Premier League Playback: Tightest title race ever?

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TOO CLOSE TO CALL

Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham all dropped points this weekend. Chelsea and Liverpool won.

The six legit title contenders in the Premier League are all in the top seven. Three are joint-top on 20 points after nine games. A further two are one point behind on 19 points.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live ] 

Here’s a look at where the six “big boys” of the PL are at right now as we approach the quarter mark of the season with so little to separate the pack. In fact, it’s the tightest race ever, so far.

The top five in the Premier League have never been separated by such a small margin after the opening nine games in history. Even the stats are pointing towards an incredibly close battle.

20 points

Manchester City: Five games without a win in all competitions… Pep Guardiola‘s honeymoon period is finally over. City were humbled at Barcelona in the week and looked lackluster in attack against Southampton in a 1-1 draw. Add that to silly defensive mistakes from Claudio Bravo and John Stones and Pep has plenty to mull over and that’s probably why he kept his team in the dressing room for 40 minutes after the draw against Saints. City are still top and we all know this huge philosophical change under Guardiola was never going to happen overnight. Last month they looked head and shoulders above the rest. Now? Well, they just look like one of the contenders again. At least for now.

Premier League Schedule – Week 9

Result Recap & Highlights
Arsenal 0-0 Boro Recap, watch here
B’mouth 0-0 Spurs Recap, watch here
Burnley 2-1 Everton Recap, watch here
Chelsea 4-0 Man Utd Recap, watch here
Hull 0-2 Stoke City Recap, watch here
Leicester 3-1 C. Palace Recap, watch here
Liverpool 2-1 WBA Recap, watch here
Man City 1-1 Saints Recap, watch here
Swansea 0-0 Watford Recap, watch here
West Ham 1-0 S’land Recap, watch here

Arsenal: The fact that Arsenal’s annual general meeting on Monday wasn’t dominated by talk about Arsene Wenger tells you two things: one, his future remains as shrouded in mystery as ever. Two: sorting out the future’s of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil is crucial. The Gunners had won six Premier League games heading into last weekend but a disappointing 0-0 draw at home against Middlesbrough showcased that Wenger’s side can still dish up turgid displays where their offense fails to click and a more clinical team than Boro would’ve walked out of the Emirates with all three points.

Probably not a bad thing that the Gunners had this reminder early on in the season. Yes, they’ve been winning games, but against Burnley, Southampton and Swansea recently they’ve been a little lucky. Sooner or later, that luck will run out.

Liverpool: Okay, even if everyone else is bigging up Liverpool’s title, Jurgen Klopp is having none of it. His side beat West Brom 2-1 at the weekend to move joint-top of the table but Klopp knows it is early days. Defensive frailties still exist with Liverpool only keeping one clean sheet in their nine PL games this season. The German has manufactured and manipulated a fine offensive machine at Anfield and with Sadio Mane they have the man who can blast smaller opponents into oblivion. So far this season, Klopp’s team is much further along the line than most people thought they would be. With no European games to bloat their schedule, both Liverpool and Chelsea have a huge advantage this season in the title race.

19 points

Chelsea: Antonio Conte wanted Chelsea’s fans to appreciate just how good they were in their 4-0 demolition of fellow title hopefuls Manchester United on Sunday. That got him into a spot of bother with Jose Mourinho (much more on that shortly) but it showed just how hard Conte has worked to maneuver this team back into the batch of title hopefuls. Chelsea were embarrassed by Liverpool and Arsenal last month but since the 3-0 drubbing at the Emirates (where Conte was fuming over the incredibly abject defensive display) they changed to a 3-4-3 formation. That’s seen them keep three clean sheets and score nine goals in three consecutive wins. Conte is getting the best out of this team and his antics on the sidelines are creating a feeling of confidence, passion and commitment.

 “After two defeats and conceding two or three goals in every game, it was important for us to change something and to find a new solution. I think this suit is very good for the team and our squad. Now we must continue,” Conte told ProSoccerTalk after the win against United. “I always thought that the system is not important. It is more important, the commitment to trust in the work and work very hard and also to follow the principles and my idea of football. That pleased me because when you see this in the game you go in your house and you are happy.”

Tottenham: Spurs are happy and remain the only unbeaten team in the Premier League but against Bournemouth on Saturday they lacked cutting edge in their 0-0 draw. I joked with a Spurs-supporting friend this weekend that they’d probably go the entire season unbeaten… but draw 24 games. Mauricio Pochettino‘s side have conceded just four goals this season but at the other end is where they have issues. Son Heung-Min has stepped up in Harry Kane‘s absence but Vincent Janssen continues to struggle and Spurs have only scored more than one goal in three of their nine PL games this season. This Spurs side has more depth and has a title challenge under its belt. That’s dangerous. Underestimate this young, hungry team at your peril.

14 points

Manchester United: There’s no doubting it has been a bad week for Jose Mourinho and United. First, he was lambasted for “parking the bus” at Anfield, even if some of us thought it was the smart thing to do and it once again provided an insight into his incredible preparation and tactical nous when setting up his team in a defensive formation away from home. None of that was evident on Sunday in an embarrassing 4-0 shellacking at his former club Chelsea. The situation surrounding Wayne Rooney is threatening to derail United’s title bid and we can expect Mourinho to now set up his team in a much more defensive system in the coming weeks to try and stop the bleeding and build this unit together from scratch. There’s a real lack of identity and a feeling he doesn’t know his best team. Mourinho had the look of a man not only rattled by defeat to his former club but one with the realization of the magnitude of the challenge ahead of him. Perhaps that’s why he felt the need to lecture Conte at the final whistle about some of his celebratory antics. Speaking of that…


MOURINHO CALLS OUT CONTE FOR SIDELINE ANTICS… REALLY!?

For most of the second half Jose Mourinho stood in the away dugout at Stamford Bridge with his hands in his pockets.

Watching on as his United side went through the motions during the final stages of a 4-0 thumping to Antonio Conte’s Chelsea, Mourinho’s return to his old stomping ground was a dismal, haunting occasion for the proud Portuguese coach who delivered three PL titles in five full seasons in charge of Chelsea over two spells. That didn’t stop home fans mocking him. “You’re not special anymore!” and “You’re getting sacked in the morning!” were the chants from those who once, and probably still do, adore him.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]

There was nowhere for Mourinho to hide on Sunday as he suffered his worst-ever Premier League defeat at a place where he’s still largely revered for his past achievements.

To rub salt into the wounds, the man who replaced him, long-term, Conte, was running around and jumping up and down, celebrating like a madman as Chelsea went 4-0 up. Then, came the moment when Mourinho snapped, inside at least, until he let out a venomous barb at the full time whistle to his opposite number.

[ MORE: Conte the new Mourinho? ]

With Chelsea winning 4-0, Conte urged Chelsea’s fans to drown out the traveling United fans who were still singing loud and proud despite a horrendous display from their side.

At the final whistle Mourinho grabbed Conte in a close embrace. It was clear it wasn’t friendly. I was sat 20 yards behind the benches with Conte looking right at me. I could see the back of Mourinho’s head as the prolonged hug turned into a lecture. Conte’s nose turned up and he sported a scowl as Mourinho walked off.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Later TV footage of the incident was played time and time again and Sky Italia claimed Mourinho had said the following: “You don’t wind up the crowd at 4-0. You do it at 1-0. It’s humiliating.”

Both managers failed to repeat what was said after the game, saying the conversation will remain private.

When asked if Mourinho had scolded him for riling up the crowd when Chelsea led 4-0, Conte smiled. Then laughed.

“I think that the private conversation must remain private. Then if someone discover something, okay. For me a private conversation remains private,” Conte said, smiling. “I think that today it was right to call our fans in a moment I was listening to only the supporters of Manchester United after 4-0. I called the fans to do a great clap to the players after this type of performance. I think that the players after a 4-0 win, they deserved it. It is very normal.”

Conte had, in many ways, become what Mourinho once was.

