Premier League Playback: Liverpool’s title charge for real? Chelsea implode, resilient Manchester City

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LIVERPOOL TITLE FAVORITES?

Since the Premier League began in 1992, Liverpool have never lifted the glistening silver trophy. This year is their best chance of doing that. A stunning 3-0 win Sunday at Manchester United sent Liverpool into second. They now sit four points behind leaders Chelsea with one game in hand.

With nine games to finish the season, talk of winning the title has finally left the lips of Liverpool’s leading man.

“We’ve showed that we are genuine contenders and we are going to fight to the end for this,” said Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard, after his two penalty kicks helped the Reds win the Northwest derby. “We believe that we can win the league.”

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Click to enlarge: Gerrard’s heat map vs. Manchester United. Source: Opta

Honest or misguided … call it what you will, but hearing Gerrard state Liverpool’s intent win the PL crown is as refreshing as it is likely.

The England national team captain, 33,  knows other teams are flagging to get over the finish line, while his side are cruising. One of the things that’s impressed me so much about Liverpool is the relentless high-pressure approach imposed by manager Brendan Rodgers. United couldn’t deal with the visitors’ hunger to win the ball, as a midfield trio of Jordan Henderson, Joe Allen and Gerrard provided, once again, a steady and inspiring base.

(MORE: Latest Premier League standings)

If you look at Gerrard’s heat map on the left, Liverpool’s captain plugged the gaps vs. Man United superbly, as well a netting two penalties, which allows the other midfielders to pour forward and hold higher lines up the pitch to dispossess the opposition.

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Click to enlarge: Average position of Liverpool’s players vs. Man United. Source: Opta

One player whose excelled at that is Henderson. The England international is channeling his sublime guile and determination in a hugely constructive way. Allen started alongside those two, with the tiny Welshman knitting everything together superbly well, as intricate passing brought a calming influence to proceedings and helped the Reds win the midfield.

The shape of Liverpool’s midfield is also interesting, if you look at the average position map on the right (handed to me by our good friends at Opta) you can see Gerrard’s deep-lying lynchpin role allowing full backs Johnson (2) and Jon Flanagan (38) to push on and almost play like wing backs. With Henderson and Allen tucked inside, the channels are covered and stop teams from pumping one ball into the corner to get in behind the Reds.

The passing matrix on the left, which totals how many times each players passes to each other, shows plenty of passes between both full backs and the midfield trio, with Henderson exchanging passes with Glen Johnson 14 times and Gerrard picking the ball up from the center backs 12 times. That ease of taking the ball from defenders and dictating the flow of the game has served Liverpool well, and with Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez ready to pounce and finish whenever they get a sniff of goal.

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Click to enlarge: Liverpool’s pass matrix vs. Man United. Source: Opta

Liverpool, as Stevie G said, are real title contenders. So get used to the idea of seeing the PL crown draped in red ribbons at the end of this season. Chelsea and Manchester City visit Anfield in April, with the Reds remaining fixtures looking extremely manageable aside from those two monster clashes.

Their remaining games are against: Cardiff (away), Sunderland (home), Tottenham (home), West Ham (away), Man City (home), Norwich (away), Chelsea (home), Crystal Palace (away), Newcastle (home).

Could the title be on show at Anfield on May 11 when Liverpool host Newcastle? Now, more than at any point this season, that seems like a distinct possibility.

Premier League Schedule – Week 30

Result Recap & Highlights
Aston Villa 1-0 Chelsea Recap and watch here
Everton 2-1 Cardiff City Recap and watch here
Fulham 1-0 Newcastle Recap and watch here
Hull City 0-2 Man City Recap and watch here
Man United 0-3 Liverpool Recap and watch here
Southampton 4-2 Norwich Recap and watch here
Stoke City 3-1 West Ham Recap and watch here
Sunderland 0-0 Crystal Palace Recap and watch here
Swansea 1-2 West Brom Recap and watch here
Tottenham 0-1 Arsenal Recap and watch here

CHELSEA LOSE THE PLOT

In stoppage time Saturday at a fired up Villa Park, Chelsea were two-men down, one goal down and then lost manager Jose Mourinho, who was sent to the stands. They also lost for the first time in 15 games.

