Premier League Playback: What did we learn in 2015-16 season?

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THE IMPOSSIBLE IS POSSIBLE

We learned from Leicester City that the impossible is indeed possible.

I don’t know if you’ve heard this but the Foxes were 5000-1 to win the Premier League this season. They did it. Cluadio Ranieri led a bunch of castoffs and second-chancers to the title and in the end they did it in style, winning the PL by 10 points as their total team effort wowed the watching world.

MORE: All 2015-16 PL season reviews

So much has been said about Leicester’s win — the clubs first-ever top-flight title in their 132-year history — but quite simply it has breathed new life into the Premier League, the beautiful game and sport overall.

Everyone can now point to Leicester’s success over the course of nine months to prove that literally anything is possible. There will be no more excuses. If Leicester could win the title, which they did, then who says Burnley can’t win it next season?

[ MORE: The biggest party in Leicester’s history ]

It defied belief for pretty much the entire season. This was a group of players who were almost relegated last season until an incredible run of seven wins in their final nine games saw them survive. Sure, they added Christian Fuchs, Marc Albrighton, Shinji Okazaki and, most importantly, N'Golo Kante to the mix but essentially it was the same core group.

Jamie Vardy scored 24 goals and rose to stardom with England. Riyad Mahrez all of a sudden channeled his inner-Lionel Messi to destroy PL defenses with a swing of his hips and the central defense duo of Wes Morgan and Robert Huth were shielded superbly by Danny Drinkwater and Kante. Along with the failing of plenty of big boys, the perfect storm was created for Leicester to create a once-in-a-lifetime achievement. They took full advantage of it.

[ MORE: Best stats of the 2015-16 season ]

Led by Claudio Ranieri — in his first season in charge of the Foxes after replacing the hugely popular Nigel Pearson — the incredible scenes we’ve seen in Leicester throughout this season and in the past few weeks as they’ve celebrated the trophy have inspired everyone to keep dreaming and believing.

Leicester’s title win is the greatest single story in Premier League history. It is the greatest story in sporting history. Period.


NICE GUYS DO WIN

As for the mastermind of that success, Mr. Ranieri has won new fans the world over. The 64-year-old Italian has a humble demeanor, is a lovable character in the media and has galvanized a group of players to work together to achieve immortality.

[ MORE: Grades for each PL team ]  

There’s no doubting that Ranieri will have a statue in Leicester at some point in the near future. He has led the Foxes to their first-ever title and first-ever appearances in the UEFA Champions League and along the way he’s created so many wonderful memories.

From “Dilly-ding, dilly-dong” to taking the team out for Pizza after a clean sheet and crying on the pitch at Sunderland, this wonderful manager has used every ounce of his experience to push the Foxes over the line. He has so many great accolades coming his way and the crux of it all is that as well as being a worthy champion, Ranieri is just a really nice bloke.

[ MORE: PST Awards – POTY | Coach of Year | Young POTY | Team of Year ]

Throughout his managerial career — which has seen him come runner up at Chelsea, AS Roma and Monaco — many have branded Ranieri as being too nice and pointed to that as the reason why he’d never won a top-flight title before this season.

After pulling off the greatest story in sporting history, Ranieri has proven that nice guys can win it all.


MANCHESTER NEEDS A MAJOR FACELIFT

Manchester City and Manchester United battled it out until the bitter end for the Premier League title in 2012. This season they battled it out until the bitter end for fourth place.

Regression is the key word when describing the kind of seasons the two Manchester clubs endured in 2015-16.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

City pipped United to fourth place on goal difference and ensured that incoming manager Pep Guardiola will at least have a UEFA Champions League play-off game to look forward to when he arrives this summer. The announcement of Guardiola’s impending arrival midseason ultimately had a big impact on City’s players.

In the UCL they made the semifinals and narrowly lost out to Real Madrid but in league play they coasted along under Manuel Pellegrini, even though the Chilean manager added another League Cup title to take his total trophy haul at the Etihad to two League Cups and a PL title in three years. Not bad, but not great considering the signings of last summer.

