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.  

Lampard on Pulisic, Hazard comparisons

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Frank Lampard has shared his thoughts on comparisons between Christian Pulisic and Eden Hazard.

[ MORE: Pulisic Watch, Analysis ]

Is Christian the American Hazard? Or is Eden the Belgian Pulisic?

The USMNT winger put in another fine outing on Saturday, winning a penalty kick and causing general havoc as Chelsea beat Watford 3-0.

Speaking ahead of Chelsea’s game at Crystal Palace on Tuesday (start time, 1pm ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com), Lampard was asked about the now constant comparisons between Hazard and Pulisic.

“Christian is more direct. He has the ability to break a line and run forward which is a great trait in the modern game,” Lampard said. “Why I shy away from it the other night is because Eden has been here and done it over a period of time to an incredible level. Christian is taking responsibility to change games and has a lot of development to come.”

Of course, Lamps is right.

Pulisic, 21, is still in his first season at Chelsea and after his purple patch in November/December earlier this season, he’s now firing on all cylinders and has been a constant menace since the restart. Pulisic has been great for a few months. Hazard was great for seven years.

But the general similarities between Pulisic and Hazard are striking. The way they move, wriggle past defenders and accelerate in both directions is startling. Pulisic seems to have spent the break watching hour after hour of Hazard videos and replicating his moves on the pitch in the opening weeks of the restart.

The similarities between Pulisic and Hazard aside, there’s no doubt the American winger has become the go-to man in Chelsea’s attack after a string of Man of the Match displays. Now comes the hard bit. Keeping it up for the rest of this season and next.

Pulisic has hit the ground running but Hakim Ziyech and Timo Werner will be available next season and competition will be fierce. But as long as Pulisic keeps playing like this he will be the first name on the Chelsea team sheet. Just like Hazard was.

Messi, Griezmann, Suarez turn on style with stunning goals in Barcelona win

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Barcelona are still in the La Liga title race. Just.

Lionel Messi, Antoine Griezmann and Luis Suarez combined to score stunning goals in a 4-1 win for Barcelona at high-flying Villarreal on Sunday.

Barcelona’s win means they are now four points behind Real Madrid in the La Liga title race with five games to go, as Real beat Athletic Bilbao 1-0 earlier on Sunday.

[ MORE: La Liga scores, schedule

Barcelona took the lead as Messi crossed for Griezmann and he didn’t convert his clever flick but Pau Torres put the ball into this own net.

Villarreal then equalized as Samuel Chukwueze launched a counter which Gerardo Moreno finished off after Santo Cazorla’s shot was saved.

Then Barcelona kicked on.

Suarez made it 2-1 with a stunner as Messi set him up and then Griezmann turned on the magic as Messi grabbed another assist.

Another Barcelona attack saw Suarez find Messi on the edge of the box and the Barcelona legend set up Griezmann with a delicious back heel flick.

The French striker, who was criticized by his manager Quique Setien in recent weeks, then clipped home a majestic chip to put Barcelona 3-1 up at El Madrigal.

Ansu Fati scored late on to seal the win as Messi hit the crossbar and scored another which was chalked off via VAR, as Barcelona kept the pressure on Real Madrid ahead of the final weeks of the La Liga season.

Barca aren’t giving up their La Liga title without a fight and they looked in superb form ahead of the Champions League resumption in August.

Tottenham – Everton preview: How to watch, odds, team news, prediction

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Tottenham – Everton is an intriguing clash on Monday (start time, 3pm ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) between teams who are separated by just one point and one place in the table but have been heading in very different directions since new managers arrived midseason.

TOTTENHAM – EVERTON STREAM LIVE

Spurs lost last time out at Sheffield United in very controversial fashion as Jose Mourinho now has a very tough task to guide them back to the Premier League ahead of the final six games of the season.

Carlo Ancelotti has Everton surging as they have lost just three of his 14 Premier League games in charge and those defeats came at Man City, Arsenal and Chelsea.

Tottenham – Everton is a game both teams will go all out to win in their pursuit of European action and this should be a beauty.


Team news

Tottenham may have Dele Alli available, as he suffered a slight hamstring injury after coming on as a sub in their defeat at Sheffield United. Aside from that Japhet Tanganga will return to training next week.

Everton should have Richarlison back fit as the Brazilian suffered a knock in their win against Leicester City.

What they’re saying

Jose Mourinho on Carlo Ancelotti: “I think everyone in football admires Carlo as a coach and as a person. If you don’t know him as a person, at least you know him as a coach. It’s not because I like him so much as a person that I’m going to say the obvious, which is: he’s one of the top managers in the world of the last two decades and of course now. I think it’s a privilege for the Premier League to have Carlo back, it’s a privilege for Everton to have Carlo as manager, or head coach, whatever way you want to call him.”

Carlo Ancelotti on teenager attacker Anthony Gordon: “He is doing really well and is ready to play for Everton, no doubt. He improved in the past six months and how he is playing [in training and games] gives me a lot of confidence and trust in him. He is a player with personality. You can find a lot of players with quality, but you have to show strong personality. In football, you need players with personality and character. Players who are not afraid to make decisions. Anthony is one of these. He is ready to be with us and part of what we are doing.”

