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.

Cole returns to Chelsea as youth team coach

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One of Chelsea’s best players in club history is back at his old stomping grounds in a new role.

Chelsea finally confirmed over their social media channels that former left back Ashley Cole is back at the club coaching in the academy, helping the next generation of stars grow and learn the games. Specifically, Cole is coaching the U-15 squad.

[READ: Top Premier League Storylines]

“I’m also doing my badges at the moment and so being here at Chelsea means I have the chance to coach every day, whereas maybe if I wasn’t working at a club it would be hard for me to get the hours in,” Cole told Chelsea’s website. “I’m learning not just how to be a coach and how to speak to people in a different environment but the side of coaching that you don’t see like planning the sessions and setting up the equipment.

“As a player, you just turn up for a session and do it. If it’s a possession drill, you just arrive and try to keep the ball but now I’m getting to understand that there are always ideas behind a particular session or practice. Organization has to be key and those are the little details that it takes to be a great coach.”

While plenty from Cole’s era have moved into the media for lucrative punditry roles, it’s nice to see players like Cole and his former teammate Frank Lampard, now Chelsea coach, go into coaching to help pass on some of the great lessons they’ve learned during their careers. .

Cole said in the interview that he wasn’t sure what was next after playing three seasons for the LA Galaxy and then joining Lampard at Derby County for the second half of last season. He added that he got his first taste of coaching kids while with the Galaxy, helping some of the academy players and taking part in video sessions.

“The Academy are very good at giving ex-players a route back to the club and a chance to learn as coaches,” Cole said. “They’re eager to bring in people who understand what it means to be at Chelsea and what it means to wear the badge. You have to be a top player to play for Chelsea so they want those top ex-players influencing and trying to help the next generation develop and be better players.”

Spanish FA once again opposes La Liga match in U.S.

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For the second consecutive season, La Liga and Relevant Sports have proposed a league match to take place this winter in the U.S.

And once again, the La Liga proposal doesn’t have the support of its national soccer federation.

[READ: La Liga wants to move Villarreal-Atletico Madrid to Miami]

Luis Rubiales, president of the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), told reporters on Thursday that it would oppose the match taking place outside of Spain’s borders, keeping a consistent line in the sand on how far globalization can go in soccer.

“It would disrupt the competition,” Rubiales said, via AS. “To play a game in Miami, La Liga needs permission from five bodies that it doesn’t have.”

The five bodies Rubiales referred to are the RFEF, FIFA, CONCACAF, U.S. Soccer and MLS.

Last time around, Relevant Sports and La Liga announced a long-term, lucrative marketing contract to expand the brand’s footprint in the Americas, and soon after, petitioned to move Girona’s home game against Barcelona to Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium, the home stadium of Relevant Sports owner Stephen Ross and his Miami Dolphins.

Ultimately, La Liga president Javier Tebas and Relevant Sports were unable to get permission from the RFEF or FIFA to hold the event outside Spain and it went off as expected in Girona. At the time, Spain’s player’s union and fans groups opposed the move. Tebas has filed a lawsuit in Spain to try to force the RFEF to approve their request, but it seems unlikely to be awarded and it surely doesn’t provide any good will between the two parties.

There’s been plenty of talk about bringing league games abroad before, but it has just been talk so far. The Premier League considered adding an extra game to the season to be played all over the world, but never went through with creating plans for matches.

Associations – not leagues, to be clear – have brought things like Super Cups abroad. For example, the RFEF moved the 2018 Spanish Super Cup to Tangiers, Morocco, while the France Football Federation has brought its national Super Cup match to both the U.S. and Montreal, Canada in recent years. However, the argument in favor of bringing those games abroad is they’re basically meaningless. Meanwhile, one result in a league season could – in theory – determine whether a team is relegated or not, especially if the margin is three points or less.

We could see another legal fight on our hands, so watch this space, there’s plenty more to come.

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.