Premier League Playback: Divine intervention, luck leading the Foxes?

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FOXES GET OUT OF JAIL

“I always believe. I believe we showed this season that everything is possible with the Foxes. Never quit, no?”

That was Claudio Ranieri‘s answer to my question about how he felt on Sunday when Leicester’s title challenge looked to have derailed with West Ham 2-1 up and less then five minutes to play, plus the Foxes down to 10-men.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]

When Leonardo Ulloa‘s stoppage time penalty kick hit the back of the net at the King Power Stadium, relief was the main emotion from the home fans. Whether they wanted to admit it or not, the Foxes had got out of jail. Big time.

A scrambling, intoxicating second half saw Jamie Vardy, who had put the Foxes in front, shown a second yellow card for simulation as Leicester went down to 10-men for the final 30 minutes. West Ham then battered them and in two minutes seemed to have won the game.

[ VIDEO: Analyzing the big calls ]

First referee Jon Moss, who became a pivotal figure in this game, called a foul on Wes Morgan in the box and Andy Carroll slammed home the spot kick. 1-1. The home fans were incensed with the decision but can have little complaints. Two minutes later Aaron Cresswell rifled a volley into the far corner and as West Ham’s players celebrated in front of the Leicester fans, with paper clappers being thrown at them and cries of “2-1 to the referee!” from the home fans, everything seemed to be unraveling for Ranieri’s men.

Then, the game-deciding moment arrived.

Substitute Jeffrey Schlupp slalomed into the box with second left. Carroll came across to close him down but Schlupp took a tumble. Moss pointed to the spot to hand Leicester a lifeline and ensure he would safely get out of the King Power Stadium alive. Ulloa’s spot kick ensured Leicester will remain five points ahead of Tottenham Hotspur with four games to go should Spurs win at Stoke City on Monday. But Leicester should have lost and even though Moss was booed off the pitch, he’d helped the home team out and gained them a point.

[ MORE: Vardy to get extra ban?

Moss is a human. He evened things up. He got Vardy’s red card correct — the England striker may face further action after appearing to swear at Moss and gesture in his face when walking off the pitch — and Morgan’s grappling on Winston Reid was correct, but the challenge on Schlupp was nothing more than a shoulder barge and he was already going down.

Leicester have won 11 penalties this season, more than any other team and 15.3 percent of their goals have come from the spot this season. The trickery and speed of Vardy and Riyad Mahrez has led to that but perhaps subconsciously referees are more willing to believe that Leicester’s players are going down under contact and, maybe, the media frenzy about their achievements this season is playing its part.

I wrote it from my “three things we learned” column at the King Power Stadium yesterday, and it does seem like divine intervention is somehow at play here, pushing Leicester towards a fairytale title and unlike anything we’ve ever seen in PL history or even sporting history. Call it luck, the rub of the green, whatever you will, but in pivotal moments in recent weeks decisions have gone in Leicester’s favor and it seems scripted for them to lift the title.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Tottenham will not give up hope but seeing Ulloa’s late penalty kick go in must have hit Mauricio Pochettino‘s men hard. Even though Leicester is stumbling, Spurs still have to overcome an eight-point gap with 15 points remaining on the table.

“It is more important than one point,” Ranieri said of Leicester’s draw. “Physiologically, we are there.”

When Cheikhou Kouyate‘s header hits both of Leicester’s post rolls across the line and the stays out with the first act of the game, then a penalty kick like that was awarded with basically the last act, it seems like higher powers are at work.

As Ranieri said: “this season everything is possible with the Foxes.” But it always helps when lady luck is shining down on you along the way…

BRILLIANT DE BRUYNE BATTERS CHELSEA

Premier League Schedule – Week 35

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

Kevin De Bruyne never got the chance to flourish at Stamford Bridge as a Chelsea player. On Saturday he did. But for Manchester City.

[ MORE: De Bruyne rips Chelsea apart ]

During City’s 3-0 win which boosts their top four hopes and condemned Chelsea to an 11th defeat of the season, De Bruyne, 24, looked worth every penny of the $75 million City paid Wolfsburg for the Belgian winger last summer. In January 2014, Chelsea and Jose Mourinho let De Bruyne leave for $25 million.

