EPL

Premier League 2021-22: Toffee Rafa, Kane in limbo and points to prove for Sancho and Lukaku

By Sports Desk August 12, 2021

The new Premier League season has not even begun yet and we're already enjoying some enthralling narratives.

Beyond the mundane matter of who might win the league, who will beat the drop and how thick the VAR lines will be, there are some tantalising stories we'll be following closely in the coming weeks.

Below, Stats Perform takes a look at some of the big talking points...

 

Blue Benitez

Predicting football is often a fool's game – especially in an era when Lionel Messi no longer plays for Barcelona – but Rafael Benitez at Everton? Who saw that coming?

The Spaniard is back in the Premier League, two years after walking away from Newcastle United, having been tempted by the same project that won over Carlo Ancelotti before the lure of a Real Madrid return became too great.

Benitez was a fans' favourite at Newcastle, arguably as much as he was at Liverpool, where he reached two Champions League finals including the unforgettable triumph in Istanbul. His connection to the red half of Merseyside meant his decision to head to Goodison Park raised the eyebrows of some and the blood pressure of others. In fact, only one man has ever managed both clubs: William Edward Barclay, Everton's first boss in 1888 and Liverpool's manager from 1892. We'll forgive you if you don't remember.

The scrutiny on Benitez, who has recorded 11 wins against Everton in his coaching career, will be severe. He has the credentials, but if he cannot quickly prove he is the man to realise the dreams of owner Farhad Moshiri and challenge the 'big six', the pressure could become pretty uncomfortable.

 

Virgil return lifts Reds

For a while, it seemed everything would be okay. In the first 11 games after Virgil van Dijk was injured against Everton last October, Liverpool conceded just six goals and kept as many clean sheets. Perhaps the loss of the Netherlands colossus would not be quite so damaging.

Of course, as injuries in defence piled up and confidence in their title chances waned, Liverpool's season ended up being one of major disappointment even though a strong final few weeks saw them snatch a Champions League spot.

Van Dijk's impact cannot really be disputed: since his move to Anfield in January 2018, Liverpool have won 75.8 per cent of matches with the centre-back in the side and only 54.3 per cent without him. They average 2.4 points per game with him (compared with 1.9 without), and even score more goals on average (2.3 compared with 1.8) when he's playing. No wonder fans began to count down the days to his return.

On Saturday, we can finally expect to watch Van Dijk in competitive action again, with Jurgen Klopp confirming he is fit to start the season. He could even begin his partnership with new signing Ibrahima Konate against Norwich City at Carrow Road. How Liverpool's campaign progresses over the opening few weeks, and how Van Dijk's return goes, might just tell us whether another title tilt is on the cards.

 

Rom-ember us?

Two of the biggest transfers in this pre-season have seen stars returning to England: Jadon Sancho, who finally got his Manchester United move for £72.9million a year after Borussia Dortmund had demanded a sizeably bigger sum; and Romelu Lukaku, who is heading to Chelsea for roughly £93m.

Sancho left Manchester City for the Bundesliga as a teenager and promptly became one of Europe's standout attacking players, with 50 goals and 57 assists in 137 appearances. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wanted a player to get fans on their feet, and he's almost certainly found it: Sancho completed 48 multi take-ons (beating more than one player with a dribble) in the Bundesliga, at least 14 more than any other player in his time in Germany.

For Lukaku, it's a case of unfinished business at Chelsea, the club he left back in 2014. The standout performer for Inter last season, with 30 goals and 11 assists in all competitions, he propelled his side to their first Serie A title since 2010 before taking up the chance to return to Stamford Bridge, where a consistent goalscorer could be decisive to their Premier League title hopes.

Sancho and Lukaku initially struggled to convince managers to give them a shot as youngsters in the Premier League. They return as elite players determined to prove a point. Given the costs involved, the pressure will be on both to perform – and quickly.

 

Did Jack hammer Harry's City hopes?

Manchester City are not exactly frugal in the transfer market, but rarely will they willingly pay over the odds for an individual. That's what made their willingness to spend £100million on Jack Grealish, a player with 12 senior international caps and zero Champions League experience, a touch surprising.

This is not to suggest Grealish is not a good player, of course. This is a man who was involved in a remarkable 376 open-play attacking sequences over the past two seasons for Aston Villa, a team who finished 17th and 11th in those campaigns. It's just notable that Pep Guardiola felt it was warranted to smash City's transfer record by nearly £40m to sign yet another midfielder, especially given what's going on – or not going on – with Harry Kane.

Kane was expected to be City's marquee signing in this window but, as of now, his future is unclear. He is finally due to return to Tottenham training this week but whether he is involved against City in their opening game is harder to know. And if City were willing to spend nine figures on Grealish, you can expect Spurs chairman Daniel Levy to demand top dollar for last term's golden boot winner, who has three years left on his contract.

