Premier League Playback: Manchester United prove they can challenge Chelsea for the title

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UNITED IMPRESS, READY THEMSELVES FOR ’15-16 TITLE CHARGE

Without four key players on Saturday, Manchester United gave runaway Premier League leaders Chelsea a fright as Louis van Gaal’s men dominated vast swathes of the match but succumbed to a moment of magic from Eden Hazard, a Jose Mourinho defensive masterclass and were made to rue missed chances.

[ RELATED: Three things we learned ]

Despite the defeat, LVG was delighted with his teams display as their resurgence continues following six-straight wins before the loss in west London.

“I am not frustrated, I am very proud of my team,” van Gaal said. “We played the best match of the season but in football you can lose. In spite of [the fact] that you are the better team.”

United were without their rhythmic veteran Michael Carrick in midfield, plus Daley Blind, Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo at the back as Chelsea sat back, soaked up their pressure and a moment of brilliance from Oscar and Hazard in the first half turned out to be pivotal.

“We are in a process and I see my team always growing and improving every week,” van Gaal added. “It is amazing how we have played here. When you see the statistics it is unbelievable that the result is 1-0. But that is football.”

[ RELATED: Mourinho – We had United’s stars “in our back pockets” ]

So, LVG was impressed with how his squad played but are United ready to mount a challenge for the Premier League title next season? Mourinho claims that he set up Chelsea to sit back and that they had United’s star players “in our pockets” but is there a sense of panic coming from west London that the Red Devils are figuring things out and clicking into a team who can push Chelsea all the way for the PL title next season?

[ RELATED: LVG happy despite defeat, hails “best match of season” ]

I think so. In the buildup to Chelsea’s narrow win over United, Mourinho was asked about UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules and how that impacts his side. He said it gives teams like United an edge and that it is easier to manage United rather than Chelsea, given the amount of extra cash they can generate from ticket sales and various commercial activities around the globe.

“Yes, it’s easier,” Mourinho said. “It was easier before at Chelsea, but it’s more fun like this. More difficult of course. We sold a lot of players, not just Juan [Mata]. Their squad is amazing in terms of numbers, players, experience, solutions. I have on the big screen in my office, not the team I’m going to play against but the squad and all the options. This week, when I arrived in the room, for the first time, I realized what they have. I’m not saying it’s the best squad. It’s a very good squad. I went to QPR with Didier Drogba and no strikers on the bench and, for a long time we were in trouble. You have to cope.”

Regardless of Mourinho’s mind games and praise for United, he once again proved he’s the best in the business at setting his side up to defend and get a big win. Against his old master (Mourinho served as LVG’s assistant at Barcelona from 1997-2000) he outwitted LVG and nullified the threat of Marouane Fellaini and Juan Mata, forcing both players wide to pick up the ball, with the Blues now needing just two wins and two draws from their final six games to clinch the 2014-15 PL title. It was a masterclass in forcing players out of areas where they could hurt you, as Radamel Falcao hit the post and had another shot blocked but that was as close as United got.

[ RELATED: United can challenge Chelsea next season ]

Van Gaal believes his boys are on an upward curve and if he can add key players in defense, keep hold of David De Gea in goal and bring in more attacking firepower in Memphis Depay and others in the summer, we are going to have a titanic battle between United, Chelsea, Arsenal and perhaps a revamped Manchester City side for the title next season.

“In spite of the compact defensive organization of Chelsea, we have created more chances in the second half. That is unbelievable performance, I think. But you need to score. Normally we are more effective and normally we are not so creative and because of that I think we played a fantastic match but we lost,” van Gaal added. “Now I have very disappointed players and I am very disappointed but I see that we are improving every week and when you can play at Chelsea, like this, as the dominant team. Then I am very happy with that but I am disappointed [with the defeat]. That is the ambivalence in my feelings.”

Premier League Schedule – Week 33

Result Recap & Highlights
Chelsea 1-0 Man United Recap and watch here
Crystal Palace 0-2 WBA Recap and watch here
Everton 1-0 Burnley Recap and watch here
Leicester 2-0 Swansea Recap and watch here
Man City 2-0 West Ham Recap and watch here
Newcastle 1-3 Tottenham Recap and watch here
Stoke 2-1 Saints Recap and watch here

GOAL-SHY BURNLEY MUST GO FOR  IT

Following their 1-0 defeat at Everton on Saturday, Burnley dropped to the bottom of the Premier League table for the first time since Nov. 1 as the chances of the Clarets extending their stay in the big-time beyond one season is looking increasingly dodgy.

