PL Playback: One from six; who are the title favorites?

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MINI-LEAGUES EMERGING

We saw yet another weekend of dominance for the big boys in the Premier League (except for Manchester City) and the gap is growing bigger between the top six and the rest of the league.

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Throughout the entire league there are now three “mini-leagues” which are taking shape in a six-eight-six formation.

Here’s a look at what I’m talking about…

  1. Chelsea – 52 points
  2. Tottenham – 45
  3. Liverpool – 45
  4. Arsenal – 44
  5. Man City – 42
  6. Man United – 40
  7. Everton – 33
  8. West Brom – 29 
  9. Stoke – 27
  10. Burnley- 26
  11. Bournemouth – 25
  12. West Ham – 25
  13. Southampton – 24
  14. Watford – 23
  15. Leicester City – 21
  16. Middlesbrough – 20
  17. Crystal Palace – 16
  18. Hull City – 16
  19. Sunderland – 15
  20. Swansea City – 15

The top six will, obviously, get plenty of the focus from here on out.

Apart from Chelsea still feeding off that incredible 13-game win streak there is little to separate the rest with just five points between second-place Tottenham and sixth-place Manchester United. The middle eight teams are all having “meh” seasons, apart from Burnley who are overachieving, while the bottom six all look destined for a relegation scrap in the closing four months of the campaign with Leicester City struggling to claw themselves away from danger.

This season it seems like the overachieving and underachieving is at a minimum. Things are almost back to normal, especially with the perennial powers, after the madness of the 2015-16 campaign.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings

Yes, the title battle will be intense as Chelsea will, inevitably, drop points along the way and Diego Costa‘s situation has given their title rivals a boost. However, the more intriguing factor could be which two teams miss out on the top four and qualification for the UEFA Champions League.

If Man City’s struggles continue and Pep Guardiola misses out, or if Jose Mourinho and Manchester United don’t push into the top four in the coming months, then those will be huge stories. Yet, it is tough to see any of the current top six dropping many points between now and the end of the season.

It will be a long, hard slog and with UEFA Champions League and Europa League action to kick off next month, along with FA Cup action for all of the top six, the games will come thick and fast.

Who can handle all of this and stay in the hunt?


Chelsea
Position: 1st
Points: 52
Biggest strength: No European action to contend with, 3-4-3 and a strong defensive unit. Antonio Conte has been here before with Juventus and has been influential in their rise to the top.
Biggest weakness: Temperamental stars (I’m looking at you Diego Costa) could go missing either figuratively or literally at any moment. Chelsea need to add a new striker in January to stop that from curtailing their title bid.

Tottenham Hotspur
Position: 2nd
Points: 45
Biggest strength: Harry Kane and Dele Alli are on another level right now but when you look across Spurs’ team, everyone is hitting form at the right time. Walker and Rose at wing-back is a great option to. This team has learned from their title challenge faltering last season and they are without doubt the biggest threat to Chelsea right now.
Biggest weakness: Europa League and injuries. Mauricio Pochettino has said he will go for Europa League success but if injuries start cropping up (Vertonghen could be out long-term) then he will change his mind.

Liverpool
Position: 3rd
Points: 45
Biggest strength: No European action. Plus, Philippe Coutinho has been out injured for almost two months and now looks ready to roll and re-energized. The front four have been so good all season.
Biggest weakness: Fatigue. Even with no added European action, EFL Cup and FA Cup games in recent weeks have shown Klopp’s methods could be too much. Remember how much Liverpool tired last season?

Arsenal
Position: 4th
Points: 44
Biggest strength: Endless talent in attack with Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and even Olivier Giroud now in top form. Skhodran Mustafi has been a huge boost in defense too.
Biggest weakness: Being Arsenal. Logic suggests that a slump is coming up in the second half of the season. Just because, Arsenal. Across the board there are few weaknesses though.

Manchester City
Position: 5th
Points: 42
Biggest strength: Star-studded attackers who can get them out of any mess. It is now time for Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva to turn up. Massive numbers in his squad also helps.
Biggest weakness: Defense. Claudio Bravo has had a nightmare in goal and City’s defense has been far from inspiring as Pep’s masterplan has stalled significantly. Bravo’s struggles has in-turn led to John Stones, Nicolas Otamendi and others crumbling. Pep will never change his philosophy and the way he wants to play. That could mean City pay a big price and finish outside the top four unless they improve drastically in defense.

