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Laurent Koscielny to Barcelona gaining momentum

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We picked out one, but you don’t have look deep in your paper of choice to find a connection between Arsenal’s Laurent Koscielny and Barcelona, a team that’s lacked depth in central defense for some time. While more glamorous rumors around the Catalan titans have focused on the type of goal scoring forward the Blaugrana have ben without since David Villa broke his leg, the age of (and dependency on) Carles Puyol makes central defense a more-pressing need.

Stylistically, a connection to Koscielny makes sense. Competent on the ball and athletic enough to handle himself in the one-on-one scenarios to which Barcelona subjects their central defenders, Koscielny seems like somebody who could slot right in to the left of Gerard Piqué. At 27 years old, he’s no prospect, but the French international is young enough to be classified as more than a stop-gap measure.

All of which prompts the question: Why would Arsenal sell? Koscielny was clearly Arsène Wenger’s best defender last season, and in a year in which the Gunners are expected to push on after a rumored summer spending spree, keeping Koscielny would seem crucial to their hopes to solidify a place among England’s top four. Even if they sold him for an unexpectedly large sum, Arsenal can’t afford to take a step back from Koscielny.

Is $20 million (€15 million) enough for a player whose contract reportedly runs through the 2016-17 season? Yes, if you’re a team that can afford to take a step back. Or if you’re a team that has to fill multiple holes in the squad. If you’re a club for whom $20 million would be a once-in-a-generation sale, capable of bankrolling new facilities and the club’s wages for years on end, then the sale makes sense. Twenty million bucks is hard to turn down.

But Arsenal’s argument may be more straight forward. In their heart, they may not see Koscielny, who they bought for around £8.5 million, as worth that much. For them, this may be a sell high proposition.

Still, the timing is all wrong. After a year in which Koscielny proved so valuable, it’s hard to see a sale doing anything but moving the club closer to fifth-place Spurs. And reportedly having money to burn in the summer’s market, Arsenal doesn’t need to sell.

Given the club would need to replace him to meet next year’s goals, it’s difficult to see what the Gunners would get out of this type of Koscielny sale.

3 key battles to watch in MLS Cup final

(Photo credit: Left: Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP | Right: AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Left: Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP | Right: AP Photo/David Zalubowski
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One club will make history on Saturday night north of the border as Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders vie for their first MLS Cup title.

[ MORE: PST roundtable discusses key topics ahead of MLS Cup ]

While both teams enter the final in fine form, PST takes a look at which players and matchups will influence the game’s outcome the most.

Osvaldo Alonso vs. Michael Bradley

It may not be the sexiest matchup in terms of watching but these two midfielders have a lot in common other than their lack of hair. In addition to his three goals and four assists during the regular season, Alonso has been the heart and soul of the Sounders midfield for several years, but particularly in 2016. Meanwhile, Bradley has had a similarly strong season for TFC as he anchors the midfield.

Both teams feature strong backlines and some of the league’s top attackers, but these two players certainly provide stability in the midfield, which will be vital in the frigid conditions at BMO Field on Saturday night.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Jordan Morris vs. TFC backline

The story of the Sounders in 2016 is that of a fairytale, but the one of Jordan Morris might be even more intriguing if he and his side goes on to win MLS Cup. All in one calendar year, Morris can potentially be an NCAA champion, MLS Rookie of the Year and MLS Cup champion, a feat that seems pretty incredible when considering what the Sounders have endured in 2016.

Morris will likely have his chances against the TFC, which gave away several clear-cut opportunities to the Impact in the East final, but he’ll have to capitalize for the Sounders in order for them to win it all.

Sebastian Giovinco vs. Sounders backline

It’s easier said than done to try and contain the Italian striker but that’s what the Sounders will have to do in order to hoist the title. Although the emergence of Jozy Altidore has greatly helped the TFC attack and Giovinco, in particular, so that opposition can’t solely zone in on him, Giovinco remains the top threat for the hosts. Giovinco notched 17 goals and added 15 assists in 2016, meaning he’s not only a danger in front of goal but also a worry for the Sounders when it comes to playing the role of provider.

With Altidore’s emergence as of late it makes the challenge of stopping Giovinco all the more difficult, but the Sounders will likely have to keep at least two bodies around the Italian at times in order to throw him off of his game. Otherwise it could be a very long night for the Cascadia side, who likely watched as TFC put up five goals at home against the Montreal Impact in their Eastern Conference final second leg.

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.