Premier League Playback: Why Manchester City are throwing away the title

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PELLEGRINI’S PERSISTENCE WITH 4-4-2 ALL BUT ENDS TITLE CHARGE

Manchester City’s players stood on the pitch at the final whistle at Anfield on Sunday scratching their heads and looking to the heavens.

They had just lost 2-1 to Liverpool, as they look likely to slip eight-points behind Chelsea in the title race with  just 11 games to go. Sergio Aguero and Co. will probably be asking themselves the same questions many of us will be trying to answer on Monday: how can a team dripping with wonderfully talented players continue to stutter through games?

[ RELATED: Pellegrini gets tactics wrong vs. Barca ]

One explanation, and perhaps the most critical one, is that Manuel Pellegrini’s insistence to go with a 4-4-2 formation and leave his team short in midfield areas is causing so many issues. Against Barcelona last Tuesday, I watched on in amazement as Pellegrini went with two up front against one of the best possession based sides in world soccer and gave them an extra man in the middle to dictate the tempo of the game. Pellegrini then did the same against Liverpool on Sunday, another team who love to keep the ball and have defenders like Emre Can stepping into midfield to create overloaded situations. Playmakers Phillipe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling were dragging City’s center backs Vincent Kompany (who again looked shaky) and Eliaquim Mangala all over the place as they didn’t have the numbers in midfield to quell Liverpool’s rapid attacks.

In the first half City coped with their numerical disadvantage in the middle relatively well, as Yaya Toure marauded forward and Fernandinho fought fires in front of City’s back four. But Fernandinho got tired and with Toure not pulling his weight defensively, along with Samir Nasri and David Silva in the second half, Liverpool pressed, pushed and harassed City (look at those numbers from Opta, above) until a moment of genius from Coutinho arrived to seal the win. Pellegrini argued after the match that two “beautiful goals” were the difference, yet his side recorded just one shot on goal (Edin Dzeko’s first half goal) which was there lowest total in any game so far this season. Liverpool’s strikes from Jordan Henderson and Coutinho were sublime, there’s no two ways about it. But the way Pellegrini is setting up his team against big sides who are able to keep the ball and punish slack play is bordering on naivety.

[ RELATED: Watch full match replays ]

Playing two up front against teams like Newcastle, who City beat 5-0 last weekend, will often work. But against the top teams in the Premier League it does not work with the players they are using in the system. Nasri, Silva and Toure are all great going forward but won’t provide balance, defensively. Just look at City’s record against the top five this season. 1-1 draws home and away against Chelsea. A 2-0 defeat at home to Arsenal and a 2-2 draw away, beating 10-man Manchester United 1-0 at home and now splitting victories with Liverpool. A 4-3-3 formation with Silva given a free role in-behind Aguero is their best formation, and having one of James Milner or Jesus Navas on the wing means they will get at least one attacker willing to work back and help out defensively.

[ RELATED: Latest Premier League standings ]

When all is said and done at the end of the season, City’s fans, players and Pellegrini may have a horrible feeling of ‘what might have been.’ Chelsea have hardly been in sensational form of late, but City have failed to take advantage of that due to their own tactical naivety. Whether or not they have progressed since winning the title last season remains to be seen, but Pellegrini’s persistence to play two up front means he is piling unnecessary pressure on himself as Sheikh Mansour and the directors at City will have a big decision to make this summer as to who will be their manager next season.

Premier League Schedule – Week 27

Result Recap & Highlights
Arsenal 2-0 Everton Recap and watch here
Burnley 0-1 Swansea Recap and watch here
Liverpool 2-1 Man City Recap and watch here
Man United 2-0 Sunderland Recap and watch here
Newcastle 1-0 Aston Villa Recap and watch here
Stoke 1-0 Hull City Recap and watch here
West Brom 1-0 Saints Recap and watch here
West Ham 1-3 Crystal Palace Recap and watch here

CHELSEA CLINCH LEAGUE CUP BY SHUTTING DOWN SPURS

After City’s damaging defeat, it was a really good weekend for Chelsea even though they didn’t play in a PL match. The Blues now know they can go eight points clear of City in the title race by winning their game in hand, and on Sunday they lifted the first piece of silverware on offer in England for the 2014-15 season.

Chelsea beat Tottenham Hotspur 2-0 at Wembley to win the League Cup as Jose Mourinho celebrated the first trophy of his second spell in charge of Chelsea. It’s safe to say he thoroughly enjoyed this one, as it was his third League Cup success in charge of Chelsea and his first major title since he won La Liga with Real Madrid in 2012.

[ RELATED: Mourinho hails Zouma ]

Spurs started brighter with Christian Eriksen hitting the crossbar, but then the Blues ground out a typically resolute display with John Terry prodding home a goal right on half time and Diego Costa’s deflected shot just before the hour mark sealed the victory. As the rain poured down at Wembley Stadium in the second half, Spurs had the life sucked out of them by a Chelsea squad who often resemble ‘Dementors’ from the Harry Potters series. Mauricio Pochettino’s side dropped points at West Ham last Sunday, were knocked out of the Europa League by Fiorentina last Thursday and then succumbed to an oppressive Chelsea outfit.

Mourinho’s decision to replace suspended central midfielder Nemanja Matic with young French center back Kurt Zouma raised plenty of eyebrows. But it was a masterstroke. Zouma clogged up the area in front of Chelsea’s back four, stopping Harry Kane dropping deep and Eriksen getting on the ball. Terry, Gary Cahill, Branislav Ivanvoic and Cesar Azpilicueta put in another assured defensive display but Mourinho reserved special praise for Zouma after the match, calling him “our Marcel Desailly” after the former Chelsea and French international star. High praise indeed, as Mourinho and his squad lifted the first of what should be many trophies this season.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

The Premier League title seems all but assured after City continue to stumble, but can the “Special One” deliver the Champions League to Stamford Bridge this season? That’s the next big challenge for his squad, as they will be buoyed by a victory parade around Wembley on Sunday and all the good vibes that brings. Plus, judging by the video above taken during the second half of the League Cup final, Mourinho seems pretty relaxed about everything…

LIVERPOOL’S “LITTLE MAGICIAN” CRUCIAL TO TOP FOUR HOPES

For the second Sunday running Coutinho delivered a stunning strike to set Liverpool on their way. The Reds are now unbeaten in 11 Premier League matches and have gone on a remarkable run since losing 3-0 to arch-rivals Manchester United at Old Trafford back on December 14.

[ RELATED: Three things we learned from Liverpool’s win ]

Now they are in fifth place, two points behind the Red Devils and just three points behind Arsenal in third. Liverpool looks unstoppable and Coutinho gives them the ‘X-factor” they have been lacking for most of the season. The 22-year-old Brazilian signed a new long-term deal last month and his incisive runs, trickery on the ball and sublime vision in and around the box means that although Luis Suarez is long gone, the Reds now look capable of carving open teams clinically with Daniel Sturridge back fit and Sterling also firing on all cylinders.

[ RELATED: Rodgers says top four is real possibility ]

Liverpool have the momentum and are the team to beat with eight wins from their last 10 matches. Just like last season, they are hitting peak form at the perfect time. They came up short in their pursuit of the title in 2013-14, but right now you’d be a brave man to bet against them finishing in the top this season. After their victory against Manchester City on Sunday, manager Brendan Rodgers claimed that if Liverpool finished fourth this season it would be a better achievement than finishing second last season.

It’s hard to argue with that, as Jordan Henderson smashed in a beauty to show he can ease the blow of Steven Gerrard’s impending departure, while Adam Lallana had the following to say about the crucial win.

“It’s a massive win for us, we’ve got momentum,” Lallana told Sky Sports afterwards. “They [Man City] are the champions and I thought we thoroughly deserved it today. They came back into it but the lads have got fighting spirit and the little magician [Coutinho] at the end coming up with another wonderful goal. With players like that, we are going to go far.”

MIDWEEK MADNESS – ARE YOU READY?

Above is the video recap from the eight games in Week 27 and on Tuesday and Wednesday this week, you will get pretty distracted during your afternoon’s at work as a full slate of PL matches is coming your way. It’s okay, I’m sure your boss will understand. After all, it’s the Premier League.

