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.

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.”

Giroud 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.”