Premier League Playback: Chelsea no ‘little horse’ in title race. Who will go down? USMNT battle

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MOURINHO’S GENIUS

“The title race has two big horses and a little horse (Chelsea) which needs milk and work, and has to learn to jump. It can win the race next season.”

Pause. Control yourself. And contemplate what’s going on here as Jose Mourinho has a moment.

First of all, Mourinho is the master of distraction. On Monday in his post-game press conference after Chelsea’s huge 1-0 win over Manchester City, like he has done all season, he’s deflected the pressure away from his young Chelsea side. In games against the top four this season, Chelsea have won three times and drawn once. These “little horses which need milk” have performed admirably for the man many thought had lost his dazzle and sparkle after returning to England.

(3 things we learned: Matic & Luiz crucial, DM an issue for City, Chelsea’s young attackers dazzle)

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Click to Enlarge – The average position of Chelsea vs. Man City. (Source: Opta)

Mourinho, 51, has often looked jaded and surly throughout the opening months of the PL season but now he’s back to his rip-roaring best. Us journalists are often a harsh bunch, with many believing our hearts consist of mangled pieces of coal. But there’s one man that brings life into post-game press conferences in England’s top-flight. Hearty chortles of laughter are plentiful from the baying press when Mourinho’s around. More of the same please, on and off the field, Jose.

Looking at how the Portuguese maestro out-smarted Man City boss Manuel Pellegrini for the eight time in 10 encounters, it wasn’t complex but it was so perfect and a joy to watch. Handing Nemanja Matic his first start in the Premier League, following his arrival from Benfica in the January window, was a masterstroke, as the towering Serbian added real steel and grit to the engine room alongside David Luiz. Those two bossed the match (just looked at the stats table below and how they destroyed City’s central duo of Demichelis and Toure) and sat just in front of a sturdy back four. In front of Luiz and Matic was a trio of tricky attackers who scared the life out of City all evening. Eden Hazard’s tricks, Willian’s pace and Ramires’ intelligent runs complemented Chelsea’s sturdy backline marvelously well. You can see from the average position map on the left, that Chelsea’s four attackers stayed well in City’s half and gave them a problem to defend. It was one they couldn’t cope with.

Matic, Samuel Eto’o and Gary Cahill all hit the woodwork for Chelsea, as the margin of victory should have been more. Despite Mourinho’s side handing City their first defeat at home in the league all season, ending their 100 percent record in the process, Mourinho was coy and his side had an exuberant yet calm look about them at the final whistle. They know they are good, and have proven that across the entire season against the top clubs.

Will Jose’s “little horses” jump the final fences of the season well, as we turn around the final bend and into the home straight? They are level on points with City in second place, and just two points behind leaders Arsenal.

On these showings, Chelsea have every reason to believe they’re front-runners. Mourinho will tell you differently, although the nurturing of his fledglings is coming along very nicely indeed.

Player Martin Demichelis Yaya Touré Nemanja Matic David Luiz
Appearances 1 1 1 1
Minutes played 90 90 90 90
Passing
Goal assists 0 0 0 0
Chances created (inc. assists) 0 3 0 1
Passes 59 81 27 25
Pass completion % 90% 91% 85% 76%
Dribbling
Dribbles 0 2 5 3
Dribble completion % 0% 100% 60% 67%
Defending
Tackles 7 6 4 3
Tackles won % 71% 67% 75% 100%

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TRANSFER WINDOW, WINNERS AND LOSERS

Premier League Schedule – Round 24

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

Following a frantic final few days of activity, the January window finally slammed shut last Friday.

After the razzmatazz and splendor of deals in mid-January, Juan Mata signing for Man United in a $56 million deal and Matic to Chelsea for $35 million, deadline day itself didn’t quite live up to the billing. But that’s okay, I think by midnight GMT on Friday, every soccer fan, player, manager or pundit was just about transfer windowed out.

Here’s a look at the big winners and losers, as Arsenal and Liverpool failed to bolster their squads, while relegation haunted Crystal Palace, Cardiff City and Fulham did the best business.

The biggest deals were Kostas Mitrglou to Fulham for $18 million and Kim “I’m actually injured” Kallstrom on loan to Arsenal. Yeah, we are still scratching our heads at PST about that deal too…

SUNDERLAND’S SURVIVAL BID, PLUS OTHERS, GATHERING PACE

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Gathered in the press room at St. James’ Park, Gustavo Poyet had a wry grin on his face when asked what this win meant to himself and his players.

“I don’t know how many people were expecting this, but I’ve been telling you for a few weeks how we were getting better. Especially away from home, we are a difficult team to play against. If you get a chance early with a penalty and you take it, it becomes very difficult for the home team. One of the best days I’ve had in football as a manager. No doubt.”

The other big question post-game: can Poyet’s Sunderland stay up amongst the 10 teams battling for survival?

“What a league this is, what a game football is. Before I said somehow we have to stay up, now it would be a shame if we didn’t. Because we have done a terrific job until now, and now we are in a position where it is in our own hands. We need to take it and I will make sure we do the right things between not and the end of the season.”

Sunderland had just beaten arch rivals Newcastle 3-0 away from home for the second season running. They’ve also won their third-straight Tyne-Wear derby for the first time since 1923, after Poyet tasted his first victory in charge of the Black Cats against Newcastle back in October.

Brimming with confidence following their win over Stoke last weekend, plus the League Cup semifinal victory over Manchester United at Old Trafford still fresh in the memory, Sunderland came flying out of the traps at a boisterous St. James’ Park on Saturday. Within 23 minutes they were 2-0 up and had silenced the partisan crowd of 50,000 plus. By the end of the game Newcastle’s fans were running onto the pitch to demonstrate, throwing season tickets around and it all got a little ugly outside the ground. I was tucked away safely in the press room, but a baying mob of Magpies were voicing their discontent following Sunderland’s emphatic derby win.

The Black Cats climb to safety has been gathering momentum for a while, with just one defeat in nine, but on Saturday they took a huge leap forward. The win only gave them three points, but the confidence and belief that a 3-0 win away from home against your biggest rivals is sure to harbor unbelievable levels of self-confidence that Sunderland can survive. Liam Bridcutt, who joined from Brighton on deadline day for $4.5 million, was a destructive genius in the holding role and allowed the likes of Jack Colback, Adam Johnson and Fabio Borini (who all scored) to surge forward in support of Jozy Altidore. As for the USMNT star, he was superb as he bullied Steven Taylor and Mike Williamson and won countless duels and battles as the lone forward. Fair play to Jozy, because the goals haven’t been flowing but he put in a monumental shift up top in terms of work rate and effort.

That’s what this Sunderland side is full of under Poyet. As a player he ground out every ounce out of his ability and made the most of his opportunities. His Sunderland side are now doing the same as they climb out of the table and are now in the heady heights of 14th. Okay, they’re nowhere near being safe as the monumental cluster of sides from 20th place to 11th are separated by just six points. But if you had to pick out one of those teams to survive the dreaded drop, I’d put my money on Sunderland.

As for the others Cardiff City, Stoke City and West Ham United all sealed massive wins at the weekend, as just four points separate 11th place from 19th. In the video below our analysts break down the relegation battle.

WORLD CUP AUDITIONS BEGIN

With just over three months of Premier League action left to impress, plenty of English players are jockeying to try and make Roy Hodgson’s England squad for the pinnacle of international soccer in Brazil this summer.

Four England hopefuls shone in the PL in Round 24, as Andy Carroll, Adam Lallana, Adam Johnson and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain all had big impacts in wins for their respective sides. Let’s break down their chances of making the plane to Brazil.

–          Andy Carroll

The towering striker has returned from his long-term injury to help propel West Ham with four points in a week a massive haul for the Hammers. Carroll was on hand to provide two assists for Kevin Nolan in his sides 2-0 win over Swansea, and the bruising front man ran the Swans defense ragged with his magnificent aerial ability. He did blot his copy book by getting a straight-red for an apparent lash out at Chico Flores. But with the latter’s theatrical action and an appeal on the way, it’s likely Carroll will escape without a ban. England need a bustling forward to compliment the talents of Wayne Rooney, Daniel Sturridge and Danny Welbeck. Carroll or Rickie Lambert will now battle it out for that place in the squad, as 25-year-old Carroll may have the edge if he can stay fit and bag a few goals between now and May.

–          Adam Lallana

Pundits, teammates and opponents are running out of superlatives for this tiny attacker who is roaring Southampton’s top-ten charge on every single game. Lallana has scored seven times and added six assists this season. In the two games he played for England against Chile and Germany last November, Roy Hodgson told the assembled media that Lallana was “the big find” from the friendlies. Gliding through opposition defenders with his slick two-footedness, Lallana is a joy to watch. His clever passing, relentless work-rate and ability to hold the ball in tight situations will serve England well in Brazil if the 25-year-old goes. He already switched his wedding from June 14, the date of England’s opener with Italy, to Christmas Eve in anticipation of a call-up. Right now, Lallana looks a shoe-in out of these four Englishman mentioned. Plus, he dazzled in Saints’ 3-0 win over Fulham on Saturday with a goal and shone alongside fellow England attackers Jay Rodriguez and Rickie Lambert, who both scored in front of Roy Hodgson. Saints fans sings “he plays on the left, he plays on the right… Adam Lallana makes Messi look ****!” Could he actually be doing that in person at the World Cup this summer?

–          Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain

This young man has had a terrible run of injuries but now it seems to be over. Known as ‘the Ox’ the 20-year-old midfielder bulldozed through Crystal Palace’s defense to score both goals in Arsenal’s 2-0 win on Sunday. Chamberlain has shown he can do it on the big stage, and turned around England’s fortunes when playing a friendly against Brazil in Rio last June. He has the skill, temperament and pace to harm any team on the planet and England would surely take the Ox if he’s fit. A mainstay in the squad throughout the World Cup qualifying campaign, he can play on either wing and in central areas. His versatility is key and that’s exactly what’s needed in tournament soccer.

–          Adam Johnson

Sunderland’s winger has now scored six goals in his last five games, as the Black Cats resurgence has coincided with AJ’s return to form. On Saturday Johnson scored set up the opening goal which came via a PK with delicate chipped through ball, scored the second and struck the post in the Mackes massive 3-0 derby win away at Newcastle. Signed for big bucks by Manchester City from Middlesbrough as a youngster, Johnson burst onto the scene and often banged in goals for the Three Lions off the bench during the successful Euro 2012 qualifying campaign. But since Roy Hodgson took charge he’s been on the peripheries of the squad, as others likes Chamberlain, Lallana, Rodriguez and Raheem Sterling have been preferred. With his snake-hips and faint dips of the shoulder, Johnson is one of those wingers who doesn’t possess blistering pace but somehow beats his man 9 times out of 10 and his delivery with his left peg is sensational. Sunderland hope Johnson’s good form continues to drag them out of a relegation battle. If he does that, there’s a good bet he could be on the plane to Brazil.

Note: Chelsea skipper John Terry should probably be the fifth name on this list, but the former England captain has already retired from international soccer after the racism accusations and problems with Rio Ferdinand, Wayne Bridge and others. That said, Terry is having a storming season at CB for Chelsea and is easily the best English defender in the PL. Can Hodgson coax him out of retirement to partner his Blues teammate Gary Cahill at the heart of England’s defense?

BATTLE OF USMNT ‘KEEPERS, HOWARD TAKES IT AGAIN

Everton’s 2-1 win over Aston Villa didn’t get much publicity this weekend as some big boys slipped up and the mammoth Man City v Chelsea clash dominated. But both U.S. goalkeepers were in action at Goodison Park on Saturday, as Tim Howard prevailed for the second time this season over his compatriot Brad Guzan. Last time they met at Villa Park in October, Howard saved a PK in Everton’s 2-0 win and Guzan kept the score respectable with some stunning saves. On Saturday both men were kept busy, but in a tight game where scoring opportunities were few and far between, neither was overworked.

Howard had no chance with Villa’s opener from Bacuna that slid underneath him, while the same happened to Guzan on Everton’s equalizer from Naismith. Then Guzan could only make a despairing dive towards the ball as Kevin Mirallas curled in a delicious free kick late on to win the game for the Toffees. Who is the USMNT number one? In terms of win in the PL, it’s Howard. Will that be the case in Brazil this summer?

Honorable mention: USMNT defender Geoff Cameron put in yet another solid display at right back in Stoke’s hugely impressive 2-1 home win over Manchester United. Cameron, 28, attracted a bid from Sunderland on deadline day, as he continues his rise in the PL. Good on you, Geoff.

With highlights of that game and more, in the mammoth video below of every single goal scored in the PL this weekend. Enjoy.

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

Watch Live: Everton v. Chelsea

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Everton host Chelsea at Goodison Park on Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) as Duncan Ferguson takes interim charge of the struggling Toffees.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE HERE

Everton sit in the relegation zone and after they fired Marco Silva, they badly need a morale-boosting win against a young, talented Chelsea. Frank Lampard‘s side remain in the top four but this will be a tough test as they head to Goodison with Everton scrapping for their lives.

In team news Everton make two changes as Ferguson brings in Walcott and Schneiderlin to the starting lineup in a very attacking side.

Chelsea are unchanged from their midweek win against Aston Villa.

LINEUPS

Top Premier League storylines: Matchweek 16

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Matchweek 16 is upon us.

[ MORE: Chelsea transfer ban reduced; can sign players in January ]

Here’s what we’ll be keeping an eye on when this weekend’s fixtures kick off Saturday morning…


Manchester derby, perhaps you’ve heard of it 

Manchester City might not take home their third straight PL title, given Liverpool’s 11-point lead after 15 games, but they can still maintain their superiority in Manchester. They’re well on their way to doing so in the table, now they can get (another0 one over the Red Devils on Saturday. At what point do they take over the title of “bigger club?” Asking for a friend…


The start of something big for Chelsea?

Marco Silva is gone with Everton siting 18th in the table. Chelsea’s transfer ban has been cut in half with the Blues sitting fourth. Could this week get any worse? for Everton? Could it get any better for Chelsea?


Desperation time for Arsenal

Unai Emery was fired, which was supposedly to magically fix all of the problems at Arsenal. That’s how it’s supposed to work, right? Well, we’re two games into the Freddie Ljungberg (interim) era, and the Gunners have just one point to show for their efforts, and they had to come back from a goal down (twice) against 19th-place Norwich City to get it. Every trip to West Ham is a tricky one for Arsenal, and that’s doubly true given their current form (winless in their last nine games – all competitions).


Does Liverpool’s lead grow? Shrink? Hold steady?

From now until the end of the season, it’s Liverpool’s title to lose. No matter how you look at it, it’s theirs to either win or lose. Therefore, every time out presents a chance to grow their lead, or the risk of seeing it shrink should the drop points and one of the chasing sides to take all three. The math behind it is a bit boring, but if they don’t drop more than 10 points the rest of the season, they’ll win the title. Of course, their margin for error is likely to grow with Leicester and City eventually failing to win. Simply put, Liverpool are sitting comfortably.


Good times roll for Newcastle?

Don’t look now, but Newcastle have won three of their last five games and reached mid-table. Steve Bruce‘s side currently sits 11th after wins over West Ham, Bournemouth and Sheffield United in recent weeks. Welcomeing relegation-threatened Southampton to St. James’ Park could very well spell another three points for the Magpies.

Serie A: Leaders Inter Milan open door for Juve by drawing Roma

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MILAN (AP) Italian league leader Inter Milan was held by Roma to 0-0 on Friday, giving second-placed Juventus a chance to return to the top.

