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Why are Liverpool stumbling in title race?

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With a 0-0 draw in the Merseyside derby at Everton on Sunday, Liverpool have now dropped 11 points in their last nine Premier League games.

[ MORE: Klopp blames the weather ]

Something is not quite right with Jurgen Klopp‘s side, as they have now drawn against Leicester, West Ham, Man United and Everton in their last six games. They aren’t playing badly, but they just aren’t themselves consistently.

What are the key problems for Klopp to solve in the final nine games of the season?

Here’s a look at the main issues troubling Liverpool, who could have led Manchester City by seven points had they beat Leicester on Jan. 30 at Anfield.

Instead, a few weeks later they are now one point behind City heading into the final stretch.


Lack of midfield creativity

This has been an issue all season long for Liverpool. Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum, James Milner, Fabinho and Jordan Henderson are very good at what they do. The issue is, they all do the same thing. Liverpool can break up the play and shield their solid defensive unit well. But when it comes to keeping hold of the ball and having midfielders running past Salah, Firmino and Mane, it doesn’t happen that often. Naby Keita was supposed to do that but he’s struggled to adapt to the Premier League, and Klopp’s resistance to play Adam Lallana or Xherdan Shaqiri more prominently could come back to haunt him. Not signing Nabil Fekir in the summer could also leave him with plenty of sleepless nights as Liverpool just don’t have a central midfielder (a la Philippe Coutinho) who can turn the game and unlock an opposition defense with a moment of magic. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain may be risked in the final weeks of the season, as he has those qualities Klopp badly needs from at least one of his central midfield players.


Salah not trusting instincts, as front three stall

Mohamed Salah isn’t as sharp as he was last season. That has been clear for much of this campaign and he has scored just once in his last seven outings for Liverpool. His form has flitted in and out, but in recent weeks some self-doubt has creeped into his game. Last Sunday he was hooked off at Man United in the 0-0 draw as Luke Shaw had him in his back pocket, and although Salah started well at Everton he isn’t taking chances like he did in his incredible 2017-18 campaign.

Klopp summed up Salah’s recent hesitancy best: “He is doing everything right until the last moment, that last millisecond.”

And that is pretty much all it is. Salah was clean through twice on Sunday but delayed that split-second longer to give Jordan Pickford and Michael Keane a chance to deny him. Last season he was letting his instincts take over. He wasn’t thinking about his finishes. This season he is.

“I felt we created enough chances to win. We defended well but of course we are disappointed because want to win every game. We just need to be a bit more clinical,” Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson said, as his side have now failed to score in three of their last four games in all competitions.

Sadio Mane has blown hot and cold, Firmino has been out injured and Salah’s struggles are well documented. Liverpool’s defensive solidity is clear for all to see with five clean sheets on the spin, but the success of their team is built around the front three delivering and it isn’t clicking at the moment. Salah needs to think less and shoot more. The other attackers will follow suit if he regains his mojo.


Klopp being too conservative

Now, Klopp didn’t like being asked about this after the game. At all. After being sarcastically applauded off the pitch by an Everton ballboy, who he confronted, Klopp was then asked in his post-match press conference about not taking enough risks with his team selection.

“Do you think we didn’t take enough risks today? That’s a really disappointing question… do you think it’s Playstation? Bring an extra attacker, and everything changes?” Klopp said. “Football is not like that. We don’t lose our nerve, not like you obviously. A question I don’t get.”

Klopp was scoffed at after this game for blaming the “wind coming from all directions” at Goodison, as it mirrored other comments he made about the weather after poor displays during his time at Liverpool.

But what about himself? The German coach is being conservative with his lineup choices. There’s no doubt about it. With 15 minutes to go against Man United last week he sent on Xherdan Shaqiri for Jordan Henderson. On Sunday at Everton he only made like-for-like replacements and failed to ‘go for it’ and mix up his formation or chuck an extra body up top. Liverpool are just one point behind Man City in the title race, but right now Klopp is setting his team up as if they have a 10-point lead at the top.


