Premier League Playback: Analyzing the title race with nine games to go

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LEICESTER SURGE AHEAD IN TITLE RACE

With nine games of the Premier League season to go, Leicester has opened up a five-point lead on the chasing pack.

The Foxes are threatening to run away with this.

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Claudio Ranieri’s side typically ground out a 1-0 win at Watford on Saturday after Tottenham and Arsenal had drawn 2-2 earlier on and Manchester City (who aren’t out of this) thumped Aston Villa.

Analyzing the four title contenders, Leicester has the easiest remaining schedule, followed by Tottenham, with both Arsenal and Man City facing some tricky tests to end the season. You’d think the latter two have more experienced players to deal with the run-in than Leicester and Tottenham. Big mistake. When it comes to this season, don’t think or assume. Just guess. Logic went out the window a long time ago.

[ MORE: Wenger has no idea where title will go ]

It’s been that kind of year. Just when you think one team will run away with it and begin to mount a serious title challenge, things change.

I was at White Hart Lane on Saturday to see Tottenham and Arsenal play out a pulsating, breathless draw in the North London Derby. It was ferocious, had unexpected drama, turning points and was hugely unpredictable as the game unfolded.

[ MORE: 3 things learned from Spurs-Arsenal ] 

The seven-minute spell from when Francis Coquelin was sent off in the 55th minute with Arsenal leading 1-0, to Harry Kane curling in a sublime goal to put Spurs 2-1 up in 62nd minute was among the most passionate and intense I’ve ever witnessed. Spurs smelt blood. Their fans were foaming at the mouth with Arsenal 1-0 up against the run of play but down to 10-men and then Toby Alderweireld equalized before Kane’s curler. Then, just when Spurs continued to pour forward as they looked to be going level on points with Leicester and heading above them on goal difference, Arsenal equalized through Alexis Sanchez.

Premier League Schedule – Week 29

Result Recap & Highlights
Chelsea 1-1 Stoke Recap, watch here
C. Palace 1-2 Liverpool Recap, watch here
Everton 2-3 West Ham Recap, watch here
Man City 4-0 A. Villa Recap, watch here
N’castle 1-3 B’mouth Recap, watch here
Saints 1-1 S’land Recap, watch here
Swansea 1-0 Norwich Recap, watch here
Tottenham 2-2 Arsenal Recap, watch here
Watford 0-1 Leicester Recap, watch here
WBA 1-0 Man United Recap, watch here

In a game, Saturday’s NLD summed up this season so far. Especially when it comes to the title race. Does anybody else remember when Manchester City were basically handed the title in September after winning their opening five games of the season to lead the way?

Before the last week, Tottenham had been on a six-game wining streak but lost at West Ham and then let a massive opportunity slip on Saturday against their bitter rivals.

[ MORE: PL standings

Speaking to the media after the game, Mauricio Pochetino failed to blame his young players for not managing the game better and seeing out the 2-1 win against 10-men rather than go for the jugular like they did. He did, however, admit it was a huge opportunity missed to not only end Arsenal’s faint title hopes but also boost their own.

“It is true, we missed a big opportunity,” Pochettino said. “It was a good game and I think we deserved more. It was a good game to improve. Our team is young, this type of game when you play at the top of the table in the position that we are. It is important to feel that and improve. We are young and I’m very pleased with the players and how we managed the game. I think 11-v-11 we deserved more and were unlucky how we conceded the goal.”

Below is a look at the run-in for each PL title contender, with Man City having a game in hand over their rivals and if they win that, they go above Arsenal in the race for the title and will be seven points behind Leicester as things stand. Arsene Wenger has insisted that “the title race is not over” and his side “will not give up until the end” as the Gunners slipped up to Swansea City last week but did bounce back admirably at Spurs in the midst of severe adversity. Can they really rally and seal their first title in 10 years?

As Ranieri said last week, “little Leicester City” will fight for the title. From what you can see below, they have to be the clear favorites… right? Of course, Spurs, Arsenal and Man City all have European commitments in the coming weeks too, so bear that in mind. And even though we’ve left West Ham out, they’re only one point behind Man City in the table.