Kevin De Bruyne was the only player who proved he was worth his huge $75 million pricetag, while Raheem Sterling has underperformed after his own $75 million transfer and the central defenive duo of Nicolas Otamendi and Eliaquim Mangala — who cost a combined $85 million — look lost in England. There’s a lot for Pep to sort out when he arrives.

As for United, where do we start? Louis Van Gaal, 64, is somehow still in charge and the Dutchman believes he will be in charge for the third and final year of his contract when next season rolls around. Okay, Louis, we believe you… At least we will still have moments like this to treasure forever.

United finished fifth in the PL, they reached the FA Cup final and they were knocked out of the UCL in the group stage, then dumped out of the Europa League by Liverpool. It has been yet another tepid season under LVG’s guidance and only $60 million man Anthony Martial has provided a brief bright spark. United’s fans are bored and unhappy with performances and with no UCL action next season, Jose Mourinho is lurking ominously in the background.

Whether or not Van Gaal remains, it is true that both Manchester clubs have had their wings clipped this season. The chasing pack has got closer over the past few years and complacency must not be tolerated. This rivalry has the potential to be one of the biggest in the world, as we’ve seen in recent years. Now, though, its languishing in the doldrums. Pep vs. Mourinho should liven things up though…

TOTTENHAM RISING, SAME OLD ARSENAL

Talking about lively rivalries, my word the battle for north London was intense this season.

I wrote this longform piece on the dominance potentially shifting to Tottenham after their title push. However, Mauricio Pochettino‘s men faltered in the final weeks of the season and Arsenal clinched second spot on the final day of the season to finish ahead of Spurs for the 21st consecutive campaign.

Both clubs will be in the UCL group stages next season and with Spurs’ new stadium ready for 2018, a hungry, talented manager signing a new five-year deal and boasting the youngest squad in the PL, things are still looking up for Spurs.

[ MORE: Final Premier League standings

As for Arsenal, they fought back valiantly to remain the top dogs in north London but it was a case of the same old story for Arsene Wenger. Yes, it was their highest finish in the PL since 2004-05 but this was the year they were supposed to win the damn thing. Instead, they languished behind Leicester City and despite leading the way in late January they couldn’t kick on in the final months of the season. They caused huge frustrations among fans and plenty of protests against Wenger.

This summer is a big one for Arsenal as we learned that the once mammoth gap in quality in north London has now become minuscule. Here’s hoping these two will battle it out at the top of the league for many years to come because there’s nothing quite like a NLD when there’s trophies and titles on the line, as well as immense local pride.

RISE OF UNDERDOGS WIDESPREAD

Leicester stole the headlines, and rightly so, but they weren’t the other smaller team to take on the big buys. Look at the top seven in the table. Did anyone honestly have Leicester, Southampton and West Ham to all be among the top seven in their preseason predictions? Yeah, didn’t think so.

[ MORE: Team-by-team season reviews A-M N-W ]

Southampton and West Ham were both flirting with a top four finish, especially the Hammers for most of the season, and clubs of that size and ambition will be buoyed by seeing Leicester’s success and will honestly believe they can emulate it. Sure, this was a down year for some of the big boys in the PL but even clubs like Stoke City will be dreaming of big things as a huge theme of this season was the breakthrough of the underdogs.

Everyone is trying to work out if the force has been disturbed among the PL’s elite for good or if this season was an anomaly.

We won’t know that for some time but it has certainly been a year of the unexpected. It has been the most difficult season to predict and the equality across the PL suggests we could be in for much more of this in the future as the smaller teams believe they can “do a Leicester” in the years to come.

That will be tough, of course it will, but with the perennial powerhouses stumbling around, why can’t West Ham, Southampton or Stoke realistically target a top four finish next season?

POWERHOUSES BACK-PEDDLING

Liverpool. Chelsea. Aston Villa. Newcastle United. Everton. It was not a good season for these five teams.

When it come to Chelsea, nobody expected that collapse. From Mourinho’s opening day exchange with club doctor Eva Carneiro to the many crushing defeats which followed it, the reigning champs ended up firing one of the greatest managers the world has ever seen just seven months after he delivered the title. Deep-rooted issues seemed to have been a big part of Chelsea’s demise, as so many players underperformed all at the same time. “The Special One” unraveled in his third season at a club once again as his demonstrative nature and egotistic approach saw him fall flat on his face.

