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.

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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.  

Premier League Preview: Chelsea vs. Manchester United

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Manchester United look to leave a poor three-match streak behind as they travel to Stamford Bridge to take on Chelsea  (Watch live at 3:00 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com).

The last time both teams faced off was during the season’s opening matchweek, which saw the Red Devils steamroll Chelsea 4-0 at Old Trafford.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ] 

Since, United’s quality hasn’t been the same, slipping to ninth in the league, while the Blues have maintained themselves in the European competition conversation throughout the majority of the season.

A win for either side at this point of season will provide a huge morale boost, as both teams go into Monday’s match without a win in three bouts.


Injuries/suspensions

Chelsea: OUT —  Pulisic (groin), Van Ginkel (knee) QUESTIONABLE — Abraham (knock), Giroud (knock), Loftus-Cheek (calf)

Manchester United: OUT — McTominay (knee), Tuanzebe (thigh), Pogba (ankle, 5 Mar), Rashford (back), Fosu-Mensah (match fitness), Grant (surgery) QUESTIONABLE — Ighalo (match fitness)


Probable lineups

Chelsea: Arrizabalaga; Azpilicueta, Rudiger, Tomori, James; Kante, Jorginho; Hudson-Odoi, Mount, William; Abraham.

Manchester United: De Gea; Williams, Maguire, Lindelof, Wan-Bissaka; Fred, Matic; Greenwood, Fernandes, James; Martial


What they’re saying

Chelsea’s Frank Lampard on dropping Kepa Arrizabalaga last weekend: “It wasn’t about giving him a jolt. It was just a selection on that day. I want everyone’s reaction spot on. I know how it will feel for him. I had it in my career, it is part and parcel. I am pleased with the reaction.”

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on Odion Ighalo: “As a striker you get thrown on out there and it might be he’ll have to come off the bench, give us a goal and he does whatever he does.”


Prediction

Chelsea will be in front of their supporters on a Monday night with Manchester United in town. That scenario tends to go well for the Blues more often than not. Chelsea, 2-1.

Mexicans Abroad: Rodolfo Pizarro’s goalscoring start headlines handful of debuts

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A handful of Mexicans abroad debuted with their respective clubs over the weekend, but none were at par with Rodolfo Pizarro’s.

The 26-year-old attacking midfielder scored on his fourth touch as an Inter Miami player, two minutes after coming off the bench. Pizarro’s right-footed strike proved to be historic, as it became the first official goal in club history.

Also on Saturday, in different regions of the United States, Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and Alan Pulido, respectively, made their debuts. Chicharito played 78 minutes in Los Angeles Galaxy’s 2-1 preseason loss to Toronto FC, while Pulido logged 61 minutes in Sporting Kansas City’s scoreless bout.

Qatar’s new marquee star, Marco Fabian, debuted in Al-Sadd’s hard-earned cup win.

Here is a list of several other Mexico national team affiliates making a name for themselves (or not) outside of Mexico this weekend.


Premier League

Raul Jimenez, Wolverhampton Wanderers —  Jimenez started and played all 90 minutes in Wolves’ 0-0 draw against Leicester City. The forward registered four shots off target and one blocked.

La Liga

Hector Herrera, Atletico Madrid —  Herrera was not called up by Diego Simeone for Atletico Madrid’s draw against Valencia on Friday.

Andres Guardado, Real Betis —  Guardado dressed but didn’t take the field on Sunday.

Diego Lainez, Real Betis — The 19-year-old was is out after undergoing appendicitis surgery.

Nestor Araujo, Celta Vigo — Araujo played a vital part in La Liga’s most surprising outcome of the matchweek – Celta’s 2-2 draw with Real Madrid. The defender recorded eight clearances, one interceptions and two tackles throughout the 90 minutes.

Serie A

Hirving “Chucky” Lozano, Napoli —  Lozano, Napoli’s most expensive player in team history, was not called up by Gennaro Gattuso on Sunday. The 24-year-old and the Italian manager seem to be on different pages, and the situation doesn’t appear to be getting better with time. It might be time to panic for Lozano’s development in Italy.

Primeira Liga

Jesus “Tecatito” Corona, FC Porto — Tecatito started and played 84 minutes in Porto’s 2-1 victory over Vitoria, which was marred by racist abuse towards Moussa Marega by Vitoria supporters.

