What we learned in Premier League

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Week 17 in the Premier League set things up very nicely for the festive period, with some upsets and the title race well and truly on and the chasing pack changing all of the time.

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Here’s a look at the key takeaways from the 10 games which took place over the weekend.


Liverpool’s squad is now incredibly strong
The way Jurgen Klopp‘s side battered bitter rivals Manchester United on Sunday proved just how far they have come over the past 12 months. Last season they finished behind United, and just about halfway through this campaign they are 19 points clear of Jose Mourinho’s side. Much of that improvement is down to Alisson, Virgil Van Dijk and the entire defensive unit, but the squad Klopp has now assembled is the strongest Liverpool have had in almost a decade. And perhaps ever. Fabinho, in for the injured James Milner, was a monster in midfield and Xherdan Shaqiri had a huge impact as he jumped off the bench and scored with two deflected strikes. Nathaniel Clyne, starting his first PL game of the season, was also phenomenal stepping in after injuries to Joe Gomez and Trent Alexander-Arnold.

Everyone connected with Liverpool knows this season is their best chance of ever winning the Premier League. They are a better team than they were in 2013-14 and defensively they will not lose games, and points, by themselves. They also have to take Manchester City head on, something they proved they could do last season when they beat them in the league at Anfield and in the UEFA Champions League knockout rounds. With a one point lead, the outcome of Liverpool’s trip to Man City on Jan. 3 will be huge in the title race.


Southampton have lift off under Hasenhuttl
The scenes at St Mary’s at the final whistle on Sunday looked as if Southampton had just secured safety from relegation on the final day of the season. But you could forgive the home fans, and players, for celebrating as their dramatic 3-2 win over Arsenal was their first home win since April. New manager Ralph Hasenhuttl took charge of his first Saints home game and ahead of it he gave each season ticket holder a beer voucher and asked them them to join them in his boat and to grab an oar. They did. And they’ve been craving, as have the players, a chance to return to the high-pressing tactics which fuelled their rise under Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman. Last week I visited Saints’ training ground to chat with Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, a young Dane who has been tasked with leading Hasenhuttl’s revolution. On the training pitches Hasenhuttl has dissected them into small boxes which the players must stay into as he develops their defensive organization. It is working, even if small errors defensively almost cost them a big win against Arsenal. In truth, with the squad Southampton have there is no way they should be anywhere near the bottom three. Hasenhuttl is truly living up to the “Klopp of the Alps” nickname, as the similarities between him and Liverpool’s manager are clear for him to see.

Having Danny Ings fit again made a huge difference as his two goals against a makeshift Arsenal defense set them on their way. Hasenhuttl’s wild celebrations show he has already lifted the entire club and his vision for the way he wants them to play is clear. Sunday marked the first time Southampton had beaten a top six team in over two seasons, and ahead of games against Huddersfield and West Ham it gives them the perfect early Christmas present.


Tottenham maturing perfectly
It may be cliche, but I’m going to say it anyway: winning games when you’re not playing well is the sign of a good team. If you think Manchester United’s treble winning team in 1999 played fluid, attractive soccer every time they stepped onto the pitch then your mind is playing tricks on you. Like that United team, Spurs have the knack of hanging in games and delivering late goals to win or draw. They did that against a stubborn Burnley outfit on Saturday at Wembley as Christian Eriksen popped up in stoppage time to grab a 1-0 win which caps off a perfect week after their draw at Barcelona to surprisingly reach the last 16 of the Champions League.

Tottenham and Mauricio Pochettino have yet to hit top gear this season but they’re in third place, have the excitement of their impending stadium move back to White Hart Lane to come and they’ve gained more points than ever before at this stage of a PL season. What can they attribute this to? One word: continuity. While everyone else was saying Spurs will fall by the wayside due to playing at Wembley again, no new signings in the summer and so on and so forth, Pochettino’s young squad have matured and have got on with their job. They know exactly what is expected of them each time they step on the pitch.


Crystal Palace can win without Wilfried Zaha
For the first time in 14 Premier League games without Wilfried Zaha Crystal Palace won a game. Previously they’d lost 12 and drawn two of the games where he’d been missing, but Roy Hodgson‘s side were good value for their victory against Leicester on Saturday as they made it back-to-back home wins in the PL. Make no mistake about it, Zaha is still Palace’s main man and as soon as he is fit he will be in their starting lineup. But Palace looked solid with Andros Townsend off Jordan Ayew up top and that could point to Hodgson’s putting Zaha back out on the wing when he does return. He seems better suited to running at defenders, cutting inside and then smashing home a shot or setting up others than standing up top as the central striker where he is a little easier to mark. With top clubs linked with moves for Zaha all of the time, it is also proved, whether they like to admit it or not, that Palace can survive without their talisman. They held on in the second half to beat Leicester and with their defensive unit back to its solid best, they can now focus on Zaha delivering the moments of magic which make all of the difference.


