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.

Liverpool – Aston Villa preview: How to watch, stream, prediction, odds

Liverpool - Aston Villa preview
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Liverpool – Aston Villa preview: Liverpool will welcome Aston Villa to Anfield on Sunday with a more urgent perspective on its place in history (Watch live at 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN or online via NBCSports.com).

Liverpool hasn’t gotten its usual return on results for some time. Dating back to the 3-0 loss at Watford on Feb. 29, the Reds are 2W-1D-4L from their last seven outings across all competitions.

STREAM LIVERPOOL – ASTON VILLA

In an odd coincidence, Liverpool won the Premier League during this stretch.

Take the start of that run back another week to the first leg against Atletico Madrid and the Reds have won just three times from nine, beating Bournemouth, Crystal Palace, and West Ham.

Alanis Morrissette screwed up the concept of irony for me forever, but I think that applies here somehow? Maybe?

[ RELATED: Liverpool win title – everything to know ]

Of course all Aston Villa will see is one of the best teams in the world in the first match at Anfield since clinching a first English crown in 30 years and, oh yeah, their last outing was a 4-0 blowout loss to their rivals Man City.

The Villans have 27 points, one point back of 17th place Watford and three fewer than West Ham.

Team news

Liverpool’s Joel Matip is out for the season and Dejan Lovren won’t play Sunday. Xherdan Shaqiri makes the bench and there are starts for Naby Keita, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Divock Origi.

As for Villa, Matt Targett misses out through injury, as do Bjorn Engels, Wesley, and Tom Heaton. Frederic Guilbert is available on the bench after injury, while American prospect Indiana Vassilev is also a sub.

What they’re saying

Jurgen Klopp on not taking a club job post-Liverpool“When it is time, hopefully I am still healthy and I can say … ‘great, I loved it but now I would like to watch other people doing it. So, I hope I find this inner mood to say … ‘see you later, I wish you all the best, best of luck, love you all but don’t call because of any football matters.’ That’s the plan.”

Dean Smith on Villa taking inspiration from other upsets“You saw Brighton win in the last minute against Arsenal and West Ham win in the last minute against Chelsea. It didn’t escape me that West Ham’s stats were pretty similar to ours against Chelsea but they managed to stick the ball in the net a couple of times. We can take great heart from that, knowing you can go and beat these big teams.”

Odds and ends

Villa are tied with Southampton for the second-biggest underdog status in Matchweek 33 (+800). A Liverpool win stands at -315, according to DraftKings.

Villa took Liverpool to the limit at Anfield earlier this year, taking a Trezeguet-inspired lead into the 88th minute only to see Andrew Robertson and Sadio Mane score in the final throes of the match.

Prediction

The Reds record in those nine referenced matches doesn’t match their performances. Liverpool comes out of this one with a 3-1 win.

Report: Rangers sell one-time USMNT player Polster to New England

Matt Polster Rangers
Photo by Ian Rutherford/PA Images via Getty Images
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An American abroad is coming home after an uneven time in Scotland.

Former Southern Illinois and Chicago Fire mainstay Matt Polster will return to Major League Soccer this summer with the New England Revolution.

Bruce Arena’s Revs will reportedly pony up about $375,000 to buy Polster from Rangers, where he signed on a free transfer in January 2019 following three-plus MLS seasons that saw him earn a USMNT cap.

[ MORE: Pulisic reacts to Hazard comparisons ]

He was called up to two January camps for the U.S., going 90 minutes at right back against Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2018. Polster was also a contributor to the U.S. Olympic qualification push in 2015.

Polster, 27, finishes his time with 10 appearances and an assist Steven Gerrard’s Glaswegian set, getting Scottish Premiership and Europa League experience this season.

A defensive midfielder and right back in MLS, Polster played only the latter with Rangers thanks to Scott Arfield, Ryan Jack, Steven Davis, and Glen Kamara chewing up minutes in the middle of the park.

Transfer news: Saint-Maximin in demand, Norwich back to German giants

Saint-Maximin to PSG
Photo by Serena Taylor/Newcastle United via Getty Images
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The Sunday morning papers are helping the transfer rumor mill buzz after a weekend of matches in Europe.

[ MORE: Pulisic reacts to Hazard comparisons ]

Newcastle is mentioned as a home for several players but the biggest Magpies name is one linked with a departure to big, big clubs.

Saint-Maximin to PSG, PL big boys

Newcastle supporters, avert your eyes and trust Steve Bruce (What a sentence and maybe a mantra).

Magpies talisman Allan Saint-Maximin has caught the eye of everyone on Tyneside and most of the Premier League but is being linked with a big money move back home.

Steve Bruce is flat-out denying there’s any chance of selling the Frenchman, 23, who is being linked with Paris Saint-Germain and “all of England’s current top six sides.”

“ASM” has four goals and seven assists in 25 appearances entering Sunday morning’s match versus West Ham and is one of just three players to average more than four dribbles per game, his 4.7 sandwiched between Adama Traore (5) and Wilfried Zaha (4.5).