Manchester United
Position: 6th
Points: 40
Biggest strength: Superstars Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba, plus Mourinho’s experience at grinding out wins.
Biggest weakness: Not finishing teams off and, again, the Europa League. Mourinho has and will continue to cut some deadwood from his squad. That means he will use plenty of the same players for EFL Cup, FA Cup and Europa League games. Can he balance this out to help United get right back in the top four mix? A title push seems out of the question now as they’re 10 points, but with nine wins on the spin in all competitions before the last game against Liverpool, they are in form and arguably have a better chance than Man City of overhauling that deficit.


KLOPP NOT CORRECT TO CALL OUT LONG BALL

Following Liverpool’s 1-1 draw at Manchester United on Sunday, Reds boss Jurgen Klopp took exception to United’s direct approach in the final 20 minutes of the game.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned on United vs. Liverpool ]

Let’s call it what it was. Mourinho went direct for the entire second half. Eventually it paid off when substitute Marouane Fellaini hit the post with a header and Zlatan Ibrahimovic stooped to head home the equalizer in the 84th minute, even if Antonio Valencia was slightly offside when the initial cross came in.

[ MORE: Player ratings – United vs. Liverpool ]

Klopp looked agitated, frustrated and annoyed afterwards as he told multiple news outlets that Liverpool “were the better team who had the better plan” plus kept slamming United for using long balls late on. He was probably also still smarting a little over the Joel Matip situation as he could be out for another month and Liverpool missed him once again at the heart of their defense. Matip’s height would’ve helped Klopp significantly with United’s direct approach late in the game.

[ MORE: Klopp slams “long ball” United ]

Klopp won the tactical battle to start with as Liverpool lined up with a diamond formation in midfield and nullified the impact of Michael Carrick and Paul Pogba, but Mourinho changed things up and went direct, not allowing Liverpool’s high-press to catch out his defenders as they bypassed midfield. Mourinho did what he had to do to get a draw, just like he did at Anfield.

United actually played 89 long balls against Liverpool, more than any other team in any PL games in Week 21. Guess what? It worked. It wasn’t the best United will ever play but they now look much harder to beat even if Paul Pogba had a nightmare and their front three were largely kept quiet.

After the draw, Klopp was most likely just trying to make a point that although his side have not won any of their last four games in all competitions, they should still be admired. They should. The progress Liverpool has made under him in just over a year has been huge but United and Mourinho reminded him that there is more ways to score goals and get points than relying on Gegenpressing.

Zlatan summed it up best when describing how United got back into the game as a big derby ended honors even and both managers were upset with dropping points as Chelsea’s gap at the top grew.


WHAT NOW FOR GUARDIOLA?

Pep Guardiola has all but given up hope of winning the Premier League title in his first season in England.

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Guardiola, 45, looked 10 years older when speaking post-game at Everton on Sunday as his side were hammered 4-0 by the Toffees in an inept display which showcased all of their weaknesses.

The much-lauded coach was supposed to turn City into not only the champions of England but also Europe. It’s not going to plan, at all, and especially in defense.

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After he suffered his worst-ever league defeat as a manager, plus City’s heaviest league defeat since 2008, Pep was asked if their title bid was over.

“Yes. Ten is a lot of points,” Guardiola said. “The second one [Tottenham] is three points. We have to see. I spoke to my players the last three weeks or a month, forget about the table. Focus on the next game and try to do our best to win the games and after that at the end of the season we are going to evaluate how our level and performance was — how was the coach, how was the players and after we are going to decide.”

Although it may seem like too early for City — don’t forget, they were the preseason favorites who won their first 10 games in all competitions under Pep to start the season — to concede the title, it is perhaps telling that Guardiola is already looking resigned to just challenging for the top four.

He knows that if he stays with his passing philosophy out of the back that his team will be susceptible to fast, strong, counter-attacking teams like Everton. There are plenty of teams who deploy those tactics in the PL — Tottenham, Chelsea, Leicester to name a few — and have had great success doing it against City. Guardiola will never play like that and his style is something which led Barcelona and Bayern Munich to glory and often eviscerating English teams in the Champions League.

Guardiola’s team isn’t eviscerating anyone on a weekly basis in the PL right now. Right now, it’s the other way round.

When it clicks their style of play looks beautiful but City is too inconsistent and as soon as they go a goal behind they are lacking in confidence and crumble. Make no mistake about it, this is Pep’s biggest challenge of his managerial career but a country mile. He knows it. You can see it in his eyes. He knows he doesn’t possess the players, in defense at least, to carry out his style and he can’t do too much about it. He will never change his ideals no matter the intense criticism coming his way.

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Right now, many would say he’s failing in the PL and at City. Big time. Yet, let’s give him until the end of the season because an appearance in the UCL semifinals and a runners up spot really wouldn’t be too disastrous. Yet with defending like this and Bravo conceding almost every shot which goes on target right now, those targets seem rather lofty and a long way off for this talented yet tainted City outfit.