Nerves from fans filtering to the players

This is a small but significant factor, and if you scan Twitter on Sunday evening you’ll see that a lot of Liverpool’s fans are fuming at the build-up of draws in recent weeks after so many wins throughout the early months of the 2018-19 campaign. 29 years without a league title is a long time for a club of Liverpool’s stature. So often the pressure of expectation is talked about at Anfield, as players can crumble under the weight of expectation that ‘this year will be our year’ to finally win the title again. This year could still be their year, but the fans need to somehow curb their negativity because in this age of social media dominance their frustration and fear is drifting towards the players. Try as they might, Liverpool’s players are only human beings and the pressure is now on them as they’ve given up a lead and Man City have the advantage in the title race. If City win out, Liverpool can’t do anything.

Xhaka slams “bulls***” criticism of Arsenal

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Arsenal have been targets for a lot of criticism recently.

Granit Xhaka is usually at the center of it.

The Gunners captain came out all guns blazing after they lost 1-0 at Sheffield United on Monday, as he addressed Patrice Evra‘s comments that Arsenal are “babies” and always will be due to their mentality.

“We have to stop about mental [strength] bulls*** like this. For me, it is the same whether you play home or away – you have to win and show big character and a good game and not to always find the same excuse,” Xhaka said. “A lot of people they speak too much. It is not the first time he has spoken something about us. I have a lot of respect for him as he was a great player but you have to be careful what you say. But it is not only him – a lot of people speak a lot of bulls*** about us. It’s always the same.

“For me it is strange as they were in the same situation as us, they were players as well. Sometimes it is good and sometimes it is not always good but every week they speak bulls*** like this every week. I tell you the honest truth, I’m not interested in what people say and speak. We have to speak in our group to improve things and work hard and not listen to these people.”

Xhaka and Arsenal have only lost twice this season, 3-1 at Liverpool and 1-0 at Sheffield United.

But aside from being fifth in the table and two points outside the top four, pressure is being placed on Unai Emery and his squad as they’ve narrowly beaten Bournemouth, Burnley, Newcastle and Aston Villa so far. Their performances aren’t instilling confidence in anyone that they can seriously push for a top four finish this season.

Has much changed under Emery in the past 15 months? Nope. This is pretty much the same Arsenal team making the same old mistakes and looking vulnerable away from home. Nothing new here. Sure, some new players have arrived, but David Luiz, Pepe and Sokratis have all been hit and miss so far and it has been left to Matteo Guendouzi and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to try and rescue the Gunners each and every week.

Emery was supposed to change their style of play, develop them into a stronger team defensively and improve their chances of challenging for trophies once again.

None of that has happened, and it doesn’t look closer to happening. That is why the critics are circling around the Gunners. Monday was the perfect opportunity to prove their mentality had changed and they are a stronger, more balanced team under Emery. They aren’t and something drastic will have to change for them if Emery is going to win over the fans, and pundits, once again.

Ronaldo not ready for retirement: ‘Age is just a number’

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Cristiano Ronaldo reassured Juventus supporters and his legions of fans worldwide that at 34 he’s not ready for retirement yet.

 [ MORE: Serie A scores, schedule

“Age is just a number. It does not mean that at 34, 35, 36 you are at the end of your career,” Ronaldo said at a news conference ahead of Juventus’ Champions League match against Lokomotiv Moscow on Tuesday. “I can show that with my performances, how I play, the way I play, the way I still feel good, sharp, thinking about the game, more mature. This makes the difference.”

In the second season of a four-year deal at Juventus, Ronaldo had sparked concern among his fans when he said in an interview published a few weeks ago that he was starting to enjoy seeing himself “outside of football, so who knows what will happen in the next year or two?”

Ronaldo recently scored his 700th goal as a professional while on international duty with Portugal and has been nominated for a record sixth Ballon d’Or award – which would break his tie of five with Lionel Messi.

