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.

Transfer news: Brooks to Liverpool; Henderson loan likely

David Brooks to Liverpool
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The latest transfer news in the Premier League sees David Brooks linked to Liverpool, while Dean Henderson could be heading out on loan from Manchester United once again.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Starting in Liverpool, a report from the Daily Star says Liverpool are the frontrunners to sign Welsh attacker David Books, 23, from recently-relegated Bournemouth.

Per the report, Everton, Tottenham and West Ham all want to sign Brooks but Bournemouth’s price tag of $45.7 million is putting clubs off.

David Brooks is certainly a Klopp-like signing. Look at Georginio Wijnaldum, Andrew Robertson and Harvey Elliott. Liverpool’s recruitment team loves to scour the recently-relegated sides for a bargain and Brooks would fall into that category but from his playing style he would also be a very good fit.

His 2019-20 season was impacted by a huge ankle injury but his return after the restart did improve Bournemouth and had the Welsh international been fit all season, they’d probably still be in the top-flight.

Where would he slot in at Liverpool? The Reds do need a tricky, more attack-minded attacking midfield player and although Brooks primarily plays out wide, he can slot inside and would be a good alternative to Naby Keita, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Wijnaldum. Brooks could also play out wide if Salah and Mane need a rest, and is probably a better option than fringe players Xherdan Shaqiri and Takumi Minamino.

It remains to be seen if Klopp and Liverpool will splash this kind of cash, as they are said to be keen on trimming their squad and adding conservatively. That said, David Brooks would probably be worth over $70 million before his injury and Bournemouth’s relegation, and he is young and hungry and has bags of pace as well as being a direct runner with the ball at his feet. Liverpool may decide that this is the right player at the right price at the right time.

Dean Henderson Manchester United
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Moving from Liverpool to Manchester, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has a dilemma with his goalkeepers.

David de Gea is no doubt his number one but with Sergio Romero as his back-up option and youngster Dean Henderson desperate to stake his claim as a regular at Man United, something has to give.

The London Evening Standard believes that means Henderson, 23, will head back out on loan for the 2020-21 season. Henderson shone on loan at Sheffield United over the last two seasons but with the Blades looking to sign Bournemouth goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale on a permanent deal, maybe Henderson could be heading elsewhere this summer.

Henderson has been linked with Chelsea, but Man United would be unwilling to strengthen a direct rival, so a move back to the Blades seems likely. However, an extra spanner in the works is that Romero could move on as he now wants to play regularly, so Henderson would be De Gea’s back-up for the 2020-21 season.

Asked about his goalkeeper situation, here’s what Solskjaer had to say.

“I think I must be the most privileged manager in the world with the goalkeeping department, with Sergio, David and we’ve got Dean Henderson coming back. Three top, top ‘keepers,” Solskjaer said. “This season has shown how important Sergio has been for us and for me David always, always performing. We will see what we do for the rest of the season and going forward. It’s difficult, but it’s a nice problem to have. We have Dean, Sergio, David in the ranks. Lee (Grant), the fantastic pro that he is, is backing them up. It will be difficult to keep three of them at the club, so we will see what the decision will be there.”

It would be tough for Henderson to go from playing regularly to sitting on the bench but is the next step in his development playing 10-15 games per season in the FA Cup and League Cup? He may get the odd start Champions League and Premier League game when De Gea needs a rest, but that’s it.

Henderson needs to play regularly and many would argue he should go head-to-head with De Gea for the starting spot at Man United and back himself. If De Gea makes a few mistakes early on in 2020-21 and Henderson is waiting around on the bench, he could get the chance he wants to usurp the Spanish star.

Champions League, Europa League: How to watch, odds, start time, predictions

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The UEFA Champions League and Europa League action has resumed and I’m going to reveal my predictions for this next round as well as the latest odds for Europe’s top two continental tournaments.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores

With Manchester City still in the Champions League and Manchester United and Wolves among the favorites to win the Europa League, there is a lot on the line for Premier League clubs in the coming weeks.

Just because the Premier League season is over, that doesn’t mean the action is over. Far from it. Both Manchester clubs are the bookmakers favorites to seal their respective European glory.

[ LIVE: Europa League scores ]

In the next few days the Europa League and Champions League quarterfinals will take place as the mini tournaments begin.

Man City beat Real Madrid 4-2 on aggregate, while Chelsea lost Bayern 7-1 on aggregate as they crashed out of the Champions League. Man United and Wolves are both in the quarterfinals and favored to go far.

Lisbon, Portugal will host the Champions League games from the quarterfinal stage onwards, while the Europa League games will be hosted around Germany.

Below is a look at my predictions, the odds for the games this week and how to watch and follow all of the fixtures in the USA.


How to watch, stream Champions League and Europa League

Dates: August 5-23
Location: Quarterfinals onwards in Lisbon/Germany
How to watch: CBS Sports
Live updates: UCL here at NBCSports.com & Europa League here at NBCSports.com


JPW’s Champions League predictions

Quarterfinals (August 12-15)
Wednesday, August 12: Atalanta 2-3 PSG
Thursday, August 13: RB Leipzig 1-2 Atletico Madrid
Friday, August 14: Barcelona 1-3 Bayern Munich
Saturday, August 15: Manchester City 3-1 Lyon


JPW’s Europa League predictions

Quarterfinals (August 10-11)
Monday, August 10: Inter Milan 2-1 Bayer Leverkusen
Monday, August 10: Manchester United 3-1 Copenhagen
Tuesday, August 11: Wolves 1-2 Sevilla
Tuesday, August 11: Shakhtar Donetsk 1-2 Basel


Champions League betting odds

Quarterfinals (August 12-15)

(+210) Atalanta v. PSG (+117). Tie: +275
(+225) RB Leipzig v. Atletico Madrid (+135). Tie: +220
(+235) Barcelona v. Bayern Munich (+115). Tie: +255
(-305) Manchester City v. Lyon (+750). Tie: +450

Outright winner
Manchester City (+220)
Bayern Munich (+325)
Paris Saint-Germain (+500)
Atletico Madrid (+800)
Barcelona (+800)
Atalanta (+1000)
RB Leipzig (+1700)
Lyon (+3500)


Europa League betting odds

Quarterfinals (August 10-11)
(+112) Inter Milan v. Bayer Leverkusen (+240). Tie: +250
(-385) Manchester United v. Copenhagen (+1000). Tie: +480
(+235) Wolves v. Sevilla (+120). Tie: +230
(-106) Shakhtar Donetsk v. Basel (+290). Tie: +255

Outright winner
Manchester United (+180)
Inter Milan (+325)
Sevilla (+500)
Bayer Leverkusen (+650)
Wolves (+700)
Shakhtar Donetsk (+1100)
Basel (+2500)
Copenhagen (+6000)

Jadon Sancho to Man United off? Dortmund say he will not leave

Jadon Sancho to Manchester United
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Jadon Sancho to Manchester United may not happen after all, as Borussia Dortmund are holding firm over the talented winger.

[ MORE: UCL, Europa predictions ]

According to numerous reports Dortmund still want $140 million for Sancho, 20, but were said to be willing to accept a smaller initial payment and larger instalments for the England international and wanted a deal done before Aug. 10 when they ramp up preseason.

Aug. 10 is today and Sporting Director Michael Zorc has spoken as the team flew to Switzerland for preseason training and Sancho was with them.

“We plan on having Jadon Sancho in our team this season, the decision is final. I think that answers all our questions,” Zorc said. “Last summer we adjusted Jadon’s salary to match the development of his performances. So in context, we had already extended his contract until 2023 back then.” 

Reports had stated that Sancho had all but agreed personal terms on a five-year contract at Man United and was just waiting on the two clubs to agree a transfer fee. But Dortmund and Man United have both distanced themselves from that in recent days as the German giants have not received any bids for Sancho from Man United.

We have now reached an impasse.

Now what?

The England international is wanted by so many top clubs around Europe but Jadon Sancho to Manchester United seemed like the best fit.

Now it may not happen at all and Man United can play hardball here. They don’t really need Sancho. He would be a luxury signing.

Sancho will be a menace out wide with Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood as United’s other forward options and Paul Pogba and the brilliant Bruno Fernandes creating just behind them. But he would be an extra sprinkle of stardust to an already star-studded attack rather than the cherry on top.

The summer transfer window closes on Oct. 5 and few will bet against Sancho leaving Dortmund between now and then. He hasn’t put in a transfer request, and it seems it’s unlikely he will do that, but that would swing the pendulum in United’s favor.

Manchester United are going to wait for their man and Dortmund know it. We haven’t heard the last of this, even if Dortmund say the decision is final.

Sancho is the top target for Solskjaer and in a summer where plenty of clubs won’t be spending big, Man United have the ability to do so. The Red Devils know that Sancho may become unsettled and Dortmund are then a position where they should sell, or risk his value dropping further.

This is a waiting game and even though Dortmund have called the shots early on, Man United aren’t showing their hand and are going to wait until the right moment to make their move.

Manchester United – Copenhagen: How to watch, start time, prediction

Manchester United - Copenhagen
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Manchester United – Copenhagen preview: Copenhagen boss Stale Solbakken isn’t disguising his happiness that a bid to oust tournament favorites Manchester United from the Europa League will be contested over just one leg thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.

[ MORE: JPW’s European predictions ]

“It is a great advantage for us that it is decided over one match on neutral ground and without spectators, than if we had to meet them both home and away,” he said on the club’s official site.

The entire tie will be staged at 3 pm ET Monday at Old Trafford.


Know the opponent: Copenhagen

The Danish Superliga runners-up stumbled down the stretch to finish four points ahead of third but well behind title-winning Midtjylland. Ousted from the Champions League by Red Star Belgrade in penalty kicks, defending has been an issue.

Players of a 4-4-2 for many of their recent outings, Copenhagen has won their last two in a 4-2-3-1. You may see ex-Manchester United prospect Guillermo Varela and former Sunderland and Everton player Bryan Oviedo.

Here are the highlights of the Round of 16 defeat of Istanbul Basekshir. Jonas Wind led the way in the 3-0 triumph at home, overcoming the 1-0 first leg loss in Turkey.


How they got here

Copenhagen had nearly five months to lament their 1-0 first leg deficit to Istanbul Basaksehir, then unloading on the Turkish powers via a 3-0 second leg in Denmark.

Copenhagen began their UEL run all the way back in the champions’ route of the playoff round, beating Latvia’s Riga before finishing second to Malmo in Group B. It then beat Celtic to get to the Round of 16 tie with Basaksehir.

United went 4-1-1 in the group stage, a loss to Astana on the penultimate match day no big deal thanks to a home pounding on AZ Alkmaar on the final day to win Group I.

The Red Devils pounded Club Brugge and LASK Linz over two legs to seal a space in the quarterfinals and are significant favorites to win the UEL. Their +180 odds through DraftKings are ahead of Inter Milan (+325) and Sevilla (+500).


What they’re saying

Man Utd’s Sergio Romero on the nature of his club: “As a group of players, if we have a team-mate who is struggling a bit on the day, all the lads have to give him a lift, so he can compete in the game in the best possible way. For sure, every bit of work and effort every day in training, as well as all our dreams are focused on getting United back to another Europa League final. So, we’re going to work hard for that to happen.”

Copenhagen boss Solbakken: “We have to meet the best Premier League team since the coronavirus break, and have, among other things, seen how they beat LASK 5-0 with a B-team, so no matter who they field, we naturally have great respect. … They have a lot of quick players, they play fast and they’ve been good on the counter since Bruno Fernandes came, and they also combine very fast around the field. So there is a lot you can get nervous about, but we have to stick to our own plan and see how far it can take us.”


Odds

The one-legged nature of this round changes the nature of the competition, as class will generally win out over 180 minutes. Ninety (plus) brings a bigger chance of an upset, with Manchester United at -385 and Copenhagen still the biggest underdog of the round at +1000.


Prediction

The match won’t be without scares, but even an empty Old Trafford bears its advantages. United emerges with a 3-1 win.


How to watch, stream Champions League and Europa League

Dates: August 5-23
Location: Quarterfinals onwards in Lisbon/Germany
How to watch: CBS Sports
Live updates: UCL here at NBCSports.com & Europa League here at NBCSports.com