Leicester City, fixtures remaining

Mar. 14 vs. Newcastle
Mar. 19 at Crystal Palace
Apr. 3 vs. Southampton
Apr. 10 at Sunderland
Apr. 17 vs. West Ham
Apr. 24 vs. Swansea City
May 1 at Man United
May 7 at Everton
May 15 at Chelsea

Tottenham, fixtures remaining

Mar. 13 at Aston Villa
Mar. 20 vs. Bournemouth
Apr. 2 at Liverpool
Apr. 10 vs. Man United
Apr. 18 at Stoke City
Apr. 25 vs. West Brom
May 2 at Chelsea
May 7 vs. Southampton
May 15 at Newcastle

Arsenal, fixtures remaining

Mar. 12 vs. West Brom
Mar. 19 at Everton
Apr. 2 vs. Watford
Apr. 9 at West Ham
Apr. 17 vs. Crystal Palace
Apr. 24 at Sunderland
Apr. 30 vs. Norwich City
May 7 at Man City
May 15 vs. Aston Villa

Manchester City, fixtures remaining

Mar. 12 at Norwich City
Mar. 20 vs. Man United
Apr. 2 at Bournemouth
Apr. 9 vs. West Brom
Apr. 16 at Chelsea
Apr. 24 vs. Stoke City
May 1 at Southampton
May 7 vs. Arsenal
May 15 at Swansea City
TBD at Newcastle United


END FOR MCCLAREN AT NEWCASTLE?

In truth, this always seemed like a strange hire.

Steve McClaren was fired by Championship side Derby County last season after failing to gain promotion to the Premier League despite spending plenty in two-straight seasons. McClaren, 54, has spent $115 million during his first two transfer windows at Newcastle and they sit second from bottom in the PL with 10 games of the season to go. Nightmare scenario for a man so many people say is a great coach but aren’t sure if he’s a manager.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

Despite having a game in hand against their relegation rivals, these are desperate times at St James’ Park. Following the 3-1 defeat to AFC Bournemouth at home last weekend, McClaren seems to be hanging onto his job by a thread. He looked distressed, resembling a rabbit caught in the headlights when trying to explain yet another defeat to the TV cameras.

The fact that his players released a statement before the crucial relegation six-pointer supporting their manager said it all, and talks behind-the-scenes about McClaren’s future are reportedly continuing.

“Newcastle United players would like to make clear that reports in some areas of the media suggesting we are surprised that our head coach has not been dismissed are untrue. As a group, we aware of the situation we are in and it is our responsibility to change that. The coach and his staff prepare us well for each game, but once on the pitch it is not they who can stop the goals we concede or the chances we don’t take, that responsibility is ours the players.

“On the occasions we have given poor performances this season, the coach has in the privacy of the dressing room rightly demonstrated his disappointment in us. In his press conferences though, we have seen that he defends his group, continues to show faith in us and shares the responsibility with us. For this, he has the full respect of the players. The players are also aware from articles in yesterday’s newspapers that a person or persons connected with the club are giving information to the press of a negative nature.

“As players, we are very disappointed by this. It’s a betrayal of trust for the coach, us and the club. As a group we know we have it within us to keep this club in the Premier League. We now must fight every game at a time to earn our place in the Premier League for next season.”

Those words are nice enough, but they should concentrate on making McClaren proud on the pitch and let their boots do the talking.

The sheer underachievement of international caliber players at Newcastle is appalling. They hung on by the skin of their teeth last season and fought off relegation on the final day. But was has happened to Moussa Sissoko, Aleksandar Mitrovic and Fabricio Coloccini? Despite a clear out, of sorts, over the summer and McClaren arriving as manager — plus bizarrely also being appointed to the board of directors — the same nightmare scenario is playing out for the Magpies faithful.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Newcastle is among the best supported teams in the PL. They pack out St James’ every week and have the fourth-biggest crowds in the PL. Simply put, the fans who travel up and down the land deserve better.

McClaren knows it. He looks to have aged 15 years this season already and the pressure of delivering in one of English soccer’s most hostile environments is intense. Alan Pardew left as soon as he had the chance. Local man John Carver struggled on an interim basis to keep the ship afloat and was replaced by McClaren, and if you look at the long list of managers Newcastle has had before Pardew it’s clear to see that this sleeping giant is not only difficult to wake from its monumental slumber but its incredibly tricky to even keep them alive and kicking in the top-flight.

The fact of the matter is that even if McClaren is fired — David Moyes, Rafael Benitez and Brendan Rodgers are being mentioned as potential replacements — the owner has to take plenty of criticism. Mike Ashley’s long-term policy of selling Newcastle’s best players and trying to bring others in on the cheap has put them in this situation and the discord between him and the fans has made that worse. Sure, he spent big over the last 8-10 months but apart from Georginio Wijnaldum and Jonjo Shelvey, have any of the new additions been a success? Chief scout Graham Carr has way too much power and should take his share of the blame alongside McClaren and Ashley.

[ MORE: Premier League stats

The situation at Newcastle is septic and they have 10 games to save themselves. For a club of their size to crash out of the PL this season, of all seasons, would be hugely damaging financially as the new TV deal kicks in next season. And, of course, McClaren or whoever the Newcastle manager is on March 20, will face bitter North East rivals Sunderland at St James’ Park. Only one of Norwich City, Newcastle and Sunderland will survive as Aston Villa seem doomed and an eight-point gap has opened up over 16th-placed Swansea.

With just a point separating the two North East clubs, that game is pivotal in the battle against relegation. Both shouldn’t be where they are and have been mismanaged poorly in recent years. But it’s time for the excuses, the statements and the bickering to stop. If McClaren is to keep his job, he simply must win the Tyne-Wear derby coming up in two weeks time. If he doesn’t it’s surely curtains for not only his future at Newcastle, but also the Magpies as a PL club.


WHAT I’M HEARING: PRESSURE ON MARTINEZ AT EVERTON

It’s something I’ve been hearing whispers about for a while now and the groans of discontent are now growing among fans about Roberto Martinez at Everton. Big time.

[ MORE: West Ham fight back from 2-0 down, win 3-2 at Everton ]

A source recently told ProSoccerTalk that senior players among the Everton dressing room have lost faith in Martinez’s tactics and deem the Spaniard as naive, while another source claims he is not the flavor of the month with the top young talents at the club either. All of that, coupled with recent poor results on the pitch and the promise of significant investment from British-Iranian businessman Farhad Moshiri — who became the new majority shareholder at Everton last week which could see him pump millions into the club — make Martinez’s future an increasingly uncertain one. Locals at Goodison claim that current fan unrest towards a manager is the highest its been in decades.

True, Everton is fun to watch and has a raft of talented players like John Stones, Ross Barkley, Romelu Lukaku, Seamus Coleman and Kevin Mirallas, but with a deep Europa League run hurting their PL form and leading to an 11th place finish last season, the Toffees are also stagnant in midtable this term. Will Martinez be let go this summer ahead of what will be his fourth season in charge at Goodison?

This season players such as Leighton Baines, Tim Howard and Gerard Deulofeu have been used sparingly since January, while Steven Naismith left after appearing to be frozen out.

After a sensational start to life on Merseyside which saw the former Swansea and Wigan coach lead the Toffees to a fifth-place finish, Martinez seems to be walking a tightrope. If Everton lose their FA Cup quarterfinal clash at home against Chelsea this weekend then expect the fan unrest, and pressure on Martinez, to grow.

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.  

AC Milan escapes FFP ruling with just suspended European ban

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AC Milan has escaped harsher Financial Fair Play punishments with the ruling handed down by UEFA on Friday. The European governing body announced that Milan’s punishment is highlighted by a one-year European ban in the 2022/23 and 2023/24 seasons, but that punishment is suspended and will not be imposed unless the club fails to break even over the course of the next 2.5 seasons through June of 2021.

UEFA also included a $13.5 million “fine” plus a European play squad restriction, both of which are imposed immediately. AC Milan will have that monetary sum withheld from its total European tournament prize haul, and the club will be restricted to a 21-player squad in Europe for the next two full seasons. The squad restriction is probably the harshest part of the punishment, leaving them with less wiggle room than the usual 25-player submission to account for injuries and mid-tournament player transactions.

Milan also escaped without a transfer ban, another possible punishment for clubs who breach Financial Fair Play rules.

The decision comes after UEFA handed down a rigid two-year European ban last summer, but the club appealed the decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport and won. The Court’s decision, which came this past July, said that the club’s finances had greatly improved under new ownership, and as such, they required a “proportionate disciplinary measure.”

The new ruling says the club can again appeal the decision, if they wish.

Milan was initially flagged for breaching FFP rules after spending a massive $200 million in the summer of 2017 under Chinese owner Li Yonghong, bringing in players like Leonardo Bonucci, Andre Silva, Hakan Calhanoglu, and Lucas Biglia, among others. Yonghong was forced to sell after he failed to make a loan payment, and the club was taken over by U.S. hedge fund Elliott Management Corporation.

Koulibaly left off CAF award shortlist amid Manchester United rumors

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The African confederation somehow managed to leave Kalidou Koulibaly off its shortlist for African Player of the Year, a head-scratching decision considering the rapidly rising stock of the 27-year-old Senegal international.

The CAF announced its 10-man shortlist for the award early Friday morning, before eventually awarding the distinction to Liverpool attacker Mohamed Salah for the second straight year. While Salah is undoubtedly a deserving winner given his goalscoring prowess over the past year and more, a failure to recognize Koulibaly’s presence in the landscape of African footballers is nothing short of embarrassing.

While Koulibaly was left off, Juventus defender Medhi Benatia was on the list, despite proving second-string behind Italians Leonardo Bonucci and Georgio Chiellini. While Koulibaly logged 3,426 minutes in the 2018 calendar year at the heart of Napoli’s defense, Benatia was just utilized for 1,988 minutes. While Koulibaly was an unused substitute just two times the entire 2018 calendar year across all competitions, Benatia has been left on the Juventus bench 14 times this season alone, and 22 times in the 2018 calendar year.

Also acknowledged on the list was Arsenal youngster Alex Iwobi, and while the 22-year-old is undoubtedly a rising talent on a large Premier League club and is slowly endearing himself to the fanbase, he has still logged just nine starts in Arsenal’s 16 Premier League matches this season and had just three goals and 11 assists across all competitions in the 2018 calendar year.

In the last year or two, Koulibaly has been regarded as one of the best center-backs in all of Europe, and it has resulted in rumors of an expensive move. The London Evening Standard reports that two bids for Koulibaly from Manchester United have already been rejected, while a third is potentially on its way that would make Koulibaly the most expensive defender in history, passing Liverpool’s capture of Virgil Van Dijk. That move would make sense as Manchester United’s defense has often been the team’s downfall this season, and the club is desperate for a big signing to land major success, with recent expensive captures Fred, Romelu Lukaku, and Paul Pogba all receiving plenty of criticism in their Manchester United tenures so far.

The Evening Standard report says that Koulibaly was on Manchester United’s radar last summer, but the team instead focused on attempts at other defenders, naming Toby AlderweireldHarry Maguire and Jerome Boateng as players Manchester United made runs at instead. Manager Jose Mourinho has been extremely open about his disappointment in United’s failure to bolster its central defensive ranks in recent transfer windows, only adding Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly in the last three years.

While Manchester United certainly won’t be deterred by the CAF’s massive error, the egregious miss still degrades the award’s prestige when clearly deserving players are shunned for bigger names in what has creeped ever closer to becoming nothing more than a popularity contest.

