PL Playback: Man United ready to roam freely

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MAN UNITED’S MOMENTUM

So far this season Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United look ready to bolt from the barn whenever matchday rolls around.

In a good way.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays

United blew away Swansea City 4-0 on Saturday, using an explosive 3 minute and 41 second period to score three times at the end of the game.

Mourinho’s stable of powerful attacking players are on the pitch and on the bench, with Romelu Lukaku, Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial running riot late in the game.

“I had players on the bench who could help me. Happiness in our play. It happened to me so much with my teams, you’re winning 1-0 and you can can concede. There was no need to close the door, just let the horses run freely,” Mourinho told the BBC after the game.

The depth in this United squad is considerable with Martial coming off the bench to score twice and assist on another goal in the opening two games of the PL season. Lukaku has scored four goals in his first three official games for United, while Pogba has a goal in each of his first two PL games this season. Everything is looking rosy for United who sit top of the table after two 4-0 wins to open the season.

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But hold your horses. No disrespect to West Ham and Swansea, but United should beat them convincingly. Yet they seem to have put aside their problems from last season where they dominated teams but couldn’t put them away, which led to a league-high 15 draws from 38 games. They’ve kept more clean sheets than any other PL team in 2017, so conceding hasn’t been the issue.

The balance is now better with attackers able to roam freely and interchange further up the pitch. In truth, they played similarly for large spells of last season but they couldn’t finish. Now the confidence is flowing and scoring goals seems like the easiest thing in the world.

Mourinho seems to have instilled newfound confidence in his team and with the players now having a whole season of the Mourinho experience under their belt, they understand what he wants. Also, the second-season syndrome (we all know what happens in year three) under Mourinho always seems to get the best out of his methods. There is a real feel-good vibe around United right now and their early-season schedule will allow this to build.

Despite all of the positives surrounding United’s opening victories, what if Romelu Lukaku goes down injured? Can Marcus Rashford, who has looked dangerous out on the left, fill his void up top? Maybe Zlatan Ibrahimovic will arrive on a short-term deal but the forward issue is one which will still concern Mourinho, even though his attacking unit is purring right now. Injuries hit United hard last season but they had more games with their Europa League campaign, EFL Cup success and deep run in the FA Cup. This season should be easier to manage.

Mourinho’s team now seem able to shut opponents down and limit their chances and the balance of this team is spot on. Nemanja Matic‘s arrival has been lauded and he allows Pogba to roam free in support of Lukaku, Rashford, Martial and Henrikh Mkhitaryan who was sublime once again, taking his assist tally to four in 173 minutes for the season.

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The diminutive duo of Juan Mata and Mkhitaryan perfectly compliment the powerful trio of Pogba, Lukaku and Rashford in attack and all of a sudden you can see why Mourinho was shown pretending to smoke an imaginary cigar before the game when the cameras caught him chatting with Swansea boss Paul Clement.

So chill.

Mourinho will let his horses roam free for the opening months of the season as United do not face a top six opponent until Oct. 14 when they head to Liverpool and then they face Chelsea and Tottenham in two of their next three games, while the UCL group games will also come thick and fast around that time.

That’s when the real tests will start to arrive but United already have a ruthless streak about them which wasn’t there last season.


CHELSEA’S WEMBLEY GRIT

It wasn’t the best display Chelsea will put in, but it had buckets of desire and determination as they became the first team to beat Tottenham at home (yes, it was Wembley) in 19 Premier League games.

[ MORE: Can Spurs get over Wembley jinx? ]

After being at the London derby, the first-ever Premier League game at Wembley, I wrote about Spurs’ struggles at their temporary home, and that was a big part of this.

Chelsea rode their luck but without the injured Eden Hazard, exiled Diego Costa, the suspended duo of Gary Cahill and Cesc Fabregas, plus new signings Alvaro Morata, Antonio Rudiger and Tiemoue Bakayoko all taking time to settle in as they made their first starts for the club, it was one heck of a result.

[ MORE: 3 things learned from Chelsea’s win ]

Tottenham were wasteful in attack against Chelsea’s revamped 3-5-2 system which saw David Luiz become a colossal in central midfield and youngster Andreas Christensen more than hold his own in central defense. They hit Spurs on the counter expertly as Willian hit the post and then Marcos Alonso scored a late winner which sent the 3,000-plus away fans wild at Wembley.

Antonio Conte ran to the away section after the game punching the air with delight as the Italian coach looked to be unloading plenty of the pressure which had been piling up on his shoulders over the summer and the early weeks of this season. That was understandable following the Costa saga, Nemanja Matic being sold to Man United, the FA Community Shield defeat to Arsenal and a shock loss to Burnley.

“This is a perfect response of the champions,” Conte said. “We won the league last season, winning 30 games, and that is not easy. We lost in the final of the FA Cup. We have arrived in some problems with bans and injuries but we must be ready to work and focus on the pitch. The club is trying its best in the transfer market to improve our squad but I must be happy.”

With the chips down, Sunday’s London derby win proved the reigning champs won’t give up their crown without a fight.


EARLY SEASON HEROES, STRUGGLERS

We are only in Week 2 but there are already plenty of heroes and vllains around the Premier League.

Huddersfield Town have won their first two Premier League games with David Wagner‘s side beating Newcastle United 1-0 on Sunday at a raucous John Smith’s Stadium.

Aaron Mooy was the hero as the Australian midfielder cut inside and bent home a beauty into the far corner to become Huddersfield’s hero. In truth, every Terriers player was a hero, just like they were in Week 1 at Crystal Palace.

Wagner’s men are six points closer to the magic 40-point marker to avoid relegation and the Yorkshire club are loving life in the big-time. They are the new darlings of the PL.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are five teams at the bottom of the Premier League table who have yet to grab a point this season, and four of those have yet to score a goal.

They aren’t panicking, but a slow start is far from ideal.

Newcastle United were lackluster in attack in their defeat at Huddersfield and Rafael Benitez looks frustrated on the sidelines with funds from owner Mike Ashley not as forthcoming as he’d hoped. The Magpies need major work in the final weeks of the window.

So do fellow new boys Brighton & Hove Albion and Chris Hughton‘s side barely created anything at Leicester City in their second 2-0 defeat to open the season. Bournemouth, surprisingly, have lost two games to open the campaign with Eddie Howe‘s men also yet to score as Watford dominated the game at the Vitality Stadium. The alarm bells are ringing in Dorset.

Crystal Palace put in a dogged display away at Liverpool but Christian Benteke missed a glorious chance and Frank de Boer’s men conceded late on with Sadio Mane grabbing the winner and West Ham have now conceded seven goals to open the season with two defeats from two for Slaven Bilic‘s side.

At least West Ham’s Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez hasn’t had a slow start to the season even though his team lost 3-2 at Southampton in a dramatic game. Mexico’s all-time leading goalscorer netted two typical close-range goals but his side were undone by giving away two penalty kicks and having Marko Arnautovic stupidly sent off.

Like the other teams struggling at the start of the season, the Hammers are creating problems for themselves. How would Hernandez sum up their start and the current mood at West Ham?

“Difficult, we knew that with three away games. The last two with Manchester United and then at Southampton we played a really good game in the second half with 10 men, we had a lot of effort and were so close to getting one point and maybe even three points, you never know. It has been a little bit sad but we are getting there,” Hernandez said. “We need time to keep working, to keep improving. We need to look forward, we need to be positive. We can not stay in the good memories or bad memories. That’s the good thing about football, you have a chance of revenge every weekend.”

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

Manchester United draws Club America 1-1 on Mata goal

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Manchester United began Jose Mourinho’s “very bad” preseason with a drab 1-1 draw against Liga MX side Club America.

Juan Mata hit the post in the opening 20 minutes and later scored the equalizer in the 78th minute after Ander Herrera‘s header rebounded off the crossbar and right into the Spaniard’s lap. Mata then put his shot through the goalkeeper’s legs and in for the only goal for the Red Devils.

With many players receiving extra rest after participating in the 2018 World Cup, Manchester United is utilizing a bit-part roster for much of the preseason which includes five matches in the United States. Regulars Mata, Herrera, Eric Bailly, Chris Smalling, Luke Shaw, Anthony Martial, and Antonio Valencia were all included in the starting lineup, but they were joined by a smattering of relative unknowns.

35-year-old journeyman goalkeeper Lee Grant played the first 45 minutes between the sticks, replaced in the second half by 22-year-old Joel Peirera. 22-year-old midfielder Andreas Pereira played the full 90 minutes in midfield, while 21-year-old winger Demetri Mitchell saw his name listed among the starters along with Scott McTominay, who suffered a nasty looking head injury late in the match on an overhead kick attempt.

16-year-old Mason Greenwood got a few minutes towards the end, with Mourinho hoping to get a quick look at the club’s U-18 leading scorer. Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Alex Tuanzebe also both came off the bench to participate, as did 18-year-old former Feyenoord youth product Tahith Chong who was impressive during his second-half appearance.

While Manchester United held a slight majority in possession, Club America out-shot the Premier League giants 15-10, however the Liga MX side could only manage to put four of those on target.

