Premier League Playback: Ranking the superstars, so far

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WHICH STARS HAVE BEEN TOP-CLASS, SO FAR?

This season the Premier League is littered with glittering superstars. Wherever you look, star players are lining up for the top teams but have all of them lived up to the hype?

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Below is a look at how the so-called “world class” players have performed so far this season, with a mark out of 10 for each of them.

There are two players from each of Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham with the main attacking talents deemed to be the “world class” by most, although plenty of other players can certainly be classed in and around this upper echelon.

It’s time to grade the stars…


Alexis Sanchez – 10/10 – They don’t call him “El Nino Maravilla” for nothing. Sanchez has been on another planet this season and his sensational hat trick against West Ham this weekend (see video above) summed up how dangerous he is. He can beat players with pace and power, plus has stunning technique and can finish. His best role is probably out wide but he’s being used as a central striker and is ripping teams apart. Easily the best player in the Premier League this season. Easily. His new contract value must be going up by the day as Arsenal try and lock him down long-term.

Diego Costa – 10/10 – Okay, so Diego Costa isn’t far behind Sanchez and the Spanish international has been a huge part of Chelsea’s incredible eight-game winning streak. With 11 goals and five assists, he has been the focal point of Antonio Conte‘s attack and Costa looks more controlled this season. He is focused and fired up to prove the doubters wrong. Boy, is he doing that. An absolute beast of a striker when he’s fit and focused.

Mesut Ozil – 9/10 – The Gunners playmaker has flown under the radar this season but his numbers, especially in terms of goals scored, are impressive. The big arguement about Ozil is his end product but clearly the German international is getting it right in the final third. He’s already scored eight goals this season which matches his tally from the whole of the 2015-16 campaign. Like Sanchez, he is currently in talks about signing a new deal and in this form he has Arsenal fans dreaming of another league title.

Philippe Coutinho – 9/10 – Such a shame that he’s gone down with an ankle injury and will miss five to six weeks in a busy stretch of the season. The Brazilian playmaker has been the creative heart of Liverpool’s high-pressing unit and delivers quality, goals and assists by the bucket full. Along with Adam Lallana, Sadio Mane (more on him shortly) and Roberto Firmino, that quartet has delivered hope to the Kop that Jurgen Klopp‘s project can yield trophies. Coutinho makes Liverpool tick.

Harry Kane – 8/10 – He is back fit after a lay off and Kane is on fire. After signing his new long-term deal at Spurs last week, he has now scored six goals in his last five Premier League games. Kane’s importance to Tottenham is undoubted and at the age of 23 he’s only just getting started.

Eden Hazard – 8/10 – Talking of getting started, Hazard has got going again and is on the way back to his best. You still feel like the Belgian wizard is playing in fourth gear but he can crank it up to fifth whenever he wants. In the 3-4-3 system at Chelsea he has more freedom and more cover from Marcos Alonso on the left flank. That is allowing Hazard to flourish.

Sadio Mane – 8/10 – The Senegalese flyer has been a revelation since arriving at Anfield in a big $45 million transfer from Southampton in the summer. Mane has scored seven goals and added three assists in 13 Premier League games, but it is his searing pace which terrifies opponents and is a perfect blend for the trickery of Coutinho and Lallana. A fine start to the season and Mane is becoming a bonafide star in the PL after two-and-a-half stellar campaigns.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic – 7/10 – We know Zlatan can talk the talk but he has also proved he can walk the walk. Despite a lean spell when he failed to score in six games, he has scored 12 goals in 21 games in all competitions for United. Ibrahimovic is United’s main attacking threat and their top goalscorer. At the age of 35, he still has star power and he’s being managed perfectly by Jose Mourinho… as things stand.

Kevin De Bruyne – 7/10 – It has been a stop, start season or KDB so far but that’s mostly been down to injury. 7 out of 10 may be a little harsh, especially after his dominant displays at Manchester United in the PL and against Barcelona in the Champions League, but De Bruyne has gone missing in some games which is unlike him. He’s been played centrally by Guardiola and he still seems to be figuring out the best way to be dangerous in that role.

