Liverpool dazzle in derby win, will Champions League dream become a reality?

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LIVERPOOL — Under the bright lights of Anfield on a cold midweek evening, you could be forgiven for thinking one of those famous European nights had once again descended on Liverpool.

After a scintillating performance from the home side against their closest rivals for the top four — and their rivals from under a mile away across Stanley Park — saw Liverpool smash four past Everton and reminded their Blue neighbors why they’ve been the top dogs on Merseyside for so long.

With their biggest derby win since 1982, Liverpool are now four points ahead of fierce rivals Everton in the hunt for Champions League soccer. And now the Reds are just six points off the top spot.

The big question on everyone’s lips is: can Liverpool, the five-time champions of Europe, qualify for the Champions League once again?

“We’ve shown all season that we are going to be in contention for a top four place,” Rodgers said. ” We know there are going to be one or two other teams fighting for it. We’ve shown a wonderful team spirit here and we’ve had various players missing at various times, but we’ve been able to structure the team that we aren’t reliant on any one player. That’s the ethos of the team.”

Despite a superb team display, Liverpool needed a catalyst to grab the game by the scruff of the neck. The man that did that has been the leader for many years, and he did it once again with ease. It was a case of cometh the hour, cometh the man.

Steven Gerrard epitomized Liverpool’s spirit and drive to succeed from his central midfield role during the 222nd Merseyside derby.

In the early stages of the match the game ebbed and flowed as both sets of fans roared on their teams with a crescendo of noise flowing down from the stands. It could have gone either way. Then Liverpool’s captain emerged to score his eighth goal in the Merseyside derby since the Premier League began.

(MORE: Liverpool 4-0 Everton – Sturridge double seals scintillating Merseyside derby win)

Gerrard rose highest in the penalty box in the 22nd minute to head home powerfully and set Liverpool on their way to a resounding win on so many levels. As Gerrard wheeled away in jubilation, his pupils narrowed and the sheer ecstasy was clear for all to see on his face. Liverpool’s captain fantastic had set his side on their way, and the hometown hero had delivered on the big stage once again.

“I think if anyone questions whether he can play that role, he has played 32 games now in the derby where he has been all-action, and obviously his influence on these games has been wonderful,” Rodgers said. “But he was equally as good tonight from that deeper position. You see his responsibility in the role, he organizes the team on the field. He scored a goal. He lead the team marvelously well and was outstanding tonight.”

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Liverpool’s captain Steven Gerrard celebrates his opening goal as Anfield erupts.

Gerrard’s powerful header sent his side into overdrive, with Philippe Coutinho, Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling inspired by their skipper’s statement strike. They ran rings around Everton’s makeshift defense, as Sturridge struck twice before half time, to take his tally to 16 for the season, and put the game out of the Toffees reach. Then Suarez scored his obligatory stunner after the interval, his 23rd of the PL campaign which beats his tally for the whole of last season, as he ran from the halfway line and calmly finished to hammer the final nail in Everton’s coffin.

When they play like this, the Reds are unstoppable.

Full of panache, swagger and purpose, on their day Liverpool showed they can beat anyone. It wasn’t as if Everton did much wrong in the opening 45 minutes, Liverpool were just that good. With tireless workrate from Gerrard and Jordan Henderson in the middle feeding tricky attackers Sterling, Suarez and Sturridge, Liverpool’s midfield obliterated Everton with a ruthless team display of high-pressing. Amongst all that, the defense held firm to preserve the shutout.

“It was a brilliant performance,” Rodgers mused. “A real good defensive organization, outstanding on the counter attack and clinical in front of goal. We scored four goals and could have had two or three more. I’m delighted for the group.”

It was just one win, which earned the home side three points. But will the significance of a big derby win have a positive impact on Liverpool for the final third of the season? Rodgers thinks so.

“All wins are important but especially against your rivals,” Rodgers said. “We are four points clear now of Everton. We know there’s still a wee way to go but psychologically it was a big, big win for us. In terms of confidence it was a big, big win for us. We have to keep our foot to the floor and keep putting in performances and keep scoring goals.”

Liverpool’s attacking quartet of Suarez, Sturridge, Coutinho and Sterling are dazzling when they click but they do leave the Reds at risk on the counter attack when things break down. However, Liverpool were extremely dangerous on the counter-attack themselves as Rodgers noted in his post-game press conference. If the Reds are going to finish in the top four, they need to persevere with this ultra-attacking lineup as they will outscore most of their opponents if they’re anything close to the ruthless outfit they became vs. Everton.

(MORE: Premier League Standings)

With the Reds rampant and Everton’s confidence low — a dejected Roberto Martinez tried to put a positive spin on things after the game but a vast swathe of injuries could halt his sides brave top-four challenge — it was a terrific derby win for the Red half of Merseyside.

Towards the final whistle the famous club anthem “You’ll Never Walk Alone” was belted out by most of the 44,000 fans inside the stadium. If you closed your eyes and sensed the buzz and anticipation inside the stadium, it felt like a famous European night had arrived back at Anfield.

After a stunning display which will fill Liverpool will confidence for a top four push for the rest of the campaign, next season European nights could well return.

For Rodgers’ side there’s no need to dream. If they keep doing what they do best and perform like this, Champions League soccer will be played on Merseyside next season. This derby win proves it’s now Liverpool’s fourth spot to lose.

LIVE – Arsenal v. Man City in FA Cup semifinal

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Arsenal and Manchester City clash in an FA Cup semifinal on Sunday at Wembley which promises to be a case of all-out attack.

[ LIVE: Follow all the FA Cup scores here ]

Arsene Wenger and Pep Guardiola met earlier this month with their teams drawing 2-2 at the Emirates Stadium in an end-to-end encounter.

The winner of this semifinal will play Chelsea in the FA Cup final on May 27 at Wembley after Antonio Conte‘s side beat Tottenham 4-2 on Saturday.

In team news Arsenal stick with the 3-4-2-1 formation they used at Middlesbrough with Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil off Olivier Giroud.

City line up in a 4-2-3-1 formation with Sergio Aguero up top and Leroy Sane, David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne off him.

Click on the link above to follow live coverage of what promises to be an entertaining semifinal, while here at Pro Soccer Talk we will have plenty more reaction and analysis after the game too.

STREAM LIVE: Burnley host injury-hit Man United

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Burnley host Manchester United on Sunday (Watch live, 9:15 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) at fortress Turf Moor with the Clarets in search of yet another huge scalp.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE HERE

Sean Dyche‘s men have already beat the likes of Everton and Liverpool at home this season and one more victory should all but secure their Premier League status and first-ever consecutive seasons in the PL.

As for United, Jose Mourinho’s squad is depleted and after the news that Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Marcos Rojo both suffered “significant knee ligaments injuries” in the Europa League quarterfinal clash against Anderlecht the Red Devils’ resources have been stretched even further.

In team news Burnley stick with a solid 4-4-2 formation as Ashley Barnes and Andre Gray play up top, with former United duo Tom Heaton and Michael Keane also starting.

United make eight changes and line up with what looks like a three-man central defense given that Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Rojo are all missing, while Wayne Rooney starts up top and captains United.

LINEUPS

Burnley: Heaton; Lowton, Keane, Mee, Ward; Boyd, Barton, Hendrick, Brady; Gray, Barnes. Subs: Flanagan, Westwood, Defour, Tarkowski, Gudmundsson, Agyei, Pope

Manchester United: De Gea; Darmian, Bailly, Blind; Young, Herrera, Pogba, Fellaini, Lingard; Martial, Rooney. Subs: Romero, Fosu-Mensah, Tuanzebe, Shaw, Carrick, Mkhitaryan, Rashford

Barcelona leaves Neymar out of ‘El Clasico’ v Real Madrid

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MADRID (AP) Barcelona has decided to leave Neymar out of the decisive “clasico” against Real Madrid because of the legal uncertainty over an appeal to overturn his suspension.

The club had taken all legal measures to try to clear the player for Sunday’s match at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, but ended up not including him in the squad because there had been no ruling on its latest appeal by Sunday morning.

Barcelona’s first appeal was rejected by the Spanish football federation last week, but the club was also trying to reverse the suspension through a local sports tribunal.

The club released a statement on Sunday criticizing the tribunal for not making a decision on the case in time for the match.

The tribunal said Saturday that while it had not yet had the opportunity to consider the appeal, that did not mean the striker was cleared to play.

Neymar was handed a two-game suspension for sarcastically applauding an assistant referee after being sent off in a 2-0 loss at Malaga on April 8.

The two-match ban was in addition to the one-game suspension he was automatically required to serve for the red card. The Brazilian had already sat out one match.

Two-time champion Barcelona also won’t have the injured Rafinha and Aleix Vidal, who have long-term injuries.

Madrid, seeking its first title since 2012, is expected to welcome the return of Gareth Bale, who had been sidelined because of a muscle injury.

Madrid enters Sunday’s game with a three-point lead over Barcelona. Madrid also has a game in hand.

MLS roundup: FCD win battle of unbeatens; POR rebound vs. VAN

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With seven MLS Saturday afternoons/evenings officially in the books, only 27 more to go…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage

FC Dallas 1-0 Sporting Kansas City

The only two remaining unbeaten teams faced off in Frisco on Saturday, and only one came out still unblemished. FCD dominated in the two most important facets of the game — chances created, and goals.

Maynor Figueroa scored the game’s only goal, a 77th-minute header to put home Michael Barrios’ floated cross toward the back post. If not for the (increasingly typical) heroics of Sporting KC goalkeeper Tim Melia (five saves), FCD would have already been 3-0 or 4-0 in front by that point. Sporting’s only shot on target didn’t arrive until the 47th minute, and it was far from a clear-cut chance, as Jimmy Medranda fired from the corner of the 18-yard box and hardly tested Jesse Gonzalez with the effort.

The win sees FCD move to six games unbeaten to start the season (three wins, three draws), while Sporting suffer their first defeat in seven games.


Portland Timbers 2-1 Vancouver Whitecaps

Darlington Nagbe and Darren Mattocks bagged goals for Portland, who wasted little time in bouncing back from last weekend’s home defeat to Sporting. Nagbe’s goal, a stunner from outside the penalty area (WATCH HERE) opened the scoring in the 18th minute, and Mattocks made it 2-0 five minutes before halftime.

Fredy Montero scored his third goal in two games to bring Vancouver back to 2-1 just before the hour mark, but that’s as close as the visitors would get.

Diego Valeri was carried off the field in the 80th minute, which is the worst scare that Timbers fans could have possibly imagined, though the Argentine superstar told reporters after the game that he was feeling much better.


Real Salt Lake 1-3 Atlanta United

The honeymoon period is over for Mike Petke who, after back-to-back wins to open his tenure as RSL head coach, suffered his first defeat since taking over for Jeff Cassar five games into the season.

A series of comedic errors doomed RSL just about from the start, as Hector Villalba (9th minute) and Yamil Asad (46th), two of Atlanta’s South American starlets, put the visitors 2-0 ahead a minute into the first half — the latter was set up by Miguel Almiron, another of the young, South American attackers at Gerardo Martino’s disposal. Albert Rusnak pulled RSL back to 2-1 in the 69th minute, but it would remain that way until second-half stoppage time, when Brandon Vazquez beat Nick Rimando for a 3-1 clincher.


New York Red Bulls 2-0 Columbus Crew SC

Columbus’s defeat away to New York went from bad, to worse, to worst, in 39 minutes’ time on Saturday. Midfield revelation Artur went off with a nasty arm injury in the 6th minute, Alex Muyl put the home side 1-0 up in the 11th minute Daniel Royer made it 2-0 from the penalty spot in the 38th minute, and defensive revelation (and rookie) Alex Crognale went off injured immediately thereafter.


Houston Dynamo 2-0 San Jose Earthquakes

Wilmer Cabrera’s side will live and die by the form of his young attacking quartet this season. On Saturday, Erick Torres and Alberth Elis delivered the goals (read: goals) as Houston picked up a rather comfortable him win over San Jose.

Torres opened the scoring in the 9th minute, and though Elis didn’t double the advantage for another 63 minutes, the result was rarely, if ever, in doubt. San Jose managed just two shots on target (Houston had just three, for what it’s worth), as Adolfo Machado, Tyler Deric and Co. kept their first clean sheet of the season.


New England Revolution 2-2 D.C. United

In a battle of bottom-half Eastern Conference sides, New England and D.C. drew 2-2 after Lee Nguyen and a Sean Franklin own goal stalemated tallies from Jared Jeffrey and Sebastien Le Toux.