[ WATCH LIVE: Stream every game via Live Extra ]

Above is the link to stream every game live online or on the app via Live Extra, and here’s five storylines to keep an eye on as the midweek madness ensues…

1. Can the Hammers bring Chelsea back down to earth?

2. Tottenham, Arsenal, Liverpool, Man United all face tough tests as top four race heats up

3. Will Saints snap back into life at home to Crystal Palace?

4. Relegation battles, local pride – Aston Villa vs. West Brom, Hull vs. Sunderland

5. USMNT battle at the Britannia – Geoff Cameron vs. Tim Howard

Premier League Playback comes out every Monday as PST’s Editor and Lead Writer takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here

Destroyed Barcelona a ‘disaster’; dominant Bayern react after 10-goal stunner

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Barcelona – Bayern Munich reaction. How do you have a reaction to that?

Barcelona 2-8 Bayern Munich. Yep, that was the score in the Champions League quarterfinal. That’s why the Barcelona – Bayern Munich reaction post-game saw both sets of players and coaches looked utterly stunned. It was the first time since 1946 that Barcelona had conceded eight times in a game and they had no answer to Bayern’s relentless attacking.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]

Lionel Messi and Barcelona’s players and coaches looked totally stunned towards the end of the game as Bayern could have easily scored 11 or 12 goals. We are not exaggerating. This looked like the end of an era for Barcelona, as their players were outclassed and overpowered throughout.

Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu had this to say: “A very hard night. I’m sorry for the fans, for everyone. We weren’t the team we are or the club we represent… Today has been a disaster. Now we have to take decisions. Some we had already decided before today. Above all we have to say sorry to the fans.”

[ VIDEO: Alphonso Davies magical assist ]

Barcelona boss Quique Setien didn’t have much else to add, as his time as Barca boss is surely up but he did state that his team were ‘destroyed’ in the dressing room in Lisbon after the game.

“The truth is it is a defeat tremendously painful. Scoreline maybe too harsh, but for sure they deserved many of the goals. The team was overrun at many times. We started very well, but the decisiveness of (Bayern) in many areas overcame us… The dressing room is destroyed. I’m not going to talk about what is needed at the club. I’ve been here for just a few months. If Gerard Pique says that it’s time for big changes there’s going to be importance to his words. It’s time for us to review and take the decisions which are needed for the future.

“The fans? The team did what we could and the rival allowed us to. We started well and as the game went on, we were beaten… We are all tremendously frustrated at the moment. It hurts but we have to accept it. You have to think always that the future will be better, that you can improve the image we showed today, above all thinking of the future. I think that right now it’s too soon to be talking about whether I stay at the club or not. The reality is that it doesn’t depend on me. It’s worth all of us working out what’s important and considering a wide range of things which correspond to a defeat of this importance and which is so painful.”

[ MORE: Champions League schedule ]

Setien may not be in charge of that future, as he only took charge in January but has struggled to galvanize a talented but error-strewn Barcelona side. Setien has overseen one of the most embarrassing nights in Barcelona’s history and although his ageing players were outclassed, the way they kept making the same mistakes time and time again surely points to his managerial style not fitting this squad.

Barcelona veteran Gerard Pique summed it up best.

“Embarrassment is the word, no one is indispensable. If new blood has to come and change the dynamic I’ll be the first to exit and let it happen. Now, we have reached the bottom,” Pique said. “I’m in pain. We all are. We can’t compete like that. It’s very, very tough to take. Nothing more is worth saying. The club needs changes. Not just the players, I don’t want to point out anyone.

“But football is a sport where change is constantly required. We must change the dynamic we are on because I believe we have just hit bottom. We have to look around, we have to trust that people will do the right things for the club. Is it an end of an era, I’m not sure? But I know that we must accept that we have hit bottom. Not just players the but, as a club, we aren’t on the right road. We have had years of success but we haven’t won the league and we haven’t won in Europe and we have to compete. You’ve seen it on the pitch and this today is unacceptable. This was a horrible game… it’s a dreadful feeling. It’s shameful. Structurally we need changes at all levels.”

On the other side of the Barcelona – Bayern Munich reaction, Thomas Muller continued his amazing season to score twice and grabbed an assist as the German legend summed up the focus in the camp of the German champions as they want to win the Champions League and not dwell on their humbling of Barcelona.

