Premier League Playback: Five things we learned from a pivotal weekend

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LEICESTER CITY IS LEGIT

Perhaps the biggest lesson this weekend is something we’ve been ignoring for a while. Guys, Leicester City is legit. They are the favorites to win the Premier League title.

After rolling into the Etihad Stadium and dispatching title rivals Manchester City with ease on Saturday, Claudio Ranieri is refusing to admit the Foxes are the front-runners. Well, Claudio, you are. With a five-point lead at the top and a trip to Arsenal coming up next Sunday (Watch live, 7 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) this is all getting rather serious.

Leicester isn’t doing anything they haven’t done all season long. They made the most of set pieces with Robert Huth scoring from two of them and Riyad Mahrez‘s superb goal sandwiched in-between Huth’s strikes personified the simplistic brilliance of Ranieri’s tactics. Winning the ball back in midfield, a quick ball out to N'Golo Kante saw him thread it to Mahrez 30-yards up field and the Algerian wizard danced his way past Nicolas Otamendi and gave Joe Hart the eyes. Direct and at the heart of Man City, Leicester’s tactics are tearing teams apart consistently and the most impressive thing about their recent performances is their defensive solidity.

Premier League Schedule – Week 25

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

Sure, they sat back a little deeper than they would’ve liked against Man City but they’re able to rely on clipping one long ball in-behind for Jamie Vardy or Shinji Okazaki to collect. Vardy didn’t score on Saturday but Hart denied him twice when clean through and he rifled another into the side-netting. No matter, after the landmark win the leading scorer in the PL penned a new contract which ties him to Leicester until 2019.

Over the past four days Leicester has dispatched Liverpool 2-0 and Man City 3-1. Now, perhaps for the first time this season, everybody expects them to go to Arsenal and seal a remarkable win that could leave their biggest rivals for the title eight points in their wake. How the Foxes deal with this new pressure remains to be seen. They are no longer expected to fail. Everyone expects them to maintain this form and now clinch the title. Handling those expectations and staying focused will now be the biggest test yet for Ranieri’s remarkable squad. If they do hold on and clinch the title, there’s no doubt this will be the most surprising moment in PL history. And maybe soccer history.


MAN UNITED IMPROVING BUT TOP FOUR HOPES FADING

Louis Van Gaal reacted angrily when asked about speculation regarding his Manchester United future and if the teams improved performance will help his own cause.

The Dutchman, 64, has reason to be pleased with United’s offensive display at Chelsea as Jesse Lingard‘s magical turn, spin and strike had them 1-0 up heading into stoppage time. Then, Diego Costa struck and grabbed Chelsea a point to stretch their unbeaten run to 10 games since Jose Mourinho was fired.

The manner in which United conceded irritated Van Gaal as his side have slipped six points off the top four with just 13 games going.

“That’s why I am frustrated and my players are frustrated. When you are playing like we have played today and you are not making the gap smaller. You can say its misfortune but it’s not the first time that is overcoming us,” Van Gaal said. “For example Newcastle United scored in extra time. We have to do that better, improve in that way. I am happy with the performance. It was not a boring match so for the third time in the row it was sparkling. I hope to get the support of the media this week.”

Van Gaal’s offense, unlike it has for most of this season, looked sharp with Wayne Rooney going close three times and Thibaut Courtois denying the brilliant Anthony Martial and Lingard but it was the same old story. United don’t score enough goals to be able to make these defensive mistakes and still grab three points. They need to buck this trend, and fast, if their fading top four hopes are to become reality.


NORTH LONDON RISING

So, we’ve spoken about Leicester. Now, let’s look at the two teams chasing them: Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur. Of course, Man City is still in the mix in fourth place on 47 points but the north London duo of Arsenal and Spurs are, right now, seeming to be the firm challengers to the Foxes. Both sit on 48 points and both won this weekend.

Following their 1-0 win over Watford on Saturday, Spurs’ manager Mauricio Pochettino tried his best to curb enthusiasm around White Hart Lane but talk of a title race with Arsenal is in the air.

“I believe in my players, I believe in my squad. We will see. It is difficult to guess what will happen in the future,” Pochettino said. “In football belief is the most important word. If we believe, anything can happen. I believe in my squad and they believe too in the way we play. This synergy is very important for the future. You can see in their eyes, the feeling, the energy that they believe. But it is better not to speak too much, only show, work hard.”