Sergio Aguero – 6/10 – Like KDB, this ranking may be a little harsh, especially when you consider Aguero has 10 goals thus far. However, he also has a bit of an issue with lashing out and he was lucky to get away with a vicious elbow on Winston Reid earlier this season and has since been banned four games for his horrendous lunging tackle on David Luiz last weekend. All of that has soured Aguero’s fine finishes a little.

Dele Alli – 5/10 – Tottenham’s playmaker just hasn’t got going so far. Again, he’s had a few injuries but he’s also been involved in plenty of controversy with a few dives for penalty kicks in the box. Alli had such an incredible first season in the Premier League that there was bound to be a drop off but just three goals and one assist thus far prove he’s well below the standard he set for himself last season.

Paul Pogba – 5/10 – Well, when you become the most expensive player on the planet plenty is expected of your right away. Just ask Gareth Bale… Pogba has scored a stunning goal against Swansea and a header against Leicester and apart from that he’s been in and out of games with Mourinho struggling to find his best position on the pitch early in the season. As the campaign has worn on, Pogba has looked more comfortable in an attacking midfield role in the center yet he still has plenty of work to do to prove he’s one of the best midfielders on the planet.


CHELSEA WIN BATTLE OF BACK THREE

It was one of the most eagerly-anticipated tactical battles of the season between two new managers who had excelled at top teams across Europe.

Antonio Conte beat Pep Guardiola in the tactical battle as both deployed three central defenders and wing backs.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]

In truth, the 3-1 scoreline in Chelsea’s favor doesn’t tell the whole story of a game which had everything. Guardiola’s City looked uneasy early on but found their feet and deservedly led at half time through Gary Cahill‘s shocking own goal. But as Chelsea has shown in recent games, they’re now capable of handling a blow and striking back.

Diego Costa took the game by the scruff of the neck in the second half as he scored the equalizer and set up Willian for the go-ahead goal and Eden Hazard clinched the win late on to put some extra gloss on the scoreline.

[ MORE: Recap as Chelsea win ] 

From an attacking standpoint there wasn’t much in this and if anything City had better chances but failed to take them via a combination of bad misses (Kevin de Bruyne hit the bar, somehow, from four yards out) good goalkeeping from Thibaut Courtois and goal line clearances. Big calls also went Chelsea’s way, especially in the first half when Aguero and Luiz tangled, but overall Chelsea proved that their defensive solidity will help them grind through games and get wins.

City’s defense looked shaky for most of the game as their two wings backs were basically wingers in Leroy Sane and Jesus Navas in a 3-1-4-2 formation. Neither could defend and as the game wore on Chelsea’s wing backs in a more conventional 3-4-3 formation dominated with Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso providing plenty of width and attacking intent. Without Vincent Kompany in central defense, City struggled and the decision to not play the likes of Pablo Zabelta in a wing back role really backfired for Guardiola. Defensively his side must improve if they’re going to challenge Chelsea, and others, for the Premier League title this season.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Conte won the battle of the three-man defenses and his Chelsea team also put down a huge marker of how good they are with an eighth-straight Premier League win which in turn hands Guardiola plenty of food for thought.

BONUS: The fact that Pep will be without leading scorer Aguero for four games and influential midfielder Fernandinho for the next three will also be concerning for City, as a mass melee at the end of the game ensued. Aguero’s horrendous tackle on David Luiz started it all off and Fernandinho‘s pushing and grabbing of Cesc Fabregas’ throat meant he joined Aguero in getting sent off as City finished the game with nine men.

On top of that, both teams have been charged with failing to control their players by the FA which should result in hefty fines. That said, this incident highlighted just how much this game meant to both sets of players as the title gauntlet has been thrown down earlier by Chelsea. Now, can City find a way to respond and kick on Guardiola’s project quickly?


BIG SCRAP AT THE BOTTOM

The race against relegation is quickly getting ugly and frenetic.

At this point of the season there’s usually one or two teams cut adrift from the rest. That’s not the case this season and it is making plenty of players, managers and owners nervous as we gear up for the busy festive period.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]   

Looking at the table below (before Middlesbrough’s game against Hull City on Monday) you can see Bob Bradley‘s Swansea City are rock bottom as they suffered a 5-0 thumping at Tottenham Hotspur. The Swans have nine points, and a rather favorable schedule coming up, and are just two points off safety.

Overall, there are seven teams separated by just three points from 19th to 13th and there are some big teams down there struggling.

pl-table-dec-5-2016

 

Reigning champions Leicester City continue to falter after losing at Sunderland (see video, below) and Claudio Ranieri‘s side are yet to win away in the Premier League this campaign. Making simple defensive mistakes is costing the Foxes dear and up top Jamie Vardy has just to goals in the Premier League this season, while Riyad Mahrez is struggling to create. Leicester is in real danger of getting dragged into the thick of the relegation battle and so is West Ham after they were smashed 5-1 by Arsenal. Manager Slaven Bilic admitted after that hiding that his team is in a relegation battle but he has already received the dreaded vote of confidence from the owners.

With all three newly promoted teams down at the bottom, plus Swansea, Sunderland, Leicester, West Ham and Crystal Palace in and and around the bottom three, we are all set for plenty of “relegation six-pointers” in the coming weeks.

It seems very soon to be saying that but with so many tights tightly bunched together at the bottom as we approach the halfway point, the relegation battle this season is proving to be yet another tight one.


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

Bologna draws 3-3 at Lazio to secure Serie A safety

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ROME (AP) Bologna secured Serie A football for another season after drawing at Lazio 3-3 in a thriller on Monday.

Bologna moved four points clear of the relegation zone with one match remaining.

Lazio was still celebrating winning the Italian Cup midweek and Joaquin Correa fired the capital side in front in the 13th minute.

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

However, two goals in the space of a minute from Andrea Poli and Mattia Destro saw Bologna take the lead early in the second half.

Bastos curled in a stunning effort to level for Lazio in the 59th but Riccardo Orsolini restored Bologna’s lead shortly after.

Substitute Sergej Milinkovic-Savic secured a draw for Lazio with a sensational free kick 10 minutes from time.

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

Choosing a USMNT XI for the Gold Cup

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Noting that most positions on the international stage are up for grabs based on form, there are special opportunities on the wing, right back, and center back when it comes to the USMNT at the Gold Cup this summer.

That’s because of two related things, one fact and one close to it:

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

  1. DeAndre Yedlin and John Brooks are missing from the lineup due to injury. Brooks is easily the Yanks’ No. 1 center back, and Yedlin is a right back when Tyler Adams is unavailable and good enough that Gregg Berhalter tries to shoehorn him in at right wing when Adams is manning that spot.
  2. Mexico’s the overwhelming favorite to win the tournament with more in-form club players in Europe than the U.S., including would-be Premier League Best XI forward Raul Jimenez of Wolves. And who’s going to have to deal with Raul? You guessed it, the big American center backs.

Presuming Berhalter is still wed to Adams as the part-fullback, part distributing midfielder role, that has our lineup for important Gold Cup matches with few sure things.

Zack Steffen (if healthy)

Adams — XXXXX — XXXXX — XXXXX

McKennie — Bradley

XXXXX — Pulisic — XXXXX

Altidore

Now you may not like that I’ve assumed Bradley and Altidore’s places here, but there’s little doubt both are still quite capable against CONCACAF competition and also have the experience in this exact competition and against Mexico. Surely both are motivated for a bit of redemption as well.

Friendlies against Jamaica and Venezuela will give Berhalter a chance to try out players like Tyler Boyd, Marlon Fossey, and Miles Robinson should they impress amongst a 40-player field (although the Jamaica match on June 5 in Washington, D.C. is a day before the final rosters are due for the Gold Cup).

Now what we are trying to solve here is who is the best bet to help the Yanks win the dang thing.

Defenders: Aaron Long, Matt Miazga, and Tim Ream are the favorites to start at the two center back spots and left back, but Daniel Lovitz will try to push Ream after a rough season at Fulham. Both Walker Zimmerman and Omar Gonzalez are in good form, and you can bet Berhalter will give Cameron Carter-Vickers a chance to earn some time. A flat back four role gives Antonee Robinson hope in place of Ream, and if Adams moves into the midfield, Nick Lima did alright in his right back role in January.

Midfielders/Wingers: The spots around Pulisic should be filled by those who can keep the width of the field but also serve somewhat as enforcers for the No. 10. Sebastian Lletget gives them a good shot on one side, and Paul Arriola provides a similar spot. While Joe Gyau, Josh Sargent, Duane Holmes, and Djordje Mihailovic can hope to challenge, the MLS vets with experience outside the country are good bets to get the gigs.

Zack Steffen (if healthy)

Adams — Miazga — Long — Ream

McKennie — Bradley

Arriola — Pulisic — Lletget

Altidore

Does that get the job done against Mexico? Probably not, but it’ll give Tata Martino’s men a hassle.

Report: Man City could use Gabriel Jesus to get Rodri

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At the root of this report is a question to which we don’t know the answer: How highly does Pep Guardiola rate Gabriel Jesus?

A report from Spanish outlet AS says Guardiola could use his young striker to lure Atletico Madrid into a swap deal, landing Manchester City their stirring defensive midfielder Rodri.

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

Rodri is a nearly year older than 22-year-old Jesus, and is more instrumental to his current club. One of Atletico Madrid’s top talents, his $78 million release clause is an obvious route for City.

If Guardiola doesn’t see Jesus as a huge part of the club’s future, however, the manager may be able to go nearly like-for-like money-wise.

Jesus scored nearly every other game for City in all competitions, nabbing 21 goals in 47 matches, and has 13 goals in 27 caps for Brazil. Those are good numbers, especially with still-electric Sergio Aguero turning 31 this summer.

At his relatively tender age, Jesus has appeared 100 times for Man City and his 45 goals are made more impressive by less than 5600 total minutes in those matches.

Giving up on him to complete his midfield is a tough one. We think it’s more likely Guardiola pays the release clause… unless the manager simply doesn’t rate the player.

Players to watch at the U-20 World Cup

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The U-20 World Cup begins this week in Poland, and there are a bevy of future stars to watch, as well as several who will make their names during the tournament.

We’ll focus on the former. While England’s failure to qualify somewhat limits the Premier League starlets on show, there are still plenty from the English top flight.


Tim Weah, United States (PSG) — After a loan at Celtic and time with the full USMNT, how much can he dominate back in his age group?

Alban Lafont, France (Fiorentina) — At age 20, he’s already the starter between the sticks for his Serie A mainstays.

Diego Lainez, Mexico (Real Betis) — Eighteen with 12 league appearances for Real Betis, Lainez is a massive part of El Tri‘s future and carries four caps to his name.

Ruben Vinagre, Portugal (Wolves) — Wolves were promoted, and Vinagre actually made eight more appearances (17) than he made in the Championship.

Ezequiel Barco, Argentina (Atlanta United) — His sophomore season for the Five Stripes has been better than his debut campaign, though that’s not saying a ton given the hype.

Evan N’Dicka, France (Eintracht Frankfurt) — Plenty of playing time in the Bundesliga at the age of 19 for this towering center back.

Paxton Pomykal, United States (FC Dallas) — Looking good in MLS. How much should that translate on this stage?

Andriy Lunin, Ukraine (Real Madrid) — Won’t be wearing the white of Madrid in meaningful action any time soon, but made four appearances on loan for Leganes as a 20-year-old.

Sebastian Soto, United States (Hannover 96) — Not the American-born Bundesliga starlet we expected had we created this list months ago, but Soto has made his Bundesliga debut, so there’s a lot to like while Josh Sargent works with the full USMNT.

Dan Zagadou, France (Borussia Dortmund) — The left- and center back has 25 first team appearances for BVB at 19.

Diogo Dalot, Portugal (Manchester United) — Red Devils supporters know about this fella, who was purchased under the watch of Jose Mourinho last summer.

Mickael Cuisance, France (Borussia Monchengladbach) — Took a step back after his blockbuster ‘Gladbach breakthrough in 2017-18, but will be a key piece for the favorites.

Moussa Sylla, France (Monaco) — The winger is already a factor for AS Monaco, even if they struggled this season.

Bonus: Erling Håland, Denmark (Red Bull Salzburg); Ronald Araujo, Uruguay (Barcelona); Tom Dele-Bashiru, Nigeira (Manchester City).