Liverpool’s title charge, Chelsea’s staying power, drop zone dread – View from the Booth, with Arlo White

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When watching soccer on TV, have you ever sat there and wondered what the man behind the microphone really thinks?

Maybe this will go someway to helping with that.

In the latest edition of “View from the Booth” we chat with NBC Sports’ lead soccer announcer Arlo White why games at the top have been so tight, Steven Gerrard’s resurgence, the trophy chase for the big three and much, much more. Remember, Arlo and his broadcast team are on a short break this week, as FA Cup action takes center stage.

(VIEW FROM THE BOOTH ARCHIVE)

You can hear Arlo calling live games every weekend on NBC Sports Network and NBC, and watch every single game available live online via NBC Sports Live Extra,

So, let’s get to it.

With so many of the games between the top teams this season proving tight, tense and yielding plenty of 0-0’s, why is it happening so much?

It’s a really good question. I’ve been at Manchester United v Chelsea, Arsenal v Chelsea and Arsenal v Manchester United this season, and the whole experience has followed a familiar pattern of great anticipation, early missed chances but ultimate inertia and stalemate. I think each game had it’s own significance and reasons for the result. In August, Jose Mourinho played without a recognized striker at Old Trafford before it had become apparent that United were not the force of old, and were there for the taking. In December at the Emirates, Mourinho reverted to a more cautious style having conceded far too many goals in Chelsea’s previous games. On Wednesday, Robin Van Persie and Jack Wilshere had terrific chances in the opening 3 minutes, but failed to take them, and aside from a couple of superb saves by Szczesny and De Gea later on, the rest of the game lacked any real inspiration as each side prioritized ‘not losing’ above going out and winning.

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Arlo believes the top teams have all been to afraid to go for broke this season. As a fear of losing has prevailed.

Should we be surprised? It was Arsenal’s 11th clean sheet in their last 12 home games in all competitions, but with the incentive of re-taking top spot, I was surprised with the lack of energy and urgency in the Gunners approach. With that in mind, Arsene Wenger only made one substitution in the entire game. Could Lucas Podolski have made a difference late on? Could Wenger and Arsenal have tested a potentially rusty Rio Ferdinand more? Could Arsenal have stepped up and made more of a statement of intent in this title race? I think they could and it’s a worry for Arsenal fans that they didn’t.

But dull 0-0’s haven’t dominated this season in the Premier League. We’ve seen plenty of exciting goal fests involving Manchester City and Liverpool, so there has been a balance.

One team not scared to attack is Liverpool. Can the Reds sustain their title challenge in the final few months of the season?

Who doesn’t love a cute little Chihuahua? What a brilliant and Mourinho-esque piece of imagery from Brendan Rodgers, that his little Chihuahua can “run between the legs of the horses.” And why not? Liverpool have been in devastating attacking form lately. Are they overly reliant on Luiz Suarez? He’s only scored 4 of Liverpool’s last 24 goals in the Premier League. Daniel Sturridge is on fire.  Coutinho is influencing games. Jordan Henderson is a machine in central midfield. Raheem Sterling is enjoying a break through season, and Steven Gerrard is settling into his new, deeper role brilliantly.

Liverpool can sustain a title challenge. Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester City all have to visit Anfield. On paper, their ‘toughest’ away game is at Old Trafford and that has hardly been a fortress this season. Most significantly, and unlike their title rivals, they are unencumbered by midweek European Football, and Rodgers has more training sessions to implement his tactics.

My concern would be the Liverpool defense. Could Daniel Agger come in for Kolo Toure, who has struggled of late? Can a team that has Aly Cissokho as it’s left back win a Premier League title? Will Liverpool score so many goals that it won’t matter? We shall see. The Reds are mounting a compelling and thrilling challenge this season.

At the moment, Steven Gerrard seems to be the focal point of Liverpool’s charge. How has his resurgence helped the Reds?

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Steven Gerrard has been in imperious form from a deep-lying position this season.