West Ham will be top six contenders
Much has been made about the potency of Marko Arnautovic, Robert Snodgrass, Felipe Anderson and Javier Hernandez in recent weeks as West Ham have now rattled off four-straight wins, and rightly so. But the key to their turnaround under Manuel Pellegrini this season has been their rock solid defense. Sure, they’ve been smacked by Manchester City, Liverpool and had a few growing pains with defeats against Wolves and Bournemouth at home, but Lukasz Fabianski, Fabian Balbuena and Issa Diop are proving they were sound buys in the summer. With a hugely favorable schedule coming up between now and early January, Pellegrini’s men should really be on 36 points by the time the FA Cup weekend rolls around in early 2019. From their stadium capacity set to increase to 60,000 to new signings settling in well and Pellegrini bringing a clear and detailed plan, everything is moving in the right direction at West Ham after a few seasons of turmoil after their move from Upton Park. All of the talk has been about Wolves, Bournemouth and Watford challenging for a top seven finish, but the Hammers have the best chance as long as their defensive unit stays fit and in form.

Portland beats Orlando to win MLS is Back championship

MLS is Back
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) Soaked in sweat and doused in water, the Portland Timbers hoisted the MLS is Back trophy at midfield and then headed toward a giant TV screen filled with fans cheering from afar.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS coverage

It was a huge Zoom party. It might just be the way to celebrate championships in 2020.

Dario Zuparic’s first goal of the season gave Portland a 2-1 victory against Orlando in Major League Soccer’s return tournament finale Tuesday night, capping a month-long event that showed sports can be played safely inside a bubble.

“I always think the more difficult the fight is the more beautiful the victory is at the end,” said Portland’s Larrys Mabiala, who scored the game’s first goal.

Orlando was slow to react to Diego Valeri’s corner kick in the 66th minute, allowing Eryk Williamson to collect the ball, change direction and take a shot that Jeremy Ebobisse deflected to Zuparic’s feet. Zuparic didn’t have to do much to get it by Pedro “The Octopus” Gallese, who had made two fantastic saves in the lead-up to the corner kick.

The goal started the celebration on Portland’s sideline and sent Orlando into panic mode. The Lions had a chance in the closing minutes, but failed to get the equalizer.

“It’s a group of players in a lot of pain right now,” Orlando coach Oscar Pareja said. “Things didn’t bounce our way. We made a couple of mistakes.”

The Timbers, who spent 39 days in the MLS bubble and remained on West Coast time, hugged and danced after the final whistle. They raised the silver trophy while hooting and hollering. But the lasting image will be players and coaches waving at a camera and reaching hundreds back home.

It ended a wild month for the MLS, which managed to play 51 matches in 45 days at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports complex at Disney World.

No family. No friends. No fans.

But it was by most accounts a rousing success, especially considering how it started. FC Dallas and Nashville were forced to withdraw days before the start because of positive coronavirus tests.

Players, coaches and support personnel were tested regularly inside the MLS bubble. The league reported just two positives out of nearly 35,000 tests following the initial setbacks that threatened to derail a tournament that came with a $1.1 million purse.

“We just told ourselves we need to make it worth it,” Mabiala said, adding that his son has been calling, crying and clamoring for him to come home in recent days.

Portland will get $328,000 in prize money to split. The Timbers also earned a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League, their first since 2016.

Orlando settled for $150,000 to share.

Orlando’s appearance in the finale was a surprise considering the team finished 11th out of 12 in the East last season and fired coach James O’Connor. Pareja took over in 2020 and made an immediate impact.

Pareja convinced his players, including star Nani, to settle into the bubble several days early. They won the tournament opener, a group-stage victory against Miami, and ended up spending nearly seven weeks quarantined in the bubble.

Portland’s experience – the Timbers won the MLS title in 2015 and were runners-up two years ago – showed in the finale.

Portland’s first shot on goal found the back of the net. Valeri delivered a perfectly placed free kick into the box that Mabiala headed past Gallese in the 27th minute. It was Valeri’s 93rd assist with the Timbers.

But considering Portland has managed just three clean sheets in its last 23 matches, it was no surprise to see a defensive breakdown just a few minutes later.

Nani worked the ball down the left side following a turnover and created enough room to get a crosser into the box. Mauricio Pereyra got a foot on the ball and then took advantage of a fallen defender to tie the match.

The equalizer came shortly after Portland’s Sebastian Blanco exchanged words with Pareja during a hydration break. Referees stepped between them, and they later apologized and hugged it out.

The league resumes its regular season Wednesday night with Dallas playing at Nashville. The league’s 26 teams will play 18 games apiece. A majority of the games will be played without fans because of local regulations. Teams will be subject to a rigorous testing protocol and will use charter flights or buses to limit outside contact.

“We have to see if it works,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said. “If it does, we go through with it. If it doesn’t, we’ll have to adjust.”

