Premier League Playback: Can Leicester, Vardy achieve the unthinkable?

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FOXES’ FAIRYTALE CONTINUES

Don’t rub your eyes. Don’t refresh this page. It’s happening. Leicester City are top of the Premier League table and Jamie Vardy is running away with the golden boot.

Saturday’s 3-0 win away at Newcastle saw the Foxes jump ahead of Arsenal and Manchester City into first place in late November, as Leicester fans, players and even their new manager Claudio Ranieri must be pinching themselves.

[ VIDEO: Vardy equals PL record ]

The Foxes have 28 points after 13 games this season. After 13 games last season, their first back in the top-flight in a decade, they were bottom of the table. What a difference 12 months makes. This calendar year has been sensational for the Midlands club. From winning seven of their final nine games last season to stave off relegation in sensational fashion to leading the way in the PL, runs like the one they are is the reason why we all love the beautiful game. Regardless of the big money spent by the perennial powerhouses of the PL, Leicester’s surge to the top exemplifies the vast wealth on offer across the league and how the gap is closing between those select five or six teams who usually occupy the upper echelons and upstarts such as Leicester, Crystal Palace, West Ham, Stoke City and Southampton challenging them.

Every weekend you look at the schedule and say: “ah, surely Leicester’s bubble will burst this weekend.” But it isn’t. Not one iota. In Vardy they have a talisman and a man on a mission. His opener at Newcastle at the weekend — Vardy was struggling all week with injury but pulled through to lead the line — saw him tie Ruud van Nistlerooy’s record of scoring in 10 consecutive PL games. Vardy now has 13 goals in 13 games this season and his incredible rise through the non-league scene and up from the lower leagues to sitting on the edge of greatness at the age of 28 symbolizes all that is good about this Leicester team. Sure, Vardy has been in hot water for some ill-advised moments in the past but generally, he seems a down to earth lad who is wiling to run through brick walls for the team.

The video below shows Vardy addressing his teammates on Saturday after equaling van Nistlerooy’s record. He’s all about the beers on the bus/plane home…

If you look across Leicester’s squad it is full of players overachieving and playing at full throttle. Danny Drinkwater. Andy King. Riyad Mahrez. Wes Morgan. Marc Albrighton. Those aforementioned are far from household names but if Leicester can hang on and do something special this season — which a top four or even top six finish would be despite them leading the way so far — then these players will be etched into the PL history as a group who supplied perhaps the biggest shock season from a team many tipped for relegation in August after journeyman manager Ranieri replaced the popular but volatile Nigel Pearson over the summer.

[ VIDEO: PL highlights

Premier League Schedule – Week 13

Result Recap & Highlights
Chelsea 1-0 Norwich Recap, watch here
C Palace 0-1 S’land Recap, watch here
Everton 4-0 Villa Recap, watch here
Man City 1-4 Liverpool Recap, watch here
Newcastle 0-3 Leicester Recap, watch here
Saints 0-1 Stoke Recap, watch here
Swansea 2-2 B’mouth Recap, watch here
Tottenham 4-1 W Ham Recap, watch here
Watford 1-2 Man Utd Recap, watch here
West Brom 2-1 Arsenal Recap, watch here

Another manager in the East Midlands many years ago led two teams who had recently been promoted to league titles. In the same week where a squad of ex-players got together to promote a film — aptly named, “I believe in miracles” — about Brian Clough’s success at Nottingham Forest, my thoughts drifted to the league titles he won with Leicester’s neighbors Derby County and Forest in the 1970s.

Surely it can’t happen again in the East Midlands. Surely not…

Standing between Premier League leaders (has it sunk in yet?) Leicester stretching their lead at the summit is a particularly gruesome run of games coming up to end 2015. First up, Manchester United at home on Saturday (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via Live Extra), then trips to Swansea City, Everton and Liverpool plus home games against Chelsea and Manchester City.

That tricky run of games takes Leicester up to December 29 and if they’re still top at the end of that run, we really do have a Foxes’ fairytale on our hands.


LIVERPOOL’S GEGEN

Jurgen Klopp‘s impact at Anfield is starting to be felt in a big way. The German head coach hugged everyone in sight after his players put in a majestic first half display to beat Manchester City 4-1 at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays

His ability to galvanize a squad of players who looked ruder-less under Brendan Rodgers is remarkable and the former Borussia Dortmund maestro has only been in charge for seven weeks.

Speaking to our own Arlo White, Lee Dixon and Graeme Le Saux after the win on Saturday, here’s what Klopp had to say as he detailed the pressing game his side are already becoming accustomed too.

“Gegenpressing” is a term coined to the way Klopp’s teams played at Dortmund as they forced the opposition back at every opportunity and that’s exactly what Liverpool did to City’s shaky defense early on. It worked a treat with an own goal from Eliaquim Mangala, plus strikes from Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino putting them 3-0 up after 32 minutes. In truth, it could have been more and despite getting a reality check before the last international break by losing 2-1 at home to Crystal Palace, this win shows that progress is being made under Klopp as the Reds now sit six points off the top four.