Brendan Rodgers has pulled another master stroke here. He knows that Steven Gerrard is a major player at Liverpool but is also aware that Gerrard’s ability to scamper up and down a Football pitch is waning. The answer isn’t to ship Gerrard out of the club, but to embrace the new reality and find a role in which he can thrive. As Rodgers told me earlier this season, he is open to adapting his tactical approach to the talent that he has available, and this is a great example of that.

I was at Anfield for the Aston Villa game when Gerrard, and Liverpool, struggled with the new role in a 2-2 draw, but since then he seems to have taken to it beautifully. His pass for Daniel Sturridge’s equalizer at Fulham was just sublime, and he then kept his nerve to slot home an injury time penalty for the winner.

Gerrard has been a wonderful servant for Liverpool for many years. You could see in his celebration at Craven Cottage that he feels this is his best chance of winning a Premier League title with his beloved Reds. And like Rodgers says, beyond this season, Gerrard could play the “single pivot” role for England at the World Cup.

With the latter stages of the FA Cup and Champions League upon us, which title contender do you expect to cope with the rigors better, Manchester City, Arsenal or Chelsea?

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Chelsea, in Arlo’s opinion, are best equipped to make a run at the PL crown, FA Cup and Champions League.

At the moment, I don’t think Arsenal are coping with the rigors of the Premier League, let alone the Champions League and FA Cup. But getting Flamini and Ramsey back into their midfield from suspension and injury could be huge for the Gunners. I worry about the energy levels of Ozil and Giroud, and their work load is about to increase significantly.

For all of Manchester City’s amazing attacking talent, they have sorely missed Fernandinho in central midfield. His absence isn’t the only reason that City have failed to score in consecutive Premier League games, but when you look at the numbers, it is startling. He has missed 5 League starts, and Manchester City have failed to score in 4 of them. Therefore, 64 of City’s 68 Premier League goals have come in his 20 starts.

Of course, the absences of Aguero and Nasri are also key, but Fernandinho’s energy in the center of the park enables City to attack with more confidence. If their attack breaks down, Fernandinho will help them retrieve the ball and start again. They need him back. So, I think Chelsea are best equipped to cope. They have been rock solid defensively and have multiple and interchangeable options ahead of the back four to get results in big games. Matic has settled into the base of midfield nicely. Luiz can do a great job there. Hazard has been incredible of late, and Willian has been a revelation in terms of quality and work rate.

Chelsea might be title favorites now, but they also have the best chance of the three of prolonging their participation in the Champions League. They should dispose of Galatasaray, whilst Arsenal and City must overcome Bayern and Barcelona. Chelsea might have the heavier schedule in the closing weeks of the season.

Finally, with the standings so tight at the bottom, which teams do you think will survive and why?

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The arrival of Tony Pulis has ‘been a revelation’ for Crystal Palace, as they surge away from the drop zone.

Very tough question. This season is so unpredictable. Only Southampton and Newcastle are truly mid-table. Swansea are in 10th place, but only 8 points clear of the bottom side Fulham.

I said that Fulham had a terrific transfer deadline day, and I stick by that. They got rid of the ‘luxury’ players Berbatov and Taaraabt (addition by subtraction), and brought in some solid workers like Holtby, for a tough relegation scrap. Mitroglou is their wild card.  If he can score some big goals, then Fulham can turn their new found energy into points. But it’s a very tall order. They played Manchester United and Liverpool recently and despite their defensive approach, they were only outscored 5-4. But they only got 1 point for their efforts. Over the next 4 games, they face crucial games against West Brom, Cardiff and Newcastle. The results of those games could decide their fate.

Crystal Palace have been an absolute revelation under Tony Pulis. I think their story has been somewhat overlooked amidst the close title race above them. Right now, I would say Fulham, Cardiff and Norwich for the drop. But ask me after the next round of games, and it could be three different teams.

That’s the beauty of this terrific Premier League season.

Serie A roundup: Immobile nets hat-trick, Lazio runs over Sampdoria (video)

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Lazio’s record-extending 11th straight Serie A win highlights Saturday’s Serie A action.

