Premier League Title Watch: Evaluating the contenders (Matchweek 30)

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With Matchweek 30 in the books, the race for the Premier League title remains air tight with Chelsea enjoying a four point lead on Liverpool and Arsenal and a six point lead on Manchester City.

The Blues lead is a bit illusory, however, as Liverpool and Arsenal have a game in hand while City each have three matches to play before they’re equal with the leaders. With Chelsea’s loss to Aston Villa last weekend, Liverpool and Arsenal charged back to the forefront of title-race talk.

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 eight match weeks to play.

source: Getty Images1. CHELSEA 66 PTS (30 PLD)

Remaining Matches (8): Arsenal (H); Crystal Palace (A); Stoke City (H); Swansea City (A); Sunderland (H); Liverpool (A); Norwich City (H); Cardiff City (A)

League Form: WDWWWL

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

Injuries (return date): David Luiz, groin (March 20th), Ashley Cole, knee (March 20th), Marco van Ginkle, knee (out for season)

Vegas odds to win: 15/8

Verdict: For the last few weeks Jose Mourinho has stressed to the media that – despite sitting top of the table – Chelsea is not the title favorite. On Saturday, his side made that a reality when it dropped all three points to a plucky young Aston Villa team. Hampered by a harsh sending off of Willian, the Blues couldn’t find the goal to gain separation. That ineptitude lifted Aston Villa, who found a winner through the delightful play of Fabian Delph.

While the Villa loss is debilitating to Chelsea, it’s unlikely to be the kiss of death. The reality is that while City has three games in hand to make up a six point deficit, winning 11 straight is highly unlikely when facing the likes of United, Arsenal, Southampton, Liverpool and Everton. That said, the Blues margin of error from here on out is razor thin.

source:  2. LIVERPOOL 62 PTS (29 PLD)

Remaining Matches (9): 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: DWWWWW

Other Competitions: None

Injuries (return date): Jose Enrique, knee (out for season)

Vegas odds to win: 3/1

Verdict: Alongside Arsenal, Liverpool continue to lurk in the title-chasing shadows of Chelsea and City. The 3-0 clobbering of United this past weekend took the Reds’ win streak to five straight, securing them the best current form of any club in the league.

Healthy, in form and with little to no expectations, Liverpool remain in the ideal place to make a title run. To do so they’ll need to prove themselves against the two heaviest title favorites (City, Chelsea) as well as a couple potential heart-breakers (Tottenham, Newcastle) but envisioning Stevie G lifting the cup certainly doesn’t feel like a stretch of the imagination.

source: AP3. ARSENAL 62 PTS (29 PLD)

Remaining Matches (9): 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: WLDWLW

Other Competitions: FA Cup (v. Wigan on April 12th)

Injuries (return date): Mesut Ozil, hamstring (April 14th); Jack Wilshere, ankle (no return date); Aaron Ramsey, thigh (no return date); Theo Walcott, knee (out for season); Abou Diaby, knee (out for season)

Vegas odds to win: 12/1

Verdict: Even on points with Liverpool, Arsenal’s title hopes remain in tact and will be determined over the next two weeks when the Gunners face both Chelsea and City. With injuries multiplying, Arsenal has their fair share of doubters but judging how they well they handled the situation over the past week – drawing at Bayern Munich and beating Spurs at White Hart Lane – the Gunners are poised to surprise.

source: AP4. MANCHESTER CITY 60 PTS (27 PLD)

Remaining Matches (11): Fulham (H); Manchester United (A); Arsenal (A); Southampton (H); Liverpool (A); Sunderland (H); West Bromwich Albion (H); Crystal Palace (A); Everton (A); Aston Villa (H); West Ham United (H)

League Form: WWLDWW

Other Competitions: None

Injuries (return date): Micah Richards, muscle injury (no return date); Sergio Aguero, hamstring (March 29th); Stevan Jovetic, hamstring (March 22nd); Matija Nastasic, knee (March 22nd)

Vegas odds to win: 6/5

Verdict: With three matches in hand to make up a six point deficit on leaders Chelsea, City are in the pole position to win the Premier League title. This past weekend the Citizens proved themselves a gritty side, defeating an emboldened Hull City 2-0 after going down to 10 men after just 10 minutes. The result marked three consecutive clean sheets in Premier League play, strong form for a title contender entering the final months of the season.

