PL Playback: London’s burning

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CHELSEA, ARSENAL IMPLODE

London is burning. Well, it is in the red half of North London and in the West. Both Arsenal and Chelsea look set to miss out on finishing in the top four this season as their dreadful recent runs continue with just three points for each from their last five games.

Chelsea’s defensive tactics were hammered by critics as they lost 1-0 at Manchester City, while Arsene Wenger‘s Arsenal reign appears to be coming to an end as they lost 2-1 at newly-promoted Brighton.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays

London’s two most successful clubs aren’t quite in ruins, but they’re heading that way. Fast. The London giants are set to both finish outside the top four in the same PL season for the first time in 22 years.

Where has it gone wrong?

Let’s start with the bigger mess: Arsenal. The fact that they lost to Brighton 2-1 on Sunday was just the tip of the iceberg. Arsene Wenger’s presence at the club has once again created a highly toxic atmosphere and the players are underperforming. They have accumulated the lowest PL points tally at this stage of a season since Wenger arrived in 1996 and they’re 13 points off the top four with nine games to go.

“It’s the first time it happens in my whole career, I must say,” Wenger told Sky Sports. “It’s not easy, but I have enough experience and enough desire to turn things around and I must say that, at the moment, when you need to stay in the game we are making a few mistakes at the wrong moments. We have to stick together and focus. We have no other solution.”

He’s right. They don’t. That’s the problem.

Contracted through the end of the 2019 season, Wenger’s decision to sign a two-year contract extension last summer was both inevitable and a damning indictment that Arsenal have no plan for the future. Owner Stan Kroenke and Chief Executive Ivan Gazidis both took the easy option in offering Wenger a new deal to extend his stay at Arsenal beyond two decades and now they’re paying the price.

Thierry Henry, Mikel Arteta, Leonardo Jardim, Carlo Ancelotti and Joachim Loew are all said to be on the shortlist to take over from Wenger this summer, with the Henry and Arteta reportedly favored because they may at least get some patience from the Arsenal fans.

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Until Wenger is fired, he deserves respect. Of course he does. He changed the game in England forever when he arrived in the mid 90s and his legacy will remain mostly positive, no matter what happens in the final few months of this season. But he should go in the summer. 100 percent. The problem is, if he doesn’t want to leave, can Arsenal push him out of the door? Maybe not. After a week which saw Arsenal hammered in the League Cup final by Manchester City, then four days later in the league by the same 3-0 scoreline before being humbled by newly-promoted Brighton, there’s a danger of this being a knee-jerk reaction.

But come on. This has been coming for months, if not years.

Kroenke’s decision to hand Wenger the two-year extension show how much he values the Frenchman but even the expensive new signings this season and Mesut Ozil’s lucrative long-term contract have failed to quell the relentless tide gathering around Wenger’s midriff. Arsenal must now focus solely on winning the UEFA Europa League because that is the only way Wenger will save this monstrosity of a season and qualify for the UEFA Champions League again.

Moving west across London, Chelsea’s season hit a new low on Sunday at Manchester City. Yes, Antonio Conte‘s side only lost 1-0 to the champions elect, but the way he set his team up proved how far the reigning champs have fallen.

Like Arsenal, the situation has been unraveling for a while. Conte’s constant digs in press conferences at the Chelsea hierarchy tell its own story as the Italian coach seems to want out at the end of this season.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]

Five points off the top four with nine games to go, it seems likely that Chelsea will join Arsenal in missing out on the top four. That would be catastrophic given their incredible title win last season, but not unexpected.

The recruitment of new players has been slapdash at best and replacing Diego Costa and Nemanja Matic with Alvaro Morata and Tiemoue Bakayoko hasn’t worked well at all. Adding the likes of Davide Zappacosta, Danny Drinkwater, Ross Barkley and Antonio Rudiger just seemed like panic buys.

[ MORE: Conte defends defensive Chelsea ]

Conte was a frustrated man when asked about criticism of his team against Man City (it was described as “a crime against football” by pundits in the UK) as they didn’t have a shot on target and had just 29 percent of possession with Eden Hazard skulking around up front in a false nine position.

“I think you have to accept every criticism but I am not so stupid to play against Manchester City open and to lose 3-0 or 4-0,” Conte said. “If I remember well, two days ago, Arsenal played twice against them and then you criticize a lot Wenger because they concede three goals in only 30 minutes. The pundit has to use the head to understand when you speak about tactics because I think you must have knowledge to speak about tactics and not only to speak in a stupid way.”

