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.  

FIFA extends men’s age limit for Tokyo Olympics due to virus

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GENEVA (AP) FIFA has extended the age limit for the men’s soccer tournament at the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics due to the coronavirus pandemic.

[ MORE: UEFA threatens Belgian league with European expulsion ]

The amended Olympic rule on Friday retains the “players born on or after Jan. 1, 1997” standard for the Tokyo Games following a one-year postponement agreed last week by the International Olympic Committee and Japanese authorities.

It means players eligible for the intended under-23 tournament in 2020 can still play in Japan at age 24 next year. Men’s soccer kicks off ahead of the July 23, 2021 opening ceremony in Tokyo.

FIFA also postponed two women’s age-group World Cups due this year in Central America and India, and confirmed no international games for men and women will be played in the early June dates protected for national team call-ups.

Soccer’s world body said “health must always be the first priority and the main criteria in any decision-making process, especially in these challenging times.”

The Olympic decision was made by a FIFA panel of soccer officials worldwide, created to address the soccer shutdown during the health crisis.

The 16 men’s teams at the Tokyo Olympics next year can also select three over-age players in their rosters. A stellar lineup includes Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany and Spain.

Two women’s World Cup tournaments — the Under-20s hosted by Panama and Costa Rica in August and September, and the Under-17s in India in November — are postponed. No new dates were announced.

[ MORE: Report: Serie A could resume training May 2, games late in month ]

Until the COVID-19 outbreak, national team games scheduled in June included the 2020 European Championship, World Cup qualifying games in South America and Asia, and qualifiers for the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations.

After Euro 2020 was postponed for one year, UEFA hoped to schedule playoff games in June to confirm the last four places in a 24-nation lineup. Those playoffs were postponed indefinitely this week.

World Cup qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar now face uncertain scheduling in a congested calendar in Europe, South America and Asia.

FIFA said on Friday it would “organize bilateral discussions” with continental governing bodies “to finalize a revised match schedule pending health and safety developments.”

FIFA plans to direct hundreds of millions of dollars from its cash reserves to support a global emergency fund, and has agreed to appoint one official from each of the six soccer continents to coordinate the work.

Arsenal want season completed ‘to maintain integrity’ of PL

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Arsenal remain in support of finishing the 2019-20 season in order to “to maintain the integrity” of the competition, despite Friday’s unanimous vote that the Premier League cannot resume at the start of May as previously hoped due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

[ MORE: UEFA threatens Belgian league with European expulsion ]

The Gunners, who currently sit ninth in the PL table with 10 games left to play (one more than the majority of clubs around them), were five points back of fifth-place Manchester United for qualification to next season’s UEFA Champions League thanks to Manchester City’s two-year European ban.

In a statement released on Friday, Arsenal reiterated their stance that the current season should be played to completion rather than called to completion at things stand or abandoned altogether.

We are in full support of the objective for all remaining domestic league and cup matches from the 2019-20 season to be played, in order to maintain the integrity of each competition.

We also fully agree with the principle that any return to action will only be with the full backing of government and when medical guidance allows.

The restart date is under constant review as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic develops and we continue to work together with all stakeholders through this very challenging time

Premier League rivalries: The Merseyside derby

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While the Merseyside derby has been dominated by one side of late, that has not detracted from the spectacle of the most historic matchup in English top flight history.

Uninterrupted in top flight play since 1962/63, the two sides are situated less than a mile apart, with the proximity feeding an already intense matchup.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Despite the incredibly close geographic proximity, the derby is sometimes known as the “Friendly Derby” as there are often families with split allegiances. Still, the matchup has the most red cards in Premier League history with 21, including 17 of those in the especially heated timeframe between 1997 and 2008.

Unfortunately for Everton, the rivalry has become one-sided over the past decade, with the Toffees failing to win since October of 2010. Liverpool has won 11 of the 21 games, with the other 10 ending in a draw. That has somewhat deescalated the vicious nature of the matchup, especially since Liverpool has gone on to become one of the most formidable sides in Europe over the past few years while Everton continues to challenge for a top-half place in the league.

Still, the 228 all-time matches between the clubs continues to fuel one of the great matchups in the English domestic landscape, and sooner or later this rivalry will regain its venom to bring the bite back to this matchup.

Bayern Munich signs coach Flick as permanent boss

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Bayern Munich has locked down interim head coach Hansi Flick as permanent boss, signing the 55-year-old on through the summer of 2023, the club announced on Friday.

Flick took over on an interim basis for Niko Kovac when the Croatian was let go in early November with the club fourth in the Bundesliga table. He impressed during his time as interim manager, leading the club back to the top of the table thanks in large part to a current 11-match league unbeaten run that features 10 wins and a draw.

That streak includes a 0-0 draw with then-second placed RB Leipzig that kept Bayern atop the table, plus a dominant 5-0 win over then-fifth placed Schalke. Successive 2-1 defeats to Borussia Monchengladbach and Bayer Leverkusen are the only real blemishes on his record in charge so far, coming way back in late November and early December.

“I’m looking forward to taking on the upcoming tasks along with my staff and the team,” Flick said in the official team release. “The talks with Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Oliver Kahn and Hasan Salihamidžić were very good and in a spirit of good faith. We’ve determined the direction for the upcoming years. I’m sure we can achieve a lot together.”

Flick has also kept the club’s pristine Champions League record alive this season, with wins over Red Star Belgrade, Tottenham, and Chelsea by a combined 12-1 scoreline. The 3-0 first-leg win over Chelsea in the Round of 16 has the club primed to reach the quarterfinal round should the competition eventually resume.

Speaking to Flick’s adaptability, he also kept the club rolling in the recent absence of in-form striker Robert Lewandowski, working 6-0 and 2-0 wins over Hoffenheim and Augsburg without his lead frontman who began a long absence with a broken tibia.

“Bayern are very satisfied with Hansi Flick’s work,” said Bayern’s chief executive Karl-Heinz Rummenigge in the release. “The team has had a very good development under him, plays attractive football which is reflected in results. We are the only club still competing in all three competitions.”

Sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic added, “Hansi and I know in which direction we want to develop the team. We believe that Hansi is also the right head coach for the current time.”