Nuno ‘proud of the boys’ after Wolves’ magical UEL run ends

Nuno Wolves
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Nuno proud, but frustrated: Wolves’ 2019-20 campaign kicked off 383 days ago, on July 25, and finally ended on Tuesday in a late, heartbreaking defeat to Sevilla in the quarterfinals of the Europa League.

[ MORE: Lille sign $35-million Canadian star Jonathan David ]

From those early-round UEL qualifiers, to another fine season in the Premier League (finishing 7th), to reaching the quarterfinals, it’s been an incredible, dramatic, exhausting road for Nuno Espirito Santo and his players.

Speaking after the game, Espirito Santo revealed he was experiencing equal part pride and frustration at the way their season had just ended. Pride for meeting the challenges they faced along the way, and frustration for the missed opportunity — quotes from the BBC:

“We have frustration, in the last minutes it is something that has happened to us many times. We required focus on a set piece. I am proud of the boys, we played a tough team and we had moments, small details, small margins.

“That happens in football. We came this far and now it’s over. Let’s rest and look to the future. We need more players to help us, it’s a small squad.

“Sevilla made us run, we made a big effort to control it but of course there were players who gave everything and the legs and brain doesn’t work so good. We must be proud of ourselves, admit we made mistakes during the season that we need to rectify to compete at a high level. We must work harder and become stronger.

“We are here because we did things good the previous season. European football is something that we chase because we want to improve and compete agianst the best. The Premier League is challenging enough, it’s like playing the Champions League every week.”

The Wolves players will now have the next week or two off before reporting for the first day of 2020-21 preseason later this month. The 2020-21 Premier League season is currently scheduled for Sept. 12.

Europa League: Wolves knocked out by late Sevilla winner

Europa League Wolves
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Europa League: Wolves’ magical run through the Europa League came to an end on Tuesday, as Nuno Espirito Santo’s side was knocked out in the quarterfinals by UEL specialists Sevilla.

[ MORE: Lille sign $35-million Canadian star Jonathan David ]

Wolverhampton Wanderers 0-1 Sevilla

Sevilla were quite comfortably the better side on the night, the side with the vast majority of the scoring chances, and thoroughly deserving semifinalists. Julen Lopetegui’s side will face Manchester United in the semis on Sunday.

It didn’t come easily for Sevilla, though. The game remained level at 0-0 for 87 minutes, until Lucas Ocampos rose above the crowd to head home his 16th goal of the season in the 88th minute.

Wolves had the game’s first — and virtually their only — chance to go ahead inside the first quarter-hour, but Raul Jimenez was denied from the penalty spot in the 12th minute. The real story here, however, is the ease with which Adama Traore left the pack behind and dribbled the ball 81 yards before Diego Carlos cut him down from behind.

Jimenez’s blunder from the spot was one of just two shots on target — both by Jimenez — that Wolves could muster in the game.

[ MORE: Transfer news: Havertz to Chelsea; Ramsey available ]

Sevilla began to ramp up the pressure after halftime and went dangerously close to breaking the deadlock just after the hour mark, as Youssef En-Nesyri weaved his way through traffic inside the penalty area before firing a low strike on goal. Fortunately for Wolves, Rui Patricio was all over and denied En-Nesyri his wondergoal.

Ever Banega forced Patricio to make a vital save of his curling free kick in the 77th minute, but again the Portuguese was up to the challenge. He scrambled across goal and rose high to get a hand on the ball and push it over the crossbar.

Shakhtar Donetsk thrashed Basel 4-1 in Tuesday’s other quarterfinal. They will face Inter Milan in the second semifinal next Monday.

Other Europa League scores

Shakhtar Donetsk 4-1 Basel
Man United 1-0 Copenhagen (Monday)
Inter Milan 2-1 Bayer Leverkusen (Monday)

Lille sign $35-million Canadian star Jonathan David

Lille sign Jonathan David
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Lille sign Jonathan David: Lille announced on Tuesday their signing of Canadian star Jonathan David from Belgian side Gent for a reported transfer fee of $35 million.

[ MORE: Transfer news: Havertz to Chelsea; Ramsey available ]

The fee paid is a record not only for a Canadian player, but also makes David Lille’s club-record signing and the most expensive player ever sold by a Belgian club.

David had been linked with a move to dozens of clubs across Europe, including a handful of Premier League sides, in recent weeks but it would appear that Lille’s recent success with young players starring in the first team, before selling them to those bigger European sides for massive profits, was an important factor in David’s decision to move to Ligue 1.

[ MORE: Spurs sign Hojbjerg from Southampton; Walker-Peters to Saints ]

The 20-year-old operates predominantly as a center forward but has, on rare occasions, played as a second striker underneath the main man. David racked up 48 goals and 20 assists in his two seasons at Gent, including a number of standout performances in the Europa League.