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Premier League Title Watch: Evaluating the contenders (Matchweek 28)

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With Matchweek 28 in the books, the race at the top of the Premier League table is as tight as it gets.

Chelsea currently sits atop the pile but with only four points of wiggle room ahead of Liverpool and Arsenal, and with a six point spot on Manchester City (qualified by Manuel Pellegrini’s side holding two matches in hand), Premier League fans are gearing themselves up for a title chase primed to end on the final day of the season.

Can Chelsea hold their edge or can City draw even after playing out their two additional matches? Or does Liverpool or Arsenal have what it takes to make a storybook run to upset the title odds?

Schedule, form, other competitions and injuries will all play a role in determining the champion and below we review what each of the title favorites is looking at with just 10 weeks to go.

1. CHELSEA 63 PTS (28 PLD)

Remaining Matches (10): Tottenham (H); Aston Villa (A); Arsenal (H); Crystal Palace (A); Stoke City (H); Swansea City (A); Sunderland (H); Liverpool (A); Norwich City (H); Cardiff City (A)

League Form: DWWDWW

Other Competitions: Champions League (v. Galatasaray on March 18th)

Injuries (return date): Marco van Ginkle, knee (out for season)

Vegas odds to win: 11/10

Verdict: If Chelsea and Manchester City win all of their remaining Premier League matches, City is most likely to hoist the title given their current goal differential advantage of +12. But that’s a huge ‘if’ so don’t believe Jose Mourinho when he downplays his side’s chances.

The fact is that Chelsea have a far easier end to their season, facing only three clubs currently in the Top 10 (Tottenham, Arsenal, Liverpool) while City face six such clubs (Manchester United, Arsenal, Southampton, Liverpool, Everton, West Ham).

The Blues are further boosted by the facts that they are practically unencumbered by injury and that, unlike Pellegrini, Mourinho has already won two Premier League titles and knows exactly what it takes to get it done during the final stretch of the season.

For those reasons, they remain slight favorites.

2. LIVERPOOL 59 PTS (28 PLD)

Remaining Matches (10): Manchester United (A); Cardiff City (A); Sunderland (H); Tottenham (H); West Ham United (A); Manchester City (H); Norwich City (A); Chelsea (H); Crystal Palace (A); Newcastle United (H)

League Form: WDWWWW

Other Competitions: None

Injuries (return date): Lucas Leiva, knee (March 16th); Mamadou Sakho, hamstring (March 16th); Jose Enrique, knee (out for season)

Vegas odds to win: 9/2

Verdict: Mentally and psychologically, Liverpool couldn’t be in a better place in this title race. Their goal was to qualify for Champions League and that’s all but done and dusted. Everything else is gravy and with a favorable end-of-the-year schedule, why the heck wouldn’t you take a chance on 9/2 odds?

source:
Current Premier League standings, top 10 (correct as of March 3, 2014)

3. ARSENAL 59 PTS (28 PLD)

Remaining Matches (10): Swansea City (H); Tottenham Hotspur (A); Chelsea (A); Manchester City (H); Everton (A); West Ham United (H); Hull City (A); Newcastle United (H); West Bromwich Albion (H); Norwich City (A)

League Form: DWLDWL

Other Competitions: FA Cup (v. Everton on March 8th); Champions League (v. Bayern Munich on March 11th)

Injuries (return date): Nacho Monreal, ankle (March 8th); Aaron Ramsey, thigh (March 16th); Theo Walcott, knee (out for season); Abou Diaby, knee (out for season); Kim Kallstrom, back (no return date)

Other Competitions: Champions League (v. Bayern Munich on March 11th); FA Cup (v. Everton on March 8th)

Vegas odds to win: 16/1

Verdict: As reflected by their long-shot odds of 16/1, Arsenal are all but out of the title race. Their fate was semi-sealed in this weekend’s 0-1 loss at Stoke City, a result that, to be fair, could’ve happened to any other club. That’s what will keep the hopes of Gunners fans alive.