Chelsea’s 1-0 loss to Aston Villa handed City some breathing room meaning that, even if the Blues win out their season, City will be champions if they do the same or even if they manage to draw a match.

With Sergio Aguero sidelined with a hamstring injury until the end of the month, Edin Dzeko and Alvaro Negredo will provide plenty of offensive cover. City’s vulnerability remains their defense, specifically at center-back where Vincent Kompany is in desperate need of someone more dependable than the error-prone Joleon Lescott and Martin Demichelis. If Matija Nastasic can be ‘that guy’ when he returns from injury next week, the Citizens might just have the final piece to the championship title.

Fan dies after falling off football stadium in Brazil

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SAO PAULO (AP) A Brazilian football fan has died after falling 25 meters from the top of Morumbi Stadium in Sao Paulo onto a parking lot.

The height is equivalent to an eight-story building.

Bruno Pereira da Silva, aged 23, suffered head injuries and died upon arrival at a local hospital on Sunday.

[ MORE: Complete Panama-USMNT preview ]

He and other fans were attempting to jump to a section of the stadium where they could get a better view of the Sao Paulo state championship match between Sao Paulo and archrival Corinthians. The game ended 1-1.

Friends of da Silva told Brazilian media Silva was attending his first football match.

CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers: CRC, Honduras get off the mat

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The two traditional CONCACAF powers are riding high following Friday’s round of World Cup qualifiers, while the two other sides to qualify for Brazil 2014 are licking their wounds.

Honduras and Costa Rica both found themselves on the wrong side of shutout losses to the United States and Mexico, while Trinidad and Tobago injected itself into the discussion with a home win over Panama.

[ WATCH: CONCACAF qualifiers on Telemundo ]

What’s cooking for Tuesday? Read on:

Honduras vs. Costa Rica — 5 p.m. EDT Tuesday

Two sides which love to play physical, on-the-edge soccer meet on the heels of Friday losses. Expect Jorge Luis Pinto’s Catrachos to adapt after a 6-0 beatdown at the hands of the U.S., but they’ll have to do much, much better at home.

The dates at Estadio Morazan have to be the key for Honduras to climb into the Top Three, and it’ll be buoyed by memories of its 3-1 win over T&T two rounds ago. As for Costa Rica, Los Ticos aim to respond from conceding their first two goals of the Hex.

Trinidad and Tobago vs. Mexico — 7 p.m. EDT Tuesday

Kevin Molino’s strike gave T&T its first three points of qualifying, but its odds of getting a result against visiting Mexico aren’t nearly as good. The Soca Warriors desperation will be easy to see, as June’s qualifiers include trips to the U.S. and Costa Rica.

El Tri now has wins in two of its trickier Hex matches after adding Friday’s 2-0 win over Costa Rica to its upset of the Yanks in Columbus. Ten points through four matches would be exemplary; A draw or loss leaves the door open for Costa Rica to summit the Hex table.

United States vs. Panama — 10:05 p.m. EDT Tuesday

Read our extensive preview here, but the upshot is this: The United States can rise into the Top Three by beating Panama, while Los Canaleros will be happy to scoop a draw to stem any bleeding cause by Molino and T&T.

Argentina feels World Cup pressure; Brazil set to party

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SAO PAULO (AP) Argentina was the runner-up in the last World Cup. This time it’s under rising pressure just to qualify.

That pressure will be felt even more in its match Tuesday against Bolivia in the thin air of La Paz, which is located in the Andes at 3,650 meters (11,900 feet) altitude.

Argentina has not won a match there since 2005, upping the stakes a bit more.

[ MORE: Complete Panama-USMNT preview ]

Meanwhile, South American rival Brazil will gear up for possible early qualification if it beats Paraguay in Sao Paulo. To advance, the South American group leader needs a victory and a few other results to fall its way. But win or lose, Brazil is heading for the World Cup in Russia with five rounds of qualifying remaining.

Argentina cannot be so confident.

Second-placed Uruguay faces a winnable match at lowly Peru, and fourth-placed Colombia has a real test at fifth-placed Ecuador. Sixth-placed Chile welcomes last-placed Venezuela in Santiago, hoping to climb back into qualifying position.

