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.  

Timothy Weah re-injured on return to field

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An absolutely brutal turn of events has befallen American international Timothy Weah as the 19-year-old was re-injured just minutes after returning from a six-month layoff.

Weah, who will turn 20 this weekend, suffered a nasty hamstring tear just two matches into the season and has been missing since August. He finally returned to the field on Sunday, coming on for the final 10 minutes of a 2-1 loss to Marseille. However, Weah confirmed on his Instagram account that he was re-injured during his return. Reports in France say he was injured while making a run into the Marseille attacking third, grabbing at his thigh. He completed the match without being subbed off.

After thanking Lille fans for their support during his previous injury, Weah wrote, “Unfortunately for me things didn’t go as planned and I’ve injured myself again…. Better days will come and I know that God is watching over me 🙌🏾❤️Small setback for a major comeback 🙌🏾❤️”

It is unclear how severe the injury is, or if it is separate from the one he just worked so hard to come back from. His club Lille have not yet announced anything official.

Weah got support from some big names in the comment section of his Instagram post. Fellow American Tyler Adams posted “Onwards and upwards 🙌🏽❤️” while Bayern Munich full-back and Canadian international Alphonso Davies wrote “Yessir 💪🏾” and Chelsea striker Tammy Abraham gave him praise hands emojis.

The injury, if serious, is another big blow to the U.S. men’s national team, who has already seen Paul Arriola go down with a serious knee injury and is sweating another possible problem for the oft-injured Adams. Weah has not earned a senior international cap since November of 2018, while he last played internationally last summer during the 2019 U-20 World Cup.

Report: Barcelona given permission to sign emergency striker

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According to a report by Spanish tabloid Mundo Deportivo, Barcelona has been given permission by La Liga authorities to sign an emergency striker outside the January transfer window.

With Ousmane Dembele ruled out for the season after a serious hamstring tear, the Catalan club has just three healthy forwards in Lionel Messi, Antoine Griezmann, and teenage sensation Ansu Fati. Luis Suarez was ruled long-term after knee surgery in mid-January.

The situation is not all that uncommon as far as La Liga is concerned, as the league often authorizes clubs to sign emergency players given injuries of longer than five months and low roster availability. There are certain restrictions that come with any potential signing, such as the player must be a forward. Any potential signing will only be eligible for league competition, and the player can only come from another La Liga side or be a free agent. The club has 15 days to complete a potential signing, while any club it raids would theb be given a window to sign its own replacement.

Barcelona somewhat made its own bed here, having sold both Carles Perez and Abel Ruiz at the end of the January transfer window.

Getafe striker Angel Rodriguez, Alaves target man Lucas Perez, Levante striker Roger Marti, and Leganes frontman Martin Braithwaite have all been mentioned as possibilities. Despite having scored 10 goals this campaign, Rodriguez seems to have lost his place in the Getafe starting lineup, without a start since January 4 with Jamie Mata and Deyverson occupying the spots on the teamsheet. Perez has had an odd season, with eight of his nine league goals coming in a nine-game stretch from late September to late November. Marti has 10 goals this season, but six of those have come in multi-goal games.

Any new signing would not be eligible for Champions League competition, as Barcelona matches up with Napoli in the Champions League Round of 16 this week.

Americans Abroad: Gall scores; Weah returns from injury

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Two USMNT names resurfaced over the weekend – for all the right reasons.

It’s been an overall quiet year for Romain Gall in Sweden, but the 25-year-old managed to challenge the narrative by scoring in Malmo’s cup bout.

While in France, Timothy Weah made a much-anticipated return from injury in Lille’s 2-1 loss. The 19-year-old played 10 minutes after being out for six months.

Here is a list of several other USMNT affiliates making a name for themselves (or not) abroad this weekend.

Premier League

Christian Pulisic, Chelsea — Pulisic is still recovering from his injury and will miss Monday’s game against Manchester United.

DeAndre Yedlin, Newcastle — Yedlin didn’t dress in Newcastle’s 4-0 loss to Arsenal on Sunday.

Indiana Vassilev, Aston Villa — Vassilev didn’t dress in Aston Villa’s last-minute 3-2 loss to Tottenham on Saturday.

EFL Championship

Antonee Robinson, Wigan Athletic —  For a second weekend in a rown Robinson did not dress for Wigan. The failed move to AC Milan is apparently still haunting him.

Duane Holmes, Derby County — Holmes started and played 29 minutes before leaving with an ankle injury on Saturday.

Matt Miazga, Reading (loan from Chelsea) — The 24-year-old is out with a hamstring injury. There is no timeline on his return.

Eric Lichaj, Hull City — The defender is out for the season after sustaining an injury.

Geoff Cameron, QPR — The 34-year-old defender started and played 90 minutes in QPR’s 4-2 win over Stoke City.

Tim Ream, Fulham — Ream started and played 90 minutes in Fulham’s 3-0 loss to Barnsley on Saturday.

Cameron Carter-Vickers, Luton Town (loan Tottenham Hotspur) — Carter-Vickers started and played 90 minutes in Luton’s 1-0 win over Middlesbrough.

Bundesliga

Timmy Chandler, Eintracht Frankfurt Chandler started and played 90 minutes in Franjfurt’s 4-0 loss to Borussia Dortmund.

John Brooks, Wolfsburg – The 26-year-old defender started and played 90 minutes for the time since January 18. Wolfsburg won 3-2 over Hoffenheim.

Weston McKennie, Schalke —  McKennie started and played 90 minutes in Schalke’s 0-0 draw with Mainz.

Zack Steffen and Alfredo Morales, Fortuna Dusseldorf — Steffen is out with an injury, while Morales started and played 90 minutes on Saturday.

Josh Sargent, Werder Bremen  Sargent came off the bench and played 25 minutes in Werder Bremen’s 3-0 loss.

Tyler Adams, RB Leipzig — Adams is out with an injury. There is no timeline on his return.

Fabian Johnson, Borussia Mönchengladbach Johnson dressed but didn’t feature for Borussia Monchengladbach.

Eredivisie

Sergino Dest, Ajax — Dest started and played 90 minutes in Ajax’s 3-0 win over RKC Waalwijk.

Haji Wright, VVV-Venlo — The 21-year-old striker was on the bench but didn’t feature on Friday.

Ligue 1

Timothy Weah, Lille — After a six-month absence, Weah featured for Lille in official competition. The attacker played the final 10 minutes in Lille’s 2-1 loss to Marseille.

Theoson Jordan-Siebatcheu, Rennes — Jordon-Siebatcheu started and played 56 minutes in Rennes’ 1-0 loss to Stade Reims.

Honorable Mentions

Romain Gall, Malmo — Gall played the final 31 minutes in Malmo’s 8-0 thumping of Syrianska and contributed a goal.

Richard Ledezma, Jong PSV — Ledezma played 60 minutes and scored a goal in Jong PSV’s 1-1 draw with FC Eindhoven. The attacker missed out the final 30 minutes after seeing a straight red card. 

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.