Arsenal beat Bournemouth 2-0, their first victory in five PL games, and the Gunners are now back on track ahead of Leicester’s visit to the Emirates next Sunday. A win in that game is a must if both Arsenal and Spurs are to claw back ground on the Foxes. Another game which could be even bigger in the run-in is March 5 at White Hart Lane. Spurs host Arsenal in just under a month and by then it could be a straight two-horse race between the bitter rivals for the Premier League title.

As for the bigger picture, both Spurs and Arsenal are still in Europe and the FA Cup which could complicate their title charge. Arsenal, in particular, face a pivotal 10-day period in February which will define their season. The fixture list reads: Feb. 14, Leicester at home in the Premier League. Feb. 20, Hull at home in the FA Cup. Feb. 23, Barcelona at home in the UEFA Champions League last 16 first leg. Arsene Wenger‘s men usually hit full stride in the final months of the season but usually their situation is much worse than this. Let’s see if the perennial kick-starters can stretch their legs and stride to success in multiple competitions but, most importantly, beat their north London rivals to the PL title.


HOPE AT THE BOTTOM

Aston Villa’s survival hopes were kick-started this weekend as a Gabriel Agbonlahor inspired Villa beat relegation rivals Norwich City 2-0 at Villa Park for just their third victory in 25 outings this season. Remi Garde’s men are giving themselves a slim chance of making the greatest of great escapes. With 13 games to go the Midlands giant is eight points from safety and need to win games, fast. They have a tough set of fixtures on the horizon but at least they now look solid and steady at the back with Mark Bunn putting in another good display in goal and a settled back four shutting down a lackluster Norwich. The Canaries actually slipped into the bottom three after this defeat, their fifth-straight loss, and Alex Neil has a crisis on his hands.

The reason Norwich slipped into the relegation zone is because Newcastle United climbed out with a thoroughly deserved 1-0 win at home against West Brom. It should have been three or four nil to Newcastle but Steve McClaren will be delighted his new signings — particularly Jonjo Shelvey and Andros Townsend — have slotted in seamlessly. The Magpies have some easier games, on paper, coming up and a few more wins should drag them further clear from the drop zone. As for Tony Pulis‘ side, the Baggies are wobbling and are without a win in five as they continue to slide towards the bottom three. Each season there’s always one team which seems to slip towards the relegation abyss…


SAINTS, TOFFEES LIMBERING UP

Two teams heading on the way up are Southampton and Everton. Both teams harbored hopes of breaking into the top six ahead of the season and after difficult starts they have found their feet. No, that isn’t a direct reference to Roberto Martinez’s awesome Jason Derulo-inspired dance moves but as far as I’m concerned the clip below can’t be shown enough.

Martinez would have been left dancing for joy on the touchline on Saturday as his team raced into a 3-0 half time lead at Stoke City. The Potters’ defense was ripped open by incisive midfield running from the Toffees and Martinez resisted the urge to break out his inner Derulo. For now. “I thought about dancing,” Martinez said afterwards. “But I thought it was difficult to beat the moves the boys showed on the pitch.” Indeed. Everton is now up to eighth with two wins on the spin and just one defeat in their last six.

The team directly above them is Southampton who have enjoyed a superb last few weeks. Since goalkeeper Fraser Forster returned from a nine-month spell out injured they’ve won four out of five games, kept clean sheets in all five and Ronald Koeman was named Premier League Manager of the Month for January. On Saturday Saints ground out a 1-0 win at home against fellow top six hopefuls West Ham to drag themselves to within two points of the Hammer who sit one place above them in sixth spot in the table.

Southampton’s grit and determination to hold onto a 1-0 lead against West Ham after going down to 10-men with 40 minutes of the game left was remarkable. Victor Wanyama — who will now serve a five-game ban after picking up his third red card of the season — lunged in stupidly on Dmitri Payet and even though some may have not seen it as a straight-red, the Kenyan midfielder gave referee Mark Clattenburg the chance to send him off. Saints overcame that setback and in their next four encounters have some very winnable games. Both Southampton and Everton are back on track and challenging for the top six.


BONUS: Southampton are also launching an initiative to develop better coaches and players in North America. Find out what that’s all about in this exclusive piece as I went down to the South Coast last week to discuss their plans to muscle into the American soccer scene.

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

Carlos Vela scored a celestial goal. We are blessed to have seen it

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Carlos Vela is making all other spectacular individual MLS seasons look run of the mill.

I mean, look at the gumption on this guy.

[ VIDEO: Rooney sent off, Kamara scores golazo ]

The Cancun-born playmaker left the San Jose Earthquakes back line on the beach with a soft shoe routine to give LAFC its third goal in a 4-0 win on Thursday

Vela, 30, now has 25 goals and 11 assists in 25 league matches for LAFC this season. He added two goals and an assist in Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup play.