It’s not just about the numbers with Saint-Maximin, though, whose magnetic dribbling and personality keep both a defense off-balance and a team hopeful and happy. Newcastle is 1W-3D-7L in the Premier League when Saint-Maximin plays, 10-6-5 when he’s out there.

Any sale, especially with Newcastle’s takeover looming, would have to be well over the approximately $20 million paid by the Magpies last summer.

Schick to Newcastle (amongst others)

The same report lays out a more realistic shopping list for the Magpies than many of the rumors since reports emerged of a big money takeover at St. James’ Park.

Newcastle is being linked with Roma’s Patrik Schick, Nice’s Arnaud Lusamba, Benfica’s Florentino Luis, Penarol’s Facundo Pellistri, and Norwich City’s Ben Godfrey.

Let’s focus on Schick and Lusamba.

Patrick Schick Leipzig Bundesliga
DORTMUND, GERMANY – DECEMBER 17: Patrik Schick (Photo by Jörg Schüler/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Schick was once among the most sought-after names in the game. The 24-year-old Czech striker has nine goals in 22 caps for his country.

Three seasons removed from his breakout season at Sampdoria, Schick has profound his footing on loan to RB Leipzig from Roma. The center forward has 10 goals in 22 matches despite Timo Werner carrying the water in fine fashion for Julian Nagelsmann’s Leipzig.

Like Saint-Maximin last season, Lusamba has been in- and out-of-favor with Nice boss Patrick Vieira. But it’s worth noting that the manager has tried to find a place on the pitch for the 23-year-old center midfielder, deploying him at center forward and right mid at times.

Lusamba averaged 1.2 key passes and 1.3 dribbles per Ligue 1 appearances this season.

Godfrey to Borussia Dortmund

Speaking of Godfrey, could he be going from the bottom of the Premier League table to the upper reaches of Germany? For close to $30 million, to boot?

Two of the Bundesliga’s top clubs continue to monitor top young Premier League talent including the aforementioned Godfrey, with Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig eyeing the 22-year-old.

A center back in Norwich’s maligned and injury-battered defense, England youth international Godfrey has played the seventh-most minutes for Daniel Farke’s Canaries.

Relegation victims have often yielded incredible value for bigger clubs, two great cases in point being ex-Hull City man Andrew Robertson and former Aston Villa force Idrissa Gana Gueye. We don’t need to tell you where they wound up.

Sheffield United snares late point at Burnley

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John Egan’s late goal gave Sheffield United a 1-1 draw with Burnley at Turf Moor on Sunday.

James Tarkowski had put the Clarets ahead in the first half.

[ MORE: Premier League summer schedule ]

Blades stay above Burnley by two points but both will lament not strengthening their Europa League stock.

Sheffield United’s point gives it 48 points and eighth place, two points and one spot above the host Clarets.

BURNLEY – SHEFFIELD UNITED FULL MATCH REPLAY

Burnley has lost just once in 11 outings including a win over Manchester United and draws with Tottenham and Arsenal.


Three things we learned

1. Blades never say die: Burnley will lament not putting the game to bed with some promising chances but don’t take credit for the point away from Chris Wilder’s Blades. A late short corner routine involved four players on its way to goal, the last moves a clever Billy Sharp flick to the back post for Egan to finish with style. There were some stumbles out of the coronavirus pause and this result can fit in that camp but the resolve of United is real.

2. Burnley’s hopes of a Europa return take a hit: The Clarets booked a pair of 1-0 wins after a blowout loss to Man City and looked very much set for the same on Sunday before the late Blades corner kick. Burnley would’ve loved to directly affect a rival’s point total but has a lot of points available on the docket even considering upcoming matches with Liverpool and Wolves. And might success keep Sean Dyche around his beloved Turf Moor a bit longer despite recent drama with the board?

3. Deputizing skipper as Man of the Match: Tarkowski was quite good apart from his rare goal despite usual center back partner Ben Mee’s absence from the lineup. It was fitting that Tarkowski took the arm band in Mee’s stead, making nine clearances, an interception, two tackles, winning myriad duels including 13 in the air, and completing four of nine long balls (SofaScore).


Burnley – Sheffield United recap

Sheffield United had the best of the first 20 minutes, though Burnley had one solid chance that Matej Vydra was unable to convert.

Burnley goalkeeper Nick Pope had a rare rough moment when a long throw-in made its way into the goal but he was saved by a foul in the build-up

VAR did not see an unknowing Erik Pieters handball off a corner kick reason to send Blades to the spot.

[ MORE: Premier League stats ]

So it follows that, in Burnley fashion, the hosts went ahead of a set piece. Tarkowski slid onto Jay Rodriguez’s flick of a free kick to give the Clarets a 43rd-minute lead.

Burnley kept the game in control and nearly doubled its advantage with a classic Rodriguez rip from distance, which Dean Henderson parried in a good place for a misfiring Dwight McNeil.

It was a really good goal to make it 1-1, a well-worked corner kick routine flicked to the back post for Egan to finish with authority.