During Villa’s 1-0 win, Fabian Delph’s superb late goal (“I just Cruyff-ed it into the corner”) compounded with Willian’s sending off to ensure Chelsea’s frustration boiled over as Ramires stomped on Karim El Ahmadi. In the melee that ensued right in front of the benches, Mourinho and Villa manager Paul Lambert were both on the pitch as well as their backroom staff. Mourinho, of course, stayed on the pitch for a little longer than everyone else and after asking referee Chris Foy a question (according to Mou) he was sent off.

(MORE: Mourinho hints that Chris Foy should not be allowed to ref future Chelsea matches)

Chelsea’s implosion came after another display which saw them fail to carve out many clear cut chances, as Fernando Torres cut a forlorn figure as a lone forward. After the final whistle, Mourinho failed to open his mouth in fear of being banned for his comments, but the Portuguese boss was clearly upset with the way his side were treated. The pivotal moment came when Willian was sent off for a pretty ridiculous second yellow card. The Brazilian winger chased Delph back in 68th minute and hardly touched Villa’s midfielder. Yet Willian was shown another yellow amid jeers of the 40,000 plus home fans. To compound Mourinho’s misery, he was just about to substitute Willian one minute earlier but decided to take off Oscar instead. Luck was against Chelsea on Saturday.

So, after going down to 10-men Chelsea couldn’t handle the heat and promptly shot themselves in the foot several times, as their charge for the PL crown took a hit. For so long they’ve seemed to thrive on the pressure this season and come through it, but at a sold out Villa Park on Saturday evening they failed to assert their dominance. Another title contender fared far better after having a man sent off, though. Step forward, Manchester City.

MAN CITY’S SPIRIT, SPITTING, STUD MARKS

At the end of a week which saw them crash out of the FA Cup to lower-league opposition and then dumped out of the UEFA Champions League by Barcelona, the last thing Man City needed was to go down to 10-men away at Hull City on Saturday. But it happened, very early.

However the way the Citizens reacted to losing captain Vincent Kompany after just nine minutes of their 2-0 win over Hull City was quite remarkable. David Silva bent in an unstoppable shot into the top corner four minutes later to put City 1-0 up, then Manuel Pellegrini’s men regrouped marvelously well and defended superbly against a stubborn Hull side who whipped countless crosses into the box, but marshaled by a determined Martin Demichelis they kept a high line to keep Hull at bay. A late clincher from Edin Dzeko sealed the win, which means if City win their games in hand, they will go above Chelsea and sit top of the standings.

I was at KC Stadium to witness City’s superb resilience, 0rchestrated by the incredibly calm Silva, as they kept the ball for long periods and at times looked like they were playing against 10-men rather than the other way around. After a fiery Yorkshire-Lancashire clash, a rivalry which runs much deeper than these two teams, there are plenty of things to clean up.

First, Kompany may be facing a longer ban after his sending off. City’s Belgian skipper seemed to make an obscene gesture then kicked the brick wall in the tunnel leading from the pitch. After leaving his stud marks behind (proof below from the BBC team in the tunnel) and dishing out insulting gestures, Kompany could be facing an FA ban to go on top of his one-game suspension for taking down Nikica Jelavic as the last man. If he’s disciplined for making the gesture, Kompany could miss City’s derby with Manchester United on March 25.

Other City players were involved in the thick of things after he’d departed, with goalkeeper Joe Hart squaring up to Hull attacker George Boyd after the Tigers man appeared to dive in the second half. What happened next wasn’t originally caught by TV cameras at the KC, but from a different angle you can clearly see Boyd spit at Hart during a heated confrontation. For that, he should get a ban and a fine from the FA. It wasn’t a penalty kick as Boyd went over and was looking for contact, which is bad enough, but there’s no place for that kind of behavior in the game. At all. That clash personified a niggly affair which threatened to boil over throughout.

