Top Premier League stories of 2015

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Chelsea: the rise and demise

To describe Chelsea’s 2015 as “up and down” is a massive understatement. After winning the 2014-15 Premier League title with Jose Mourinho leading the way, the Blues looked to be at the start of becoming English soccer’s next great dynasty.

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Then, the walls caved in on them in one of the most shocking, and rapid, demises in PL history. Just months after new stars Nemanja Matic, Cesc Fabregas, Thibaut Courtois and Diego Costa gave the Blues a new core — augmented by the magic of Eden Hazard — to take the PL by storm, the defending champs started their title defense in miserable fashion and are still reeling. Their poor start to the season cost Mourinho his job as the Portuguese coach was fired on December 17, 2015, just under seven months after he clinched his third PL title in five seasons at Chelsea.

Guus Hiddink has been placed in charge on an interim basis until the end of the current campaign but after a tumultuous end to 2015, an uncertain 2016 awaits for the reigning champs. Long-term, they seemed to be locked in a battle with other PL giants to land Pep Guardiola as their manager. Short-term, they’re in a relegation battle as the squad Mourinho built and then led to the title is on the verge of breaking point.

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Shocking. Remarkable. Astounding. Stamford Bridge has become the setting of a soap opera. Grab the popcorn. 2016 could be even more dramatic.


Rise of the “little guys”

In conjunction with Chelsea’s demise we have seen the rise of some of the more unfashionable clubs in the Premier League.

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Leicester City have led the way but the likes of Crystal Palace, Southampton, Stoke City, Watford and West Ham United are all threatening the long-established upper echelons. Especially this season.

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Newly-promoted Watford have been a huge surprise, while fellow newcomers Bournemouth had back-to-back wins against Chelsea and Manchester United. Something strange is going on throughout 2015 and is intensifying. The big boys don’t seem as untouchable anymore and the so-called “little guys” are using their new found riches to great effect while the perennial giants continue to seemingly waste big bucks on players not cutting it in the PL.

With an even bigger TV deal coming into play from the start of next season, expect this dramatic turnaround to not only carry on but become more extreme. Parity in the PL is a beautiful thing.


Arsenal the champs… of the calendar year

Congrats, Arsenal. You earned more points (81) in 2015 than any other PL team. Unfortunately that doesn’t win you any silverware. Arsene Wenger and the Gunners have kicked on in 2015, surging through the second half of last season and are right up there this time as it seems like a straight shootout between themselves and Manchester City for the title.

With plenty of injuries piling up (you know the script, Arsenal fans) to end 2015, a familiar battle lies ahead in 2016. Can they rise to the challenge and win their first PL trophy since 2004? Wenger will have to spend in the January transfer window to add the required quality and bodies to push on in both the PL and try to cause a shock against Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League last 16.

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There’s no doubt they’re heading in the right direction after a year which saw the emergence of Francis Coquelin as a mainstay and the Gunners acquire a more solid defensive base to build from following the addition of Petr Cech. They still have the occasional wobble but they are a much better team than 12 months ago.


Managerial madness: champs and chumps

Jurgen Klopp – Ahead of Klopp’s unveiling as the new Liverpool boss, you could be forgiven for thinking you had time-traveled and gone back to the days of Beatlemania. No joke. From his first, perfectly maneuvered press conference to his many memorable sideline celebrations in his opening months at Liverpool boss, Klopp is box office and the perfect man to help propel the Reds back among England and Europe’s elite. Give him a couple of transfer windows and 12 months in charge and there are plenty of rivals worried about “Kloppmania” taking over the PL.

Alan Pardew – Leaving Newcastle right at the start of 2015 for a Palace side in the relegation zone was risky for Pardew, but his South London homecoming has gone incredibly well. 12 months on, Pardew is already in talks about a new long-term deal and the Eagles are battling for a top four spot amid fresh investment from the U.S. which has everything going swimmingly at Selhurst Park. Pardew’s stock continues to rise as the England job or one with a perennial PL giant could be next.

Brendan Rodgers – After failing to clinch the PL title in the dying embers of the 2013-14 season, you always got the sense that the failure to seal the deal was always going to haunt Rodgers and his squad. The Northern Irishman spent so much cash on young new players and many let him down. He will be back but his philosophy and ideas ran out of splendor at Anfield as he failed to deliver any silverware during his three and a bit campaigns in charge.