Right now fans of Arsenal and Chelsea both feel stupid.


CITY PREFER STYLE OVER RECORDS

Manchester City may break every single Premier League record this season.

They’re on course to win the PL title at the earliest ever time with the most goals scored and with the most points and the largest-ever winning margin.

Pep Guardiola‘s side passed Chelsea into oblivion and he seemed more delighted with the style and patience his team showed than the win itself.

Asked by Pro Soccer Talk about City’s record-breaking 902 passes completed, the highest number by a PL team since Opta started collecting the stats in the 2003/04 season, Guardiola wore a beaming smile as his ideals are now clearly embedded within his players.

“We try to play with the ball. We try with our power like a team. Sometimes it is more complicated when teams are aggressive. They were so organised today, it is like they play against Barcelona in the Champions League,” Guardiola said. “We spoke to move the ball quick, one or two touches, and control the counter attack from Hazard and Pedro because they are so good at it. Now we need three or four victories to be champions.”

But it is that fact, being champions, which seems to resonate the strongest with Guardiola. He seems to prefer winning games playing how he wants to see his team play over racking up team records for goals, points and so on.

“What really matters is to be champions. I never spoke with the players about the records,” Guardiola said. “I never spoke we have to win the two games to achieve something. Against Stoke we are going to try and play like we play all season. After, at the end, we will see. But we are not going to play for the records. Records are always a consequence of what you have done but they are not the main thing.”


RELEGATION BATTLE HEATING UP

With nine games to go, nobody has a clue who two of the three relegated teams will be this season.

West Brom are gone, pretty much, but you can pick two of the following six teams at random: Stoke City, Crystal Palace, Southampton, Newcastle United, West Ham United and Swansea City.

Plus the likes of Bournemouth, Everton and Brighton could all still get sucked into the relegation battle. This is madness.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings

West Brom have won just three games all season long and Alan Pardew remains in a job for now but as soon as they are mathematically down you will see him fired. They are eight points from safety and time is running out after their narrow defeat at Watford.

As for the rest, Stoke City and Southampton played out a dour, nervous 0-0 draw at the weekend which summed up how scared both of those perennial midtable teams are of going down. Huddersfield and Newcastle were humbled by Tottenham and Liverpool respectively but the newly-promoted duo will be pleased to still be in with a chance of staying up with nine games to go. Crystal Palace are in with a shout of staying up after their terrible start to the season but Roy Hodgson knows he needs Wilfried Zaha back from injury, and fast, if they’re going to have any chance of survival.

Then there’s West Ham. What a mess. Co-owner David Gold, 81, was confronted by fans after their 4-1 drubbing at Swansea City at the weekend as the Hammers’ disastrous season spirals out of control under David Moyes. Their veteran signings aren’t working out and the fan unrest continues to build with the east London club just three points above the drop zone. As for the Swans, Carlos Carvalhal continues to work miracles in South Wales as he’s only suffered two defeats in 15 games in all competitions since taking charge. The Portuguese wordsmith has impressed mightily.

“We moved things around today, rested some players and I am very happy. Our level of intensity is very high and the players are in a very good way,” Carvalhal said after battering West Ham. “There are games where you must listen to the music of the opponent. We made West Ham dance to our music and it was rock and roll.”

Teams in the relegation battle will be listening to a mixture of smooth rock and heavy metal between now and May 13 as they aim to either calm their nerves for the impending battle, or wake themselves up from sleep-walking out of the Premier League and into the second tier.


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

The 2 Robbies podcast: Liverpool, Chelsea through to UCL knockouts

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Robbie Mustoe and Robbie Earle on Liverpool’s nervy 2-0 win against Red Bull Salzburg to take first place in Group E of the Champions League (1:55), Chelsea’s 2-1 win over Lille to secure a place in the Round of 16 (13:15) and who is the current favorite to win it all (20:45).

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Plus, what Arsenal’s come-from-behind 3-1 win at West Ham means for both London clubs (29:10) and the Robbies discuss what they’re looking forward to most at the next Live Premier League Mornings Fan Fest in Miami Beach (46:05).

To listen to more lively conversations and passionate debate from Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe, subscribe to The 2 Robbies Podcast on Apple Podcasts or anywhere you listen to podcasts.

And you can follow them on Twitter @The2RobbiesNBC here.

Click here for The 2 Robbies archive ]

PL Club Power Rankings: Week 16

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The Premier League didn’t issue too many surprises at the bottom of the table this week, but two top-tier sides didn’t behave as such and shook up our rankings.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Chelsea and Man City have dipped low, and Bournemouth’s skid doesn’t have it sinking lower (yet) because of the teams beneath it.

Green: New season-high ranking
Red: New season-low

[ MORE: PL Club Power Rankings archive ]


20. Watford — Liverpool and Manchester United are next, and it’s looking a long way back to safety.
Last week: 20
Season high: 17
Season low: 20
Last match: Drew 0-0 v. Crystal Palace
Up next: 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday at Liverpool

19. Norwich City — Outshot, out-passed, our possessed Sheffield United at home and still lost. Bad vibes, man.
Last week: 18
Season high: 10
Season low: 20
Last match: Lost 2-1 v. Sheffield United
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday at Leicester City

18. West Ham United — Just feels like there’s something lurking below the surface here. Doesn’t smell right given the Irons talent.
Last week: 17
Season high: 5
Season low: 20
Last match: Lost 3-1 v. Arsenal
Up next: 12:30 p.m. ET Saturday at Southampton

17. Bournemouth — Losing to Liverpool is no shame, but it’s almost officially time to worry.
Last week: 16
Season high: 6
Season low: 17
Last match: Lost 3-0 v. Liverpool
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday at Chelsea

16. Aston Villa — Tom Heaton is a heck of a goalkeeper but he can’t be expected to save four A-plus danger chances per game.
Last week: 14
Season high: 8
Season low: 16
Last match: Lost 4-1 v. Leicester City
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday at Sheffield United

15. Southampton — West Ham and Villa back-to-back have to provide four points if Saints revival is to be believed.
Last week: 15
Season high: 13
Season low: 20
Last match: Lost 2-1 at Newcastle United
Up next: 12:30 p.m. ET Saturday v. West Ham United

14. Everton — Duncan Ferguson gives the Toffees board reason enough to be patient with their managerial hire, and then Napoli goes and fires Carlo Ancelotti.
Last week: 19
Season high: 5
Season low: 19
Last match: Won 3-1 v. Chelsea
Up next: 9 a.m. ET Sunday at Manchester United

13. Burnley — The defending against Spurs — we know, Spurs are good — was enough to drop them far lower than four spots. Abject stuff from a Sean Dyche side.
Last week: 9
Season high: 5
Season low: 15
Last match: Lost 5-0 at Spurs
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday v. Newcastle

12. Arsenal — Freddie Ljungberg started Nicolas Pepe, and Nicholas Pepe was his best player. Stunning stuff, really. Look at the assist below.
Last week: 13
Season high: 4
Season low: 12
Last match: Won 3-1 at West Ham
Up next: 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday v. Man City

11. Crystal Palace — I want to believe, but am holding out for something more. A derby win versus Brighton would suffice.
Last week: 7
Season high: 5
Season low: 18
Last match: Drew 0-0 at Watford
Up next: 2:45 p.m. ET Monday v. Brighton

10. Newcastle United — Again, Steve Bruce‘s men are getting tremendous Fortune and he’s pushing almost all the right buttons (It takes guts to start Andy Carroll over the struggling record signing Joelinton). This could be a sign of the Geordie Apocalypse.
Last week: 11
Season high: 11
Season low: 20
Last match: Won 2-1 v. Southampton
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday at Burnley

9. Sheffield United — A little wobbly lately, but still a good comeback at Carrow Road.
Last week: 10
Season high: 5
Season low: 17
Last match: Won 2-1 at Norwich City
Up next: 10 a.m ET Saturday v. Aston Villa

8. Brighton and Hove Albion — Doesn’t it say something that a country who starves for young, strong English coaches had one sitting in Sweden for eight years? Graham Potter is legit.
Last week: 12
Season high: 6
Season low: 18
Last match: Won 2-1 at Arsenal
Up next: 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday v. Wolves

7. Chelsea — Some of those young guys who’ve played so well, so early, are looking a little ragged. It’s a shame Frank Lampard is still waiting on Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who will really help things take another step.
Last week: 5
Season high: 2
Season low: 12
Last match: Lost 3-1 at Everton
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday v. Bournemouth