“Of course it’s a big statement. The semifinal starts from 0-0. Statement doesn’t matter,” Muller said. “I know the other teams watch our games. They can be impressed or not. It starts from 0-0. We have to be quiet, calm and relaxed, also a little bit happy. Tomorrow morning when we wake up and answer the whole messages on our phone from home and the whole world, then we have to focus and concentrate on the next game. That is our business. We are not here to win the quarterfinal or semifinal. We are here to win the final. I know these tournament situations a lot. Most of the times after these big wins it is more difficult, so we have to be careful.”

Muller and Bayern are ruthless and hungry for more, as he also said they can be more aggressive in their remaining Champions League games.

Hansi Flick has created a ruthless winning machine, as Bayern have scored 26 goals in the six Champions League games he’s been in charge since replacing Niko Kovac in November and they’ve won 27 of their last 28 games in all competitions and are unbeaten since December 7 and have won the Bundesliga and German Cup.

The treble is on for Bayern after their historic humbling of Barcelona.

3 things learned as Bayern Munich beat Barcelona 8-2

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Barcelona – Bayern Munich was a UEFA Champions League classic as Bayern ran riot in Lisbon to book their spot in the semifinals as they won 8-2. That’s right. 8-2.

[ MORE: Barca, Bayern players reaction ]

Bayern scored early and often as both teams had chances galore but the German giants took theirs with Thomas Muller scoring twice, plus Ivan Perisic and Serge Gnabry scoring one each. Joshua Kimmich, Robert Lewandowski and Philippe Coutinho (twice) all scored in the second half after Luis Suarez pulled one back to make it 4-2.

Early on Barcelona briefly made it 1-1 through David Alaba’s own goal but Lionel Messi and Co. were dominated and made so many defensive errors. Hansi Flick’s Bayern will now face the winner of Manchester City v. Lyon in the semifinal, while Quique Setien’s brief spell in charge of Barcelona is surely over.

[ MORE: Champions League schedule ]

The game started at an incredible pace as Jerome Boateng defended superbly with Suarez lurking, then Bayern took the lead. Lewandowski and Muller combined and the latter finished to make it 1-0, but soon it was 1-1. Jordi Alba’s cross was shanked into his own net by Alaba to level things up.

Barca then went close as Suarez was denied by Manuel Neuer, then Messi hit the post as his cross missed everyone and struck the woodwork as four Barcelona players were left clutching their heads in disbelief.

[ VIDEO: Alphonso Davies magical assist ]

Chances kept on coming for both teams in an entertaining, end-to-end clash with Messi forcing Neuer into a save. Perisic then drilled home a low shot to make it 2-1 and Bayern almost scored a third but Marc-Andre ter Stegen saved well. They did make it 3-1 soon after as Gnabry drilled home a low shot after fine passes from Thiago and then Leon Goretzka.

Muller made it 4-1 before the break as Joshua Kimmich’s cross found the veteran German at the near post as Barcelona kept conceding chances, and goals. In the second half Suarez made it 4-2 early on to give Barca a chance of an unlikely comeback but that’s all it was. Alphonso Davies’ amazing assist set up Joshua Kimmich to make it 5-2 and Lewandowski got his goal to make it 6-2 as Barca were humiliated further when their player, Coutinho, on loan at Bayern rolled two home late on to rub further salt into their wounds.

Here’s a look at what we learned from Barcelona – Bayern Munich, a truly memorable Champions League quarterfinal.


BARCELONA THEIR OWN WORST ENEMIES

No team had conceded four goals sooner in a Champions League knockout match and this was the first time Barcelona conceded five or more goals in a Champions League match in their history. It was also the first time since 1949 that Barcelona had conceded seven goals in a single game. It was also the first time since 1951 they lost a game by six goals and the first time since 1946 that they conceded eight goals in a game. It was also the first time a team had scored eight in a Champions League knockout game. Yes, Bayern were clinical but Barcelona caused their own problems time and time again and it was all too easy for the Germans. Ter Stegen was hellbent on playing the ball short inside his own penalty box which put Barca under pressure, while Sergi Roberto and Frenkie de Jong were totally overpowered in midfield and Nelson Semedo was bullied at right back. Barcelona kept making poor defensive mistakes and anybody who has watched them since the restart in La Liga will understand why. This is not a new thing. Bayern could have scored more and Barcelona were just woeful and looked totally devoid of confidence late on. Messi and Co. looked stunned in the final stages of the game, and for most of the 90 minutes. Bayern were good but the story here was about Barcelona being woefully bad.

