The Hotel California has not always been kind to the Maple Leafs.
-Talking Points from the Premier League weekend:
HAVE CHELSEA GAINED A PSYCHOLOGICAL EDGE
Chelsea’s 2-1 victory over Manchester City made sure City’s title celebrations remained on hold but perhaps more importantly sent out a message to Pep Guardiola’s side for the Champions League final and next season’s title race.
Surprisingly, Guardiola made wholesale changes to his side when victory would have sealed a third title in five seasons.
When Sergio Aguero fluffed a Panenka-style penalty to give City a 2-0 lead, it sparked a Chelsea revival where they dominated the second half.
It will be a very different City side that starts in the Champions League final. However, Chelsea will start that game knowing they have beaten City twice this season having also wrecked their quadruple bid in the FA Cup semi-final.
Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea will still be underdogs when the sides meet at the end of May, but those wins will fuel belief and could sow seeds of doubt into City’s players.
UNITED LEFT TO RUE DROPPED POINTS EARLIER IN SEASON
Manchester United put on hold City’s title celebrations with a comeback 3-1 win at Aston Villa but the result left many of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men wandering what might have been.
A series of draws and the odd defeat against unfancied opposition, none more so than a 2-1 home loss to relegated Sheffield United, had denied United a chance to mount a stronger title challenge in the run-in.
Snatching the title from City’s grasp is still theoretically possible but highly unlikely and left back Luke Shaw made it clear in no uncertain terms how much United rued their poor early-season form.
“We are just focusing on ourselves, even more so we look at the City result (2-1 defeat by Chelsea) and we are disappointed with the points we have let go this season,” Shaw said.
HIRING ALLARDYCE EARLIER MIGHT HAVE SAVED WEST BROM
Sam Allardyce’s proud record of never taking a Premier League down came to an end as his West Bromwich Albion side lost 3-1 at Arsenal on Sunday, condemning the Baggies to the drop.
Bizarrely it came in the same weekend that Allardyce was nominated for the manager of the month award after some stirring displays — notably a 5-2 hammering of Champions League finalists Chelsea in April.
Fans of the Midlands club might well ask whether the club should have acted earlier than December to replace Slaven Bilic with Allardyce, one of the game’s great survivors.
West Brom were 19th, with seven points from 13 games, when Allardyce took command and they have taken 19 points since, losing only three of their previous 11 games before the defeat by Arsenal confirmed the inevitable relegation.
LEICESTER LOOKING OVER THEIR SHOULDERS
There is a horrible sense of deja-vu closing in on Leicester. An ugly 4-2 home defeat by Newcastle United on Friday, when they trailed 4-0, has left their top-four place in peril and fans fearing that they will miss out as they did last season having looked odds-on to make the Champions League.
Last season in their 35th game they lost 4-1 to Bournemouth, after which they faced Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur, two of the three sides they play in their run-in this time.
Jonny Evans was injured shortly before kickoff on Friday and Rodgers conceded afterwards he is the brains of their defence. Without him, Leicester looked wobbly at the back while their attack has lost its spark with Jamie Vardy struggling for goals and James Maddison not back to full speed after injury.
Brendan Rodgers said his side still have their destiny in their own hands, but defeat by Manchester United on Tuesday will set the alarm bells ringing loudly.
(Reporting by Zoran Milosaljevic, Martyn HermanEditing by Christian Radnedge)
The Hotel California has not always been kind to the Maple Leafs.
That’s changed on this trip, two lopsided wins and the chance for a rare sweep of the Golden State. The Leafs followed up a 6-2 win in Los Angeles with Friday’s 4-1 domination of the San Jose Sharks.
While rookie Joseph Woll finished strong with 30-plus saves for his third win to give Jack Campbell another rest, the other end of the ice belonged to the team’s top guns. William Nylander, Auston Matthews and John Tavares helped drive ex-Leaf James Reimer from the cage.
It was Toronto’s sixth straight road victory and eighth of the past nine allowing two goals or less. Most important for coach Sheldon Keefe, the team didn’t relax in the warm California sun. They weren’t given a day off since arriving from a win on Long Island.
