Barcelona's coach Pep Guardiola attends a news conference during a training session at Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona

Preview: Desperate times require new measures for Barcelona against Chelsea

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It would be difficult to imagine a team with both Xavi Hernández and Juan Roman Riquelme losing three in a row if it hadn’t happened nine years ago. That’s the last time Barcelona was on a losing streak as long, falling to Valencia, Celta Vigo and Atlético Madrid in the middle of a five-game winless run that cost then-manager Louis Van Gaal his job, leaving a team featuring countrymen Patrick Kluivert, Philipp Cocu, Frank de Boar and Marc Overmars behind at Camp Nou.

Tuesday, Pep Guardiola’s squad is on the cusp of the same result, carrying losses against Chelsea and Real Madrid into the second leg of their Champions League semifinal. Only once in Guardiola’s three previous seasons had Barcelona even lost consecutive matches – end of year irrelevancies at the close of the former captain’s first title as manager (2009). Though it is again the end of a season, their second leg with Chelsea is anything but an irrelevancy, the defending European champions carrying a 1-0 deficit into the second leg of their Champions League semifinal.

While Barcelona are considered the favorites by most, their recent history against English sides at the Nou Camp sides has been problematic. Against Arsenal – a team that, for the most part, has been willing to ry and match them like-for-like – they have been fine, winning their last two meetings in Spain by a combined score of 7-2. Against other English opponents (Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United), Barcelona has four draws and a loss since defeating Chelsea in February 2005. In back-to-back semifinal first legs against United and Chelsea in 2008 and 2009, Barcelona was held to scoreless draws.

Leaving Stamford Bridge on Wednesday, Barcelona looked as impotent as those manhandled sides. There was no distinct plan for how to deal with a physical, disciplined, patient side who valued its defensive shape above taking the ball off their opponents. Back then, the debate raged as to how long the English sides’ luck could last given the extent to which they were supposedly dominated by Barça. Now, there is a greater awareness that the problem is Barcelona’s. They have to find a solution, not wait for their opposition’s perceived luck to run out.

The scary part for Cules: Guardiola doesn’t appear to have a solution; or, at least, if defender Gerard Piqué is considered an antidote to a goal shortage, the problem’s not being properly tackled. The big Barcelona center back will give Guardiola an option at the end of matches, but reportedly benched due to a dip in form (before injuries slowed a return), he may afford Chelsea a route to kill off the tie before Barcelona can snag an equalizer. At the point where Piqué’s size would be utilized in an attacking role, Didier Drogba (presumed healthy for Tuesday after missing Saturday’s match with Arsenal) would be back, augmenting Chelsea’s height in defense.

Before then, Barcelona has few choices but to find a new, ingenious way to use their current, homogenous personnel. Even the channel between Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic that presented so many first leg options is likely to be closed by a Chelsea defense that, protecting a lead, can set up deeper and more compact than in the opening moments in London.

Chelsea can always make mistakes. We could see a penalty call, a freak own goal. We could see another Andrés Iniesta blast from distance push tactics aside.

But we could also see this play out the same way it did the last time Chelsea went to Catalunya, and while that wouldn’t hand Barcelona a third straight loss, it would put them out of Champions League.

As was the case last week, Pro Soccer Talk will be bringing out all the stops for this one. Play-by-play with will start around 2:00 p.m. ET, with post-match analysis and reaction to follow. On Wednesday, we’ll do it all over again as Real Madrid tries to stay on course for a double against Bayern Munich.

Premier League Preview: Arsenal vs. Stoke City

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 02:  Stephen Ireland of Stoke City shoots a volley during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Southampton at the Emirates Stadium on February 2, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
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  • Arsenal has won last 14 matches against Stoke
  • Gunners are currently unbeaten in last 13 PL fixtures
  • Stoke has gone unbeaten in eight of last nine matches

Arsenal looks to remain hot on Saturday as the Gunners host Stoke City (10 a.m. ET, NBCSN and streaming via NBC Sports Live) from the Emirates Stadium.

The Gunners remain in contention at the summit of the Premier League as Arsene Wenger‘s side sits second behind league leaders Chelsea on 31 points. In addition to Arsenal’s recent success in the PL, the Gunners have progressed to the final 16 in the UEFA Champions League as well, making 2016/17 a potentially strong year for the London side.

Alexis Sanchez continues to lead the way for the Gunners attack, with the Chilean international notching 11 goals so far this season. In his last 25 PL matches for the club, Sanchez has either scored or assisted on as many goals for the Gunners.

[ MORE: Everton heads to Vicarage Road to face Watford ]

Stoke remains without several top pieces in its lineup, including U.S. Men’s National Team defender/midfielder Geoff Cameron and Ryan Shawcross, however, Bruno Martins Indi and Marko Arnautovic are expected to play for the Potters.

The Emirates has not been friendly to Stoke though in recent years, with the Potters only scoring three goals in their last eight visits while conceding on 19 occasions.

What they’re saying

Arsene Wenger on Arsenal’s progression throughout the season: “We have a good team dynamic, we have a very strong team spirit and we have more maturity, definitely. Unfortunately, the teams around us have more as well. You can assess the Premier League as very open and very interesting… December is a very important month and for us even more because we have some big games. Stoke is another challenge for us [to show] that we can reset, refocus and continue our development and take the points.”

Mark Hughes on Stoke’s solid play against PL’s top sides“In the past as a club we’ve struggled to get results at places like Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge but we’ve been able to do that in recent times. This is the only one left standing so it would be great to get it out of the way. Our recent form is good and we’re in good heart so confidence is high, that is huge in football, so we’ll be able to benefit from that. It’s up to us to restrict them to minimal chances and make sure we’re creating chances when going the other way.”

Prediction

The Gunners can make it 14 straight matches unbeaten on Saturday, and while Stoke has done well to start the season, it’s highly likely that Arsenal will continue its winning ways. Alexis Sanchez is a Golden Boot contender in England, while the backline has improved every match for the Gunners. While the club has received its deserved criticisms in the past for faltering at critical junctures of the season, 2016/17 could be the year that Arsene Wenger and co. break through in the PL. Arsenal 3-1 Stoke

Premier League Preview: Watford vs. Everton

WATFORD, UNITED KINGDOM - APRIL 09:  Jose Holebas (1st R) of Watford scores his team's first goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Watford and Everton at Vicarage Road on April 9, 2016 in Watford, England.  (Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images)
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  • Everton are unbeaten in 11 straight matches vs. Watford (all comps)
  • Troy Deeney is one goal shy of 100 in Hornets kit
  • Toffees have won just one of last nine in PL

Watford hosts Everton on Saturday (7:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN and streaming via NBC Sports Live) from Vicarage Road as the two clubs look to keep pace in the running with the Premier League’s top six.

The Hornets have lost three of four in the PL and currently sit 11th in the table on 18 points. In that span, Watford has been outscored 11-4, including the team’s brutal 6-1 defeat at Liverpool in early November.

Etienne Capoue leads the way for Watford in the goals department, with five on the season, while Troy Deeney has three of his own and sits just one away from notching his 100th for the club. Defending his been a bit of an issue though for the Hornets — who have conceded 24 in 14 matches — with only four teams allowing more goals this season.

[ MORE: Swansea remain committed to Bob Bradley despite struggles ]

Everton could potentially have to deal without Yannick Bolasie for the remainder of the season after suffering a knee injury, while Seamus Coleman is expected to play after sustaining a head injury a week ago.

The Toffees enter Saturday with just one win out of their last nine, and while one point separates Ronald Koeman‘s side from sixth place Manchester United, a victory is very much needed for the Merseyside club. While Romelu Lukaku continues to carry the load up front for Everton with seven goals thus far, the Toffees rank mid table in terms of goals scored this season (17).

What they’re saying

Walter Mazzarri on importance of upcoming fixtures for Watford: “It’s very important. The next six games will probably decide our future and decide if we are going to be in the Premier League. It will decide in a certain way, if we are going to be up or playing in a different way and struggling more. These games will decide this. We have been unlucky on injuries and have been in a bit of an emergency for a couple of months.”

Ronald Koeman on Everton striker Romelu Lukaku’s form: “You can have a good run of scoring goals and then have a bit of time where you don’t really get big chances to score. The players around him need to create more and he can improve in his movements – it’s a team question to create more chances. But if he gets the chances, we always know he will score goals.”

Prediction

Both sides enter Saturday’s encounter in desperate need of a victory, but Everton’s last time out against Manchester United was a bit more encouraging. It won’t be an easy task to take points at Vicarage, however, I expect the Toffees to come away with something against the struggling Hornets. Watford 2-2 Everton

Strootman has 2-match ban for Rome derby melee lifted

ROME, ITALY - DECEMBER 04:  Kevin Strootman of AS Roma celebrates after scoring the opening goal during the Serie A match between SS Lazio and AS Roma at Stadio Olimpico on December 4, 2016 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)
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ROME (AP) Roma midfielder Kevin Strootman has had a two-match ban lifted on appeal, clearing him to play key matches against AC Milan and Juventus.

Strootman had been banned for instigating a melee after scoring during Sunday’s Rome derby.

After the goal and an extended celebration, words appeared to be exchanged as Roma’s players walked back onto the field alongside Lazio’s bench.

[ MORE: MLS Cup Final preview ]

Strootman appeared to toss water from a bottle at Lazio’s Danilo Cataldi, who reacted by tugging the neck of Strootman’s shirt as the Netherlands midfielder walked away.

That prompted both benches to get involved.

Cataldi, who had been on the bench, was given a red card while Strootman was shown a yellow.

The two-match ban was decided on Monday, with league officials deciding that Strootman simulated falling to the ground after Cataldi grabbed his shirt.

However, the football federation’s appeals court determined that the simulation could not be proven.

Besides a one-match ban for the red card, Cataldi’s full punishment has not been announced yet.

Roma won the derby 2-0.

The second-place Giallorossi host Milan on Monday and then visit Serie A leader Juventus.

Watford “Behind The Badge” airs third installment; Catch up on Episode 2 here

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Catch up on Watford’s look “Behind The Badge” ahead of Sunday’s third episode of the four-part glimpse into one of the Premier League’s promoted sides.

The Hornets sit 11th, currently 7 points clear of relegation danger, and are giving fans a better idea of what’s been going on at Vicarage Road.

[ MORE: Behind the Badge archive

In an exclusive series, NBC Sports followed around the Hornets in a very similar fashion to HBO’s Hard Knocks which joins the preseason camp of one NFL team each summer.

Below is the schedule for the three remaining episodes on Watford, which you can watch on NBCSN and live online via NBCSports.com in the coming weeks, plus a link to watch episode one in full from last week.


First episode: Watch full episode, here
Second episode: Embedded above
Third episode: Sunday, Dec. 11, 2 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Fourth episode: Sunday, Dec. 18, 2 p.m. ET – NBCSN

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