He came back to haunt them and since he returned from injury last month, City is unbeaten in five and look a completely different team. He knits it all together and comes up with the goods in the big games, just like he did in the UEFA Champions League quarterfinal vs. PSG.

Mourinho had complained of De Bruyne’s attitude, something the Belgian wholeheartedly refutes, and said him being behind Eden Hazard was the main reason he was sold. On his return to Stamford Bridge, it seemed like KDB had a point to prove as he led City’s counter attacks with devastating efficiency and scythed through Chelsea’s hapless midfield and defense at will. Coasting off the right flank and into the center, De Bruyne went clean through in the first half but was thwarted by Thibaut Courtois. He then set up Sergio Aguero to score the first of his three goals with a rapid break and pinpoint pass.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]

In the second half it got better. De Bruyne flicked the ball past both Cesc Fabregas and Cesar Azpilcieuta in one movement and sped away, releasing Sami Nasri who set up Aguero for his second.

De Bruyne was applauded by some of Chelsea’s fans and one even shouted out: “De Bruyne, we want you to come back!”

Chelsea’s interim boss Guus Hiddink saw his midtable team humbled by City’s swaggering ginger machine. I asked him after the game what he thought of De Bruyne’s display.

“He is very keen playing in-between the lines and all of the players are and they know to find him,” Hiddink told ProSoccerTalk. “He is a beautiful player to see.”

Chelsea’s fans will, begrudgingly, agree with Guus. Ah, the one that got away…

NORTH EAST CLUBS ALIVE

A huge weekend played out for both Newcastle United and Sunderland as the two North East giants reignited life into their relegation battle. But, adding further fuel to the fire, it seems inevitable that only one club will save themselves.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ] 

Both won 3-0 with Sunderland’s shellacking of Norwich City in the early game on Saturday opening up the relegation picture and Newcastle duly responded with their victory over Swansea City.

Sam Allardyce‘s side have always looked the more likely to get out of the mire as he’s built a solid defensive unit but scoring goals has been the problem of late. A game-changing moment arrived at Carrow Road with Fabio Borini taken down by Andre Wisdom and the Italian slammed home the spot kick to set the Black Cats on their way. Borini crossed for Jermain Defoe to double the lead and Duncan Watmore put some gloss on the scoreline as Big Sam, reminiscent of Elvis, swung his arms in celebration gleefully on the sidelines.

That early win piled the pressure on Sunderland’s bitter North East rivals, Newcastle. And, surprisingly, Rafael Benitez’s side dealt with it. Recording their first clean sheet since Feb. 6, Benitez’s men rode their luck against Swansea City but two late goals brought relief around St James’ Park and Benitez his first win as Newcastle boss.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score

With Aston Villa relegated on Saturday following their 1-0 defeat to Manchester United, it’s now two from Newcastle, Sunderland and Norwich to join them. The relegation picture couldn’t not be tighter thanks to big wins for the big North East clubs.

Norwich sit one place out of the relegation zone on 31 points. Sunderland have 30 points and Newcastle now have 28. Both, crucially, have a game in hand on Norwich and if they win those, Sunderland will move out of the bottom three and Newcastle will be right behind them.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]  

They’ve given themselves a big chance of escaping and looking at the remaining games, Sunderland have the easier schedule on paper of the three relegation battlers. With five games to go for Newcastle and Sunderland, the race to 40 points is on. Only one, if any, of the North East giants will be in the PL next season. Which team will dig themselves out of the bottom three?

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.  

Dest decision to stay with the U.S. significant for future

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With the shrill of the referee’s whistle on Friday night, with Sergino Dest expected to be on the field, his decision to play for the U.S. Men’s National Team will be final.

There have been plenty of dual-nationals before him and there will continue to be dual-nationals after him. But Dest’s decision to stay with the U.S. is a significant one for multiple reasons.

