Premier League Preview: Top 5 strikers to watch

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In addition to previewing two teams from the Premier League each day until the beginning of season, we will name five players to watch at each position, goalkeeper through forward. The 2013-14 season begins Aug. 17, and for the first time, every game will be broadcast live in the United States on NBC Sports.

With transfer evaluations climbing higher and higher, clubs are finding it more and more difficult to get a hold of world-class strikers.  Heck, Barcelona management claimed a while back that Lionel Messi, considered by most to be the best striker in the world, to be worth €580 million.  Right then. Back to the drawing board.

When looking at forwards in the Premier League, goals are obviously the first order of business.  It’s their job, after all.  But sometimes it’s not just about putting the ball in the back of the net.  Depending on the makeup of certain clubs, it can be just as much about teeing up your teammates as being the one to smash it home.  Let’s take a look:

Robin van Persie, Manchester United

Arsenal fans knew when the 30-year-old Dutchman departed the Emirates last summer that they would be watching something special over at Old Trafford.  Unfortunately, they didn’t think it would be this special.  Van Persie led Manchester United to Premier League glory in relatively dominating fashion, sending legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson off with a bang.  “RVP” banged in a whopping 26 league goals for the Red Devils, and at an age where many would be beginning their decline, van Persie shows absolutely no signs of slowing down.  In addition to the goal-tally that won him the Premier League Golden Boot award for highest goalscorer, he also laid off 15 balls that teammates buried into the back of the net.  He probably would have been the overwhelming favorite to win the PFA Player of the Year had Gareth Bale not run away with the award, something many people balked at since Bale also won the PFA Young Player of the Year award – some believe he shouldn’t be eligible for both.  Either way, van Persie unanimously made the PFA Team of the Year, capping off a fairytale season.  Sorry Arsenal fans.

Fernando Torres, Chelsea

Chelsea is a bit of a wild card this season up front, as Jose Mourinho has a number of different options to work with.  It will be interesting to see who “The Special One” goes with, although the initial feeling is that Torres will begin as the guy.  The Spaniard has had a whirlwind Chelsea career, seeing many ups and downs.  When he first moved to Stamford Bridge from Liverpool for a whopping £51 million ($79.8 million), the Anfield legend had an anvil of expectations on his shoulders.  He became a laughingstock soon after the move, as he almost appeared cursed given the chances he failed to convert.  The criticism hasn’t ceased, but he’s slowly improved – not to the level of expectations the transfer value has put on him, but he’s slowly getting back to the world-class player that came to play at Anfield every week.  A relatively successful final few months of last season coupled with a prolific Confederations Cup, I would imagine he’s the player to get the nod over Demba Ba and Romelu Lukaku.  If he does, those two will for sure be breathing down his neck for the spot in the Starting XI, and if he starts the season on the bench, his story is just as worth keeping an eye on.

source: Getty ImagesChristian Benteke, Aston Villa

While Aston Villa barely avoided relegation last season with a bitter fight down the stretch, Christian Benteke is without a doubt the reason they stayed up.  The 22-year-old Belgian came to Villa from Genk of the Belgian Juliper Pro League for £7.8 million ($12.2 million), an absolute steal given the 19 goals he racked up, which was good enough for fourth place on last season’s goalscoring list.  Benteke has effectively pushed former Sunderland star Darren Bent out the door, and cemented the spot as his own. At such a young age, Benteke is almost certain to get even better, and is battling with Romelu Lukaku for the starting spot at the front of the Belgian international side, a team which is making a ton of noise ahead of the 2014 World Cup.  While the move up the Premier League ladder that Benteke desired this offseason didn’t materialize, it’s Villa’s gain and he’s signed back on with a new contract until 2017 to help Villa once again avoid the drop.

Edin Dzeko, Manchester City

Having been left to play second-fiddle to Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero, and Mario Balotelli for the last few seasons, it would seem that Dzeko has now fully grasped the starting striker spot for the Citizens as they aim to return the Premier League championship to the blue side of Manchester.  Dzeko has one of the best goal-per-minutes ratio in the Premier League over the past three seasons, and he hopes to bring that to a purely starting role.  Having been used often as a super-sub to change the course of a game, Dzeko will have to traverse the full 90 more often than not.  Providing both an aerial and ground threat, and a good combination of strikers behind him to give him rest when needed, Dzeko has the talent to make plenty of noise in the league next season and put Manchester City back on top in new manager Manuel Pellegrini’s first season in charge.

Rickie Lambert, Southampton

My surprise pick for this post, Rickie Lambert is coming off a dream week.  He marked his first-ever England international call-up by coming on for his debut and scoring a the winning goal on his first touch of the ball.  The story hasn’t just started though.  The 31-year-old bagged 15 goals last season for Southampton, and having led the club up from League One just four years ago, he paved the way for the Saints’ 14th place finish last year.  They’ll be looking to stave off relegation once again, but keep an eye out for the Englishman who’s soccer story isn’t up just yet, despite making his 500th career appearance last year.


Other Chelsea strikers Demba Ba and Romelu Lukaku got consideration here, but I only had five to choose from so went with the man I thought would get the most looks early.  Also getting honorable mentions here would be Fulham’s Dimitar Berbatov, Tottenham’s new signing Roberto Soldado, and Arsenal’s pair of Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski.  Luis Suarez is very possibly on his way out, and won’t feature in the first six matches anyways, so I left him off.

Roma slips in 3-1 derby loss to Lazio

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The Derby della Capitale went Lazio’s way, all but shattering any hopes Roma had of catching Juventus for the Scudetto as Keita Balde scored a brace in the 3-1 win.

Balde is absolutely on fire, with now five goals in his last two matches. His brace comes on the heels of a hat-trick in a 6-2 win over Palermo last time out.

The 22-year-old Senegalese international scored his first just 12 minutes in thanks to some horrid defending from Roma’s Emerson, and Balde cut the ball inside the near post to the surprise of Wojciech Szczesny. His second killed off the game in the 85th minute on the break, as Senad Lulic unselfishly gave it up to Balde on the 2-on-1 for an easy finish.

With Balde’s first the only score of the first half, Roma had momentarily pulled back level on a Daniele de Rossi penalty moments after the break, but it was Dusan Basta to provide the eventual winner just five minutes later. The goal was a bit generous, as his hit at the top of the box took a huge deflection off Federico Fazio and looped into the top corner.

Roma dominated possession throughout, but they were locked down, as Lazio matched them on the shot count despite finding themselves on the back foot for much of the game. Roma also saw Antonio Rudiger sent off in the dying minutes of the game for a very high boot that caught Lazio substitute Filip Djordjevic directly in the shin.

The loss paired with Rudiger’s impeding suspension means that Roma must now change its focus from looking ahead towards Juventus and instead over their shoulder. With a brutal run-in for Roma remaining, including games against AC Milan, Juventus, and Chievo Verona left on the schedule, they will be tested to hold their four-point lead over Napoli, who also has a game in hand.

Stream Live: Lukaku, Everton welcome title favorites Chelsea

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Everton hopes to have a better showing than the reverse fixture as welcome leaders Chelsea to Goodison Park live at 9:05 a.m. ET on CNBC or live online at NBCSports.com.

The Toffees fell 5-0 on their visit to Stamford Bridge in early November, part of a furious Chelsea run and the beginning of a poor run of form for the home side. Now, Everton is flying to finish the year, led by Romelu Lukaku, who is surrounded by rumors of a return from whence he came to Merseyside, from today’s opponents.

[ WATCH LIVE: Everton vs. Chelsea live online at NBCSports.com ]

Lukaku has 12 goals in his last 11 games, on absolute fire to the end of the campaign, only feeding the rumors. He heads the attack, with support from Enner Valencia who returns to selection after a short suspension last time out. Aaron Lennon, Seamus Coleman and Ramiro Funes Mori are all injured with long-term problems, but Everton has no other issues.

For Chelsea, the Blues continue with the decorated back three of Cesar Azpilicueta, David Luiz, and Gary Cahill. Despite his positive performance last time out against Southampton, Cesc Fabregas is rotated back to the bench in favor of first-choice attacker Pedro, who supports Diego Costa along with Eden Hazard.

With the Blues four points clear at the top, this game represents one of the tougher fixtures remaining on their soft finish to the season. Chelsea has lost a whopping six of its last 10 trips to Goodison Park across all competitions.

LINEUPS

Everton: Stekelenburg, Holgate, Jagielka, Williams, Calvert-Lewin, Baines, Gueye, Davies, Barkley, Valencia, Lukaku.
Subs: Robles, Kenny, Pennington, Barry, Lookman, Mirallas, Kone.

Chelsea: Courtois; Azpilicueta, David Luiz, Cahill; Moses, Kante, Matic, Alonso; Pedro, Diego Costa, Hazard.
Subs: Begovic, Zouma, Ake, Chalobah, Fabregas, Willian, Batshuayi.

Stream Live: Man City can strengthen Top 4 spot at Middlesbrough

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A week after Manchester City struggled to finish on net, the torrid Gabriel Jesus returns to the lineup as the Citizens travel to Middlesbrough at 9:05 a.m. ET live online at NBCSports.com.

Jesus scored three goals in five Premier League appearances after arriving in the winter, but broke a bone in his foot and faced a long spell on the sidelines. He is back from injury and starts alongside Sergio Aguero in the City attack. Raheem Sterling drops to the bench as Pep Guardiola produces a flat 4-4-2 to fit both attackers in the formation.

[ WATCH LIVE: Middlesbrough vs. Man City live online at NBCSports.com ]

City is also now forced to play with Willy Caballero in goal after Claudio Bravo was injured in the Manchester derby. On the bench to back up the goalkeeper is 21-year-old Manchester City youth product Angus Gunn.

For Middlesbrough, they were forced into a change as Fabio comes into the lineup in place of the injured Daniel Ayala who drops out with an ankle problem. Gaston Ramierz was reportedly available for selection after missing the win over Sunderland due to suspension, but he does not appear in the lineup or on the bench.

Boro has served as City’s boogey team in the past, without a win in their first 14 Premier League meetings, but they have turned that around, with wins in four of their last seven against Boro.

LINEUPS

Middlesbrough: Guzan, Fabio, Chambers, Gibson, Friend, Clayton, De Roon, Forshaw, Downing, Stuani, Negredo.
Subs: 
Dimi, Bernardo, Barragan, Fischer, Traore, Bamford, Gestede.

Man City: Caballero, Kompany, Kolarov, Otamendi, Clichy, Navas, Fernandinho, Garcia, De Bruyne, Jesus, Aguero.
Subs: 
Gunn, Sagna, Zabaleta, Fernando, Sterling, Nolito Sané.

Man United 1-1 Swansea: Sigurdsson rescues a point for Swans

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Swansea City went controversially behind, but they always remained a threat, and Gylfi Sigurdsson was again the man to pull them from the cold, dark waters.

Wayne Rooney had bagged a highly controversial penalty at the stroke of halftime, but Sigurdsson delivered his specialty: a beautiful curling free-kick with 11 minutes to go as Swansea grabbed a point and doomed the home side to yet another single point at Old Trafford.

Swansea began with much of the early possession, with Manchester United sloppy on the ball. The home side, which has been struck by countless injuries of late, was forced into yet another early change as Luke Shaw was unable to make it out of the opening 10 minutes with an ankle injury, replaced by Antonio Valencia.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

A furious chance for the Swans saw Fernando Llorente shake free of Eric Bailly and force a good save from David De Gea on 14 minutes. Down the other end two minutes later, Jesse Lingard timed a run well and received a brilliant ball from Anthony Martial, but he couldn’t bag the opener, with Lukasz Fabianski there to smother the ball.

On the half-hour mark, Martial burst into the box and took it on himself, cutting across three defenders to find space and firing on net but it was right at Fabianski who held on nervously.

Just before halftime, United found the breakthrough as Marcus Rashford went down near the endline on a challenge from Fabianski. The decision was poor, as Rashford dove amid hardly any contact from Fabianski off his line, but with the referee in a poor position to see the magnitude of the challenge, he pointed to the spot after a long deliberation. Wayne Rooney, who had been mostly invisible in the first 45 minutes, buried the chance from the spot with the final kick of the first half.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Rooney nearly had a second just minutes after the halftime break, but his effort on the empty left side of the net thumped into the back of Martial and harmlessly away. United then suffered yet another injury to its defense, with the reliable Eric Bailly unable to continue after whacking the back of Llorente’s leg.

Injuries were a concern for both sides throughout the contest. Swansea had just brought on Jefferson Montero, who has been plagued by hamstring problems all season. Montero was on the pitch just five minutes before pulling up after a physical contest between he and Antonio Valencia, forced back off the pitch and needed a stretcher to reach the tunnel. Martin Olsson came on, and was immediately thumped in the air full tilt by Ashley Young, but thankfully Olsson could continue despite the heavy clatter to his ribs.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Swansea fired a warning shot at the Red Devils on the break as Jordon Ayew cut back for Gylfi Sigurdsson, but he thumped the ball acres over the bar. That was a harbinger of things to come, as Ayew was fouled on the edge of the penalty area, and Sigurdsson stepped up to conjur the ball into the back of the net, with David de Gea failing to even produce an attempt at a save.

The visitors nearly snagged the win in six minutes of stoppage time, on a free-kick from Sigurdsson yet again, which he lofted into the box, and with Llorente’s defender Daley Blind falling to the turf, the Swans striker was completely free, but he bungled the wide-open chance and saw it harmlessly into the arms of De Gea.

The point for United only moves them within a point of the top four, failing to snag the chance to jump Manchester City, who have yet to play today. For Swansea, they fail to pull out of the relegation zone, still sitting two points below Hull City despite owning a slightly better goal differential.