Premier League Playback: Five horse title race ready to roll

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FIVE-HORSE TITLE RACE

And then there were, uh, five?

Hardly the most exclusive statement, but there now seems to be only five Premier League teams with a realistic chance of winning the title this season.

Arsenal, Leicester City, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and even Manchester United must be considered as title contenders following a busy week which saw two matchdays crammed in following a hectic festive scheduled and the FA Cup third round last weekend.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Heavy legs have led to plenty of hopes and dreams being dashed at this stage of the season in the past but the aforementioned quintet have proved, so far, they have staying power. Just.

Sure, all five are sticking around, but nobody is taking this league by the scruff of the neck and saying “do you know what? I really want to win this.” Nobody.

All season long just when we’ve expected Manchester City, then Arsenal or Man United to kick on they’ve faltered. The Gunners drew twice this week, even City were held at home by Everton but reminded us how good they are by battering Palace 4-0. Leicester stunned Spurs with a late winner at White Hart Lane then drew at bottom club Aston Villa. The dark horse here is Spurs. Mauricio Pochettino‘s side are consistent and even in their defeat to the Foxes last Wednesday they deserved more. They created chances galore but Kasper Schmeichel was in inspired form, Harry Kane hit the bar and Erik Lamela had an off day with all of their best chances. They made amends for that by blowing away Sunderland 4-1 on Saturday and it could have been more.

Spurs are the team to watch and if injuries are kind to them the young squad will have no fear. With 16 games to go, there are still 48 points to play for but it seems highly likely that we will have one of the lowest points tally for a PL champion in league history.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings

The fact that Manchester United’s manager Louis Van Gaal, who oversaw a spell where his team went six games without a PL win throughout November and December amid drab displays and rumors of him being fired, now thinks United can win it all sums up the madness.

Speaking after United’s 1-0 win against bitter rivals Liverpool at Anfield on Sunday — an inspired display from David De Gea and a clinical finish from Wayne Rooney papered over the fact that Liverpool had by far the better opportunities — Van Gaal was bullish as the Red Devils are now four unbeaten.

“We have a lot of matches still to go,” Van Gaal said. “We have to continue, which is not so easy. But we can do it because we show every week we can do it… The gap is seven points. We can overcome that so that’s what I’m thinking about. “

It’s going to be one heck of a ride between now and the end of the season as five teams have cut themselves off from the rest. Now, will Man City’s mammoth squad be the difference? Can Arsenal’s acquisition of Cech led to a title? Will Harry Kane catch fire to lead Spurs to glory? Or will Leicester’s sensational season spring the most unlikely title triumph in PL history?

LIVERPOOL TREADING WATER

Premier League Schedule – Week 22

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

One team well and truly out of the title race, or even the top four race at this stage, is Liverpool.

As aforementioned, Jurgen Klopp‘s side created plenty of chances on Sunday in their big derby game and the link up play between Roberto Firmino, Adam Lallana and Emre Can was mesmeric at times, especially in the first half as United couldn’t get near them. But (and you knew there was a but coming) the wasteful nature of their display came back to haunt them.

The stats below tells you all you need to know. Also, Steven Caulker came on as an emergency forward with Divock Origi, Danny Ings and Daniel Sturridge out injured, which further reinforces their offensive issues.

That’s compounded by the fact that Klopp doesn’t seem to fancy Christian Benteke and can’t find a way to fit him into their high-pressing system, which means the Belgian (Liverpool’s top scorer with seven goals this season) who cost them $45 million this summer is a rather expensive bit-part player. Getting the best out of him in Klopp’s system, and getting Sturridge back fit, is a must if they’re going to have any chance of finishing in the top four. Even that seems like a long-shot now.

A win on Sunday would have placed Liverpool just a point behind United. The defeat means they trail the Red Devils by six and the top four by eight. That’s not insurmountable but it is tough, especially with Klopp working with players he didn’t recruit and a long list of injuries decimating his options in attack and at center back. I’m not making excuses for him. That’s fact.

Klopp, 48, is facing the biggest challenge of his managerial career and three months in you don’t get the sense that he’s bitten off more than he can chew, but you do have to admit that he’ll need longer to digest the task at hand and chew through the bloated and jumbled squad he’s been left with.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

For those Liverpool fans thinking it will be an easy ride back to the top four, Klopp has a message for you.