[ RELATED: Watch full match replays ]

Sean Dyche’s side have only scored one goal in their last seven matches and despite their resolute defensive displays, their touch in front of goal let them down against the Toffees at Goodison. Granted their task was made tougher after Ashley Barnes was sent off before half time, but David Jones and Danny Ings both had glorious chances which they squandered and they have now gone 389 minutes without scoring.

The Clarets have only lost a game by more than two goals on two occasions this season (a 3-0 defeat to Arsenal in November and a 4-0 loss at West Brom in September) as they’ve been compact, hard to break down and disciplined. However as the stat below suggests, they just have to score a goal a game to get at least a point as the odd defensive mistake here and there (a poor pass at home against Arsenal last week and failure to track a run against Everton this week) is punished ruthlessly in the PL.

Defending for your lives every single game only gets you so far. Dyche’s boys have to throw caution to the wind as they face relegation candidates Leicester City, Hull City and Aston Villa, plus struggling West Ham and Stoke City in the final five games of they season. All five are winnable.

[ RELATED: Latest PL standings ]

Burnley may get beat 4-1 or 5-2 in some of their final games of the season but now is the time to go for it. What have they got to lose? It may seem something like preparing a perfectly scripted speech and then when entering the final two paragraphs you toss it over your shoulder and speak from the heart. But that’s what Burnley must do. On a recent trip to the Lancashire town it became apparent to me that the citizens bleed claret and blue and are desperate for their team to stay up. Playing a conservative brand of soccer has so far helped them grind out results and put them in a position to be within four points of safety (given their poor goal difference). At the start of the season  not many would have given Burnley a chance to be within touching distance of safety with five games to go. They are, and now they  must go for it and play 4-3-3 or 4-2-4 or whatever they have to do in order to bring some attacking impetus to their matches.

They have already surpassed the expectations of many of their fans by hanging in there. Now is the time to put their foot to the floor and hope for the best as goals and momentum means everything at this time of the season.

FLIP FLOPS ON – WEST HAM, NEWCASTLE

With just one win in their last 11 matches, it’s safe to say West Ham United are finishing the season on a downward spiral. That is perhaps what happens when the future of manager Sam Allardyce is still unknown with his current contract running out at the end of the season and no talks being held with the Hammers’ owners about a new deal.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

It is also indicative of the Hammers’ form dropping off midway through the season after they sat in the top four in late December after beating Leicester City at home. With Andy Carroll back fit and scoring goals, plus new additions Enner Valencia and Diafra Sakho causing all kinds of problems, there was a real sense that West Ham could achieve something special this season. Instead they have plummeted down the table with five defeats from their last seven and “Big Sam’s” boys already seem to be wistfully dreaming about frolicking on a far-flung beach at the end of the season and grabbing their flip flops out of the bottom draw of their dresser. In their 2-0 defeat to Manchester City on Sunday, the Hammers only showed a few glimpses of attacking intent late in the game as they stood back, let City pass the ball around them and gave them copious amounts of space. During the first 15 minutes of the second half, City had over 81 percent of possession. It wasn’t good enough and depicted what will likely be a shameful end to a 2014-15 season which promised so much up until the halfway point.

[ RELATED: Premier League schedule ]

Talking about shameful, the way Newcastle United’s season is going, the distraught Magpies fans could be witnessing their side in a relegation battle. Since Alan Pardew jumped ship for Crystal Palace in January they have won just twice in 14 games since and interim manager John Carver has now seen his side lose six-straight amid plenty of empty seats at St James’ Park on Sunday. After countless protests against owner Mike Ashley over the years, Newcastle’s fans are at it again as banners saying “Ashley Out” were plastered everywhere around St James and the streets of Newcastle on the weekend. Fans have had enough of the lack of spending on new players and constant selling of the Magpies’ top talents (see Yohan Cabaye, Matheiu Debuchy, Demba Ba et al.) by Ashley and his board. Now they are choosing to hurt the owner the only way they can: by not turning up and putting money into his pocket, the vilified owner of their beloved club.

