Mar 212016
Manchester City have not won back-to-back league games in five months

When Manchester City announced that Pep Guardiola – the world’s most coveted and celebrated manager – would succeed Manuel Pellegrini in the summer, there was not a cloud on the club’s horizon.

City had effectively been building a home waiting for Guardiola to move in and the man any club in the world would want in charge was finally ready to take up residence after leaving Bayern Munich.

What was not part of the plan was a slump in form that raises the possibility of Guardiola taking charge with City in the Europa League – a prospect that must now be considered as Manchester United closed to within a point of Pellegrini’s fourth-placed side with a 1-0 win at Etihad Stadium on Sunday.

What has been happening to City’s season to leave them in this perilous position?

Has Guardiola news distracted City?

Pep Guardiola is still on course for a Bundesliga, domestic cup and Champions League treble at Bayern Munich

This is an easy accusation to make and can be supported by the fact City have won only three games out of 11 since Guardiola’s arrival was confirmed in an announcement in February – but is it actually true?

City have won a trophy – the Capital One Cup at Wembley against Liverpool – since then and it would be doing Pellegrini’s squad a kindness to suggest they have only become indifferent and below-par since it became known Guardiola was on his way.

They have also made club history by reaching the quarter-finals of the Champions League for the first time with victory over two legs against Dynamo Kiev – but the signs of decline were in evidence well before 1 February.

Manchester City have not been at their best for any period since they began the season with five straight Premier League wins. They had already lost five league games before the Guardiola announcement was made.

City won their first three away games in the Premier League but only two of the next 11 and have not won back-to-back league games in five months. The rot set in long before they started getting ready to put Guardiola’s name on the manager’s office door.

It is hard to believe City’s players have been dwelling on the Spaniard’s arrival during games and in an uncharacteristically prickly post-match media conference after the United loss, Pellegrini was at pains to deflect suggestions Guardiola was providing an unwelcome distraction.

He said: “I don’t think I have lost any control. The attitude of the team was excellent. I repeat – I am happy with attitude of the players.”

Guardiola’s impending arrival may have focused minds on City’s shortcomings – but this was a team showing signs of struggle and decline well before he was confirmed as Pellegrini’s successor.

City can’t beat Premier League’s better sides

Manchester City have won just one game against the Premier League’s current top-eight

Manchester City are only one point ahead of Manchester United and West Ham even though they still lie fourth, and 15 points behind leaders Leicester City having played a game less.

The rest of the season is not about winning the title but finishing in the top four – and embarrassing state of affairs for a club with City’s aspirations and scale of ambition.

And perhaps the most tell-tale statistic of why they are where they are comes in their record against the current top eight.

City have played 11 matches against them, winning only one, drawing three and losing seven for a meagre return of six points. They also lost heavily home and away to ninth-placed Liverpool.

Their total of 51 points from 30 games is a grim reflection of their struggles throughout the season.

In 2011-12 they had 70 points at this stage of the season, the following year they had 62 points and 67 when they brought the title back to Etihad Stadium in 2013-14. Last season they had 61 points after 30 games.

What will be Guardiola’s priorities?

Guardiola’s first priority will be to keep everything crossed that stumbling Manchester City can keep it together long enough to make sure they finish in the top four – or win the tournament of course – to ensure they are in next season’s Champions League.

He inherits a squad that is guilty of under-achievement this season, even though they have won the League Cup and remain in the Champions League.

City’s buying policy has been flawed to such an extent in recent years that they still rely heavily on the backbone of the side that won the club’s first title in 44 years in 2012 – namely keeper Joe Hart, captain Vincent Kompany, midfield pair Yaya Toure and David Silva, as well as striker Sergio Aguero.

Around that key group others have not achieved, while there are problems even with those players. Kompany is 29 and suffering from acute calf problems, Toure is 33 in May and was sold by Guardiola at Barcelona, while even the peerless Silva is now 30 and has been troubled for many months by an ankle problem.

Guardiola will be happy with Hart in goal and will want to build around 24-year-old Kevin de Bruyne, who has been such a big miss through injury in recent months. He will also want Raheem Sterling, a £49m summer signing from Liverpool, to justify that fee.

Will Joe Hart still be number one at City next season?

