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.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays

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.  

The Canadian Premier League is building buzz

canpl.ca
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Maybe he’s just new on the job, but a conversation with Canadian Premier League commissioner David Clanachan is like an imperial stout from one of Ontario’s many breweries: It gets you buzzing really quickly.

[ MORE: MLS State of Play ]

Sure, the man who knows how to politick, crediting NBC and EA Sports for the uptick in soccer popularity in North America, but it’s more than salesmanship for the former Tim Horton’s chief operating officer (Tim’s is an inescapable Canadian coffee chain).

But in discussing the construction of Canada’s new league, there’s an unavoidable energy that tracks from the ground up (and there’s little doubt their publicity and communications crew has won its mission). From the league’s very open trials in seven cities — announcing cut lists after Day One of each — to several other notable announcements, there’s an optimism in a new North American soccer league that hasn’t been felt in some time.

“You’d think in sports mad North American it should be easy to do, and many have tried but it hasn’t worked in Canada,” Clanachan says of trying to build a new league. “The bottom line is we took a very different approach. We’re building from the community level in everything we’ve done. You surround yourself with a group of storytellers who really know the game and how it shows that great passion. That’s driven by the movement and passion of the spectators. Soccer supporters are there whether their team is in third-last or first. They are all in.”

And so when the CPL started with teams in Calgary, Edmonton, Hamilton, Halifax, Langford, Winnipeg, and York, it made sure those fan bases got a different taste of pro sports.

Who had the hardest shot or best agility at the Winnipeg trials? It’s all right there. Who made it to the second day of trials in Quebec? Just look at the list. Why did the league choose one uniform designer for all the teams? They’ll tell you, plainly.

Transparency is a big claim, but one the CPL has so far embraced in a big way.

“I talk about that incessantly with our people,” Clanachan said. “From everything when we announced the league and the league identity, people were blown away with us being very transparent. We believe that to really build it is to take people with you on the journey. It helps people understand who we are and what we want to do. Then it just became about continuing the momentum.”

Clanachan has said he dreams of a 2-3 division league with promotion and relegation one day, but is focused very much on keeping his seven teams strong at the start.

Clanachan (canpl.ca)

He credits club owners’ ownership of the league with helping idea sharing, saying the NBA is a good model for intra-league support.

And he thinks the relative lack of jobs for Canadians, especially in MLS, is only going to help his league start stronger.

“When you look at the entire MLS, there are only four Canadians that are playing meaningful minutes and only 28 total, and that’s the largest pro league close to this country,” Clanachan said.

Four, really?!?

“That’s what our guys are telling me.”

I expected him to be wrong, but there are only four Canadians in the Top 200 for minutes in MLS despite three teams playing North of the U.S. border. The number expands to eight over 300, but point well-taken.

And the open trials reflect that. NCAA college stars, MLS draft picks, and players from smaller European clubs dot the open tryout list, and these are just the names hungry to get on the radar of coaches who clearly have their own lists of players.

“Players from Singapore, Japan, South Korea are all getting attention, and they’ve paid their own way,” Clanachan raves. “Two nights ago Canada played Dominica. Our whole staff went. One of the starting forwards for Dominica was at our York trials last week. Dominica’s a very small country, let’s be honest, but a lot of people want to live in these countries, Canada and the U.S.”

And so, it follows that Canada is going to have fan enthusiasm and a decent level when it begins its way into the North American soccer landscape.

“What I took from Tim Horton’s is we built it community by community,” he said. “When you do it that way, you make a lot of deposits, and they’re with you when the withdrawal comes when you want support. And they are there in spades. Because they see you with them every day.
“When these owners came looking for me, I heard two words ‘legacy’ and ‘Canadians.’ And that to me was not the typical, ‘Well we gotta make money at this.’ Because people who go into sport to make money are going into it for the wrong reasons. They’ve gotta be into it for development of the sport. It rang a true bell. You look at why we’re having success: We’ve haven’t kicked a ball yet and people are over the moon. We’ve sold thousands of season tickets without announcing a roster. And it’s all calculated.”
The league kicks off in April. The league web site is canpl.ca.

Jurgen Klopp has some hot takes on the UEFA Nations League

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Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Jurgen Klopp loves tepid friendlies.

Of course, we’re kidding, but the Liverpool manager is not happy with the new UEFA Nations League, which has amped up matches during international breaks previously reserved for experimental XIs and low-key affairs.

[ MORE: MLS State of Play ]

With Liverpool losing several players to injury — albeit two during Africa Cup of Nations qualifying — Klopp was asked for his opinion on Friday.

The vociferous German did not disappoint. From The Liverpool Echo:

“They say ‘now we have proper games, real opponents and it’s better than having friendlies’, stuff like that. … Maybe people want to see (boxer Anthony) Joshua fighting every second night but it’s not possible. Nobody asks for it in other sports.

“Do we really want opera every night or every two months? That’s the question. We have to be careful. That’s all I said. I like competition of course but at one point someone has to step back and say ‘wait, they are players, I want to watch it, but if they don’t perform then I am angry’. How can we make sure they perform? That’s all I wanted to say.”

Now I’m all for more personalities like Klopp in sports, but I have to say this is about as poor a take as it gets. Do I want any event I watch, let alone pay to see, to be less intense? Nope. Not at all.

Do I like preseason matches, or dead rubber games late in the season? Only in-as-much as they are examples of sports I like. Sorry that your guys are hurt, Jurgen, but no one short of Liverpool fans and other club managers are giving thumbs up to your talk.

