Premier League Sunday Preview: Moving day in the table’s bottom half

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There was a time when Aston Villa was on the verge to putting its relegation worries behind them, with Paul Lambert’s team having fought its way into the Premier League’s top half. But beginning with a 2-1 loss at Everton on Feb. 1, Villa has gone on a four-match winless run, their single point since Jan. 28 pulling them within four points of the drop.

To put that in perspective, Norwich City, a team that’s been on the fringe of the bottom three all season, carry the same number of points into the teams’ Sunday meeting. At kickoff Sunday at Villa Park, each team will have 28 points through 27 rounds.

In the cozy confines of the Premier League’s bottom half, however, that total’s only one step away from the lofty heights Villa’s just left. If there’s a winner on Sunday in Birmingham, that team will move to 31 points, likely claiming 11th place behind West Ham United. Lose, and the team could fall as far as 16th, sitting just above two teams (West Brom and Sunderland) that have games in hand.

The situation speaks to the logjam at the bottom the league – a maelstrom that allows eternal strugglers Fulham and Cardiff City to harbor hopes of survival. On Sunday, that impasse means Swansea and Crystal Palace will also have a chance to climb the table, with the league’s three games making for a mini-moving day in England’s top flight.

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Tottenham Hotspur vs. Cardiff  City, 10:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN

  • Cardiff City’s 19 goals 19th in the Premier League
  • Spurs coming off second league loss under Tim Sherwood
  • Emmanuel Adebayor (pictured) with eight goals in 11 starts since André Villas-Boas’s dismissal

Tottenham’s resurgence under Sherwood was dealt a demoralizing blow last week at Carrow Road, their 1-0 loss to Norwich City leaving Spurs six points behind Liverpool for the league’s final Champions League spot. With the Reds winning again on Saturday, Spurs’ chances of claiming another top-four finish took another hit, increasing the pressure to take care of business against the lowly Bluebirds.

For Cardiff City, the time for a bounce from Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s appointment has passed, with the former Manchester United star yet to match  expectations the preceded his Jan. 2 appointment. Coming off a 4-0 home loss to Hull City, Cardiff is at one of its lowest points of the season, with a team carrying the league’s worst road record needing an upset to revitalize their hopes of survival.

Swansea City vs. Crystal Palace, 11:30 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Live Extra

  • Crystal Palace has a league-low 18 goals; only five on the road
  • Swansea is perfect at home (2-0-0) since Garry Monk replaced Michael Laudrup
  • Swans are coming off mid-week loss at Napoli in Europa League

Crystal Palace has proved predictably resilient under Tony Pulis, with the Eagles climbing out of the league’s cellar once the former Stoke City manager was appointed as Ian Holloway’s replacement. On paper, however, a Swansea team that’s rediscovered their attacking flare  should have a relatively straight-forward day at the Liberty Stadium. Over their last three games, Swans have scored eight times.

But mid-week Europa League action could throw a wrench in the works. On Thursday, Swansea were in Naples, where two late goals from Rafa Benítez’s Napoli saw Monk’s team out of Europa League. With only two days rest, they’re back in Premier League action, tasked with claiming points that could distance them from potential relegation troubles.

This is what people allude to when they talk about Europa League’s problems. Is it worth it for a team like Swansea, only in Europe because they won last year’s League Cup, to over-extend and potentially complicate their domestic campaigns? Monk started most of his regulars on Thursday in Italy. Will he be made to pay for that choice?

Aston Villa vs. Norwich City, 11:30 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Live Extra

  • Villa with one point in its last four games
  • Norwich with only one player (Gary Hooper) with more than three league goals
  • Ashley Westwood, Ryan Bertrand expected to return from injury for Villa

Aston Villa’s up-and-down season started with a win at Arsenal, immediately descended toward the drop, and featured a mid-season stabilization before their recent slump. Contrast that with Norwich City who, thanks in large part to Chris Hughton’s steady, risk-adverse approach, has rarely inspired yet stand on even footing Villa. Last weekend against Tottenham, the Canaries issued a reminder of capabilities – a potential that’s a particular threat to a Paul Lambert team that tends to play to the level of its competition.

That dark side often comes out at Villa Park, where the team has accumulated the league’s second-worst home record. But with the Canaries having won only twice on the road all season, Lambert may be facing a side that can help reverse a couple of disturbing trends.

The side, of course, is the team he left before arriving in Birmingham, with the animosity between the teams lingering (as evidenced with Lambert’s failed pursuit of Canarie Wes Hoolahan in January). Whether any of that ill will transcends management and manifests on the field remains to be seen. Given the teams have combined for one win in February, this game could use a spark.

Money from Wembley replay will ‘support Rochdale for two or three years’

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Worst-case scenario for Tottenham Hotspur: drawing League One side Rochdale in Sunday’s FA Cup fifth-round clash; best-case scenario for the Dale: drawing the Premier League giants and forcing a replay at Wembley Stadium.

[ MORE: Man Utd draw Brighton in FA Cup QF; Chelsea get Leicester ]

For a club the size of Rochdale — 10,200-seat stadium, and never been above the third tier of English soccer — the financial impact of raking in half of the game’s gate receipts “will support the club for the next two or three years,” according to manager Keith Hill — quotes from the Guardian:

“I don’t know how much it is worth but a lot of money has gone into the new pitch. That was a heavy investment for us. Hopefully the money we make will support the club for the next two or three years. We will cut our cloth accordingly and we won’t be in debt.”

As for Steve Davies’ 93rd-minute equalizer, Hill was adamant that it was nothing short of what they “deserved”:

“It was a feeling of reward, not relief, because the performance deserved at least the opportunity for us to go to Wembley for a replay. I’ve always wanted to do that against a Premier League team and manager. Why not take them on and try to win? It could have been football suicide but I thought we gained their respect and to score the goal we did was tremendous. The players were magnificent.”

Tottenham Hotspur, soccer philanthropists.

Try, try again: Messi seeks 1st goal vs. Chelsea in 9th attempt

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LONDON (AP) As unlikely as it sounds, Lionel Messi is still waiting to score his first goal against Chelsea after drawing a blank in eight previous Champions League matches.

The five-time World Player of the Year is likely to get another chance to break his duck this week and Chelsea manager Antonio Conte believes the past will count for little when Barcelona visits Stamford Bridge on Tuesday.

“I hope we maintain this tradition but we are speaking about a fantastic player,” Conte said ahead of the last-16, first-leg Champions League game. “The most important thing is the present.

“We must have great respect but at the same time we must be excited to play this type of game and take on this type of challenge. It won’t be easy because we know very well this player, we are talking about one of the best in the world.”

The teams have produced some epic games in the past although they have not met in the Champions League since Chelsea pulled off a remarkable backs-to-the-wall semifinal victory over Barcelona on the way to winning the trophy in 2012.

Messi missed a penalty in the second leg at the Nou Camp as the London club overcame the first-half dismissal of captain John Terry, and a 2-0 deficit, to draw the game 2-2 and secure an unforgettable 3-2 aggregate win.

Bayern Munich hosts Besiktas in Tuesday’s other game while the following day sees Manchester United traveling to Sevilla, and Shakhtar Donetsk playing host to Roma.

Two weeks ago, the prospect of a Chelsea win over Barca would have been unthinkable after Conte’s men had slumped to successive defeats by two of the Premier League’s lesser lights.

The London club was still smarting from a 3-0 home loss against Bournemouth when it traveled to Watford and succumbed to an embarrassing 4-1 reverse.

Chelsea has got back on track since then, though, easing past West Bromwich Albion 3-0 in the league last Monday before swatting aside second-tier Hull 4-0 in the FA Cup four days later.

Conte has several selection dilemmas. He must choose between captain Gary Cahill and Antonio Rudiger for a place at the back, and between Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud up front.

Cesc Fabregas will also be desperate to play against his former team but may have to settle for a spot on the bench.

Barca has lost only once in 38 matches this season since falling in the Spanish Super Cup to Real Madrid in August. It has a seven-point lead at the top of La Liga and has reached the final of the Copa del Rey.

Messi is having another stellar campaign, scoring 27 times in all competitions, and he helped set up two goals in Saturday’s 2-0 win at Eibar.

Philippe Coutinho is ineligible for Barca following his move from Liverpool.

Mourinho claiming injury crisis ahead of CL showdown

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The next three weeks will go a long way toward defining Jose Mourinho’s second season at Manchester United, with the Red Devils facing not only fellow top-four aspirers Chelsea and Liverpool, but also contesting their Champions League round-of-16 tie with Sevilla.

[ MORE: VAR provider admits incorrect graphic displayed on TV ]

Thus, it’s not exactly the most convenient time for the words “injury crisis” to rear their ugly heads yet again, but that’s the challenge Mourinho claims he faces ahead of Wednesday’s CL clash.

Paul Pogba missed Saturday’s FA Cup victory with a last-minute illness; Marcus Rashford is dealing with a leg injury and remains questionable, as are Ander Herrera and Antonio Valencia; Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones and Marouane Fellaini are all but officially out, according to Mourinho — quotes from ESPN.co.uk:

“I didn’t rest one single player so we had today every player available here. I didn’t rest anyone. I brought two kids that played on Friday 90 minutes [for the under-23s] because I don’t have another player, so we arrive at this crucial moment with some problems.”

“Can we recover some of them to Wednesday? I believe so. I think Rashford, Herrera, Valencia — I think they have a chance.

“Paul, I don’t know. Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones, Marouane, Zlatan — I don’t think they have any chance.”

Mourinho dealt with a similar rash of injuries very late on last season, as his side barreled its way into, and eventually won, the Europa League final, securing a place in the CL this season. With a top-four finish all but out of reach at the time, Mourinho opted to rest his bare-bones group of first-team regulars in Premier League action and prioritize Europe’s “other” competition.

[ MORE: Man Utd draw Brighton in FA Cup QF; Chelsea get Leicester ]

This time around, United sit second in the PL table, just four points clear of fifth-place Tottenham Hotspur, and the path to winning the CL will prove far more difficult than taking on the likes of Saint-Etienne, Rostov, Anderlecht, Celta Vigo and Ajax.

Serie A: Napoli, Juve hold serve in 1-point title race

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A roundup of all of Sunday’s action in Italy’s top flight…

[ MORE: Barcelona now 31 games unbeaten | Real Madrid 17 points behind ]

Napoli 1-0 SPAL 2013

The battle for Serie A supremacy isn’t ending anytime soon, as Napoli and Juventus continue to match one another (nine straight wins for each side) in Europe’s only remaining major title race.

On Sunday, they even traded 1-0 victories — Napoli at home to SPAL 2013, with Juve triumphing over Torino in the Turin derby.

Brazilian midfielder Allan bagged the only goal for Napoli after just six minutes, finishing off a mesmerizing, free-flowing move that’s become synonymous with Napoli this season. The video-assisting referee came into play just after the hour mark, when Marek Hamsik headed home to make it 2-0 before the VAR wiped it away for offside.

Napoli’s current nine-game winning streak is the longest in club history.

Torino 0-1 Juventus

Juve’s victory came at something of a cost, though, as star striker Gonzalo Higuain was lost to an ankle injury after just a quarter-hour (the injury occurred after just three minutes), followed by a potentially serious knee injury for Federico Bernardeschi, who replaced Higuain, in second-half stoppage time. Higuain isn’t expected to miss significant time, with the club calling it a twisted ankle.

In between the injuries came Alex Sandro‘s 33rd-minute winner, a tap-in from close range masterfully set up by Bernardeschi. One additional positive for Juve: Sunday also saw Paulo Dybala return after missing five weeks with a hamstring injury. The Argentine star entered as a second-half substitute.

“Paulo played 30 minutes at a good level,” Juve manager Massimiliano Allegri said. “I’m pleased with his and everyone else’s performance. This is a good result against a well-organized Torino side.”

Elsewhere in Serie A

AC Milan 1-0 Sampdoria
Atalanta 1-1 Fiorentina
Bologna 2-1 Sassuolo
Benevento 3-2 Crotone