Playback: Top five festive takeaways

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1. TOP FOUR RACE NOW THE FOCUS

Manchester City may have dropped points for just the second time this season over the festive period (they came seriously close to losing in their 0-0 draw at Crystal Palace) but they now have a 15-point lead atop the Premier League table.

Pep Guardiola‘s boys can start planning which suit they will wear for the open top bus parade around Manchester and switch some focus towards completing a historic quadruple. On this form, they can do it, but injuries must be kinder to them.

The race for who will finish behind City and in the top four is far from over.

Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham and Arsenal all dropped points and they’re all stumbling over each other to try and seal their spot in the top four.

United’s three draws and then a win against Everton saw them go unbeaten but Mourinho’s men are stumbling at precisely the wrong time of the season.

Chelsea seem the most likely to chip away at Man City’s lead, but they put in a shaky defensive display a Arsenal to draw 2-2 in an epic encounter. Still, Antonio Conte‘s men seem to have the staying power to finish in second ahead of United. So, that’s the top three sorted.

The race for fourth will go down to the wire, once again, and Liverpool probably have the edge given their scoring power, yet Tottenham have Harry Kane, more on him shortly, and Arsenal are, well, Arsenal. They’ll hang in there until the bitter end and somehow have a chance of still finishing in the top four on the final day. That’s just what happens.

What we learned over the festive period is that United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Spurs and Arsenal are all capable of putting in error strewn displays and down that stretch that means squandering plenty of points to thicken the top four plot further. This will be fun.


2. HARRY KANE IS A WIZARD

We are witnessing something magical with Harry Kane. The man is a machine and he capped a fine 2017 in record-breaking fashion.

Kane scored back-to-back hat tricks on Dec. 23 against Burnley and Dec. 26 against Southampton to take his tally to 39 in the Premier League in 2017, setting a new record for the number of goals scored in a calendar year.

Many thought Alan Shearer’s record of 36 would never be broken. Kane also ended 2017 ahead of the likes of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Robert Lewandowski.

Yep, he is no longer a “one season wonder”…

Still just 24-year-old, Kane must have Shearer’s record as the PL’s all-time leading goalscorer (260) on his mind.

Kane has 96 L goals in 137 appearances, so if he keeps his current pace of 0.70 goals per game going he will reach that amount in about six seasons. A huge ask, but Kane has all the attributes to break every PL goalscoring record ever set, if, of course, he stays at Spurs. We will leave that debate for another day, but if he keeps this up, Real Madrid et al. will be handing Spurs a blank check for Kane…

After his record-breaking hat trick against Southampton on Boxing Day, Pro Soccer Talk was among the media members in the mixed zone at Wembley who had the chance to speak with Kane.

“When you look at Messi and Ronaldo, I’ve obviously still got a long way to go before I can be compared to them but it’s a start and that’s what I want to do, keep improving and be up there one day,” Kane said. “That’s always the goal, to be bracketed with the best players in the world. Messi and Ronaldo have set that standard for so long now. To nick ahead is something I’m proud of and it’s just the start for me. I want to do it year in, year out. They’ve done it for eight, nine years now so be classed in that bracket, that’s what I’ve got to do. That’s my aim.”

Does anybody think he actually won’t achieve it?


3. SWASHBUCKLING ARSENAL UNLUCKY

This was not a happy festive period for Arsenal and Arsene Wenger.

They did everything they could to make their charge into the top four but two crucial decisions went against them and Wenger now has a three-game touchline ban for his actions (and possible more given his comments after the draw with Chelsea) to think about just how unlucky his boys were with the penalty calls against West Brom and Chelsea.

Arsenal should have won all four of their festive games. Simple.

Instead, they won one and drew three which saw them lose further ground on the top four. They’re now five points off fourth-place Liverpool and although that gap isn’t insurmountable, at all, the Gunners know they should be in a better position than they currently are.

That’s down, largely, to defensive mistakes once again coming back to bite them, but there are promising signs for Wenger. Mesut Ozil is back to his best. Jack Wilshere is looking sharper each and every game he plays. And even Alexis Sanchez has delivered after a drop in form in early December.

Their swashbuckling displays against Liverpool (recovering well after a shaky first half) and Chelsea at the Emirates during the festive break produced two of the best games we’ve seen this season in the PL. But Arsenal have now played Tottenham, Man United, Liverpool and Chelsea at home this season and won just one of those games. They should have won all four but came up against inspired goalkeeping from David De Gea and Thibaut Courtois, plus harsh decisions going against them.

Was Wenger right to blow his top as he criticized referees after the draws on New Year’s Eve and Jan. 3? He felt like he had to and given the way he saw his team play, you can understand why he’s feeling hard done by as to how their festive period played out.


4. Paul Pogba SHOULD PLAY ON THE LEFT

In a 45 minute spell the real Paul Pogba returned. It was magical.

After a frustrating festive season for Manchester United, Pogba dazzled in the second half of their 2-0 win against Everton at Goodison Park on Jan. 1.

The Frenchman, 24, started on the left of a midfield three and was given license to roam out to the left flank with Jesse Lingard cutting inside. It worked perfectly and looked as though a switch had been flicked in Pogba’s head.

This was why United paid a then word-record fee of $120 million to Juventus for Pogba in the summer of 2016. At Juve, Pogba’s position was on the left of a midfield three and I remember one Champions League game in 2015 where he turned it on in in the second half and ripped Manchester City to shreds.