Odds and ends (full matchweek odds)

Tottenham (+107) are the slight favorites but this should be a very tight game as Everton (+265) have been in really good form and look solid defensively. The value here is in a win for Everton or a tie (+250) in north London.

Prediction

Tottenham basically have to win all of their remaining games to have a chance of finishing fifth and a potential Champions League spot. Mourinho’s side won’t really want to be in the Europa League next season so if they don’t win here, what do they do? Everton would be delighted to be in the Europa League and I could see the Toffees edging this, especially if Richarlison is fit. I’m going for Tottenham 1-2 Everton.

Heroic Southampton stun Man City

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Southampton beat Manchester City 1-0 thanks to a heroic defensive display and a Che Adams wondergoal at St Mary’s Stadium on Sunday.

[ MORE: New PL TV schedule ]

Adams lobbed home from over 40 yards out in the first half to score his first Premier League and Southampton goal in style and Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side dug deep and held off wave after wave of Man City attack, as Pep Guardiola’s side followed up their 4-0 demolition of Liverpool by losing in disappointing fashion.

With the win Southampton move up to 13th in the table and have 43 points as they are three points off ninth, while Man City stay in second on 66 points and they are now 23 points behind Premier League champions Liverpool.


Three things we learned

1. Saints can defend: They had a few slices of luck but Saints’ defensive unit stood tall and they deserved this marquee win. Center backs Jan Bednarek and Jack Stephens were particularly brilliant, throwing themselves in the way of everything and leading by example. Full backs Kyle Walker-Peters and Ryan Bertrand covered so much ground, Alex McCarthy made a string of fine saves and Oriol Romeu in front of them shielded the back four superbly. What a result for Hasenhuttl as his project at Saints is kicking on very nicely since the restart. It take a lot to come back from the start they had this season (ahem, 9-0 defeat to Leicester) but the spirit is good and the spine of this team is solid. With Ings, Redmond and others in attack, Saints could be a top 10 team next season.

2. Man City leggy: You can forgive City for this win. They were bright and went close on several occasions but let’s not forget, they tore Liverpool apart on Thursday and had just over 48 hours rest before this game. Southampton had a week of rest and a week to prepare. It showed. Man City had an off day and just kind of ran out of ideas. That dominate the game but they lost and that has happened to them a few times this season (Norwich away, Chelsea away) and that is why they are so far behind Liverpool.

3. Priority is FA Cup, Champions League: Pep Guardiola clearly wants to focus on winning the FA Cup and the Champions League and that is fine. People will point to Guardiola losing three consecutive league games away from home for the first time in his career as a sign that Man City are in decline, but they lost at Man United and Chelsea and luck wasn’t on their side at Southampton. Let’s get some perspective here. Man City proved their point by hammering Liverpool 4-0 on Thursday and they will be back better next season. The changes Pep made for this game underlines that Man City’s head is elsewhere. They are going to finish second in the Premier League so why not focus on winning more trophies.

Man of the Match

Jan Bednarek – Basically every Saints player deserved this but I’m going for Bednarek, closely followed by Stephens, McCarthy and Ings. The spine of this Saints team worked so hard to preserve their early lead and they actually looked dangerous on their rare forays forward. What a win and win a defender Bednarek has become, as the ‘Polish Maldini’ continues to improve from a positional point of view.


The first real chance of the game arrived for Southampton and they took it in some style.

Oleksandr Zinchenko gave the ball away and Adams lobbed Ederson from 40 yards out to score his first Premier League goal in style as his teammates mobbed him.

Gabriel Jesus then almost finished at the back post as Man City kicked on after falling behind.

Raheem Sterling then sent in a wonderful cross to the center of the goal which almost found Jesus but Ings cleared away from danger. Sterling was then denied by Alex McCarthy, then Fernandinho hit the post and McCarthy denied David Silva as Man City came roaring back.

McCarthy then denied Mahrez at the near post as Man City continued to press for an equalizer, while Nathan Redmond had a shot which Ederson saved. Before the break Southampton settled themselves and Ings volleyed over after a great ball from Kyle Walker-Peters.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

At the start of the second half Jesus flicked a header from a corner just wide as Man City continued to create chances.

McCarthy then denied Jesus’ header and Stephens hacked away as Southampton were under severe pressure with McCarthy then denying David Silva.

Kevin de Bruyne and Phil Foden came on for the final 30 minutes as Man City cranked through the gears with James Ward-Prowse blocking a goalbound Bernardo Silva shot. Jesus had another header saved by McCarthy as Saints had a brief break which saw Adams close down Ederson who cleared.

Substitute Shane Long ran in on goal and that led to Stuart Armstrong having a shot on goal which Ederson saved brilliantly down low.

Late on Man City chucked everything at Southampton but some heroic defending sealed a huge win for Hasenhuttl’s side.