Premier League Playback: Straight two-horse race for the title

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And then there were two…

With Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur both winning in Week 30, the Premier League title race is now between those two teams.

Arsenal and Manchester City have gone. They are out of it. Adios.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays

They both have a game in hand on Leicester and Spurs, but after drawing at Norwich this weekend Man City trail Leicester by 12 points and Arsenal is 11 points behind. At this point of this season, that’s insurmountable.

[ MORE: PL standings | schedule

Leicester lead Tottenham by five points with eight games to go and Spurs are the only team who can realistically catch the high-flying Foxes.

Below is a look at five reasons why each of the two remaining contenders can win the Premier League.


WHY LEICESTER CAN WIN THE LEAGUE

1. Vardy and Mahrez: With 37 of Leicester’s 53 goals coming from these two, there’s no need to talk about their importance. Must stay fit.

2. The lead: The Foxes need just 20 points from their remaining eight games to win the PL. Simple.

3. Kante: Mahrez and Vardy may get the plaudits but this man is the heartbeat of Leicester’s midfield. Tough to single out individuals but he’s superb.

4. Easier run-in: Compared to Spurs, they have an easier run-in. They face Man United, Everton and Chelsea in the final three games.

5. Momentum: Claudio Ranieri was seen urging the fans and players on in the final minutes against Newcastle. They are on a roll and must keep grinding.

WHY SPURS CAN STILL WIN THE LEAGUE

1. Kane: With another two goals at the weekend, Kane is now the joint-leading goalscorer in the PL. If he stays hot, Spurs will sweep all before them.

2. Defensive solidity: Spurs have the best defense in the PL by some margin and they’ve been missing perhaps their best defense for a while. So solid.

3. No Europe: They will likely bow out in the Europa League against Borussia Dortmund this week and that’s a very good thing for their PL hopes.

4. Belief: Mauricio Pochettino and his young squad have a strong belief in themselves and what they’re doing. Come crunch time, that could be the difference.

5. Offensive options: If Pochettino has to switch things up, he has some decent options. Heung-Min Son and Nacer Chadli can add something different off the bench.


Virgil Van Dijk COMING OF AGE

Many PL teams such as Sunderland, Arsenal and Manchester United contemplated buying Virgil van Dijk in the past but for whatever reason, they passed. Perhaps it was because he was too much of a risk taker on the ball or had only flourished in Holland and Scotland.

Premier League Schedule – Week 30

Result Recap & Highlights
Aston Villa 0-2 Spurs Recap, watch here
B’mouth 3-2 Swansea Recap, watch here
Leicester 1-0 N’castle Recap, watch here
Norwich 0-0 Man City Recap, watch here
Stoke 1-2 Southampton Recap, watch here

Nevertheless, Southampton bought him for $18.5 million last summer and the flamboyant Dutch center back is fast becoming one of the buys of the season. His manager at Southampton, Ronald Koeman, was, and still is, the greatest flamboyant defender in history.

If anybody had to take a chance on Van Dijk, it was Koeman. During Southampton’s 2-1 win at Stoke City on Saturday, Van Dijk shone in the absence of the suspended Jose Fonte and he is really coming of age. He blocked Giannelli Imbula‘s shot superbly, won everything in the air and seems to be improving every game.

Speaking as a special guest on Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football in the UK, he is obviously happy with what he’s seeing from the 24-year-old.

“He is very important and is a really good defender,” Koeman said. “He is strong, fast and also important in the way we like to build up. He is a good short passer and a good long passer and also has a good tandem with Jose Fonte. Last Saturday he was in good tandem with Ryan Bertrand. He is a good header and has a great shot and is also a good free kick taker. He’s a very good center back.”

“One of our philosophies is playing from the back and you really need center backs who like to be involved and confident in playing football from the back. My only worry with Virgil was that we signed him out of the Scottish league from Celtic and that is different than the Premier League. That makes him a little but trickier but he had the experience of playing against the likes Barcelona in the Champions League.”

Van Dijk’s performances for Saints has seen him called up to the Dutch national team for the first time and big clubs will surely come calling for the man who loves to stream out of the back with the ball. He has three goals in his debut season in the PL and could have had more. He is comfortable playing in a three-man defense or a 4-4-2 system and is truly adaptable and is so comfortable on the ball. Plus, playing under a manager like Koeman he is only going to improve as the legendary Dutch center back passes on his vast knowledge.

That said, despite making a name for himself with his performances, someone at Stoke struggled with how to spell his name…


FA CUP EQUALITY; END FOR WENGER?

The draw for the FA Cup semifinals has been made and if the madness in the PL hasn’t clearly highlighted the equality present in England’s top-flight this season, then the FA Cup’s final four does.

Both semifinals will take place on the weekend of Apr. 23-24:

  • Everton vs. Manchester United or West Ham
  • Crystal Palace vs. Watford

One of Palace or Watford will be in the FA Cup final at Wembley on May 21. That will be the biggest game in decades for whichever team makes it. In this season of the underdog, the theme is continuing.

[ MORE: Is this the beginning of the end for Wenger?

In the quarterfinals Chelsea lost at Everton with Diego Costa losing the plot, but the absence of Arsenal on that list is the most surprising as the side who won the FA Cup the last two seasons crashed out at home against Watford last weekend.

Manager Arsene Wenger is under increasing pressure and scrutiny from the fans with Arsenal’s wait for a PL title set to continue. They last won the PL in 2003-04 and this season did represent their best chance yet of winning it again, but the Gunners are likely to finish below both Tottenham and Leicester and will not have the FA Cup as consolation silverware. That, plus their impending elimination from the UEFA Champions League against Barcelona this week, is why Wenger is under so much pressure.

