May 15, 2019

PREMIER XI: Sky Blues and Reds highlight team of the season

by Dan Bilicki In: Soccer

Dan Bilicki selects his top players from the 2018-19 English Premier League campaign.

Alisson Becker, GK, Liverpool

He certainly had a couple of gaffes, but overall the Brazilian has supplied Liverpool with the stability it has needed between the sticks for years now. His 21 clean sheets led the league and made 16 more saves than Golden Gloves runner-up Ederson.

Trent Alexander-Arnold, RB, Liverpool

TAA didn’t make the original cut for our list, but now can’t be denied after setting the record for most assists in a season by a defender with 13. While he’s not as polished at defending as some of his counterparts, the 20-year-old should only grow in the years to come.

Virgil Van Dijk, CB, Liverpool

Many laughed at his pricetag when Liverpool bought him last winter, but he might be worth even more than the 75 million GBP paid for him now. The Dutchman won PFA player of the year and is unquestionably one of the best defenders in the world. He was the rock of the Reds back four, consistently breaking up runs and stopping attackers cold and even chipped in with four goals.

Aymeric Laporte, CB, Man City

It’s easy to slot Liverpool’s backline into our best XI, but City’s defence shouldn’t be overlooked. The champions allowed just one more goal than the Reds and Laporte was the most consistent member of Pep’s back line. The young Frenchman was one of the few players that wasn’t rotated by Guardiola, only missing three games this season.

Andrew Robertson, LB, Liverpool

Easily took over the mantle as the best offensive left back in the league from Marcos Alonso, racking up 12 assists, just short of his teammate Trent Alexander-Arnold. With both Robbo and TAA on the team sheet, the Reds should be set with the wing backs for years to come.

Raheem Sterling, RM, Man City

For all the flak that the English winger takes from the British press, you often forget just how talented he is. Sterling was a piece to City’s title repeat, scoring 17 goals and 15 assists — which is actually a slight step down from last year.

Eden Hazard, CM, Chelsea

We’re cheating a bit on this one, but Hazard did play several games in an attacking midfielder role this season. The Belgian was the one of two Premier League players involved in 30+ goals this season, scoring 16 goals and tallying 15 assists. He also had a hand in 49.2% of the Blues’ attacking returns.

Bernardo Silva, CM, Man City

Oft-forgotten among City’s bevy of big-name stars, “Bilva” is arguably the hardest worker on the team — the type of player that never stops running. Of City’s outfield players, only Laporte played more minutes than the midfielder’s 2,849.

Sadio Mane, LM, Liverpool

After missing some time last season, Mane came back strong scoring 22 goals to tie for the Golden Boot. It’s his fifth straight 10+ goal season and a reminder that the Reds’ attack isn’t just about Salah on the other side of the pitch.

Sergio Aguero, ST, Man City

Believe it or not, this will be Aguero’s first time making the Premier League team of the season — despite scoring 20+ goals for the fifth season in a row and sixth time in his career. Kun is our player of the year, narrowly edging out Van Dijk. Kun was the best player on the best team and, now, squarely in the argument as one of the two best Premier League strikers ever.

Mohamed Salah, ST, Liverpool

Thanks to a scoring drought that saw him score just once in nine EPL games, some wrote off the Egyptian in team of the season talk. But with five goals in his past six games, Salah tied for the Golden Boot with 22 goals and also supplied 12 assists.

THE NEXT XI

Lukasz Fabianski may have allowed the second most goals this season, but he also made the most saves, repeatedly bailing out the Irons … Aaron Wan-Bissaka emerged from out of nowhere at Crystal Palace to lead the Premier League defenders in tackles with 124 and was one of the best in Europe against take-ons … There’s a reason that Wolves’ Conor Coady was the only player in the Premier League to play every minute for his team in every competition: He’s a great defender and worthy of this praise … Fabian Schar is one of the most underrated centre backs in the league, ranked only behind VVD by analytics site whoscored.com … Lucas Digne was excellent this season after coming over from Barca, it’s just a shame that he’s only the second-best LB on Merseyside … Jorginho was brought in to play Sarri-ball and that he did, leading the league with 3,118 passes completed … Ryan Fraser provided 14 helpers for a Bournemouth side that finished seventh in scoring … For all of the drama that Paul Pogba caused at United this season, he was still a great player when he was on his game — especially after Jose Mourinho left … Just imagine the type of season Heung-Min Son would’ve had if he didn’t have two tournaments to play with South Korea. Spurs’ player of the year notched 12 goals and eight assists in just over 2,033 minutes … Raul Jimenez did a brilliant job of leading the line for Wolves. His 13 goals and 10 assists help the promoted side finish an astounding seventh in the table … And the captain of the next XI is Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who is a bridesmaid despite tying for the Golden Boot. Even more impressive: Of Auba, Salah and Mane, the Arsenal attacker scored his 22 goals in far less time on the pitch.

WORST PLAYERS OF THE SEASON

Since joining Manchester United, the Red Devils have paid Alexis Sanchez for a whole lot of nothing. The Chilean has earned more than 30 million GBP and made just 31 starts for the club, failing to play a full 90 minutes since the first game of the season … Staying with United, Fred was about as average as his name despite costing 52 million GBP this past summer … Mesut Ozil is Arsenal’s highest-paid player, but was almost more likely to be seen streaming Fortnite. Ozil missed 14 games and played 45 minutes or less in five others … Joe Hart certainly isn’t the keeper he used to be. Filling in at Burnley while Tom Heaton and Nick Pope were injured, the former England No. 1 allowed 41 goals in 19 games.

May 13, 2019

It wasn’t the same as 2012, but City’s 2019 title a memorable one

by Dan Bilicki In: Soccer

For about 83 seconds there, it seemed like we could actually be headed for another historic moment.

Instead, it was a wakeup call that the champions needed.

After Glenn Murray headed in a corner to improbably put Brighton & Hove Albion up 1-0 against mighty Manchester City, it looked like we could get a repeat scenario of seven years ago. Back in 2012, City went into the final Sunday tied in points with Manchester United, but ahead on goal differential by eight. This set up a similar ‘win the game, win the title’ scenario like we had this year.

United would do its job by defeating Sunderland 1-0, just as Liverpool did this year by beating Wolves 2-0. It was City that provided all the drama.

In that 2012 classic, the Sky Blues would take the lead against already-relegated QPR heading into halftime, but surrendered a tying goal to Djibril Cisse shortly after the break. Even after going down a man, the Ranger actually pulled ahead of City on a James Mackie goal in the 66th minute.

Heading into injury time needing two goals to win the title, United fans were obviously thrilled. Instead, in one of the greatest three minutes in sporting history, Eden Dzeko first equalizing in the 92nd minute before Sergio Aguero scored the winner in the 94th. The stuff of legends, it was.

This year, it was again City falling behind, but learning from those past mistakes and bouncing back as strongly as it could. By the time the dust settled, it was captain Vincent Kompany raising the Premier League trophy yet again, after a 4-1 that should’ve never really been in doubt.

This wasn’t a classic by any means, but a memorable match nonetheless.

SO CLOSE…

On the other side of history is Liverpool, which will go down as the greatest team to not win the title.

How good were the Reds this season?

– They had two 22-goal scorers in Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane, both tying Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for the Golden Boot.

– They had Alisson, winner of the Golden Gloves with 21 clean sheets, playing behind a defence that allowed the fewest goals in the league and featured PFA player of the year, Virgil Van Dijk.

– They had Trent Alexander-Arnold break the record for most assists in a season by a defender with 13.

– They lost one game all season — at Manchester City — and didn’t drop a point after a 0-0 draw at Everton in early March. Liverpool’s 97 points is the third most in a season and the most by a second-place team since United has 89 in the aforementioned 2011-12 season.

MORE ON THE CHAMPS

– Pep Guardiola became the third manager in PL era to retain the title and called this championship “his toughest one to date.”

– City tied its own record from last year for most wins a season with 32.

– City and Spurs both set a new record for fewest draws in a season with two. Chelsea had previously had three, twice.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK

Nathaniel Mendez-Laing had his own history on Sunday, becoming just second player ever from a promoted team to score a brace at Old Trafford.

The Cardiff striker scored three of his four goals this season against top-six teams, with another tally against Arsenal earlier this season.

Seeing the Blue Birds win at Old Trafford was a fitting end for the Red Devils’ turbulent season.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

If you’re one of the 6.3 million fantasy Premier League players that brave the crippling anxiety of the weekly transfer, lineup and captaincy decisions, we should point out the best FPL player in the world cruised to the title this season. Adam Levy’s #TheyAreUs squad finished a whopping 57 points ahead of the second-place finisher … United ended the season 32 points behind the champs, the furthest it has been in the top flight since being promoted in 1975 … The last three times a PL team has been atop the table on Christmas Day and not won it all: Liverpool in 2008-09, 13-14, 18-19 … Huddersfield managed to avoid some infamy in its terrible season. Though the Terriers were the worst team in the league by 10 points, they managed to avoid tying the record for most losses in a season by drawing Southampton … Wolves defender Conor Coady was the only player to play every minute of all of his team’s matches in all competitions in 2018-19. Pretty impressive considering there is usually a goalkeeper or two that pull off that feat … Chris Hughton is out at Brighton after a season in which it was lucky to not be relegated … A team doctor for Crystal Palace claims he and his children were racially abused by a three-year-old fan before the team’s game, being called “Pakis.” This isn’t something that should be taken lightly and there’s no room for racism anywhere in the world.

THE LAST WORD

Just when you thought Newcastle owner Mike Ashley couldn’t get any worse, he does.

Earlier in the season, Ashley promised the team a trip to Las Vegas if they could get themselves out of the relegation zone and stay up for another season.

Considering the team was 19th in the league with just three points and six goals after 10 games, it would take some doing to pull itself up off the canvas.

But, with an experienced manager like Rafa Benitez, the Magpies did just that, winning 12 games and ultimately finishing 13th in the table.

But, despite earning the owner a ton of money by staying up and having been promised this nice vacation, Ashley quickly backtracked on it this week.

Sure, the players can obviously afford their own vacations, but this was supposed to be a statement of support for the team by its owner.

And with Benitez’s future at the club up in the air, the smart money should be on a manager with his the type of plaudits on his resume to do the smart thing and leave Ashley hanging out to dry, just like the owner did to his players.

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

April 30, 2019

EPL FREE KICKS: Aguero’s goal a great metaphor for title race

by Dan Bilicki In: Soccer

The slimmest of margins could settle the tightest Premier League race we’ve seen in years.

With Burnley piling as many players behind the ball as it could, Sergio Aguero eventually played the hero for Manchester City, scoring the game’s lone goal to give his side the three points and retake the lead atop the table.

But it wasn’t his most convincing strike. In fact, the ball barely crossed the line before being cleared by a Clarets defender. This time, technology was on City’s side (we won’t delve into the VAR controversy against Spurs in Champions League) as the Hawkeye system ruled the ball crossed the line.

It was one of the closest calls we’ve seen this season and fitting for a race like this one. Thanks to Liverpool’s dominant win over Huddersfield Town, City’s goal-differential advantage is now down to four. So even if this race comes down to an unlikely tiebreaker, even that is getting a bit dicey.

Going back to City’s Champions League ouster, it may be a blessing in disguise. Liverpool has two games against one of the best teams in the world, Barcelona, in the next two weeks for their semifinal matchup. Pep Guardiola’s crew will be fully focused on their final two games of the season with the FA Cup coming the week after.

Even with just two games to go, there’s still plenty to watch.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK

Mohamed Salah may have spotted midweek hob-nobbing with the Mother of Dragons, but it was the Egyptian King who was breathing fire on Friday.

Salah scored twice and set one up against relegated Huddersfield Town, pushing him above the 20-goal mark for the second straight season, although he won’t be matching last year’s record-setting haul of 32.

While Sadio Mane – who also scored twice against the Terriers – recently got the nod on the PFA player of the year shortlist, Salah has an equal or better shot at making the team of the season.

Oh, and Salah set a new mark in Liverpool history by scoring the most goals in his first 100 appearances with the club at 69. Nice.

ANYBODY WANT EUROPE?

Between the four teams fighting for the remaining two Champions League spots for next season, there doesn’t seem to be any real sense of urgency. The four clubs combined to take home two points this weekend, with Arsenal and Spurs both losing and Chelsea drawing with Manchester United. Over the past three weeks, these supposed European contenders collected just six of 36 possible points.

The Gunners were embarrassed by Leicester City 3-0 after going a man down in the 36th minute, but let’s not forget that this is their third straight loss – all against midtable competition.

Spurs lost for their first time at their new name, the aptly named Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. London-rival West Ham did the honours and have made a habit out of handing out firsts: The Irons also gave Arsenal its first defeat at the Emirates back in 2007.

As for the Blues vs. the Red Devils, this was a matchup that didn’t feel like it had the stakes that it does. United has started to slump after its boost from the hiring of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer while we had honestly forgotten that Maurizio Sarri hadn’t been sacked yet.

ANOTHER DE GEA HOWLER

Is David De Gea still a world-class keeper? The numbers and the eye test say otherwise.

Long-touted as one of the world’s best between the sticks, De Gea let in another howler this weekend, joining a growing highlight reel of them since last summer’s World Cup.

After being named to FIFA’s team of the year in 2018, he certainly won’t be receiving similar honours at the end of this season. In fact, United has fewer clean sheets (seven) this season than nearly relegated Cardiff City (eight).

Is his confidence shattered? Does he have the yips? While the Spaniard is still more than capable, he doesn’t seem to be the wall he once was.

ESPN reported on Monday that United could go after Atletico Madrid keeper Jan Oblak this summer, paying his $120-million release clause. We’re sure they could recoup most of that by selling DDG, but seeing that happen may only further cripple his seemingly fragile confidence.

THE LAST WORD

Welcome to the Premier League, Norwich and Sheffield United.

It sure wasn’t without its fair share of controversy this weekend, though.

While Norwich sealed its automatic promotion and return to the Premier League after three seasons in the second tier, it wasn’t so cut-and-dry for the Blades.

After Villa’s Jonathan Kodija went down injured, his teammates stopped playing as it seemed like Leeds was going to put the ball out of play.

Instead, Mateusz Klich was sent in alone on a through ball and scored.

Understandably, Villa players were upset – to say the least – and a pseudo-brawl broke out. Anwar El Ghazi was sent off for taking a swing at Leeds’ Patrick Bamford, who greatly embellished what had happened. Bamford deserved a swat, too, as he had an opponent in a headlock moments prior.

Players all over the pitch and reserves on the sidelines engaged in screaming matches with referees also caught in the middle.

After everything got cleared up and Villa kicked off, Leeds manager Marcelo Bielsa had his team allow Villa to even the score, though defender Pontus Jansson did put up a bit of a fight.

In the end, the game was a draw which allowed Sheffield United – no doubt entertained to the nines watching at home – to clinch automatic promotion.

The best out of all of this: Leeds and Villa could meet at Wembley with a spot in the Premier League next at stake. The Whites are likely to finish third in the table while the Villans should be fifth, both earning spots in the four-team playoff.

If that turns out to be the Richest Match In Football, it’ll be a damn good one.

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