The reality is that Arsenal need to win a title and as they’re behind the Munich 8-ball in Champions League, expect Arsene Wenger’s side to focus on the FA Cup. Hoisting that title and securing Champions League for next season would mark a great achievement for a side hampered by injuries and short a striker to spell the overused likes of Olivier Giroud.

4. MANCHESTER CITY 57 PTS (26 PLD)

Remaining Matches (12): Sunderland (PPD, H); Aston Villa (PPD, H); Hull City (A); Fulham (H); Manchester United (A); Arsenal (A); Southampton (H); Liverpool (A); West Bromwich Albion (H); Crystal Palace (A); Everton (A); West Ham United (H)

League Form: WWWLDW

Other Competitions: FA Cup (v. Wigan on March 9th); Champions League (v. Barcelona on March 12th)

Injuries (return date): Stevan Jovetic, hamstring (no return date); Matija Nastasic, knee (no return date)

Vegas odds to win:  3/2

Verdict: City have a slightly harder road to the title than Chelsea but as Mourinho pointed out earlier today, City have two games in hand and the goal advantage. But six matches against Top 10 clubs won’t be easy, not to mention they have their eyes on taking down the FA Cup as well.

Losing Jovetic and Natasic make things difficult but not impossible, while bowing out in Champions League could be a blessing in disguise. Ultimately, City’s Premier League title fate will come down to just how clever Pellegrini can be in rotating his squad and keeping them focused through May 11th.

VIDEO: Jeison Murillo’s incredible bicycle from a corner kick

MILAN, ITALY - JANUARY 17:  (R-L) Jeison Murillo of FC Internazionale celebrates his first goal with Geoffrey Kondogbia during the TIM Cup match between FC Internazionale and Bologna FC at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on January 17, 2017 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)
Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)
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Look away now, Andy Carroll. Take a bow, Jeison Murillo.

[ VIDEOS: All in a week’s work — Messi free kick no. 1 | Messi free kick no. 2 ]

Just three days after Carroll scored the bicycle-kick goal of the year (so we thought), here comes Murillo, Inter Milan’s 24-year-old Colombian striker, to steal his thunder (below video). The fact he did it directly from a corner kick, with the ball traveling nearly 50 yards before flinging his body into the air and striking the ball so cleanly, (somehow) trumps Carroll’s accomplishment from Saturday.

[ MORE: PL Power Rankings — Tight at the top… and bottom ]

Sensational goals come in twos now, apparently, as Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Olivier Giroud scored stunning scorpion-kick goals (WATCH HERE and HERE) just days apart earlier in the season.

FA Cup roundup: Burnley, Crystal Palace advance to 4th round

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 17: Christian Benteke of Crystal Palace (C) celebrates scoring his sides first goal with Andros Townsend of Crystal Palace (L) during the Emirates FA Cup third round replay between Crystal Palace and Bolton Wanderers at Selhurst Park on January 17, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images
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A roundup of all of Tuesday’s action in FA Cup third-round replays…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Burnley 2-0 Sunderland

Sam Vokes and Andre Gray grabbed goals for Burnley, who opted for a largely first-choice lineup in Tuesday’s replay. Sunderland, meanwhile, went with a mix-and-match bunch and slumped to six games without a win (all competitions), meaning they can focus solely on Premier League survival from here on out. Burnley will host Championship side Bristol City in the fourth round next Saturday, Jan. 28.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday | Thursday ]

Crystal Palace 2-1 Bolton Wanderers

Sam Allardyce picked up his first win as Palace boss, courtesy of a Christian Benteke brace scored nine minutes apart in the second half, as the Eagles came from behind to beat League One side Bolton at Selhurst Park. James Henry put the visitors three minutes into the second half, but Benteke hit back in the 68th and 77th minutes to improve Allardyce’s record to one win, two draws and three losses (all competitions). Palace will host Manchester City in the fourth round next Saturday.