6. Manchester City — It probably has nothing to do with the system, and a lot to do with not having Aymeric Laporte, Sergio Aguero, Leroy Sane… Still, it needs to be better than a home derby loss to a Paul Pogba-less United.
Last week: 2
Season high: 1
Season low: 6
Last match: Lost 2-1 v. Manchester United
Up next: 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday at Arsenal

5. Tottenham Hotspur — We’re gonna need multiple screens on Sunday morning, as Wolves-Spurs and Man Utd-Everton are both must-monitor.
Last week: 8
Season high: 2
Season low: 16
Last match: Won 5-0 v. Burnley
Up next: 9 a.m. ET Sunday at Wolves

4. Manchester United — Ole’s at the wheel, and still doesn’t feel like Lewis Hamilton or anything but we’re not worried about heading off a cliff.
Last week: 6
Season high: 2
Season low: 16
Last match: Won 2-1 at Man City
Up next: 9 a.m. ET Sunday v. Everton

3. Wolves — Beat Spurs on Sunday and I’ll go ahead and bet on them as a Top Four finisher, even after the Brighton draw failed to deliver the goods.
Last week: 3
Season high: 3
Season low: 17
Last match: Drew 2-2 at Brighton
Up next: 9 a.m. ET Sunday v. Spurs

2. Leicester City — Wow.
Last week: 2
Season high: 2
Season low: 10
Last match: Won 4-1 at Aston Villa
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday v. Norwich City

1. Liverpool — Wow, only atop the table.
Last week: 1
Season high: 1
Season low: 3
Last match: Won 3-0 at Bournemouth
Up next: 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday v. Watford

Champions League Weds. preview: Two spots remain

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Only two spots remain in the UEFA Champions League knockout rounds, and those will be settled Wednesday afternoon.

In Group C, hosts Shakhtar Donetsk need to beat Atalanta to go through, while the visitors can also go through with a win if Dinamo Zagreb fails to defeat Man City.

[ MORE: Ancelotti reportedly speaking w/ Everton ]

In Group D, Atletico Madrid is through with a win over Lokomotiv Moscow, though Bayer Leverkusen can complete a remarkable comeback from an 0-3 start to the group stage if they beat already-qualified Juve and Atleti loses to their Russian visitors.

You certainly wouldn’t be against Diego Simeone there, though.

“Tomorrow is a great opportunity, every day that you wear the Atletico shirt is,” Simeone said, via Marca. “I believe in my team, in the humility that they have at the moment. The results will come based on what they are demonstrating on the field.”

Premier League sides Man City and Tottenham Hotspur both have their fortunes settled, with City having won Group C and Spurs settled into Group B’s second spot, but they still have plenty to figure out on Tuesday.

Jose Mourinho’s Spurs are going up against a Bayern team that walloped them at home, while City is living an unusual 2W-3D-2L lull in form.

Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League action

12:55 p.m. ET
Shakhtar Donetsk v. Atalanta
Dinamo Zagreb v. Man City

3 p.m. ET
Club Brugge v. Real Madrid
Atletico Madrid v. Lokomotiv Moscow
Bayer Leverkusen v. Juventus
Paris Saint-Germain v. Galatasaray
Olympiacos v. Red Star Belgrade
Bayern Munich v. Tottenham Hotspur

Ancelotti fired by Napoli as Everton, Arsenal lurk

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Carlo Ancelotti won a place in the UEFA Champions League knockout rounds, then lost his job.

The Napoli’s boss strained relationship with club president Aurelio De Laurentiis came to a head, with the Neapolitan side advancing in Europe to end a nine-match winless run.

[ MORE: Sporting KC adds Liga MX top scorer ]

That run may’ve included seven draws, but it also saw Napoli dip into seventh on the Serie A table. They are seven points back of sixth and 17 points behind leaders Juventus.

A strained relationship got worse when Ancelotti refused to take the team on a De Laurentiis-ordered “team retreat” following a draw against Salzburg in early November.

Gennaro Gattuso is rumored as Ancelotti’s replacement, and the fired coach himself is being mentioned as an immediate target for Arsenal and Everton.

In fact, the Toffees are in discussions with the Italian legend already, according to Sky Sports. Football Italia claims Arsenal is in on the action, too.

Ancelotti has won the Champions League with AC Milan twice and a third time with Real Madrid. He’s claimed domestic titles in five of Europe’s top leagues, with silverware at Chelsea, AC Milan, Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich, and Real Madrid.