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.

Petr Cech earns win with 2 penalty saves in hockey debut

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Former Chelsea and Arsenal goalkeeper joined English fourth-division hockey team Guildford Phoenix four days ago and made his debut on Sunday.

He did not disappoint.

The 37-year-old saved two penalties in the shootout, earning Man of the Match honors.

Cech is reportedly a fan of the Guilford Flames, the first-division side who use the Phoenix as their developmental side. He was signed to be the team’s third-choice goalkeeper, just a chance for him to get in on the action before his body gives way for good, but he was given a chance to play right away. He wore number 39, a nod to famous Czech goaltender Dominik Hasek. His custom helmet was adorned with Arsenal and Chelsea colors. Regulation finished level at 2-2 before Cech’s shootout heroics.

“I wanted to win, that was the main thing, and I’m glad we did,” Cech said after the match. “I was surprised that I wasn’t more nervous. I didn’t know what to expect so it was nice how quickly my body switched into matchday mode.”

Giroud upset with reserve role at Chelsea

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Olivier Giroud does not look back on his transfer to Chelsea and wish he had done things differently, but that doesn’t mean things are all sunshine and roses for the 33-year-old.

Giroud, who moved to Chelsea from Arsenal in the winter of 2018 after six years with the Gunners, has played just 43 times in the Premier League, averaging just 35 minutes per appearance. That has him frustrated, hoping to prove his loyalty to the club and work harder than the other options up front.

“I had competitors in attack – [Alvaro] Morata, [Gonzalo] Higuain, who ended up leaving,” Giroud said. “I won at the end: I played the final of the FA Cup in 2018 and the [Europa League] final in 2019. Once again, I’m starting the year in a difficult situation. But as my brother says, I have always built myself in the face of adversity.”

Girou is trying to be smart about how he approaches the competition for time with the likes of Tammy Abraham and Michy Batshuayi, but he says it is emotionally taxing.

“You do not have to be fatalistic in certain situations,” Giroud says about keeping a level head. “I have always been respectful and humble. Even if I do not agree with the coach, I do not criticize him. But in myself, I cannot accept it because I know what I’m worth on a pitch.”

The French international has made just three league appearances this season, mostly thanks to Abraham’s scalding form. Abraham, still just 22 years old, has snatched his opportunity for first-team minutes with eight goals in eight games to start the campaign. That has left Giroud on the sidelines for each of the last five league games, missing out on a spot in the matchday squad altogether for the last three.

Despite his struggles at the club level, Giroud has maintained his place in the French national team, missing just five matches of France’s last 64 games, including 37 of the last 39.

James says he was not knocked unconscious in Wales draw

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Head injury awareness again rose to the forefront in the 1-1 draw between Wales and Croatia in Cardiff when Daniel James went down after colliding with a pair of opponents.

The Manchester United winger looked to almost sure have been knocked unconscious when Domagoj Vida’s knee appeared to tap the back of his head while challenging for a ball in the air. Vida went toppling over the back of teammate Borna Barisic who ducked out of the way, but it was James who many were concerned for as he lay motionless on his back with his eyes closed.

Yet James was allowed to come back onto the field and completed the full 90 minutes, sparking criticism from injury advocates and fans who were concerned for James’ safety on the field, at potential risk for even more serious consequences should he indeed have suffered a concussion.

After the game however, despite what fans saw as James lie on the turf, the 21-year-old insisted he was not knocked unconscious. “I’m fine,” James claimed after the match, speaking to Sky Sports. “I think he just caught me in the head but I didn’t get knocked out fortunately.”

Wales boss Ryan Giggs backed up the decision as well, calling James’ motionless display “a bit of acting.”

“The medical staff went over, he was compos mentis and we did all the checks at half-time and he was fine,” Giggs said, referring to the latin phrase for “of sound mind.”

If James was indeed faking unconsciousness, it’s natural to wonder if he should face a fine from UEFA for looking to con referees, and in the process possibly confusing the independent neurologists on site assigned to assess head injuries.

ESPN broadcaster Taylor Twellman, who has been outspoken over the past few years advocating for head injury awareness after his career was cut short by concussions, took to Twitter to criticize Wales for allowing James back into the game. Twellman, who was on the ESPN call of the broadcast with Ian Darke, said more needs to be done to prevent players from being able to force their way back onto the field, lest someone be killed by second impact syndrome.

Former Hull City player Ryan Mason, who was forced to retire after a serious skull fracture saw him fighting for his life, was also seriously concerned about the incident.

Interestingly enough, later in the match just seconds after the second half restart, young Wales midfielder Ethan Ampadu was whalloped from behind by Croatia’s Bruno Petkovic in a wild and reckless aerial challenge. Petkovic’s elbow went clattering into the back of Ampadu’s head, and the was left writhing on the ground holding his head. The Chelsea youngster was taken off the field and immediately replaced by Joe Morrell, while Petkovic was lucky to escape with just a yellow card.

Kane reflects on Tottenham, England struggles

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Harry Kane keeps finding the back of the net, but his teams keep losing.

The 26-year-old striker has bagged five Premier League goals in eight games for Spurs thus far, plus another seven goals for England in five Euro 2020 qualifiers this cycle. Yet Tottenham sits ninth in the table after three losses already this season, while England slumped to its first Euro defeat last time out, putting its seeding at the Euro finals next summer in jeopardy.

Kane is hoping to be a leader through the tough times for both club and country, wearing the armband for both as it currently stands.

“I think you need to lead by example,” Kane said ahead of England’s visit to Bulgaria on Monday. “Not getting too down when you lose a game, not getting too high when you win games. It is a long, old season for club and country ahead – a lot of games to be played so there are going to be tough periods.”

Kane has taken over the England captaincy on a permanent basis, and is filling in for the injured Hugo Lloris at Tottenham. “I am still the same person,” he said. “I still try and lead by example on and off the pitch and I will continue to do that. I have been in high pressure situations before in my career, whether that is going through goal droughts, playing in high-pressure games or not playing well as a team. It is something I will take in my stride and improve on.”

Leading by example includes finding the back of the net, while also supporting teammates both on and off the pitch. He knows even if he’s in good personal form on the stat sheet, there’s always ways to improve and help the squads through tough times.

“I am scoring goals but can I get more assists, create more chances? So yeah, I always look at little things I can get better at. Yes, the England form has been good but as ever, it can be better. We will see if I can continue scoring. It has been a good campaign but important I do not stop now.”