During his heyday at Porto, Inter Milan, Real Madrid and Chelsea, Mourinho was so often he aggressor. He was the man who ran down the sidelines at Old Trafford when Porto knocked Manchester United out of the Champions League late on. He is the man who poked Tito Vilanova in the eye to spark a mass sideline brawl between Real Madrid and Barcelona. He was the man who would shake the hand of other managers long before the final whistle with his Chelsea team often 4-0 or 5-0 up. He is the man who ran 70 yards to celebrate with his players during a UEFA Champions League quarterfinal win against Paris Saint-Germain.

For him to lecture another coach about sideline etiquette just doesn’t seem correct. It’s hypocrisy of the highest level. Sure, Mourinho is one of the most decorated coaches the world has ever seen with titles four countries and two UCL crowns, but that doesn’t mean he can stop others from acting with the same panache he once had. The sparkle in Mourinho’s eyes seems to have left him. For now. Until his team starts winning on the pitch, if they ever do, then his comments to Conte and others will always seem bitter, twisted and ill-advised. When he wins he can say these things with a smile on his face and get away with it.

For Conte, did he regret his part in “whisper-gate” on the sideline at Stamford Bridge?

“Me? No. I think we live with emotion,” Conte said. “If we want to cut the emotion we can go home, stay at home and change my job.”

Conte was then asked if that was one of his biggest wins as a manager: “No. When you win a battle, I prefer to win a war. Not just a battle.”

That’s something a young Mourinho would’ve once said. Now, though, he looks like a man worn down by the size of a monumental challenge facing him to turnaround this Manchester United squad.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings

He may well have to gut a lot more of this squad than he previously thought as such a poor defensive display with what he called “incredible” mistakes is not the sign of a Mourinho team. Away at Liverpool last Monday he got a 0-0 draw and was ridiculed for his defensive display. The fact of the matter is, that’s exactly what this United side must do. Focus on the basics. Focus on defending. Until they do that, their manager will be drawn into nightmare scenarios like the one he faced in the most embarrassing of circumstances at his former club.

That right there was why Mourinho blew up and felt the need to scold Conte at the final whistle.


EIGHT MAKE BALLON D’OR SHORTLIST

Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez both made the 30-man shortlist for the Ballon d’Or.

Six years ago Vardy was playing in the Northern Premier League for Stockbridge Park Steels. On Monday he was the only English player included in the list of 30 nominees who compromise the best 30 players on the planet. Vardy, 29, joined Lionel Messi, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo, and he was also joined by Leicester City teammate Mahrez. It caps off a stunning 2016 for the duo who are both now iconic figures across the soccer world for their leading role in Leicester’s incredible story.

Elsewhere there was deserved recognition for Hugo Lloris and Dimitri Payet who have been so important for Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham United respectively over the past 12 months.

Manchester United’s Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic both make the list but mostly for their exploits with former clubs, while Manchester City’s duo of Kevin De Bruyne and Sergio Aguero are also among the elite names selected.

Who was snubbed? Five PL players who could feel hard done by to not be in this list would be N'Golo Kante, Eden Hazard, Harry Kane, Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil.

One intriguing note on this award to crown the best player on the planet: FIFA no longer runs the show and French outlet France Football does. That led to a rather drawn out, but exciting, process of naming the nominees on Monday with batches of player being released five at a time throughout the day. So, yeah, I guess this will be copycatted by plenty of awards to come.


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

Man Utd set to add $20m Swans winger James

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Manchester United’s first signing of the summer will be a Welsh international forward, but not that one, presuming the clubs sort out the transfer fee.

Swansea City winger Daniel James has agreed to terms with United, according to Sky Sports.

The 21-year-old is expected to cost Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s men about $20 million.

[ MORE: Players to watch at U-20 World Cup ]

James scored five times with 10 assists for Graham Potter in all competitions this season, totaling 2800 minutes for Swans.

Only Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish was fouled more per game than James, who was taken to the turf 2.7 times per match. He mostly played on the left wing this season.

Twice-capped by Wales, James turns 22 in November. How long will it take him to make the jump from Championship star to Premier League contributor?

Martinez names Kompany in Belgium squad

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Roberto Martinez is going to suit up a manager as Belgium fights to qualify for EURO 2020.