He may well target Everton’s 21-year-old John Stones to give youth and authority to a central defence that is still holed below the waterline by Kompany’s many absences, with Martin Demichelis looking every day of his 35 years and more against Manchester United and both Nicolas Otamendi and Eliaquim Mangala not showing a return on a combined investment of around £70m.

Wilfried Bony was signed for £28m from Swansea City as the likes of Edin Dzeko and Stevan Jovetic were allowed to depart, but it is hard to see a striker who lacks mobility surviving under Guardiola.

In defence, Bacary Sagna is 33 and coming towards the end of his Premier League career, while Pablo Zabaleta is 31 and Aleksandar Kolarov is 30 – this is a City team that has been allowed to grow too old, with poor signings exacerbating the problem.

Jesus Navas has been poor and Samir Nasri has provided moments of magic and mediocrity.

So Guardiola’s priorities will be to freshen up and introduce young blood into a stale squad, while also bringing authority to all parts of the pitch, especially in central defence and in giving attacking support to Aguero.

For all City’s ability to flex their financial muscle, he will find that a lot easier to do with them in the Champions League rather than the Europa League.

Could Pellegrini finish on a high?

Pellegrini, who leaves City at the end of the season, joined from Malaga in 2013

The 62-year-old Chilean has one trophy in his locker in his final season but there will be no Premier League title – he is relying on the Champions League to give the campaign a flourish because a top-four finish should be a given, not a source of celebration.

Pellegrini has brought Manchester City to the last eight of the Champions League and the draw has been relatively kind as they avoided the big three of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich to be paired with Chelsea’s conquerors Paris St-Germain.

It is a tough task – one a City squad firing on all cylinders might just fancy – but right now they are seriously underpowered.

Pellegrini has been dogged by those injuries to Kompany, De Bruyne and Silva and matters got worse on a bad day against Manchester United as Sterling and keeper Hart suffered injuries that mean they may miss the PSG games.

Hart’s calf injury looked a serious problem as he was taken off on a stretcher after rescuing Demichelis from a dreadful back pass.

Sympathy will be in short supply if City cite injuries given their resources – but they are facing real problems.

City will be in dreamland if they can get into the Champions League’s last four but it is hard to see them, in their current state, troubling the trio of superpowers in this competition.

It may well be that the League Cup and a place in the top four will have to suffice before Pellegrini takes his leave.

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Mar 212016
Aleksandar Mitrovic’s goal ended a run of six straight defeats against Sunderland

Newcastle boss Rafael Benitez and Sunderland manager Sam Allardyce both expect their fight to stay in the Premier League to go down to the wire.

Both teams remain in the bottom three after drawing 1-1 in the Tyne-Wear derby, with Aleksandar Mitrovic’s late header earning Newcastle a point.

An increase in TV money means Premier League relegation could cost £100m.

“I think we will have to fight until the last game and the last minute, so we have to do it,” said Benitez.

After spurning a one-goal lead for a second successive game, Allardyce said: “Put those four points on the board now and we are feeling like we are going to be surviving and we are going to stay safe.

“Now we are going to go right to the wire to try to stay safe, and that’s the bottom line.”

Mitrovic’s 83rd-minute goal ended a run of six defeats against Sunderland and left the Magpies three points adrift of safety with eight games remaining.

Sunderland, who took the lead through Jermain Defoe’s 15th goal of the season, are a point better off in 18th place, two points behind Norwich.

Newcastle travel to the Canaries after the international break with Sunderland also facing them at Carrow Road on 16 April.

Our predicament is scary – Benitez

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Newcastle 1-1 Sunderland: We reacted very well – Benitez

After losing his first game at leaders Leicester, the result earned Benitez a first point since becoming Newcastle manager just over a week ago.

Asked if his team were now in a scary position, the former Real Madrid boss replied: “It was scary before. I am here because I have to give the team confidence and we have to improve things.

“We are creating chances, we are attacking, so we have to improve this part of the game and create more chances and Mitrovic or Papiss Cisse or the other strikers will score more goals and we will be fine.”

Allardyce targets four wins from eight games

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Newcastle 1-1 Sunderland: Draw is difficult to take – Allardyce

Allardyce, whose team have not kept a clean sheet in 18 consecutive games in all competitions, said his team need four wins from their eight remaining games.

