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.

Chairman Mubarak: Other clubs are ‘jealous’ of Man City’s success

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Manchester City chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak believes that other clubs — namely those who have fallen miles back of the back-to-back Premier League champions — are “jealous” of the club’s success.

[ MORE: Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante to miss Europa League final with new injury ]

The root of the perceived jealousy is, of course, Man City’s seemingly unlimited spending power which dwarves that of just about — if not — every other club in the PL. There’s a growing sense around the league — and around the world — that clubs like City, just to name one, are doing the game a disservice by distorting the transfer market and building an infallible super-team with the aid of unprecedented financial resources.

Mubarak believes that these feelings also stem from other clubs’ failed dealings in the transfer market: spending comparable — if not more — money on players who don’t justify that price tag the same way some of City’s big-money buys have done — quotes from the BBC:

“With success, there is a certain level of jealousy, envy, whatever you call it. That’s part of the game.

“It’s not easy for our competition, we know that. But the reality is, we didn’t buy the most expensive player in the Premier League [Paul Pogba], we didn’t buy the most expensive goalkeeper [Kepa Arrizabalaga], we didn’t buy the most expensive midfielder, we didn’t buy the most expensive striker [Romelu Lukaku].

“People make decisions, they’ve got to live by them. This is a well-run club.”

City’s financial dealings have regularly been in the headlines of late, as they are believed to have circumvented FFP rules by lying about sponsorship deals so as to balance a larger expenditure on transfer fees and player wages with revenue generated by the club.

Valverde under pressure after dismal end to Barcelona’s season

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MADRID (AP) A couple of weeks ago, few questioned Ernesto Valverde as Barcelona coach.

The team had just won a second straight Spanish league title under his command and was close to making it to the Champions League final after beating Liverpool 3-0 in the first leg of the semifinals.

The team was also through to the Copa del Rey final, where it would try to win an unprecedented fifth straight title in the competition.

Valverde seemed to be comfortably in control as the club moved closer to winning the treble.

Things quickly took a turn for the worse, though, and Valverde woke up on Sunday under added pressure and facing increased criticism.

Barcelona lost 2-1 to Valencia in the Copa del Rey final on Saturday, a result that followed the disastrous elimination against Liverpool in the Champions League and added to the team’s woeful end to what had been a great season.

“A month ago we were celebrating the league title. Fifteen days ago we were thinking we had a chance at a treble,” Valverde said. “And we came up short in the decisive moments in both the Champions League and the Copa del Rey.”

The disappointing ending brought out a wave of criticism of Valverde, who last year also finished the season under a cloud after another humiliating Champions League elimination – that time it squandered a big first-leg lead against Roma in the tournament’s quarterfinals.

The criticism seems more pronounced this time, with some fans and local media calling for a change at the helm.

It didn’t take long after Barcelona’s loss to Valencia in Seville for club President Josep Bartomeu to come out and defend the coach.

“Ernesto has a contract and he remains the team’s coach,” Bartomeu said. “This loss was not the coach’s fault. The team created a lot of scoring chances but the ball didn’t go in, and what counts is how many times you score.”

Bartomeu had already defended Valverde after the demoralizing 4-0 loss to Liverpool in the Champions League, saying the club was not considering a change in command for next season.

Valverde said he was not worried and felt supported by the club despite the disappointing ending.

“It’s a bad feeling, we won’t deny it, but we have to stay strong,” he said. “What we want as coaches is to have a chance to come back. It’s tough to lose, it means something went wrong. We have to take the responsibility for it.”

Even if Valverde stays as expected, it doesn’t mean there won’t be changes for Barcelona.

Several players played below expectations this season, especially former Liverpool star Philippe Coutinho, who was regularly jeered by fans and whose place with the club remains uncertain.

Bartomeu will likely have to go shopping in the offseason to try to improve the supporting cast for Lionel Messi, who had a fantastic year but wasn’t able to save the season by himself. When Messi looked ordinary, no one was able to take over his role as protagonist, and it proved costly in the decisive moments.

Young midfielder Frenkie de Jong is joining from Ajax and he should significantly boost the midfield, but Barcelona will definitely need to add to its attack, as Luis Suarez was the only true striker who performed consistently well. He couldn’t play in the Copa final after undergoing knee surgery and his absence was felt as the team struggled to capitalize on its scoring chances.

Veteran Gerard Pique is set to return for another season in defense, but there are still doubts about the fitness of Samuel Umtiti, who missed several matches this season because of injuries.

“We’ve been thinking about next season for a while, but it’s not the time to discuss the future,” Bartomeu said. “We ended with the Spanish league title, it was important. We couldn’t win the Copa, but we’ll just move on.”

Suarez defends surgery decision after Barca lose Copa del Rey final

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Luis Suarez has defended himself from criticism for undergoing knee surgery that prevented him from playing for Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final.

The Uruguayan released a statement Sunday saying he had no option despite the timing of the final, which Barcelona lost 2-1 to Valencia on Saturday.

Suarez said he had to undergo surgery “against my will” after rupturing his meniscus against Liverpool in the Champions League semifinals.

He said the surgery earlier this month had nothing to do with a cartilage issue that he had been nursing since the beginning of the season.

Barcelona won the Spanish league but finished the season on a low after being eliminated by Liverpool in the Champions League and losing the Copa final to Valencia.

Suarez scored 25 goals in 49 matches this season, second only to Lionel Messi on the scoring charts for Barcelona.

U-20 WC roundup: Mexico hammered by Japan; Italy top Ecuador

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A roundup of all of Sunday’s action at the U-20 World Cup in Poland…

[ MORE: USWNT wins final match before World Cup (video) ]

Mexico 0-3 Japan

Mexico’s heavy defeat at the hands of Japan means El Tri‘s stars of tomorrow, who have zero points from their first two games, cannot finish top-two in Group B and can only advance to the knockout rounds as one of four third-place teams.

Taisei Miyashiro (21st and 77th minutes) and Kyosuke Tagawa (52nd) bagged the goals on Sunday, as Japan picked up its first victory and set up an all-important finale with Italy to decide who finishes top of the group on Wednesday.

Ecuador 0-1 Italy

Andrea Pinamonti scored the only goal in Italy’s 1-0 victory over 10-man Ecuador to reach the six-point mark and guarantee themselves a top-two finish and a place in the round of 16.

Elsewhere in the U-20 World Cup

Senegal 2-0 Colombia [ HIGHLIGHTS ]
Poland 5-0 Tahiti [ HIGHLIGHTS ]

Monday’s U-20 World Cup schedule

Honduras v. Uruguay — 12 p.m. ET
Qatar v. Ukraine — 12 p.m. ET
USA v. Nigeria — 2:30 p.m. ET
Norway v. New Zealand — 2:30 p.m. ET