Premier League Playback: How Leicester can clinch the title

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FAIRY TALE FOXES: HOW CAN THEY CLINCH?

The euphoria which swept around the King Power Stadium on Sunday at the final was mesmerizing. This is really going to happen.

Leicester City beat Southampton 1-0 — their fifth 1-0 win in their last six games — to go seven points clear at the top of the Premier League with six games to go and the home fans let out a huge sigh of relief after a tense, nerve-wracking 90 minutes.

[ MORE: The day Leicester (pretty much) won the PL ]

There will be plenty more of this to come in Leicester’s final six games of the season but they now know that if they win four of their final six games of the season then they will be champions. Gain 12 points more points and nobody can stop them. That’s all that stands between this group of players and immortality.

Getting off the train in Leicester on Sunday I was greeted by this chap selling scarves proclaiming Leicester City as “Premier League Champions, 2016” and many believed he was too premature and would jinx the Foxes. Yeah, about that. I’m sure he’ll do a roaring trade in the coming days and weeks.

After Tottenham Hotspur drew 1-1 with Liverpool at Anfield on Saturday, the Foxes saw their chance to pounce and put more space between themselves and Spurs. They did it in a manner which is befitting of champions. Following a bright start, Southampton came into the game and Sadio Mane‘s shot looked to be blocked on the line by Leicester’s Danny Simpson. No penalty kick and no red card was the decision by referee Mark Clattenberg. Those are the kind of breaks you get when you’re at the top but you almost get the feeling even the referees (subconsciously, of course) don’t want to intervene in this epic Cinderella story.

[ MORE: 3 things from Leicester’s big win | Koeman livid | Ranieri calm ] 

Veteran captain Wes Morgan, 32, headed home the game-winner, his first goal of the season, and their fearless leader epitomizes what the Foxes are all about. He hasn’t had a break in two years after playing for Jamaica at both the Gold Cup and Copa America last summer but Morgan is within 12 points of lifting the title.

Their title odds were 5000-1 at the start of this season and being at the KP yesterday, fans were walking around with a huge smile on their face and almost in disbelief.

The supporters roared Leicester on in the final stages and after the game I asked Leicester’s charismatic manager Claudio Ranieri about the special bond they have with the fans.

“The fans understood our difficulties and they pushed a lot,” Ranieri told ProSoccerTalk. “They were not nervous, they understood our momentum and they are pushing with us. It is a fantastic link. It is unbelievable. They are very, very close with us. They understand when we need support or when I asked for support… but I didn’t even ask today. They started early to help us.”

With four-straight 1-0 victories, Leicester’s squad of second-chancers and steady pros has a chance to clinch the PL at Old Trafford on May 1. Win their next four games and they’ve done it.

The big challenge will be battling nerves (the players have yet to show any) and although fans in Leicester told me they have “a habit of throwing things away” there is almost no way they can blow this now. Apr. 3 2016 will go down as the day Leicester took the biggest stride yet towards winning the PL title. And, by the way, Leicester was bottom of the PL and seven points from safety on Apr. 3 2015 before their amazing late-season run to stay up. Incredible.

Ranieri admits he is staying calm and the veteran Italian manager exuded confidence as he told reporters he would not change his approach at all in the final six games. “Why should we change?” Ranieri said. He’s right. “The Tinkerman” hasn’t had to tinker this season as injuries have been kind to the Foxes and their lineup has been unchanged for much of the season. Ranieri has to be lauded for getting little Leicester in this position and the way he has simplified the game and told his players to focus on what they’re good at rather than what they’re not is remarkable. That’s how they can clinch. Don’t change anything and trust what got them to this point.

Here are the six games of which Leicester must win four to seal the title. The next three matches represent a very real chance of maximum points and the final three games were always going to be very tough.

This is what stands in Leicester’s way of pulling off one of the greatest achievements in not only soccer, but sporting history.

Leicester’s remaining schedule
April 10 at Sunderland
April 17 vs. West Ham United
April 24 vs. Swansea City
May 1 at Manchester United – CAN CLINCH TITLE WITH FOUR-STRAIGHT WINS
May 7 vs. Everton
May 15 at Chelsea


SPURS SLIP BUT FUTURE’S BRIGHT

Harry Kane‘s slumping shoulders said it all at the final whistle at Anfield. Kane, 22, and Spurs had given all they had away at Liverpool but came up short as they finished the second half like a freight train but couldn’t find the all-important second goal.

Premier League Schedule – Week 32

Result Recap & Highlights
Arsenal 4-0 Watford Recap, watch here
A. Villa 0-4 Chelsea Recap, watch here
B’mouth 0-4 Man City Recap, watch here
Leicester 1-0 Saints Recap, watch here
Liverpool 1-1 Spurs Recap, watch here
Man United 1-0 Everton Recap, watch here
Norwich 3-2 N’castle Recap, watch here
Stoke 2-2 Swansea Recap, watch here
S’land 0-0 West Brom Recap, watch here
West Ham 2-2 C. Palace Recap, watch here

Liverpool had taken the lead through yet another moment of magic from Philippe Coutinho but Kane’s 22nd goal of the season — a superb turn and strike in two touches from a seemingly impossible angle — got Spurs going.

[ MORE: 3 things – Liverpool 1-1 Spurs

Mauricio Pochettino‘s side knew it was a big chance missed to pile pressure on Leicester. If Spurs’ would’ve won on Saturday evening the gap would’ve been reduced to two points. Now, with both teams entering the final six games of the season, they are seven points behind Leicester.

A word on Kane. This guy has improved after his breakout season last year. He scored 31 goals in all competitions for Spurs after bursting onto the scene and may labeled him a one-season wonder. Oh no.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

The sheer quality in the turns and then the finishes in both his goal against Liverpool last weekend and then for England vs. Germany during the international break prove just how polished of a player he has become. On the world stage he has to be up there with the best strikers on the planet and set this record on Saturday:

For Spurs, along with Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen and Eric Dier, they have a strong core of youngster all under the age of 24 who will only get better.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Even if they don’t win the Premier League this season, they’ll be well set for the years ahead. Pochettino is only in the second year of his project at Spurs and is well ahead of schedule. These are heady days at White Hart Lane and they’ll only continue to get better, I’m sure of it.

So is Poch.

“It is true this is not just about this season,” Pochettino told reporters. “When you compare Tottenham with the big sides, people can see this approach is for the long term. We have the youngest squad in the Premier League yet here we are fighting for the title. But the project is fantastic because we re ahead of the programme — we are only going to get better. For a lot of the players this is their first season in the Premier League and it is sure that next season they will improve. And in football you always need time to develop your full quality.”

CONTE CONFIRMED

Chelsea unveiled a quality permanent replacement for Jose Mourinho on Monday, as Antonio Conte was finally announced as their new manager on a three-year deal.

The current manager of the Italian national team announced last month that he will leave his role with the Azzurri after the 2016 European Championships this summer and now the worst kept secret in soccer is out. Interim boss Guus Hiddink, who took charge when Mourinho was fired back in December as Chelsea flirted with relegation less than seven months after winning the PL title, will depart this summer with Chelsea currently on a 15-game unbeaten run in the PL. Hiddink has steadied the ship superbly.

What about Conte?

Conte, 46, is a born winner. As a player with Juventus he won a UEFA Champions League and five Serie A titles. As a manager he led Juve to three-straight Scuddettos from 2011-14 before answering Italy’s call. He has yearned for a return to club management and given Chelsea’s need for direction and stability, plus their proud history of Italian managers being in west London, Conte and Chelsea seem like a match made in heaven.

[ MORE: How did Miazga do on Chelsea debut? ]

Plenty of Chelsea’s players may see otherwise as Conte is a renowned disciplinarian who will whip this under-performing squad into shape. He proved with Juve and Italy that defensive solidity can lead to success, although the Italians have hardly set the world alight during their EURO 2016 qualification campaign but have high hopes for the tournament this summer before Conte departs.

Conte has signed a three-year contract and he will add a defensive solidity and flexibility which will suit the current crop of Chelsea’s players. That said, his arrival will likely spark plenty of upheaval in the Chelsea squad and it will be interesting to see if he can entice big names from Juve (ahem, Paul Pogba) to Stamford Bridge.

Coincidentally, tomorrow Conte is the subject of a preliminary court hearing in a match-fixing case in Italy. He has already served a four-month ban during the 2012-13 season after allegations that his Siena side were involved in match-fixing during a game back in 2011. Conte denies any wrongdoing but the legal process is still ongoing.

Putting that matter aside, Chelsea has acquired a manager who was a combative and committed holding midfield during his playing days and his Juve and Italy teams have played with the same desire. Let’s see if Chelsea’s superstars are ready to roll up their sleeves and put their nightmare title defense behind them.

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - APRIL 02: Matt Miazga of Chelsea and Rudy Gestede of Aston Villa during the Barclays Premier League match between Aston Villa and Chelsea at Villa Park on April 2, 2016 in Birmingham, England. (Photo by James Baylis - AMA/Getty Images)

Staying with Chelsea, USMNT youngster Matt Miazga, 20, made his Chelsea and Premier  League debut on Saturday, becoming the first American to play for the Blues.

Miazga didn’t put a foot wrong (admittedly against a shoddy Aston Villa side) in the 4-0 win and with the Blues not having much to play for between now and the end of the season, expect the New Jersey native to get plenty more run outs for Chelsea before Conte arrives. Big moment for the former New York Red Bulls defender who proved he is comfortable in the PL and was happy enough to make his debut… but wants more.

RELEGATION PICTURE CLEARER

Norwich City’s stoppage-time winner brought down the house at Carrow Road as the Canaries continued their good form to beat relegation rivals Newcastle United 3-2 in a pulsating relegation six-pointer.

Alex Neil‘s Norwich have now gained seven points from their last three games and have won two on the spin, while Rafael Benitez has one point from his first three games in charge of Newcastle and is running out of time to save the sinking ship.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings

A few weeks ago, following one win in 10 games, you would’ve said Norwich were looking doomed to join Aston Villa in the second-tier next season but now north east rivals Newcastle and Sunderland look the most likely to join Villa. Sunderland drew 0-0 with West Brom at home this weekend and Sam Allardyce got the elusive clean sheet he was hoping for, but not the win as the Black Cats have now drawn their last four games. Wins are like gold dust for the relegation battlers at this point of the season and although Sunderland and Newcastle both have a game in hand on Norwich, they sit four points and six points, respectively, off the Canaries.

Right now, three monster clubs could be going down as Villa, Newcastle and Sunderland prove that short-termism and constant changes of managers and players is not the way forward. There is no clear ideology at all three clubs and it looks like they will be left behind by smaller, yet smarter, teams. Teams likes Watford, Norwich and Bournemouth have a strong belief in what they’re doing and fight for their lives. Villa, Newcastle and Sunderland are sleeping giants who still aren’t waking up despite desperate times careering towards them.

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.  

USWNT opens Olympic qualifying with win over Haiti

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The USWNT was rusty, that much was clear. Vlatko Andonovski still made sure they took care of business.

Four different goalscorers delivered a 4-0 victory over Haiti to begin CONCACAF Olympic qualification, putting the United States in front of Group A early. Lynn Williams picked up a goal and assist, proving useful on an otherwise sputtery evening for Vlatko Andonovski’s attack.

Just 78 seconds into the game, Williams charged down the right flank and crossed to Christen Press at the far post for the opening goal. Williams’ assist came without the use of her left shoe which she lost while holding off a defender for the bobbling ball.

Despite the early lead, the United States seemed somewhat sluggish as Haiti built themselves into the match. There were few chances on net after the opening goal through the half-hour mark.

Haiti nearly caught the U.S. napping on a corner as the ball found the back of the net on 20 minutes, but the goal was somehow ruled out. It appeared to be for offside, but since it’s impossible to be offside from a corner, there must have been another reason for the official ruling. Nonetheless, it was a clear sign for the USWNT that they needed to pick up the level of play.

The U.S. continued to struggle after halftime, creating very little in front of net. There was a half-chance for Lloyd near the penalty spot but a quality tackle by Kethna Louis put that to bed. Then finally they put the game to bed on a corner, not coincidentally coming just five minutes after Megan Rapinoe entered the fray. Rapinoe delivered a corner to the doorstep where Williams headed in well under pressure, moving her upper body away from goal against the motion of her lower body to reach the delivery.

Another Andonovski substitute paid dividends however as Lindsey Horan scored, again coming off a corner. They played it short and Horan headed from a significant distance out, the ball squirting past the goalkeeper Kerly Theus and Louis who tried to clear off the line. It was clear that Haiti had begun to tire and the USWNT was taking advantage. Up front, Carli Lloyd had a poor game, unable to get involved in attacking play, but she found the scoresheet in stoppage time, bagging a header off a Rapinoe cross in the 93rd minute to finish out the scoring.

Emily Sonnett replaced Kelley O’Hara with 10 minutes to go for Andonovski’s final change, and the USWNT saw the rest of the match out. They have two matches remaining before the knockout stage, set to take on Panama on Friday before the group stage finale against Costa Rica on February 3. The top two teams in the group reach the knockout phase with the semifinals to begin on February 7.

Report: Chelsea may ask Abraham to play through injury

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Chelsea has so far come up empty in its search for a striker, so desperate times may call for desperate measures.

Tammy Abraham, who has been a revelation this season with 13 Premier League goals, went down with an ankle injury late in the 2-2 draw with Arsenal last weekend. The club has tried desperately to find a striker before the Friday transfer window closes, and while the Blues have been linked with Edinson Cavani and Krzysztof Piatek they so far have not had any success in finding a replacement.

Therefore, according to Matt Law of The Telegraph, Chelsea may ask Abraham to play through his injury against Leicester City this weekend. The match is a vital one as Chelsea, sitting fourth in the Premier League table, looks to put separation between themselves and Manchester United while also chasing the third-placed Foxes who sit eight points clear.

The thinking appears to be that Chelsea has a 16-day break between the Leicester City match and their subsequent game against Manchester United in mid-February thanks to the Premier League’s two-week break at the start of the month.

Earlier this month, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer admitted regret for not resting a banged up Marcus Rashford, choosing instead to bring him off the bench in an FA Cup match against Wolves. Reports after the match confirmed that Rashford was carrying a single stress fracture in his back at the time of the appearance, and he was hauled off 16 minutes later with scans after the match showing his appearance against Wolves worsened the injury. He now he faces two to three months on the sidelines.

Abraham has also slowed of late after being so heavily used this season. The 22-year-old has logged a massive 2,359 minutes across all competitions this season, including 1,843 out of a possible 2,160 in Premier League play. Abraham scored his first 11 Premier League goals in his first 14 matches of the season, but has just three goals in the last 10 games.

Chelsea has Michy Batshuayi as a natural replacement for Abraham up top, but Frank Lampard has used him as solely a bench option the entirety of this season. Batshuayi has made 14 Premier League appearances this season, but has logged just 138 minutes across those matches. When used as a starter in cup action, Batshuayi has four goals in four domestic cup starts. Olivier Giroud is also on the roster, having made just five Premier League appearances this season.

Ed Woodward’s house attacked by Man United fans with flares

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Manchester United has been unable to reclaim the glory of the Sir Alex Ferguson days, and that has Red Devils fans up in arms. CEO Ed Woodward has taken much of the heat, with the executive unable to prevent the squad from degrading in quality and the team consequently has been unable to consistenly challenge for a top-four place, with his financial background not exactly a fit for his player recruitment position.

Some fans seem to have taken their frustration way too far.

A video emerged on social media claiming to show fans shooting flares at Woodward’s private residence, and reports from Sky Sports and The Daily Mirror corroborated that claim. The club then issued a statement condemning the incident.

“Manchester United Football Club have tonight been made aware of the incident outside the home of one of our employees.”We know that the football world will unite behind us as we work with Greater Manchester Police to identify the perpetrators of this unwarranted attack. Anybody found guilty of a criminal offense, or found to be trespassing on this property, will be banned for life by the club and may face prosecution. Fans expressing opinion is one thing, criminal damage and intent to endanger life is another. There is simply no excuse for this.”

The Sky Sports report claims that neither Woodward nor any of his family – particularly his wife and two children – were present in the home at the time of the attack. The Daily Mirror claims upwards of 20 or 30 fans were part of the attack on the house, with the caption “Ed Woodward’s gonna die” with three red circle emojis all in a Snapchat banner. Sky Sports also reports that red paint was sprayed on the gates of the home.

There are also reports of sickening chants during the recent FA Cup win over Tranmere Rovers, with fans singing about burning Woodward and the club owner Malcom Glazer in a bonfire.

Manchester United has reportedly looked to hire a Director of Football in recent months, but has so far stuck with Woodward as the head of recruitment. The squad has

PL Preview: West Ham v. Liverpool

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  • Liverpool has won 30 of its last 31 Premier League fixtures
  • West Ham is winless in its last 6 PL games against Liverpool
  • The Hammers have just 11 points at home this season, joint-low in the PL

Liverpool can go an obscene 19 points clear at the top of the Premier League table with a win over West Ham on Wednesday, with kickoff from London Stadium at 2:45 p.m. ET live on NBCSN or live online at NBCSports.com.

The Reds will be without Sadio Mane who pulled up in the first half of the win over Wolves. The news was positive, but still the argument could easily be made that Mane is the most important player in the Liverpool lineup, and replacing him will give Jurgen Klopp a headache. He could start Divock Origi on the wing in a direct replacement, but Origi is a striker by nature and would make things narrow on the left flank. He could also move Salah to the left and insert Xherdan Shaqiri on the right, but there’s no guarantee that the Swiss international will be fit enough to play.

Still, Liverpool will be massive favorites to build on its winning streak against a West Ham side limping into the match. The Hammers are vulnerable with a long injury list of their own, with just one win since the festive period. Felipe Anderson, Andriy Yarmolenko, and Jack Wilshere are the most significant of the injured West Ham army, but certainly not the only ones. By the most recent reports, five players will miss the match with another two to be assessed before the match.

The Hammers are only out of the relegation zone thanks to goal differential, and with a brutal upcoming fixture slate that includes another against Liverpool plus games against Man City, Arsenal, Spurs, Wolves, and Chelsea through the end of March, West Ham will have to scrap for every point available.

Injuries/suspensions

West Ham: OUT – Ryan Fredericks (hamstring), Felipe Anderson (back), Andriy Yarmolenko (thigh), Arthur Masuaku (knee), Jack Wilshere (groin). QUESTIONABLE – Robert Snodgrass (knee), Lukasz Fabianski (thigh).

Liverpool: OUT – Sadio Mane (thigh muscle), James Milner (thigh), Nathaniel Clyne (ACL). QUESTIONABLE – Xherdan Shaqiri (calf).


Probable lineups

West Ham: Randolph; Cresswell, Ogbonna, Diop, Zabaleta; Snodgrass, Noble, Rice, Antonio; Lanzini, Haller.

Liverpool: Alisson; Robertson, Gomez, van Dijk, Alexander-Arnold; Henderson, Wijnaldum, Oxlade-Chamberlain; Origi, Firmino, Salah.


What they’re saying

West Ham manager on being huge underdogs: “Everybody gets the chance to throw a punch at some point along the line, and sometimes you can get a lucky one. I’ve never gone into any game not expecting to win. Quite often, you don’t always win, but I really do expect the players to go out there, put a show on, and try and win. If that’s won by a set-piece, a flukey goal, I wouldn’t be bothered. That’s been my attitude throughout my whole career: I want to win. We’ll do everything we can to get points where we can.”

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp on how West Ham will play: “It will be a rather defensive line-up [from West Ham]. If it’s four in the back or five in the back, I don’t know, but we have to be ready for a big fight. They want to strike back, they have a tough program coming up, everybody knows that. They have no points to waste, no time to waste.”


Prediction:

Liverpool is without Sadio Mane, and that’s notable in any Premier League match, but against West Ham it shouldn’t matter. The Reds have been utterly unbeatable defensively, and against a West Ham side missing Felipe Anderson, Jack Wilshere, and Arthur Masuaku plus a banged up Robert Snodgrass, an eighth clean sheet in the last nine matches is likely. The Reds put on a clinic in a comprehensive 3-0 victory.