PL Preview: Fulham v. West Ham

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  • Fulham has won 3 of the last 4 games vs West Ham at home
  • West Ham has not won 4 PL games in a row since 2014
  • Fulham has gone 20 PL games without a clean sheet, conceding 51 goals in that span

Fulham begins a critical four-game stretch, sitting bottom of the Premier League table and needing points as they host West Ham at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, live on NBC or live online at NBCSports.com.

The Whites’ next four matches see them take on the Hammers, followed by games against Newcastle, Wolverhampton Wanderers, and Huddersfield Town. They sit in the basement of the standings, but are just four points from safety. Fulham has secured four points in four matches under new manager Claudio Ranieri, but were also thoroughly beaten by both Chelsea and Manchester United, meaning the games against fellow relegation candidates are becoming more and more critical.

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa is unavailable after a controversial second yellow card against Manchester United saw him sent for an early shower. Maxime Le Marchand is a big miss for the Whites, out with an undisclosed muscular injury, but that is the extent of their unavailable list as Calum Chambers, Floyd Ayite, Andre Schurrle, and Kevin McDonald are all ready to go, Ranieri confirmed.

Meanwhile, Jack Wilshere will miss his third straight match for West Ham as he recovers from an ankle injury, and Lucas Perez is likely unavailable due to a cut on his foot, but otherwise the Hammers are fully fit as they look for an opportunity to move into the top half of the table.

West Ham was in the bottom third of the table for much of the first few months of the season, but they have climbed to 11th with a run of seven matches that features just one loss. That includes a current three-match winning streak that has seen West Ham drop three relegation candidates in Newcastle, Cardiff City, and Crystal Palace, by a combined 9-3 score. With Fulham up this weekend followed by matches against Watford, Southampton, Burnley, and Brighton, this is the time for the Hammers to pick up a swath of points and brace for a grueling final third of the season.

What they’re saying

Ranieri on Fulham’s lack of a clean sheet this season: “The players are improving a lot with my tactics. It’s normal they need time to understand everything. Sooner or later, we’ll keep a clean sheet – I hope it’s sooner rather than later.”

Pellegrini on playing a team near the bottom: “I said last week, the most stupid thing we can do is to believe that because we are playing against teams near the bottom of the table we will win. We must be very careful, thinking game by game.”

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Prediction

While West Ham is playing well, they will be up against a team that knows this four-game stretch is critical. Still, Fulham’s midfield is a complete mess, and they have lots to work on. The defense is a bad matchup for a Hammers side on a roll in front of net. That run will continue, as West Ham wins 3-1 behind another big attacking performance.

Salah named BBC African Player of the Year

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With an incredible 44 goals in 52 games last season, Mohamed Salah was the clear choice for the BBC’s African Player of the Year.

The BBC announced the honor on Friday, with Salah being chosen ahead of Medhi Benatia (Juventus), Kalidou Koulibaly (Napoli), Sadio Mane (Liverpool) and Thomas Partey (Atletico Madrid). Salah hasn’t scored quite at the same rate in the second half of 2018, but he’s still managed 13 goals in 25 matches in all competitions. It’s Salah’s second-consecutive year winning the award from the BBC.

“It’s a great feeling to win again. I’m happy and I would like to win it also next year!” Salah said, via the BBC. “There have been many good moments in 2018,” he added. “The game against Roma at Anfield [Champions League semi-final first leg] was unbelievable. I’m scoring goals and helping the team to get the points to be top of the league. That’s always a great feeling.”

Even without Salah scoring nearly a goal a game, he’s helped his side to the top of the Premier League thanks to improved defensive performances.

In addition to his goalscoring for Liverpool, Salah scored the game-winning penalty kick in 2017 to put Egypt into the 2018 World Cup and although the Pharaohs were unable to get out of their group, Salah scored both of his nation’s goals.

Even with the strong work from the other players on the short-list, it will take a lot to unseat Salah for the 2019 award as well. As long as Salah continues scoring at his current rate and Liverpool finishes in the top two in the Premier League – as well as making a deep Champions League run – it’s Salah’s to lose again.