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.

Rodgers excuses Maddison’s behavior after England departure

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Leicester City and England midfielder James Maddison made headlines for the wrong reasons after he was pictured last week watching the England match at the Czech Republic from a casino.

Despite the negative attention from Maddison’s decision to watch the game at that venue, he has the backing of his club manager, Brendan Rodgers.

“The kid went away with the international team and took ill while he was away,” Rodgers said, via the Guardian. “He wanted to stay and hopefully be ready for the second game. But the England medical staff – which I can understand, as he had flu and they didn’t want that to spread to his teammates – decided it’s best for him to leave the camp. So he leaves, gets some tablets with our guys at the club, then he feels better.

“He watched the game at home on his own on the Friday and then goes out at half-time – probably he’ll make better decisions in his life but he went to a casino on his own to sit and watch the second half by a poker table. The suggestions are he left England purposelessly and then goes to a casino but that’s totally not the case at all. But his eyes have been opened now to the wider world in terms of what he did. He knows in hindsight he’s made a mistake.”

Considering all that went on during England’s international break, from the poor performance in Prague to the horrible racism endured in Bulgaria, this is a bit of a silly scandal. To be honest, as long as Maddison is taking care of his body and himself, why does it matter if he was at a casino, or a pub, or anywhere?

However, there’s no denying that the optics look bad. Folks didn’t know that he arrived to England camp with the flu, or a flu-like illness at least, and the England medical staff are right to send him away to make sure no one else gets sick. He may have been feeling better by Friday and wanted to get out of the house. I think we’ve all been there after being sick for a few days.

The most important lesson for Maddison is to learn that his actions, out of context, can be misunderstood. In terms of soccer, after Ross Barkley’s performance for England, Maddison will have to prove in his club form that he should still have a place in the England team for the near future. There’s only two more international dates left before the 2020 Euros, so time is running out for Maddison to make an impact to Southgate.

 

Tierney, Lacazette available for Arsenal

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Arsenal are edging closer to finally having a full-strength squad.

Ahead of Monday’s prime-time matchup with Sheffield United, Arsenal manager Unai Emery confirmed that Kieran Tierney was in line to make his Premier League debut, while Alexandre Lacazette was back in full training and should be in the gameday squad.

“Today is Lacazette’s first training back with us,” Emery said in a press conference on Thursday. “He finished it well and he’s feeling well with his injuries. Tomorrow we will be training again and he will be with us. We will decide.

“The most important thing is that first he is training, then secondly it’s whether he can be with us and it depends how he can feel in the next days training with us, whether his ankle is not giving him any more problems.”

This is a huge boost to Arsenal, which has had to rely on some youngsters and have made some lineup changes to accommodate not having Lacazette on the field. Tierney meanwhile could step into a position where there’s already a decent starter, Sead Kolasinac.

Lacazette’s return also couldn’t have come at a better time. In Premier League action, Arsenal’s high-powered offense has been stymied, scoring just two goals in the last two league games. Meanwhile, against weaker defenses in the UEFA Europa League and the Carabao Cup, Arsenal has bagged a total of 12 goals.

The veteran Frenchman has scored two goals in three appearances so far this season, including a big goal just before halftime in the 2-2 draw with Tottenham. However, he suffered a long-term ankle injury in that match that has kept him on the sidelines for more than a month.

“[Tierney is] ready to play,” Emery later said. Now we have two options in that left-back role with Sead Kolasinac and him. We’re going to play a lot of matches after Monday. We will need every player. It depends how he comes into the first training with us, Sead, after his international matches. We now have two players in that position and we can use one on Monday, it depends how they are, one or the other.”

Tierney, the 22-year-old Scottish left back, has made two appearances for the Arsenal first team since recovering from a double hernia operation over the summer. Signed from Celtic for around $32 million, Tierney adds a skill that Kolasinac has struggled with – expert crosser of the ball into the box, where the likes of Lacazette, Nicolas Pepe, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang can score when given a decent chance.

USWNT star Rapinoe, boxer Shields win sportswomen of year

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Soccer star Megan Rapinoe and boxer Claressa Shields have been honored as Sportswomen of the Year by the Women’s Sports Foundation.

They won in the team and individual categories, the awards coming at the foundation’s 40th annual Salute to Women in Sports.

Rapinoe led the U.S. to victory at the World Cup in France and earned the FIFA Player of the Year award. Shields is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and middleweight champion.

Sheila Johnson, part-owner of the Washington Wizards, Capitals and recent WNBA champion Mystics, won the Billie Jean King Leadership Award. Marta Vieira da Silva, star of the Brazilian national soccer team, won the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award.

Rapinoe thanked her teammates Wednesday night and lauded Marta, a six-time FIFA Player of the Year, calling the Brazilian the greatest of all time and an “absolute hero in our sport.”

John Burke, president of the Trek Bicycle company, received the inaugural Champion for Equality Award.

MNUFC’s Opara wins MLS Defender of the Year

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For the second time in three seasons, Ike Opara has been named MLS Defender of the Year, this time as the foundational piece of Minnesota United’s much-improved defense.

[ Report: Sacramento finally gets MLS expansion franchise ]

Opara becomes just the fourth player to win multiple Defender of the Year awards, joining Carlos Bocanegra (2002, 2003), Robin Fraser (1999, 2004) and Chad Marshall, the only three-time winner (2008, 2009, 2014) in MLS history. Opara won the award going away, nearly doubling the percentage of votes received by second-place Walker Zimmerman.

Defender of the Year Player % Club % Media % Final %
Ike Opara  25.75% 27.27% 44.88% 32.64%
Walker Zimmerman 20.40% 17.17% 12.20% 16.59%
Miles Robinson 19.40% 13.13% 15.75% 16.09%
Maxime Chanot 1.67% 16.16% 4.33% 7.39%
Eddie Segura 4.35% 9.09% 5.91% 6.45%
Aaron Long 2.34% 5.05% 1.97% 3.12%

[ MORE: Berhalter slams USMNT after Canada defeat — what now? ]

This time last year, the 30-year-old was a member of one of the league’s stingiest defensive units as a member of Sporting Kansas City. Following a contract dispute with Sporting, Opara was traded to Minnesota in exchange for $900,000 of targeted allocation money, plus an additional $100,000 after Minnesota qualified for the playoffs for the first time since joining MLS.