Premier League Power Rankings: Arsenal, Man City and Chelsea battle it out – Round 20-21

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Two match days into 2014, the Premier League is heating up at both ends of the table.

With just two points separating the top three, and the same margin separating the bottom five, there’s is everything to play for as we head into the business end of the season.

Manchester United’s woes continues, but Man City, Arsenal and Chelsea all keep slugging it out at the top. Down the bottom West ham and Sunderland are surging, as West brom, Cardiff and Crystal Palace slide towards the bottom. Let’s see how all the shakes out PST’s latest Power Rankings.

(MORE: Premier League Power Rankings archive)

By now you should know the drill. We put our neck on the line to analyze the strength of each Premier League team, forget about the official league standings (here they are in case you actually do want them) that doesn’t mean squat.

The Power Rankings take into account the strength of schedule, injuries, suspensions, playing well but still losing and plenty of other variables. The W-D-L bracket shows each PL team’s current record and you can now see how many spots each team has moved, up or down, from week-to-week.

Let’s get to it!

RANKING
Up/Down

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1
Arsenal: The Gunners keep rolling, after two straight wins to ring in the New Year. Beating a stubborn Cardiff side at home then grinding out a win at Villa shows Wenger’s men are made of stern stuff. Theo Walcott’s injury is a big blow though. They should roll Fulham over this weekend but Man City is lurking. (15-3-3)
source:  2
Manchester City:  What a terrific spell it has been for the Citizens, as they’ve won 9 of their last 10. Dzeko and Negredo have been banging in the goals, plus Aguero is now back. Right now, nobody can stop City. Should be another big win vs. Cardiff in Round 22. (15-2-4)
source:  3
Chelsea: Jose Mourinho’s machine is ominously clicking into place at Stamford Bridge, as Chelsea have yet to concede in 2014 and have won four of their last five. They’ve added Nemanja Matic from Benfica and have a MASSIVE game at home to Man United coming up. Will Mourinho pile more misery on Moyes? (14-4-3)
source:  4 UP 1
Liverpool:  The Reds have regained their best form, and now S.A.S. has been reunited with Suarez and Sturridge tearing Stoke apart last time out. Can Rodgers’ men kick on and chase down the leading pack? They’re only 6 points off top spot and face Villa at home this weekend. (13-3-5)

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5 DOWN 1
Everton: A last-gasp draw at Stoke and a win over Norwich saw the Toffees good form continue. Roberto Martinez’ side have added Aiden McGeady in the window, and a few more additions would be key if they’re going to make the top four. Tricky trip away to WBA this week. (11-8-2)
source:  6
Tottenham: Tim Sherwood’s reign at Tottenham has began superbly in the league as Spurs are unbeaten and four wins from their last five sees them two points off the top four. Losing Defoe to Toronto is a blow, and perhaps Sherwood will bring in a replacement? (12-4-5)
source:  7 Manchester United: A 2-0 win against Swansea last-time out put paper over the cracks. All is not well at United. Moyes’ men have a huge task ahead of them if they’re going to get into the top four, having Rooney and RVP back fit will help them out massively. They play Chelsea away next, which is hardly what they needed (11-4-6)
source:  8 UP 1
Southampton: Saints have recovered from their wobble nicely and sit on 30 points and in ninth place after beating West Brom. But off the pitch all hell has broken loose at St. Mary’s as Chairman Nicola Cortese has resigned and Mauricio Pochettino’s future is in doubt. Suddenly, the Saints may not be marching up the table. (8-6-7)
source:  9 DOWN 1
Newcastle: A tough little spell for the Magpies, as defeats to Arsenal, Man City and West Brom has sent Alan Pardew’s side back down to earth with a bang. They’ve been unlucky though, with bad decisions going against them against City. Will they bounce back vs. West Ham? (10-3-8)
source:  10 Swansea City: The Swans aren’t performing anywhere near the level they can, and Michael Laudrup has to be worried. Narrow defeats to both Manchester clubs shows they aren’t a million miles away, but they keep faltering when you expect them to kick on. (5-6-10)
source:  11
Hull City: An up and down start to 2014 for the Tigers, as they were dispatched 2-0 by Liverpool and Chelsea but put up a tremendous fight in both games. Solid yet unspectacular… you know what you get with Hull. Adding Nikica Jelavic and possibly Shane Long shows their intent. (6-5-10)
source:  12 Norwich City: The Canaries are struggling to score goals and losing to Everton and drawing away at Palace isn’t exactly a stellar start to the New Year. Chris Hughton’s under pressure at Carrow Road, a huge home game vs. Hull is coming up. (6-5-10)