“We made it very clear, it’s very much a business trip coming out here,” Keefe said before the game. “That’s not an easy thing to do, because it is a beautiful place to be and it’s a great time to enjoy that as you start to move on to the winter months. But our guys have been focused. We’ve had a enough time after practice to enjoy a few hours of sunlight.”
Another win Sunday in Anaheim, likely to be the toughest stop, would be their first 3-0 run here in four years with very few before that.
“Certainly the morale of this team right now is the best it has been all season,” said Keefe, who had his 77th win as Toronto coach to pass Paul Maurice for 14th place in team history. “We feel we had a really good camp and pre-season and felt really good about our group and had a few days together (in Gravenhurst, Ont.) where I thought there was a lot of growth inside our team. Then obviously the season didn’t start well, it took us some time to get rolling, get people comfortable in their roles.
“(But) we can’t get too focused on that. It’s a long season, a daily thing (to maintain). The confidence is there right now, but you need that every day. You hope to be 1-0 every day.”
With 15 wins in 22 games, the Leafs are still pressuring division leading Florida. The first five minutes and change produced three of night’s haul of goals. It took just 32 seconds for the Leafs, who survived a scramble around Woll and headed up-ice, Tavares with a nice pass to send Nylander in alone. After a long stretch without a goal, Nylander’s 111th tied him with Ace Bailey for 50th in team history.
A few moments after Nick Bonino took advantage of rookie Kirill Semyonov being caught out too long, Wayne Simmonds chipped a David Kampf shot past Reimer. It was his fourth point in five games, though trapped as the last man back on defence, he was beaten by ex-Leaf Alex Barabanov on a close call. Woll stopped that and then Jonah Gadjovich on a breakaway, but forced his mates to kill a second minor in the period when he came out to clear a puck that eluded Justin Holl, only to fire it over the glass.
Matthews missed on some good looks in the middle period, then directed blueline traffic for a point shot to give himself an easy rebound on the lip of the crease, making it 3-1. His eighth since Nov. 1 made him one of four NHLers with at least that many this month — Leon Draisaitl (15), Matt Duchene (10) and Alex Ovechkin (9).
While Toronto’s eighth-ranked penalty kill added three more to its total, the No. 1 power play unit stayed out for the duration and didn’t take its foot off the gas until Tavares knocked in a rebound with 20 seconds remaining, his team-high 10th and the 13th time in his career he’s reached double figures.
That was all for Reimer on 17 shots, marking the fifth time he’s not finished a start against his old club, one of those an injury on that crazy night when he and current Leaf Petr Mrazek were hurt and local Zamboni driver David Ayres filled in for a Carolina win. Adin Hill didn’t get much respite from Toronto’s breakaways, born of 11 takeaways through 40 minutes.
Kampf was back in the lineup after missing all but a shift of Wednesday’s win in L.A. with an upper body injury, though linemate Ondrej Kase was scratched for a rest, replaced by Semyonov. The latter was about the only Leaf not to shine, Keefe keeping him on the bench for a spell in the middle period after some rough spots.
The 27-year-old is in his second season with Ottawa after they flipped a second-round pick and prospect Jonathan Gruden to Pittsburgh to get him back at the 2020 draft. At the time, they felt they had their starting goalie of the foreseeable future, quickly inking him to a four-year, $25MM contract; his $6.25MM AAV is the sixth-highest in the league among goaltenders this season.
What have they received in return for that money? Not a whole lot. Murray struggled considerably last season, posting a 3.38 GAA with a .893 SV% in 27 games, the worst numbers of his career. This season, those numbers aren’t any better – a 3.26 GAA and a save percentage of .890 in six games. Those numbers are below average for a backup let alone a starter.
Ottawa’s decision to dress Anton Forsberg and Filip Gustavsson against the Ducks was a strong message from head coach D.J. Smith that he has lost faith in Murray. At this point, getting him down to Belleville for a stint to try to give him an opportunity to find his game again against lower-level competition certainly makes some sense.
Postmedia’s Bruce Garrioch suggests the Sabres and Coyotes could be teams to keep an eye on with regards to a potential claim. Both teams have a need for a goaltender but with two years still left on his contract and both teams operating as lower budget squads, it’s hard to imagine they’d be willing to take him off waivers with how poor he has performed in Ottawa. A trade with retention after he clears and maybe some games in the minors would be a likelier scenario.
Assuming he does indeed clear on Sunday, the Sens will get a small bit of cap relief as $1.125MM of Murray’s AAV will come off their books when he’s sent down. Of course, with Ottawa being a team that’s closer to the Lower Limit of the cap than the Upper Limit, that relief won’t be worth a whole lot to them but they’ll be able to move forward with a Forsberg-Gustavsson tandem for at least the time being while giving Murray an opportunity to get back to form in the minors.
Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman was the first to report that Murray would be waived.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
The World Cup in Qatar is sure to be without either Italy or Cristiano Ronaldo.
Italy and Portugal, the current and previous European champions, were drawn into the same qualifying playoff bracket Friday, meaning at least one will fail to qualify for next year’s tournament.
Italy will first face North Macedonia at home in a playoff semifinal next March, and the winner will play away at either Portugal or Turkey for a spot at the World Cup.
Four-time champion Italy failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, missing the tournament for the first time since 1958 after losing in the playoffs to Sweden. Now, after winning Euro 2020 in July, it may have to beat Euro 2016 champion Portugal to avoid a second straight failure.
“It’s not a great draw and it could have gone better,” Italy coach Roberto Mancini acknowledged. “Just like we wanted to avoid Portugal, they would have wanted to avoid Italy.”
Ronaldo has led Portugal to every World Cup since 2006 and this could be his last attempt at winning international soccer’s biggest trophy. He will turn 37 before next year’s tournament starts.
Ronaldo helped Portugal get through the playoffs for the 2014 World Cup, scoring a hat trick in a 3-2 win over Sweden that featured an epic duel between superstars, with Zlatan Ibrahimović netting twice for the Swedes.
“It’s not worth thinking about (Italy),” Portugal coach Fernando Santos said. “It’s important that we concentrate on beating Turkey.”
Also in the 12-team draw, Scotland will face Ukraine at home, and the winner will play at Wales or Austria in the final of their bracket.
Russia will host Poland for the right to face Sweden or the Czech Republic in their bracket final. Russia or Poland will host the final.
Scotland looks to end a 24-year wait to play at the World Cup while Wales’ only appearance was in 1958.
“At the moment, the way the team is playing, the confidence the boys have got, we would be happy to play anyone, anywhere,” said Scotland coach Steve Clarke, whose team has won six straight since September.
However, Ukraine won at Hampden Park in June, in the Euro 2020 round of 16 against Sweden, and went unbeaten through a World Cup qualifying group won by France.
Sweden will not have Ibrahimović for its semifinal against the Czechs. The 40-year-old forward has a one-game ban for getting yellow cards in the qualifying group.
“We already did it last time (in 2018) and we of course (know) that we can do it again,” said Sweden coach Janne Andersson.
The six playoff semifinals will be played as single-leg games March 24. The three finals are played five days later.
The three winners will complete Europe’s entry of 13 nations in the 32-team lineup in Qatar.
FIFA will make the tournament draw on April 1 in Doha.
The European playoffs feature the 10 teams who finished second in their qualifying groups along with two teams — Austria and the Czechs — who won Nations League groups last year.
Also, FIFA said Qatar will host the intercontinental playoff in June that will decide the last two qualifiers for the tournament.
The intercontinental draw paired the team from Asia against the team from South America, and a team from North American region CONCACAF against Oceania’s representative.
Those qualifying campaigns are still being played.
The winners of the two single-leg games on June 13-14 will complete the 32-team World Cup lineup.
The intercontinental playoff was originally scheduled for March 2022 as two-leg, home and away series. The games were pushed back as the global qualifying program stalled during the COVID-19 pandemic.
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