Will City stump up the cash? Will Kane try his best to force Spurs' hand? Will he be staying in north London for at least a few months more, his form undimmed, the goals flowing as normal? It will be fascinating to watch.

 

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  • Liverpool hit back after first-half scare to sweep aside Luton Liverpool hit back after first-half scare to sweep aside Luton

    A stirring second-half comeback saw Premier League leaders Liverpool restore their four-point advantage at the top and avoid one of the shocks of the season with a 4-1 victory over Luton.

    Chiedozie Ogbene’s early header was only the 11th league goal a visiting team had scored at Anfield this season but for a long time it looked like producing another twist in the title race as the depleted hosts struggled to find their best form.

    But headers from Virgil van Dijk and Cody Gakpo within the space of two minutes turned things around before Luis Diaz and Harvey Elliott fired home to ease them away from the clutches of second-placed Manchester City.

    Any slip up, even at this stage, could have significant implications in what is currently a three-way battle and without this victory City would have had the chance to go top at Bournemouth on Saturday as Liverpool are otherwise engaged in the Carabao Cup final against Chelsea.

    That Wembley encounter meant no risks were taken with Mohamed Salah and Darwin Nunez, who are both carrying knocks, but with injuries had already ruling out nine other players it left Jurgen Klopp with very few options.

    What the first half, in particular, showed was that stand-ins Elliott and Gakpo lacked half-a-yard of pace both over the ground and in their passing.

    They were not helped by some poor decision-making by Diaz, the one regular starter in the forward line, who in only the third minute delayed his shot too long as he tried to manoeuvre it on to his right foot and then shot wide with only goalkeeper Thomas Kaminski to beat.

    Luton stunned Anfield by taking the lead in the 12th minute. Tahith Chong received a return pass from Cauley Woodrow before shooting from a narrow angle and the ball squeezed under Caoimhin Kelleher and bounced up to the far post where Ogbene headed into an empty goal.

    Luton’s gameplan was then to try to attack the space behind the full-backs but limit Liverpool’s options by going man-for-man in defence, which often left them two on two.

    The last visiting team to win a league game at Anfield – Leeds in October 2022 – did the same.

    And Luton also worked harder – Albert Sambi Lokonga easing Elliott off the ball as he looked to shoot from Gakpo’s flick-on – and smarter as the hosts resorted to firing in long-range shots.

    Elliott’s radar was off from two breakaways as his passes to Gakpo were three feet short and two yards too long as the final ball continued to elude them and frustrations threatened to boil over with Klopp exploding in rage at a fan near the front of the main stand, presumably for his negative reaction to a third mis-placed Elliott pass.

    The early omens in the second half were not much better as Diaz fired straight at Teden Mengi but when Gakpo’s near-post shot was turned behind Van Dijk powered home a header from Alexis Mac Allister’s 56th-minute corner.

    Two minutes later it was Gakpo producing a brilliant leap to launch Conor Bradley’s cross past Kaminski, who had brilliantly saved Bradley’s deflected shot with his legs.

    The Luton goalkeeper did even better to repel another powerful Van Dijk header as Liverpool turned the screw, with substitute Andy Robertson charging forward to tee up Diaz for the third.

    In doing so he became the fifth Liverpool player to reach double figures, which is the best of any team in Europe’s top five leagues, with Elliott grabbing his second of the season late on as Luton remained in the bottom three.

  • Ja's top club Cavalier, Dom Rep's Moca eye positive Champions Cup starts against FC Cincinnati, Nashville SC Ja's top club Cavalier, Dom Rep's Moca eye positive Champions Cup starts against FC Cincinnati, Nashville SC

    Jamaican club Cavalier and Dominican Republic’s Moca FC will be targeting quick starts in their respective 2024 Concacaf Champions Cup Round One campaigns, as they tackle Major League Soccer (MLS) outfits FC Cincinnati and Nashville FC in first leg action on Thursday.

    Moca FC hosts Nashville SC at the Estadio Cibao in Santiago de los Caballeros at 7:00pm, while Cavalier will also be at home to FC Cincinnati at the National Stadium at 9:00pm Jamaica time.

    Cavalier, who secured their spot in this edition of the Champions Cup by virtue of their runner-up finish in last year’s Concacaf Caribbean Cup, will be hoping to carry their form from the Jamaica Premier League into play and upset the proverbial applecart across the two-leg tie.

    The Rudolph Speid-coached side currently head the Jamaica Premier League standings on the back of a 12-match unbeaten run, the last four of which ended in clean sheet victories.