END OF AN ERA AT BARCELONA?

Messi, Suarez, Busquets, Vidal, Pique. What do they all have in common? Four of them are 33 years old and Busquets is 32. This feels like the end of an era at Barcelona. Of course, Messi is Messi and he can play until he wants as he whipped in delicious deliveries in the first half but didn’t have enough help around him. Even he gave up in the second half. This Barcelona team couldn’t cope with the pace and power of Bayern and they just gave up and Messi was one of the worst culprits. Earlier this season the Argentine legend was outspoken when it came to asking questions of the powers that be and his own teammates and he knew. He knew that big problems were coming and Barca were in big trouble. They still finished second in La Liga and reached the last eight of the Champions League but that’s not good enough for Barcelona and this was one of the most humiliating nights in their history. Quique Setien doesn’t seem to have the belief of his squad but in truth, this Barcelona team is running on empty. It has been for a long time. Is it the managers fault, or the fault of their ageing squad which has been so good for so long but not rebuilt out of faith to their superstars and a haphazard recruitment process? The answer is a little bit of everything and this defeat will be at the core of a dramatic Barcelona rebuild.

BAYERN’S HIGH-LINE A PROBLEM

The one negative for Bayern was how many chances they gave to Barcelona, especially in the first half. Their high-line was problematic but perhaps they pinched so high up so they could give Barcelona’s shaky defensive problems? Either way, they can’t play that high of a line against Manchester City or Lyon in the semifinal. Alhonso Davies and Joshua Kimmick were left exposed at full back and that is something they should address because this game, and result, is likely be a freak one. Aside from that defensive line, they were dominant, powerful, hungry and classy throughout. The German champions are full of confidence and are the red-hot favorites to win the Champions League. Barcelona – Bayern Munich will go down in history and Bayern will be feared by everyone if they weren’t already.

VIDEO: Alphonso Davies turns on style with amazing assist

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Alphonso Davies ladies and gents. Alphonso Davies.

The Canadian teenager set up Bayern Munich’s fifth goal in their demolition of Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League quarterfinal and he did it in some style.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores ]

Remember: the Vancouver Whitecaps product only broke into Bayern Munich’s first team as a regular earlier this season and he’s now ripping it up against Barcelona in the latter stages of the Champions League.

He will be pinching himself right about now as he played a key role in a classic Bayern display as they tore Barcelona apart and could have scored seven or eight easily.

Alphonso Davies, 19, totally bamboozled Barcelona’s right back Nelson Semedo on more than one occasion way out on the left flank. He then drove towards goal, skipped past another defender and put it on a plate for Joshua Kimmich to make it 5-2.

Check out the video below to see Davies doing what he does best for the assist, as the teenager is surely going to become the best left back on the planet.

His incredible story continues as his first season as a regular for Bayern Munich has been a hugely memorable one.

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 still in the Europa League, there is a lot on the line for the two Premier League clubs in the next week.

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 semifinals and Champions League quarterfinals will take place as the mini tournaments take place in Germany and Portugal.

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 beat Copenhagen in extra time and will face Sevilla in the semifinals and are the lone Premier League club after Wolves were knocked out by Sevilla.

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

Semifinals (August 16-17)
Sunday, August 16: Sevilla 1-2 Manchester United
Monday, August 17: Inter Milan 2-0 Shakhtar Donetsk


Champions League betting odds via DraftKings

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
Bayern Munich (+150)
Manchester City (+250)
Paris Saint-Germain (+250)
RB Leipzig (+900)
Lyon (+5000)


Europa League betting odds

Quarterfinals (August 10-11)
(+195) Sevilla v. Manchester United (+150). Tie: +215
(-132) Inter Milan v. Shakhtar Donetsk (+350). Tie: +280

Outright winner
Inter Milan (+160)
Manchester United (+190)
Sevilla (+280)
Shakhtar Donetsk (+800)