Premier League Playback: Dangerous for Leicester to, finally, believe?

3 Comments

LEICESTER, FINALLY, BELIEVE

Leicester City’s fans finally seem to believe they are going to win the Premier League. They voiced that belief through song this weekend and for the first time it was widespread and not sporadic. 

Timely reminder: Leicester was meant to be in a relegation battle this season. They sit top on 66 points. 

You can understand why it’s taken a while for the Foxes fans, players and management to believe, but after securing a fourth 1-0 win in their last five outings away at Crystal Palace on Saturday they still have a five-point lead heading into the final seven games of the season.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Claudio Ranieri‘s side continue to be clinical when they get a chance as Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez combined for the game-winner, yet again. That duo has now scored 37 of Leicester’s 54 goals this season and have added 17 assists between them.

With a solid base of Wes Morgan and Robert Huth holding firm late on when Palace hit the crossbar and piled on the pressure, Leicester can bend but not break. In truth, Shinji Okazaki missed two decent chances during the game and Mahrez fluffed another when it was 0-0 but it didn’t matter. Right now Leicester is squeezing by teams and it is something they’ve become experts at doing since the turn of the year as they’ve conceded just six times in the PL, the lowest number of any club.

[ MORE: Ranieri – “Now the others must do something”

The Foxes have won 13 games by a one-goal margin this season, more than any other PL club, and their ability to allay any nerves and play their normal game is remarkable. With seven games left, that will hold them in good stead. Ranieri knows it, and even he is starting to believe.

“Our fans are singing — that is fantastic, but we have to stay calm and concentrated,” Ranieri said. “I remember at the start of the season, I haven’t forgotten: The goal was to save the team.”

“Now everybody is speaking about us. Not only in England but around the world.”

Below is a look at how the Leicester fans reacted to the latest win at Selhurst Park. If they do manage to win the PL it will be one of the greatest stories in sporting history. Period.

All together now…

But with Tottenham hot on Leicester heels following their 3-0 demolition of Bournemouth on Sunday, is it a little early for these songs?

Of course, Leicester’s fans were braced for a relegation battle ahead of this season so anything other than that is a bonus. All but securing UEFA Champions League qualification with seven games to go is a huge bonus.

However, the main nagging reason fans of Leicester haven’t been able to really believe they can win the title is due to Tottenham still being in touching distance. Even Arsenal will be eight points back if they win their game in hand following their 2-0 win at Everton this weekend and as we said in Playback last week, it’s a two-horse race for the title. Spurs possess the better players, but my mind casts back to a cold January evening at White Hart Lane when Spurs dominated Leicester but fell 1-0 to a Robert Huth header late on. That three points swing could be pivotal when all is said and done but Mauricio Pochettino‘s young team also believes they can win the league.

[ MORE: Pochettino urges Spurs to believe ]

At Leicester, Ranieri is rightly trying to keep everyone focused but with Harry Kane scoring five times in his last three PL outings — he now leads the PL with 21 goals — and Spurs possessing the best defense in the league, this title race is far from over.

Deep down, despite their jubilation at Selhurst on Saturday, Leicester’s fans know it.


DERBY DAY DRAMA

Premier League Schedule – Week 31

Result Recap & Highlights
Chelsea 2-2 West Ham Recap, watch here
C. Palace 0-1 Leicester Recap, watch here
Everton 0-2 Arsenal Recap, watch here
Man City 0-1 Man Utd Recap, watch here
N’castle 1-1 S’land Recap, watch here
Saints 3-2 Liverpool Recap, watch here
Swansea 1-0 A. Villa Recap, watch here
Tottenham 3-0 B’mouth Recap, watch here
Watford 1-2 Stoke Recap, watch here
West Brom 0-1 Norwich Recap, watch here

Sunday was derby day in the Premier League as the Manchester and Tyne-Wear derbies took center stage.

Predictably, both were full of passion and tension. The latter emotion was most prevalent, and was reflective of the negative situations Manchester City and Manchester United, plus Newcastle United and Sunderland, currently find themselves in.

[ MORE: 3 things from Manchester derby ] 

I was at the Manchester derby as Louis Van Gaal‘s side grabbed a big win courtesy of local lad Marcus Rashford netting the winnner.

Rashford, 18, now has five goals in his first eight games as a professional for United and has taken the chance presented to him. United has a real chance of finishing in the top four as they sit just one point behind their “noisy neighbors” City who are tumbling down the standings with incoming boss Pep Guardiola in real jeopardy of not having the chance to manage in the UEFA Champions League next season. That wasn’t in the masterplan.

Outgoing City boss, Manuel Pellegrini, uncharacteristically walked out of his postgame TV interview and was abrasive when asked about his slumping City side in the postgame press conference. He wasn’t happy and after seeing his defense ripped apart by Rashford — Martin Demichelis is still untangling his legs after the first goal and put in a shocking performance before being subbed out — it became readily apparent how ridiculously reliant City is on captain Vincent Kompany. The sooner the Belgian center back comes back the better, but the potential to be without him for the UCL quarterfinals clashes against Paris Saint-Germain doesn’t bode well.

As for United, Van Gaal was buoyed by the big win and after the game ProSoccerTalk asked him about one man who was influential in the victory: Morgan Schneiderlin.

“I don’t have to say that too loud because the last time I said I was very happy with Morgan Schneiderlin, after that he didn’t play too well,” Van Gaal laughed. “Today he played a very good match. He was a lot of times available to receive the pass but also defnesively he was very firm and strong. He played also a very important position in midfield. I was very happy.”

Momentum is building for Manchester United with Bastian Schweinsteiger coming back to full fitness, Wayne Rooney not far away and it seems like United have a much better chance than City of finishing in fourth. Perhaps Van Gaal’s days at United aren’t numbered after all…

In the other derby, Sunderland squandered yet another lead late on but in truth, a draw was a fair result, as the two north east giants went head-to-head in a relegation six-pointer. A draw, especially after Norwich’s first win in 10 earlier in the weekend, did neither team any good and it seems increasingly likely that at least one of Newcastle or Sunderland will go down.

[ MORE: Promise for Magpies despite derby draw

10 days after arriving Rafael Benitez now has the entire international break to work with many of his Newcastle players to try and get them set up defensively and there is hope. However, after the break they face Norwich City and Swansea City in the space of three games. Those are now must wins despite Aleksandar Mitrovic‘s late equalizer halting a run of six-straight defeats to their bitter rivals Sunderland.

That moment was all too much for one Newcastle fan who ran onto the pitch to celebrate with Mitrovic and the hilarious scenes below ensued. Obviously, I don’t condone fans entering the field of play but this sums up the sheer elation and relief felt among the home fans at St. James’ Park. This is what derby day is all about.


THE CHASING PACK

United’s derby win didn’t only reignite their chances of finishing in the top four but it also helped West Ham United and Southampton, plus Stoke City and even Liverpool — with their games in hand — are still in the hunt too.

The Hammers should be in the top four, really. They were leading London rivals Chelsea 2-1 heading into stoppage time but Michail Antonio was adjudged to have clipped Ruben Loftus-Cheek in the penalty box and Cesc Fabregas scored the spot kick to grab Chelsea a 2-2 draw. The foul was outside the box and Slaven Bilic was incensed, but the Hammers sit just one point behind Man City heading into the final eight games of the season. With the Olympic Stadium move happening this summer, West Ham are in a straight-battle with the two Manchester clubs for the final UEFA Champions League qualification spot.

As for Southampton, their remarkable comeback against Liverpool on Sunday summed up the spirit Ronald Koeman‘s side possesses. Trailing 2-0 at half time at home to Liverpool, Sadio Mane had a penalty kick saved less than five minutes into the second half but Saints came roaring back and scored three times late in the second half to win 3-2. It was the first-time in PL history that Liverpool had lost after leading by at least two goals at half time.

Southampton have played a game more than West Ham and the Manchester clubs but sit four points behind City with seven games to go. They have some momentum heading into the international break and even the usually cool-headed Koeman got carried away and ran down the touchline to celebrate the game-winner against Liverpool with his players.

Saints will be delighted with finishing seventh again this season (that’s their highest-ever PL finish and it occurred last season) but maybe they and West Ham can surge and finish above the two ailing Manchester clubs?


USMNT UPDATE

Tim Howard‘s move from Everton to Colorado Rapids was confirmed on Sunday, with the Everton goalkeeper to head back to Major League Soccer in July after the conclusion of the 2015-16 PL season.

Howard, 36, will reportedly be paid just under $2.5 million a year and after signing a three-year deal to become the Rapids’ newest Designated Player he believes the “time is right” to head home and be closer to his family.

[ MORE: Changing of the guard at Everton ]

There’s no doubt about it, Howard has been a wonderful ambassador for American players in England. Over the past 13 years, first with Manchester United and then in his 10-year spell with Everton, Howard has been solid and dependable. For the U.S. national team his performance against Belgium at the 2014 World Cup will always stick out, but Jurgen Klinsmann will hope big things still lie ahead for Howard who could easily play until the 2018 World Cup in Russia. This certainly shouldn’t mark the end of his international career, even if Howard has been criticized by some of the Everton supporters for his displays this season which have ultimately seen him dropped at the expense of Joel Robles.

This move to Colorado makes Howard the best-paid goalkeeper in MLS history, but it also makes sense for a man whose children live in the U.S. and who has lived overseas for 13 years. Howard is returning home and it will be quite something to see how the fanbase in Colorado, and across MLS, reacts to his homecoming.

In terms of the other USMNT players in the PL, Geoff Cameron started and played the full 90 at center back as Stoke stayed hot on the heels of the pack chasing European qualification with a 2-1 win at Watford. DeAndre Yedlin played the full 90 in Sunderland’s 1-1 derby draw at Newcastle but his foul throw came in the build up to Mitrovic’s equalizer which is something Sam Allardyce is likely to be incensed by. Then there’s poor old Aston Villa and Brad Guzan. Villa is now 12 points off safety and has lost six-straight with Guzan making a howler for Swansea’s winning-goal at the weekend. Heading into next season, with Howard’s departure and Guzan’s impending relegation, there could be just two full U.S. national team players in the PL.

Howard, Cameron, Yedlin and Guzan are all in Klinsmann’s latest USMNT squad as they face Guatemala home and away on Mar. 25 and 29 in 2018 World Cup qualifying.


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.  

Champions League: PSG ruin Atalanta fairytale with stoppage-time comeback

Champions League PSG
Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Atalanta were within five minutes of knocking off PSG and reaching the Champions League semifinals, but those final five minutes were to be played after the proverbial midnight, and their carriage turned to a rotten pumpkin so very close to the final whistle.

[ MORE: Champions League predictions ]

Paris Saint-Germain’s stoppage-time comeback brought about the harsh end to a fairytale run which had captured the hearts and minds of neutral fans the world over.

The three-time reigning Ligue 1 champions were quickest out of the starting blocks and jumped all over Atalanta with a flurry of early chances. They were, however, wasteful to an alarming degree — none more egregious and disappointing than Neymar’s one-on-one chance in the third minute.

Atalanta treaded water in those opening 25 minutes before hitting PSG with a blindside haymaker in the 26th. With three defenders surrounding — and winning — the ball atop their own penalty area, PSG were a bit unlucky to see it pinball into a patch of open space where Mario Pasalic was lurking completely unmarked. He still had plenty to do, though, and he left no doubt whatsoever with the left-footed finish.

Unfortunately for Neymar and PSG, his earlier blunder wasn’t his only shocking moment of the game. On most any other day, he scores one or two — maybe even all three — of these chances. It wasn’t his day, clearly.

[ LIVE: Champions League schedule ]

Kylian Mbappe (ankle) was introduced as a substitute right on the hour mark, and the 21-year-old instantly threatened and gave PSG energy and life. His first great scoring chance — and PSG’s best chance since Neymar’s early miss — came in the 74th minute, but Marco Sportiello was up to the task of denying one of the world’s most expensive signing.

Six minutes later, it was the exact same story.

Finally, with 89:35 on the clock, Marquinhos broke through Atalanta’s stout defense and drew level. It was anything but pretty, which made it all the more painful for Atalanta.

Two minuets after drawing level, Mbappe teed up Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting for the close-range winner that PSG largely deserved on the whole of their dominant performance.

Up next for Thomas Tuchel’s side is a semifinal clash with the winner of Thursday’s quarterfinal between Atletico Madrid and RB Leipzig.

Thiago to Liverpool: Bayern boss urges Premier League move

Thiago to Liverpool
Photo by A. Hassenstein/Getty Images for FC Bayern
Leave a comment

Thiago-to-Liverpool gaining momentum: Bayern munich manager Hansi Flick has taken the unexpected step of not only endorsing, but seemingly urging, Thiago Alcantara’s rumored transfer to Premier League champions Liverpool this summer.

[ MORE: Paul Pogba contract talks to begin after Man United season ends ]

Contract negotiations have stalled and perhaps reached an impasse with just 12 months remaining on Thiago’s contract, therefore the logical expectation is that he will leave the club in the coming weeks. Flick is fully understand, and accepting, of the situation — both from the standpoint of the club and that of the player — quotes from the Metro:

“As a person and as an athlete, I can understand him. Thiago played for Barcelona, and seven years for Bayern. Now he wants a new challenge, which in my opinion must be the Premier League.”

It has previously been reported that Liverpool had agreed personal terms with Thiago, but the two clubs are yet to agree a transfer fee as of yet.

[ MORE: Transfer news: Dembele to Man United; Promes to Arsenal ]

PST’s Joe Prince-Wright, on how Thiago-to-Liverpool might look on the field, from last week:

The deep-lying playmaker is a totally different central midfielder to what Liverpool currently have as Jordan Henderson, Fabinho, James Milner and Georginio Wijnaldum are all hard-working more defensive minded players. And then there’s Naby Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who provide a bit more attacking intent with forward runs from central midfield.

Thiago Alcantara would help Liverpool control games better when opponents sit back and don’t allow them space to operate in-behind. He is a silky pass-master who is wanted by PSG, Liverpool, Manchester United and others, but it appears he will be heading to Anfield to give Liverpool a totally new dimension to their play. If this happens, it will make an already strong Liverpool side stronger.

Pogba contract talks to begin after season ends

Pogba contract
Photo by Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Pogba contract update: For all the talk of Paul Pogba leaving Manchester United this summer, last summer and the summer before that one, the 27-year-old midfielder now appears ready to commit to the Red Devils for the foreseeable future.

[ MORE: Transfer news: Dembele to Man United; Promes to Arsenal ]

According to a report from Sky Sports, not only is Pogba happy at Man United these days, but he also expects negotiations over a new contract to begin after the club’s Europa League run ends. United are set to face Sevilla in the quarterfinals on Sunday, with the final looming large next Friday, Aug. 21.

“Pogba is happy at United and he’s expecting them to open contract talks once their Europa League campaign is over.

“His current deal runs out next summer but United always insert this year option so they don’t get caught out with free transfers.

“It should be said United are in a better position to negotiate with Pogba and the returning Dean Henderson, as it stands from Sheffield United, following the departure of Alexis Sanchez and all of the money his wages have now freed.

“There appears to be a willingness from all parties to get around the table as far as Pogba is concerned.”

The part of the report referring to Sanchez’s now-offloaded contract is of the utmost importance. Not only was the transfer itself — and the Chilean’s time at Old Trafford — an incredible flop, but his massive (reported) $500,000-per-week contract was a huge obstacle for the club when it came time to sign new players and/or negotiate new contracts with players already at the club.

[ MORE: Ranking new Premier League kits: 2020-21 ]

It’s not just the Pogba contract which needs resolving in the coming months, but budding superstar Mason Greenwood is almost certain to get another pay rise following his standout performances over the second half of the 2019-20 season. The 18-year-old signed a new contract back in October, but he will likely be rewarded — and locked down — with the longest possible terms as United move to fend off any interest from other clubs in the Premier League and around Europe. Without the Sanchez money off the books, taking care of such business would have been that much more difficult.

Key battles in Champions League quarterfinals

Champions League quarterfinals
Getty Images
Leave a comment

The UEFA Champions League quarterfinals take center stage this week and we’re going to select one key battle which should determine the outcome of all four games.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores ] 

With Manchester City the favorites against Lyon, a massive clash between Barcelona and Bayern Munich, plus intriguing ties between Atalanta and PSG, plus RB Leipzig v. Atletico Madrid, the final few games in the 2019-20 Champions League campaign will be so tight to call.

[ MORE: Man City beat Real Madrid ]

In the next few days the Champions League quarterfinals will excite as the mini tournament in Portugal begins.

Man City beat Real Madrid 4-2 on aggregate to reach the last eight and Pep Guardiola’s boys will be confident but wary after Lyon dumped out Juventus in the Round of 16. Bayern v. Barcelona should be all-out attack, while Atletico v. Leipzig will be full of grit and Atalanta and PSG could end up 6-5 to either team as two free-flowing attacks collide.

Lisbon, Portugal will host the Champions League games from the quarterfinal stage onwards, and there will be one heck of a show over the next few days.

Below is a look at the key battles, as well as how to watch and follow all of the Champions League quarterfinal fixtures in the USA.


How to watch, stream Champions League quarterfinals

Dates: August 5-23
Location: Quarterfinals onwards in Lisbon
How to watch: CBS Sports
Live updates: UCL here at NBCSports.com & Europa League here at NBCSports.com


Key battles

Atalanta – PSG: Marten de Roon v. Ander Herrera

Yes, that Marten de Roon from Middlesbrough. The Dutch midfielder has been a sensation at Atalanta and does most of the dirty work for Gomez, Zapata et al. to score boat loads of goals. His battle in the engine room against Ander Herrera will be crucial. Marco Verratti is out injured and that is a big blow, especially with Kylian Mbappe and Angel di Maria out too for PSG. Neymar and Icardi will be looking for the midfield to give them the ball as much as possible and if that happens, PSG could run riot. That said, if De Roon can win that battle with Herrera, Atalanta’s attackers can cause PSG’s defense big problems. Whoever wins the midfield battle will win this game. It should be tight and full of goals. Enjoy.

RB Leipzig – Atletico Madrid: Dayot Upamecano v.Diego Costa

This should be an epic head-to-head. Costa loves the one-on-one scraps and Upamecano is among the finest center backs in Europe right now. The young Frenchman doesn’t get bullied often but Costa will have a good go. Costa has hardly been prolific in his second spell at Atletico but he so often sets the tone for their scrappy displays under Diego Simeone. Leipzig like to play a back three at times and that could leave space for Costa to run at Upamecano. This will be intriguing. Watch out for Costa to put down his marker early on with elbows and everything else flying at Upamecano.

Barcelona – Bayern Munich: Lionel Messi v. David Alaba

Barcelona - Bayern
Getty Images

Okay, so, we know how Jerome Boateng v. Lionel Messi went before. Somewhere, somebody is still using that gif of Boateng tangling his own legs like spaghetti as Messi bamboozled him to score at the Nou Camp. So it’s probably best if versatile Austrian star David Alaba goes up against Messi. It’s likely that Alaba will play at the back but he should basically mark Messi, and when (or if, because this is Messi) he gets the ball back he has the quality to start attacks. Bayern and Barcelona both score plenty of goals but defensively they have to improve if they’re going to win the Champions League this season.

Manchester City – Lyon: Aymeric Laporte v. Memphis Depay

Everyone is tipping Man City to beat Lyon easily, but that’s what everyone said about Lyon against Juventus. Memphis Depay is a real threat up top and Lyon usually do very well against Man City. Pep Guardiola needs Aymeric Laporte to be at his very best and it is likely he and Fernandinho will again line up together at center back. Laporte will line up on the left and Memphis will start on the right side of Lyon’s central strikers, so this will be a battle to look out for. Laporte has class but his pace is sometimes questioned and if City leave him exposed on the break, Memphis can take advantage of those situations.