He will remain a legend at Stamford Bridge for delivering three PL titles but he now has to rebuild his reputation. Just like Chelsea. With Antonio Conte arriving this summer the Italian will bring a strict approach as he aims to shake up a talented yet mentally fragile squad. Chelsea will be back. Roman Abramovich will chuck money at it until they are but as for the other clubs, it could be a while until we see them get anywhere near past heights.

First up, Aston Villa and Newcastle United were a shambles this season as two huge clubs were relegated. Villa gained just 17 points and were relegated for the first time in the PL era. Some good news has arrived in the past few days with a Chinese billionaire taking over but there’s still a lot of work for Villa to do to try and drag themselves back into the PL and then rebuild from there.

For Newcastle, they must do the same. The Steve McClaren experiment went horribly wrong and Rafael Benitez almost saved them but they left it too late to appoint the Spaniard. The noises out of St. James’ Park suggest Benitez may stay on next season and they will need him to if they want to come straight back up. It is a club whose fans deserve so much more than the Mike Ashley regime has delivered.

Two other big teams treading water is Liverpool and Everton. Yes, Liverpool is heading in the right direction under Jurgen Klopp who arrived midseason and a full summer training under his methods and the charismatic German coach getting some money to spend in the summer will kick on his project. But we can’t hide away from the facts of an eighth-place finish and two cup final defeats this season. Liverpool have a squad which seems to be mentally weak as we saw in the Europa League final defeat to Sevilla.

Klopp has lots of work to do for next season but with no European distractions, perhaps the Reds will make a real charge at not only the top four but maybe even the title next season? It is all about recruitment and how much Klopp is given to spend because he can obviously motivate players and has the tactical acumen to succeed. He just needs better quality to work with.

The Toffees fired Roberto Martinez before the final game of the season and under new owner Farhad Moshiri they are ambitious but have to be very careful about their next step. Hiring the correct manager is key, as is keeping hold of the likes of Romelu Lukaku, Ross Barkley and John Stones. The youngsters in Everton’s ranks had their confidence badly battered this season and it will take some time to get back to challenging for the top six or even the top four as a club of Everton’s size should be.

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.

Adams: RB Leipzig ‘really, really excited’ to face PSG in UCL semifinal

Tyler Adams RB Leipzig
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Tyler Adams, RB Leipzig hero? The 21-year-old American midfielder wasn’t the hero RB Leipzig fans — or U.S. men’s national team fans, even — expected to celebrate on Thursday, but that’s the reality after he scored an 88th-minute winner (WATCH HERE) to knock off Atletico Madrid in the quarterfinals of the Champions League.

[ MORE: Transfer news: Man City want Thiago; Man Utd still chasing Sancho ]

The victory sends Leipzig to its first-ever UCL semifinal appearance, where they’ll face French powerhouse Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday. Adams didn’t start the game — he came on as a 72nd-minute substitute — and while he found that a bit disappointing at first, the New York Red Bulls academy product played his part and provided a far greater impact than anyone could have expected — quotes from CBS Sports (video below):

“It was very difficult. For the first 70 minutes, it was a close game so when I came on I wanted to bring energy and help the team in any way possible. Getting your first goal is unexpected for me — I’m not a typical goalscorer — but I’m happy that I could help the team.”

“Coming into this game, I was told that I wasn’t going to start but I needed to be ready to come off the bench and make an impact. I had to get myself in the right mindset to help the team in any way possible. We had a great game plan and everybody gave everything that they had. Not everybody is necessarily 90-minutes fit right now after a three-week holiday, so we had to be prepared and we were.”

“We’re really, really excited. We know that Paris are a great team, we saw what they did against Atalanta yesterday and they’ve got really good players. Now it’s about recovering in the right way, getting ourselves right mentally and working on the game plan. We’re confident in ourselves, you saw that today.”

USMNT’s Tyler Adams’ goal sends RB Leipzig to UCL semifinal (video)

Tyler Adams goal
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Tyler Adams goal: The American scored an 88th-minute goal, which proved to be the game-winner, to send RB Leipzig to its first-ever UEFA Champions League semifinal appearance on Thursday, knocking off Atletico Madrid 2-1 in the process.

[ MORE: Champions League predictions ]

All three goals were scored in the second half after a forgettable first half was short on scoring chances, and it was Adams, who came into the game as a 72nd-minute substitute who delivered the decisive blow.

Atleti’s first chance of the game came in the 10th minute. Stefan Savic rose above the crowd to get his head to Renan Lodi’s floated free kick, but Peter Gulacsi managed to get both hands on the ball and keep it from crossing the goal line despite backpedaling and falling to the ground.

Atleti’s best chance of the first half came when Yannick Carrasco went dangerously close to putting Atleti ahead in the 13th minute, but Gulacsi was quick to cover his near post and palm the ball wide. After starting brightly, it was virtual radio silence from Los Rojiblancos after that.

To be fair to Atleti, it wasn’t any better for Leipzig — in fact, it was worse in the opening 45 minutes. To illustrate their inability to create scoring chances, let alone shots, a stat: despite holding more than 62 percent of possession at halftime, their four shots were taken by their defensive midfielder (1), a center back (1) and another center back (2).

[ LIVE: Champions League schedule ]

Leipzig’s first shot taken by an attacking player came in the 51st minute, and it resulted in the game’s opening goal. It began with a prolonged period of possession to free Marcel Sabitzer down the right side of Atleti’s penatly area. The Austrian cross into the box floated ever so dangerously toward the penalty spot, and Dani Olmo arrive just in the nick of time to glance it past Jan Oblak.

Atleti were handed a lifeline in the 70th minute, though, as Lukas Klostermann was badly beaten by Joao Felix as he made a diagonal run into the penalty area and received the ball near the penalty spot. Klostermann cut him down from behind and gave away a penalty kick. It was Felix, who only entered the game as a substitute in the 58th minute who stepped up and converted past Gulacsi, with ice in his veins.

Coincidentally enough, it was Felix’s introduction — and immediate impact on the game — which appeared to necessitate Adams’ introduction to stifle the Portuguese’s threat. The rest, as they say, is history.

Up next for Leipzig is a semifinal clash with Paris Saint-Germain, who needed a stoppage-time comeback to knock off Atalanta and advance from Thursday’s quarterfinal.

Transfer news: Man City want Thiago; Man Utd still chasing Sancho

Man City Thiago
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In the latest transfer news, Man City have entered the race to sign Thiago Alcantara, Manchester United aren’t giving up on Jadon Sancho, and an entire squad has been put up for sale…

[ MORE: World Cup winner Matuidi reunites with Beckham at Inter Miami ]

Man City enter race for Thiago

On Wednesday, Bayern Munich manager Hansi Flick endorsed Thiago’s heavily rumored move to the Premier League after negotiations over a new contract had reportedly reached an impasse. That seemed to pave the way for Thiago, who’ll be out of contract next summer, to move to Liverpool, the most commonly reported destination in recent weeks. Not so fast, according to a report out of Germany, as Manchester City and Pep Guardiola, who worked with Thiago while at Barcelona and Bayern Munich, have reportedly entered the race. Liverpool are reportedly only willing to pay $35 million for the free agent-to-be.

Man United still chasing Sancho

Despite Borussia Dortmund’s increasing annoyance over a lack of progress in negotiations for winger Sancho, Manchester United continue to pursue the 20-year-old Englishman and have reportedly put all other transfer business on hold while doing so. According to another report, the contract Man United offered to Sancho would have resulted in the player taking a pay cut upon completing the move.

[ MORE: Thiago to Liverpool: Bayern boss urges Premier League move ]

Lacazette to Juventus

According to a report out of Italy, Juventus have made initial contact with Arsenal over a possible deal for forward Alexandre Lacazette. The 29-year-old has two years remaining on his contract, but the thinking here seems to be that Lacazette is quite clearly the no. 2 forward behind Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and Juve are prepared to offer the Frenchman a chance to be more of a star man.

Fire sale at Valencia

Valencia have put their entire squad, with the lone exception of Jose Gaya, up for sale in an attempt to balance their financial books. The La Liga side’s desperate need for funds comes as a result of missing out on all European competitions after finishing ninth in the league, combined with the financial hardships brought about by COVID-19. Clubs all around Europe have been alerted to Valencia’s fire-sale approach. It remains to be seen how much of a “deal” can be had, or if Valencia can squeeze maximum value out of each player with so little leverage.