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.

World Cup’s only black coach says there should be more

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MOSCOW (AP) — The only black coach at this year’s World Cup says there is a need for more in soccer.

“In European countries, in major clubs, you see lots of African players. Now we need African coaches for our continent to go ahead,” Senegal’s Aliou Cisse said through a translator on Monday, a day ahead of his nation’s World Cup opener against Poland.

[ MORE: Where to watch Tuesday’s games, feat. Colombia and Egypt ]

The percentage of black players at this year’s tournament and with clubs in the world’s top leagues is far higher.

Cisse was captain of Senegal when it reached the 2002 quarterfinals in the nation’s only previous World Cup appearance.

“I am the only black coach in this World Cup. That is true,” Cisse said. “But really these are debates that disturb me. I think that football is a universal sport and that the color of your skin is of very little importance.”

[ MORE: Harry Kane “buzzing” after two goals | Southgate encouraged ]

FIFA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Cisse cited Florent Ibenge, the coach of Congo’s national team, as a sign of progress.

“I think we have a new generation that is working, that is doing its utmost, and beyond being good players with a past of professional footballers,” Cisse said. “We are very good in our tactics, and we have the right to be part of the top international coaches.”

Africa’s best performance at the World Cup has been to reach the quarterfinals, accomplished by Cameroon in 1990, Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2010.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

“I have the certainty that one day an African team, an African country, will win the World Cup,” Cisse said. “It’s a bit more complicated in our countries. We have realities that are not there in other continents, but I think that the African continent is full of qualities. We are on the way, and I’m sure that Senegal, Nigeria or other African countries will be able win, just like Brazil, Germany or other European countries.”

A lack of minority managers also has been documented at the club level. The Sports People’s Think Tank said in November there were just three minority managers among the 92 English professional clubs as of Sept. 1.

World Cup: Saudi team safe after plane caught fire mid-flight

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The Saudi Arabian national team arrived alive and well in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on Monday after a terrifying incident that saw their plane catch fire in the air.

[ MORE: Where to watch Tuesday’s games, feat. Colombia and Egypt ]

The blaze was caused by “a technical failure in one of the airplane engines,” which the airline, Rossiya, claims was caused by a bird flying into the engine. Each of the planes engines were reportedly in operation upon landing at its final destination.

The Saudi Arabian Football Federation posted a message on Twitter later on Monday, saying they “would like to reassure everyone that all the Saudi national team players are safe, after a technical failure in one of the airplane engines that has just landed in Rostov-on-Don airport, and now they’re heading to their residence safely.”

The Green Falcons will face Uruguay in Rostov, hoping to rebound from their tournament-opening 5-0 loss to Russia on Thursday, in each side’s second game of Group A action on Wednesday (11 a.m. ET).

Seismologists clarify Mexico fans didn’t cause earthquake

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MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexico’s National Seismological Service says there was seismic activity around the country’s capital Sunday, but it wasn’t linked to soccer fans celebrating their country’s game-winning goal vs. Germany at the World Cup.

[ MORE: Where to watch Tuesday’s games, feat. Colombia and Egypt ]

The service says in a report that there were two small earthquakes at 10:24 a.m. and 12:01 p.m. The goal came around 11:35 a.m. local time.

A geological institute reported Sunday that seismic detectors had registered a false earthquake that may have been generated by “massive jumps” by fans.

[ MORE: Harry Kane “buzzing” after two goals | Southgate encouraged ]

Mexico’s Seismological Service explained Monday that the city’s normal bustle of traffic and other movement causes vibrations that are detected by sensitive instruments.

It says those vibrations notably quieted during the match as people gathered in front of TVs to watch, and rose after the goal.

WATCH: World Cup, Day 6 — Colombia vs. Japan; Salah’s debut?

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Day 6 of the 2018 World Cup is up next, on Tuesday — and would you believe it? — there’s another three games on the schedule. This whole “back-to-back-to-back games of soccer” thing isn’t so bad.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Up first, it’s the 2018 debut of Colombia, winners of tens hundreds of millions of hearts in 2014, as they take on Japan. In the day’s other Group H fixture, it’ll be Robert Lewandowski and Poland facing Sadio Mane and Senegal. Star power aplenty.

Then, we swing things back around to Group A, where the hosts Russia will look to continue their hot start against Egypt with Mohamed Salah expected to make his World Cup debut.

Below is Tuesday’s schedule in full.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.


2018 World Cup schedule – Tuesday, June 19

Group H
Colombia vs. Japan: Saransk, 8 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE
Poland vs. Senegal: Moscow, 11 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Group A
Russia vs. Egypt: St. Petersburg, 2 p.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE