Premier League Playback: Guardiola to Chelsea, Mourinho to United?

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MANAGERIAL MERRY-GO-ROUND

With Jose Mourinho out at Chelsea, he seems to be the first domino in the pack to fall.

Manchester United’s Louis Van Gaal is looking over his shoulder nervously with the Red Devils now winless in six, while Manchester City’s Manuel Pellegrini will also be nervous as his team is six points off the top spot on Christmas Day.

[ MORE: Pep to Chelsea?

With several perennial Premier League giants struggling, the buck has to stop with the managers. Even more concerning for those in the hot seats is that Pep Guardiola, and now Mourinho, are lurking with intent in the background.

Reports suggest Guardiola could be lined up by Chelsea — Neil Ashton of the Daily Mail reports the Blues are willing to grab the outgoing Bayern Munich coach at any cost — and his wife favors living in London to Manchester but City remain the favorites to secure his signature. Bayern’s chief executive Karl-Heinz Rummenigge stated that he believes Guardiola’s mind is already made up as to his next destination, as it seems like an all-out battle between City and Chelsea will take place.

As for Mourinho coming in at United, the Portuguese coach is looking to rebound quick and despite being fired by Chelsea following a dismal start to this season — nine defeats in their opening 16 games for the reigning champs — and reports of a player revolt, he is still the most successful coach in Premier League history in terms of his points per game ratio.

It was said that Sir Alex Ferguson favored Mourinho to replace him at Old Trafford when he retired in 2013 but the directors at United didn’t want to deal with Mourinho’s antics and instead plumped for David Moyes.

With performances dipping under van Gaal and the Dutchman spending over $400 million on new players in his opening 18 months in charge, the pressure is on. Despite finishing fourth last season United are out of the top four as things stand and crashed out of the UEFA Champions League at the group stage.

[ VOTE: Should Man United make move for Mourinho?

Mourinho would, as he always has done, bring short-term success and right now that’s exactly what United need.

With some of the greatest managers of this generation now available on the open market, expect to hear plenty more managerial chatter between now and the summer as the incredible merry-go-round among the top clubs in the PL and Europe keeps turning.


WATFORD FOUR-MIDABLE

Premier League Schedule – Week 17

Result Recap & Highlights
Arsenal 2-1 Man City Recap, watch here
Chelsea 3-1 S’land Recap, watch here
Everton 2-3 Leicester Recap, watch here
Man Utd 1-2 Norwich Recap, watch here
N’castle 1-1 A. Villa Recap, watch here
Saints 0-2 Tottenham Recap, watch here
Stoke 1-2 C. Palace Recap, watch here
Swansea 0-0 W. Ham Recap, watch here
Watford 3-0 L’pool Recap, watch here
WBA 1-2 B’mouth Recap, watch here

Watford beat Liverpool 3-0 on Sunday to secure their fourth-straight Premier League win. The Hornets could have won by more.

In Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney that have a destructive partnership who will cause any defense in the Premier League problems. Ighalo, 26, has scored 28 goals in 2015 and 32 league goals in 52 league outings for the Hertfordshire club.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

The powerful Nigerian striker has 12 goals in his debut PL season — five in his last four games — and the way he bullied Liverpool’s backline on Sunday on his way to two of Watford’s three goals typified his importance to the Hornets.

Ighalo is adored by Watford’s fans but the fact of the matter is, if he keeps scoring at this rate then a bigger PL team could come in for him in January or the summer.

Both he and Deeney are spoken to regularly by manager Quique Sanchez Flores — who, by the way, in his first season coaching in England has built a very impressive squad more than capable of holding its own in the PL — and he has already expressed his wishes for both to remain past this season.

Watford’s only two previous forays into the PL have both ended in immediate relegation but after making one of the best starts by a newly-promoted team in Premier League history (see below) they find themselves one point off the top four heading into Christmas Day.

There are Hornets fans dreaming. Most of the dreamers are middle-aged and will remember the days of John Barnes and Luther Blissett in the early 1980’s when they finished second in the top-flight and FA Cup runners up, plus played in Europe.

