Premier League Playback: Five takeaways from a huge weekend

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When one team is sipping champagne with the Premier League trophy in one hand on May 15, we may well look back at the past weekend as a pivotal factor in deciding who became champions.

[ MORE: 3 things on title battles ]

With the top four all playing each other on the same day for just the sixth time in PL history on Sunday it produced two tense and epic encounters with fitting finales to fast-paced clashes between title rivals.

Arsenal edged 10-man Leicester City in stoppage-time thanks to Danny Welbeck’s heroics, while Tottenham went to Manchester City and birthday boy Christian Eriksen scored the winner late on to hand Spurs a huge boost in their title push. Both Arsenal and Spurs sit just two points behind Leicester with 12 games to go. City are six points off the top of the table Foxes and reeling.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Aside from the title tussles there was plenty of other big moments in the PL during Week 26. Here’s a look at five takeaways as the league goes on a hiatus until Feb. 27 due to FA Cup action.


1. North London rises

This is happening. Arsenal and Tottenham are locked at 51 points, just two behind Leicester, and both have a huge chance to win the title. In PL history only bitter rivals Manchester United and Manchester City have gone head-to-head for the crown and that’s only been on a few occasions over the past five years. Now, Arsenal and Spurs — their two stadiums separated by just four miles in north London as the crow flies — will go toe-to-toe and the huge North London Derby at White Hart Lane on March 5 has taken on a bigger significance than any other NLD since the PL began.

Mauricio Pochettino think it is important “that our supporters can dream.” But he also refused to get too far ahead of himself with the title race so close at the top. Looking at the scenes above, Spurs know their win at Man City on Sunday was a huge one. Yes, they got a huge slice of luck as Raheem Sterling was adjudged to have handled in the box by ref Mark Clattenburg when the ball clearly hit his ribs but overall Spurs deserved to win with a solid defensive unit being driven forward by Mousa Dembele in midfield and the class of Eriksen shining through at a crucial moment. Spurs arguably have not only had the most consistent form throughout the season but they also possess the best “team” compared to Arsenal, Leicester and Man City. Sure, Leicester has incredible spirit plus Arsenal and City is loaded with superstar attacking talents but overall, Spurs look as solid as a rock. If injuries are kind to Pochettino’s key players then Spurs may be the best set to go the distance. Juggling the FA Cup and UEFA Europa League will now be their biggest challenge but with a top four finish and UEFA Champions League qualification for next season all but secured, surely Spurs will chuck all of their eggs in one basket and prioritize winning a first league title since 1961. They have to.

As for Arsenal, the way they dug in against high-flying Leicester was impressive. Especially after going down 1-0 after Jamie Vardy bought a penalty kick off Nacho Monreal as he clattered into the outstretched leg of the Arsenal defender and knew exactly what he was doing. A pivotal moment arrived at the start of the second half when Danny Simpson was shown two yellows for innocous fouls in the space of a few minutes. They were fouls but perhaps referee Martin Atkinson was aiming to make up for his mistake to award Vardy a PK.

[ VIDEO: Arsenal fans in USA go nuts on Welbeck’s winner

Regardless, the fact that Arsenal didn’t have a shot on target until the 70th minute when they equalized tells us plenty. The Foxes defended superbly and only Arsene Wenger‘s two subs, Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck, outfoxed them. Walcott latched onto a Olivier Giroud knockdown (Ahem… see the Tweet above) to slot home the equalizer and then Welbeck struck in the 95th minute to win the game on his return to the pitch after nine months out injured. It was a fairytale ending for the Gunners who, combined with Spurs’ win at City, blew the title race wide-open. This title could still head to Leicester or Man City but I’d have a very large bet now that it will end up in one half of north London.

Which half is anybody’s guess as this hugely unpredictable season took another remarkable twist on Sunday. The two battles between title contenders didn’t disappoint.


2. Leicester’s two small mistakes costly

So, let’s not forget that after everything the Foxes are still top. With 12 games to go they have a two-point lead and have a much easier schedule than their title rivals. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Claudio Ranieri‘s side now have almost two weeks to stew over failing to clear one last Arsenal set piece which lead to just their third defeat of the season. That, combined with two costly mistakes, could curtail their long-term title hopes as Ranieri returns to Rome with plenty to think about during the break while plenty of his players will jet off to Dubai et al. to soak up some rays. While they sun themselves, two players in particular will be beating themselves up.

Simpson was shown a red card for two needless fouls in wide areas where he didn’t need to dive into tackles. The Foxes were reduced to 10-men for the final 36 minutes of the encounter on Sunday and defended admirably but kept dropping deeper and deeper.

Premier League Schedule – Week 26

Result Recap & Highlights
Arsenal 2-1 Leicester Recap, watch here
A. Villa 0-6 Liverpool Recap, watch here
B’mouth 1-3 Stoke Recap, watch here
Chelsea 5-1 N’castle Recap, watch here
C. Palace 1-2 Watford Recap, watch here
Everton 0-1 WBA Recap, watch here
Man City 1-2 Spurs Recap, watch here
Norwich 2-2 W. Ham Recap, watch here
S’land 2-1 Man Utd Recap, watch here
Swansea 0-1 Saints Recap, watch here

Quite why Simpson felt he had to haul down Giroud when he was already on a yellow card is hard to understand. Some of this naivety  may come down to Leicester’s players not being in these kind of situations before. The end of February and start of March is crunch time in the PL. This is when the top four places are clinched, the experienced players kick it up a few gears and don’t get influenced by the fiery cauldron of a title battle.

[ MORE: Player ratings – Arsenal 2-1 Leicester ]

First Simpson lost his concentration which ultimately led to Leicester dropping back and Arsenal inevitably equalizing. Then a moment of madness from sub Marcin Wasilewski arrived. He clattered into Monreal 30-yards out and gave away a cheap free kick with less than a minute left. Ozil swung it in and Welbeck glanced home. If Leicester held on for a point — something Ranieri would have snatched your hand off for before the game — it would have been lauded as a mature gritty display worthy of champions. Now, due to two small mistakes, their remarkable challenge for the title remains intact but seems less likely. It’s hard to tell if they lose any momentum, long-term, from this defeat because they play every week like they have nothing to lose. The preseason relegation candidates are highly-likely to finish in the top four barring a monumental collapse yet the mental impact that late loss at Arsenal could have is huge. You only had to look at the players screaming at each other and throwing their arms in the air as Welbeck wheeled away to see how much it hurt them. Now, can Leicester recover in their next game on Feb. 27 against Norwich City and then against West Brom three days later? Forget about the previous 26 games, those two encounters will shape their seriousness of their title challenge.


3. Man United giving up on top four

Louis Van Gaal has just about hit rock bottom as Manchester United manager. On Saturday his team lost 2-1 at Sunderland and didn’t deserve anything more after an awful display from front to back. Sunderland deserved the three points and LVG admitted afterwards that United’s best hope of qualifying for the UEFA Champions League next season was not by whittling down the seven-point gap between themselves and Man City in fourth but by winning the UEFA Europa League. No seriously.

“I have to do my work and I do my work to my utmost best. I cannot do more and I shall prepare my players against Midtjylland 100 percent and I shall do that always… I think after this match it is the best route but it is also not so easy because some very good teams are participating in this event.”

It is bad for LVG, very bad. Sure, he has injuries but the severe lack of leadership at the Stadium of Light will have upset him most. So will the admission that Sunderland’s players wanted it more than his team. That is perhaps the most damning comment in the last 18 months from Van Gaal as his lackluster tenure in charge of the Red Devils now has a new low-point.

“The top four will be very difficult now,” Van Gaal said. “You cannot close your eyes to that. Everybody’s very sad. We couldn’t cope with Sunderland’s aggression and set pieces. We didn’t deliver and we feel disappointed and we feel sad. You cannot close your eyes from the top four being a minimum requirement.”


4. Valentine’s Day massacre: Liverpool thrash Villa

Aston Villa may be the worst team the Premier League has ever seen. Sure, Derby County and Sunderland have been relegated with very few points in the past but most of the time those teams had grit but lacked quality. It’s easy to say Villa lack both. Especially after their embarrassing collapse at home to Liverpool on Sunday as Remi Garde’s side appeared to give up in the second half. Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool won 6-0 and four of their goals were scored in a mad 13 minute spell where Moses appeared to be conducting the frequent parting of Villa’s defense. It was unacceptable and Villa Park was all but empty of home fans at the final whistle.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings

Liverpool were good as Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge returned and the duo linked up for the opener after 16 minutes and the Reds never looked back. That said, it’s hard to judge Klopp’s men when they were playing a team this poor. Villa are eight points off safety with 12 games left. American owner Randy Lerner has been wanting to sell them for years and now a sleeping giant of English soccer appears to be resigned to relegation for the first time in the PL era. It’s a sad state of affairs.


5. Saints may never concede again; Sunderland alive; Chelsea back?

Five wins in their last six and failing to concede in that run, Southampton is in the top six and Ronald Koeman is talking about sneaking into the top four. Hang on RoKo, hold your horses. That said, with the way Saints are defending with the 3-5-2 formation — it becomes a five-man defense when they defend — they look impenetrable. Swansea City never looked close to scoring on Saturday and Shane Long pounced 20 minutes from time to finish off the Swans. With Fraser Forster returning for the last six games after nine months out injured, the towering English goalkeeper has breathed new life into a defense which had looked very shaky all season. With Forster and their three-man central defense, Saints look a good bet to better their seventh-place finish from last season. Next up, they have Chelsea at home and the Blues look more like themselves heading into a big week.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

Guus Hiddink’s side are unbeaten since Jose Mourinho was fired in December, failing to lose in 12 games since the “Special One” was sacked. They struck early and often against Newcastle on Saturday, leading 3-0 after 17 minutes and eventually securing a 5-1 win. That is exactly what Hiddink would’ve wanted ahead of their UCL last 16 first leg clash at Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday, but what he didn’t want to see was John Terry hobble off with a hamstring injury. A defensive reshuffle will see them cope with JT’s absence but in a pivotal week when a trip to Paris then a FA Cup last 16 clash at home to Man City is on the slate, it’s far from ideal. Even though Pedro and Diego Costa impressed against Newcastle, the Magpies were extremely poor and the crushing defeat sent them back into the drop zone, just one point ahead of their rising north east rivals: Sunderland.

As mentioned, Sunderland were good value for their win against Man United. Sam Allardyce is old school and many lambast his direct tactics but you can’t argue that every single one of his teams doesn’t fight for him. The Black Cats did good business in January with new center back Lamine Kone towering home a header late on to seal the win, plus new playmaker Wahbi Khazri grabbing his first goal for the club to start the scoring. Just five points now separates Sunderland in 19th and Bournemouth in 14th. With Villa seemingly gone, it seems like two from Sunderland, Newcastle, Norwich, Swansea and Bournemouth will join them. Right now the Black Cats have momentum and the relegation battle is in well and truly on.

Good news for USMNT fans, DeAndre Yedlin played against United — despite Allardyce questioning his experience just 24 hours before kick off — and although he seemed to lose Anthony Martial on United’s goal, he did make light of another very embarrassing situation. Just before United’s equalizer Yedlin drove forward and looked for a foul as he hit the floor with an obvious dive. He was booked and after the game the former Seattle Sounders right back sent out the apologetic Tweet above. Let’s see if he can keep his place ahead of Billy Jones who was injured this weekend, at least for his impressive honesty and definitely not for his shambolic diving. Tut, tut, DeAndre…

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

Wolfsburg’s Mbabu out of Europa League after virus positive

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WOLFSBURG, Germany (AP) Wolfsburg defender Kevin Mbabu will miss his team’s Europa League last-16 game against Shakhtar Donetsk after he tested positive for the coronavirus last month, the club said Monday.

[ MORE: Predictions, Odds for Europa ]

Wolfsburg coach Oliver Glasner said the Switzerland defender would “definitely” not travel with the team to the Ukrainian capital Kyiv to play Shakhtar on Wednesday. He has not been training with the team, Glasner added.

Wolfsburg said July 25 that Mbabu had tested positive and was in isolation at home. He was not displaying symptoms, the club said at the time.

The right back played 20 games for Wolfsburg in the Bundesliga this season, including 90 minutes in all nine games after the league resumed in May amid the pandemic.

The Europa League restarts Wednesday after a break of nearly five months. The second legs of last-16 matchups will be played at the original venues.

[ LIVE: Europa League scores  ]

Two fixtures where the first leg wasn’t played before the season was suspended – Inter Milan against Getafe and Roma against Sevilla – will be played as single-leg contests in Germany.

From the quarterfinals onward all games will be played in a tournament format in Germany.

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

Transfer news: Thiago to Liverpool; Gabriel to Man United

Thiago Alcantara to Liverpool
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In transfer news there’s an update on Thiago Alcantara to Liverpool, while Gabriel to Manchester United seems to be moving to the next stage.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Starting in Liverpool, talk of Thiago Alcantara to Liverpool has been gathering steam over the last few weeks and a new report states that Jurgen Klopp’s men are now the favorites to sign him.

Bayern Munich expect the 29-year-old Spanish international to leave this summer and according to Mundo Deportivo Liverpool have jumped ahead of Paris Saint-Germain and are ‘very likely’ to sign the former Barcelona star.

Bayern want $35 million for Thiago who has one year left on his current contract.

The deep-lying playmaker is a totally different central midfielder to what Liverpool currently have as Jordan Henderson, Fabinho, James Milner and Georginio Wijnaldum are all hard-working more defensive minded players. And then there’s Naby Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who provide a bit more attacking intent with forward runs from central midfield.

Thiago Alcantara would help Liverpool control games better when opponents sit back and don’t allow them space to operate in-behind. He is a silky pass-master who is wanted by PSG, Liverpool, Manchester United and others, but it appears he will be heading to Anfield to give Liverpool a totally new dimension to their play. If this happens, it will make an already strong Liverpool side stronger.

Gabriel to Manchester United
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Switching to Manchester, a report in France states that Gabriel Magalhaes could be heading to Manchester United.

The Brazilian defender, 22, has been a star for Lille over the past few seasons but has been linked with Arsenal, Chelsea, Napoli, Everton and Man United consistently in recent months.

A report from French outlet RMC states that Man United’s executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward has met with Gabriel’s agents about his availability.

Lille want $35 million for Gabriel and although the report says that Man United haven’t made an offer directly to the Ligue 1 club, it is believed talks are ongoing.

Man United are said to be in the market for a winger, center back and central midfielder this summer and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is likely to be given cash to spend after securing Champions League qualification for next season.

It is believed Solskjaer wants a left-footed center back, which Gabriel is, as Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire are often too similar at center back. Those two have developed a decent enough partnership but it appears that Solskjaer wants to replace Lindelof and adding Gabriel will also give him an option to switch to a 3-4-3 system which he likes to do to match up against  more attack-minded opponents.

Chris Smalling, Eric Bailly and Phil Jones are very much on the outside looking in at Man United in terms of their other center back options.

With Jadon Sancho reportedly on his way to Old Trafford, Solskjaer needs to bolster his center back and holding midfield options and then he is good to go for next season.

Gabriel is a young, talented center back and seems ready to make the next step and this is a good price for a player who can develop over the next few seasons.

How long of a break will Premier League clubs get?

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How long of a break will Premier League clubs get? That is the big question during the significantly shortened offseason between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 season.

In short: not long.

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When Premier League clubs all agreed that the 2020-21 season would kick off on September 12, there was an understanding that clubs in European action will be handed extra time off and could start the season late.

Manchester City and Chelsea are in Champions League action and if they reach the quarterfinal stage (Man City are looking a lot more likely to do that than Chelsea) it is expected they will start next season one week late and if they reach the semifinals and final they will start two weeks late.

The same rule is in place for Manchester United and Wolves who are in Europa League and are both in Round of 16 action this week.

If Chelsea lose to Bayern Munich on Saturday, their season will be over and they will have a 35-day break before the 2020-21 season. That is longer than the 30-day limit but Frank Lampard wants longer.

As for the other 16 Premier League teams for the 2020-21 season, the clubs who finished on the final day of the  2019-20 Premier League season on July 26 will have had 47 days off until the new season begins.

So, there you have it.

A staggered start to the 2020-21 season seems likely as the domestic campaign begins in a few weeks with the Community Shield final at Wembley between Liverpool and Arsenal on Aug. 29.

Premier League teams will have shorter, more intense preseason campaigns and are unlikely to travel for friendly games, so it will be interesting to see how much rest players actually get over the summer and if teams who get a 2-3 week longer break benefit compared to those clubs in European action.

Christian Pulisic issues injury update

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‘Pulisic injury news’ is probably trending worldwide at this point, and Chelsea and USMNT star Christian Pulisic has an injury update after he damaged his right hamstring in the FA Cup final against Arsenal on Saturday.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]

Pulisic, 21, scored a superb goal early on and was arguably the man of the match even though he pulled up abruptly in the 46th minute when sprinting free (once again) of the Arsenal attack and then hitting a shot wide.

After being helped off the pitch while clearly in pain, Pulisic was seen hanging around the tunnel area after the FA Cup final and was at least walking on his own.

Posting a message on Instagram following the final, here’s what Pulisic had to say:

“Gave it everything we had. Wasn’t our day. Thank you guys for your support I’ll be back in no time,” Pulisic said.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

The fact Pulisic went off injured early in the second half of the FA Cup final severely hampered Chelsea and gave Arsenal the impetus to go on and win the final at Wembley. He has become that important to Chelsea.

Chelsea boss Frank Lampard previously confirmed that Pulisic would not be fit enough to play at Bayern Munich on Saturday in their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 second leg (Chelsea trail 3-0 from the first leg) and would have a scan to assess the damage.

Pulisic’s 2019-20 season is now done and both Chelsea and USMNT fans will be waiting with bated breath for the next injury update as hamstring injuries can be a nasty thing and reoccur easily.

The USMNT star had a few of them at Borussia Dortmund and given his incredible pace it is clear he will be more susceptible to hamstring and upper leg injuries.

Previously Lampard revealed that Pulisic had been working hard with Chelsea’s strength and conditioning coaches in recent months to build up his strength in order to adapt to the Premier League. We’ve certainly seen the results of that work in recent week as he took the Premier League by storm during the restart.

This latest update from Pulisic seems to be very good news as many had feared a lengthy injury layoff for the USMNT star but it seems like he may be ready for the start of the 2020-21 season for Chelsea.