[ MORE: Chelsea transfer ban reduced; can sign players in January ]

The home draw left Inter only two points ahead of Juventus, which can regain the lead when it visits third-placed Lazio on Saturday.The result also wasn’t good for Roma, which moved from fifth to fourth place in the standings but remained nine points off the lead after 15 matches.

Inter forward Lautaro Martinez had one of the game’s best chances when he got past a defender and entered the area in the 68th minute, but his shot was blocked at the last minute. He called for a handball by the defender but the referee let play continue.

[ MORE: Brendan Rodgers signs new contract at Leicester ]

Inter was coming off five straight wins in the league, with its last setback in all competitions last month against Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League. Its last league loss was against Juventus in October, nine matches ago.

Roma was seeking its third straight league win. It had won five of its last six matches since last month.

Inter visits Barcelona in the Champions League on Tuesday.

Premier League Preview: Man City v. Man United

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  • Man City (3rd) trail Liverpool by 11 points
  • Man United (6th) eight points out of 4th
  • Last meeting: Man United 0-2 Man City

For the first time in recent memory, Manchester City and Manchester United each find themselves failing to meet expectations — by their own respective standards, at least — as they prepare to meet at the Etihad Stadium in the 179th Manchester derby on Saturday (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and NBCSports.com).

Man City, the two-time defending Premier League champions, are looking increasingly unlikely to retain their crown for a third straight season but look a surefire bet to finish in the top-four, which is a place for which Man United would bite your hand off as they currently trail leaders Liverpool by more points (22) than they have points of their own (21).

[ STREAM: Every PL match live

The struggles for United have been all about consistency as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s side hasn’t won back-to-back games all season. The Red Devils haven’t won two in a row in the PL since March. On the bright side, United turned in one of their complete performances of the season on Wednesday, spoiling Jose Mourinho’s return to Old Trafford and beating Tottenham Hotspur 2-1. Marcus Rashford scored both goals and Solskjaer couldn’t rave enough about his 22-year-old forward after the game. From start to finish, United were the better team and looked in majority control, which isn’t something they’ve been able to say often in 2019.

As for City, they’ve simply been “not good enough” without ever actually being “bad” this season, given Liverpool’s scintillating form (14W-1D-0L thus far). Realistically, City likely need to pick up all 69 remaining points this season, and even then they might still come up short.

Injuries/suspensions

Man City: OUT – Sergio Aguero (thigh), Aymeric Laporte (knee), Leroy Sane (knee), Oleksandr Zinchenko (knee)

Man United: OUT – Anthony Martial (hamstring), Eric Bailly (knee), Marcos Rojo (undisclosed); QUESTIONABLE: Paul Pogba (ankle), Nemanja Matic (groin), Diogo Dalot (groin)


Projected lineups

Man City: Ederson — Walker, Otamendi, Fernandinho, Angeliño — Rodri, De Bruyne, Silva — Bernardo, Jesus, Sterling

Man United: De Gea — Wan-Bissaka, Lindelof, Maguire, Young — Fred, McTominay, James, Mata, Lingard — Rashford


What they’re saying

Pep Guardiola, on the derby: “It’s Man United. I respect what they’ve done for English football, European, and world football. United have huge history and their quality is always there but we must try to beat them. We play against a good team, try to follow the performances we’ve put in and try to win the game. You know my opinion on the title race.”

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, on his derby memories: “It took many years before I played a Manchester derby myself. Of course, Man City are a better team now than when I was playing. … Confidence is a strange thing in football; you can get performances and results like Wednesday night and it boosts it so much. And I know our boys will be up for it. 24 hours less recovery time [than City] shouldn’t matter, you go on adrenaline.”


Prediction

The win over Tottenham was impressive, no doubt about it, but City remain a challenge of an entirely different class, no matter what their points total says. If the title is well and truly gone for Guardiola’s side, then retaining superiority in Manchester will have to suffice. City 3-1 United.