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.

PL Preview: Brighton vs. Stoke City

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  • Stoke leads all-time 16W-14D-9L
  • First league meeting since 2006
  • Potters have won last 8 in series

Brighton and Hove Albion meets Stoke City for the first time in Premier League history when the two battle at the Amex Stadium on Monday (Watch live at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

Brighton is unbeaten in its last four PL matches, with a pair of away wins and two draws at home.

They’ve been led at the back end by Shane Duffy and in attack by Pascal Gross, but it’s been a well-traveled Premier League veteran filling the goals. Glenn Murray has historic motivation to keep scoring, knowing that a marker versus Stoke would make him the first Brighton player to ever score a goal in four successive top flight matches.

Stoke followed up its win over Watford with a draw against Leicester City. The Potters have two goals and four assists from Swiss attacker Xherdan Shaqiri, and three and one from Senegalese scorer Mame Biram Diouf.

What they’re saying

Brighton’s Chris Hughton on bagging wins“For a club like us to get back-to-back wins would show the level we are playing at. It’s tough. I remember being told by somebody with one of the promoted teams that they didn’t get their first away win until February-March. That can happen and it’s exactly the same for a team getting promoted to get back-to-wins. They are hard to come by. Any way we are able to do that would certainly be a major boost for us.”

Stoke manager Mark Hughes on Xherdan ShaqiriHe is taking on more the role of the main instigator of our attacking threat. When he gets the ball, I think the whole team responds to that. You sense that maybe something’s going to happen. And I think the crowd sends it as well. And I know opposition team sense it too.”

Prediction

Few matches are more of a toss-up than this one, and there’s no recent match-ups on which to rest our heads. So we’ll side with the home team managing a point, and maybe a pair of old-timer goals from Murray and Peter Crouch, in a 1-1 draw.

Italy soccer chief resigns after failure to reach World Cup

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ROME (AP) Italian football federation president Carlo Tavecchio has resigned a week after the Azzurri failed to qualify for the World Cup.

Monday’s announcement came following calls for a complete overhaul of the nation’s most popular sport, from the amateur leagues right up to Serie A and the national teams.

[ MORE: What’s next for West Brom? ]

Sweden’s playoff win over Italy kept the four-time champion out of the World Cup for the first time in six decades.

Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura was fired two days after the loss.

For the last week, Tavecchio has resisted calls to step down but he eventually lost the support of the federation’s board of directors.

Former federation chief Giancarlo Abete said as he left the board meeting where Tavecchio resigned that a new election would be held within 90 days.

Managerial change a slippery slope for West Brom

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Tony Pulis brought much needed stability to West Bromwich Albion before his tenure soured in a hurry.

When Pulis took over at the Hawthorns, West Brom had seen both Pepe Mel and Alan Irvine do little winning in abbreviated managerial stints. Mel won three of 17 matches in charge, while Irvine could only nab five in 22.

[ MORE: Pulis sacked ]

So there is little debating, even for those who West Brom fans who revel in the club’s former free-flowing ways, that Pulis had a productive time in charge from January 2015 right on through most of last season.

But Pulis was seemingly limited to setting a points total and then kicking his heels up once Premier League safety was reached.

While that sounds a bit laughable, the facts are that the Baggies finished 10th last season despite an impressive start that saw the club comfortably eighth for much of the season. However, West Brom won five points from its final 12 matches to finish 16 points behind a European place (including five shutout losses at home).

The Baggies finished 14th the previous season, Pulis’ first full year in charge, but collapsed again after hitting the rarefied air of 11th. That final stretch? Five losses and four draws including shutout losses at home to Norwich City, Watford, and West Ham.

In doing so, Pulis belied his own budgetary critiques by proving the Baggies had the talent to compete for something relatively special.

Pulis was good at getting his side to play with the fury of a relegation contender from Day One, but it was so clear the side was sated once safety was secure. It wouldn’t be callous to opine that the manager would’ve viewed the Europa League as a nuisance to his “never been relegated” reputation (an idea buttressed by West Brom’s performances in Cup competitions, where Pulis never advanced to a quarterfinal while losing to Reading, Norwich City, Derby County, Northampton Town, and, this season, Man City).

What West Brom does next will say a lot. If it’s as simple as a rehashing of the “never been relegated” deck with Sam Allardyce, well, that’s something. But the Baggies are in the tricky predicament of having to replace a relatively stable hand who was their first good hire in three tries, while also running with the knowledge that their players clearly are capable of so much better than 17th.

The names on the bettor’s lists show what’s expected of West Brom: gritty style from an island manager. Derek McInnes is the favorite, with Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill just ahead of Sam Allardyce. Alan Pardew is next, followed by Ronald Koeman (For what it’s worth, bookies are still milking money from gamblers by including Jurgen Klinsmann’s name at 20:1 or so).

West Brom is in its eighth-straight Premier League campaign. The firing will jostle an already rocking ship, but the Baggies have steady leadership in Jonny Evans, Ben Foster, Chris Brunt, Gareth Barry, Gareth McAuley, and Craig Dawson. They have the wherewithal to achieve safety again, and can even look good in the process should a manager find the right way to use Salomon Rondon, Matty Phillips, Jay Rodriguez, Nacer Chadli, and others.

Who’s the right man for the job?

West Brom fires manager Tony Pulis

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Tony Pulis‘ reign over the Hawthorns is over, as West Bromwich Albion has fired the 59-year-old after just under three years in charge of the Premier League outfit.

Assistant coach Gary Megson takes over on an interim basis.

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The Baggies have not won a game since August, and were belted 4-0 at home by Chelsea on Saturday to leave the club one point above the drop zone.

Overall, Pulis oversaw wins in just 36 of his 121 matches, losing 49, in what will go down as one of the least successful stints in his well-traveled career. Only three PL clubs have scored less than the Baggies’ nine goals.

Here’s the club statement:

“These decisions are never taken lightly but always in the interests of the Club.

“We are in a results business and over the back end of last season and this season to date, ours have been very disappointing.

“We would like to place on record our appreciation of Tony’s contribution and hard work during a period of transition for the Club which included a change of ownership. We wish him well in his future endeavours.”

Pulis will almost certainly be back on the touch line soon, as he hasn’t spent more than a few months out of work since 2002.