Alex Morgan, Nate Berry

NWSL Championship: Five storylines to watch

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. — The Western New York Flash and Portland Thorns FC face off on Saturday night in the National Women’s Soccer League Championship, and the league got its star power matchup in its inaugural season. Abby Wambach and Carli Lloyd lead the Flash against a Thorns side expected to see Alex Morgan and Tobin Heath return from injury for the final, not to mention Christine Sinclair.

We’ve already given you snapshots of what to know about the Western New York Flash and what to know about Portland Thorns FC. Here are five stories to follow in the buildup to and during the final:

• There’s no escaping talk of Morgan’s health, in particular. The face of the league, Morgan sprained her left MCL on August 7 and hasn’t played since. She hasn’t played since, but was available during Saturday’s 3-2 extra time semifinal win over FC Kansas City. Portland has actually, by their own admission, played some of their best games of the season without Morgan, who is more of a direct player. Whether or not she plays will affect both the marketing hype of the match and the Thorns’ style of play. Morgan trained with a knee brace on Thursday at Sahlen’s Stadium and expects to be ready for the final. Coach Cindy Parlow Cone expects Morgan and Heath, who injured her right foot in the semifinal and did not train on Thursday, to play “significant roles” in the match.

“The knee feels good. I’ve been training now for a couple of days. We came early to kind of get adjusted to the time and recover our legs. I think that was good for my knee, personally, because it didn’t react to well to the flight. So getting on the field feels really good and I’m hoping to be full-go for Saturday.”

The Flash’s dominance of any and every women’s soccer league of the last four years is on the line. Western New York has won three straight championships in three different leagues, including the 2011 WPS triumph with Morgan and Sinclair. Flash head coach Aaran Lines says this Flash team has the most leadership of any of the previous three champions.

“Playing their roles as senior players and being good role models and leaders on and off the field has been an integral part of budding young players into the season,” Lines said.  “It’s been a good ride.”

• Wambach and Morgan will easily dominate the headlines, but the midfield battle will be critical. Carli Lloyd has been one of the best midfielders in the league since returning from injury on May 11, but was snubbed from even an all-league second team selection. She’ll have that chip on her shoulder as she aims to continue her stellar form. Lloyd scored both goals for the Flash in their semifinal win. Allie Long will be tasked with tracking Lloyd through the midfield, but whether or not Heath can play – and how healthy she is – will determine just how much of a counter-punch Portland will have to Lloyd. Heath is the catalyst of the Thorns’ midfield.

• Which Thorns defense will show up? Portland’s back line, anchored by U.S. international Rachel Buehler, breakout rookie Kat Williamson and Canadian goalkeeper Karine LeBlanc, had one of the better defenses in the league, but a late season stretch saw Portland give up nine goals in four games, a stretch in which they went 1-2-1. Issues in the back seemed to have been sorted out in the final two games of the regular season – including a 0-0 draw at the site of the final vs. the Flash – but two goals conceded to FC Kansas City in the opening half hour in the semifinal is yet again cause for concern. The Flash, meanwhile, statistically had the best defense in the league and showed few signs of breaking down during the regular season.

 The Aaran Lines vs. Cindy Parlow Cone coaching matchup is enticing. Lines is the man who has guided the Flash to these three consecutive titles and is well aware of the Morgan-Sinclair partnership, having coached the two alongside Marta to a 2011 WPS crown. Recognition of Lines for the impressive feat continues to be lacking, but the Kiwi continues to put together great teams. This year’s is perhaps the most impressive, having not gotten too much help in allocation beyond Lloyd and Wambach. Parlow Cone meanwhile is in her first final and first full season as a head coach. If she can guide the Thorns to a title after the adversity of what looked mid-season like a big-expectations year set for disappointment. Much of what she’ll be judged on in the final is how she manages Heath and Morgan, who are obvious game-changers.

WATCH, STREAM: Premier League schedule, Week 22

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Week 22 of the 2016-17 Premier League season is here.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live here ]

Liverpool host Swansea City (7:30 a.m. ET live NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) at Anfield looking to grab a win which would close the gap on leaders Chelsea, while Swansea are scrapping for their lives at the other end of the table.

Stoke City host Manchester United (10 a.m. ET live NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) with Jose Mourinho’s men aiming to extend their unbeaten run to 13 games in the Premier League. At the same time Crystal Palace host Everton (10 a.m. ET live CNBC and online via NBC Sports.com) as Sam Allardyce looks to grab his first win as Palace boss in the PL against the in-form Toffees.

[ STREAM: Premier League “Goal Rush” ]

Rounding off Saturday is a big game at the Etihad Stadium as Manchester City host Tottenham Hotspur (12:30 p.m. ET live NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com). Pep Guardiola has already conceded the title but Spurs have a real chance of Chelsea as Maurico Pochettino’s side are chasing a seventh-straight PL win.

On Sunday, Leicester visit Southampton (7 a.m. ET live NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) with both the Foxes and Saints in real danger of being sucked into the relegation battle. Then Arsenal welcome Burnley to the Emirates Stadium (9:15 a.m. ET live NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) with the Gunners hoping to stay in the title hunt, while the Clarets seek a first away win of the season.

Rounding off Week 22, leaders Chelsea welcome Hull City to Stamford Bridge (11:30 a.m. ET live NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) as Antonio Conte had Diego Costa back fit and available but the Blues will be wary of new Hull boss Marco Silva after a positive start to his spell at the KCOM Stadium.

You can watch every single second of every single game live online via NBC Sports.com and the NBC Sports App, plus you can also watch Premier League “Goal Rush” at 10 a.m. ET on Saturday for all the goals as they go in. Goal Rush is available via NBC Sports.com and the NBC Sports App,

If you’re looking for full-event replays of Premier League games, you can find them here. They are available soon after the final whistle, but rights limit us to a certain number each week. Looking for game highlights? Try this. Here’s your full TV schedule for the coming days. Enjoy.


FULL TV SCHEDULE

Saturday
7:30 a.m. ET: Liverpool vs. Swansea City – NBCSN [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Stoke City vs. Manchester United – NBCSN [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Crystal Palace vs. Everton – CNBC [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Bournemouth vs. Watford – Premier League Extratime [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: West Brom vs. Sunderland – Premier League Extratime [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Middlesbrough vs. West Ham – Premier League Extratime [STREAM]
12:30 p.m. ET: Manchester City vs. Tottenham Hotspur – NBC [STREAM]

Sunday
7 a.m. ET: Southampton vs. Leicester City – NBCSN [STREAM]
9:15 a.m. ET: Arsenal vs. Burnley – NBCSN [STREAM]
11:30 a.m. ET: Chelsea vs. Hull City – NBCSN [STREAM

Guardiola has “said goodbye to title”; praises Spurs, Pochettino

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Ahead of Manchester City’s home game against Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com) Pep Guardiola has no hopes of his team winning the Premier League title this season.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live

Guardiola, 46, looked dejected after City’s 4-0 defeat at Everton last weekend — his heaviest league defeat as a manager — and with City losing five games already this season and trailing league leaders Chelsea by 10 points, he reiterated his belief that any title chances are over.

[ VIDEO: Spurs’ stunning new stadium

Speaking to the media against of the clash with Mauricio Pochettino‘s in-form Spurs, Guardiola has given up on winning the PL trophy.

“We already said goodbye to the title. I expect it to be similar to the first game against them,” Guardiola said.

So what are Spurs’ biggest strengths under Pochettino?

“Tottenham are a good team,” Guardila said. “They are really playing good. As a fan of football, I love to see them. They are brilliant. It is the third season there; they play how he wants. His positional game is really good. It is quite similar to Chelsea but they have some different movements. They move a little bit more sometimes – Mousa Dembele goes left. The players are in good positions; the ball goes there.

“It is a really good team – strong physically, with good build-up and good quality between the lines with Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli. They can use long balls with Harry Kane. They are strong enough but they have the quality.”

That quality has seen Spurs win six games on the spin in the Premier League and they haven’t won seven league games on the spin since May 1967.

With the criticism coming Pep’s way, he deflected the attention away from goalkeeper Claudio Bravo who continues to have a tough debut season in England. Guardiola instead said both he and his players need to improve if they’re at least going to finish in the top four of the Premier League.

In the big games this season City have steeped up for their manager, beating Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League, plus Manchester United and Arsenal in the Premier League. However, they were easily beaten 2-0 by Tottenham back in October at White Hart Lane and Pep is under no illusion that Saturday’s clash will be one of City’s toughest of an increasingly tough season.

Confidence is not high at the Etihad but City certainly has the quality to beat any team on their day, especially if they can eradicate the defensive mistakes which have cost them dear in recent weeks.

Premier League Preview: Man City vs. Tottenham

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  • Spurs aiming to win seven-straight PL games
  • Man City 10 points off leaders Chelsea
  • Tottenham beat City 2-0 in October

A massive clash between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur takes place on Saturday (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com) at the Etihad Stadium.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live ]

Pep Guardiola has all but conceded the Premier League title following City’s humbling 4-0 defeat at Everton last time out, but Tottenham and Mauricio Pochettino are on a roll with six-straight PL wins under their belt and are seven points off leaders Chelsea.

Guardiola and Pochettino clashed as both players and managers during their time living and playing in Barcelona (Guardiola at FC Barcelona and Pochettino at Espanyol) and after Guardiola’s dominance in Spain and Germany as a coach, it is Pochettino who goes into this game as the favorite with Harry Kane and Dele Alli in superb form for in-form Spurs.

[ VIDEO: Spurs’ stunning new stadium

In team news City will be without the suspended Fernandinho but Gabriel Jesus could make his debut, while Spurs will be without the injured duo of Jan Vertonghen and Erik Lamela.

What they’re saying

Pochettino on Spurs’ improvement since he took charge: “It’s true that now we are in a very good period and all that is related to Tottenham is exciting – you can see here, the new stadium, the squad – all that is happening is very positive. It is true that in two-and-a-half years before I arrived here, you related Tottenham some good, some not so good and today it is looking like we are the best team in the world. That is very good. The hard work is to keep that feeling. It will be difficult but we will try.”

Guardiola on Tottenham’s style of play: “Tottenham dominate really high and are one of the best teams in the Premier League. They are quite similar to Chelsea but they move a little bit more. They know exactly where the other players are. They have the quality to move in small spaces.”

Prediction

Somehow I just think Man City will come out flying after all of the recent criticism and put in a big performance. In the big games this season they’ve stood up, beating Manchester United and Arsenal and leading against Chelsea before collapsing in the second half. Call me crazy, but I think Pep’s men will bag a big 2-0 win to momentarily close the gap to Chelsea to seven points.

Klopp says Liverpool have “had things harder” than title rivals

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Jurgen Klopp is happy with the resilience shown by his Liverpool side as they’ve won just once in five games in all competitions so far in 2017.

[ VIDEO: Spurs’ stunning new stadium ]

Klopp’s men have drawn two Premier League encounters, while a weakened Reds side also drew with lower league Plymouth Argyle in the FA Cup third round (before beating them in a replay) and lost at Southampton in the first leg of their EFL Cup semifinal.

Ahead of their clash with Swansea City on Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) Klopp believes his team are battling through well after having four games in 10 days.

“In recent weeks we’ve had things harder than any of the other top teams and I’m really pleased with how my team has coped,” Klopp said. “We’re really looking forward to this game. I don’t know when it happened but in England every game now is like a final. Swansea are trying to survive. I don’t know when the title run-in will start, maybe now and we’re in the race. I hope for a special atmosphere tomorrow.”

Klopp has come under criticism for fielding weakened teams against Plymouth and Southampton in the cup competitions, but surely Liverpool’s focus has to be on the Premier League and challenging for the title? If they beat bottom of the table Swansea on Saturday then Klopp’s side will momentarily go four points behind leaders Chelsea who play against Hull City on Sunday.

Still, Klopp complaining about the amount of games Liverpool has to play is nothing compared to what the likes of Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham and Arsenal will face in the coming weeks. With European action starting back next month, plus all four of the aforementioned sides still in the FA Cup (Manchester United are also in the EFL Cup too), Liverpool won’t be the club complaining about a fixture backlog.

The Reds may be struggling to stay on top of things right now but this time next month Klopp can have no complaints as Liverpool’s competitors battle with severe fixture congestion. That said, there are plenty of theorists out there suggesting that Klopp’s Gegenpressing methods often leave his teams tired towards the end of the campaign. If that is the case then Liverpool must get as many points on the board as soon as possible, starting with what looks like an easy home win against Swansea on Saturday.

There is never an easy game in the Premier League and it seems like Klopp knows his players are feeling the strain after a busy few weeks.