After two decades Wenger could be heading for the exit door this summer, whether he wants to or not. It seems unthinkable but the situation is becoming toxic.

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.  

Brazilian player Taison banned in Ukraine for response to racism

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KYIV, Ukraine (AP) Brazilian player Taison has been banned for one game for his reaction to racist abuse in a Ukrainian league game.

The Shakhtar Donetsk midfielder showed his middle finger to Dynamo Kyiv fans who had abused him with monkey chants and kicked the ball into the stands during a game Nov. 10. Taison was shown a red card.

[ MORE: Mou says Spurs can win the PL next season ]

The Ukrainian Football Association ordered Taison to serve a one-game ban plus a suspended two-game ban.

Dynamo has been fined 500,000 hryvnyas ($20,000) and ordered to play one game behind closed doors. Another one-game sanction is suspended.

World players’ union FIFPro says “sanctioning a victim of racial abuse is beyond comprehension and it plays into the hands of those who promote this kind of disgraceful behavior.”

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Top Premier League storylines: Week 13

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Yes, Jose Mourinho is back in the Premier League and, sure, both Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Manuel Pellegrini are in managerial hot seats, but is there any match more intriguing than Man City and Chelsea squaring off with the knowledge that a bad outcome could see them double digits out of first?

[ STREAM: Every PL match live ] 

Below we take a look at the key storylines to keep an eye on across the PL this weekend.


The Jose Mourinho Era begins against a familiar foe

  • West Ham v. Tottenham Hotspur — Saturday, 7:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN

Manuel Pellegrini and Jose Mourinho have matched wits many times, which could help the former in his bid to get ready for a rankled Spurs side to kickstart the Premier League weekend.

Mourinho has only matched up with six managers more than Pellegrini in his career, and boasts a 7W-3D-4L record. Can he quickly get Spurs put together for a visit to a desperate Irons side.


Chelsea, Man City put slim title hopes on the line

  • Manchester City v. Chelsea — Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET, on NBC

Both Pep Guardiola‘s City and Frank Lampard‘s Chelsea have lost to Liverpool, meaning their chances to directly affect the Reds’ title hopes are limited. Matches like this one are the ones that get the Reds salivating, in fact, knowing that only one team can snare three points.

City enters the day nine points back of first and a point behind Chelsea and Leicester City. The Top Four race sure looks clear cut right now — the chasing pack is eight points behind fourth — but failure to win on Saturday will likely leave either side double-digit points back of first.


Knock off the Red Devils? Wilder things have happened

  • Sheffield United v. Manchester United — Sunday, 11:30 p.m. ET, on NBCSN

Sheffield United boss Chris Wilder has the newly-promoted side in fifth place on the table, one point better than his celebrated visitors. The Blades will sit no worse than five points back of the Top Four if they can beat Ole Gunnar Solksjaer’s Red Devils, adding another big name to a season of results which already includes a defeat of Arsenal and draws against Chelsea and Spurs. United is still without Paul Pogba and now will also miss Scott McTominay. Another upset brewing?


Reds hope to get back to business as usual in title fight

  • Crystal Palace v. Liverpool — Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, on NBC Sports Gold

A week removed from a glitzy show against Man City, Jurgen Klopp‘s Reds now visit a Palace side who is probably getting sick of facing the Premier League’s best. Roy Hodgson‘s table rise has been stunted by a four-match winless run that includes 2-0 losses to Man City, Leicester City, and Chelsea to go with a 2-2 draw against Arsenal.

A Liverpool win will boost it clearer of Man City and/or Chelsea, as the Reds seek a double-digit lead on the field (Second-place Leicester City is away to Brighton and Hove Albion).


Arsenal looks to right wobbly league ship versus slumping Saints

  • Arsenal v. Southampton — Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, on NBCSN

Unai Emery‘s Gunners may be doing fine in the Europa League, but they’ve taken just two points from 12 since an Oct. 6 defeat of Bourrnemouth at the Emirates Stadium. Saints only win since mid-September in any competition is a 4-0 demolition of rivals Portsmouth. If Arsenal cannot get right here, well…

The 2 Robbies break down Tottenham’s big switch from Poch to Mou

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Maybe you saw the firing of Mauricio Pochettino coming, and maybe you even though Jose Mourinho could be in the running to take his place, but the whole thing happening in rapid fire fashion calls for something different.

Call it an emergency podcast for The 2 Robbies.

[ MORE: Ederson back in training ]

Robbie Mustoe and Robbie Earle respond to the shocking and divisive news coming from North London earlier this week.

Tottenham Hotspur sacked Pochettino and quickly replaced him with The Special One. This episode also includes some of Jose’s first words as the new Spurs Head Coach.

Follow them on Twitter @The2Robbies

Click here for The 2 Robbies archive ]

Pochettino leaves emotional whiteboard message to Spurs

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Mauricio Pochettino and his backroom staff have left Tottenham Hotspur, but not without fond words for the North London set.

Pochettino’s backroom staff was also dismissed, with assistant Jesus Perez and coaches Miguel D’Agostino and Antoni Jimenez leaving to make room for Jose Mourinho’s crew.

[ MORE: Mou says Spurs can win the PL next season ]

And Perez wanted to make sure that the world knew the final words Pochettino left for his players, something that has Tottenham supporters even more emotional.

It also surely plays as a political piece which will increase the villain status of Spurs chairman Daniel Levy, who’s been under fire for not helping Pochettino by selling players who did not want to be in North London.

Even Mourinho heaped praise on his predecessor.

“Mauricio, for the work he did, this club will be always his home,” Mourinho said. “He can come when he wants. When he misses the players, when he misses the people he work with. The door is always open for him. He will find happiness again. He will find a great club again. He will have a great future.”

Get your tissues, Spurs fans.