Premier League Sunday Preview: Moving day in the table’s bottom half

Leave a comment

There was a time when Aston Villa was on the verge to putting its relegation worries behind them, with Paul Lambert’s team having fought its way into the Premier League’s top half. But beginning with a 2-1 loss at Everton on Feb. 1, Villa has gone on a four-match winless run, their single point since Jan. 28 pulling them within four points of the drop.

To put that in perspective, Norwich City, a team that’s been on the fringe of the bottom three all season, carry the same number of points into the teams’ Sunday meeting. At kickoff Sunday at Villa Park, each team will have 28 points through 27 rounds.

In the cozy confines of the Premier League’s bottom half, however, that total’s only one step away from the lofty heights Villa’s just left. If there’s a winner on Sunday in Birmingham, that team will move to 31 points, likely claiming 11th place behind West Ham United. Lose, and the team could fall as far as 16th, sitting just above two teams (West Brom and Sunderland) that have games in hand.

The situation speaks to the logjam at the bottom the league – a maelstrom that allows eternal strugglers Fulham and Cardiff City to harbor hopes of survival. On Sunday, that impasse means Swansea and Crystal Palace will also have a chance to climb the table, with the league’s three games making for a mini-moving day in England’s top flight.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE VIA NBC SPORTS LIVE EXTRA

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Cardiff  City, 10:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN

  • Cardiff City’s 19 goals 19th in the Premier League
  • Spurs coming off second league loss under Tim Sherwood
  • Emmanuel Adebayor (pictured) with eight goals in 11 starts since André Villas-Boas’s dismissal

Tottenham’s resurgence under Sherwood was dealt a demoralizing blow last week at Carrow Road, their 1-0 loss to Norwich City leaving Spurs six points behind Liverpool for the league’s final Champions League spot. With the Reds winning again on Saturday, Spurs’ chances of claiming another top-four finish took another hit, increasing the pressure to take care of business against the lowly Bluebirds.

For Cardiff City, the time for a bounce from Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s appointment has passed, with the former Manchester United star yet to match  expectations the preceded his Jan. 2 appointment. Coming off a 4-0 home loss to Hull City, Cardiff is at one of its lowest points of the season, with a team carrying the league’s worst road record needing an upset to revitalize their hopes of survival.

Swansea City vs. Crystal Palace, 11:30 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Live Extra

  • Crystal Palace has a league-low 18 goals; only five on the road
  • Swansea is perfect at home (2-0-0) since Garry Monk replaced Michael Laudrup
  • Swans are coming off mid-week loss at Napoli in Europa League

Crystal Palace has proved predictably resilient under Tony Pulis, with the Eagles climbing out of the league’s cellar once the former Stoke City manager was appointed as Ian Holloway’s replacement. On paper, however, a Swansea team that’s rediscovered their attacking flare  should have a relatively straight-forward day at the Liberty Stadium. Over their last three games, Swans have scored eight times.

But mid-week Europa League action could throw a wrench in the works. On Thursday, Swansea were in Naples, where two late goals from Rafa Benítez’s Napoli saw Monk’s team out of Europa League. With only two days rest, they’re back in Premier League action, tasked with claiming points that could distance them from potential relegation troubles.

This is what people allude to when they talk about Europa League’s problems. Is it worth it for a team like Swansea, only in Europe because they won last year’s League Cup, to over-extend and potentially complicate their domestic campaigns? Monk started most of his regulars on Thursday in Italy. Will he be made to pay for that choice?

Aston Villa vs. Norwich City, 11:30 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Live Extra

  • Villa with one point in its last four games
  • Norwich with only one player (Gary Hooper) with more than three league goals
  • Ashley Westwood, Ryan Bertrand expected to return from injury for Villa

Aston Villa’s up-and-down season started with a win at Arsenal, immediately descended toward the drop, and featured a mid-season stabilization before their recent slump. Contrast that with Norwich City who, thanks in large part to Chris Hughton’s steady, risk-adverse approach, has rarely inspired yet stand on even footing Villa. Last weekend against Tottenham, the Canaries issued a reminder of capabilities – a potential that’s a particular threat to a Paul Lambert team that tends to play to the level of its competition.