Jose Mourinho – Wow. Where do we start? The fact that just seven months after delivering the Premier League he was fired says it all. Mourinho, 52, watched on in disbelief as his Chelsea team unraveled at the seams and lost nine of their first 16 games this season. That — coupled with his scathing attack on members of his own medical staff Eva Carneiro and Jon Fearn plus plenty of post-game meltdowns — cost Mourinho his job as one of the greatest coaches in the history of the game fell by the wayside for the second time at Stamford Bridge. Nobody saw this coming in 2015. Nobody.

Notable mentions: Garry Monk initially leading Swansea superbly but then being fired after a dreadful run this season. Mauricio Pochettino kicking Spurs on with shrewd additions and cutting the deadwood. Tottenham look highly likely to return to the top four.


LVG conundrum continues

One theme which has been consistent over the past 12 months is Manchester United’s ongoing identity crisis.

With Dutch coach Louis Van Gaal spending almost $400 million in transfer fees since arriving at Old Trafford 18 months ago, it’s hard to see if any progress has been made. Van Gaal, 64, has a strict philosophy and demands total respect from his players. Even though star names may respect him, LVG isn’t getting the best out of them with the severe struggles to end 2015 heaping plenty of pressure on Van Gaal.

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Currently struggling to score goals, without a win in seven-straight games in all competitions and on a three-game losing streak in the PL after crashing out of the UEFA Champions League, its been a bad few weeks for Van Gaal. He may not survive until the end of the season. With Mourinho lurking in the background and United’s supporters growing increasingly frustrated that their team aren’t fun to watch or close to winning any silverware, it’s safe to say the Van Gaal era has seen little to no progress so far.


Top goals of 2015

Philippe Coutinho – Southampton vs. Liverpool, Feb. 22 2015

Matt Phillips – QPR vs. Crystal Palace, Mar. 14, 2015

Charlie Adam – Chelsea vs. Stoke City, Apr. 4, 2015

Jermain Defoe – Sunderland vs. Newcastle, Apr. 5 2015

Christian Benteke – Manchester United vs. Liverpool, Sep. 12, 2015

Cuco Martina – Southampton vs. Arsenal, Dec. 26 2015


Leicester City and Vardy’s party 

Aha, you didn’t think I was going to mention them, did you? Well, there’s no doubt about the surprise package of 2015: Leicester City.

Heading into the final months of the 2014-15 season the Foxes looked dead and buried with Nigel Pearson‘s side all but relegated back to the second-tier at the first time of asking. Then, they went on an incredible run to win seven of their final nine games to survive in memorable fashion.

Despite Pearson being fired over the summer Leicester have rebounded with Claudio Ranieri in charge and largely the same squad. Riding the momentum they gained from fighting off relegation last season, record-breaking Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez have scored the goals –between them they have 28 of Leicester’s 37 this season — to lead a workmanlike outfit to joint-top of the Premier League at the halfway point of the season. Whether or not the Foxes can keep it up in 2016 remains to be seen but no Leicester fan will ever forget 2015.

Jozy Altidore calls out Toronto FC president Bill Manning in scathing postgame comments

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It was supposed to be a happy postgame. Toronto FC topped Minnesota United 4-3 in a wild game that saw Jozy Altidore assist the game-winning goal scored 79th minute, pushing them within a point of the Eastern Conference lead with a game in hand.

For Altidore, though, it was the perfect opportunity to air some dirty laundry.

The United States international sought out reporters in the mixed zone after the game and told the public how unhappy he was at certain decisions made at the club this offseason, particularly regarding the training staff. Altidore singled out team president Bill Manning and criticized the club executive for firing someone he believed was helping the striker off the field.

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“It’s bittersweet because this could’ve been avoided,” Altidore said of the firing of Italian trainer Giuseppe Gueli who was let go after the sale of Sebastian Giovinco this offseason. “You’ll have to ask Bill Manning why it’s not avoided, it’s just disappointing. We had a trainer here the last three years who’s been helping me with muscle injuries, but because he was attached to Seba, he’s not allowed in the club, which I think is ridiculous. And so now this is what I’m faced with, games of egos, and that thing. Hopefully he can put his ego aside and I can get the guy who’s kept me healthy, kept Michael [Bradley] healthy, kept a bunch of the guys healthy, and we can make things move forward.”

“To run a club you’ve got to be able to put your ego aside and put the players first, so hopefully that’ll change,” Altidore said. “I was trying to get through it, I was having trouble all week, but again, like I said, the person I was working with the past three and a half, four years, is not allowed in the building, and it’s just— you give everything for your city, you give everything on the field, you give everything for your teammates, and because of a little whatever, misunderstanding with a guy, the players gotta pay the price. I just think that’s ridiculous.”

