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.

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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

Serie A roundup: Ronaldo sets record with brace in Juventus win over Parma (video)

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Cristiano Ronaldo’s two-goal performance against Parma highlights Sunday’s Serie A action.

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Juventus 2-1 Parma

Cristiano Ronaldo scored two goals as Juventus edged visiting Parma 2-1, going four points clear of Inter Milan, who drew with Lecce on Sunday.

Ronaldo opened the scoring at Allianz Stadium in the 43rd minute and added his second in the 58th minute, extending his scoring mark to seven straight games – the first Juventus player to reach that mark since Frenchman David Trezeguet in late 2005.

With the double to count for, the Portuguese sees his overall count move up to 16 goals this season, seven behind Serie A’s leading scorer Ciro Immobile, who has put together an extraordinary season.

Surpassing the 15-goal mark, Ronaldo becomes the only player within top five European leagues to at least score 15 goals in each of the last 14 campaigns. A big boost for the 34-year-old recent form has been Paulo Dybala, who provided the assist for the match-winning goal.

After a slow start this season, questions were asked about the chemistry between Ronaldo and the Argentine. But as Juventus coach Maurizio Sarri noted after Sunday’s game, Ronaldo is unlike others: he can create a world of trouble, but manage to resolve it all on his own.

“You have a world class player who might cause you a few problems every now and then, but can also resolve 100 of them,” Sarri said about Ronaldo after Juventus’ victory. “So you have to take him into account and work around his characteristics.”

Juventus will hope Ronaldo remains on what has been his best form this season as they host AS Roma in the Coppa Italia quarterfinal on Wednesday. For Parma, the campaign that is to crack the top six resumes on Sunday against Udinese.

Elsewhere

Milan 3-2 Udinese

Lecce 1-1 Inter Milan

Brescia 2-2 Cagliari 

Bologna 1-1 Verona

Genoa 1-3 AS Roma

Salah: ‘We don’t have to think that now we’ve won the Premier League’

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“We’re gonna to win the league, we’re gonna win the league!” rang throughout Anfield on Sunday night, and justifiably so.

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The 2-0 victory over Manchester United now means Liverpool have defeated every top-flight side this season. There is no team in the Premier League (anywhere else in the world, really) that exhibit the level of consistency that Jurgen Klopp‘s Liverpool exhibit. None.

It’s a historical season, a memorable one for all Liverpool supporters – even on the back of a Champions League winning season.

16 points clear of Manchester City, and unbeaten after 21 bouts, it’s now a near-impossible mission for the Reds to disintegrate the empire they’ve built. But along the lines of Klopp, who is implores the title-winning feeling is still missing, Mohamed Salah is weary of admitting that the league is a wrap.

“I think we just need to keep [our] focus on each game,” he told Sky Sports after the match. “We don’t have to think that now we’ve won the Premier League or whatever, no.

“We just need to take it game by game. I think that’s the only way we can win the Premier League. We struggled last season at the same time so we have to keep calm and just focus on each game.”

Perhaps Salah’s strike deep into injury-time is the quintessential embodiment of the fighting spirit and unapologetic hunger that is very much alive within Liverpool’s dressing room.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

“There are a lot of games left,” captain Jordan Henderson concurred on not falling for complacency-oriented mindset. “We’ve taken it game by game for a long time now and it’s put us in good stead so there’s no need to change.

“It is special and we’re enjoying our football but you’ve got to stay hungry, keep learning, keep wanting more and this group of players wants to do that.

“The manager’s on us all the time to improve and we know that we can. It’s about every single day, keep going until the end of the season.”

In the Mixed Zone: Liverpool v. Man United

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LIVERPOOL — To make sure you have every angle covered for the marquee Premier League games, our new feature “In the Mixed Zone” will take you behind-the-scenes and into the tunnel areas to hear from the star players moments after their magic has decided games or drama has ensued.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]

The idea is to set the scene of being inside the tunnel area in Old Trafford, by the dugouts at Stamford Bridge and in the swanky new players area in Tottenham Hotspur’s stadium as Premier League stars walk out of the dressing room and break down the game with media members around the world.

We will tell you what they are saying and what kind of antics are going on amid the hubbub of the mixed zone as players from both teams have their say on the 90-plus minutes of action we’ve just witnessed.

[ MORE: Rashford injury update

Here’s the scene from deep inside Anfield in the hour or so after the full time whistle blew between Liverpool and Manchester United as the Reds won 2-0 and now sit 16 points clear, with a game in hand, at the top of the Premier League table.

Safe to say one set of players was more keen to stop and chat with us than the other…


6:35 p.m. (local time): Mixed zone open as Virgil Van Dijk is shown on the TV screens speaking to Jamie Carragher preaching “one game at a time” for Liverpool’s title push. Come on, Virgil. Start picking your suit out for the big celebration in May. More from Virgil later on in the mixed zone as he stops to speak with Pro Soccer Talk…

6:42: A Liverpool legend is hanging around the press room. His assessment of the game and Liverpool’s dominance over Man United? “The perch is looking very strong again…” Liverpool’s 19th title, one short of United’s record 20, is in reach.

6:45: The pitch-side monitor for VAR is rolled out by one man, who is crouching over. Not used today, and only used once across the 229 Premier League games so far. What a lonely, lonely job setting up that equipment most be…

6:47: Okay, here come the lads. First up, a coupe of Brazilian midfielders are talking. Fred and Fabinho hug each other then speak to Brazilian TV. Fred has his shirt in a bag, Fabinho has his suitcase on wheels with a No.3 luggage label on it. Fred’s sneakers have some fancy metals studs on the back of it. Fred was Man United’s best player.

6:55: “USA, USA!” Liverpool’s American owner John W. Henry and his wife Linda Pizzuti wander past us and then disappear through a side door. More from them to come.

 

7:02: Man United’s players keep trudging through. Local lads Mason Greenwood, Jesse Lingard and Brandon Williams are all downbeat as they trudge through. Aaron Wan-Bissaka is not far behind with his headphones on and hood up.

7:05: Hello. The referees now roll through. Craig Pawson looks like a deer in the headlights, which seems to be his default look. Fourth official Jon Moss looks far from delighted.

7:06: Owner John W. Henry is back and he and his wife greet the assembled media. One journalists asks “How many games do you reckon, John?” in reference to how many games until Liverpool win the title. His response while wearing a wry smile: “There are 16 games left, right?” The billionaire from Illinois has played this game before…

7:09: Man United’s players are now coming through at a rapid rate as captain Harry Maguire gves it a simple “not today, mate” when asked for an interview.

7:15: Andy Robertson stops to speaks to us and during his interview Ole Gunnar Solskjaer walks out of the main press conference and pats him back. They then shake hands. Lot of mutual respect there. As for Robertson on the game: “We had so many chances we could have put this game out of sight. A really good performance from us but luckily Mo just topped it off at the end and we could relax for 20 seconds. Today, looking back at the game there is room for big improvement. Some of the stuff we did was excellent. I thought our midfield three were different class today and ran the game and that was so important. We were a wee bit sloppy in possession, particularly me in the first half, a few of the balls went out. But we got the goal and I think the goal that got disallowed was a bit soft but that’s football. We started the second half really well, we had them pinned back and it looked like a matter of time until we got the goal. But when you don’t get the goal Man United start to get a bit of confidence from that and we should have killed them off in that moment, but we did in the end.”

7:17: Robertson asked about Liverpool edging closer to winning a first title in 30 years: “We are not getting carried away. Until the champions sign is above our head we don’t believe anything because, yeah, it is a comfortably lead, 16 points, but we know how tough this league is. We beat Man United and then we go away to Wolves who are flying and it is an incredibly tough game. We know in a couple of weeks the table can change. It is up to us to stay 100 percent focus and not allow that to happen.”

7:20: Brazilian TV sum up what Fred said to them earlier: “We should have taken our chances” was his assessment of Man United, who somehow hung in there until the 90th minute. To be fair, United did have one or two glorious chances.

7:23: Virgil van Dijk stops for a chat as we ask him about the fans finally chanting “We’re going to win the league!” and if he agrees with that sentiment. Safe to say VVD isn’t getting carried away.

Focusing on Liverpool’s display against Man United, was this about staying focused as they dominated but didn’t score a second until stoppage time?

“Obviously we want to score more goals. We had quite some opportunities to make it easier but in the end you need to find a way to win a game. We defended a little bit deeper at times because they kept pressing, they kept players up and you need to find a way and we did but we could have made it easier.”

As for his goal, the Dutchman towered above Man United’s Harry Maguire and Brandon Williams to head home the opener to set the tone for a dominant win. Did Liverpool target United on set pieces?

“Obviously every game we try to look at the set-pieces to score. We have players that can be very dangerous including myself but it is not always easy and today I think it was a perfect set-piece. We wanted to target the near post and happy to be very important.”

7:28: James Milner and Adam Lallana then walk through in different directions with their kids. Lallana’s kid in full kit. Good effort. Maybe Lallana Jr. was almost on the bench for the FA Cup win against Everton a few weeks ago…

7:30: Okay, all of the pllayers have gone home. Cameras are turned off. The Mixed Zone is closed.

WATCH: Henderson’s motivated comments after Liverpool win

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Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson took the microphone after the Reds’ 2-0 beatdown of rivals Manchester United and showed why his manager loves him.

The talented midfielder said there’s no reason for Liverpool to act like its win the Premier League title, or even talk about it.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule | 3 Things | Player ratings ]

Henderson, 29, had a monster day in the midfield and every reason to soak in an electric Anfield after Liverpool moved 16 points clear of Man City with a match-in-hand.

He won nine of 11 duels and five tackles, denied a goal by a righteous David De Gea save in the win.

“We’re not really thinking about the end. Why? Why should we change now? Why think about the end of the season? There’s still a lot of games. We’ve took it by each game for a long time now and it’s put us in good stead. For us as players it’s the next game, the next change.

“At Liverpool Football Club there’s always expectation ever since I came, there’s always an expectation to win and be successful and that will never change,” Henderson said. “It is special, we are enjoying our football but you’ve gotta stay hungry, keep learning, keep wanting more. To be fair, this group of players wants to do that. The manager’s on us all the time to improve all the time and we know that we can. It’s about every single day keep going and going until the end of the season.”

The full video is above, and shows why a team is sometimes better when there’s a leader on the pitch. Liverpool’s best midfield possibly excludes Henderson — an incredible luxury — but this guy has that something that cannot be measured by stats (This is hard for a numbers nerd like me to toss out there, but it’s difficult to challenge).