Premier League Playback: Don’t stop believing

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SPURS STILL IN IT?

Walking around White Hart Lane on Sunday before Tottenham Hotspur played Manchester United, there was a subdued atmosphere among Spurs’ fans.

Leicester had just won at Sunderland in the early game, sealing their spot in the UEFA Champions League next season and stretching their lead at the top of the Premier League to 10 points as Claudio Ranieri‘s side can smell the title. The Foxes now only need three wins from their final five games to guarantee the trophy as their remarkable season continues. It’s hard to sum up their achievement in securing a top four spot, at the very least.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]

Tottenham’s players and manager were aware of Leicester’s win as Manchester United’s bus got stuck in London traffic and turned up late. That meant Harry Kane and Co. couldn’t do anything else but sit around and see and hear about Leicester being on the brink of the title.

Still, they had a job to do, and after an slow start Spurs clicked through the gears. They dominated United 3-0 to secure their first win against them at home for 15 years. Mauricio Pochettino‘s side scored three goals in a blistering five-minute spell with 20 minutes to go as they showed they’re still up for the fight.

“We sent a message that we are there, waiting and fighting,” Pochettino said. “If they fail we need to stay there. It’s true that seven points is a difficult gap to reduce, but we need to believe. And the performance like today, and the result like today, showed that this team believes. What happens in the end, we will see. But it is important to keep this mentality.”

That strong mentality will have to be kept for the remaining games of the season as Leicester play the day before Spurs in each of the next four games. They will play catch up until the final game of the season. Pochettino’s young squad must show incredible focus to keep grinding away even though they’ll know before kick off if Leicester has won or dropped points. If the latter happens it should put an extra spring in their step and if Leicester keeps winning then what can they do?

A Foxes win showed no signs of impacting them on Sunday against a poor United side who were content to sit back and grab a point, as Dele Alli, Toby Alderweireld and Erik Lamela struck in the space of five minutes to ease any tension in the air at White Hart Lane. Spurs’ fans still believe they can win the league. So does their manager and their players.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

It will take a collapse from Leicester in at least three of their remaining five games — which seems about as lucky as Aston Villa staying up this season — combined with Spurs winning all five of their games for them to win the title.

Tottenham has the easier schedule, on paper, out of the two teams and although the fat lady is warming up her vocal chords hurriedly, for another week she’s not belting out her first song. Spurs’ fans will hope that remains the case for the rest of the season. Or at least for another week…

The song likely to be played around Spurs’ training ground this week will be Journey’s classic hit, “Don’t Stop Believing” and Tottenham is doing just that.

TIME TO GO, LOUIS

Louis Van Gaal‘s Manchester United adventure, odyssey, disaster (whatever you want to call it) must surely be coming to an end. On Sunday the veteran Dutch manager, 64, was quite pleased that his side limited Tottenham in the first half, but didn’t seem concerned his team had just one shot on target in the entire game.

That fell to Anthony Martial in the second half and with the score 0-0 at that point, Van Gaal pointed to Martial’s miss as a pivotal moment.

[ MORE: Van Gaal’s future fragile ]

In truth, even if United would have gone ahead, Spurs always looked likely to score and pounced on an opportunity which summed up United’s current predicament. With United’s midfield duo of Morgan Schneiderlin and Michael Carrick overpowered by Mousa Dembele and Eric Dier, their defense was creaking after the 30-minute mark. Chris Smalling and Marcos Rojo looked particularly shaky and United’s best player was teenage right back Timothy Fosu-Mensah. That’s right.

Premier League Schedule – Week 33

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

When Fosu-Mensah clattered into Alli in front of me on the halfway line, it was obvious he’d hurt himself. He tried to carry on but he came out in the 68th minute and United didn’t recover. Matteo Darmian came on at right back and by the 75th minute United were 3-0 down. All three goals came down Spurs’ left side. That was no coincidence.

United now sit four points off the top four with six games to go. It looks destined that Manchester City will finish fourth and United will not be in the UEFA Champions League next season. Surely that means the end of Van Gaal at the end of his second season in charge? He has a contract through the end of next season but the club has made no statement on his future but Jose Mourinho continue to lurk in the background.

“I don’t have a contract yet,” said Mourinho this weekend. “But I do want to stay in England…”

ProSoccerTalk asked Van Gaal afterwards if he was concerned about his players’ lack of focus in those pivotal moments and if they had “lost their heads” and the pressure of the situation (battling for the top four) had got to them.

“I do know the media wants to write that but you have to analyze the facts,” Van Gaal told ProSoccerTalk. “The facts is that the second goal is a set play. Tottenham has made the most goals from corner kicks and free kicks. We knew in advance it was very difficult. We had a very good organization because Rojo was on Alderweireld. We have seen it and analyzed it well but it happens in football. It cannot happen… but it happens. That was the second goal and then within three minutes and then I can imagine that you lose your head a minute maybe but still you have to give the credit to the attack of Tottenham. The third goal was a fantastic goal I think.”

Van Gaal was also asked about joining United two years ago after he spoke with Tottenham’s chairman Daniel Levy about their managerial vacancy but instead chose to reject Spurs and manage United.

LVG has no regrets and let us all know how he really feels about Spurs.

“I think in the balance we are still ahead. You take one match as something I have to say the challenge is bigger?” Van Gaal said. “The challenge is always bigger in a bigger club. But I liked also to sign for Tottenham Hotspur and Daniel Levy knows that but the challenge was bigger for me at Manchester United and always shall be bigger. I am sorry for Tottenham but Manchester United is a bigger club. I think it is a little bit pathetic that you ask that because they have won 3-0. But okay, you enjoy yourself, I think.”

United fans haven’t been enjoying themselves for much of the last two seasons. That is, ultimately, down to one man.

SAME OLD ARSENAL

In a nutshell, Arsenal’s 3-3 draw against West Ham United on Saturday summed up their season.

The Gunners raced into a 2-0 lead but then Andy Carroll scored an eight-minute hat trick either side of half time (two goals came in the final two minutes of the first half) to stun Arsene Wenger.

[ MORE: Latest draw epitomizes Arsenal’s season ]

But really, it shouldn’t have surprised him or any Arsenal fans watching on. Arsenal’s soft underbelly was exposed massively as the Hammers targeted high balls into the box as a way to get at Arsenal. It worked a treat with Carroll powering home two headers and Manuel Lanzini also having another wrongly disallowed. Gabriel lost the physical battle with Carroll and despite doing his best to firefight, Laurent Koscielny can’t do it all on his own.

The French defender popped up to grab a point for Arsenal but failure to beat West Ham in the final London derby at Upton Park means Arsenal’s title hopes are all but over for another year.

Wenger will be left to ponder another season of “what ifs” but the inquest this summer will be larger and more robust than ever. The same adjectives can’t be used to described his central defenders as Arsenal’s failure to buy a top-class center back has come back to bite them time and time again this season. Same old story. Same old Arsenal. Top four finish all but secured, but not much else.

RACE FOR TOP SIX HEATS UP

With West Ham and Manchester United dropping points this weekend both Southampton and Liverpool took full advantage as they racked up impressive home wins.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings

Southampton rode an early Shane Long goal to hammer another nail in Newcastle United’s coffin, with Graziano Pelle and Victor Wanyama adding insurance goals before Andros Townsend‘s spectacular consolation. Saints are just three points behind fifth-placed Man United but both United and the Hammers have a game in hand of them. Their next two games — away trips to Everton and Aston Villa — will determine their aspirations to qualify for the Europa League. Come out of them with two wins and Saints could be marching back into Europe.

As for Liverpool, their weakened side beat Stoke City 4-1 in a surprisingly comfortable win at Anfield even if the scoreline doesn’t reflect the pattern of the game fairly. A game which was seen as a bit of a nuisance sandwiched in-between their Europa League quarterfinal ties against Borussia Dortmund, eventually turned into a stroll. Divock Origi came off the bench to score twice in the second half, while Alberto Moreno and Daniel Sturridge scored in the first half to give Jurgen Klopp a huge selection headache ahead of their big clash with Dortmund on Thursday.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

Liverpool has a game in hand on those around them and if they win that they’ll be six points behind fourth-placed Manchester City. Could the Reds yet finish with a flourish and mount a serious top four challenge? Probably not, but a top six finish would represent a good salvage job from Klopp, plus wining the Europa League (they’ll be favorites if they get past Dortmund this week) will secure a UCL spot for next season.

NORWICH OR SUNDERLAND?

We mentioned Newcastle’s defeat at Southampton and although Sunderland and Norwich both lost, the Magpies are in severe danger of getting cut adrift.

Rafael Benitez’s side have now picked up just one point in his four games in charge and have a huge week coming up. Can they win both their home games against Swansea City and Man City in the space of four days to boost their survival hopes? Judging by the quality of their defending this weekend and throughout the campaign, probably not.

[ MORE: Analyzing the relegation picture ]

So, with Newcastle seemingly doomed to join Villa — who hung on, mathmetically, to their PL status for one last weekend despite another loss — in the second-tier next season the relegation picture has become a lot clearer.

Norwich City or Sunderland to join them?

And, as luck would have it, the Canaries and Black Cats square off at Carrow Road this Saturday (Watch live, 7:45 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) in a winner takes all battle. Norwich can afford to draw this game as they’re four points ahead of Sunderland but Sam Allardyce‘s side have a game in hand. Sunderland gave Leicester a game for an hour on Sunday but a shocking finish from Jack Rodwell summed up their current goalscoring woes.

The term “relegation six-pointer” has never been so apt.

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.

Reports: Mourinho looking into Fellaini, Dzeko signings

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People joked when Jose Mourinho was hired at Tottenham Hotspur. “Just wait until he goes after Marouane Fellaini” they said.

If only they knew.

According to a report by Belgian publication DH, Mourinho is seriously considering a January swoop to bring Fellaini back to the Premier League, wishing for a player of his body and skill profile in his squad. Fellaini was initially a David Moyes signing at Manchester United in 2013, but became a Mourinho favorite thanks to his aerial presence in midfield and his ability to play up front in a pinch.

Fellaini is currently playing for Chinese club Shandong Luneng, having scored seven goals and assisted four more in 22 Chinese Super League matches this season while playing mostly a center-mid role. The club finished fifth in the league table, with the season just coming to a conclusion on December 1. Luneng also played in the Chinese League Cup final, falling to Shanghai Shenhua 3-0.

The Belgian’s popularity at Manchester United never reached the levels of other fan favorites, and he was often seen as symbolic of the club’s struggles to find top-level players. Still, Mourinho persisted with a player he clearly favored, with Fellaini eventually making 89 appearances across all competitions under his Portuguese boss.

Reports also indicate that Mourinho is eyeing Roma striker Edin Dzeko as a January option. The Italian club is currently fifth in the Serie A table, in a tight battle for a top four spot. Still, the Bosnia-Herzegovina international has a contract that runs through the summer of 2022, meaning the club could look to cash in on a player who will be 36 years old at the expiry of his current deal. Dzeko has declined somewhat, but still proves a goal threat, with six scores in 15 league matches this campaign plus another two in Europa League action.

Newcastle win dampened by Saint-Maximin injury

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Steve Bruce has seen Newcastle up to 10th in the table after topping Southampton 2-1, but the news wasn’t all good at St. James Park after the victory.

The Magpies boss confirmed that Allan Saint-Maximin  could be out “for weeks” after pulling up deep into stoppage time, coming off in the 96th minute after all three Newcastle substitutes had been used.

Bruce partly blamed himself for the injury, claiming he nearly rested the Frenchman for the match. “I nearly left him out today,” Bruce said after the game, “and, now, I wish I had done because he could be out for weeks. I’m disappointed with myself. We don’t know how serious it is. I kick myself if he is out for a long time. The way he pulled up – let’s hope it’s not too serious.”

The manager claims Saint-Maximin was “fatigued” but risked him anyways. He could have brought the 22-year-old off at some point during the second half, but with the game level until Federico Fernandez’s 87th minute winner, he chose to risk it further looking for a winner. Bruce used his third and final substitute in the 85th minute to haul off Miguel Almiron still two minutes before the eventual winning goal was scored. And it wasn’t just Steve Bruce who thought he could miss significant time.

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Saint-Maximin struggled with a muscle injuries earlier in the season, missing games against Norwich City, Watford, and Liverpool while getting treatment. Since returning in full in early October, Saint-Maximin has played in every Premier League game for Newcastle, completing at least 80 minutes in eight of those nine games and finishing 90 minutes four times.

The injury is poorly timed with Newcastle set to begin a heavy set of fixtures. They take on Burnley next weekend before games against Crystal Palace, Manchester United, Everton, and Leicester City all in an eleven-day span through the holiday season. Saint-Maximin is a critical player to have go down, with a 7.07 WhoScored rating, ranking third on the team in that metric. He has completed 4.5 dribbles a game this season, which ranks second in the Premier League behind Wilfried Zaha‘s 4.6 despite having played five fewer games and 550 fewer minutes.

Ciaran Clark also went down during the game, with the Newcastle defender hauled off at halftime after suffering a calf injury.

Wolves, Seagulls split spoils at the Amex

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Wolves failed in a bid to pull within three points of fourth place, drawing Brighton 2-2 at the Amex Stadium on Sunday.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Diogo Jota scored twice in a 4-goal first half, with Neal Maupay and Davy Propper bagging goals for Brighton. The Seagulls remain 12th with 19 points.


Three things we learned

1. Wolves’ blink at Top Four chance: Wolves entered the day with a chance to close to within three points of fourth place Chelsea, and Nuno Espirito Santo‘s men next face Spurs, Norwich City, Man City, and Liverpool. They needed three points here. Not for lack of effort, they couldn’t conjure the magic.

2. Jota calm in the finish: Jota scored his second and third Premier League goals of the season, joining his Europa League success to give him six. He added five assists in the UEL, and is averaging 2.5 tackles and 1.9 interceptions per contest.

 

3. Maupay paying off faith: The French center forward has blossoming into a steady Premier League contributor after his outlandish production in the Championship earned him a big money move to the Amex Stadium. His sixth goal in 16 matches now includes goals against Wolves, Spurs, Everton, and Arsenal.

Man of the Match: Jota.


Brighton had most of the ball for the first half hour, but could’ve solve the Wolves back line.

Jota put Wolves ahead via a clever 1-2 with Raul Jimenez to get behind the line, prodding home for 1-0.

[ MORE: Premier League stats ] 

The lead lasted all of six minutes, as Maupay and Propper struck two minutes apart.

Maupay’s was a fine finish of a long Dale Stephens assist, while Propper headed a Leandro Trossard cross past Rui Patricio in the 36th.

Propper then fell from grace with a miserable pass stolen by Jonny Otto, the wingback finding Jota for his second goal of the night.

Wolves thought VAR might give them a penalty for handball in the 62nd minute, to no avail.

It was Wolves’ turn to give away a huge chance, but Stephens curled the effort wide of the far post in the 72nd minute.

Forster stars as 10-man Celtic beat Rangers, claim 10th-straight trophy

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At some point, Rangers supporters will be forgiven for thinking Celtic doesn’t have all the luck in Scotland.

The Bhoys, second best for most of the day, scored a 60th minute goal and then overcame a red card three minutes later to claim their 10th successive piece of Scottish silverware with a 1-0 win the Scottish League Cup.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Celtic’s Chris Jullien prodded home a free kick before 18-year-old Jeremie Frimpong was sent off, and Rangers had already controlled the proceedings before seeing a 16-5 edge in shot attempts at the final whistle.

Goalkeeper Fraser Forster, the former Saints and Newcastle man, was outstanding in the win, even stopping an Alfredo Morelos penalty as the Rangers star failed to deliver.

From the BBC:

“It was just one of them days, it went my way today. I’m buzzing. There’s been days when it’s not gone my way, today it has. I can’t say how much it means to me. I didn’t really think about the penalty to be honest. I picked the way it went. I’ll take it.

“That’s why I came back; to play in games like this, to win silverware, to play European football.”