Soccer is a religion to fans of Newcastle and St James’ is their cathedral of worship. It will pain them to stay away but until Ashley sells up and puts the club in the hands of someone who is willing to invest money instead of making money, then many Magpies fans will not return to the third-largest stadium in the Premier League. In the video below our analysts discuss if Newcastle are in a relegation battle following their lackluster 3-1 defeat to Tottenham on Sunday which leaves them seven points above the drop zone but they have played one more game teams around them.

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

Silva answerless after another poor result for Everton

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Everton is in some trouble, because Marco Silva is not sounding like a man with answers.

The Toffees lost 2-0 to Sheffield United at Goodison Park on Saturday.

[ MORE: Everton 0-2 Sheffield United ]

Take nothing away from the winning visitors, but Everton’s early season woes were compounded by its answerless performance against the newly-promoted Blades. Seventy percent possession and a 16-2 advantage in shots produced nothing.

“Of course we didn’t deserve the result but when you make mistakes like we did this afternoon you don’t get what you deserve,” said embattled manager Marco Silva.

As we wrote following last week’s disappointment, this set of fixtures was supposed to set Everton up for a top half run. Instead, the Toffees have taken a total of 7 points from a collection of lesser opposition.

Everton is 14th after losses to Sheffield United, Bournemouth, and Aston Villa. Its wins are against out-of-form Bottom Three sides Watford and Wolves. And it drew Crystal Palace.

Cue the Pete Campbell “Mad Men” meme, because this is not great, Bob.

“The second half was bad. Not good enough. We need to show more and try new things. Some individual performances were not at the level we expect, but that’s part of the game. The key moment for me was the mistake we made for the first goal, but I told them at half-time we shouldn’t panic. We need to show personality to turn these games around.”

“[Coming from behind] is difficult for us. When the result is not good we need to show strong character and personality to change things. We had 55-60 minutes to change things today. We need to do more.”

That, in around 100 words, is a whole lot of nothing.

The first conceded goal was unlucky, a pick on goalkeeper Jordan Pickford uncalled but apparently not egregious enough on video to see it overturned by VAR.

They were “cheap goals” last week, according to Silva. More of the same on the second, we’re afraid.

Guardiola pretty happy with Man City’s 8-star win

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Pep Guardiola isn’t here for your storylines.

It’s fair to say that a lot of faith has been restored in Manchester City following last weekend’s loss to Norwich City.

[ RECAP: Man City 8-0 Watford ]

The reigning champs hung a collective 11-0 score line in wins over Shakhtar Donetsk and Watford over the past four days, eight of those goals coming in an utterly rampant roll over the Hornets on Saturday.

So, point proven? Nope, says Pep.

“Do you think after what these guys have done for two seasons they have to prove something?”

A rhetorical question, sure, but this City team had lost to a newly-promoted team days after losing its best defender for six months. Then another center back, John Stones, fell victim to the injury bug.

Enter Fernandinho at center back. And two clean sheets.

“What I like the most is normally when it’s 5-0 at half time the second half is not serious, it’s boring but we did the opposite and we were more aggressive and made a very good second half,” Guardiola said. “People still don’t understand, journalists, pundits, former players, losing games is part of life. Opponents always deserve respect. The same feeling I have now I had after Norwich so it was not a bad performance. We can lose the games but the important thing is the approach and how we react.”

The BBC also had a pretty snarky response to Guardiola being asked about just missing the Premier League single game goals record, held by Manchester United with nine.

Bookmark this, because if he didn’t know it before the post-match, he knows it now.

“I didn’t know the record. Who is it? They deserve it, congratulations.”

Wood brace sees Burnley past Norwich City

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Chris Wood scored a pair of early goals as Burnley punished Norwich City 2-0 at Turf Moor on Saturday.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

The Clarets rise seventh with eight points, while Norwich City has six points and will finish the weekend on the outskirts of the relegation zone.


Three things we learned

1. Wood comes good: Chris Wood entered the match with zero goals through five matches after scoring 10 in each of his first two Premier League campaigns with the Clarets. He’s got two now, using his noggin and boot to score a pair of typical Chris Wood goals. Very encouraging for the Kiwi striker, and his coach Sean Dyche.

2. Canaries defense undone: The many injuries to Norwich City’s back line have been well-documented, and the club would have the league’s worst goal conceded total were it not for Watford’s abject display at Man City on Saturday. Teemu Pukki and the win over Man City are great stories, but these are the concession numbers for Norwich over six matches: 4, 1, 3, 2, 2, 2. The one is lowly Newcastle.

