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.

Lukaku coy on Everton future, says “decision has already been made”

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Romelu Lukaku has made it no secret that he hopes to play Champions League football, and reality may be setting in that the opportunity to do so won’t come at Everton.

[ MORE: Everton loses Coleman to leg break during Ireland match ]

While the Belgium international hasn’t dealt his hand in regards to his future at Goodison Park, it seems as though the Toffees could be losing out on keeping their star striker.

[ MORE: UEFA qualifying roundup — Wales in trouble, Buffon hits 1000 ]

Last month, agent Mino Raiola claimed that Lukaku’s deal with the English side was 99.9 percent complete, however, the 23-year-old has still yet to ink a new contract.

Speaking ahead of Saturday’s UEFA World Cup qualifier against Greece, Lukaku says that his future plans are already made up.

“The decision has already been made so I can’t talk about that,” Lukaku said of his future at Everton.

The former Anderlecht standout has had nothing but success since joining Everton, first on loan and then making a permanent transfer from Chelsea in 2014. Over the combined stints, Lukaku has bagged 83 goals in all competitions for the Toffees, but the young attacker says there’s nothing wrong with having “ambition.”

“There is nothing wrong with ambition. You have to embrace it and where you are as a footballer,” Lukaku said. “I’ve made a long way until now but the road is still long and I know I have to improve and get better. I want to help Everton as much as I can, as well as the national team. I think a lot of stuff can be achieved.

“Sometimes people will mistake things that I say but it’s just ambition that I have; I want to win titles and trophies and I don’t think people should take that as arrogance — people should embrace it.

“This is what footballers need to achieve if they want to become the best, and I think young kids need to learn that too.”

Making sense out of USMNT’s emphatic win over Honduras

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In the lead up to Friday night’s clash at Avaya Stadium, the U.S. Men’s National Team was faced with a must-win scenario. What came next though was a bit more shocking than most U.S. Soccer supporters could have possibly imagined.

[ MORE: Player ratings from USMNT’s win over Honduras ]

An emphatic 6-0 scoreline was how it finished in San Jose, California as the USMNT took down Honduras to lift itself out of the cellar of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, but it’s how Bruce Arena’s side picked up the result that was so impressive.

After an extended layoff that began in the final months of the 2016 Major League Soccer season, Clint Dempsey has returned to both club and country with a vengeance following Friday’s performance. The artist formerly known as “Deuce” recorded a hat-trick in a span of 22 minutes to solidify an already convincing American lead, leaving Dempsey just two goals shy of Landon Donovan’s all-time USMNT scoring record (57).

Dempsey wasn’t the only bright spot though, as Sebastian Lletget, Darlington Nagbe, Jozy Altidore and most notably, Christian Pulisic, turned in stellar performances that really left Honduras with no chance to find its rhythm in the match.

The 18-year-old Pulisic continues to be the talk of the town when it comes to the USMNT, and rightfully so given his club situation. There’s never been a U.S. talent succeeding at a club as big as Borussia Dortmund at such a young age, and Pulisic’s effort against Los Catrachos proved further that the young attacker could be the playmaker the Yanks have been looking for since Donovan’s retirement.

Meanwhile, another player that turned in a great performance was Jozy Altidore, and probably not for the reasons you’d normally think. The Toronto FC striker didn’t get on the scoresheet, however, it was Altidore’s hold-up play and vision that helped the U.S. dominate Honduras.

Altidore has long been a staple of the American attack, and an important one at that with his 37 international goals, which ranks third all-time for the U.S.. If the 27-year-old is able to replicate more performances like Friday night though, that makes the Stars and Stripes significantly more dangerous because of Altidore’s duel-threat ability.

The lone area the U.S. will look to clean up heading into Tuesday’s important qualifying match against Panama will be some of the team’s defensive letdowns. Jorge Villafana turned in a strong performance in his WCQ debut at left back, while veteran Omar Gonzalez had several moments of weakness in the heart of the American backline.

The Pachuca defender was caught out of position on several occasions and gave the ball away at times as well, but fortunately for the U.S., Honduras was unable to capitalize on those errors.

Overall though, the U.S. did exactly what it needed… and then some. The three points was all Arena’s group could have hoped for from the start after lackluster performances against Mexico and Costa Rica back in November, but adding six goals could certainly help down the road as well if goal differential becomes a key factor in the Hexagonal.

It’s difficult to say the U.S. is back because that’s a relative phrase that can be interpreted in numerous ways. The USMNT put in a stellar performance, albeit without key players like Fabian Johnson and DeAndre Yedlin defensively, while Bobby Wood and Jermaine Jones are two others that didn’t feature.

[ MORE: Three takeaways from USMNT’s emphatic win on Friday night ]

Only time will tell when it comes to how this team gels over an extended period of time, but it was certainly a dream start for the Americans as Arena Part Deux continues.

Up next, Panama.

Chastain, MacMillan inducted into US Soccer Hall of Fame

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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) Brandi Chastain looked at the assembled crowd in a tent under the rain and addressed former coach Tony DiCicco, who had just introduced her at the induction ceremony for the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame.

[ MORE: USMNT smashes six past Honduras in CONCACAF WCQ ]

“Thank you, not just for today but for every day that you gave me the chance to play for the women’s national team, and for having the confidence in me and the guts to tell me I wasn’t going to be a forward,” she said.

Chastain, a forward on the 1991 World Cup champions and a left back whose penalty kick won a shootout for the 1999 title, was inducted Friday night along with midfielder Shannon MacMillan, a 1996 Olympic gold medalist and World Cup champion three years later.

[ MORE: Player ratings from USMNT’s win over Honduras ]

The ceremony was held before the U.S. men played Honduras in a World Cup qualifier.

Remembered most for pulling off her shirt after her World Cup-winning goal and celebrating in a sports bra, Chastain grew up in San Jose and talked about her early days playing youth soccer in the area, starting with the Quakettes. After winning her first World Cup title, she was left off the 1995 roster. She revived her career as a defender.

“Change is good. Though, scary, it’s good. And I think we would all benefit from seeing change as an opportunity for growth and development, and for a new adventure,” she said.

Now 38, Chastain scored 30 goals in 192 international appearances and also won a pair of Olympic gold medals. MacMillan, 42, had 60 in 176 international games.

“It was always such a massive honor that gave me chills every time I walked in that locker room, whether it was my first cap, my 100th cap or my last cap,” MacMillan said. “It was something that I never took for granted.”

Soccer America’s Paul Kennedy was given the Colin Jose Media Award.

The Hall’s building in Oneonta, New York, closed in 2010 and a new Hall is being built in Frisco, Texas.

Hernandez, Araujo score in 1st half, Mexico beats Costa Rica

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MEXICO CITY (AP) Javier Hernandez and Nestor Araujo scored in the first half, and Mexico overcame the absence of half a dozen players to beat Costa Rica 2-0 on Friday night in a World Cup qualifying match.

Hernandez scored on a cross from Carlos Vela to open the score in the seventh and Araujo added a goal on a header in the 45th.

[ USMNT: Recap & videoPlayer ratings ]

Hernandez scored his 46th goal with the Mexican team and tied Jared Borgetti as the all-time leading scorer.

With the win, Mexico remains undefeated and has seven points after three rounds to take sole command in the six-nation tournament. Costa Rica stays on six points and is second and Panama is third with four.

The top three teams qualified for the Russia 2018 World Cup.

Mexico beat Costa Rica for the first time since September 11, 2012, when they prevailed 1-0.