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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.

LIVE: Man City, Stoke, Everton face second-tier teams in League Cup quarters

Kevin De Bruyne, Manchester City FC
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Three of the four Capital One Cup quarterfinals take place on Tuesday with three Premier League teams facing second-tier opposition.

“What’s that, did somebody say banana skin?”

[ MORE: Follow League Cup scores live

Manchester City host Hull City at the Etihad Stadium with Manuel Pellegrini‘s side hoping to have David Silva back in the starting lineup but Joe Hart is still out injured so Willy Caballero will continue in goal. Steve Bruce‘s side drew 1-1 at the Etihad last season when they visited City before being relegated from the Premier League. The Tigers are fighting for instant promotion back to the big-time and knocked out Leicester City on penalty kicks in the last round.

Everton face a tricky trip to the Riverside Stadium as Roberto Martinez and the Toffees play Middlesbrough. Aitor Karanka’s side lost in the play-off final to Norwich last season but are looking good for promotion this term as they sit second in the second-tier and knocked out Manchester United on penalty kicks in the last round. Can Everton sort out their defensive frailties?

A third PL club has a tricky test coming up on Tuesday as Stoke City’s reward for beating Chelsea on PKs in the last round is a home game against Sheffield Wednesday. This will be no stroll in the park for Mark Hughes‘ side as the second-tier Owls comfortably knocked off Arsenal in the last round and this game has “cupset” written all over it.

Below are the fixtures for Tuesday as you can click on the link above to follow all the games live.

League Cup quarterfinals


Manchester City vs. Hull City – 2:45 p.m. ET
Middlesbrough vs. Everton – 2:45 p.m. ET
Stoke City vs. Sheffield Wednesday – 2:45 p.m. ET

FIFA sponsors demand “independent oversight” of reforms
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LONDON (AP) Five of FIFA’s sponsors have written to the executive committee of soccer’s scandal-battered governing body demanding “independent oversight” of the reform process.

[ MORE: Chelsea’s new stadium plans ]

Sponsors were originally promised places on the FIFA reform committee. But instead of being invited into meetings discussing the overhaul of the organization, they have only been offered seats on an advisory board which is yet to be appointed.

The sponsors’ letter was sent from Adidas, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Visa and Budweiser brewer Anheuser-Busch to FIFA’s ruling body ahead of meetings this week.

[ MORE: Chelsea, United battle for Muller

The letter, which was obtained by The Associated Press, says it is “clear to us that such independent oversight needs to run long-term through the implementation and evolution of the reform process.”

The reform committee was established following the indictment of soccer officials by American authorities.

VIDEO: Gerrard returns to Liverpool for training in MLS offseason

Liverpool v Sunderland - Premier League
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Steven Gerrard is back at Liverpool.

[ MORE: Chelsea’s new stadium plans ]

The legendary midfielder, 35, has returned to the Reds just six months after leaving his hometown club for a new adventure in Major League Soccer with the LA Galaxy.

Gerrard spent a glittering 17-years at Anfield, guiding Liverpool to the UEFA Champions League title and winning every other major title except for the elusive Premier League crown.

[ MORE: Chelsea, United battle for Muller

After suffering an early exit from the 2015 MLS Cup playoffs with the Galaxy, Gerrard is now back in England and he’s using his time at home to train with Liverpool’s first-team and help out in any way he can as Jurgen Klopp has allowed him to come back into the dressing room he called home for nearly two decades.

“It’s a good situation,” Klopp said. “Everybody had a smile on their face when they saw Stevie. It’s good to have him here and we hope we can help him, and he can help us for sure with being in the dressing room. It’s cool.”

Below are photos and videos from Gerrard’s return as Klopp once again quashed any rumors regarding a loan move for the former Liverpool skipper who will enter his first full MLS season in 2016 with the Galaxy.

French PM says Benzema has no place on national team

Karim Benzema, France
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PARIS (AP) The French prime minister joined in the criticism of Karim Benzema on Tuesday, saying the Real Madrid striker “has no place” on the France team at the European Championship in the wake of a blackmail scandal.

[ MORE: Chelsea’s new stadium plans ]

Benzema is one of France’s key players as it gets ready to host the Euro 2016 tournament, but the forward faces charges of conspiracy to blackmail relating to an extortion scam over a sex tape. He is suspected of having played an active role in pressuring France teammate Mathieu Valbuena, a case that has badly damaged his reputation.

“A great athlete should be exemplary,” Prime Minister Manuel Valls told French radio Europe 1. “If he is not, he has no place within the France team.”

The investigation, centering on wiretap evidence, started when Valbuena took legal action after being contacted by a man claiming to possess an incriminating sex tape.

In a case that could drag on for months, Benzema’s involvement has not yet been fully determined. But investigators who charged him in October believe he was approached by a childhood friend to act as an intermediary and convince Valbuena to deal directly with the blackmailers.

“If a minister was handed preliminary charges, he would no longer be part of the government,” Valls said.

Benzema denies any wrongdoing but his arguments were undermined last week when Valbuena spoke directly about his attempts to pressure him in an interview with Le Monde newspaper.

[ MORE: City now valued at $3 billion ]

The French football federation has also joined the case as plaintiff.

“There are so many kids, so many youngsters in our suburbs that relate to great athletes,” Valls said. “They wear the blue jersey, the colors of France, which are so important in these moments.”

Preliminary charges under French law mean magistrates have strong reason to believe a crime was committed, and allow time for further investigation. The charges may later be dropped. In 2010, Benzema was handed preliminary charges for soliciting an underage prostitute but was acquitted in a case that lasted more than three years and tarnished his reputation.

Benzema’s image was further dented last month when he spat on the pitch after the national anthem was played at Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabeu stadium in a tribute to the 130 fatalities of the Paris attacks ahead of a match against Barcelona.

Benzema’s action ignited a wave of criticism on social media, prompting his lawyers to issue a statement in which they condemned “the scandalous interpretation” of the incident. Benzema, who has 27 international goals, had posted several messages in support of the victims in the days that followed the attacks.