Okay, okay, that manager is Anderlecht player-manager Vincent Kompany, mere days removed from sealing a domestic treble for Manchester City.

[ MORE: Players to watch at U-20 World Cup ]

Kompany, 33, has been called up by Belgium for the first time since November. He has 87 caps with four goals for the Red Devils, and perhaps the nickname will be a little less awkward now that he’s not a member of the Premier League’s “noisy neighbors.”

Here’s what Martinez had to say about Kompany’s inclusion.

“In modern football it is not easy to combine the job of player and coach,” Martinez added. “In England they have a tradition of that but less and less because the job of coach has become enormously demanding. We must give him time. We will support him in everything he does.”

Belgium is in a qualifying group with Russia, Cyprus, Scotland, Kazakhstan, and San Marino, and should waltz into the tournament.

USMNT dates to host Cuba, Canada revealed

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MIAMI (AP) The United States will host Cuba on Oct. 11 and Canada on Nov. 15 in the first CONCACAF Nations League.

CONCACAF said Tuesday that the Americans, seeded in Group A, will play at Canada on Oct. 15 and at Cuba on Nov. 19.

Sites have not been determined.

Other Nations League groups are:

B – Bermuda, Mexico, Panama

C – Martinique, Honduras, Trinidad and Tobago

D – Costa Rica, Curacao, Haiti

The top team in each League A group advances to the semifinals in March, and the last-place team is relegated to League B.

The U.S. intends to play exhibitions on the September FIFA dates for national teams.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Five players Man United should sign

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Manchester United need a massive rebuild this summer.

Everybody knows it.

Their manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward have both spoken publicly about their desire to strengthen the squad, with Solskjaer aiming to bring in young, hungry players to the club. Something drastic has to change.

But which five players should United make their top targets this summer as they aim to push their way back into the top four of the Premier League?

Even though United have been through struggles in recent seasons, the allure of playing for one of the most popular clubs on the planet and dragging them back to the top of the game will attract plenty of players. So too will the fact that United’s finances allows them to pay top dollar.

Here’s a look at five players they have to sign this summer to complete the dramatic rebuild they need.


Joao Felix (Benfica, release clause of $133 million)
The 19-year-old attacking midfielder will provide goals and assists and he has shone in Portugal. The last time United were off the pace a little in the PL, they plucked a bright young talent from Portugal called Cristiano Ronaldo. That worked out pretty well. Felix may never reach Ronaldo’s heights, but the fact Man City and Real Madrid want to sign him says it all.


Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham, release clause of $32 million)
Doesn’t really fit into the “young and hungry” category, but the Belgian defender would add a steadying influence to United’s defense. At 30 years old Alderweireld is set for one big final pay day in his career and that is why he has such a small release clause in his contract after Spurs had to trigger a one-year extension. His displays for Spurs over the past few years have been consistency excellent.


Harry Maguire (Leicester, valued at $100 million)
At 26 years old Maguire is still to enter his prime. That is wild considering how well he has played for Leicester and England over the past two seasons. He almost joined United last summer but decided to stay at Leicester, and another great season has soon his value rise by $25 million. Maguire and Alderweireld at center back would be a great partnership, but it is likely only one of them will arrive. Maguire is more expensive but would be a long-term purchase.


Declan Rice (West Ham, valued at $60 million)
His meteoric rise has seen him become a star for West Ham and make his England debut. Shows so much poise in the holding midfield role and if Rice, still just 20 years old, arrived then it could help Paul Pogba out as he will win the ball back and feed the Frenchman in good areas. West Ham will reluctantly sell, and Rice should be a top priority to shield United’s shaky defense.


Aaron Wan-Bissaka (Crystal Palace, valued at $60 million)
Ashley Young has been handed a one-year extension and Antonio Valencia is leaving, so United are looking a little weak at right back. Wan-Bissaka, 21, has been sublime for Crystal Palace and is a solid defender as well as adding an attacking presence. Palace will be reluctant to sell both AWB and Wilfried Zaha in the same summer, which could be an issue. Right back is an area where United need to strengthen. Now.