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.

Albanian federation denounces “extremist acts” of their fans in Italy

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TIRANA, Albania (AP) Albania’s soccer federation has strongly denounced the incident that halted the World Cup Group G qualifier with Italy for nearly nine minutes on Friday.

During the match, which was won by Italy, 2-0, a group calling itself Illyrian Elite threw flares onto the pitch.

“Such totally extremist actions from the grouping Illyrian Elite have nothing to do with the excellent Albanian fans” who were distinguished in the EURO 2016 finals in France for their friendship and camaraderie in their festivities, the statement added.

The federation said an coach Gianni De Biasi also was “upset by the flares,” adding that during five years he has been in charge “I’ve seen something that’s never happened before.”

USMNT: 4 players, including Brooks, Lletget, released; Arriola added

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Hours after his side’s 6-0 thrashing of Honduras to resuscitate dreams of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, Bruce Arena announced on Saturday five changes to the U.S. national team roster ahead of Tuesday’s qualifier against Panama.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage | MLS ]

John Brooks (sinus infection), Sebastian Lletget (foot), Jordan Morris (knee) and Michael Orozco (knee) were all released back to their club teams, while Club Tijuana midfielder Paul Arriola was added to the squad.

[ MORE: USA 6-0 Honduras | Three things we learned | Player ratings ]

Brooks dealt with the sinus infection throughout USMNT camp this past week, as Morris did his knee injury which he picked up last weekend. Lletget left Friday’s win over Honduras in the 18th minute and will undergo further tests to determine the severity of his injury; he was seen leaving the stadium on crutches and wearing a walking boot.

The USMNT’s roster for Tuesday’s qualifier in Panama City, Panama, now stands at 23 players, and reads as follows:

Goalkeepers: David Bingham (San Jose Earthquakes), Tim Howard (Colorado Rapids), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)

Defenders: DaMarcus Beasley (Houston Dynamo), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca), Tim Ream (Fulham), Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna), Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)

Midfielders: Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Paul Arriola (Club Tijuana), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Jermaine Jones (LA Galaxy), Sacha Kljestan (New York Red Bulls), Dax McCarty (Chicago Fire), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund)

Forwards: Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders FC), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)

Rapinoe won’t back down on social issues despite U.S. Soccer policy

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Megan Rapinoe recently earned her spot back in the U.S. Women’s National Team squad ahead of next month’s friendlies against Russia, but the veteran won’t remain silent when it comes to her stance on the social climate of America.

[ MORE: Looking back on USMNT’s big win over Honduras ]

The 31-year-old was scrutinized for joining NFL player Colin Kaepernick in 2016 when they knelt during their respective sporting events, along with dozens of other athletes across the United States.

While Rapinoe admits that the form of protest is up for discussion, she also states that social inequality issues in the U.S. go far beyond that.

“What has surprised me the most, especially post-election, is that people are still sort of arguing against it. It’s really obvious that we have very serious inequality in this country across many different spectrums,” Rapinoe told the Guardian. “Yes, we can talk about the form of protest, or the way it’s done, or this or that. But it’s still not really the conversation that I think we desperately need to have more of in this country.”

A few weeks back, U.S. Soccer announced that it now requires all players that represent the Stars and Stripes to stand when the national anthem is played, and Rapinoe has agreed to do such.

While her days of kneeling on the pitch are in the past, Rapinoe believes she wouldn’t do anything different because she was simply trying to spark discussion amongst the American people.

“I don’t think there’s any perfect way to protest. I think if there was something else being done, something else would have been said about it. I can’t look back and say that I would have done this different, this different or this different.

“I can sleep at night knowing that I genuinely tried to have a really important conversation, or at least tried to open it up. I think I came to it with an open mind, an open heart and tried to get as many people to talk about it as I could.”

Report: Chelsea planning Hazard, Courtois pay raises

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Eden Hazard has returned to his old self under Antonio Conte this season, and now Chelsea is hoping to lock down their star attacker.

[ MORE: Lukaku says decision has been made on Everton future ]

According to the Mirror, the Premier League leaders are planning on offering up a pay raise to Hazard, who has 11 league goals this season for the Blues.

Hazard signed a nearly $250,000 per week deal two seasons ago, but the Belgium international will likely rake in significantly more under the reported deal as Chelsea hopes to keep the 26-year-old away from Spanish giants Real Madrid and others.

The Mirror is also reporting that goalkeeper and Hazard’s Belgian teammate Thibaut Courtois is likely to be handed a raise is salary as well.

The shot-stopper is set be handed a deal roughly in the range of what Hazard is currently making after allowing just 21 goals in 28 PL matches this season.