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.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

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.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

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.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]  

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.

[ MORE: Premier League stats

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.

Burnley – Sheffield United stream: How to watch, team news, prediction

Burnley - Sheffield United stream
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Burnley and Sheffield United jockey for potential Europa League footing at Turf Moor on Sunday (Watch live at 7 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

The eighth-place visitors and their ninth-place hosts open the day a win back of seventh-place Arsenal.

Seventh is currently set to be a Europa League place thanks to the European ban handed to second-place Manchester City, who is protesting the ban.

Eighth would also be a UEL spot with all four FA Cup semifinalists currently in the top seven. Arsenal could still finish outside the top eight and win the FA Cup, which would leave seventh as the last qualifying place.

STREAM BURNLEY – SHEFFIELD UNITED LIVE

Team news

Burnley – Sheffield United Prediction

Burnley can scrap with anyone but Blades have a bit more depth and comfort with their XI. Sheffield United 1-0.

Chelsea’s Pulisic reacts to Eden Hazard comparisons

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Last week, Frank Lampard compared Christian Pulisic’s potential to that of the finished products shown by Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah, and Raheem Sterling.

After another terrific performance for Chelsea in a 3-0 defeat of Watford, he was asked about being compared to Chelsea royalty: Eden Hazard.

“Obviously he was an incredible player for Chelsea,” Pulisic said. “He’s a world-class player. I’m not trying to compare myself to him just yet. I’m just trying to be my own player and hopefully the fans like that guy.”

[ MORE: Pulisic Watch — His day v. Watford ]

Pulisic drew a penalty and had the pass before the assist on Ross Barkley’s late goal to salt away the win and fourth place in the Premier League for another few days.

The Blues had lost late to West Ham United at midweek, and Pulisic admits the boys were fired up to avenge the setback.

“We needed that one today,” he said. “There was a little extra bit of energy because of that loss. We wanted to come out and prove a point today.”

Finally, Pulisic was asked what he’d be doing if he was home in the States on the Fourth of July.

“If I was home in the U.S. I’d be having a barbecue with my family and enjoying Independence Day.”

Stock answer. Only way he could lose points with us today.

Chelsea cruises past relegation-worried Watford

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Chelsea got goals from Willian, Ross Barkley, and Olivier Giroud in a comfortable 3-0 defeat of Watford at Stamford Bridge on Saturday.

USMNT star Christian Pulisic drew a penalty for Willian’s goal and helped set up Barkley’s third goal in his fourth-straight start in 10 days.

[ MORE: Pulisic Watch – USMNT star shines again ]

Chelsea moves back atop Manchester United for fourth place, one point behind Leicester City.

Watford’s 28 points are one point better than two of the bottom three, with Aston Villa holding a match-in-hand and set to visit Liverpool on Sunday.

[ MORE: Pulisic reacts to Hazard comparisons ]


Three things we learned

1. Chelsea holds serve in top four fight: Wins for Manchester United and Leicester City meant the Blues could finish the day in either fourth or fifth. The decisive performance was a welcome one for Chelsea boss Frank Lampard following a late loss at West Ham earlier in the week. The Blues meet Crystal Palace, Sheffield United, and Norwich City before Liverpool and Wolves make for a dangerous final two league fixtures.

2. Pearson plans for midweek: Norwich City looks as down-and-out as any club right now, so it’s not likely a coincidence that Etienne Capoue and Troy Deeney came off the pitch with the score line 2-0 and 26 minutes to play. Watford will aim to find points in its home ground against a poor Canaries side on Tuesday.

3. Kante limps off: While Christian Pulisic and Ruben Loftus-Cheek have remained fit and available to Lampard, the manager won’t be happy that N’Golo Kante’s injury-hit season saw a possible concern with a 78th-minute sub for Billy Gilmour.

Man of the Match

It was either Pulisic or Willian, and we’re going to go with the Brazilian if only because CP gets a lot of run in these parts.


Chelsea – Watford recap

Christian Pulisic came out of the gates in lively form and within minutes Olivier Giroud had an odd-angled chance to head toward goal.

The Blues were all over Watford for the first 20 minutes, Pulisic, Willian, and Giroud very involved in the display.

Giroud put the Blues on the board with an experienced, spinning strike in the 29th minute. Getting the ball off a Ross Barkley feed, the Frenchman hit a cushioned low shot across his body and just inside the far post.

Pulisic played a role in the second goal, dribbling to the end line and getting manhandled by an out-of-his-mind Christian Kabasele on his cut back toward play. Penalty, Willian. 2-0.

[ MORE: Premier League stats ]

The second half was mostly Chelsea, too, and Willian forced Foster into a terrific 68th-minute save and corner kick to the Blues.

Watford had their moments late, including a Danny Welbeck effort that Kepa Arrizabalaga did very well to save.

Pulisic had a shot blocked in the 90th minute, and Will Hughes couldn’t convert a Welbeck-inspired play at the other end.

Instead, the American would settle for a “hockey assist,” slipping the ball to Azpilicueta inside the 18 before the Chelsea veteran set up Barkley’s exclamation point.

Pulisic Watch: In-form Chelsea star shines on Independence Day

Pulisic Watch
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Chelsea’s in-form American winger stayed that way, as Christian Pulisic won a penalty and looked lively throughout the Blues’ match with Watford at Stamford Bridge on Saturday.

[ MORE: Chelsea 3-0 Watford ]

Here are the moments he was in focus in his fourth-straight start for Frank Lampard, as the USMNT star had another brilliant performance on his nation’s Independence Day.

[ MORE: Pulisic reacts to Hazard comparisons ]


8th minute: Pulisic comes out of the gate in lively form and cuts between a pair of defenders before finding Mason Mount, whose cross is blocked out for a corner.

10th minute: Pulisic plays Giroud wide, and the Frenchman’s first touch is a bit wayward. A cross back towards Pulisic is cleared before it reaches the American.

15th minute: Pulisic is one of three players to hit the deck trying to get on the end of Reece James’ delightful cross from the right.

19th minute: Pulisic takes the ball from Willian and finds Giroud, whose shot is saved by Foster and winds up with Willian. His cross doesn’t reach the American and Giroud fouled a defender anyway.

30th minute: Moments after Giroud put the Blues up 1-0, Pulisic nods a high cross back toward the far post but Foster rescues the ball without much worry.

42nd minute: Pulisic won a second penalty kick of the restart when he cut back at the end line and was run over by Christian Kabasele.

[ MORE: Arsenal beats Wolves ]

47th minute: Cuts inside and tears into an ambitious shot that has too much pepper on it.

48th minute: He’s at it again a moment later, moving the ball left to Cesar Azpilicueta for a half-cleared cross.

56th minute: Pulisic works a 1-2 with Mason Mount but the ball doesn’t quite get back to the American thanks to Michael Dawson.

85th minute: Protests wildly for a penalty after Kabasele takes him down in the box once again. VAR doesn’t change anything and Pulisic is set to go 90 minutes for the third time in 10 days (He went 72 minutes in the fourth encounter during that time span).

90th minute: Azpilicueta slides Pulisic into the left of the box, but the American’s shot is blocked.

Stoppage time: Takes a short pass and gives it to Azpilicueta in the box, getting a “hockey assist” when Barkley slots home. Pulisic then nearly wins a corner with a pressuring run down the left.

Stat line: Three shots, one on target, one blocked. One-of-3 dribbles completed, one penalty won. Passed at 89 percent (33-of-37) with two key passes and 9-of-15 duels won. Four fouls drawn and three tackles (SofaScore).