Those heady days aren’t too far away from returning to Vicarage Road and if the Pozzo family — who own both Udinese in Serie A and Granada in Spain — are serious about turning the Hornets into the jewel in their crown then spending big in January is key. Barring a monumental collapse in the second half of the season, Watford won’t be relegated this season and for the first time in the PL era they’ll be sticking around for at least back-to-back seasons.

I’m fine with that, and if Ighalo stays, because it means their incredible ode to Ighalo — inspired by 80s band Spandau Ballet and their hit tune “Gold” — will be sung loud and proud many more times. Check out the video below from the Rookery Stand for a taster.

With Watford and plenty of other PL minnows unexpectedly excelling this season, the stench of nostalgia is strong in the air as we head into the holiday season.


LEICESTER LEAD UNDERDOG’S FEEL-GOOD FACTOR

Leicester City are leading the charge of the Premier League underdogs as Claudio Ranieri‘s side continue to defy belief and sit on top of the Premier League table at Christmas.

Dazzling like a star on top of the tree, Leicester’s duo of Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez led them to a 3-2 win at Everton this time out — Mahrez scored two PKs, with Vardy having a hand in winning both and also setting up Shinji Okazaki‘s clincher — as suddenly the Foxes have won three on the spin and eight of their last 10 to rack up 38 points and lead second-place Arsenal by two points. That horrendous six-game run they had coming up that everyone was talking about… yeah, they’ve won the opening three of those.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings

Danny Drinkwater (who has one of the best names in soccer) has been an unsung hero of their success but on Saturday the midfielder was out injured for the win at Everton. However, he perhaps typified one of the main reasons why teams like Leicester, Bournemouth, Watford and even Norwich are being lauded.

The down-to-earth midfielder sat in the away end with Leicester’s fans to watch the game and celebrated as his teammates secured the win. Take a look at the photo below. Brilliant. Also, Leicester’s Thai owners have announced they will be supplying a bottle of beer to every Foxes’ fans during their final game of 2015 against Manchester City at the King Power as they want to celebrate a stunning year with the fans.

The rise of the underdogs is the overriding theme of the PL so far this season as injury-hit Bournemouth followed up wins against Chelsea and Manchester United by beating West Brom away to rise to 14th, while Norwich beat Man United at Old Trafford for the first time since 1989 and even Crystal Palace made it three wins from the last four to rise to sixth and are only out of the top four on goal difference.

This season is unlike any other. Now, can the underdogs threaten the household names in the second half of the season?


GET READY FOR BOXING DAY

The Boxing Day extravaganza is almost here folks. That’s right, an entire day of Premier League game with all 20 teams in action.

The first game, Stoke City vs. Manchester United, starts at 7:45 a.m. ET and the final game kicks off at 2:45 p.m. ET, with Southampton hosting Arsenal. You can find all of the details here as, like always, every single game is available online or via your TVs.

Below is the full schedule for all 10 games on Boxing Day, with a Premier League doubleheader coming to the main NBC channel for the first-time ever.

7:45 a.m. ET: Stoke City vs. Manchester United – NBCSN [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Chelsea vs. Watford – USA [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Liverpool vs. Leicester City – NBCSN  [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Manchester City vs. Sunderland – Premier League Extratime [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Aston Villa vs. West Ham United – Premier League Extratime [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Bournemouth vs. Crystal Palace – Premier League Extratime [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Swansea City vs. West Brom – Premier League Extratime [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Tottenham Hotspur vs. Norwich – Premier League Extratime [STREAM]
12:30 p.m. ET: Newcastle United vs. Everton – NBC [STREAM]
2:45 p.m. ET: Southampton vs. Arsenal – NBC [STREAM

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. 

Gerrard extends contract amid strong start as Rangers boss

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Steven Gerrard is quite keen to stick around as Rangers boss following a strong start to his managerial career, leading the 39-year-old first-time manager to sign a two-year contract extension on Friday.

[ MORE: Ljungberg wants quick appointment of new Arsenal manager ]

With his current contract previously set to run through the 2021-22 season, Gerrard’s services have been secured until the summer of 2024.

Gerrard has been largely successful since taking over the Scottish Premiership side last summer, guiding Rangers to their highest points total (78) since returning to the first division in 2016, and a second-place finish (also for the first time) behind rivals Celtic. Rangers reached the Europa League’s round of 32 on Thursday, marking their first trip to the knockout round of European competition since 2011.

That much success so quickly will undoubtedly lead to Gerrard’s name being linked with increasingly large jobs in England, likely prompting Rangers to act preemptively.

“I’m delighted to be extending my stay at this fantastic football club. When the chairman approached me about the possibility of extending my contract with Rangers, it was a very easy decision to make because I’m very happy and feel that we are building something special together at the club.

“I’d like to thank the board for the backing they have given me already in my time at the club and also most importantly, the Rangers fans who have given me and the team such tremendous backing both this season and last.”

Ljungberg wants quick appointment of new Arsenal manager

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Freddie Ljungberg is honored to serve as Arsenal’s interim manager following Unai Emery’s dismissal, but the Swede is also hoping for a speedy conclusion to the club’s search for a permanent replacement.

[ MORE: Lampard: Chelsea youngsters can’t worry about January transfers ]

In theory, taking over the most famous club for which Ljungberg played was a no-brainer. In practice, though, he openly admits it’s been not only a difficult time for everyone emotionally, but also in terms of the staff members available to assist him during the day-to-day grind. Throw in the fact he has no idea whether or not he’ll still have a role at the club when the new manager arrives, and it’s beginning to sound like a no-win situation. Perhaps he’s being considered to remain in the job permanently, but Ljungberg says he’s been given no indication of any such thing — quotes from the Guardian:

“The club have said I have to wait until they make a decision, so I can’t do anything at the moment. I have Per [Mertesacker] but at the same time he is academy manager. He is helping me with the coaching. The club has said when they make a decision then that’s it — or I’m leaving, obviously — and maybe then we can do something with the staff. But it’s up to the club.

“If you look at the person who was here before, he had a lot of staff and maybe I don’t have so many. So if you keep on going like that for months and months, it’s not so easy. But that’s totally up to the club.”

“I haven’t got any indication of if I’m here or not. What I’ve said to the bosses and the club is I will do everything in my power to do as well as I can for this club and the players. Then obviously it is up to them to make a decision. I try not to put any emotions into that.”

Arsenal came back from a goal down (twice) to draw Norwich City in Ljungberg’s first game in charge, then the Gunners were comprehensively beaten (at home) by Brighton & Hove Albion. The bounced back with a win over West Ham United on Monday, but could only draw Standard Liege (albeit with a weakened team) in the Europa League on Thursday.

Lampard: Chelsea youngsters can’t worry about January transfers

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Frank Lampard knows it’s only natural that some of Chelsea’s youngsters will have worries about the January transfer window and the Blues’ newfound ability to sign players, considering they were only afforded a first-team opportunity by the club’s transfer ban.

[ PL Preview: Chelsea v. Bournemouth ]

He doesn’t, however, want those thoughts and fears to dominate their thoughts for the next three weeks, until the window opens and Chelsea can sign players for the first time since January of this year. As Lampard sees it, the fact he has roughly $200 million to inject into the squad doesn’t necessarily mean they promising teenagers and early-20-somethings will immediately be cast aside. It does, however, mean he has to navigate this very unique set of circumstances extra carefully — quotes from the Guardian:

“I haven’t banned the talk [about the January window], but I am not going to set out to engage in it. If players want to come and see me and talk then I will happily have a conversation with them individually, but that hasn’t happened.

“I speak to them regularly. I can be, not hard on them, but I push them because I think they need that. I think they feel the trust I have in them because they know I’m prepared to give them the opportunities if they train well and they come in the team and play well. I think they should naturally feel a little bit of tension all the time so that’s not the worst thing.