I mean, seriously, have you ever watched a game and thought, “I’m glad these guys or girls aren’t trying as hard as they can!” Doesn’t being less tuned into a game provide more chances for someone to get hurt.

I don’t buy it one bit. Anyone in Jurgen’s camp? I’m happy to argue in the comments section.

Reports: Atlanta seals deal for Pity Martinez, will head to club Jan. 1

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Atlanta United is still sorting out its Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup runs, but 2019 is also coming into focus.

[ MORE: MLS State of Play ]

Reports say that Argentine winger Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez will indeed be the star Atlanta signs to offset to presumed sale of Miguel Almiron, who may be moving to Arsenal amongst several rumored European clubs.

Multiple reports say the Five Stripes’ pursuit of Martinez has paid off, with the River Plate man ready to bring his flashy game to Georgia.

Martinez has 25 goals and 23 assists in 136 matches, and will reportedly cost Atlanta around $17.2 million. TNT Los Angeles says the move will happen January 1.

Martinez debuted for Argentina’s senior national team last month, and scored on debut against Guatemala. He ticks all the boxes for technical director Carlos Bocanegra and president Darren Eales.

MLS State of Play: The final playoff spots

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Major League Soccer’s playoff races still carry intrigue heading into the final two weekends of the season, but the midweek matches which threatened to either amp up the excitement or take it down a few notches fell decidedly in the latter category.

[ PL PREVIEW: Chelsea vs. Manchester United ]

DC, Seattle, and Real Salt Lake all won their matches, as only eliminated New England and Real have played more than 32 matches.

Here’s what still at play at the bottom of the East and West playoff pictures, with the latter going first:

Real Salt Lake puts its on Rio Tinto, then has to wait

Mike Petke’s men play their final match of the regular season on Sunday, nursing a four-point lead over the LA Galaxy. RSL’s opponents are equally desperate Portland, which has fallen behind Seattle in the race for one of two first round home matches.

Should Real win, it can not be caught by the Galaxy regardless of what Zlatan Ibrahimovic might have up his sleeve. It would put Portland in danger of missing the playoffs by losing out and seeing the Galaxy win both of their matches, as the second tiebreaker would decide it and LA would make amends on its current three goal disadvantage in differential on the virtue of simple math.

Oh, and Vancouver! The ‘Caps need to win out, have the Galaxy gain no more than two points, and have Real lose in Portland on Sunday.

Sunday
LA Galaxy at Minnesota United
Real Salt Lake at Portland Timbers
Vancouver Whitecaps at LAFC

Oct. 28
Houston Dynamo at LA Galaxy
Portland Timbers at Vancouver Whitecaps

Western
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
x – FC Dallas 32 16 9 7 51 39 12 10-5-1 6-4-6 57
x – Sporting KC 32 16 8 8 60 39 21 9-5-2 7-3-6 56
x – Los Angeles FC 32 16 8 8 65 48 17 9-6-1 7-2-7 56
x – Seattle 32 16 5 11 47 34 13 9-2-5 7-3-6 53
Portland 32 14 9 9 50 46 4 10-4-2 4-5-7 51
Real Salt Lake 33 14 7 12 55 55 0 11-4-2 3-3-10 49
Los Angeles 32 12 9 11 61 60 1 8-4-4 4-5-7 45
Vancouver 32 12 7 13 50 64 -14 6-5-5 6-2-8 43
Minnesota 32 11 3 18 46 65 -19 10-1-5 1-2-13 36
Houston 32 9 8 15 53 53 0 8-3-5 1-5-10 35
Colorado 32 7 6 19 34 62 -28 5-3-8 2-3-11 27
San Jose 32 4 8 20 48 69 -21 2-5-9 2-3-11 20

Let’s be honest: For seventh place Montreal to make the playoffs, the Impact need either DC United or Columbus to get a really bad team-wide flu.

The Impact are four points back of DC and five behind Columbus with two matches to go.

Columbus plays at Orlando City and home to Minnesota United. Orlando has a single win since May 16, while Minnesota has a win and two draws in 16 away matches this year.

DC is home to New York City and away to Chicago, so this is clearly the club Montreal will be seeing as its target. For as bad as the Fire have been, they’ve beat some decent teams at home (This is MLS, after all, where home teams run free).

So the Impact will want to win out, but at least get four points and hope DC loses out. The Impact is home to struggling Toronto in a derby match and away to New England. It’s not improbable it gets the points it needs, but will it get help.

Eastern
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
x – Atlanta 32 20 6 6 67 39 28 10-4-2 10-2-4 66
x – New York 32 20 5 7 60 33 27 13-1-2 7-4-5 65
x – New York City FC 32 15 8 9 55 41 14 11-4-1 4-4-8 53
x – Philadelphia 32 15 5 12 48 46 2 9-2-5 6-3-7 50
Columbus 32 13 9 10 39 41 -2 10-4-2 3-5-8 48
D.C. 32 13 8 11 57 49 8 12-2-2 1-6-9 47
Montreal 32 13 4 15 45 52 -7 10-2-4 3-2-11 43
New England 33 9 11 13 48 55 -7 7-5-4 2-6-9 38
Toronto FC 32 9 6 17 55 61 -6 7-2-7 2-4-10 33
Chicago 32 8 7 17 47 59 -12 6-3-7 2-4-10 31
Orlando City SC 32 7 4 21 41 72 -31 5-4-7 2-0-14 25