[ MORE: Kompany loss hurts City ]

The real test is against teams from further down the league who are going to press high against Liverpool in what will be a “nothing to lose” scenario as the opposition face Liverpool’s more technically gifted players. Klopp’s boys have now beaten Chelsea and Man City away from home by pressing high and pouncing on loose balls. With Christian Benteke, Jordan Henderson and Daniel Sturridge ready to return, Klopp now has more depth, especially in attack, but playing Firmino in a false nine worked remarkably well.

Another player seemingly flourishing under Klopp is Adam Lallana. The England international also joined the NBC crew on the pitch after the game, as he revealed the extent of Klopp’s hugs and love…


SPURS TITLE CONTENDERS?

Harry Kane is on fire. Spurs look solid at the back. They possess a core of young, exciting English talent. So, where’s the catch? Well, there may not be one.

Asked about Tottenham’s title credentials after their 4-1 demolition of West Ham United on Sunday, Mauricio Pochettino called for calm amid whispers that Spurs may just be readying themselves for not only a top four tussle but a challenge for the title.

“For us it’s not about us today in the table,” Pochettino said. “It’s important the way we play and that the players are convinced to develop the plan we have, the philosophy we have and we share. This is the big success today for us. And for that we feel very proud for them. Today we share the same philosophy and belief in the way we work. That’s the most important thing.”

With Kane scoring two in the London derby, he now has eight goals in his last five games. The England international is “en fuego.” With Hugo Lloris marshalling a settled backline of Kyle Walker, Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen and Danny Rose, plus the impressive trio of Eric Dier, Dele Alli and Mousa Dembele sitting in front of them, if Spurs can keep players fit they have a very real chance of finishing in the top four which is Pochettino’s aim.

[ MORE: Poch calms down title talk ]

Alli, 19, looks a particularly sensational talent but a silly yellow card for confronting Mark Noble in the second half means the man who dazzled for England against France last week will miss Spurs home game against Chelsea on Sunday (Watch live, 7 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra). That was the only blot on the copybook of another sensational outing for Spurs as Pochettino’s young squad have bought into his philosophy wholeheartedly and are reaping the benefits as they extended their unbeaten run to 12 games and haven’t tasted defeat since Aug. 8 on the opening day at Manchester United.


“FERGIE TIME” RETURNS

Speaking of Manchester United, they did something in the PL which they haven’t done in three years, way back when Sir Alex Ferguson was their manager: they scored a stoppage time winner.

[ MORE: Latest PL standings | schedule 

That’s right, “Fergie time” reemerged on Saturday at Watford with Bastian Schweinsteiger steering a shot towards goal which Troy Deeney directed into his own net to hand United a crucial 2-1 win late on. The Red Devils were without Anthony Martial, Wayne Rooney, Michael Carrick and others for the trip to Vicarage Road. Ander Herrera went off injured in the first half as Louis Van Gaal had to switch formations to a back three in a 3-5-2 but United dug deep and despite Deeney equalizing from the penalty spot in the 87th minute, they fought back and snatched a win.

Fergie would have been proud of the spirit Schweinsteiger and Co. showed to battle back. Speaking of the greatest manager in United’s history, and probably world soccer history, Ferguson caught up with Rebecca Lowe in New York City recently to discuss many things around the launch of his new book: Leading.

See the interview in full below.

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

Lyon hires Rudi Garcia as new manager

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Olympique Lyonnais has announced they have hired Rudi Garcia as manager, replacing the fired Sylvinho.

Lyon has struggled mightily to start the Ligue 1 season, winning just two of its first nine league games and sitting 14th in the table with nine points. Sylvinho, who was only hired at the end of May, was let go last week.

Garcia has formerly taken charge of Roma, Lille, and St. Etienne, and most recently managed Lyon rivals Marseille for three seasons before departing this summer. He left with Marseille having failed to claim a Champions League place amid the Ligue 1 top three.

“I chose Rudi Garcia because he is a fighter who, like us, has the ambition to win titles and succeed on the European stage,” said Lyon sporting director Juninho. The Brazilian had chosen his countrymate Sylvinho this summer, but made a change just nine matches into the season with the club winning its first two matches of the season and failing to win since. They have lost three of the last four, with all three defeats coming via a 1-0 scoreline. They have scored just five goals in the seven-match winless run, shutout on four different occasions.

The 55-year-old Frenchman will have plenty of proving to do to Lyon fans. Coming straight over from a direct rival, . Fans were outspoken about their cautious feelings, as the introductory tweet was ratio’d by those expressing a distaste for the hire.

“He is an experienced coach who has already won trophies,” added Juninho.“Wherever he has been, he has had above-average performances and has always managed to make the most of what he had at his disposal.”

Garcia’s first match in charge will be a home league match this weekend against Dijon, followed by a Europa League visit to Benfica.

Barcelona denounces Spanish court decision on Catalan independence

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Barcelona released a statement criticizing a recent Spanish Supreme Court decision that saw 12 political activists jailed for their role in the 2017 push for Catalan independence.