“If we don’t start getting these clean sheets it’s going to be a massive problem,” he added.

“We are a team that has to score twice to win. Sadly we didn’t get the second goal and we conceded late on again.

“In the second half, I don’t know why we sat in and let Newcastle come at us. Maybe that was the size of the game, but in the end we haven’t done that and it’s two points dropped.

“We need four wins from the last eight, so it’s now must-win rather than draw.”

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Tottenham Hotspur 3-0 Bournemouth

 Posted by at 2:00 AM
Mar 212016
Harry Kane became the first player to reach 20 Premier League goals in 2015-16

Tottenham cut Leicester’s lead at the top of the Premier League to five points as Harry Kane inspired Spurs to a routine win over Bournemouth.

Kane turned in Kyle Walker’s cross after 43 seconds and then latched onto Dele Alli’s pass to finish left-footed past Artur Boruc to double the lead.

The England striker is now the Premier League’s top scorer with 21 goals.

Christian Eriksen tapped in Tottenham’s third from close range after Boruc had pushed out Kane’s shot from 25 yards.

Mid-table Bournemouth, who had won three successive league games before their trip to White Hart Lane, rarely threatened.

Tottenham 3-0 Bournemouth as it happened

First to 20 league goals

Kane’s hat-trick at Bournemouth in October ended a poor run of goalscoring form for the 22-year-old.

He has been in supreme nick for his club since then, with his brace against the Cherries taking his tally to 23 goals in his past 30 appearances for Spurs.

His early opener made him the first player to reach 20 Premier League goals this season, and he becomes the fifth Englishman to pass that milestone in two consecutive Premier League seasons – joining Andy Cole, Les Ferdinand, Robbie Fowler and Alan Shearer.

Not content with scoring twice and creating the third when Boruc spilled his long-range shot, Kane later made a last-ditch challenge inside his own six-yard box to deny Bournemouth striker Josh King.

Spurs full-backs blunt Bournemouth

The match average positions show Rose (3) and Walker (2) to be further forward than Tottenham’s two central midfielders Dembele (19) and Dier (15), with Bournemouth winger Matt Ritchie (30) pushed further back as a result

One of the most eye-catching features of Tottenham’s play this season has been the willingness of their full-backs to push forward at every opportunity, while still maintaining a solid defensive base thanks to their two holding midfielders.

Walker and Danny Rose were always available outlets in the first period, when Spurs were at their most dangerous, Walker creating Kane’s first goal with a wonderful whipped cross.

Both have been named in Roy Hodgson’s England squad for the friendly matches against Germany (26 March) and Netherlands (29 March).

Man of the match: Harry Kane (Tottenham)

Kane’s early double made it five goals in his two Premier League outings against Bournemouth this season

The stats you need to know

  • Kane has equalled his Premier League goal tally from 2014-15.
  • Alli has assisted Kane for seven Premier League goals this season, the most assists from one player to another in 2015-16.
  • Two of the three fastest goals scored in the Premier League this season have been in the Spurs/Bournemouth fixture (Ritchie 49 seconds, Kane 43 seconds).

What they said

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‘Mature’ performance pleases Mauricio Pochettino

Tottenham head coach Mauricio Pochettino: “I’m very happy with the collective performance, I thought we were fantastic today.

“It was important to score early, and then we showed a strong mentality in the way we managed the game. We played well against a very good team – we showed a mature performance.

“It’s important to get some time to analyse – 90% of the squad will be with their national teams and I think it’s a good moment to analyse during this period.”

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Eddie Howe rues Bournemouth’s ‘poor display’

Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe: “It was a really bad day for us. We had the worst possible start, we were slow out of the traps and we weren’t ourselves at all in the first half. It was a poor display.

“I was hugely frustrated because, even when we don’t play well, you see a clear philosophy and a way of playing. I honestly couldn’t tell what we were trying to do in the first half. It was disjointed and we had no rhythm.

“When you come here and you don’t bring your best game, it’s going to be very difficult.”

What next?

Following the international break, Tottenham have two games which could go a long way to deciding the destination of the Premier League title – Liverpool at Anfield (2 April) followed by Manchester United at home (10 April).

Bournemouth, who remain 13th and are 12 points above the relegation zone after Newcastle’s draw with Sunderland earlier on Sunday, host Manchester City on 2 April.

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Newcastle United 1-1 Sunderland

 Posted by at 11:58 PM
Mar 202016
Aleksandar Mitrovic has scored in three of his last five appearances at St James’ Park

Aleksandar Mitrovic rescued a point for Newcastle against relegation rivals Sunderland as a fiercely contested Tyne-Wear derby ended in a draw.

The Serbia striker headed in Georginio Wijnaldum’s cross with seven minutes to go of boss Rafael Benitez’s home debut.

Jermain Defoe had volleyed the visitors ahead just before the break.

The draw leaves both in the bottom three with 18th-placed Sunderland a point and a place ahead of Newcastle but two points from safety.

A launch-pad for Newcastle?

While not the victory they so dearly needed, the draw does mean Newcastle have ended a six-match losing streak against their fierce rivals, dating back to April 2013.

This was the least they needed after Norwich’s victory at West Brom on Saturday had opened some daylight between the 17th-placed Canaries and the bottom three.

And despite the huge challenge still ahead, the manner in which they clawed their way to a point will give Benitez some hope that he can fashion an escape act over the next two months.

For much of the game a somewhat ragged and ill-disciplined Newcastle were second-best to a Sunderland side who have been instilled with a renewed efficiency and spirit by manager Sam Allardyce.

After falling behind, the home side offered plenty of effort but precious little quality in the second half, with an Ayoze Perez volley at the back post, which was cleared off the line by Yann M’Vila, the closest they came to a goal.

But Mitrovic’s late intervention – the sixth he has scored since joining the club last summer for £15m – gives them confidence before six April fixtures that will go a long way to deciding their fate.

Next up; Norwich at Carrow Road on 2 April.

Sunderland still have the edge

Sunderland were seven minutes from moving out of the relegation zone so to find themselves in the bottom three heading into the international break is an undoubted blow.

This is a game they should have won. They played more as a unit throughout and fashioned the better chances.

Defoe’s goal – coming after Rob Elliott had saved a shot from Fabio Borini and Chancel Mbemba had failed to properly head clear – was his eighth in his past 11 appearances, but he could have scored more.

Before his opener he fired over from inside the box and poked a first-time shot from Borini’s cross inches past the near post.

And had Elliott not produced a wonderful one-handed save to deny Patrick van Aanholt’s angled 12-yard drive, it would have been 2-0 just before the hour mark.

Ultimately, though, it was their defensive frailty that cost them as Mitrovic’s goal – the 39th they have conceded away from home this campaign – extended their run of games without a clean sheet to 17.

More to follow.

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Southampton 3-2 Liverpool

 Posted by at 11:32 PM
Mar 202016
Sadio Mane was introduced at half-time as a substitute

Liverpool’s hopes of a top-four spot were dented as Southampton dramatically snatched victory at St Mary’s.

Liverpool had looked in command after Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge scored in a five-minute period.

Sadio Mane missed a penalty just after the break following Martin Skrtel’s foul on Graziano Pelle, but made amends soon after with a smart finish.

Pelle’s curling shot restored parity in the 83rd minute, before Mane pounced to seize all three points for his side.

Liverpool pressed forward to try and force a final twist, but a speculative penalty shout for a push on Christian Benteke was all they could muster.

Southampton remain seventh, with Liverpool two places lower and still seven points off the top four before Sunday’s Manchester derby.

Reds’ first half…

As the Reds departed the south coast, manager Jurgen Klopp was left to try and comprehend how they had contrived to lose from 2-0 up at half-time for the first time in the Premier League.

After Shane Long was denied an early penalty in a tussle with Dejan Lovren, the Reds took control of the first half with Coutinho’s low curling effort followed in short order by Sturridge’s cleverly-crafted second.

As Southampton searched for an immediate response, Liverpool exploited the space left behind with Joe Allen shooting into the shins of Fraser Forster from eight yards before seeing a goal chalked off for offside.

However, whether it was Thursday evening’s Europa League exploits or the 10 games more they have played than Saints, Liverpool’s slick passing and swift movement dried up markedly after the break.

More to follow.

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