What did we learn on a pivotal day?

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Saturday encapsulated everything that is great about the Premier League.

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We had shock home defeats for Manchester City and Chelsea to swing the title race in Liverpool’s favor, amazing goals, plus a big win for an unexpected new manager at Manchester United.

Also, there were some huge wins towards the bottom of the table which set things up very nicely for the busy festive season ahead.

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Here’s what we learned from a potentially pivotal Saturday.


This is Liverpool’s title to lose

Somewhere Jurgen Klopp smile is getting wider and wider. This is now clearly Liverpool’s Premier League title to lose. The Reds will be four points clear at the top on Christmas Day and they are the only team who remain unbeaten in the PL. After Manchester City’s shock home defeat to Crystal Palace, Pep Guardiola‘s men are starting to show cracks. If Liverpool can expose those cracks when the two meet on January 3 then they will be seven points clear of Man City with 17 games to go. Of course, City and the deep squad they have can drag a big deficit back but all of the momentum right now is with Liverpool who have conceded just seven goals all season long. Plus, with the trio of Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino, and Xherdan Shaqiri and others chipping in, they look capable of scoring at least twice in every game they play. With Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal far from genuine title contenders, Liverpool’s fans will already be having dreams of seeing Jordan Henderson lift the Premier League trophy at Anfield in May 2019. The only thing lingering in the back of their minds: eight of the last nine teams to lead the PL on Christmas Day have won the title. The only team who failed to clinch? Liverpool in 2013-14. We are about to see how Liverpool can deal with the pressure of being the frontrunners instead of the hunters.


Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s perfect start at Man United
A 5-1 win away at Cardiff City sounds pretty routine for Manchester United, but given their struggles for most of this season it was a huge step forward for the Red Devils. And it was a perfect start for caretaker boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. A man revered by United’s fans for his goalscoring prowess as a player, he somehow rejuvenated the entire squad who went out and expressed themselves in the Welsh capital. We have hardly seen them play like that under David Moyes, Louis Van Gaal and Jose Mourinho.

Solksjaer hasn’t had long at all to work with this team on the training ground. A maximum of three sessions. But the belief he has already instilled in this squad suggests his caretaker role could become something more permanent. Yes, it is Cardiff City. Yes, it is only one game. But certain managers fit certain clubs at certain times. And after the emotional battering many of United’s stars took at the hands of Mourinho in recent years the shackles are now well and truly off. It is going to be a lot of fun to watch United between now and the end of the season, and a top four finish really isn’t out of the question as they’re now just eight points back of fourth with a favorable schedule coming up. The biggest difference we saw under Solskjaer was the full backs pushing high and the likes of Jesse Lingard (two goals) and Paul Pogba (who had three assists, more than in his last 17 games combined) given the freedom to make runs in-behind. Solskjaer’s reign may end in May, but everyone at United is on his side.


Familiar lack of focus for Chelsea

This has been coming for Chelsea as their players have not heeded recent warnings that Maurizio Sarri has given them. They’ve beaten Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City in all competitions this season, but they’ve now lost to Wolves and Leicester City this month to all but end their title bid. Now 11 points behind Liverpool after their shock 1-0 home defeat to Leicester, Chelsea’s manager and players continue to use the same word to sum up their problems: “Mentality.” Or, more precisely, a lack of the correct mentality. This Chelsea team is showing the same signs it did under Jose Mourinho and then Antonio Conte. One minute they can be exhilarating, the next infuriating. Sarri will no doubt be given extra funds to spend in January and again in the summer to try and strengthen this squad, but if this team has a habit of rolling over easily, how easy is that to eradicate? Chelsea are far from title contenders and Sarri-ball is yet to be instilled in the majority of this squad. As soon as they go behind in games they forget to play how Sarri wants them to and panic. Teams who have a chance of winning the league don’t do that.


Southampton might be back

For the first time since April 2017 Southampton have won back-to-back Premier League games. After just a few weeks in charge, the Ralph Hasenhuttl effect is in full swing. Saints ran Huddersfield ragged on Saturday and were clinical in their 3-1 away win against their relegation rivals. Hasenhuttl talked about how important it was to back up their big win against Arsenal last week with a result at Huddersfield. The way his team pressed and used the pace of Nathan Redmond, Danny Ings and Michael Obafemi (who all scored) was a joy to watch as the players are clearly buying into his tactics and benefitting from his tough training sessions. Saints aren’t out of trouble just yet, but they are showing signs that the old Southampton is back. With five academy products in their squad on Saturday and Obafemi becoming Southampton’s youngest-ever goalscorer in the Premier League, Hasenhuttl is showing glimpses that he can return the club to the successful days of when Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman were in charge. A win against West Ham on Dec. 27 (Watch live 2:45 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) would cement the notion that Southampton have finally dug themselves out of a huge rut.

