Making the case: Raheem Sterling as PL Player of the Year

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Even a year ago, I wouldn’t have imagined someone making this case in a rational manner any time soon.

I especially didn’t think it would be me.

But as the Premier League takes a deep breath ahead of the stretch run, I’m going to have to say it.

[ MORE: JPW ranks the candidates ]

Raheem Sterling has been the best attacking player in the Premier League this season, and quite possibly the best player period.

Whether he earns the nod over defender Virgil Van Dijk is another story altogether, as it will probably comes down to wins and losses and one or two titles, but consider how deadly, consistent, and deadly consistent Sterling has been since the start of the season.

Of the four Premier League players who’ve accounted for some combination of 24 goals and assists, Sterling gets the least amount of positive publicity. Eden Hazard has largely been the Chelsea attack, Sergio Aguero has tied the PL hat trick record, and Mohamed Salah is riding his 2017-18 season through a remarkable cold snap of form.

But there’s Sterling, with 15 goals and nine assists in the second-fewest minutes of the bunch (Aguero).

How about these numbers — via WhoScored.com — in 2,149 league minutes?

Sterling is also averaging a tackle and .6 interceptions per match, the best of the bunch, while committed the fewest bad touches per game (most remarkable considering his second touch haunted him for several seasons).

A concession: For what it’s worth given the above stats, Hazard is easily in second of the bunch if not competing directly with Sterling. But Sterling hasn’t been a part of underachieving teams for three different managers, so we’ll abide.

There are two things going against Sterling, neither of which are his fault. The first is that Man City’s dominance of last season and run back into a title right this season has people imagining that the feast of talent at the Etihad Stadium makes numbers an afterthought; That is to say that Sterling, Aguero, and the Silvas (not to mention Leroy Sane) aren’t producing much more than their theoretical replacements.

And maybe there’s something to that, but here’s how important Sterling’s production has been to City.

In Premier League matches in which Sterling neither scored, assisted, nor drew a penalty, City has four wins, two draws, and four losses. When he has, that mark is 17-0 (He sat out wins over Huddersfield Town, Burnley, and Watford to complete Man City’s 24W-2D-4L record).

Aguero, for his part, racked up nine of his goals in three matches. I’m not here to hat trick shame, but Sterling feels a less replaceable part of Pep’s team.

The second thing going against Sterling is a bit more nefarious, linked to articles and conceptions about his gun tattoo or hairstyles. This part, hopefully, doesn’t require us to refute it.

Van Dijk has been phenomenal, and as a longtime defender admirer — those who can’t do it, love those who do it well — I’d be thrilled to see him join N'Golo Kante in non-scorers to claim such an honor.

But VVD was also on the scene for a moment that encapsulates what Sterling has become to City’s attack. He’s arguably been this season’s Leroy Sane, and coincidentally cues up the German with this incisive pass from well outside his office for the January winner against Liverpool.

Who’s in the running for Premier League Player of the Year?

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The Premier League Player of the Year is missing its easy winner this go-round.

There’s no Mohamed Salah running away with the scoring record, no Eden Hazard or N'Golo Kante as the clear best player on the champion.

[ MORE: Key games left in the PL season ]

So let’s take a look at where the race stands heading into the final international break of the season.

The contenders

Virgil Van Dijk, Liverpool: Like N’Golo Kante before him, there’s a massive underdog status to a non-striker winning the Premier League’s Player of the Year (and you might want to argue that Kante deserved a Ballon d’Or finalist position). Flub against Fulham aside, few Premier League defenders have made their case in the past as well as Van Dijk has this season. Due to his status on a team who has a lot of the ball, it’s difficult to find super gaudy defensive numbers to make his case. Still, when taking into account Premier League center backs to play more than half their teams’ matches this season, no one on advanced stats site WhoScored is close to VVD. He also doesn’t have a “times dribbled past” per-match average on the site.