So often used as a deep-lying central midfielder by Mourinho since he arrived United, much has been made of Pogba’s inability to grab a game by the scruff of the neck in the chaos of the engine room. He looks more fluid out wide and he is able to damage opposition defenders with his pace, power and trickery.

Pogba was criticized by United legend Paul Scholes on Dec. 28 for his performances in their three-straight draws over the festive period against Leicester, Burnley and Southampton, but he correctly received plenty of plaudits for his display against Everton.

Mourinho simply has to use this 4-3-3 system going forward and line up Pogba on the left of a midfield three.


5. PICK 3 FROM 11 FOR RELEGATION

One of the clearest takeaways from the festive period was this: we have no idea who will be relegated when the season ends on May 13.

Sure, there’s a little daylight to Swansea City and West Brom at the bottom but they’re only four points from safety.

Above them the likes of Stoke City and Southampton are bang out of form, have managers being lambasted by fans and look bereft of a general plan. Stoke and Saints are in big, big trouble and they have zero momentum.

West Ham and Crystal Palace are the form teams in the bottom half after managerial changes, while the likes of Watford, Huddersfield, Newcastle, Bournemouth and Brighton are still looking nervously over their shoulders. Everton, in ninth place on 27 points, are probably the cutoff but if the Toffees embark on another huge slump they may get embroiled in a battle against the drop.

If you had to pick three teams right now to go down, who would you go with? I’d go West Brom, Swansea and probably Bournemouth. But this festive period has shown us the relegation scrap is now between 11 teams.


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

MLS Three Things: RBNY beats Atlanta, is a special club right now

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At this point, Jesse Marsch could take the USMNT job, Tyler Adams could bolt for the Bundesliga, and we’d still have to select the New York Red Bulls to finish with a home playoff game.

[ MORE: Willian’s shot at Conte ]

That’s how well run RBNY is these days, which is to take nothing away from their coach and 19-year-old star, but considering they navigated a solid CONCACAF Champions League run en route to this start… well…. wow.

On a night when Luis Robles’ ironman streak ended, Kaku recorded two assists, and Ezequiel Barco bagged his second goal in three matches, they don’t even meet the requirements of our three things.

Form giants deliver more goals

Marsch’s men have been shutout once this season, and most multiple goals in four-consecutive wins. Three of those four wins have come on the road, at LA, Colorado, and now Atlanta.

RBNY has the best points-per-game in Major League Soccer, has scored the joint-most goals despite playing in the second-fewest games, and is allowing barely more than a goal-a-game.

Bet against ’em. We dare ya.

BWP delivers the goods

RBNY’s 33-year-old English star scored twice and won a penalty that Daniel Royer converted as he continued his assault on all future Red Bulls’ hopes of becoming the club’s leading scorer.

Bradley Wright-Phillips has almost 50 more goals than his nearest competitor, Juan Pablo Angel, and he makes headers look like child’s play.

Victory comes with a price

Kemar Lawrence was lost with a scary-looking face-plant on a clearance, and needed to be stretchered off the pitch. Hopefully it’s not long-term for the Jamaican back.

Willian “edits” Conte out of FA Cup champions photo

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Willian is not a fan of Antonio Conte.

Come to another conclusion if you like, but it’s hard to argue the Brazilian wizard’s feelings following his Instagram post after Chelsea beat Manchester United in the FA Cup Final.

[ MORE: Matic wants squad changes at Man Utd ]

Willian covered his manager in trophies following the win, and it’d be a stretch to call that a tribute to the Italian’s tactical brilliance.

The player recorded seven goals and six assists despite playing less than all but 12 Chelsea players in league play (12th place Alvaro Morata had 11 and 6).

We’re accepting alternative explanations for the since-deleted Instagram photo below:

Elis scores twice as Dynamo beat Fire 3-2

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BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. (AP) Alberth Elis scored two second-half goals to help the Houston Dynamo beat the Chicago Fire 3-2 on Sunday for their first road win of the season.

Elis, on a one-on-one breakaway, cut back to evade defender Johan Kappelhof and ripped a right-footer from the center of the box into the back of the net to give Houston (4-3-3) a 3-2 lead in the 74th minute.

[ MORE: Man Utd youngster gets USMNT call-up ]

The Dynamo’s Romell Quioto opened the scoring in the fourth, running onto a long through ball from Tomas Martinez and rolling the finish past sliding goalkeeper Richard Sanchez. Nemanja Nikolic tied it in the 14th minute and then fed Diego Campos for a goal about two minutes later. Elis converted from the spot to make it 2-2 early in the second half after Mauro Manotas drew a foul in the area conceded by Sanchez.

Chicago (3-6-2) has lost three of its last four games.

 

Inter Milan back in the Champions League after late heroics (video)

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It’s been more than a half-decade since Inter Milan qualified for the UEFA Champions League, an infamous run that ended on Sunday.

Inter scored twice in the final 13 minutes to beat fifth-place Lazio and advance into the Top Four via head-to-head record.

[ MORE: Man Utd youngster gets USMNT call-up ]

Lazio held 1-0 and 2-1 leads, but could not get the job done at home, collecting red cards in the 79th minute and stoppage time.

Uruguayan midfielder Matias Vecino scored his third goal of the season, redirecting a corner kick home in the 81st minute, as Inter clinched fourth place in Serie A.