Pep: Hart’s future uncertain, will play in preseason

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Joe Hart has returned to Manchester City after spending last season on loan at West Ham, and his future is very much up in the air as it stands.

Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola was asked about Hart’s situation at the pre-match press conference prior to City’s International Champions Cup match against Borussia Dortmund. He confirmed they are shopping the English veteran. “We’re going to try and make a solution for Joe,” Guardiola told reporters, “but if not then he is with us. He’s one of the best professionals I’ve ever seen but at this moment he is with us.”

Guardiola also confirmed that Hart would play in the preseason game against Dortmund. Starting goalkeeper Ederson is not on the roster for the US preseason tour, having returned from participation in the 2018 World Cup with Brazil, although he didn’t play as he served as Alisson’s backup.

The former #1 England goalkeeper, Hart has struggled mightily in recent seasons. He last played a full Premier League season back in 2015/16, starting 35 games for Manchester City. However, he lost his place the following year and was loaned to Italian top flight club Torino. He had mixed success during his one year in Italy and was loaned out to West Ham last campaign with Ederson and Claudio Bravo entrenched at his parent club. Hart only made it half the season before losing his starting spot for the Hammers, replaced by Adrian. That saw him lose not just starting job with the England national team but his place in the squad, forcing Gareth Southgate to take a trio of inexperienced goalkeepers to the World Cup, leading to the emergence of Jordan Pickford.

West Ham returned Hart to Manchester City at the end of the season, and here he sits in limbo again. Hart has just one more year left on his contract, but according to the Manchester Evening News, wants to leave this season on a permanent deal anyway.

Tomorrow, Hart will get the opportunity – albeit a small one – to showcase himself to potential suitors. If he gets another chance to play in the ICC (Manchester City plays Liverpool and Bayern Munich before heading home to England), he will have another opportunity to plead his case.

Report: Leicester to pluck Danny Ward from Liverpool

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With the announcement of Alisson’s signing on Thursday, Liverpool has spent over $200 million this summer, but it seems they’ve already begun to trim the squad and even out the net spend by a bit.

According to the Liverpool Echo, the Reds have agreed to sell 25-year-old goalkeeper Danny Ward to Leicester City, with the clubs agreeing to a $16.2 million fee. The report also states the deal includes a 20% sell-on fee, meaning Liverpool will receive 20% of any transfer fee Leicester City receives for Ward during the life of his next contract.

[ MORE: Alisson signs for Liverpool ]

Ward has spent the last six seasons with Liverpool after signing from small non-league club Wrexham in 2012 as a 19-year-old. However, he has played more games for the Welsh international team (4) than he has for Liverpool (3). Previously stuck behind Simon Mignolet and Loris Karius, the arrival of Alisson meant the club needed to make room.

Leicester City already has Kasper Schmeichel firmly entrenched between the sticks. However, especially after a stellar 2018 World Cup with Denmark where he was considered among the top choices for the Golden Glove award, Schmeichel is a wanted man and 31 years old and a contract with three more years remaining, Schmeichel’s time at King Power Stadium could be limited.

The addition of Ward at the very least would allow Schmeichel some time off. The Dane was stretched thin last season as not just the Premier League starter but also used in a few cup games with only Eldin Jakupovic behind him. Now, it’s realistic that Ward could receive time in Cup competitions, leaving Schmeichel to rest up for league games.

Reports: Conte to sue Chelsea over how firing was handled

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According to reports in Italy, and backed up by those in England, Antonio Conte is planning to sue Chelsea over the way the club handled his exit this summer.

Chelsea is reportedly planning to pay Conte the rest of his salary in full, but the reports state that the Italian is unhappy how long it took the club to confirm his exit, leaving him unable to secure a job commiserate with his experience level for this coming season.

The 48-year-old is set to receive nearly $12 million as compensation for the final year of his now-terminated contract, but is looking for additional damages given the timing of his departure. Despite the writing clearly on the wall, Conte had weeks of silence from the club, before being pulled back to London to begin pre-season training with the squad for just four days before he was then let go.

Upon his release, Conte released a relatively benign statement thanking the club, the fans, the staff, and the players, but notably did not thank the board or owner Roman Abramovich.

Things between Chelsea and Conte have been testy for some time now. It was reported earlier last month – before Conte was officially let go – that Chelsea was planning to withhold payment of Conte’s remaining salary and sue the Italian for costing the club money for former striker Diego Costa. Costa told the media he received a text message from Conte while on international duty last summer that he was no longer wanted at the club. If true, the club could have argued that Conte botched the situation and cost the club a significant amount of money. However, it seems the club has – for now – decided not to pursue the lawsuit, with reports stating that Conte is set to receive his salary in full.