“We want to collect points and take everything that we can, there is no doubt about it. We know about our responsibility,” Klopp said. “The space is pretty big between us and the top four. If we want to go there we have to win games. That’s the only way.”

SOLUTION FOR FUMING MARTINEZ

Roberto Martinez was apoplectic with rage following John Terry‘s late, late equalizer from an offside position on Saturday.

Not only did Chelsea’s skipper score when two-yards offside to snatch the Blues a 3-3 draw after Ramiro Funes Mori had given Everton the lead in the 91st minute, but he had done so nearly a minute after the seven minutes of stoppage time were meant to be up.

Speaking after the game, here’s what Martinez said.

So, Roberto, what about having a countdown clock like they do in NBA, NFL or any of the American sports?

I understand Martinez’s comments about the confusion regarding how much stoppage time is to be played and there is a huge amount of ambiguity present as the official rule states that when the number of stoppage time minutes is shown on the board by the fourth official at the end of 90 minutes then that is the “minimum amount” which will be added on. In this case, Funes Mori scored in stoppage time and celebrated for over a minute so an extra minute was added on and Terry scored in that. Simple. However, changing the clock to count down and stopping it as the game goes may not please the traditionalists but it will bring fairness. Perhaps another reform for FIFA can look at.

SWANS SPREAD THEIR WINGS

“Buongiorno Francesco Guidolin,” will be the phrase rippling through the cobbled streets of Swansea over the next week or two as the 60-year-old Italian coach was appointed as head coach until the end of the season in a bizarre turn of events on Monday.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays

Having already appointed club legend Alan Curtis in caretaker charge until the end of the campaign the Swans released a statement claiming that Guidolin “will have the final say on team selection” and both he and Curtis will work together to keep them in the PL between now and the end of the season. The former Udinese manager, who took an unfashionable Italian team to third-place in Serie A and the UEFA Champions League, has no experience coaching in England and already looked an edge as he watched on from the stands at the Liberty Stadium on Monday with his new side beating Watford 1-0 for just their second Premier League win in 12 games. 

Guidolin will have his work cut out but the Swans are out of the bottom three and have given themselves a fighting chance of surviving. Now, it’s up to Guidolin to galvanize the team and try to get his ideas across in the next four months. It’s a gamble from a team who are used to giving young managers a chance and playing attractive soccer. The Swans are in a relegation scrap and it won’t be pretty but perhaps it was pretty smart to get an experienced head in to help steady the ship and lead them to safety.

JONES THE FAN

As an aside to Man United’s top four aspirations getting a big boost by beating Liverpool away on Sunday, three of their players were also in the thick of things in the away end at Anfield.

The injured trio of Michael Carrick, Marcos Rojo and most notably Phil Jones, all stood with United’s fans and the scenes when Wayne Rooney’s late winning-goal went in were memorable.

Take a look at the video below to see Jones in with United’s fans celebrating the game-winner. Usually injured players won’t travel to away stadiums with their teams but seeing those three do so and stand as one with the supporters was refreshing.

Who says PL superstars and the fans aren’t close anymore? Not on this showing. Brilliant, just brilliant.

TRANSFER TICKER

Here’s a look at the major transfers happening in the Premier League over the past week, as clubs are starting to get busy with less than two weeks of the January transfer window remaining.

Some real bargains in here who are already having an impact on their new teams with Shelvey shinning on debut for Newcastle and Afobe opening his Bournemouth account, plus Arsenal finally have some depth in holding midfield with Elneny arriving and Saints got a steal by snapping up Austin.

Charlie Austin to Southampton from QPR – $6.5 million

Jonjo Shelvey to Newcastle United from Swansea – $18 million

Nordin Amrabat to Watford from Malaga – $10.2 million

Timm Klose to Norwich from Wolfsburg – $13 million

Mohamed Elneny to Arsenal from Basel – $7.5 million

Lewis Grabban to Bournemouth from Norwich – $12 million

Benik Afobe to Bournemouth from Wolverhampton – $14 million

Henri Saivet to Newcastle from Bordeaux – $7.5 million

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