    “We have only conceded two goals in 12 (Jamaica Premier League) games, one being an own goal. So, we are on a trajectory and it is something that we plan because we know that we will be up against some good attackers in the Concacaf Champions League, so we try to hone our defence,” Speid said.

    While the level of competition on the Champions Cup stage is more formidable that the Jamaica Premier League and the Caribbean Cup, Cavalier have proven that they can compete and, if their rich scoring from the Caribbean Cup, in particular, is anything to go by, then FC Cincinnati will have to put every foot right defensively.

    No player had more goals in the Caribbean Cup than Shaniel Thomas, who finished with eight goals, including a pair of hat-tricks. However, Thomas didn’t do it alone as Jalmaro Calvin also scored four goals and was one of the playmakers in attack.

    Speid is backing that dynamic duo and others to execute accordingly against an FC Cincinnati team playing its first match of the year.

    “We just want to see what we can get from the two games against Cincinnati,” Speid added.

    Cincinnati FC also enjoyed a fruitful 2023 season in MLS, where they won the Supporters Shield as the team with the best regular season record.

    Like Cavalier, the Ohio-based club will be making their Champions Cup debut as well but boast both quality and experience within the squad. Attacking midfielder and 2023 MLS Most Valuable Player Luciano Acosta, who had 17 goals and 14 assists in 2023, is no stranger to the Champions Cup, as he enjoyed a stint with DC United in 2015-16 season. Now, almost eight years later, Acosta will get another crack at Concacaf glory.

    FC Cincinnati also have great strength in defence, especially in central defenders Matt Miazga and Miles Robinson, both of whom have won a Concacaf Gold Cup with the United States Men’s National team.

    A pair of seasoned FC Cincinnati defenders going up against Cavalier’s prolific attack should make for an intriguing first leg.

    Moca FC vs Nashville SC

    These two teams will also be making their Concacaf Champions Cup debuts, as Moca FC progressed by virtue of their third-place finish in the Caribbean Cup, while Nashville SC, due to their runner-up finish in last year’s Leagues Cup.

    Moca used a stifling defence and timely goal-scoring to reach the knockout stage of the Caribbean Cup, as they conceded just three goals in their four group stage games.

    In attack, Gustavo Ascona was a headache for opponents defence in scoring four goals, while Victor Sanchez was also threat in notching two goals.

    But they are up against an MLS team that boast one of the strongest squads in the Eastern Conference, which makes for a daunting assignment.

    Leading the way for Nashville is talented midfielder Hany Mukhtar, who pocketed MLS’s Most Valuable Player for the 2022 season, a feat he followed up with 15 goals and 11 assists in 2023. New arrival Tyler Boyd should also help in attack, after scoring seven goals and contributing four assists last season with the Los Angeles Galaxy.

    Nashville SC are also quite strong in defence, with United States Internationals Walker Zimmerman and Shaq Moore at the back. 

  • Reggae Boy Ravel Morrison draws interest from Championship trio: Sheffield Wednesday, Bolton Wanderers, and Peterborough United" Reggae Boy Ravel Morrison draws interest from Championship trio: Sheffield Wednesday, Bolton Wanderers, and Peterborough United"

    Reggae Boy Ravel Morrison finds himself at the center of attention as Sheffield Wednesday, Bolton Wanderers, and Peterborough United have expressed interest in securing the services of the 31-year-old midfielder.

    A free agent since parting ways with Major League Soccer side DC United at the beginning of this year, Morrison is eager to return to regular football action, sparking the interest of clubs across the English Championship.

    Sheffield Wednesday, currently grappling with the challenges of a survival fight in the Championship, sees Morrison as a potential boost to their attacking options. The free agent status of the Jamaican international has also piqued the interest of League One promotion hopefuls Bolton and Peterborough, both aiming to strengthen their squads for the crucial final weeks of the season.

    Having made his debut for Jamaica in November 2020, Morrison showcased his prowess by scoring his first international goal in a crucial World Cup qualification match against Honduras in March 2022. However, despite his impressive international outings, the 31-year-old has been sidelined from the Reggae Boyz squad since March 2023 due to a lack of club football activity.

    Should Morrison secure a contract with any of the three English Championship clubs currently courting him, it could potentially reignite his chances of returning to the national team. The window of opportunity, however, seems tight, with Jamaica's Reggae Boyz gearing up to face the United States in the CONCACAF Nations Cup semi-finals in late March.

    The possibility of a move to Sheffield Wednesday adds an intriguing layer to the narrative, considering Morrison's past stint with their cross-city rivals Sheffield United during the 2019-20 season.

    With a football journey that has taken him through clubs in six different countries, Morrison stands at a crossroads, contemplating a return to the league where it all began for the talented midfielder, or the prospect of venturing into League One for the first time in his career.

     

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