(MORE: Pellegrini questions Kompany’s red card, praises Manchester City’s resilience)

Afterwards both managers were asked about the incident, to which Manuel Pellegrini stated he felt Kompany was fouled by Jelavic and referee Lee Mason missed it. Then Hull manager Steve Bruce defended Boyd for his dive when nudging the ball past Hart, and brought up an interesting point to the gaggle of journos piled into the cramped press room at the KC stadium.

“Let me tell you, there’s a difference between simulation, diving, cheating if you like, and trying to get out the road,” Bruce said. “Boydy is not going to stand there with Joe Hart hurtling towards him. He is going to try and get out the road, and stay on his feet. Obviously he has gone over, how many times have we seen it. But the referee was on the spot, and I think he made the right decision [to not give a penalty].”

TOP FIVE GOALS: HAVE WE HAD A BETTER WEEK THIS SEASON?

We are into the 30th matchday of the PL campaign, and I can’t remember seeing a stronger top five goals video than the one compiled below. From Silva’s stunning long-range bender to Delph’s deft-flick and Tomas Rosicky’s howitzer, we had a plethora of top strikes to choose from as our favorite from the weekend. Sit back, get some popcorn and watch “reem” goals fly in from all angles.

Your favorite? Let me know in the comments below. Mine? I love Silva’s strike. The way he shifted the ball onto his left and bent and unstoppable drive into the top corner was sublime, especially given the importance of the moment as City had just gone down to 10-men and needed a boost after a tricky stretch. But whichever goal you pick from the five below, you can’t go wrong.

FINALLY, PERFECT EXAMPLE WHY GOAL-LINE TECH IS NEEDED

In the grand scheme of a hectic PL season, these kind of calls matter. No wonder millions of dollars was spent on bringing goal-line technology in, but until now it hasn’t had too many close decisions to call. Scratch that, on Saturday Fulham were a fine horse hair away from taking the lead against Newcastle.

In the past, it all went down to the judgement of the match officials to determine whether or not a ball went over the line. With the Goal Decision System (GDS) in place for the 2013-14 season, now technology makes it easier for the officials. When Johnny Heitinga smashed an effort off the underside of the crossbar, it looked like the ball was clearly over the line. But to the amazement of everyone, the entire ball didn’t go over.

Look at the image below from GDS, and you’ll see that a smidgen of the ball is on the line which proves just how precise and incredible this technology is. No goal. Fulham, who in the end beat Newcastle United fair and square 1-0, are scrapping for survival and although in the past a goal like that may have been awarded without GDS to their advantage, they can rest easy knowing no incorrect goals will be given to opponents or relegation rivals down the stretch.

The old saying that close calls “even themselves out over the course of the season” no longer applies. GDS is here to make sure everyone gets a fair crack of the whip. To see close calls, red cars, stunning goals and controversy, an enthralling weekend of PL action is below.

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

La Liga head takes on FIFA over expanding Club World Cup

La Liga president critical of FIFA
MICHAEL BUHOLZER/AFP via Getty Images
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LONDON (AP) FIFA’s determination to have a bigger role in club football worldwide is troubling the head of the Spanish league.

Javier Tebas, president of La Liga, fears FIFA expanding the Club World Cup and providing a fresh windfall for a group of elite clubs will exacerbate financial disparities between teams and harm football.

The FIFA men’s club competition is due to swell from an annual competition with seven entrants to an event featuring a 24-team group stage from 2021.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

“The major risk would be the Club World Cup,” Tebas said through a translator in London. “They want to have it every two years. I don’t know how far they wish to go.”

FIFA President Gianni Infantino is considering offers from companies willing to provide financing for the competition, which is due to have a new name for its pilot edition. Tebas believes it could pose a greater challenge to European football than attempts by clubs to break away to form any Super League.

“FIFA … stopped being regulators and organizers for national teams and start to organize other kinds of tournaments which compete directly with the national leagues and this is something that concerns me because we had a balance, an ecosystem between the different leagues in Europe and different continents,” Tebas said.

“In Europe we have the Champions League and now we have an intruder who might disrupt that balance. There was already a threat of that in Europe, even though I think the risk of that has dropped significantly with the Champions League, but I think this could have an impact on the value of international competitions.”

Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez has formed the World Football Club Association, which has been formulating plans for new competitions of its own. Those proposals only emerged in reports after Pérez met with FIFA President Gianni Infantino in November.

Eight European teams are due to feature in the new Club World Cup, including Real Madrid due to its 2018 Champions League victory.

“The idea of creating new super World Cups for super clubs could be very damaging for Real Madrid and for major clubs,” Tebas said. “It’s something he’s not taking into account and I don’t really see a future for these competitions. I don’t think there’s a real passion for these kind of events. I think when people discuss this they realize it’s damaging for them.

“I always ask why we should change a system of strong international competitions… if it’s not broken, why try to fix it?”

But Infantino is determined to elevate the status of FIFA’s club competition and provide significant income to the finalists.

“We’ve seen how the Premier League has grown significantly over the last few years,” Tebas pointed out. “La Liga has also grown significantly and why would we want to change that? Why would we want to put that at risk with these sort of ideas? It’s like building castles in the sky.”

While concerned about Infantino’s plans, Tebas is supportive of UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin who has clashed regularly with his FIFA counterpart.

“If Ceferin defends European football as I have seen with national league and championships in balance, which is the current trend, I welcome this clash, this confrontation,” Tebas said. “An organisation like FIFA is supposed to be a regulatory body. They draft the different calendars and when we need to play. Sadly, from organising World Cups, they are talking about Club World Cups and having that every two years.

“That is not an option because it would change the status quo. This can’t happen. This sort of confrontation will never harm us if it goes along the path Ceferin is trying to defend.”

Tebas has been a regular critic of governments using their wealth to finance clubs, particularly Qatar at Paris Saint-Germain and Abu Dhabi at Manchester City. Both teams have been punished by UEFA for breaching spending rules and City is subject to a fresh investigation that could lead to a Champions League ban.

“One of the major issues in European football is related to (financial) doping,” Tebas said. “Because when we have clubs being financed by states then that has an impact on salaries and that means in other countries with more strict economic controls like Spain and Germany clubs cannot actually ask the state for extra financing to pay those salaries.

“This causes inflation and people think about creating other competitions because Florentino Perez and other clubs are always saying we need more money to maintain our players.”

That isn’t necessary, according to Tebas.

“I don’t think we are helping football in any way if we generate wealth and it just goes straight back to the big clubs,” Tebas said. “But that’s what’s happening, the major clubs share out the large part of the income among their players.

“In the end instead of having 12 Ferraris, they have 15. Instead of having 10 Lamborghinis they have 12. We’re dealing with major clubs generating a huge amount of money. So our aim is to redistribute that wealth. It’s not a case of creating new competitions because anything there would only benefit large clubs and channel wealth to the major car manufacturers.”

One of Tebas’ frustrations closer to home is the Spanish football federation thwarting his bid to take La Liga games overseas. But the federation has just staged its reformatted Super Cup in Saudi Arabia despite criticism of the kingdom’s human rights violations and its role in the murder of The Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul in 2018.

Saudi Arabia has also been linked to the pirating of sports broadcasts from Qatar-owned beIN Sports to undermine its neighbor as part of a wider regional diplomatic dispute.

“The Saudi Arabian government has a policy whereby they improve the image of the government through sport – whitewashing their image,” Tebas said. “We should not forget what happened in the Turkish embassy.

“We should not forget these things. This happened in an embassy, not a pub and this is very serious, at least in my opinion. Money is not the only thing that matters.”

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

Follow AP’s global sports correspondant Rob Harris on Twitter.

USMNT left back Robinson a surprise target for AC Milan?

AC Milans wants USMNT back Robinson
Photo by Lewis Storey/Getty Images
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AC Milan has identified an American as a potential answer to its left back depth issues.

Hampered by Financial Fair Play concerns, the Rossoneri could be offloading Ricardo Rodriguez to Fenerbahce and chasing a replacement.

The future No. 2 to left-sided wizard Theo Hernandez? It could be Antonee Robinson.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

The England-born USMNT back is in his second season with Wigan Athletic, making a permament move from Everton this summer after a loan move in 2018/19.

From CalcioMercato.com:

“The boy is American, he has already given his go-ahead to AC Milan but at the moment he has been put on stand-by… The executives like him and it’s a bet with good potential at low cost. For now, he has to wait.”

It’s a risky move; If Milan doesn’t qualify for Europa League or Champions League, minutes behind one of the most highly-regarded left backs in the world would be scarce. The 22-year-old Hernandez has six goals and two assists in 17 appearances since arriving from Real Madrid (He’s real good).

Then again, if they don’t qualify, Hernandez might want out of Milan.

Robinson, 22, has seven senior caps for the USMNT and is a major hope to solve a problematic position for Gregg Berhalter’s program.

Only one of those caps came under Berhalter, who otherwise hasn’t called up the Olympic-eligible left back in favor of Daniel Lovitz and Tim Ream.

Robinson has also played a little left mid for the Latics this season, scoring a goal in 28 Championship matches.

Premier League Storylines: Matchweek 24

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There’s no time to languish in weekend losses, revel in big wins, or — like half the Premier League’s teams — scratch their heads about draws.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

A delightful midweek match week arrives Tuesday before the weekend’s FA Cup fourth round scraps, and we’re quite pleased to reap the rewards.


Can Arteta get a statement win at Stamford Bridge? [ STREAM ]

  • Chelsea v. Arsenal, Tuesday (Watch live, 3:15 p.m. ET on NBCSN)

Arsenal’s Mikel Arteta was denied a statement win when these sides met on Dec. 29, a 1-0 lead turned into three dropped points due to some tactical nous from Frank Lampard. Arteta is not mincing words about the import of the return affair at Stamford Bridge, calling it a “must win” against the uneven Blues.

Invincible Watch [ STREAM ]

  • Wolves v. Liverpool, Thursday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN)

Our unscientific ranking says this is the fourth-toughest test of the 16 remaining in Liverpool’s quest for Premier League immortality as an unbeaten team. Wolves played Liverpool to the bone at Anfield, falling on a Sadio Mane 42nd minute goal.

Red Devils rebound on tap [ STREAM ]

  • Manchester United v. Burnley, Wednesday (Watch live, 3:15 p.m. ET on NBCSN)

Whatever Ole Gunnar Solskjaer thinks, Manchester United’s 2-0 loss to Liverpool was not encouraging. The Red Devils also learned that Marcus Rashford is out 2-3 months, not weeks, and Burnley’s woeful defense will be feeling a lot better about this fixture than it did last week. So, of course, we should expect Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood to have a field day, right?

Can Eagles, Saints push for Europa? [ STREAM ]

  • Crystal Palace v. Southampton, Tuesday (Watch live, 2:30 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Gold)

Palace has had an uneven season with plenty of injuries, but held off Man City to grab another point at the weekend. That’s ninth place and 30 points, two more than surging Southampton, and Sheffield United’s 33 points provide the seventh place standard. Three points here sure would be nice for either. (Big announcer voice) But only one can take all of them.

Another Brucie Bonus at Goodison Park? [ STREAM ]

  • Everton v. Newcastle United, Tuesday (Watch live, 2:30 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Gold)

When these two matched up on Dec. 28, there were 42 shots but only one goal. If this one is nearly as entertaining, get your proverbial and actual popcorn ready. Steve Bruce‘s Magpies have made a habit of surprising this season, and it’s not like they used up attacking legs while defending deep versus Chelsea.

Sixteen matches toward immortality: Ranking Liverpool’s remaining tests

Liverpool chasing unbeaten Premier League season
(Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Sixteen matches toward immortality.

Liverpool is now unbeaten in 22 league matches, and no claims of LiVARpool or xG luck can take much away from that.

The Reds have been dominant, their relentless players focused on the right things and showing insane stamina in making PL opposition miserable.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

Let’s also note that the Reds are likely to be one of the greatest title winners even if they lose a couple matches. Arsenal drew 12 matches during its Invincibles season, so there’s a part of this that feels more about outdoing Man City’s 2017/18.

That’s a conversation for another day, though; Today’s talk is about weighing the challenges associated with the 16 obstacles on the road to an unbeaten league season.

Now these could change a bit as fixtures are rearranged for FA Cup purposes, but this list feels pretty good given the current state of play.

Unranked — Crystal Palace at home (March 21) and Brighton away (April 18) — Both of these dates are very easy on the eyes, but will be moved if Liverpool is alive in the FA Cup.

Currently scheduled for March 21, days before an international break, you’d peg the Palace fixture as a win. If Liverpool or Palace are in the FA Cup, however, and this match is moved elsewhere on the calendar, it becomes more of a challenge.

Same is true for the Brighton away date, which may fall between the UCL quarterfinal second leg and an FA Cup semifinal. Liverpool may be in both competitions.

14. West Ham at home, Feb. 24 — A full six days after the UCL first leg in Madrid, the Reds will be rested enough.

13. Newcastle away, May 17 — If the Reds get to Decision Day needing a draw or better against the Magpies, bring champagne.

12. West Ham away, Jan. 29 — A bit odd because of the rescheduling from the Club World Cup placing this days before a visit from Saints to give the Reds four matches in 12 days.

11. Southampton at home, Feb. 1 — The fourth of those four matches in 12 days.

10. Norwich City away, Feb. 15 — We know Liverpool takes matches one at a time and this one comes on two weeks rest, but there’s always the chance the Reds are a bit ‘off’ with a trip to Atletico Madrid up next.

9. Watford away, Feb. 29 — Leap year vibes. Nigel Pearson‘s men are playing better, but this still feels too much to ask of the Hornets.

8. Burnley at home, April 25 — Like the Brighton match above, this one could be really tough and sandwiched between an FA Cup and Champions League match day….

7. Aston Villa at home, April 11 — If Liverpool gets past Atleti, it will face the Villans between UCL quarterfinal match days.

6. Bournemouth at home, March 7 — Days after the FA Cup fifth round date, the currently-struggling Cherries will hope Liverpool doesn’t have Atleti put away and concerns about the March 11 visit from Diego Simeone’s men for the UCL Round of 16 second leg.

5. Chelsea at home, May 9 — The season’s penultimate fixture comes against a team which challenged the Reds properly at Stamford Bridge. It could also be days after the UCL semifinal second leg.

(Photo by Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

4. Wolves away, Thursday — Wolves have an extra day’s rest and no FA Cup worries this weekend (though it can be argued neither does Liverpool, with a less-than-meaningful trip to Shrewsbury Town). This is a tough one.

3. Everton away, March 14 — Sandwiched between the UCL second leg v. Atletico Madrid and a possible FA Cup quarterfinal, a derby is a derby and Carlo Ancelotti‘s the top Everton tactician in some time. Jurgen Klopp won’t be goofing around with backups this time, will he?

2. Arsenal away, May 2 — You laugh now, but if the season makes it to Match No. 36, the Gunners will be one of the last three with a chance to defend their status as the last unbeaten team in PL history.

It would be a very live Emirates, and possibly come between the Champions League semifinal legs (We’re also assuming Mikel Arteta continues his steadyinf of the Gunners defense).

1. Man City away, April 4 — Taking place 3-4 days before the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals and on the heels of an international break, it’s the lone date on the calendar that Liverpool won’t be heavy favorites to win.