3. Pope delivers a clean sheet: Twenty-seven year old Nick Pope isn’t even the first Nick Pope that shows up in a Google search, but he’s proven two England goalkeepers second-best in his time at Burnley. There wasn’t a lot for Pope to do, but his early save on Teemu Pukki is not something to be overlooked from the win.

Man of the Match: It’s Wood, but give a lot of credit to Ashley Westwood. The 29-year-old has been a service machine for Burnley the past two seasons, and also went in for five tackles on Saturday.


What a start.

You were almost putting 1-0 on the board when Teemu Pukki cut his defender to the inside and shot on goal, but Nick Pope made a fine save in the 8th minute.

Burnley went ahead two minutes later through Wood, who was the near post difference maker at the front of a sea of bodies from a corner kick.

 [ MORE: Premier League stats ]

Wood made it 2-0 with another leaping header, the Kiwi finisher putting the defensively-solid Clarets in fine position with 76 minutes to play.

Sheffield United secure shock win at Everton

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Sheffield United secured a shock win away at Everton on Saturday, as the Blades beat the Toffees 2-0 at Goodison Park.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

A goal in each half sealed the win, with Yerry Mina‘s own goal setting the Blades on their way and then Lys Mousset‘s first PL goal settled things. Everton had plenty of chances but Dean Henderson was in fine form to secure a clean sheet.

With the win Chris Wilder‘s Sheffield United move on to eight points, while Marco Silva‘s Everton have seven points and plenty of Toffees fans are far from happy.


3 things we learned

1. Pressure mounts on Silva: Plenty of Everton fans streamed out of the exits with over 10 minutes to go. They’ve seen this before and they’re getting pretty fed up with it. The Toffees were supposed to be challenging for a top six finish this season, but they’ve now lost to Bournemouth, Sheffield United and Aston Villa in their opening six games. The pressure is on Silva, especially with all the money he has spent, and it is easy to see why the bookies are making him the favorite to be the next PL manager sacked. There is no clear identity to this Everton side, and they have a hodgepodge of talented players trying to knit things together. It is not working. At all.

2. Blades bounce back: Sheffield United rode their luck as Dean Henderson made some fine stops and Wilder’s side sat back and soaked up plenty of pressure. But they had a plan and it worked. What you see is what you get with the Blades, and after losing to Southampton last week in disappointing circumstances and not recording a win since Matchweek 2, they bounced back to continue their solid start to life back in the big time. In a week which started with the Blades’ ownership battle being sorted out off the pitch, on the pitch they kept their philosophy and prevailed.

3. Moise Kean lively, but not going enough support: Always on the move and trying to make runs into good areas, Kean was impressive. The only thing missing was plenty of support for him. The young Italian striker can’t do it on his own, and Silva hasn’t found the right balance in attack and it is holding Everton back. Kean was denied by Henderson in the second half and he needs support, either alongside him or for the likes of Sigurdsson or Richarlison to step up, if he’s going to be a success on Merseyside. He has the potential. Now he needs the support.

Man of the Match: Dean Henderson – The Blades had plenty of defending to do and Henderson stood tall. He was calm and collected when marshalling his defense and he also made some very good stops. A second PL clean sheet for him this season, and both have resulted in victories. After a few early-season struggles, the young Man United loanee is growing up. Fast.


After an even start Everton had the first big chance of the game, as Lucas Digne‘s drive from outside the box was pushed away by Dean Henderson.

An almighty scuffle then broke out as Bernard and George Baldock were involved in a coming together and plenty of players piled in. Bernard and Baldock were booked and shook hands in a feisty encounter.

The Blades improved as the first half went on and they took the lead as Jordan Pickford missed the ball as he came for a corner, and it hit Mina and went in to put Sheffield United 1-0 up.

VAR was used to see if Pickford was fouled, but the goal stood as Sheffield United’s fans celebrated wildly in the away end.

Everton should have been level moments later, as Kean picked out Richarlison in the box but his tame header from a great position was easily saved by Henderson.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

In the second half the Toffees pinned Sheffield United back and Henderson made a fine stop from Kean at the near post.

Richarlison went down twice in the box after tough challenges as Everton huffed and puffed throughout the second period.

But just when it looked like Everton were set to equalize, Mousset pounced to seal all three points for the Blades.

John Lundstram‘s pass from the right flank set up Mousset brilliantly and the former Bournemouth striker finished superbly as Pickford rushed off his line.

Sheffield United’s smash and grab was complete.