew’s Newcastle went about their business unperturbed and gave City a real scare in the second half as Hart once again excelled in goal for the Citizens to keep Loic Remy and Yohan Cabaye out. Some nasty challenges from Newcastle saw Samir Nasri stretchered off and Manuel Pellegrini complaining which promoted Pardew into another sideline rant.

“You f****** old ****,” Pardew was seen to say to Pellegrini as he walked away in disgust.

That prompted a post-match apology from the Newcastle boss as he cited the heat of the moment getting the best of him. It certainly was a fiery atmosphere up in the North East that wasn’t made any better by referee Jones’ poor decision as his linesman saw nothing wrong with the goal, nor did 52,000 fans insides the stadium and millions watching around the world. The interference rule from an offside position needs to be clarified and the attacking side should be given the benefit of the doubt. Newcastle can consider themselves hard done by, as City rolled on with a resolute 2-0 win and prove that the little bit of lucky you need when challenging for the title is well and truly falling their way.

RETURN OF “KING ARTUR” SPARKS SAINTS BACK INTO LIFE

Southampton is glad to have Artur Boruc back between the sticks. On Saturday at St. Mary’s he won them all three points against West Bromwich Albion

The Saints gave a up a glorious chance in the dying seconds in Boruc’s return from injury, as Baggies striker Shane Long was left unmarked six-yards out and ready to tap the ball home… then Boruc appeared to grow in front of our eyes as a simple task for Long suddenly turned into an impossible one, as dressed in neon green (resembling the jolly green giant) the Polish beast thwarted West Brom’s striker with a tremendous foot save. Boruc timed his return from injury perfectly as Southampton has struggled desperately since the man they call “King Artur” was injured seven games ago against Chelsea at the beginning of December.

Since then Saints have lost four, drawn two and won just once, conceding 13 goals. In the seven games before Boruc was injured Saints won four, drew two and lost once, letting in just five goals. Needless to say Saints’ defensive instability looks to be over, with Boruc back they have a chance of challenging for the top six once again after their stunning start to the season declined in the absence of their first-choice ‘keeper. After the game on the South Coast I asked Mauricio Pochettino if the 1-0 win over West Brom signified the return of the Southampton we saw in the seasons early months:

“I think the evolution of the team of late has been good. The team has progressed a lot and has been playing much better but has been lacking defensively solidity at the back. I think today we’ve recovered that, we’ve recovered that winning spirit and solidity at the back. Overall the most important thing about this team is that regardless of the fact that we’ve been facing some troubles, it has kept on believing in the work that we do and the way that we play. That winning mentality has been recovered and it has been kept throughout the tough period.”

With a string of winnable games coming up, expect to see the Saints marching up the table again with Boruc leading the charge from the back.

Premier League Playback takes an alternative look at all the weekend’s action from the PL, it comes out every week.

Premier League most underrated XI

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On Twitter, we asked Premier League fans to submit their choice for most underrated player in the English top flight right now. There were a host of fascinating answers, with plenty of different teams represented.

Tottenham and Liverpool players appeared a lot, not surprising given they reached the Champions League final but have just a handful of true superstars on the roster, with Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino preferring to put together a squad that plays as a greater whole than the sum of its parts.

So, with that in mind, we thought we should take it one step further and put together a full-blown starting XI of underrated Premier League players.

While putting these together, obviously being just five matches, prior seasons are of course taken into account, but this season’s early performances are also heavily weighed. Behold, our most underrated players all together in one squad. How well would these lineups perform in the league?

Our Premier League Underrated XI’s

Kyle Bonn: [ ]

Kasper Schmeichel

Ricardo PereiraJoel MatipWilly BolyLucas Digne

Declan Rice — Ruben Neves —

— Emiliano Buendia — James MaddisonHeung-Min Son

Roberto Firmino —

Nicholas Mendola: [ ]

Bernd Leno

Aaron Wan-Bissaka — Willy Boly — Tyrone Mings — Ricardo Pereira —

Harry WinksFabinho

— Heung-Min Son — James Maddison — Felipe Anderson

Callum Wilson

Daniel Karell: [ ]

Angus Gunn

Matt DohertyMaya YoshidaYerry MinaPatrick Van Aanholt

Todd CantwellManuel LanziniJack GrealishRyan Fraser

— Callum Wilson — Raul Jimenez —

The highlights

Heung-Min Son was probably the most often mentioned name in our Twitter question, and so he earns a spot on two of the lineups. A number of Liverpool players also cropped up, and Bonn responded with the inclusion of do-it-all striker Roberto Firmino and defender Joel Matip, who often finds himself in Virgil Van Dijk‘s shadow but has risen from injury substitute to regular starter.

Also appearing twice are Bournemouth striker Callum Wilson, Wolves center-back Willy Boly, Leicester City midfielder James Maddison, and Foxes full-back Ricardo Peirera. Otherwise, the writers all went in their own directions!

Jack Grealish is mentioned on Karrell’s list, and he has already proven a divisive topic amongst our writers. Mendola included Reds midfielder Fabinho while also singing the praises of West Ham attacker Felipe Anderson who is doing his best to make up for the departure of Marko Arnautovic. The Hammers also appear on Karrell’s lineup with Manuel Lanzini, who owns two assists on the young season. Many folks may still be learning Emiliano Buendia’s name, but the young Argentine has been the brains behind Teemu Pukki‘s breakout season at the head of the Norwich attack.

Manchester United full-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka is mentioned, although is he really underrated after moving for $60 million this summer? Wolves midfielder Ruben Neves could lay claim to the label as the best player outside the Premier League top six clubs, although Declan Rice might claim he’s not even the best midfielder. Who is a bang-on starter for your most underrated Premier League squad?

Liverpool CEO stays with fan at hospital

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Liverpool CEO Peter Moore visited and stayed with a Reds fan at the hospital after the fan collapsed during the club’s Champions League visit to Napoli due to loss of blood.

According to a post on social media passed on from a Liverpool forum, Liverpool fan Steven Allen was taken to Ospedale Cardarelli hospital in Naples after collapsing at halftime due to blood loss sustained after he was “ambushed” during pre-match celebrations at a bar by Napoli fans. Merseyside police did confirm that two UK men age 26 and 46 sustained injuries in a pre-match assault, but did not confirm Allen was one of them.

Moore posted on Twitter that he was with the fan at the hospital and would be staying with him until he was satisfied with the level of care he was receiving. The Liverpool executive initially expressed concern at the medical staff’s “distinct lack of urgency” but later posted an update to say the situation had been handled and that Allen “had been seen and will be monitored throughout the night.”

While not confirmed, it appears that Moore may have been initially alerted to the situation by his Twitter account being tagged in the shared post and decided to help a fan struggling in a foreign country.

An unidentified Liverpool fan who claimed to witness the bar attack told the Liverpool Echo, “We were just trying to have a quiet drink before going to the apartment and had just paid our bar bill. Next minute we could see about 10 scooters flying down. They slowed right down and their faces were covered with scarves and helmets. Next second they are jumping off swinging belts towards us. Must have all happened in 90 seconds but some lad got hit by a belt.”

Liverpool lost the match 2-0 on a pair of second-half goals by the home side.

Lascelles admits Newcastle in for “long, tough season”

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Newcastle captain Jamaal Lascelles admits the players are prepared for a difficult campaign after dropping into the relegation zone early in the season.

After a third defeat in their first five Premier League matches, falling 3-1 to leaders Liverpool, the English defender labeled the upcoming match against Brighton & Hove Albion “our biggest game yet” and admitted this season could provide some trying times. “We have had a tough run at the start of the season, tough for any team. So it is going to be a long tough season. Ie have a good 11, a good squad and a lot of bodies. When we start finding the net we will get going.”

Newcastle will be buoyed by the knowledge that of those three losses, two came against Liverpool and Arsenal while the third came against a red-hot Norwich City side. The Magpies also topped Champions League finalists Spurs 1-0 and managed a draw against a struggling Watford side before falling to Liverpool last time out.

“We were in a decent position, a win against Spurs and draw against Watford,” Lascelles said after the Liverpool loss. “Now we need to push and get three points against Brighton. These games are six pointers at home to Brighton, we have to fancy ourselves. They will be big competition for us and Saturday is the right time to do that.”

Lascelles admitted that while the defensive form is a struggle at the moment having conceded eight goals through the first five matches with just one clean sheet – the win over Spurs – everyone is hoping to chip in up front as well, an attacking mentality that flows through the team. “We’re not happy conceding three against Norwich and Liverpool,” Lascelles said. “We are getting chances and creating a lot. When a couple of people start scoring the goals will be flowing and we have had a couple injured as well. It is important we all chip in with goals. I’d like to get a few. Fab [Schar] is a goal scoring centre half. He puts important points on the board. If we and midfielders can help out we will get to 40 points sooner than later.”

Lampard, players look to play down Chelsea penalty incident

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Chelsea manager Frank Lampard and his players have come together in hopes of playing down the incident at the end of the game that led up to Ross Barkley‘s fateful missed penalty late in the 1-0 Champions League loss to Valencia on Tuesday.

Barkley appeared to take the ball off a host of other Blues players who wished to take the penalty, with Willian and Jorginho looking the most vocal. Jorginho conceded rather quickly, but Willian was more insistent in his wish to take the spot-kick, pulling up his socks in front of Barkley before finally conceding.

[ Azpilicueta also backs Barkley ]

According to Lampard, Barkley was indeed the designated penalty taker and his assistance was within protocol. “Ross is the penalty taker,” Lampard said in the post-match press conference. “He was pre-season, scored a couple, has been when he started, and was today when he came on and he missed it, clear story.”

“I don’t know what the conversation was,” Lampard continued about the confrontation, “but Jorginho and Willian were penalty takers on the pitch, but when Ross comes on he’s the penalty taker, and he’s missed it.”

[ MORE: Recap, 3 things from Chelsea loss ]

Barkley confirmed this as well after the match. “We’ve got a lot of good penalty-takers in the squad,” said Barkley. “On a sheet in the changing room, it says I’m on penalties when I’m on the pitch, otherwise it’s Jorginho.”

Willian, who was far more demonstrative on the pitch about taking the penalty, said he was disappointed to miss out, but he stands behind his teammate. “I wanted to take it but he (Barkley) was confident to take it. This is football. He missed the penalty but it could be me that missed, or Jorginho or whoever. So football is like this. But when we win, we win together, and when we lose, we lose together.”