First, there’s the whirlwind past six months he’s had. Before the summer began, Dest was a solid member of the Jong Ajax team, which is effectively the reserve side, though it plays in the Dutch Second Division. For the U.S., he started in four of the five games for the U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team as it advanced to the FIFA U-20 World Cup quarterfinals this past May and June, beating France U-20s along the way.

After a strong preseason, suddenly Dest found himself promoted to the Ajax first team. Then, suddenly this then-18-year-old kid was starting for Ajax, first in the Eredivisie and then in the UEFA Champions League, and he was impressing. After not noticing him or not bothering to call him in to national team camps in the past, suddenly Ronald Koeman was interested, and Ajax coach Erik ten Hag was pushing the Oranje on Dest.

While the U.S. has recruited players from Germany, England, and Mexico among other countries in recent years, it’s rare that the player hasn’t been coveted as well by the bigger – or local national team compared to the USMNT. So it says something that the USMNT is such a welcoming place that Dest felt comfortable enough when making his decision to stick with what he knew.

Also, while the Tyler Boyd decision to play for the USMNT wasn’t seen as a huge recruiting coup – he had played in friendly matches for New Zealand in the past – Dest’s decision, considering that he plays at Ajax and gets minutes in the Champions League – is on the level of the Jonathan Gonzalez deal. Gonzalez of course decided to go with Mexico, but due to a loss of form and injuries, that decision hasn’t fully panned out over the past 12 months. Dest, meanwhile, has the opportunity to cement himself as the right or left back of the future for the U.S.

A player this young is usually not put in this position where they have to choose, but Dest – with official FIFA matches coming up – basically had to make his decision this month or risk being out of the USMNT and the Netherlands for multiple training camps.

Ultimately, while Dest’s decision is a great sign for the USMNT, it’s only the start. There’s plenty of American-born players that the USMNT is losing out on, especially to Mexico. Players like Efrain Alvarez, and Gonzalez are two players who could make a difference for the U.S. moving forward, but have chosen – Alvarez for now – to play for Mexico. Other current USMNT youngsters such as Richie Ledezma, Sebastian Soto, Alex Mendez, and Julian Araujo could all potentially play for another country as well, leaving the U.S. vulnerable should they leave.

And another caveat. Dest is only 19-years old, and it’s truly impossible to predict whether he’ll be the next Steve Cherundolo for the USMNT – owned the right back slot for more than a decade – or a short-term fix before an injury or loss of form keeps him away from the team.

So U.S. Soccer is on the right track with the commitment from Dest, but it still has an awful lot to do to keep growing the USMNT player pool.

 

Berhalter: No “like-for-like” replacement for Pulisic

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U.S. Men’s National Team coach Gregg Berhalter may not be feeling any more pressure after the USMNT’s disappointing 2-0 defeat at Canada last month. But his task to beat Canada in the return match on Friday in Orlando became even more difficult with the loss of Christian Pulisic to injury.

Speaking at a pre-match press conference, Berhalter noted that there’s no one on the current USMNT team that could replace exactly what Pulisic brings – excellent dribbling, high soccer IQ, dynamic runs into the box – but they’ll need to compensate for his absence in other ways.

[READ: How will the USMNT line up v. Canada]

“When you think about his dynamic dribbling, you don’t see players like that around very much anymore.,” Berhalter said. “We’ll have to compensate with other types of skills. But what we do have is speed and physically, and we’ll want to take advantage of that. I think that will be a key component of the game.”

Even with Pulisic on the field for around an hour, the U.S. still seemed second-best, but it didn’t help when the USMNT’s best player was taken off. In the current squad, Berhalter will need to look for creativity and darting runs diagonally from players like Tyler Boyd and Jordan Morris on the wings, where they can potentially have an advantage over Canada’s outside backs.

Berhalter noted at the press conference that this week in training they’ve been focusing on bringing the intensity demanded for international soccer, as well as how to better succeed in the attacking third of the field.

“We’ve been working with the wingers, working with the attacking midfielder, having them focused on spaces we need to exploit, and being very aggressive around the penalty box,” Berhalter said. “One thing we weren’t happy with in the game in Canada was our lack of ability to get behind their backline and our lack of ability in the final third to deliver accurate crosses. We got into some good positions and didn’t take advantage of that. So, we focused on that during this week and it’s been looking pretty good.”