Eden Hazard, Chelsea: For years, Chelsea has gone as Eden Hazard. The Belgian is unquestionably one of the most talented players in the world, and is effervescent in attack. Sure, Chelsea’s also suffered through periods of head-scratching results and effort — nothing new at Stamford Bridge and he’s one of the only players to be a part of the downfalls of Jose Mourinho, Antonio Conte, and presumably Maurizio Sarri — but his 13 goals and 11 assists make him the only player to reach double figures in both categories this season. And imagine how high that assist total could be with Alvaro Morata or Gonzalo Higuain finishing at an average or above-average clip.

Raheem Sterling, Man City: At Liverpool a few years ago, it would’ve been accurate to call Sterling, “the kid with the abysmal second touch.” But the Englishman has become better and better by the season, and he’s actually the most economical star in the running for the PL’s Golden Boot; His 2.1 shots per game is less than Sergio Aguero (3.7), Mohamed Salah (3.4), Harry Kane (3.6), Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (2.6), Hazard (2.6), and Sadio Mane (2.4). Only Hazard and Bournemouth’s Ryan Fraser have more assists.

Mohamed Salah, Liverpool: His average second-half of the season is going to make it difficult for him to repeat as PL Player of the Year, especially considering he has just one goal with no assists in eight matches since Jan. 30 (and four of those were 0-0 or 1-1 draws). Yet it’d be wrong to discount his 17 goals and six assists through 24 matches, and a strong finish could make him a Golden Boot, Premier League, and Champions League winner. That’s not crazy.

Sergio Aguero, Manchester City: Eighteen goals and six assists make him one of four players to combine for 24 goals of production this season, and the 30-year-old may be get sympathetic votes given his surprising lack of honors during a torrential tenure in the Premier League. His three hat tricks should live in the memory of some voters, too, especially since two came against Arsenal and Chelsea. He’s there when you need him, that’s for sure.

Harry Kane, Tottenham Hotspur: Right in the Golden Boot race despite missing four matches with torn ankle ligaments, Kane has 17 goals and four assists for Spurs this season. Not that the League Cup should come into play in a PL season vote, but Spurs’ star could well be holding silverware in voters’ minds if he hadn’t been hurt before the second leg against Chelsea. Three matches against Pep Guardiola and Man City in the next few weeks will either help or hurt his argument (again, only one of those comes in league play).

FINALLY, “THE WILD CARD” — He’s not going to win this award, and probably won’t be on any short lists besides this post, but spare a though for Raul Jimenez of Wolves. The Mexican striker has been a part of 18 league markers for Nuno Espirito Santo (12 goals, six assists) during his first ever Premier League season.

He’s scored against Chelsea twice, Spurs twice, and assisted versus Manchester United, and Arsenal. Wolves are 10W-4D-2L when he gets a goal or an assist, and 2W-3D-9L when he doesn’t produce magic.

And let’s be honest: Is one of the key players above leading their team to a title as impressive as what Jimenez has done keeping his newly-promoted side in the race for a Europa League place (even given what Wolves spent around him)?

Honestly, he’s in my Top Three with Sterling and Van Dijk. Hazard is probably fourth, with Kane, Aguero, and Salah a bit behind.

Key games left in Premier League season

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With just seven games left for the majority of Premier League teams, crunch time has arrived in the 2018-19 season.

Clubs across the PL are readying themselves for a crucial final few weeks of the season, with so much still on the line. It is tough to know what to focus on, right?

[ STREAM: Every PL match live

Of course, you’ll be soaking up every single Premier League game you can, but now seems like a good time to help you focus on the games you simply cannot miss between now and the end of the season on May 12.

Below we take a look at eight clashes which will have a huge say in deciding the title race, the top four battle and the scrap against relegation.


Brighton v. Southampton – March 30
A South Coast derby with just three points separating the two teams. Brighton and Saints have had many battles in the lower leagues in recent seasons, and there is a genuine rivalry bubbling up here. Saints are almost better away from home than they are at home under Ralph Hasenhuttl, and their fast breaks will cause Brighton problems. Expect a tight, tense game as both teams are desperate to pull further clear of Cardiff City who occupy the final relegation place.


Liverpool v. Tottenham – March 31
A few weeks ago this seemed like being a battle between two teams who were battling for the title. How quickly things change. Spurs’ dismal recent run has seen them drop out of the title race, and now they need the points to stay in the top four hunt. Liverpool need the points to keep their title bid going, and this is the toughest game remaining (on paper) for Jurgen Klopp‘s side to negotiate. The fiery 2-2 draw between these two teams last season was a classic, and Harry Kane has been in thorn in Liverpool’s side in recent seasons. Kane’s battle with Virgil Van Dijk promises to be epic, and it could have a huge say in the title race.


Burnley v. Cardiff City – April 13
Not one for the purists this, but it is likely to be an enthralling encounter between two committed teams who sit just one place from each other in the table. Cardiff are in 18th place and in the final relegation spot, but they are just two points behind Burnley who are really struggling after an upturn in results around the New Year’s period. Sean Dyche and Neil Warnock have built hard-working teams on limited resources, and Cardiff have nothing to lose in many regards as everyone expected them to be relegated this season. The new boys have a chance with eight games to go, and this is a massive chance to gain ground on a team around them.


Liverpool v. Chelsea – April 14
Memories of April 2014 will come flooding back to Liverpool fans, as Steven Gerrard‘s costly slip against Chelsea handed the Premier League title to Manchester City. Surely lightning won’t strike twice as Liverpool host Chelsea at Anfield late in the season once again… Klopp’s side must negotiate the home games against Spurs and Chelsea, but Anfield is a fortress and they haven’t lost at home all season in the Premier League. However, the only team to win at Anfield in any competition this season was Chelsea, as Eden Hazard inspired a League Cup victory way back in September. This will be Liverpool’s last major hurdle in the title race.


Man City v. Tottenham – April 20
This game will be played in the middle of three games between City and Spurs after they were drawn against one another in the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals. That should complicate things, as the two sets of players will be so used to the tactics of the other and it will be a lot tighter than most expect. City beat Spurs 1-0 at Wembley earlier this season, and have only lost one of their last eight home games against Tottenham. Pep Guardiola has more options than Mauricio Pochettino to rotate his team, and that could be key with three matches between these PL clubs in just 11 days.


Man United v. Man City – April 24
A Manchester Derby that will surely decide the season for both clubs. If City win, they will take a big step towards the title. If United win they will not only scupper City’s title chance but also significantly boost their top four hopes. If everything goes to plan between now and late April for both clubs, they could also be in the midst of being in the Champions League semifinals too. United will sit back and soak up pressure and then try to launch devastating counters. That worked very well against PSG, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham, but City are a different beast. What an atmosphere it should be inside Old Trafford for this one.


Man United v. Chelsea – April 28
Both teams should be bang in the top four battle going into the final two weeks of the season, and this game will be massive in deciding who will qualify for the UEFA Champions League. Just one point separates the two teams right now, with United in fifth and Chelsea in sixth. United have already knocked Chelsea out of the FA Cup this season and pushed them all the way in a 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge when Jose Mourinho was boss. The clash of styles sets up an intriguing tactical battle. United’s counter attacks and direct style is totally opposite to Sarri-ball. Both teams will have expected to be in the title battle at the start of the season, and this game may well present itself as their final chance to shore up a spot in the top four. It is unlikely both will finish in the top four this season. Something has to give.


Cardiff City v. Crystal Palace – May 4
With Palace having to play plenty of big boys in the next few weeks, it is likely their battle against relegation will go down to the wire. Cardiff will also be up against it with their schedule, so this game represents a good chance of three points for both. If Cardiff are still in with a shout of staying up, this encounter, their final home game of the season, will see an incredible atmosphere generated in the Welsh capital. Just five points separate the Eagles and Bluebirds right now, and their direct, counter-attacking styles of play should set things up very nicely for an end-to-end encounter.

Klopp: Liverpool’s defeat of Fulham ‘a brilliant afternoon’

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Jurgen Klopp wasn’t grasping for positivity after Liverpool escaped Craven Cottage with a 2-1 defeat of Fulham and a place atop the Premier League table.

As a matter of fact, he felt great about his team’s performance in the win even after a colossal misunderstanding between Virgil Van Dijk and Alisson Becker nearly cost the side all three points through an equalizer from ex-Reds forward Ryan Babel.

[ RECAP: Fulham 1-2 Liverpool ]

Fortunately for Liverpool, Sadio Mane won a penalty and James Milner converted it to give the Reds their win.

“It is clear at 1-0 if you don’t kill it off that can happen,” Klopp said. “Babel was there that is how football is. They deserved a goal but we deserved three points. A brilliant afternoon I have to say.”

Klopp said his side was hampered by its midweek Champions League defeat of Bayern Munich, and that he is not worried about them moving forward in pursuit of a Premier League title.

“I am not the most experienced manager and I have similar problems after Champions League games,” Klopp said, later adding, “I am not in any doubt about my players nerves. It is about intensity. We go for perfection but it is rare that you get it. Burnley, Munich, Fulham – you have to adapt. People will say we need to be more convincing, but we are at the start of a development, not the end.”

As for the mishap that had the score line at 1-1, both Milner and Van Dijk weren’t looking for excuses. Milner butchered a clearing attempt that put Van Dijk on the hook, and the Dutch defender’s pass back to Alisson was poor.

At the time, it had more than a hint of Steven Gerrard‘s infamous slip a few years back, one of the players of the season succumbing to misfortune.

At least Milner had a sense of humor about it.

“The gaffer told me to come on and calm it down and the first thing I do is slice it and put Virgil under pressure which wasn’t ideal,” Milner said.

“I am not giving excuses,” Van Dijk said. “I should have handled it better. They scored but so did we and we have three points and move back to the top of the table. … We knew it would be tough. We made it difficult for ourselves. We weren’t calm on the ball. We got the three points though and we can now focus on the national teams.”

Liverpool has a two-point lead on Man City, who has played one fewer match but that match is currently the Manchester Derby.

Late penalty puts Liverpool atop table (video)

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  • Mane opens scoring in 26th
  • Ex-Reds striker Babel stars in loss
  • Mane wins late penalty, Milner converts

James Milner‘s 81st minute penalty saved Liverpool blushes in a 2-1 defeat of Fulham at Craven Cottage on Sunday.

The Reds had a Sadio Mane-inspired lead, but had given it back through a comedy of errors Ryan Babel equalizer.

Liverpool goes atop the Premier League on 76 points, having played one more match than Man City (74 points).

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Some lively dribbling from ex-Liverpool man Ryan Babel cued up Jean-Michael Seri for a shot that sailed over the goal.

Andrew Robertson hit a cross too close to Fulham keeper Rico after some fancy dribbling of his own.

Liverpool was asking all the questions when Mane put them ahead, beginning the move on the left wing before passing to and receiving from Roberto Firmino for 1-0.

Mane joins three players chasing Sergio Aguero’s league-leading goal total of 18: Mohamed Salah, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and Harry Kane.

Mane has nine goals in his last nine PL matches, and 11 in 11 overall.

Liverpool was a bit lucky that a rash foul from Fabinho didn’t earn him as second yellow card and send the Reds down to 10 men at the break.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Fulham did not quit, and looked the better money for a second half goal. A first break saw Aleksandar Mitrovic nod into the goal only to see an offside flag deny the marker.

Babel was at the center of it all, and led a second break which ended with a Alisson Becker save on Andre Franck Zambo Anguissa.

That’s when calamity occurred in the center of the pitch. James Milner mishit a clearance, and Virgil Van Dijk casually headed back toward Alisson. The goalkeeper lost the ball in his feet, and Babel was on the doorstep to slot home.

[ MORE: Premier League stats ]

The stalemate lasted just a few minutes, as Milner converted a penalty conceded when Rico impeded Mane in the box.

Mohamed Salah had a chance to put the match to bed following a Mane-led run, but the Egyptian fired right at Rico.