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13 Aston Villa: Villa ground out a big win away at Sunderland on New Year’s Day but were second best against Arsenal at home, despite a spirited second half comeback. Paul Lambert has steadied the ship, and the Villans should be okay this year. (6-5-10)
source:  14 UP 3
Sunderland: What a few weeks it’s been for the Black Cats who went down narrowly to Villa but beat Man United in the League Cup semifinal and then hammered Fulham 4-1. Can Poyet’s men continue to drag themselves up the table when they face Southampton at the Stadium of Light? (4-5-12)
source:  15
Stoke City: The Potters were outclassed by Liverpool in an entertaining 5-3 defeat, but they should have beaten Everton after giving up a late goal. Mark Hughes has added some key players in January, and I expect Stoke to be just fine despite only being four points above the drop. (5-7-9)
source:  16 UP 3
West Ham: Those ‘Happy Hammers’ finally had something to smile about last weekend, as they won for the first time in 9 in a crucial six-pointer away at Cardiff. Andy Carroll is back fit and some more reinforcements are on the way. Huge home game vs. Newcastle this weekend. (4-6-11)
source:  17 DOWN 3
Crystal Palace: The Eagles’ have had their wings clipped a bit, as they lost to Spurs and drew with Norwich. Arguably they could’ve won both games but big mistakes cost them dear. Can Tony Pulis wheel and deal in the transfer market to boost Palace’s survival hopes? (5-2-14)
source:  18
Cardiff City: Ole Gunnar Solksjaer didn’t enjoy the best of Premier League debuts for Cardiff, as a defeat to West Ham leaves the Bluebirds in the relegation zone. But the new Norwegian boss won’t be panicking as there’s still a long way to go. Man City away next for the Manchester United legend… (4-6-11)
source:  19 DOWN 3
West Brom: Pepe Mel has taken over at the Hawthorns, as the former Real Betis boss has a big job on his hands to steer the Baggies to safety. West Brom were woeful against Southampton, and with Shane Long heading to Hull who will get their goals? A big window and few weeks ahead, Everton up next at home. (4-9-8)
source:  20
Fuham: The Cottagers were pummeled 4-1 by Sunderland, and there’s a massive job to do at Craven Cottage for Rene Muelensteen. Arsenal away will probably not yield any points, and Fulham are trying to bring in plenty of fresh faces alongside Clint Dempsey in the transfer window. If they’re going to survive, they’ll need to spend some cash. (6-1-14)

Miguel Almiron named MLS Newcomer of the Year

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Unsurprisingly, one of Atlanta United’s biggest stars took home some hardware on Monday after a stellar first season in Major League Soccer.

[ MORE: Previewing the MLS conference finals ]

Atlanta attacker Miguel Almiron was named MLS Newcomer of the Year today, beating out Chicago Fire forward Nemanja Nikolic and teammate Josef Martinez for the honor.

Almiron, who joined Atlanta from Argentine side Lanus, netted nine goals and added 14 assists for the Eastern Conference squad in 2017 and helped guide the club to the MLS Cup Playoffs after finishing fifth in the East.

The 23-year-old received an 37.38% average of the vote for the award, which was compiled based on votes from a combination of media members, MLS players and executives. Nikolic finished second with 24.92 percent, while Martinez checked in at number three.

Watch Live: Brighton and Hove Albion vs. Stoke City

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Chris Hughton looks to lead his Brighton and Hove Albion to a fifth-straight result as the Gulls welcome Stoke City to the Amex Stadium on Monday (Watch live at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

The Gulls have won two and drawn two, powered by goals from Glenn Murray and the playmaking of Pascal Gross.

Stoke’s 3-4-1-2 has Ramadan Sobhi, Eric Choupo-Moting, and Xherdan Shaqiri attacking the final third.

LINEUPS

Brighton and Hove Albion: Ryan, Bruno, Dunk, Duffy, Bong, Stephens, Propper, Knockaert, Izquierdo, Gross, Murray. Subs: Krul, Hemed, Goldson, Schelotto, Suttner, Brown.

Stoke City: Grant; Zouma, Shawcross, Wimmer; Diouf, Fletcher, Allen, Pieters; Shaqiri, Ramadan; Choupo-Moting. Subs: Haugaard; Berahino, Jese, Afellay, Martins Indi, Adam, Crouch.

World Cup bribes, death threats: Corrupt world of FIFA

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Hour after hour in a New York City courtroom, the schemes to corrupt world soccer are spilling out.

The millions of dollars in “inducements” to secure contracts to televise matches. The bribes sought by FIFA executives with the power to determine World Cup hosts. The death threats for cooperating with investigators.

It took the intervention of the U.S. Department of Justice to disrupt years of embezzlement by officials who abused roles in the global soccer governing body, FIFA, to enjoy a gilded lifestyle. Two years after a sprawling investigation of FIFA led to waves of arrests that shook soccer, the trial of three men is underway and about to enter its second week.

[ MORE: Pulis sacked | What’s next for WBA? ]

Though the trial in Brooklyn is dealing with corruption allegations before new FIFA leaders emerged in 2016, officials still prominent in soccer are not untouched by the evidence already heard in court – particularly relating to the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar.

Here is a look at the talking points from the first week of the trial:

ON TRIAL

The three men on trial pleaded not guilty to charges they took part in a 24-year scheme involving at least $150 million in bribes paid by marketing firms in exchange for lucrative broadcasting and hosting rights for prestigious tournaments:

– Jose Maria Marin (Brazil): Former president of the Brazilian soccer federation arrested in a raid on a hotel in Zurich in May 2015.

– Juan Angel Napout (Paraguay): Swept up in a second wave of arrests at the same hotel in Zurich in December 2015. As president of South American soccer confederation CONMEBOL, Napout was portraying himself as an agent of reform who could clean up FIFA before being indicted.

– Manuel Burga (Peru): Former Peruvian soccer federation president detained along with Napout at the Baur au Lac hotel close to FIFA’s Swiss headquarters.

STAR WITNESS

More than 40 other officials, business executives and entities have been charged. Many have pleaded guilty, hoping to receive reduced sentences, including Alejandro Burzaco, the former head of the Argentine sports marketing company Torneos y Competencias, who is a star witness for the prosecution.

QATAR WORLD CUP

No decision has proved more toxic for FIFA than the 2010 vote that handed the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. The bid has been stained by suspicion of wrongdoing for years, although FIFA has been unable to uncover evidence it says would warrant stripping the Middle East of its first World Cup.

Usually quick to defend their integrity, the Qataris have been silent on the fresh claims of vote-buying divulged in court.

According to Burzaco, three South Americans were among 22 FIFA executive committee voters who took million-dollar bribes to support Qatar, which beat out the United States in the final round of voting in December 2010.

[ MORE: Busy week for PL big boys ]

A rule-breaking voting pact between Qatar and the Spain-Portugal campaign in the 2018 bidding – twice investigated by FIFA’s ethics committee but unproven – was given fresh credence in court by Burzaco, a trusted associate to the late former FIFA senior vice president Julio Grondona, to whom he channeled bribes worth millions.

Grondona was the most influential of South America’s trio of FIFA voters, and would surely have been indicted but for his death in July 2014. The other two voters, Ricardo Teixeira of Brazil and Nicolas Leoz of Paraguay, were indicted by U.S. prosecutors in 2015 but have avoided extradition from their home countries.

Burzaco testified to conversations and incidents with Grondona in 2011, including a confrontation about media reports of bid bribes with Qatari officials at the five-star Copacabana Palace Hotel in Rio de Janeiro.

An angry Grondona, Burzaco testified, later complained he got into “all these mess and scandal for only” $1.5 million while two others had fooled him and got $75 million. Those two, the court was told, were Teixeira and Sandro Rosell, a former Nike executive and then-president of Spanish club Barcelona who had business ties to Qatar.

FIFA has not directly commented on last week’s courtroom allegations, inevitably waiting for the conclusion of the trial. Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup has come under fresh attack in recent weeks by neighboring countries that have severed diplomatic ties with the emirate.

BROADCASTERS’ BRIBES

While the probity of the World Cup vote has been thrust back into the spotlight, much of the evidence so far relates to how officials sprayed illegal cash payments to secure broadcasting rights in the Americas.

Leading broadcasters have been implicated by Burzaco’s evidence about the trail of bribes, including Fox Sports (United States), Televisa (Mexico) and TV Globo (Brazil), which deny wrongdoing.

SLIT-THROAT GESTURE

The most dramatic moment in the opening week of the trial saw Burga accused of threatening Burzaco by making a slashing motion on his neck as the witness testified. Burga claimed he was scratching his throat but still had his bail conditions tightened. Burzaco earlier disclosed he became the target of death threats after it emerged he was cooperating with authorities.

SUICIDE

A former Argentine government official, Jorge Delhon, killed himself hours after the court was told he took millions in bribes in exchange for handing out television rights.

Jorge Delhon, a lawyer who worked in the administration of former Argentina President Cristina Fernandez, dealt with the now-defunct government program Futbol para Todos (Football for All), which broadcast local soccer matches on public TV. Burzaco implicated Delhon in taking bribes.

POLITICAL LINKS

The close ties in South America among lawmakers, judges and soccer leaders are becoming clearer.

In a series of WhatsApp messages detailed in court Wednesday, Napout revealed his links to the current state president of Paraguay, Horacio Cartes.

Napout passed on to Burzaco a request from Cartes’ private office to buy eight tickets for Argentina’s game against Iran at the 2014 World Cup. Around that time, Napout also noted CONMEBOL had been in a legal case with a businessman and that Cartes “resolved the entire trial and did it all because of me.”

Cartes also advised Napout to “stay close” to Grondona of Argentina to fulfil his ambition to lead CONMEBOL, the WhatsApp messages revealed.

When Argentina reached the semifinals, Napout asked Burzaco to get four tickets for Paraguay’s attorney general to buy. In a WhatsApp message, Napout tells Burzaco, “we have a trial over there. There are two judges mad because I refused” to get tickets.

CURRENT OFFICIALS

The desire by FIFA to characterize the trial as dealing with officials long banished from world soccer is made harder when officials currently influential in the game are mentioned in court.

FIFA’s current finance committee chairman, Alejandro Dominguez, was referred to during the trial on Wednesday as “not a very successful businessman (who) will probably request” a bribe.

Burzaco, the prosecution’s star witness, said he was told this about Dominguez by Napout in early 2015. Napout is a Paraguayan like Dominguez, and his predecessor as CONMEBOL leader.

Under current FIFA President Gianni Infantino, Dominguez is a key ally in Zurich as one of FIFA’s eight vice presidents and was rewarded with being made chairman of the finance panel.

Among many soccer officials whose photographs Burzaco was asked by prosecutors to identify on Tuesday were Sunil Gulati, the most influential American at FIFA, and Nasser Al-Khelaifi, the Qatari who heads French soccer club Paris Saint-Germain and broadcaster beIN Sports. Al-Khelaifi is under criminal investigation in Switzerland for suspected bribery linked to FIFA awarding beIN broadcast rights to the 2026 and 2030 World Cups.

The U.S. has not accused Gulati or Al-Khelaifi of any offenses.

EVADING JUSTICE

Several soccer officials indicted in 2015 are absent from court as they fight extradition to the United States:

– Jack Warner (Trinidad and Tobago): Charged in May 2015, four years after quitting as a FIFA vice president to avoid sanctions in the bribery case connected to a presidential election. Later banned for life by FIFA for misconduct during the 2018-2022 World Cup bidding process.

– Marco Polo del Nero (Brazil): Despite being charged with corruption, remains president of the Brazilian federation and met with FIFA’s Infantino during the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. Del Nero fled Zurich in May 2015 when FIFA colleagues were arrested, quit the executive committee after missing meetings and was then indicted in the U.S. in December 2015.

– Nicolas Leoz (Paraguay): President of CONMEBOL from 1986 to 2013, when he resigned for receiving $130,000 in payments from a former FIFA marketing partner. Wanted in the U.S. on charges of receiving millions of dollars in bribes linked to marketing and television contracts, Leoz’s extradition was finally approved by a judge in Paraguay last week just as the FIFA trial was getting underway in Brooklyn.

– Ricardo Teixeira (Brazil): A former son-in-law of Joao Havelange, FIFA’s president in 1974-98, Teixeira quit as Brazilian federation head and a FIFA executive committee member in 2012 as corruption allegations mounted.

Status of FIFA cases: https://www.justice.gov/usao-edny/file/799016/download

More AP FIFA coverage: http://www.apnews.com/tag/FIFA

MLS Conference Final preview: Rematch spoilers?

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There’s an MLS Cup Final rematch on the cards if you play the favorites for this week’s conference finals.

Seattle beat Toronto in last season’s Cup final via penalty kicks, and Brian Schmetzer could again match wits with Greg Vanney come 4 p.m. ET on Dec. 9 in Ontario.

[ MORE: Pulis sacked | What’s next for WBA? ]

The finals begin Tuesday with a doubleheader of sorts, scheduled 90 minutes apart in Columbus and Houston.

Toronto FC vs. Columbus Crew
First leg — 8 p.m. ET Tuesday in Ohio
Second leg — 7:30 p.m. ET Nov. 29 in Ontario

The Trillium Cup rivals meet with a lot more on the line, and the subplots are many. Toronto FC is aiming to win its first MLS Cup title after a record-breaking season lifting the Supporters’ Shield. The Crew is being held hostage by its owner who’s done his level best to engineer a move to Austin come 2019, and the players are giving their fans on-field thrills to go with #SaveTheCrew protests.

There’s a terrific chance for Columbus to pull ahead in leg one as it did against New York City FC, as the Reds will be without suspended stars Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore.

The Crew are led by the wizardry of Justin Meram (Iraq) and the finishing of Norwegian striker Ola Kamara. Then there’s rejuvenated and/or ageless playmaker Federico Higuain, and young USMNT backstop Zack Steffen.

Managers Greg Vanney and Gregg Berhalter are both capable of sublime tactics, and how Tuesday looks may go beyond the missing stars if Vanney is able to trump his Columbus counterpart.

Seattle Sounders vs. Houston Dynamo
First leg — 9:30 p.m. ET Tuesday in Texas
Second leg — 10:30 p.m. ET Nov. 29 in Washington

Clint Dempsey’s defiant comeback tour rolls on. One year after he was relegated to street clothes champagne celebrator in Canada, Dempsey is rollicking through MLS with his heart surgery a poignant but distant memory.

Dempsey scored twice in the conference semifinal defeat of Vancouver, the lone two goals, and has been no worse for the wear despite an injury to key attack partner Jordan Morris. On the season, he’s nabbed 14 goals and 4 assists.

“Deuce” joins Nicolas Lodeiro and Cristian Roldan as key pieces in trying to deconstruct Wilmer Cabrera’s Dynamo, who are trying to add a second title to the city’s trophy haul following a difficult summer for Houston.

Houston has its band together for this critical time of year, with no Gold Cup or CONCACAF World Cup qualifying to deprive them of Alberth Elis or Erick Torres. Can it knock off the No. 2 seed after handing top-seeded Portland its demise?