Eredivisie

Erick Gutierrez, PSV Eindhoven —  Gutierrez played the final five minutes of PSV’s 3-0 thumping of AOD Den Haag.

Edson Alvarez, Ajax — After several weeks of little activity, Alvarez seems to be making his way back into Ajax’s starting lineup. On Sunday, the Mexican defender played his second set of 90 minutes in four days.

Jupiler Pro League

Omar Govea, Zulte Waregem — Govea played 76 minutes in Zulte’s 2-1 loss on Sunday.

Major League Soccer

Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, LA Galaxy – In front of a semi-full Dignity Sports Park, Chicharito made his Los Angeles Galaxy debut. The storied forward, however, failed to score despite seeing a decent amount of chances. Galaxy open the MLS season against Houston Dynamo on February 29.

Rodolfo Pizarro, Inter Miami – It took two minutes for an Rodolfo Pizarro to score on his unofficial Inter Miami debut. Ironically, the brand-new MLS franchise has yet to announce the signing of the 26-year-old from Monterrey.

Alan Pulido, Sporting Kansas City – Pulido played 61 minutes in SKC’s scoreless, preseason draw against Real Salt Lake.

Elsewhere around the globe:

Ulises Davila, Wellington Phoenix – Davila played all 90 minutes in Phoenix’s 1-0 victory over Melbourne City. The attacker also managed to pick up a yellow card throughout the match.

Marco Fabian, Al-Sadd – Fabian debuted for Xavi’s Al-Sadd on Saturday, playing all 120 minutes in his team’s win via penalties.

Hector Moreno, Al-Gharafa – Moreno and Al-Gharafa were inactive this weekend.

La Liga roundup: Celta spoil Hazard’s return in Real Madrid draw

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Real Madrid’s draw against relegation-battling Celta Vigo highlights La Liga’s Sunday action.

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Real Madrid 2-2 Celta Vigo 

Celta’s Santi Mina scored in 85th minute to give a depleted Celta Vigo a precious point at the Santiago Bernabeu, spoiling Eden Hazard‘s return to Real Madrid’s lineup after a notable absence.

Madrid’s eighth draw of the season moves champions Barcelona just one point behind Zinedine Zidane’s side.

Returning from ankle injury that kept his out of action for three months, Hazard returned to the pitch in fine style, leading all players on the field in chances created with three and earning a penalty that Sergio Ramos converted to put Real Madrid ahead.

Hazard – and all of his flair – left the field in the 70th minute, granting Vinicius Junior the final 20 minutes of the match.

Ramos’ sixth goal of the season builded on Toni Kroos’ left-footed strike early in the latter half of the match. Real Madrid, more or less, were cruising against Celta, who had a goal to their name following Fyodor Smolov’s early opener.

Celta, who had arrived in Madrid in 18th place and had lost their last seven at the host’s home, were destined to do the unthinkable. Denis Suarez and Mina – both utilized as substitutes – paired up for the equalizer with five minutes to go, spoiling Hazard’s return.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Sevilla 2-2 Espanyol

Leganes 0-0 Real Betis 

Athletic Bilbao 0-1 Osasuna

Teammates appear to stop Marega leaving after racist slurs

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LIBSON, Portugal — FC Porto striker Moussa Marega, who tried to walk off the field after being the target of racist slurs from fans, faced apparent attempts Sunday by his own teammates and opposition players to prevent him from leaving.

Marega, who is black and from Mali, was visibly angered by monkey noises targeting him after he scored Porto’s second goal in a 2-1 win at Guimarães in the Portuguese football league.

But when Marega started to walk off the field, several players from both Porto and Guimarães appeared to argue with him. Porto coach Sérgio Conceição also went on the field and spoke with Marega.

It took Marega several minutes to leave the field when he was substituted.

Marega held his thumbs down at the crowd as he went into the tunnel to the changing rooms. The crowd responded with loud jeers.

The attitude of the other players has drawn criticism on social media.

“We are indignant with what has happened. Moussa was insulted from warmups (before kickoff),” Conceição said after the match.

“We are a family. One’s nationality, color, or height does not matter. We are human beings. We deserve respect and what happened was despicable.”

Marega received a yellow card following his goal in the 61st minute when he appeared to respond to the slurs by pointing at his skin and by picking up a seat that had been thrown on the pitch.