 [ MORE: Serie A scores, schedule ]

Lazio 5-1 Sampdoria  

Like Lazio’s season, Ciro Immobile continues to make strides with each passing day.

The 29-year-old’s hat-trick powered Simone Inzaghi’s side past Sampdoria 5-1, extending his goal count to 23, nine more than Cristiano Ronaldo and Romelu Lukaka.

 

Lazio, who are three points behind top-of-the-table Juventus and one behind second-place Inter Milan, were up three goals by the 20-minute mark. By the 65th minute, Immobile reached the three goal mark, converting from the spot.

“We would need too much time to count his records,” coach Simone Inzaghi said on Immobile’s magnificent run of form. “We are talking about an extraordinary team player. He has shown that so many times. Immobile has been doing extraordinary things for four years, I’m not surprised.”

Full of confidence, Lazio turn one of the most challenging corners of the season, as they take on rivals AS Roma defend the Italian Cup against Napoli.

“We’ll enjoy this 11th win but we have to already be thinking about the next matches,” Inzaghi said. “We know what a derby means but I can’t allow myself to think about Roma.

“We play Napoli on Tuesday, we know what the Italian Cup means for us, what it meant last year, we have it on our shirts and we will fight for it again.”

When it comes to Sampdoria, things are going from bad to ugly, quick.

“Tonight I’ll add salt and pepper and I’ll eat them alive,” Sampdoria coach Claudio Ranieri said of his players.

“Lazio was too good for us, you could clearly see the difference between the two teams, but it was without doubt the worst Samp performance since I’ve been here.”

Elsewhere

Sassuolo 2-1 Torino

Napoli 0-2 Fiorentina

La Liga roundup: Casemiro’s brace earns injury-riddled Real Madrid win (video)

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Casemiro’s heroic performance against Sevilla highlights La Liga’s Saturday action.

[ FOLLOW: PST’s La Liga coverage ]

Real Madrid 2-1 Sevilla

Real Madrid’s goalscoring hero on Saturday wasn’t Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale, Eden Hazard, or even Sergio Ramos.

With two crucial goals in the second half, Casemiro single-handedly earned three points at the Santiago Bernabeu, days removed from cathartic Spanish Super Cup win against arch rivals Atletico Madrid.

With Bale, Hazard, Ramos injured, Benzema on the bench far from match-fit, and Federico Valverde suspended, Los Blancos were in dire need of someone to lead the way, and place pressure on struggling co-leaders Barcelona, who are now under Quique Setien’s tutelage.

By the time the first 45 minutes came to a close, the overall impression was that it would take a miracle for the home side to earn much-needed three points.

That all quickly changed in the second half as the Brazilian midfielder chipped Tomas Vaclik after a picture-perfect backheel from Luka Jovic. Madrid were edging Julen Lopetegui’s side, and Casemiro foreshadowed what was to come.

With the score level, the Brazilian leaped inside the box and headed home a lofting ball from the right flank, catching Sevilla’s defense completely off guard.

Casemiro’s brace came just five minutes after Luuk De Jong‘s left-footed goal in the 64th minute.

League leaders with 43 points, Madrid prepares for their Copa del Rey bout against third-division side Unionistas midweek. Sevilla, on the other hand, host Levante in the same tournament.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Eibar 2-0 Atletico Madrid

Osasuna 0-0 Real Valladolid

Levante 0-1 Alaves

16-year-old Cherki scores 2 as Lyon advances in French Cup

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PARIS (AP) Two goals and two assists from 16-year-old forward Rayan Cherki helped Lyon win 4-3 at Nantes and reach the last 16 of the French Cup on Saturday.

But the run of Reunion Islanders JS Saint-Pierroise ended with a 1-0 loss away to Epinal, which scored deep into extra time.

Cherki put Lyon ahead in the first minute, deftly rounding goalkeeper Alban Lafont and then clipping the ball beyond a defender. He made it 2-0 in the ninth, slotting the ball through Lafont’s legs after being set up by right winger Bertrand Traore.

