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.

Terry: “I couldn’t care less” about 26th-minute farewell criticism

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John Terry is a man who… well, let’s just say, does things his way.

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For instance, remember the time Chelsea won the UEFA Champions League, by beating Bayern Munich, in penalties? Remember Chelsea’s post-game celebrations, which saw Terry, who was suspended for the final at the Allianz Arena, joyously jumping around with his teammates wearing his full kit, shin guards and all?

Was it over the top and a bit silly? Sure it was, but was anyone hurt or genuinely upset by it? Of course not. On Sunday, as Terry said goodbye to the only club he’s ever known (apart from a six-game loan spell at Nottingham Forest in 2000), he toed the line between what’s acceptable and what’s outlandish. Just like in 2012, Terry caused a minor uproar, and just like in 2012 he “couldn’t care less” — quotes from the Guardian:

“I couldn’t care less, I promise you. All I care about is celebrating with my Chelsea fans. Me and them have a wonderful rapport and have done for 22 years. Nothing that people write or say can ever get in the way of that.

“If that’s the way I want to go out, that’s the way I go out because I’ve been here 22 years, I’ve won so many trophies — so if I wanted to play one minute and come off, I would have done.

“I wanted to play 26 minutes because the shirt number means a lot to me and the supporters so as long as they are happy – and I was over the moon with the reception – I promise you I could not care less.”

“It was an unbelievable send-off from the supporters to help me to celebrate 22 years at the club.

“I’m very grateful to them, and it was something I will never forget. It was so emotional after the game, I was in bits.”

There’s something to be said about the success that Chelsea have had as a club, and the way its recency leads them to feel they are perceived by the outside world. Other clubs, “bigger,” most historic clubs — Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal, for example — have been winning trophies pretty regularly for decades, while 70 percent of the major trophies (14 of 20) won in the club’s history have come since Roman Abramovich bought the club 14 years ago, in 2003. Chelsea is a 112-year-old football club.

[ MORE: Pogba, Mkhitaryan fire Man United to Europa League trophy ]

Chelsea’s players and fans are so clearly away of their bought-and-paid-for status, thus everything is celebrated on the grandest scale, almost as if to legitimize their accomplishments (which stand up just fine on their own two feet) and standing within the hierarchy of English football. “Contrived” (and admittedly so) is the word that comes to mind and best describes Terry’s send-off.

No one in this space is saying there’s anything wrong with that, but everyone connected to Chelsea must realize and accept that it looks silly to supporters of the aforementioned long-time giants, and they’re going to be pointed at and laughed at every time they do it.

FA Cup: Three key battles between Arsenal, Chelsea

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The FA Cup final usually brings out terrific entertainment for the fans, and this Saturday’s finale should be no different.

When Arsenal and Chelsea take the field at Wembley Stadium, it will be the last chance this season for some of the Premier League’s stars such as Eden Hazard and Diego Costa for Chelsea and Alexis Sanchez and Mezut Ozil for Arsenal to bring glory to their club.

[ MORE: Follow all the FA Cup scores here ]

The match features two teams heading in different directions. Chelsea, the Premier League champions are in the ascendency after a one-year hiatus out of European competition, while Arsenal finished outside the top-four places in the Premier League for the first time in 20 years under manager Arsene Wenger.

In addition, there’s plenty of other storylines to watch on the field, from whether it’s Costa, Sanchez and Ozil’s potential last matches with their respective teams to how Arsenal will deal without two of its three regular centerbacks they’ve used this season.

Here’s a look at three key battles on the field ahead of the FA Cup final:


Arsenal’s centerbacks vs. Diego Costa

Diego Costa may be a thorn in Chelsea’s side off the field when it comes to the constant speculation of a move away from Stamford Bridge, but on the field this season he’s been brilliant. Costa scored 20 goals in the Premier League and another goal in FA Cup action, and he contributes off the ball as well, drawing the defense in towards him while opening up space for teammates including Hazard and Willian.

