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.

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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

James says he was not knocked unconscious in Wales draw

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Head injury awareness again rose to the forefront in the 1-1 draw between Wales and Croatia in Cardiff when Daniel James went down after colliding with a pair of opponents.

The Manchester United winger looked to almost sure have been knocked unconscious when Domagoj Vida’s knee appeared to tap the back of his head while challenging for a ball in the air. Vida went toppling over the back of teammate Borna Barisic who ducked out of the way, but it was James who many were concerned for as he lay motionless on his back with his eyes closed.

Yet James was allowed to come back onto the field and completed the full 90 minutes, sparking criticism from injury advocates and fans who were concerned for James’ safety on the field, at potential risk for even more serious consequences should he indeed have suffered a concussion.

After the game however, despite what fans saw as James lie on the turf, the 21-year-old insisted he was not knocked unconscious. “I’m fine,” James claimed after the match, speaking to Sky Sports. “I think he just caught me in the head but I didn’t get knocked out fortunately.”

Wales boss Ryan Giggs backed up the decision as well, calling James’ motionless display “a bit of acting.”

“The medical staff went over, he was compos mentis and we did all the checks at half-time and he was fine,” Giggs said, referring to the latin phrase for “of sound mind.”

ESPN broadcaster Taylor Twellman, who has been outspoken over the past few years advocating for head injury awareness after his career was cut short by concussions, took to Twitter to criticize Wales for allowing James back into the game. Twellman, who was on the ESPN call of the broadcast with Ian Darke, said more needs to be done to prevent players from being able to force their way back onto the field, lest someone be killed by second impact syndrome.

Former Hull City player Ryan Mason, who was forced to retire after a serious skull fracture saw him fighting for his life, was also seriously concerned about the incident.

Interestingly enough, later in the match just seconds after the second half restart, young Wales midfielder Ethan Ampadu was whalloped from behind by Croatia’s Bruno Petkovic in a wild and reckless aerial challenge. Petkovic’s elbow went clattering into the back of Ampadu’s head, and the was left writhing on the ground holding his head. The Chelsea youngster was taken off the field and immediately replaced by Joe Morrell, while Petkovic was lucky to escape with just a yellow card.

Kane reflects on Tottenham, England struggles

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Harry Kane keeps finding the back of the net, but his teams keep losing.

The 26-year-old striker has bagged five Premier League goals in eight games for Spurs thus far, plus another seven goals for England in five Euro 2020 qualifiers this cycle. Yet Tottenham sits ninth in the table after three losses already this season, while England slumped to its first Euro defeat last time out, putting its seeding at the Euro finals next summer in jeopardy.

Kane is hoping to be a leader through the tough times for both club and country, wearing the armband for both as it currently stands.

“I think you need to lead by example,” Kane said ahead of England’s visit to Bulgaria on Monday. “Not getting too down when you lose a game, not getting too high when you win games. It is a long, old season for club and country ahead – a lot of games to be played so there are going to be tough periods.”

Kane has taken over the England captaincy on a permanent basis, and is filling in for the injured Hugo Lloris at Tottenham. “I am still the same person,” he said. “I still try and lead by example on and off the pitch and I will continue to do that. I have been in high pressure situations before in my career, whether that is going through goal droughts, playing in high-pressure games or not playing well as a team. It is something I will take in my stride and improve on.”

Leading by example includes finding the back of the net, while also supporting teammates both on and off the pitch. He knows even if he’s in good personal form on the stat sheet, there’s always ways to improve and help the squads through tough times.

“I am scoring goals but can I get more assists, create more chances? So yeah, I always look at little things I can get better at. Yes, the England form has been good but as ever, it can be better. We will see if I can continue scoring. It has been a good campaign but important I do not stop now.”