But this one, yeah, this one takes the cake.

First, there’s Vela’s non-chalant dummy before picking up the pass.

Then, there’s Florian Jungwirth’s body language during and after his being cooked with a nutmeg. That’s an entire mood.

Next, Vela dribbles around the keeper and allows a slide tackler so glide past him before finishing with aplomb, the magic touch his going near post as if to say, “Can I beat this guy a second time, or do I have to use the easier route?”

Diego Rossi also had a goal and an assist, while Mark-Anthony Kaye continued his strong season with an assist to ex-Fiorentina prospect Joshua Perez. It’s a first MLS goal for the California-born Perez, now 21.

WATCH: Rooney sees red for forearm shiver, Kamara scores golazo

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Midweek MLS provided plenty to talk about on Wednesday, with two red cards and a golazo in one match alone.

The two main talking points from the New York Red Bulls’ 2-1 win over DC United weren’t really part of what led the victors to three points.

[ MORE: Europa League preview ]

How? Well, one of the world’s marquee names earned a red card via VAR and a returning star scores an absolute stunner, that’s how.

Here’s Ola Kamara’s debut marker for the Black-and-Red, adding to a record which included 49 goals in 97 matches between Columbus and the LA Galaxy before moving to the Chinese Super League for a wildly disappointing time with Shenzhen FC.

All of that is forgotten.

As for the Rooney incident, the Red Bulls already led 1-0 when DC’s star striker went forearm shiver on Cristian Casseres Jr.

It’s the second red of the season for Rooney, who is set for Derby County in January.

Amro Tarek was later sent off for the Red Bulls, who moved ahead of DC in the standings. Kaku and Daniel Royer had RBNY’s goals.

Newcastle takeover could be back on if in holiday relegation battle

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How much do Newcastle United supporters dislike their owner Mike Ashley right now?

Enough that this report is likely to condemn many to hoping their favorite club in the world is in the Bottom 3 come Christmas.

[ MORE: Europa League preview ]

The Chronicle’s Mark Douglas speculates that Ashley will lower his asking price for the club if it is in a relegation fight come December — something that looks certain after the Steve Bruce-led Magpies got bossed around by promoted Norwich City.

Nothing But Newcastle transcribed Douglas’ chatter from his podcast, in which he says,

“It wouldn’t surprise me if we hear more in December because there are still people sniffing around that football club and if the team are in the bottom three, there’ll be people thinking they can get a bargain out of Mike Ashley again. … He will probably more open to listening to lower offers in January and December which is what happened last December. He was basically saying ‘take it off my hands, you now have to take the risk’'”

This is notable for two reasons. First: the social experiment of wondering how many fans could see themselves rooting for their team to take a major and perilous back step just to see the back of a man they perceive is at the root of their failures (and that perception is widespread in this case).

But second, we can see if this rumor comes true because it’s difficult to imagine Newcastle as comfortably mid table by Christmas.

Fan protests and anger are nothing new, but here’s an effort to show how wobbly Ashley’s reputation is on Tyneside: Fans have taken to selling a black and white striped shirt with player name and number but no sponsor just so they can have a Newcastle jersey that doesn’t put money into Ashley’s pockets. And this is after he broke the club’s transfer record twice in one year.

If we’ve learned anything from the past few seasons, though, it’s that boycotts and anger will spur Ashley into insisting that he’s willing to sell and just conveniently enough it will be before the January transfer window. He “won’t be able to buy any players” with the takeover in play, and talks will hit a wall come late January, when they’ll loan a couple young players from Top Six sides.

Yes he spent significant money on Joelinton, Allen Saint-Maximin, and others this summer, but one decent window doesn’t make a culture. Count us amongst the skeptical, for now.

Messi back in training, could be fit for Betis

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Lionel Messi was back in full training again on Wednesday and may be fit to face Real Betis in the Spanish league on Sunday.

Messi had been training separately from the squad since injuring his right calf in the preseason.

He missed the team’s 1-0 loss to Athletic Bilbao in the league opener on Friday.

Barcelona has not said how long it expects Messi to be sidelined.

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Coach Ernesto Valverde is also dealing with injuries to forwards Luiz Suarez and Ousmane Dembele.

Dembele is certain to miss Sunday’s match at the Camp Nou because of a left thigh injury that should keep him out for about five weeks.

Suarez also isn’t likely to play this weekend because of a muscle injury sustained before halftime of Friday’s game in Bilbao.

Two-time defending champion Barcelona hadn’t loss a league opener in 10 seasons.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports