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.

Transfer rumor roundup: Willian Jose to Spurs, Bournemouth after Croatian CB

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London could get itself another Willian.

Willian Jose, 28, was left out of Real Sociedad’s squad at his request on Wednesday, with the club Tweeting that he’d prefer not to play until his situation is resolved.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

Jose Mourinho said he would not comment on another team’s players, but Willian Jose could help Spurs bridge the gap to Harry Kane‘s return.

Willian Jose has been a double-digit scorer for Real Sociedad in La Liga for the previous three seasons, and is well on his way to another 10-goal campaign. He’s got eight goals in 20 matches this season.

Bournemouth needs defensive help, and is reportedly rivaling Newcastle United and Blackburn Rovers for Portuguese giant Toni Borevkovic.

The 22-year-old Croatian has one goal in just over 3000 minutes with the side since arriving from domestic side NK Rudes.

He’s averaging 1.3 interceptions, .9 tackles, and 3.3 clearances per game in league play.

Rio Ave sits seventh in Portugal’s top flight and is managed by former Premier League boss Carlos Carvalhal.

Dropped points in Top Four race point to wild February

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Regardless of whether Wolves end Liverpool’s unbeaten Premier League season on Thursday, there will be five teams within seven points of fourth place heading into Matchweek 25.

Chelsea has 40, a comfortable-enough six-point lead on Manchester United, Spurs, and Wolves (who meet Liverpool at 3 p.m. ET Thursday on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com). Sheffield United has 33 points.

February, specifically the next three matchweeks, will see the teams inside that group learn a lot more about their fates, and give Chelsea and Sheffield United big opportunities to cement their places in the Top Four and Seven, respectively.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

In the case of the latter, it’s because the Blades are the only team in the bunch who don’t face a Top Four six-pointer; Chris Wilder‘s men will meet Crystal Palace, Bournemouth, and Brighton, while the others will be beating up each other.

Chelsea’s path is fraught, but a big opportunity. The Blues travel to Leicester City before hosting both Manchester United and Spurs. Nine points there would effectively Top Four-proof Frank Lampard‘s side.

By the way, how’s this for a hot take? If any of Chelsea, Man Utd, or Spurs find their center forward or playmaker help in the window, they’ll have a leg up on their Top Four rivals. And, really, is that extra few million pounds worth the spoils of the Champions League? Yup.

Bruno Fernandes is not (yet) with United, and the Red Devils face Wolves and Chelsea in their next two matches. Spurs have City and Chelsea. Tumult is probable!

A draw with Newcastle and loss at Watford dampened Wolves’ hopes of riding into fourth. Beginning with Thursday’s visit from Liverpool, however, Nuno Espirito Santo‘s men face three of the Top Seven and then a visit from Norwich City. It’s not over.

And don’t entirely rule out Leicester City from dropping into the fray; The Foxes host Chelsea and Man City, and visit Wolves.

One more nod, however improbable: Arsenal sits 10 points back of fourth but meets Burnley, Newcastle, and Everton over those three match weeks. A perfect run could have the Gunners thinking big (Man City is after that, alas).

Matchday 25
Leicester City v. Chelsea
Crystal Palace v. Sheffield United
Manchester United v. Wolves
Spurs v. Man City

Matchday 25
Sheffield United v. Bournemouth
Wolves v. Leicester City
Chelsea v. Manchester United
Aston Villa v. Tottenham Hotspur

Matchday 27
Chelsea v. Tottenham Hotspur
Leicester City v. Man City
Wolves v. Norwich City
Sheffield United v. Brighton
Manchester United v. Watford

Spurs play Wolves the next week, too!

Mourinho doesn’t have attacking options, but he does have ‘family’

Mourinho on Spurs win
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In this “whole new Jose Mourinho” world, the key word is family.

Mourinho said it six times in his post-match presser after Tottenham Hotspur scrapped to a 2-1 defeat of Norwich City on Wednesday in London.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ] 

Spurs had an early lead disappear when Ryan Sessegnon gave away a penalty to Max Aarons, and Teemu Pukki converted it for a 70th-minute deadlock.

Heung-Min Son scored nine minutes later. It was a win that is good for the whole family.

From Football.London:

“It was fantastic what happened after the 1-1, which happens in a difficult moment for us where I look to the bench and I don’t have attacking players to change the game the team is a little bit fatigued, especially Lucas, Son and of course Lamela. I took him off because he was in trouble and he is a player who is coming from very important and long injury, so very difficult.

“How can we change the game? With the family spirit, the family character and desire.”

Mourinho also praised Giovani Lo Celso‘s work on the wing for attack-short Spurs as “a good experience for the family,” and Paulo Gazzaniga‘s support for returned goalkeeper Hugo Lloris as “a good member of the family and he is such a special friend of Hugo.”

I mean, I’m getting the warm and fuzzies.

Clearly, Mourinho is stressing unity and there’s a bit of bunker mentality involved, as the manager mentioned some dicey calls not going their way against Watford, Liverpool, and now Norwich.

Solskjaer: Manchester United ‘looked mentally tired’ versus Burnley

Solskjaer reacts to Manchester United loss
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OIe Gunnar Solskjaer doesn’t have the answers to what ails Manchester United without Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba, and he can’t even fake it.

The United boss could only hang his side’s 2-0 loss to Burnley on sharpness, as the Red Devils out-attempted the visitors by a 24-5 margin.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ] 

United also had 72 percent of the ball, but Burnley’s whole philosophy is cool with you having the ball if you don’t have the lead.

The Red Devils never looked quite ready to grab that, either, from the moment an early Aaron Wan-Bissaka cross sailed through the six absent receiver. From the BBC:

“The boys looked mentally tired towards the end, we didn’t find that creativity,” Solskjaer said. “We can’t feel sorry for ourselves. When you are at Man United you are privileged because you are playing for the best club in the world.

“Sometimes you go through periods like that and it is a test I am sure they are going to come through.”

It’s all formulaic from the Norwegian manager. “The we’re United and it’s a special place” struck all the right chords when he first took the reins at Old Trafford, but the club hasn’t bought much quality since then and it’s ringing hollow as the depth fails to bail them out.

Spoiler alert: He did.

You can accept that Solskjaer is going nowhere and also accept that the whole thing is not going to improve any time soon. United should absolutely be in the Top Four given the failings of Chelsea, but cannot stop tripping over its own feet.