The statement said that “prison is not the solution” and called the decision “condemnatory.” Instead, the club said that “the resolution of the conflict in Catalonia must come exclusively from political dialogue.”

The political activists were punished for pushing through an October 2017 referendum in Catalonia that resulted in over 90% of the population voting for independence. The referendum was declared illegal by Spain and seen within the country’s political hierarchy as an act of treason.

As one of the biggest social institutions of Catalonia, Barcelona’s statement on the matter carries significant weight both within the region and across Spain. Barcelona games often feature flags and banners calling for Catalan independence. Catalonia has also made a recent push for an independent FIFA-recognized squad, unsuccessful to this point. However, they played their first match inside a FIFA-sanctioned international window this March against Venezuela.

As a result of the court decision, the Catalan Football Federation suspended all its matches for Monday in solidarity with the accused. This includes only clubs and leagues that fall under the federation, which does not include Barcelona, La Liga, or the Spanish national team.

“FC Barcelona also expresses all its support and solidarity to the families of those who are deprived of their freedom,” the club said in the statement. Gerard Pique re-tweeted the social media version of the statement, adding the caption “Proud to be part of this Club.” Pique is a Catalan native and has appeared for the Catalonia national team 10 times.

Barcelona reportedly set to sign young Ansu Fati to first-team

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According to a report by Spanish publication Mundo Deportivo, Barcelona is readying a first-team contract for 16-year-old Ansu Fati after a collection of positive performances for the club.

The youngster was promoted to the senior side at the start of the season thanks to an injury crisis that swallowed up Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, and Ousmane Dembele.

He made his first appearance off the bench in the opening league game, coming on for 12 minutes against Real Betis. He then was handed a 45-minute substitute appearance against Osasuna where he registered his first goal in a 2-2 draw. That saw Fati handed his first start, and he scored again just two minutes into the eventual 5-2 win over Valencia.

With Messi struggling of late with injuries and Suarez also struck down and seeing his minutes carefully watched thanks to his advanced age, Fati’s emergence couldn’t have come at a better time for Barcelona. Therefore, the report states the new contract will feature an astronomical release clause of $220 million.

He only just signed a contract with the club back in July that saw him tied to Barcelona through 2022 and put him on a tiered pay scale that would reward him based on appearances for various youth and senior squads. His release clause in that contract was set at $110 million – already a record for a player of his age – but after his recent outburst the club may feel even that is not enough to ward off outside interest. The new contract will also reportedly boost his salary to a fixed $1 million for the season.

Convincing Fati to stick around long-term is of the utmost importance to Barcelona who has been forced to consider the future of the striker position at the club. Suarez’s age is the most pressing concern, but even the potential decline of 32-year-old Messi is a possibility for the near future. With those in mind, Fati’s contributions are critical and could signal a positive future for the Barcelona attack despite the necessary upcoming transitions.

Liverpool, Manchester United set for injury returns

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According to reports, both Manchester United and Liverpool are preparing to welcome back a number of important players from injury for their rivalry meeting at Old Trafford on Sunday.

Most notably, the Reds will reportedly have goalkeeper Alisson ready to take his place between the sticks, having missed nearly the entire season to this point with a calf injury. The Brazilian made it just 39 minutes into the Premier League opener against Norwich City before succumbing to injury, and Adrian has filled in since. While the Spaniard has played exceptionally well in his teammate’s stead, The Guardian reports that Alisson will take back his starting place no questions asked, having rigorously tested his injured leg with intensive training to make sure he is ready.

In addition to the Brazilian goalkeeper, Liverpool is also reportedly set to see Mohamed Salah prove fit to start despite his injury scare against Leicester City just before the international break.

For the hosts, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has received welcome news on a number of players prior to the matchup. Paul Pogba, who has missed three of the last four league matches and five of the last seven overall thanks to an ankle injury, is ready to go and will be available to start. The Mirror reports that Pogba spent much of the international break training in Dubai to aid in his recovery.

Also returning for Manchester United is Aaron Wan-Bissaka who has missed the last two Premier League matches with tonsillitis. It was reported that Wan-Bissaka was ready to return for the Newcastle match prior to the international break, but he missed out nonetheless and was absent from the England national team as well. Also reportedly returning is the oft-injured Luke Shaw who has not played since late August thanks to a hamstring problem.

Finally, Anthony Martial could be ready to return from his own hamstring injury. The report is that Martial would be in contention for a place in the Manchester United18-man squad, suggesting that he may need a match or two to regain full fitness for a starting spot but would be an option off the bench if needed.

Liverpool and Manchester United meet on Sunday for the 203rd time overall and 173rd time in the top flight, kicking off at 11:30 a.m. ET from Old Trafford. The matchup is significant for both sides as Liverpool looks to maintain its perfect record and eight point lead atop the Premier League table, while Manchester United is hoping for a boost from its vastly mediocre record to this point in the season, having recorded just two wins through the first eight matches.