With five rounds to go, Brazil has 30 points – more than enough to secure a spot in previous World Cups. Uruguay has 23 and Argentina 22.

With Brazil almost sure to advance – and Venezuela, Bolivia and Peru struggling at the bottom – that leaves six teams fighting for the three remaining automatic spots for Russia. Another South American team could also advance in a playoff.

[ MORE: Wood looks ahead to working with Arena, praises Klinsmann ]

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ARGENTINA

Argentina put on a poor performance on Thursday, but managed to beat Chile 1-0 in Buenos Aires after a controversial penalty was conceded and converted by Barcelona star Lionel Messi.

The visitors will miss suspended Barcelona midfielder Javier Mascherano, which is making coach Edgardo Bauza think of dramatic changes to the team.

Before the win against Chile and the loss of Mascherano, Bauza was considering a defensive 5-4-1 formation in La Paz, hoping to save his players’ energy and capitalize on the ball-holding Mascherano. Now he may be forced into a more offensive formation that relies less on counterattacking.

Bolivian coach Mauricio Soria, who spared some of his main players in the 1-0 defeat at Colombia on Thursday, said his team will not be intimidated by the Argentine stars and should push hard against them. His team will be rested and in familiar surroundings.

“We hope we can make them feel a lot of their fears,” Soria said.

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BRAZIL

After the impressive thrashing of Uruguay 4-1 in Montevideo, Brazil is so close to the World Cup spot that many players are already looking for new challenges as Brazil chases it sixth World Cup title.

For the spot to be assured, Brazil needs to beat Paraguay and see Venezuela overcome Chile in Santiago. Also, Colombia needs to get its first win at Ecuador in 20 years.

Even if the “official” qualification doesn’t come, there will surely be a party at Arena Corinthians in Sao Paulo.

Coach Tite, who has won seven straight games in qualifiers since he took over in September, had his best days at Corinthians. He won two Brazilian championships, one Copa Libertadores, and the 2012 FIFA Club World Cup title after a 1-0 victory over England’s Chelsea in Japan.

Defender Fagner, also a Corinthians player, will replace suspended Dani Alves.

“I feel no pressure, I want to enjoy every moment of this,” Fagner told reporters.

If he doesn’t do well, Tite has already brought Sevilla’s Mariano for a test.

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COLOMBIA

The Colombia vs. Ecuador match could be key to the aspirations of both teams: Colombia has 21 points, and Ecuador has 20.

The disappointing performance in the 1-0 victory over Bolivia on Thursday is making Colombia fans worry that their team might not qualify for the World Cup. The game in Quito promises to be even more complicated now that coach Jose Pekerman’s side has lost its best striker to injury. Luis Muriel had a right-leg injury and will likely be replaced by Miguel Borja or Carlos Bacca.

History does not favor Colombia: it has been 20 years since Colombia last beat Ecuador at the Atahualpa stadium.

Ecuador also has problems for the key clash. Striker Miller Bolanos and midfielder Christian Noboa will be out and their replacements are not yet set.

Bobby Wood looks forward to working with Arena, praises Klinsmann

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A back injury kept Bobby Wood from United States men’s national team camp, but the Hamburg striker has been feeling good about the side’s World Cup fortunes since before the big win over Honduras.

Speaking with Hamburg’s team magazine, Wood gave a sprawling interview on his career and time with the national team. Wood praised Arena for scouting in Germany, saying the USMNT boss is a quiet coach who has his own style of playing, one that will prod the Yanks into the World Cup.

[ MORE: Complete USMNT-Panama preview ]

But the 24-year-old Hawaii-born striker saved his fondest words for ex-coach Jurgen Klinsmann, essentially calling him a career-saver. From HSV live (translated from German):

He’s very important to me. I believe if Jürgen had not been U.S. coach, then I might have stopped playing football or would have played somewhere in the fourth league.

That is why I am very, very grateful to him. At that time I was in a deep hole – it was real heavy. … He has believed in my quality. We are still in contact, he texts me.

Wood was a part-time player for 1860 Munich when Klinsmann first called him up to the national team side, and now he’s a Bundesliga striker who will be in demand if the club is relegated. Wood has also been mentioned as a target for Premier League clubs.

That’s a pretty good career jump. Klinsmann may have failed to deliver much of what he promised to the national team, but talent mining was done quite well.