U.S. Soccer makes it official: USMNT’s first Gold Cup tuneup to be vs. Jamaica

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It will be a rematch of the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup final as the U.S. begins its preparations for this summer’s Gold Cup.

U.S. Soccer announced that the U.S. Men’s National Team will host Jamaica in a friendly match on June 5 in Washington D.C. at Audi Field, the home of D.C. United. Jamaica, ranked No. 53 in FIFA’s latest world rankings, has made the finals of each of the last two Gold Cups, and they’ll be hosting matches at the Gold Cup for the first time in tournament history in this year’s edition.

“As we prepare for the start of the Gold Cup, this is the perfect opportunity in terms of opponent and venue,” USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter said in a statement. “Playing against Jamaica we get exposure to another different style of play, and one that we may see later in the tournament. For us, there’s always something special about playing in the nation’s capital. There have been so many memorable games for the National Team in Washington, D.C., and now we look forward to beginning another chapter in the new stadium.”

For the U.S., it’s a strong test and part of a really solid 1-2 punch of friendly matches, beginning with Jamaica and then Venezuela ahead of the Gold Cup. Berhalter is hoping it will prepare the U.S. for battles with Panama and Trinidad and Tobago. Should the U.S. advance, it could face potentially Jamaica, Honduras, or even El Salvador in the quarterfinals or semifinals, with a trip to the final on the line.

Gregg Berhalter has just a few weeks before he has to make one of his first big decisions, albiet one with a lot of flexibility. By May 16, Berhalter must submit to CONCACAF his provisional Gold Cup squad, which can include up to 40 players and four goalkeepers. By Monday, June 3, just two days before this friendly match against Jamaica, Berhalter must submit his final roster of 23 players, including three goalkeepers.

Berhalter, any any coach, has up until 24 hours until the USMNT’s first game (on June 18) to make any emergency replacements. As such, it’s likely that Berhalter will carry more than 23 players with him when the U.S. plays Jamaica and Venezuela.

Adebayor reveals reason behind that celebration against Arsenal

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Just about everyone remembers it. (If not, watch it here on Youtube)

Then Manchester City striker Emmanuel Adebayor finds himself in space between two of Arsenal’s centerbacks, Adebayor’s former teammates, before the Togolese striker heads home a terrific goal. Adebayor then go on a 100-yard sprint down the left side of the field, finishing in an epic knee slide right in front of the Arsenal away support at the Etihad, then called the City of Manchester Stadium.

[MORE: MLS still has a long way to go]

It was audacious. It was outrageous. But we didn’t know why he truly did that until now.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Daily Mail, Adebayor said that racist abuse from Arsenal fans that day was what led to his famous celebration for Man City. Racist abuse has been back in the news recently, as many Afro-descended players including Raheem Sterling, Danny Rose and Daniel Sturridge have spoken out about the hate, abuse, and vitriol they experience on a weekly basis.

“I remember getting to the stadium and Arsenal fans were there,” Adebayor told the Daily Mail. “All I heard was the the chant ‘Your mother is a whore and your father washes elephants.’ My father worked in currency exchange and my mother is a businesswoman. But this went on and on. So how can I reply? I didn’t have a voice to go against thousands of supporters.

“And now the same FA are trying to stop racism? I’m sorry. It does not work that way. Today is too late. We are tired. Enough is enough. I see Mario Balotelli and Didier Drogba on Instagram. How many times do we have to post something? We have to react. We have to leave the pitch.”

Earlier in the interview, Adebayor also stated he did not want to leave Arsenal, but said he was forced to by then-manager Arsene Wenger. The now 35-year-old striker also admitted that Arsenal didn’t do enough to hold onto its top players, allowing the likes of Cesc Fabregas and Robin Van Persie, along with himself, to leave and win titles and earn more money elsewhere.

“I did not just wake up one morning at Manchester City,” Adebayor said. “I had signed a five-year contract at Arsenal. I came back for pre-season and Wenger said ‘You have to leave’. I said ‘Why should I leave?’ I asked for one more year and if it does not work, I will walk off. He’s like ‘No.’ He said if I stayed he would not put me in the squad. When you hear that, you have to go.”

The rest of the interview is worth your time, in which Adebayor reveals he nearly committed suicide as a teenager in the Metz academy, what it was like seeing death flash before his eyes in Angola during the 2010 African Cup of Nations, when the Togo team bus was attacked by militants, and, on a lighter note, who his favorite teammates were.

