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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.

Klopp played three positions in Liverpool staff team’s draw with Stanford

Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool FC (Photo credit: @StanfordMSoccer)
Photo credit: @StanfordMSoccer
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From the Endearing Jurgen Klopp Tales file, the Liverpool manager reportedly starred in defense, midfield and attack for a squad full of Reds coaches against Stanford on Sunday.

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Liverpool, who have based themselves on the sunny, warm Stanford University campus as part of their preparations for the 2016-17 Premier League, took on the collegiate side and played the youngsters to a 1-1 draw.

Klopp failed to get his name on the scoresheet, though the former Mainz striker had one golden chance turned away by Stanford’s goalkeeper. The same couldn’t be said for physiotherapist Ruben Pons, who scored from beyond the halfway line on a mishit long ball over the top.

With all the goodwill Klopp has banked with Reds fans in his first nine months at the club, he’s now only a PL title away from securing his place as an eternal Liverpool legend.

Liverpool will take on Chelsea in each side’s first International Champions Cup fixture Wednesday night (11 p.m. ET) in Pasadena, Calif.

Former Fergie assistant Phelan wants Hull job — “I want to be a manager”

SCUNTHORPE, ENGLAND - JULY 23:  Hull City interim manager Mike Phelan prior to kick off in the pre-season friendly between Scunthorpe United and Hull City at Glanford Park on July 23, 2016 in Scunthorpe, England.  (Photo by Daniel Smith/Getty Images)
Photo by Daniel Smith/Getty Images
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Following Steve Bruce’s sudden and unexpected resignation this week, Hull City find themselves without a first-team manager 20 days before the 2016-17 Premier League opener, which will pit the PL newcomers (again) against the reigning PL champions (not again) Leicester City on Aug. 13.

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The man presently in charge of the club, Mike Phelan, who served as Sir Alex Ferguson‘s no. 2 for a number of years at Manchester United, has essentially no first-team managerial experience, but he’s eager to cut his teeth and wants the job anyway — quotes from the Hull Daily Mail:

“I want to be a manager. I don’t really see why I shouldn’t want to be a manager. Time will tell. That decision doesn’t sometimes come down to you.

“I’ve had a small chat and I was asked if I would carry on being in charge for now. We have games, we have preparations, we’ve still got three weeks to go.

“My job is no different to what it has been except now I’m stood on the touchline in games doing my bit. We just have to do our job, there’s nothing else we can do until the powers that be make their decisions.”

Here’s why it’s (obviously) crazy for the club to delay a final decision any longer than absolutely necessary: with every passing day, important preparations for a PL season, a campaign in which the Tigers will almost certainly be fighting for their top-division status, are being undertaken by an interim boss who, based upon the daily whims of an outgoing owner, may or may not be the man to lead Hull into that 38-game battle.

Phelan previously served as interim manager for Norwich City in 2015, for a period totaling four days.

Int’l Champions Cup: Aurier scores twice as PSG throttle Inter Milan

Paris Saint-Germain's Serge Aurier, right, gets a shot past Inter Milan goalkeeper Samir Handanovic, left, in the first half of the International Champions Cup soccer match at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore., Sunday, July 24, 2016. (Andy Nelson/The Register-Guard via AP)
Andy Nelson/The Register-Guard via AP
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EUGENE, Ore. (AP) Serge Aurier scored twice and Paris Saint-Germain beat Inter Milan 3-1 on Sunday at the University of Oregon’s Autzen Stadium.

Layvin Kurzawa also scored for PSG on a free kick in the 61st minute in the International Champions Cup match. Stevan Jovetic scored for Inter Milan on a penalty kick in stoppage time following the first half.

Autzen Stadium, the home football field of the Oregon Ducks, hosted the match, part of the International Champions Cup. Real grass was laid down on the artificial turf field, obscuring the yellow `O’ at midfield.

The International Champions Cup is an exhibition tournament involving 17 teams playing on four different continents. It serves a tuneup for the regular season.

Inter Milan was coming off a 2-1 victory over Real Salt Lake earlier in the week in Utah. Striker Mauro Icardi played in that match, and was given the day off against PSG.

Paris Saint-Germain, which beat West Bromwich Albion 2-1 its last time out on July 14 in Austria, is embarking on its first season under Unai Emery, who took over for Laurnet Blanc. In addition to the new manager, PSG will also need to adjust to the departure of enigmatic forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who signed with Manchester United earlier this month.

Ibrahimovic had 38 goals in 31 French league games last season, helping PSG to a fourth successive title. On Sunday midfielder Javier Pastore wore No. 10.

Angel Di Maria, Edinson Cavani and Thomas Meunier entered as subs for Paris Saint-Germain in the second half.

Di Maria had just returned to his club team earlier in the week after taking some time off following the Copa America tournament. He played for his native Argentina in the final, which Chile won on penalty kicks.

