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.

La Liga: Sevilla squeaks by Levante, La Real back to winning ways

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Real Sociedad put its two-game losing streak to bed and remained in the mix at the top of the La Liga table, turning around an early 1-0 deficit and winning 3-1 at home over Real Betis.

Lorenzo Moron scored 12 minutes in for the visitors, but a Javi Garcia own-goal leveled the score while Willian Jose and Portu sealed the three points. Martin Odegaard was fantastic again for La Real, constantly proving a threat in the buildup. Man of the Match, however, was Mikel Merino who was active in the midfield and popped up occasionally in the attacking third. The win pushes La Real up to fourth in the table, two points behind second-placed Real Madrid and three back of leaders Barcelona.

Sevilla was held for 86 minutes at home by Levante, but Luuk De Jong gave the hosts all three points as he rose high above Erick Cabaco to head home Jesus Navas’s cross from deep. Sevilla held over 60% possession throughout the match and racked up nine corners to Levante’s one, but didn’t create much in front of net until the final 15 minutes. Chicharito and De Jong both missed within two minutes of each other, and the latter eventually converted to push Sevilla to sixth in the La Liga table.

Alaves picked up a big three points over Celta Vigo with a 2-0 home win on second half goals from Lisandro Magallan and Lucas Perez. The visitors managed just two shots on target and had just one clear cut chance that Santi Mina failed to put on frame seconds out of halftime. Former Newcastle striker Joselu had a bad miss past the half-hour mark but proved a threat for much of the match, ripping off six shots on his own. Alaves also picked up five yellow cards in the match, but ultimately jumped out of the relegation zone and past Celta Vigo into 14th.

Villareal moved to seventh in the table with a 1-0 road victory at Espanyol. Cameroon international Karl Toko Ekambi scored his third goal of the season in the 17th minute and the visiting defense spoiled the Espanyol attack all game long. The hosts put forth 18 shots but managed to get just three of them on target. Santi Cazorla has been stellar all season for Villareal, and he went the full 90 minutes again, not adding much up front but proving a menace in midfield.

Athletic Club drew 1-1 with Real Valladolid as Inaki Williams put Athletic up just after the half-hour mark, but an Inigo Martinez own-goal pegged them back with 20 minutes to go. Athletic popped off 17 shots to Real Valladolid’s seven but Jordi Masip made six saves in net for Real Valladolid to spoil the home side’s day, leaving Athletic in eighth with 13 points.

Fabian downs Red Bulls in extra time, sends Philadelphia to conference semis

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A wild and wacky game saw Philadelphia come from two goals down to force extra time, and Marco Fabian bagged the eventual winner in the 105th minute to put the Union into the Eastern Conference semifinals with a 4-3 win. The victory is the first in playoff action for the Union in club history.

New York held a 3-1 advantage at halftime as Josh Sims, Tim Parker, and Tom Barlow all found the back of the net for the visitors in the opening 45 minutes, while Alejandro Bedoya found the back of the net himself.

After the break, things got even more wild. New York coughed up the lead, with Jack Elliott and Fabrice Picault each striking once despite a solid display from Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles. With the game level, the final 15 minutes were all Philadelphia as the Eastern Conference three seed peppered New York’s penalty area, but Robles made a fabulous save on a Jamiro Monteiro effort from point blank range at the back post.

In extra time, Fabian found the back of the net with what appeared to be a chipped cross that took a slight deflection and snuck into the top corner from a tight angle.

The Union will get a matchup with Atlanta United in the semifinals, after Frank De Boer engineered a 1-0 win over New England.

 

Serie A: Lukaku brace helps Inter win shootout, AC Milan caught late

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Inter Milan kept pace with Juventus atop the Serie A table with an exciting 4-3 win on the road at Sassuolo. Romelu Lukaku scored a brace, as did Lautaro Martinez to go up 4-1 with 20 minutes to go, although the visitors nearly coughed up the big lead.

Martinez opened the scoring just two minutes in with a far-post snipe, but Domenico Berardi leveled things back up before the 20-minute mark. Lukaku put Inter back in front on 38 minutes, taking a feed down the center from Stefan de Vrij and posting up Federico Peluso before producing a strong turn and finish. He hit again from the penalty spot just after halftime after Martinez was hauled down in the box, and the Argentinian got his second also from the spot on 71 minutes to go three goals in front. The win moved Inter back to just a point behind leaders Juve.

Krzysztof Piatek struck in the 81st minute to seemingly rescue AC Milan, but Lecce hit back in the 92nd minute to earn a 2-2 draw at the San Siro. Goals from Hakan Calhanoglu and Khouma Babacar had cancelled each other out by the hour mark, but Piatek was on hand to bag his third of the season after Calhanoglu did the hard work down the right. Marco Calderoni was on hand to pip the hosts, however, with a last-gasp strike from distance that found the back of the net and gave AC Milan yet another disappointing result, having won just once in its last five games.

Roma was held to a scoreless draw on the road at Sampdoria, with Justin Kluivert seeing red on a pair of cautions and leaving the visitors to finish the match with 10 men. Roma held 65% possession throughout the match, but managed just a single shot on target amid their nine efforts. Edin Dzeko began the match on the bench, and while he came on at halftime, he did little to change Roma’s fortunes. The draw leaves Roma with just one win over its last four matches, sitting sixth in table, nine points back of the top.

Parma hammered Genoa 5-1 behind a hat-trick from Danish international Andreas Cornelius. The 26-year-old came on in the 12th minute for an injured Roberto Inglese and scored all three goals in an eight-minute stretch that bracketed halftime. The second was a vicious half-volley that impressively rippled the netting. He got his third in the 50th minute by beating Ionut Radu at his near post with a low blast.

Cagliari continued its impressive start to the season with a comprehensive 2-0 win over SPAL. The first goal came inside the opening 10 minutes on a rip-roaring thunderbolt by Radja Nainggolan from miles out, a candidate for Goal of the Season. You can watch the goal here.

Udinese pulled away from the bottom third with a 1-0 win over Torino at home. 30-year-old Stefano Okaka scored the game’s lone goal just before halftime, nodding in with his head while essentially standing right on top of the left post after Rolando Mandragora sent a looping header of his own that way.

Joao Felix injured, but not as bad as feared

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Atletico Madrid will be without its teenage sensation for a few weeks, but will still breathe a sigh of relief.

Joao Felix limped off in the 78th minute of the 1-1 draw with Valencia on Saturday, leaving Atleti with 10 men with all substitutes having been used. Simeone after the match said the medical staff believed the injury was “serious” but later that day scans showed just a Grade II ankle sprain, meaning Felix will miss approximately two to three weeks according to a report by Spanish publication AS.

Felix has been critical to the otherwise anemic Atletico Madrid attack, scoring two goals and assisting another. The team has bagged just three total goals over the last six matches, being held off the scoresheet in four of those games.

The injury means Felix will miss a Champions League match against Bayer Leverkusen plus league matches against Athletic Bilbao, Alaves and Sevilla. AS reports that he could be back at the start of November when Atletico plays the reverse Champions League group stage fixture with Bayer.

The 19-year-old arrived at the Wanda Metripolitana this past summer for an enormous $140 million fee.