Marseille president proposes video-game like rule changes

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If he’s serious, Marseille’s club president could be proposing a rule change that would drastically alter the way soccer is played.

Speaking at a summit in France for start-up companies, Jacques-Henri Eyraud stated his support for allowing goals scored from shots fired outside of the box to count for two goals, instead of one. It would be similar to how in basketball, a ball shot from outside the arc is worth three points instead of two. Of course, when that rule came into existence in the NBA in the late 1970s, it completely revolutionized the game.

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Eyraud compared the rule change to the ultra-popular FIFA video game, saying if it could happen in the video game, why not in real life (note: it’s unclear whether this is actually possible in FIFA, but Eyraud could have been speaking in hypotheticals).

“FIFA (the video game) is one of my competitors,” Eyraud said. “Fortnite is one of my competitors in the digital world. Football is extraordinarily conservative, it has to evolve. “Why does (the video game) now propose that a goal put outside of the box, is worth two points? Why could not that be the case in real life?”

While soccer is still the world’s most popular game, it’s true that video games in general – and the rising cost of tickets in certain countries – are having an impact on getting fans into the stadium. With the ease and joy of playing soccer in a video game, some people could be convinced to stay inside on their couch and enjoy the game from home instead of going out to the stadium.

It may just be a crazy idea or a marketing ploy, but it’s fun to think about how that rule change could revolutionize soccer. It would certainly have made players such as David Beckham and Steven Gerrard, as well as free kick experts like Beckham, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo all the more valuable. Plus, one free kick late in the match, with a team trailing 1-0, could lead to a dramatic 2-1 victory with one kick.

It probably won’t happen – though it would be cool to toggle that on in the FIFA video game – but it’s a fun idea to think about.

Impact travel saga highlights how far MLS still has to go

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Major League Soccer has made many impressive strides in its 24 seasons of existence. But if the Montreal Impact’s travel situation proved anything, it’s that the league still has a long way to go to be compared alongside the big four American leagues – The NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL.

[READ: Top Premier League Storylines for Week 36]

The Montreal Impact spent around 13 hours on Tuesday and Wednesday in transit ahead of its match on Wednesday evening against the New England Revolution. Remarkably, the Impact beat the Revolution, 3-0 at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., but it should never have taken that long to get the Impact down – or any professional team – from Montreal to the Boston suburbs.

According to an article in the Athletic, which details the Impact’s administrative travel mishaps, the team ended up spending seven hours in the Montreal International Airport waiting for a delayed flight to Logan International Airport in Boston, only for the flight to be cancelled at 10 p.m.

The players were then scheduled to arrive back at the airport the next morning to take a charter flight, but then that flight was delayed a further five hours, due to a flight schedule change – Logan Airport wouldn’t accept the charter – and having to go through customs and immigration in Montreal before re-boarding the flight and waiting their turn.

Shockingly, the Impact arrived at their hotel with just three and a half hours before kickoff. Evan Bush, the Impact’s starting goalkeeper and representative for the MLS Players Association, believed that the game should have been called off. Per the Athletic, the Impact asked the league to postpone the game, but the league apparently didn’t want to inconvenience fans and TV broadcasters, who are ultimately the ones that pay to watch the players. So it was a financial decision. The Impact had all their limbs, hence, they were ready to go.

As per the most recent collective bargaining agreement signed between the MLSPA and the league, teams are only allowed four charter flights per season (Montreal’s charter planes to and from Boston reportedly won’t count against their four for this season). MLS views charter flights – now seemingly archaic considering how many incredibly rich owners there are in the league – as a type of competitive advantage, which could sway one international or domestic signing from joining one team over another.

Thus, in 2019, everyone from Evan Bush to Wayne Rooney and Zlatan are taking commercial flights and sitting in economy, sometimes having to split up into multiple groups on different flights to get everyone to the final destination. Most teams save their charter flights for long-haul journeys, like Montreal to Los Angeles or Vancouver to Atlanta, leaving medium and short-haul flights to the mercy of the weather or flight delays at some of North America’s busiest airports.

In 2019, it’s a shame that MLS is still operating this way, as though team owners can’t afford to fly their players around in the type of accommodations that would – over the course of a long, difficult season filled with a lot of travel – help keep players fresher by the end of the year.

Since it’s been negotiated, there’s nothing the league can do right now, but hopefully when the CBA next comes due in 2020, the league will take that off the table and allow all teams to use charters as they choose.

While events like this can happen in the other sports, having players take charter flights significantly helps both the team administration and helps avoid many of the pitfalls of flying basic economy with the rest of the country.