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.

Report: Frank De Boer accepts Crystal Palace job

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Frank de Boer is widely expected to be named new Crystal Palace manager this week, as he has reportedly accepted the job after having been offered the position this week.

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

The 47-year-old Dutchman has been out of work since he was fired by Inter Milan in November. He lasted just 84 days at the San Siro, where he managed to win just five of 14 games. Inter Milan is Inter Milan, though, and that’s something worth remembering when critiquing Palace’s impending appointment of De Boer.

Palace are also widely expected to back De Boer in the transfer market this summer, in a big way. Kelechi Iheanacho is the biggest name linked with a move to Selhurst Park, as the 20-year-old Nigerian striker is reportedly unwanted by Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola.

5th-place San Jose parts ways with Kinnear after 2.5 seasons

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Dominic Kinnear is out after two and a half seasons as head coach of the San Jose Earthquakes, despite leading the club to a hugely improved standing 17 games into the 2017 season.

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The move comes 17 hours after San Jose put to bed a three-game winless skid with a 2-1 win over Real Salt Lake on Saturday, a result which propelled them into fifth place in the Western Conference, just two points off second place. After seventh- and ninth-place finishes in Kinnear’s first two seasons back in Northern California (he managed the club in 2004 and 2005 before the club was relocated to Houston, where he would remain for nine seasons, through the 2014 season), this year’s team seemed to be moving in a positive direction quicker than most had previously expected.

[ MORE: Accam scores a backheel (video) | Opara scores a CB bicycle ]

The club has named Chris Leitch head coach and Alex Covelo as assistant coach. Current assistant coach Steve Ralston and goalkeeper coach Tim Hanley will remain in their current roles.

“First and foremost, we would like to thank Dominic for his hard work, professionalism and contributions to this club over the years,” Earthquakes general manager Jesse Fioranelli said in a release. “He worked hard this year and was a first-class person all the way. This decision was made after a lot of thought and evaluation. We decided that we wanted to go in a different direction as we continue to build the identity of this club.”

Kinnear is the second MLS coach to be relieved of his duties this season, suffering the same fate as RSL’s Jeff Cassar, who lasted just three games before being fired in March.

FIFA’s video-review system under scrutiny again in Russia

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OCHI, Russia (AP) FIFA’s new video review system is bringing turmoil to the Confederations Cup, with technology designed to deliver quick, clear decisions agitating players and leaving coaches and fans confused.

Perhaps even worse for FIFA, the latest controversy on Sunday – exactly one week after four goal reviews in that day’s two matches – made one of the world’s highest-rated referees look hesitant and wrong.

Wilmar Roldan sent off a Cameroon defender more than three minutes after a high tackle on a German opponent and only after his own case of mistaken identity.

The Colombian official arrived at what was arguably the correct decision following two visits to the touchline to consult video replays and first showing only a yellow card, then a red card, to the wrong Cameroon player.

“I think everyone is confused, including me,” Cameroon coach Hugo Broos said of referee Roldan after a 3-1 loss in Sochi that eliminated his team. “He and he alone can explain what happened there in that moment.”

Cameroon was also involved in two video decisions last Sunday, when possible Chile goals were reviewed for offside rulings. The first goal was disallowed, the second counted in Chile’s 2-0 victory.

Portugal had most to complain about one week ago when a potential opening goal in a 2-2 draw with Mexico was ruled out by an offside judged in an earlier phase of play.

FIFA stressed last week that all decisions proved ultimately correct, and the controversies were simply inevitable overreactions as world football gets used to a new system being put to its highest-profile tests.

Indeed, FIFA President Gianni Infantino felt confident to proclaim video review was “the future of football” and still on track to be approved by the guardians of the game’s laws before the 2018 World Cup.

Human error by Roldan seemed the biggest problem Sunday though it added to the perception that video review is capable of causing as much controversy as it solves.

FIFA has certainly pulled back from its prediction last year that game-changing decisions – goals scored, penalty kicks awarded, red cards, mistaken identity – could be reviewed and resolved in as few as six seconds.

Accuracy is more important than speed, has become the mantra in Russia.

Neither were in evidence Sunday in Sochi as Cameroon defender Ernest Mabouka eventually left the field around three minutes after his boot connected with Emre Can of Germany.

Mabouka’s teammate Sebastien Siani had sarcastically applauded the referee when he was wrongly sent from the field. Eventually Siani’s slate was wiped clean and he completed the match.

Still, the image of a top referee being openly disrespected will not please FIFA.

Roldan arrived at the Confederations Cup trying to rebuild a reputation that was damaged at the 2014 World Cup. There, he was chosen for the second game of the tournament, and incorrectly ruled out two Mexico goals. FIFA did not pick him for another refereeing duty in Brazil.

To further damage Roldan’s standing, Germany coach Joachim Loew said neither he nor Can believed the tackle merited even a yellow card.

“I didn’t have the impression that it was a mean foul with the intent to hurt the opponent. It was not intentional,” Loew said through a translator at the post-match news conference.

Loew, whose Germany team will defend its World Cup title next year, still thinks video review can benefit the game – with one condition.

“I think it can be fine-tuned over time so that decisions can be made more quickly,” the German coach said. “That would be great.”

Mario Balotelli signs new Nice contract

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Italian striker Mario Balotelli has found himself the owner of a new contract after a successful season in Ligue 1 with French club OGC Nice.

Balotelli’s one-year deal was set to expire at the end of June, but he found a career revival in what many believed would be his last chance in major European soccer. The club officially announced his new contract on Sunday, and while they did not release the length of the deal, they confirmed that Balotelli turned down deals from other clubs to stay in France.

The 26-year-old scored 15 goals in 23 league appearances last year, helping Nice to a fabulous third-place finish in Ligue 1, earning them a Champions League playoff spot.

For a player who saw trouble follow him wherever he went, the only trouble he faced last season at Nice was an erratic bout with injury issues including calf and adductor problems. However, the spells on the sidelines didn’t douse Balotelli’s form. The Italian had an incredible start and finish to the season, scoring six goals in his first five appearances of the season and bagging six goals in the last eight games of the year.

The official release by Nice said that Balotelli made “considerable financial sacrifices and chose the sporting aspect with his heart” in re-signing with the French club.