Key battles in Champions League quarterfinals

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The UEFA Champions League quarterfinals take center stage this week and we’re going to select one key battle which should determine the outcome of all four games.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores ] 

With Manchester City the favorites against Lyon, a massive clash between Barcelona and Bayern Munich, plus an intriguing tie between RB Leipzig v. Atletico Madrid, the final few games in the 2019-20 Champions League campaign will be so tight to call.

[ MORE: Man City beat Real Madrid ]

In the next few days the Champions League quarterfinals will excite as the mini tournament in Portugal begins.

Man City beat Real Madrid 4-2 on aggregate to reach the last eight and Pep Guardiola’s boys will be confident but wary after Lyon dumped out Juventus in the Round of 16. Bayern v. Barcelona should be all-out attack, while Atletico v. Leipzig will be full of grit.

Lisbon, Portugal will host the Champions League games from the quarterfinal stage onwards, and there will be one heck of a show over the next few days.

Below is a look at the key battles, as well as how to watch and follow all of the Champions League quarterfinal fixtures in the USA.


How to watch, stream Champions League quarterfinals

Dates: August 5-23
Location: Quarterfinals onwards in Lisbon
How to watch: CBS Sports
Live updates: UCL here at NBCSports.com & Europa League here at NBCSports.com


Team news

Diego Simeone has gone extremely defensive — even for him — by selecting defensive midfielder Marcos Llorente as a second striker alongside Diego Costa. Meanwhile for Leipzig, U.S. men’s national team youngster Tyler Adams is on the bench.


Key battles

RB Leipzig – Atletico Madrid: Dayot Upamecano v.Diego Costa

This should be an epic head-to-head. Costa loves the one-on-one scraps and Upamecano is among the finest center backs in Europe right now. The young Frenchman doesn’t get bullied often but Costa will have a good go. Costa has hardly been prolific in his second spell at Atletico but he so often sets the tone for their scrappy displays under Diego Simeone. Leipzig like to play a back three at times and that could leave space for Costa to run at Upamecano. This will be intriguing. Watch out for Costa to put down his marker early on with elbows and everything else flying at Upamecano.

Barcelona – Bayern Munich: Lionel Messi v. David Alaba

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Okay, so, we know how Jerome Boateng v. Lionel Messi went before. Somewhere, somebody is still using that gif of Boateng tangling his own legs like spaghetti as Messi bamboozled him to score at the Nou Camp. So it’s probably best if versatile Austrian star David Alaba goes up against Messi. It’s likely that Alaba will play at the back but he should basically mark Messi, and when (or if, because this is Messi) he gets the ball back he has the quality to start attacks. Bayern and Barcelona both score plenty of goals but defensively they have to improve if they’re going to win the Champions League this season.

Manchester City – Lyon: Aymeric Laporte v. Memphis Depay

Everyone is tipping Man City to beat Lyon easily, but that’s what everyone said about Lyon against Juventus. Memphis Depay is a real threat up top and Lyon usually do very well against Man City. Pep Guardiola needs Aymeric Laporte to be at his very best and it is likely he and Fernandinho will again line up together at center back. Laporte will line up on the left and Memphis will start on the right side of Lyon’s central strikers, so this will be a battle to look out for. Laporte has class but his pace is sometimes questioned and if City leave him exposed on the break, Memphis can take advantage of those situations.

Atalanta – PSG: Marten de Roon v. Ander Herrera

Yes, that Marten de Roon from Middlesbrough. The Dutch midfielder has been a sensation at Atalanta and does most of the dirty work for Gomez, Zapata et al. to score boat loads of goals. His battle in the engine room against Ander Herrera will be crucial. Marco Verratti is out injured and that is a big blow, especially with Kylian Mbappe and Angel di Maria out too for PSG. Neymar and Icardi will be looking for the midfield to give them the ball as much as possible and if that happens, PSG could run riot. That said, if De Roon can win that battle with Herrera, Atalanta’s attackers can cause PSG’s defense big problems. Whoever wins the midfield battle will win this game. It should be tight and full of goals. Enjoy.