Altidore then went after Manning for his lack of accessibility for the players, as Altidore insinuated he made attempts to handle the issue internally but was unable to do so. “You can ask him,” Altidore said when asked if he received an explanation from Manning on the personnel decision. “He’s not here, he’s not around, so you can’t find him. You go to his office, he’s not there, he’s traveling, he’s this and that. I wish I knew, but I don’t know.”

As far as the public has been aware, Altidore and Manning have had a decent working relationship. Local media reported that a sit-down between the two in February helped push through a new contract for Altidore after talks had hit the skids. “I saw the hunger in his eyes and how much he loved it here,” Manning said of Altidore once the contract extension was announced. “And he was willing to work with us. And once we kind of talked that through, we were able to create a contract that made sense for us and made sense for him.”

After Altidore brought Michael Bradley into the mix by mentioning the Toronto FC captain by name, Bradley was asked about the situation, and he confirmed there were internal issues that needed to be taken care of but downplayed the severity of the issue. “There’s a lot going on behind the scenes in terms of trying to make sure that we can have the right medical staff in place,” Bradley said, “and obviously Greg [Vanney], Jim Liston, Ali [Curtis], Bill [Manning], they’re all working hard to try to make sure that as players we have everything we need. Jozy is a guy who feels like at this point in his career he knows exactly what he needs to do day in and day out to keep himself healthy and fit and ready to play at the highest level. I’m hopeful there’s a solution here because I think a lot of us certainly feel strongly, again making sure that the staff behind the scenes is in place and is right.”

Obviously, this seems like – at its base level – a minor problem not to be aired in public, but Altidore is someone who has suffered from numerous muscle problems in the past, and if he is nervous about not receiving the proper medical attention off the field, it could be affecting his mindset or performance. Players who are tentative on the field because of past medical issues can either lose form or actually exacerbate the issue further, so it would be in Toronto’s best interest to cater to Altidore’s requests. At the very least, if a veteran leader is frustrated by a lack of communication from the front office, that in and of itself is a concern the club will want to address as soon as possible.

Toronto FC pulls within a point of East lead with win over Minnesota

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Toronto FC snatched all three points in a wild finish at BMO Field, taking the spoils 4-3 over Minnesota United thanks to a pair of goals each from Alejandro Pozuelo and Jordan Hamilton.

Minnesota struck first through Darwin Quintero in the 17th minute, but Toronto swung back in front on a quickfire double from Pozuelo, striking twice in two minutes right on the half-hour mark. His first was a beauty, carrying the ball all the way down the attacking half himself before a couple stepovers preempted a rifle into the top corner.

Two minutes later he found space in the box, and taking a feed from Justin Morrow, he powered the ball home above Vito Mannone. With that, Toronto went into the halftime break with the lead, and Pozuelo grabbed a club record for fastest brace with just 110 seconds between goals.

Out of the break, it was Minnesota’s turn to swing back into the lead as Angelo Rodriguez bagged a header to the far post as two Toronto defenders misjudged a cross from Romain Metanire. Quintero then hit for the second time in the 70th minute, this time from the spot after Chris Mavinga fouled Rodriguez in the area.

With wild status officially achieved and Minnesota ahead, Toronto snagged control of the match in front of the home fans. Hamilton, who came on in the 73rd minute, had an instant impact, scoring the equalizer just four minutes after entering play. Jonathan Osorio fed him a perfect through-ball between defenders, and Hamilton finished expertly with a chip over a charging Mannone. Hamilton gave Toronto the lead in the 79th minute, although this time the Minnesota defense will want to burn the tape. Jozy Altidore popped the ball over a defender right in front of the goal mouth, and while Michael Boxall had position to clear the ball off the line, Hamilton jumped it and tipped it into the back of the net.

After that, Minnesota melted down. Jan Gregus was shown a straight red card in the 89th minute, and Minnesota was reduced to nine men minutes later after Francisco Calvo earned his second yellow card. The win sent Toronto to second in the Eastern Conference on 13 points, one behind D.C. United for the lead with a game in hand.

Premier League preview: Newcastle v. Southampton

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  • Southampton have won 3 of their last 4 PL games
  • Newcastle has beaten Southampton just once in last 9 meetings
  • Shane Long has scored in his last 2 matches – has never scored in 3

Both Newcastle and Southampton have the chance to all but secure Premier League safety with a win on Saturday as the Saints travel to St. James Park, live on NBC at 12:30 p.m. ET or live online at NBCSports.com.

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Southampton has turned a corner under Ralph Hassenhuttl, with eight wins in his first 18 games in charge – as many as the previous two managers put together in 52 league matches. The Saints now sit five points above the relegation zone, and with Cardiff City taking on Liverpool on Sunday, the time is ripe for Southampton to pull away. A victory over Newcastle and a Cardiff City loss would put the Saints eight points clear of the drop, leaving their magic point total for safety at just one over the last three matches.

Hassenhuttl could be without regular defender Jannik Vestergaard who has a groin injury, but otherwise the injury news is light. Midfielder Mario Lemina may not be ready to go from his abdominal injury, having missed all of 2019 so far, but the other injured players in Alex McCarthy, Matt Targett and Charlie Austin are all reportedly ready to go.

Newcastle, on the other hand, can mathematically secure its safety with a win and a Liverpool result, and even a draw will put the hosts in a fantastic position. Sitting two points above Southampton and seven above the drop, there’s plenty of uncertainty surrounding manager Rafa Benitez, but they look set to earn Premier League play next season. The Magpies saw their three-match winless run come to an end last time out with a win over Leicester City, but still they have limped down the stretch with just seven points in six Premier League matches since the beginning of March. They too have good injury news, with just the long-term injuries to Florian Lejune and Sean Longstaff the only players struggling coming into the match.

What they’re saying

Newcastle manager Rafa Benitez on Newcastle’s relegation battle: “I said 38 points [would be enough] a long time ago. Cardiff have won a couple of games [since then], and now it’s even more important for us to win another game, be sure everything is fine and then we can start thinking about how high we can go.”

Southampton manager Ralph Hassenhuttl on Southampton’s relegation battle: “We have been speaking about the 40 points and therefore we need four more. The good thing is I don’t have the feeling my team is leaning back, they stay focused. Although it is a long season so far, I have a feeling they are very hungry, they want to hunt and take more points. That is a good signal for me.”

Prediction

Home field advantage is massive in these games, and Newcastle will relish having the backing of the home fans. Southampton, however, comes into this game in better form, and will be more motivated to earn points to build the gap. The Saints should come away with a 2-0 win in an exciting game between two scrappy teams.

Preview: Man City v. Tottenham

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  • Man City go top with a win
  • Spurs sit in third
  • VAR drama in UCL quarterfinal second leg

“More of the same please, lads.”

That will be the message from neutrals everywhere as Manchester City host Tottenham on Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com), less than 72 hours after Spurs got past City at the Etihad Stadium in one of the most dramatic games in UEFA Champions League history.

VAR drama on both Fernando Llorente’s goal which sent Spurs through to the Champions League semifinals and a late strike for Raheem Sterling which seemed to have rescued City caused chaos, but we won’t have VAR this weekend. Next season is a difference case.

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Pep Guardiola‘s Man City must pick themselves up and now focus on winning their final five games of the season to win the Premier League title, while Spurs and Mauricio Pochettino need to win to keep their hopes of finishing in the top four alive. That said, Spurs may rest several first team players with their injury-hit squad creaking and the north London side focused on being ready for their UCL semifinals against Ajax coming up.

In team news City could have Fernandinho back, while Zinchenko will be assessed. Spurs are without Harry Kane, Harry Winks and Serge Aurier and youngsters Juan Foyth, Oliver Skipp and Kyle Walker-Peters could all play with injuries hitting Pochettino’s side hard.

What they’re saying…

Guardiola philosophical on late winner denied by VAR v. Tottenham: “VAR appeared to help try and cut out mistakes. The referees can take time, seconds, minutes to see the images and different angles. If we make a lot of mistakes with VAR then I wouldn’t agree with it. We have to take one minute, two minutes, five minutes, until the right decision is made. But I support it, from the first time and well before. If the goal from Raheem in the last minute, which was offside, ends up being a goal and Tottenham go out because of one offside, is not right. It’s so tough on them and I don’t like that.”

Pochettino on Spurs making the UCL semifinals: “This is a massive example for us – how important it is never to give up, to always have faith and believe in yourself, your teammates, the club, the fans. All our decisions we take are to help the club and this amazing history we are writing today will be a massive example for us in the future.”

Prediction

City will be determined to put Wednesday right, and even though their dreams of a quadruple are over, they can still win the domestic treble. Spurs will be emotionally exhausted after the 4-3 defeat at City which sealed their path through to the Champions League semifinals on away goals, and City have a bigger squad which they can rotate. 3-1 win to Man City.