Euro qualifying: Gundogan saves 10-man Germany, Bale earns Wales draw

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Germany played for much of its visit to Estonia with 10 men as Emre Can was sent off for a bad last-man tackle just 14 minutes in, but Ilkay Gundogan‘s second-half brace saw Germany slide through with all three points on a 3-0 win to jump back on top of Group C. The all-important first came on a deflected effort from just outside the box to the right of center, while his second came minutes later with a shot from nearly the same place but just inside the area. Timo Werner added the third with under 20 minutes to go.

Wales secured a 1-1 draw at home against Croatia, but both sides will have greivences with the refereeing. Daniel James was taken out by Dejan Lovren on the edge of the box eight minutes in and likely should have been a penalty kick as the Liverpool defender barged James over without playing the ball. After Nikola Vlasic put Croatia ahead moments later, Gareth Bale would equalize just before halftime one a silky play through the Croatian defense, but a foul in the buildup wasn’t called that would have stopped play before the goalscoring moment.

There were also a pair of scary moments that involved nasty-looking head injuries. James came together with a pair of Croatians in the first half, and while it looked initially like Borna Barisic and Domagoj Vida had taken the brunt of the clash, James appeared to lose consciousness thanks to a knee in the back of his head. Despite the appearance of a clear distressing head injury, James was allowed to continue. Just second after the halftime break, Ethan Ampadu settled under the ball for a header until Bruno Petkovic blasted through his torso from behind, sending the Welsh midfielder to the ground awkwardly, holding his head in agony. Petkovic came in so hard that he earned a yellow card and maybe could have even seen red on another day. Ampadu was not allowed to continue, replaced immediately by Joe Morrell. Also notable in the match, Mateo Kovacic was taken off at halftime after appearing to pick up a muscle problem.

Austria held on for a 1-0 victory over Slovenia to temporarily jump into the lead in Group G, ahead of Poland on goal differential. Hoffenheim defender Stefan Posch scored the game’s only goal, a 21st minute effort off a corner. The back line did the rest, holding the hosts to just two shots on target in Ljubljana.

Poland secured qualification to the finals with a 2-0 win over North Macedonia behind goals from Przemyslaw Frankowski and Arkadiusz Milik, both which came in the final 20 minutes. The first was a messy finish from Chicago Fire winger Frankowski, collecting a flubbed Robert Lewandowski shot and poking it through past goakeeper Stole Dimitrievski. The second goal was much prettier, with the referee playing advantage after Lewandowski was fouled, and Milik delivered a delicious looper into the far corner.

Click here to see a roundup of the action from the early slate of games, including wins by Belgium, the Netherlands, and Russia.

Full Sunday Euro 2020 qualification scoreboard:

Kazakhstan 0-2 Belgium
Belarus 1-2 Netherlands
Cyprus 0-5 Russia
Hungary 1-0 Azerbaijan
Scotland 6-0 San Marino
Estonia 0-3 Germany
Poland 2-0 North Macedonia
Slovenia 0-1 Austria
Wales 1-1 Croatia

Teams who have secured guaranteed Euro 2020 qualification:

Italy
Belgium
Russia
Poland

Report: Alexis Sanchez out until 2020 with ankle injury

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Alexis Sanchez has targeted a return to form at Inter, but that may be shelved for some time as an ankle injury picked up on international duty could keep him out of action for months.

The Chilean federation confirmed that Sanchez suffered a “dislocation of the ligaments” in his left ankle in the 0-0 friendly draw with Argentina over the weekend, but did not specify a timeframe for his recovery. However, Italian journalist Tancredi Palmeri tweeted that Sanchez will not return until the calendar flips to 2020.

The injury is poorly timed for Sanchez who just broke into the Inter squad after being loaned from Manchester United. He scored his first goal in a 3-1 win over Sampdoria in late September before being sent off and suspended a match. The 30-year-old was also quality in the Champions League defeat to Barcelona, assisting Inter’s only goal.

At worst, a three-month injury layoff would see Sanchez return in mid-January, meaning he would miss the rest of the Champions League group stage as well as a host of Serie A matches. A Milan derby in early February would likely be a significant possibility for a late return.