But Ronaldo said he’s more interested in winning a treble with Juventus.

“We want to win Serie A, we want to win the Cup, the Champions League,” he said. “Juventus should think big. … We are going to try to win all the trophies, we know it will be difficult, especially the league and the Champions League, but I think it is possible. Everything is possible.

“In terms of individual, I have nothing to say as this is individual. It is not the most important thing,” Ronaldo added. “The most important is the collective awards. If you win the collective awards you have more chance to win the individual awards. … The Golden Ball is for me in second place.”

While retirement may not be on Ronaldo’s mind yet, family time is a big part of his life now.

“To win games, to score goals, to enjoy myself, to arrive home and see my kids happy and say, `Congratulations daddy for scoring a goal.’ That makes me happy,” he said. “This is my motivation to come to train, for the games, to entertain people and the fans with my passion.”

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Andrew Dampf on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/AndrewDampf

Carragher apologizes to Evra over Suarez t-shirts

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Jamie Carragher has apologized to Patrice Evra after Liverpool wore t-shirts in support of Luis Suarez in 2011.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

The day after Suarez was banned for eight games by the English Football Association, who found him guilty of racially abusing Evra, Liverpool’s players put on t-shirts with Suarez on the front and back during their warm up in a Premier League game against Wigan Athletic.

Carragher and Evra were both analysts for our partners at Sky Sports in the UK on Monday Night Football for the clash between Sheffield United and Arsenal, and discussed the current problems with racism in the game.

“There is no doubt we made a massive mistake; that was obvious,” Carragher said.

Liverpool’s former vice-captain asked Evra how he felt regarding the situation with Suarez, and the former Man United, Juventus and Monaco left back revealed his disgust at the way the situation was handled.

“When I saw it I was like, this is ridiculous. This is unbelievable,” Evra said. You put your own club in danger when you do those things. You always have to support your player because he is from your team but this was after the ban. If it was before and we were waiting for the sanction, I would understand. What message do you send to the world? Supporting someone being banned because he used some racist words.”

Click play on the video above for the full discussion between Carragher and Evra.

Italy women’s team awarded for ’emancipating’ female game

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ROME (AP) The Italy women’s national soccer team was awarded the Foreign Press Association’s Invictus award Monday for promoting and “emancipating” the female game in the country with its run to the World Cup quarterfinals.

[ MORE: Sheffield United beat Arsenal with stellar defensive display (video) ]

Head coach Milena Bertolini and forward Barbara Bonansea were given the award during a ceremony at the Rome-based association.

With soccer dominated by men in Italy and few opportunities for girls, Bertolini recounted how she had to dress up as a boy to play as a kid.

“Now things are changing, thanks to the Italian federation’s school programs,” Bertolini said.

Bertolini and Bonansea lamented that female players are still not considered professionals and therefore are not permitted to earn more than $33,500 per year by Italian law.

“It’s not about the money, it’s a question of rights,” said Bonansea, who also plays for Italian champion Juventus.

[ MORE: Referee officials explain VAR decision on Rashford goal ]

While Italy’s men’s team is a four-time World Cup champion, the women had not played in a World Cup for two decades and entered as a prohibitive underdog during its opening match against Australia in France in June. But the Azzurre came back from a goal down for a 2-1 win courtesy of Bonansea’s two scores , with her second coming in the fifth minute of stoppage time.

“That goal shaped our World Cup, both in terms of results and in terms of promoting women’s soccer in Italy,” Bertolini said. “The strong emotions on the field were transmitted to everyone who was watching. I still get goosebumps now just thinking about that goal.”

The Azzurre went on to win their group then beat China in the first knockout round before losing to eventual finalist the Netherlands.

In a country of 60 million people, a total of more than 20 million spectators watched Italy’s five matches on RAI state TV, setting audience records for women’s soccer game after game.

The Invictus award is dedicated to “promoting the positive effects of sports in terms of integration and emancipation by the vulnerable sections of society.”