Tuesday’s FA Cup scoreboard

AFC Wimbledon 1-3 Sutton United
Barnsley 1-2 (AET) Blackpool
Fleetwood Town 0-1 Bristol City
Lincoln City 1-0 Ipswich Town

AFCON: Ayew propels Ghana to victory; Egypt struggle vs. Mali

FORTALEZA, BRAZIL - JUNE 21:  Andre Ayew of Ghana celebrates scoring his team's first goal during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Group G match between Germany and Ghana at Castelao on June 21, 2014 in Fortaleza, Brazil.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
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A roundup of all of Tuesday’s action in the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations…

Ghana 1-0 Uganda

PORT-GENTIL, Gabon (AP) Andre Ayew scored a penalty as Ghana beat Uganda 1-0 on Tuesday in a lackluster opening to the four-time champions’ bid for a first African Cup of Nations title in 35 years.

Ghana took control of Group D after seven-time champion Egypt struggled in a 0-0 draw with Mali in the other group match.

Ghana has three points, Egypt and Mali one each and Uganda zero.

Ayew, a West Ham winger, netted in the 32nd minute after Asamoah Gyan was held back by Isaac Isinde in the penalty area in Port-Gentil.

Avram Grant, a former Chelsea manager, is looking to lead Ghana to a second successive final but go better than 2015 when his team lost to Ivory Coast.

Uganda has also finished runner-up in the continental championship but the trip to the final in 1978 was the last time it qualified until making the Gabon event.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday | Thursday ]

Mali 0-0 Egypt

Later, 44-year-old Egypt goalkeeper Essam El Hadary became the oldest player in tournament history when he came on for injured Ahmed El Shenawy midway through the first half.

El Hadary, who celebrated his birthday two days ago, is participating in his seventh African Cup, having picked up winners’ medals in 2006, 2008 and 2010.

Egypt’s standout forward Mohamed Salah struggled and was replaced midway through the second half.

Mali, looking to improve on its third-place finishes in 2012 and 2013, produced many more chances.

Egypt failed to qualify for the last three editions of the tournament.

Wednesday’s AFCON schedule

Gabon vs. Burkina-Faso — 11 a.m. ET
Cameroon vs. Guinea-Bissau — 2 p.m. ET

Vertonghen to miss 2 months with ankle ligament damage

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 14: Jan Vertonghen of Tottenham Hotspur receives treatment from the medical team during the Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and West Bromwich Albion at White Hart Lane on January 14, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images
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Jan Vertronghen is expected to miss at least two months while recovering from ankle ligament damage, and it couldn’t have come at a worse time, with Tottenham Hotspur currently second in the Premier League, seven points back of leaders Chelsea.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Vertonghen suffered the injury in the 65th minute of Saturday’s 4-0 thrashing of West Bromwich Albion, when he went full-stretch to clear the ball along the sideline before landing on the outside of his left foot, causing the ankle to roll violently. The 29-year-old Belgian international was in clear, visible agony as he sat on the field at White Hart Lane and eventually limped down the tunnel.

The Guardian described the injury as “a tear lying between grades two and three, damage which had left Vertonghen in tears as he departed the turf at White Hart Lane and would normally rule him out at the very least until mid-March.”

[ MORE: PL Power Rankings — Tight at the top… and bottom ]

In the meantime, Kevin Wimmer and Ben Davies will be tasked with filling the void for a Tottenham side which has conceded the fewest goals in the Premier League this season (14 in 21 games). (As a small aside, 19-year-old American center back Cameron Carter-Vickers is likely set for a handful of appearances as well, perhaps in the Europa League round of 32 and FA Cup fourth round, with Wimmer and Davies called upon for additional PL service.)

Wimmer filled in for Vertonghen for nearly three months last season, at the exact same point of the campaign (Jan. 20 through April 2). In Wimmer’s 10 PL starts during that stretch (Vertonghen out with knee ligament damage), Spurs conceded seven goals (seven wins and two draws). The loss of Toby Aldeweireld, for nearly two months back in October of this season, proved a far greater blow (two wins in six PL games), and Spurs should once again manage just fine for as long as Aldeweireld remains healthy alongside Eric Dier, Wimmer and Davies.