Heading into Saturday, it’s unclear who on Arsenal will be tasked with marking Costa. Laurent Koscielny was issued a straight red card in Arsenal’s 3-1 win over Everton and will miss the FA Cup final due to suspension while fellow centerback Gabriel left the field on a stretcher after suffering a knee injury. In addition, Shkodran Mustafi is still recovering from a concussion and is a doubt for Saturday.

That leaves Wenger with just Per Mertesacker and Rob Holding as healthy centerbacks, which could force Wenger to revert back to his usual four-man backline from the more recent three-man backline that’s been used.

Regardless of who Arsenal put out there, expect Costa to be at his best, attempting to physically dominate his opponent and get under their skin.


Nemanja Matic and N'Golo Kante vs. Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez

Arsenal are at their best when they play through the middle of the field before finding runners out wide, setting up crossing attempts into the middle or perhaps another chance to play through the lines in the center of the field.

Standing in Arsenal’s playmaking duo of Mezut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez’s way are Nemanja Matic and N’Golo Kante. Kante, as Riyad Mahrez saw last year, does so much of the dirty work defensively that he allows his teammates including Matic and Hazard to bomb forward and either create or finish goal-scoring opportunities.

Kante will have his hands full dealing with Ozil and Sanchez in midfield, and Matic may need to sit a bit deeper to cut off the passing lanes, potentially taking him out of Chelsea’s counter attack.


Eden Hazard vs. Hector Bellerin

For all the speed that Hazard possesses on the ball, there’s at least one player on Arsenal who can keep stride pace-for-pace.

With Hazard likely lining up on the left wing, Arsenal’s right wing back Hector Bellerin will likely face Hazard up one-on-one at both ends of the field, setting up a fun encounter. With Bellerin’s speed and ability to track back, he may be open to a few 40-yard springs into space down the right wing, knowing that Hazard probably won’t be in hot pursuit.

But if Bellerin doesn’t end up with the ball and there’s an Arsenal turnover, Hazard on his own or against a centerback on the left wing could be a nightmare for Arsenal to deal with.

Man United, Man City come together to support terror victims

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The Manchester derby is known as one of the world’s fiercest rivalries, but in the wake of a devastating terrorist attack this week, both sides are joining together to support the city of Manchester and victims of the attack.

Manchester United and Manchester City announced Thursday they pledged together nearly $1.3 million into the We Love Manchester community fund. The fund was set up to assist the families of the 22 people who died and 64 people who were injured in the attack.

“The barbarism of Monday evening’s attack has shocked everyone,” Manchester United executive vice chairman Ed Woodward said in a statement. “Our clubs are right at the heart of our local communities in Manchester and it is right that we present a unified response to this tragedy. The money will help of course but the work of the two clubs and their respective foundation and community scheme can build on the fantastic spirit that Mancunians have shown in the immediate aftermath.”

Folks who want to donate to the fund can visit http://www.redcross.org.uk/manchester or http://www.justgiving.com/campaigns/charity/redcross/ManchesterEmergencyFund.

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Liverpool, Leicester City headline Premier League Asia Trophy

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The Premier League is coming this summer to Hong Kong.

The territory in Southeast China will host the 2017 Premier League Asia Trophy, featuring Liverpool, Leicester City, West Bromwich Albion and Crystal Palace. The tournament will take place from July 19-22, with all games taking place at the 40,000-seat Hong Kong Stadium.

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“We are very excited to be returning to Hong Kong this summer for the Premier League Asia Trophy,” Premier League Executive Chairman Richard Scudamore said in a statement. “We know from previous visits that fans in Hong Kong, and across the region, are passionate supporters of our clubs.”

This summer’s edition of the biennial tournament is the first to feature four Premier League teams. In the past, an Asian All-Star XI or a local club would be the fourth team to take part. By bringing a fourth team over, the Premier League is increasing the opportunity for Premier League fans to have a chance to see more of the league’s stars up close and in person.

For Liverpool, it will be the start of a busy season that will include UEFA Champions League action for the first time since 2015.