That dark side often comes out at Villa Park, where the team has accumulated the league’s second-worst home record. But with the Canaries having won only twice on the road all season, Lambert may be facing a side that can help reverse a couple of disturbing trends.

The side, of course, is the team he left before arriving in Birmingham, with the animosity between the teams lingering (as evidenced with Lambert’s failed pursuit of Canarie Wes Hoolahan in January). Whether any of that ill will transcends management and manifests on the field remains to be seen. Given the teams have combined for one win in February, this game could use a spark.

Klopp hits out at Man United’s style of play

Leave a comment

Liverpool host Manchester United this Sunday (Watch live, 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) as the Premier League leaders welcome their bitter rivals to Anfield.

This will be feisty, on and off the pitch, as United hope to put a spanner in the works of Liverpool’s procession towards the 2019-20 Premier League title.

These comments from Jurgen Klopp about Man United’s counter-attacking style of play could spice things up in the dugout too.

“It’s strange when you play against a high, high quality team as United still are, and they play the way they play,” Klopp said. “It makes life really difficult. We had it with Tottenham. That’s not normal, how can you expect that? On the other side the counter attacks are of the highest level in the world.

“I don’t say they only counter attack but it’s a main thing they do. People may want to see that as criticism, it’s not, but it’s just a description of the situation that makes life for us more difficult.”

With Liverpool 14 points clear at the top of the Premier League table, now is a good time for Klopp to tell other teams how they should be playing. That is what he is doing here.

Liverpool’s style is absorbing and easy on the eye. Their high-pressing and speedy attack sees them swarm over teams and totally involve their fans and it is fun to watch. Man United this weekend, and Spurs last weekend, know they can’t match Liverpool’s well-oiled, blood and thunder machine so they sit back and counter. And that can be almost as exciting when it’s right.

Can you blame opposing teams for playing this way against Liverpool? No. But what Klopp is trying to do here is suggest that the quality of players United and Spurs possess means they should be more ambitious and on the front foot rather than playing on the counter. What a rascal.

Klopp isn’t quite stirring things up but from a position of strength he is lending his view on the tactics of other teams and what he would do if he was in charge of them.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer won’t change his plan against Liverpool. Everybody wants to play like Liverpool but Man United have a different style and that worked well to nullify Liverpool’s threat in their 1-1 draw at Old Trafford earlier this season. With Marcus Rashford a major doubt that will be tough to replicate on Sunday but as Klopp’s Liverpool go all out for the win, United will happy to sit back and counter.

Watch Live: Watford v. Tottenham

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Watford host Tottenham Hotspur at Vicarage Road on Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) as the Hornet aim to stay red hot and out of the relegation zone.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE

New manager Nigel Pearson has won four of his first six games in charge of Watford, including the last three on the trot, and they have dragged themselves out of the bottom three for the first time this season.

As for Spurs and Jose Mourinho, he’d love form like that as they continue to struggled without the injured Harry Kane and have gone three games without a win in the Premier League. Tottenham are nine points off the top four heading into this game.

In team news Watford are unchanged from the win at Bournemouth.

Spurs start Erik Lamela, Giovani Lo Celso and Heung-Min Son in support of Lucas Moura, while Japhet Tanganga starts once again. New signing Gedson Fernandes is on the bench.

LINEUPS

Pearson: ‘I was semi-retired’ before Watford came calling

Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Nigel Pearson had come to terms with the fact he would never again manage in the Premier League — or any league, perhaps — before Watford came calling out of sheer desperation last month.

[ MORE: Chelsea’s Lampard prepared to go without January signings ]

“I was semi-retired, more or less,” Pearson admitted on Friday. He had been out of work for nearly 10 months following an 18-month spell at Belgian side Leuven. That came on the heels of a disastrous five months at EFL Championship side Derby, where he compiled a win percentage of just 21.4 percent — quotes from the Guardian:

“I wouldn’t have been thinking it was possible, of course I wouldn’t. It really is a situation that’s come out of nothing. I was semi-retired, more or less.”

“I’ve been asked whether I was worried about getting a reputation as a ‘firefighter’ and it doesn’t bother me. If that’s how people want to look at it, fine. From my own perspective, coming into a situation like this, it’s just a good opportunity to work back in a league I didn’t think I’d be working in again. In terms of risk to my reputation or anything like that, I’m not bothered about those things. I wouldn’t have taken on the challenge if I didn’t think we had a realistic chance of succeeding.

“It’s just one of those situations where clearly there was a need for something different. So far it’s going OK. I’m pleased with how we’ve started to turn things around but I’m also experienced enough to know that it’s still going to be a tough job to maintain the standards we’ve set and push on again.”

Now at Watford, and back in the PL for the first time since 2015 (Leicester City), Pearson has guided the Hornets to four wins in his first seven games, including five straight without a defeat, and a 17th-place standing ahead of the weekend’s round of fixtures. When he took over, Watford sat 20th out of 20 teams with eight points from 15 games. Less than a month later, they sit a point outside the relegation zone with 22 to their name.

USWNT: Olympic qualifying roster minus five from World Cup team

Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images
Leave a comment

The United States’ roster for the upcoming CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament will look very similar to the one that won the Women’s World Cup in France, with notable exceptions.

Alex Morgan, Mallory Pugh, Allie Long, Morgan Brian and Tierna Davidson were on the title team but were left off the 20-player CONCACAF tournament roster announced Friday.

Morgan is expecting her first child with husband Servando Carrasco. Coach Vlatko Andonovski said that Davidson is still recovering from an ankle injury that sidelined her during January camp.

Pugh, a young forward who has shown promise, was one of the most surprising omissions. Andonovski said she has been invited to train with the team even though she didn’t make the roster.

“It was competitive and she did well,” Andonovski said. “But there were other players that I believe that performed better than Mal. Now, I just want to be clear that she is very good, very talented player and she performed well. She has a big future in front of her. So I’m really sure that if she keeps on developing going forward, she will be on this roster.”

The roster includes 18 players who were on the World Cup squad. Newcomers include midfielder Andi Sullivan and forward Lynn Williams.

Sullivan, a former standout at Stanford who plays for the Washington Spirit of the National Women’s Soccer League, has 13 appearances with the national team. Williams, who plays for reigning NWSL champion North Carolina, has made 21 appearances with the national team since 2016, scoring six goals.

Carli Lloyd, who will turn 38 before the Tokyo Games, is the oldest player on the roster. Lloyd scored three goals in the 2015 World Cup final against Japan, but last year in France started in just one game as she took on more of a reserve role.

Andonovski, who was named coach of the team last October after Jill Ellis stepped down, praised Lloyd’s work ethic and said that if she continues to play well, he sees “no reason for her not to be a starter.”

Andonovski said Megan Rapinoe, the Ballon d’Or winner who scored six goals in the World Cup, was also nursing minor injuries during January camp.

“In the end, the ones that I believe will give it the best chance to be successful, that will give us the best chance to win the games and qualify for the Olympics, are the ones that made the roster,” he said.

The United States opens qualifying on Jan. 28 in Houston with a match against Haiti. The top two finishers in the eight-team tournament’s two groups advance to the semifinals in Carson, California, on Feb. 7. The final is in Carson on Feb. 9.

Two berths in the Tokyo Games this summer are up for grabs. The United States has made the field for every Olympic tournament since women’s soccer was added to the Games in 1996 and has won four gold medals.

FULL USWNT ROSTER

Goalkeepers: Adrianna Franch (Portland Thorns), Ashlyn Harris (Orlando Pride), Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars).

Defenders: Abby Dahlkemper (North Carolina Courage), Crystal Dunn (North Carolina Courage), Ali Krieger (Orlando Pride), Kelley O’Hara (Utah Royals), Becky Sauerbrunn (Utah Royals), Emily Sonnett (Orlando Pride).

Midfielders: Julie Ertz (Chicago Red Stars), Lindsey Horan (Portland Thorns), Rose Lavelle (Washington Spirit), Samantha Mewis (North Carolina Courage), Andi Sullivan (Washington Spirit).

Forwards: Tobin Heath (Portland Thorns), Carli Lloyd (Sky Blue), Jessica McDonald (North Carolina Courage), Christen Press (Utah Royals), Megan Rapinoe (Reign), Lynn Williams (North Carolina Courage).