New signing Renaud Emond headed in Moses Simon’s cross from the left to pull a goal back for Nantes in the 16th. Cherki then showed great awareness to release forward Martin Terrier with a fine pass from midfield in the 37th for 3-1.

Cherki shaved the crossbar with a shot in the 60th and won a penalty in the 67th after robbing the ball off Thomas Basila. He generously allowed striker Moussa Dembele to take it, but Lafont saved Dembele’s attempt.

Two minuter later, Cherki threaded the ball down the right to Dembele, who slotted in, and the irrepressible Cherki set up another chance for Terrier.

Lyon’s defense remains vulnerable and Simon set up Imran Louza’s goal before heading in late on to ensure a tense finish.

Saint-Pierroise had caused an upset in the previous round by knocking out second-division Niort and the players again traveled 6,000 miles (around 9,700 kilometers) from the small island in the Indian Ocean, located off the east coast of Africa.

Saint-Pierroise, the former club of France midfielder Dimitri Payet, was looking to become the first club from the Reunion Islands to reach the last 16 and almost forced a penalty shootout, despite having forward Jean-Michel Fontaine sent off in the 15th minute.

But substitute Adel Berkane rifled home a half-volley for fourth-tier Epinal with two minutes left in extra time.

Also, there were wins for first-division sides Nice, Lille, Saint-Etienne and Strasbourg.

Lille won 2-0 at fifth-division Gonfreville thanks to goals from forwards Loic Remy and Victor Osimhen, while coach Patrick Vieira’s Nice side held on to beat third-tier Red Star 2-1.

Saint-Etienne won 3-2 at Paris FC, a team fighting relegation in the second division.

Paris FC led 2-1 with goals from former Paris Saint-Germain forward Jeremy Menez and ex-Rennes winger Jonathan Pitroipa. Teen forward Charles Abi equalized for Saint-Etienne with 20 minutes left before veteran right back Mathieu Debuchy netted the winner.

Strasbourg won 5-1 at fourth-tier Angouleme.

On Sunday, Rennes plays at fifth-tier Athletico Marseille and PSG travels to face second division league leader Lorient.

Rennes beats PSG in last year’s final.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

‘I’m very happy for this’: Jimenez becomes Wolves all-time leading PL goalscorer

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Raul Jimenez has carved his name in Wolverhampton Wanderers’ history books.

“I want to say thank you to all my teammates, to the staff, to the coach, because without all of them, I can’t achieve this goal,” Jimenez said following Wolves’ come-from-behind 3-2 victory against Southampton on Saturday.

Just minutes earlier, in front of a fervent stand of Wolves supporters at St. Mary’s Stadium, Jimenez scored his 23rd Premier League goal for Midlands side, becoming the club’s all-time leading scorer in the Premier League era. The Mexican surpasses Steven Fletcher‘s record of 22 goals, which stood since 2012.

“I’m very happy for this, and I want to keep scoring,” he added.

With Wolves disputing Europa League qualifying matches in August, the 28-year-old began to build early on what is now a monstrous campaign – 19 goals and 9 assist in throughout all competitions. Half a year down the road, there are no signs of Jimenez’s magic running out. In fact, his brace against the Saints is clearest indicator of why that’s the case.

With his divine hold up play, well-calculated pressing and hunger for redemption, Jimenez emotionally inspired Nuno Espirito Santo‘s side comeback. And in the 65th minute, his trademark penalty overturned a two-goal deficit, turning emotional to physical inspiration.

“[Coming back] was very important for us after a very bad first half,” he told Wolves reporters following the match.

Jimenez was full of praise for his team’s collective grit. He lauded his team’s “fantastic” second half – full of pressing and chances created. The tactic alterations implemented by Nuno Espirito Santo influenced Adama Traore’s run that led to Jimenez’s third and winning goal.

“In the end, we know that it depends on us – what we want to do, what we want to achieve. So, we need to keep going until the last minute. Keep trying to score, keep going with our football that makes us Wolves.”

We now know that Jimenez is Wolves’ all-time Premier League goalscorer, too.