“They just need to work and believe in their own talents because their talent is there for all to see. We also have to be patient with that because it may take different periods of time for them to fully blossom as players. They might have a period in and out of the team, have a run of the games and then not. I am prepared to stick with them through that because I really believe in them.”

22-year-old Tammy Abraham currently sits second in the race for the Premier League Golden Boot with 11 goals in 15 appearances. 21-year-old Christian Pulisic, while not an academy product, has shone brightly of late with a half-dozen goals and nearly as many assists to his name in the last two months. 20-year-old Mason Mount was a surprising revelation in the season’s opening weeks. 21-year-old defender Fikayo Tomori has been a regular starter for the last three months. 20-year-old Reece James has made the starting job at right back his own.

While the temptation to sign high-priced replacements for these budding stars will be hard to resist, perhaps Chelsea would be wiser to sign players in other positions and ride the wave of what could turn out to be a golden generation of homegrown products.

Premier League Preview: Southampton v. West Ham

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Saturday’s final Premier League fixture is set to pit a pair of underperforming relegation battlers against one another when Southampton host West Ham United at St. Mary’s Stadium (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and NBCSports.com). Managers Ralph Hasenhuttl and Manuel Pellegrini have each flirted with being fired in recent weeks, though the former was able to pull himself back from the edge with back-to-back wins last week.

Southampton had lost six of eight games during a two-month winless skid before beating Watford and Norwich City, both at home, to not only save the Austrain’s job but also pull his side to within touching distance of safety from the relegation zone.

[ STREAM: Every PL match live

As for West Ham, Pellegrini is hanging on by a thread as he faces the possibility of being the next PL manager fired on the back of a 1W-2D-7L record in the Hammers’ last 10 games. To call that run of results — comprising more than 25 percent of the season — relegation form would be an understatement.

It’s not just the results which have been disastrous, but more so the margin by which they’ve suffered them. In those 10 games, West Ham have managed to conceded fewer than two goals only twice, including just one clean sheet. A number of bottom-half sides have found lots of joy against them: Newcastle United, Burnley, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal each scored three; Bournemouth, Crystal Palace and Everton and Wolverhampton Wanderers each score two.

Injuries/suspensions

Southampton: QUESTIONABLE – Stuart Armstrong (hamstring)

West Ham United: OUT – Manuel Lanzini (clavicle), Jack Wilshere (groin), Lukasz Fabianski (thigh), Winston Reid (knee)


Projected lineups

Southampton: Gunn — Soares, Vestergaard, Yoshida, Bertrand — Djenepo, Ward-Prowse, Hojberg, Redmond — Long, Ings

West Ham: Martin — Fredericks, Balbuena, Ogbonna, Cresswell — Snodgrass, Noble, Rice, Anderson — Haller, Antonio


What they’re saying

Hasenhuttl, on his place as Saints boss: “This experience has been very important for me as a manager and I’m happy that I went through such a period. I’m thankful to the club that it is going a different way, not immediately sacking the manager but supporting him. Thank you to everyone at the club, I could feel big support in this moment, which is important for the future of the club. That was very important for me as a manager, I’ve never had such a long time without winning in my managerial career.”

Pellegrini, on his place as West Ham boss: “What I really need is to win the game but maybe I’m not in my job on Monday. That’s not a problem of the job. The problem is to try to improve what you’re doing because we don’t have the results. It’s a difficult league where the difference is very little between one player and the other one. I repeat it’s not normal to have five points and very bad results. That’s why I know that the owners trust what we are doing because with another owner you may have been sacked before, and we know what football is and we are trying to get results.”


Prediction

Given their medium-term form and the fact they’re playing at home, Southampton should be winning this game. If they’ve done one thing right all season, it’s that they’ve beaten the rest of the sides down near the relegation zone when they’ve faced them head to head. Whether or not West Ham will remain down there remains to be seen, and could be revealed based on what happens Saturday. Saints 2-2 West Ham.