In some of the USMNT’s worst games in recent years, including the loss in Couva, Trinidad and Tobago and the loss in Toronto, Canada, it’s been the lack of creativity in the final third, or a lack of even setting up one-v-one opportunities in the final third that’s cost the U.S. That task becomes more difficult without Pulisic, but perhaps the USMNT can take advantage of Morris’ recent fine form, and use his speed down the left to get in behind Canada’s defense.

Sterling backs Gomez after boos were heard at Wembley

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Raheem Sterling came out in support of his teammate Joe Gomez, just a couple of days after Sterling lost his temper in practice and got into a scuffle with the Liverpool defender.

Multiple reporters at England’s 7-0 thrashing of Montenegro heard a smattering of fans boo Joe Gomez when he came on the field as a substitute. While not defensible, the boos were likely as a result of the dust-up and subsequent one-match suspension for Sterling. Unable to speak to the media after the match, Sterling took to Twitter to stand up for his international teammate.

[READ: England smash Montenegro, qualify for Euro 2020]

This is the latest example of Sterling taking the high road to deal with a tough situation. Whether it’s the boos he endures from Liverpool fans over his exit from the club, racism he’s experienced at home or abroad, and the media coverage he’s felt, Sterling has almost always offered a measured, intelligent response.

In this instance, it shows that Gareth Southgate has full control of his team and that there’s an accepting atmosphere in the squad. Sterling was obviously wrong to not let the Man City defeat to Liverpool go and to take it out on Gomez warranted the suspension. To back Gomez after he took some jeers from the crowd says a lot about Sterling’s character.

You can almost bet that the two will be on the field together as England faces Kosovo on the road this Sunday.

Euro 2020 Roundup: Ronaldo scores hat-trick, France, Turkey qualify

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The final two rounds of Euro 2020 qualification got underway on Thursday with plenty of great goals on display. Four nations qualified directly into the tournament as well, as we get closer to the final list of 24 teams.


Portugal rout Lithuania

While the result wasn’t a surprise, it was still an impressive performance from the defending European champions.

Portugal, behind a Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick, thrashed Lithuania, 6-0, at the Estadio Algarve. That included this terrific strike into the corner from outside the box, bringing the crowd to their feet.

It was Ronaldo’s ninth hat-trick for Portugal, which takes him to 98 goals overall along with 12 goals for Portugal in this calendar year, an incredible strike rate. Pizzi, Goncalo Paciencia and Bernardo Silva all scored as well. With a win at Luxembourg in three days, Portugal can assure qualification back to the European Championships, where it can defend its crown.


France comes back to beat Moldova

It’s safe to say that Les Bleus fans would gladly have taken a 2-1 result over Moldova in Euro 2020 qualifying, but the journey to get there was definitely out of the ordinary.

Moldova’s Vadim Rata put the visitors up 1-0 in the 9th minute with a goal-mouth scramble after a failed clearance from by Clement Lenglet, putting France under even more pressure. France brought wave and wave of attack towards the Moldova goal, but it was a controversial goal, credited to Raphael Varane, which brought France level.

In the 41st minute, as Olivier Giroud went for a ball, it appeared Giroud motioned to control the ball with his arm, only to move it out of his way at the last second, enabling Varane to head home. Giroud made amends for missing many chances throughout the match with a penalty kick goal in the 79th minute, earned by left back Lucas Digne.

With the win, France qualified for the 2020 Euros. Also qualifying on Thursday was Turkey, England, and the Czech Republic.

Here’s a look at the rest of Thursday’s Euro 2020 qualification results.

Qualification Group A

England 7-0 Montenegro
Czech Republic 2-1 Kosovo

Qualification Group B

Portugal 6-0 Lithuania
Serbia 3-2 Luxembourg

Qualification Group H

Turkey 0-0 Iceland
Albania 2-2 Andorra
France 2-1 Moldova