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.

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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

De Gea limps off for Spain ahead of Man Utd-Liverpool tilt

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Here’s the good news for Manchester United supporters: David De Gea played incredibly well for Spain in its EURO qualifier on Tuesday as La Furia Roja clinched a place in EURO 2020.

The bad news? The performance was truncated, with De Gea limping off the pitch and replaced by Chelsea’s Kepa Arrizabalaga in the 60th minute.

[ MORE: EURO qualifying wrap ]

De Gea appeared to injure himself while attempting a goal kick of all things, as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be wondering what fresh hell awaits him next.

Perhaps that’s simply the fact that Liverpool visits Old Trafford on Sunday in a match that Solskjaer previously said was perhaps ideal for his reeling Red Devils.

Solskjaer would turn to Sergio Romero should De Gea been unable to play at the weekend. Lee Grant is United’s third goalkeeper with Dean Henderson on loan to Sheffield United.

United was already going to need a lot of help to beat back the unbeaten Reds.

EURO qualifying wrap: Spain earns place in stoppage time

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Spain clinched a spot in EURO 2020 via a last-minute equalizer, but the rest of the picture only got murkier thanks to dramatics in Romania and Switzerland.)

[ MORE: How should USMNT line up? ]


Sweden 1-1 Spain

A Marcus Berg header had Sweden on the verge of a significant home win against nearly unbeatable David De Gea and Spain, but Valencia forward Rodrigo delivered a stoppage time goal to give Robert Moreno’s men a place in EURO 2020. But Sweden can breathe a little easier thanks to a stoppage time goal across the continent.

Bad news for Manchester United, though, as De Gea’s strong day ended early due to injury.

Romania 1-1 Norway

New York City FC’s Alexandru Mitrita added another beauty to his collection in scoring for the second successive qualifier, but it wouldn’t stand up thanks to former Crystal Palace striker Alexander Sorloth‘s stoppage time equalizer.

Switzerland 2-0 Republic of Ireland

Terrible from the Irish, who trailed after 16 minutes and then went down to 10 men when Seamus Coleman was shown a red card in the 76th minute. Former West Ham man Edimilson Fernandes put it to bed in stoppage time as the Swiss out-attempted Ireland 20-9.

The Irish are tied for the lead in the group with 12 points but that’s about where the good news ends. They do not have an automatic spot in the playoffs while Denmark does and has 12 points. Switzerland has 11 and has also played one fewer match.

Ireland will need to beat Denmark next month and hope for help on the out-of-town scoreboard when Switzerland meets Gibraltar and Georgia.

Finland 3-0 Armenia

Norwich City striker Teemu Pukki continued his fine year with a pair of goals after Fredrik Jensen staked the Finnish side to a lead in Turku. Group J second place side Finland has a five-point lead on chasing Armenia and BNH.

Elsewhere

Faroe Islands 1-0 Malta
Gibraltar 2-3 Georgia
Greece 2-1 Bosnia and Herzegovina
Liechtenstein 0-5 Italy
Israel 3-1 Latvia

Lloyd: Coming off bench at World Cup “rock bottom of my entire career”

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The upper echelon of the USWNT player pool, especially the veteran generation, just swims in a different competitive gene pool.

Comments from a recent podcast featuring Carli Lloyd are the latest evidence of this, as the USWNT legend calls not starting regularly at this summer’s World Cup “the worst time of my life.”

[ MORE: How should USMNT line up? ]

She says she was happy to be a part of it and happy for her teammates but doesn’t back down from the “worst” diagnosis. Yeah, you read that right.

“I’m not going to lie and sugarcoat it,” Lloyd said on Julie Foudy’s Laughter Permitted podcast. “It was absolutely the worst time of my life. It affected my relationship with my husband, with friends. It really was rock bottom of my entire career. But somehow, you see light at the end of the tunnel, and I can honestly say I’m having more fun now playing than I ever have in my career. I think I just learned a lot throughout it.”

To be fair, Lloyd hasn’t backed up anyone in almost a decade and has since won a Ballon d’Or. Not many elite athletes get used to being second (or fourth) fiddle, especially on a major stage like that.

The personalities on this team are as big as any produced by Ronaldo’s Brazil or Zidane’s France. Some may laugh at this, but it shows what a tremendous job Jill Ellis did in marshaling the team to two-straight World Cups, the first with Abby Wambach in a sub’s role and the second with Lloyd.

It also shows the marvelous competitive nature of Lloyd and the resilience of players who know they’d start for any number of teams in the world. Lloyd says in the podcast that she believed she was playing at near her best level despite being moved from midfielder to forward.

Obviously no player prefers a sub’s role to starting, but — wow — if it isn’t bewildering to hear Lloyd talk about her supporting role at age 37 being the worst time of her life. Different types.

Liverpool’s Alisson, Matip return to training

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Premier League leaders Liverpool have been handed a huge boost ahead of their massive clash at bitter rivals Manchester United on Sunday (Watch live, 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

Remember: Liverpool are eight points clear atop the table and United sit in 12th, so Jurgen Klopp‘s men are keen to rub salt further into the wounds of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s Red Devils.

Alisson and Joel Matip both returned to training at Melwood, with Alisson recovering from a calf injury which he suffered on the opening day of the season.

The Brazilian goalkeeper has been missing after limping out of the 4-1 win against Norwich City on Aug. 9, and his return to full fitness will bolster this already stingy Liverpool defense. Adrian has performed admirably, albeit with a few errors, in Alisson’s absence but it is now time for the superstar goalkeeper to return to action.

As for Matip, the towering center back suffered an injury against Sheffield United and missed Liverpool’s UEFA Champions League win against Red Bull Salzburg and their narrow Premier League victory against Leicester City.

Joe Gomez and Dejan Lovren have both come in for Matip but neither have been solid enough and the former Schalke star will slot straight back in alongside Virgil Van Dijk and bring a steadying influence to the entire defensive line. Matip has been sensational this season, just as everyone expected Gomez to take his starting spot.

Another situation to keep an eye on is the fitness of Mohamed Salah, as he trained on his own at Melwood. Salah was caught with a rash challenge by Hamza Choudhury at the end of Liverpool’s win over Leicester and suffered an ankle injury.

Klopp was incandescent with rage about the foul on Salah and it appears the Egyptian winger is in a race against time to be fit for the clash against Man United, although he is reportedly looking good to play at Old Trafford on Sunday.

With the fitness of Paul Pogba, Luke Shaw Anthony Martial, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and others a constant struggle for United in recent weeks, Solskjaer hasn’t had much help in that department.

Having Alisson and Matip back is great news for Liverpool and Klopp.