David Luiz apparently did not make the trip to Eugene from Los Angeles, where PSG was training.

Aurier, who played in the 2014 World Cup for his native Ivory Coast, left-footed the rebound of a free kick off goalkeeper Samir Handanovic into the bottom left corner.

Inter Milan evened it on Jovetic’s penalty kick into the top right corner in extra time following the first half. The penalty was awarded when Lucas Moura was called for a handball.

Aurier had a good chance in the 57th minute but his shot hit the crossbar. A few minutes later, Kurzawa struck a perfectly placed free kick that Handanovic couldn’t reach that put PSG in front.

Aurier’s second goal was a header off a cross from Alec Georgen in the 87th minute.

Is MLS MVP a three-horse race at the All-Star “break”?

Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco laughs after being named Major League Soccer's 2015 Most Valuable Player in Toronto, Wednesday, Dec.  2, 2015. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)
Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP
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With the 2016 MLS All-Star Game set to be played Thursday night (versus Arsenal, at Avaya Stadium in San Jose, Calif.), it got me thinking about the race for this year’s Most Valuable Player award. (If MLS is going to continue holding the All-Star Game every year — and they are — it should include an actual break, as is the case in all other America sports.)

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While the field is a small one at this point of the campaign, it’s also much closer than it was last year, when Sebastian Giovinco took home the honor in an absolute landslide of a vote.

Sebastian Giovinco, Toronto FC

The reigning MVP is on pace for something of a come-down in his second season in MLS, but when you put up 22 goals and 16 assists in your debut campaign, can you really expect to replicate that kind of production from one year to the next? Still, 11 goals (on the most shots in the league – 124) and 7 assists through 20 games (Giovinco has played in 19) has him on pace for 18 goals and 12 assists. Of course, when you consider he snapped a skid of eight games without a goal with a hat trick Saturday night, and that he’s unlikely to endure such a slump through the final 14 games, 18 and 12 should be considered the proverbial floor.

TFC have scored just 25 goals this season, and Giovinco has scored or assisted 18 of them (72 percent).

As for TFC’s present standing and how that impacts Giovinco’s MVP candidacy, fifth place through 20 games is a disappointment considering this was to be “the year” where they were less of a collection of talent, and more a functional team. Of course, injuries (and national team call-ups) have robbed the Reds of Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Will Johnson for lengthy periods already. That TFC find themselves presently a playoff team, and a measly six points back of the Eastern Conference’s top spot with two games in hand, should benefit Giovinco’s case more than hurt it.

David Villa, New York City FC

This one’s pretty simple: NYCFC weren’t supposed to be anywhere near the top spot of the East this season, yet that’s where they find themselves at the break, and Villa has spearheaded their unlikely run by scoring 13 goals (most in MLS – on 117 shots – 46 more than the next-closest player) and one assist through 22 games (Villa has played in 21). The question is this, though: will Patrick Vieira’s side still be there come the end of the season? So much of Villa’s claim to MVP is that he’s been the best player on one of the best (and certainly most surprising) teams in MLS this year.

If they’re to fall back into the pack (they’re just two points clear of the New York Red Bulls following Sunday’s 4-1 derby disaster, and only four points from fourth), Villa will quickly fall from MVP candidate to “the best best player on a subpar team.”

New York City FC forward David Villa, left, and New York City FC defender Chris Wingert celebrate Villa's early goal during the first half of the match between New York City FC and Toronto FC, Sunday, July 12, 2015, at Yankee Stadium in New York. (AP Photo/Kevin Hagen)
(AP Photo/Kevin Hagen)

Ignacio Piatti, Montreal Impact

The Impact have, for my money, the most complete roster in the Eastern Conference. Didier Drogba is arguably the most dominant goal-scoring force MLS has ever seen (8 goals in 12 appearances this season; 11 in 11 last year), and the depth in midfield and defense is unparalleled, yet Piatti has been the unrivaled star through the first 20 games of the season (he has played in 18). His 12 goals and 5 assists are rivaled only by Giovinco’s numbers, and he’s been a far more consistent contributor than the Italian (never more than three games without a goal, while playing as a non-forward, unlike Giovinco).

The knock on Piatti has always been his inability to stay healthy and approach a pace of 30 appearances in a single season. Finally consistently healthy in 2016, he’s taken his short-term production and replicated that same kind of output over 90 percent of his team’s games this season. If he can reach 30 games played this year, Piatti has the best chance of stopping Giovinco from becoming the first back-to-back MVP winner in league history.

Montreal Impact's Ignacio Piatti, left, of Argentina, scores a goal as Vancouver Whitecaps' Kendall Waston, of Costa Rica, defends during first half MLS soccer action, in Vancouver, British Columbia, on Sunday, March 6, 2016. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)
(Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)

On the fringe, with a chance to catch the leaders: Sacha Kljestan (New York Red Bulls – 5 goals, 12 assists), Diego Valeri (Portland Timbers – 9 goals, 5 assists)