Premier League Power Rankings: Liverpool, Manchester City locked at the top – Week 33

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With five weeks to go until it’s all done and dusted, the Power Rankings are still chopping and changing at this pivotal point of the season.

Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City remain at the top, but the likes of Everton, Tottenham and Crystal Palace are surging up our rankings.

At the bottom Fulham and West Brom had big ones, while Cardiff and Sunderland seem doomed.

(MORE: Premier League Power Rankings archive)

Each week we put our neck on the line to analyze the strength of each Premier League team, forget about the official league standings (here they are in case you actually do want them) that doesn’t mean squat.

The Power Rankings take into account the strength of schedule, injuries, suspensions, playing well but still losing and plenty of other variables. The W-D-L bracket shows each PL team’s current record and you can now see how many spots each team has moved, up or down, from week-to-week.

Let’s get to it!

RANKING
Up/Down

source:

1 Liverpool: The Reds gutted out a win against West Ham last weekend, as a stiff test away at Upton Park proved their title credentials are built on solid foundations. This week a title-decided against Man City awaits, as Anfield reflects on the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster. (23-5-5)
source:  2
Manchester City: Pellegrini’s side go into the title showdown in good form, five wins from their last six and seven unbeaten. The Citizens know if they win at Liverpool, they need six more victories to seal the title. Winning out is easier said than done. (22-4-5)
source:  3
Chelsea: The Blues easily dispatched Stoke last time out, and they completed a stunning turnaround vs. PSG in the Champions League in midweek. That success should spur Mourinho’s men on down the stretch, Swansea away this week. (22-6-5)
source:  4 UP 1
Everton: What a win for the Toffees, as they battered Arsenal 3-0 and look like the favorites to seal a place in the top four. Roberto Martinez’s side have won five on the spin and their front four are causing havoc. Tough trip to Sunderland to negotiate this weekend. (18-9-5)

source:

5 DOWN 1
Arsenal: Arsene Wenger’s side continue to falter away from home against their rivals, as Everton handed the Gunners a spanking. If the North London side slip up against West Ham in a derby next Tuesday, Everton could replace them in the top four with a game in hand. Season is unraveling at the Emirates, but at least Aaron Ramsey is back, and they have an FA Cup semifinal vs. Wigan. (19-7-7)
source:  6 UP 1
Tottenham: Tim Sherwood’s future still remains uncertain, but I was at White Hart Lane during Spurs’ 5-1 demolition of Sunderland on Monday and was impressed with what I saw. Passion and a leader, Sherwood may well be on the way out this summer but he should find another job easily. Away at West Brom this week, as the top four chase carries on. (18-5-10)
source:  7 DOWN 1 Southampton: Mauricio Pochettino could be heading to Spurs to replace Sherwood, but right now he’s still upset about the offside decision which cost Saints dear at Man City. Relegation favorites Cardiff City head to St. Mary’s this Saturday. (13-11-9)
source:  8 UP 1
Manchester United: The Red Devils are out of Europe after their defeat to Bayern, as David Moyes’ monumental rebuild has begun. What next for United? With UCL soccer off the agenda for next season, United need to freshen things up and finish the season well. No game this weekend. (17-6-10)
source:  9
Stoke City: Mark Hughes’ men lost at Chelsea but were well in the game for the opening 45 minutes. The Potters are surging toward their first-ever top-10 finish in the PL, as Newcastle await at the Brit this weekend. (10-10-13)
source:  10
West Ham: Heartbreak for the Hammers vs. Liverpool, as Sam Allardyce’s men dug in and battle hard against the league leaders. A questionable PK call cost West Ham a point, however they should be safe from relegation. Arsenal away next Tuesday for the East London club. (10-7-16)
source:  11 UP 1 Crystal Palace: The Eagles are soaring toward safety, as Jason Puncheon put on a masterclass to give the Londoners a big win away at Cardiff. Home game against Aston Villa gives Tony Pulis’ side the chance to all but secure their PL status for next season. He’s done a marvelous job. (10-4-18)
source:  12 UP 2
Hull City: This weekend Hull have an FA Cup semifinal on the mind, as they go to Wembley and are overwhelming favorites against Sheffield United. Last weekend they beat Swansea 1-0 in a crucial win, and Steve Bruce’s side are pretty much safe and sound. (10-6-17)

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13 DOWN 2
Newcastle: Magpies are in free-fall, as many are questioning Alan Pardew’s role as manager. Three-straight defeats for Newcastle, and they haven’t even scored a goal after shipping 11. Tough trip to Stoke isn’t what they needed. (14-4-14)
source:  14 DOWN 1
Aston Villa: Just when you think Villa are safe, they go and mess things up again. A damaging home defeat against Fulham sees the Midlands giant still not out of the relegation battle. They need to beat Palace this Saturday. (9-7-16)
source:  15
Swansea City: Speaking of relegation trouble, the Swans still aren’t out of it. They lost at Hull and now host Chelsea, as the Liberty Stadium faithful will be ‘nervous nellies’ heading into the final few weeks of this season. Can they upset Mourinho’s men? (8-9-16)
source:  16 UP 4
Fuham: A big win vs. Villa has re-ignited the Cottagers great escape, as they are now just five points from safety with five games to go. This Saturday’s match against Norwich is simply must win. If Felix Magath can conjure up a second-straight victory, the great escape of ’08 can repeat itself. (8-3-22)
source:  17 UP 2
West Brom: Pepe Mel’s boys delivered, big time, in a relegation six-pointer away at Norwich. They are still not home and dry yet, as Spurs await at the Hawthorns this weekend. Can the Baggies keep their head above water? (6-14-12)
source:  18
Norwich City: The Canaries decided to fire Chris Hughton with five games to go, in a move that smacked of desperation. Norwich are spiraling toward the Championship, and if they don’t beat Fulham they are in real danger of going down. Four tough games await in their final four matches, Neil Adams has a tough, tough job. (8-8-17)
source:  19 DOWN 2
Sunderland: The Black Cats have games in hand at the bottom, but they are seven points adrift with seven games to go. Gus Poyet knows he’s skippering a sinking ship, as he said the Mackems need a ‘miracle’ to stay up. (6-7-18)
source:  20 DOWN 4
Cardiff City: Another manager needing a miracle is Ole Gunnar Solksjaer, as his Bluebirds lost 3-0 to Palace. If they don’t beat Southampton on Saturday and other results go against them, it could be as good as over for the South Wales side. (6-8-19)

If the 2018 World Cup started today…

Photo by Pedro Vilela/Getty Images
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Another international break has passed, with fortunes rising and falling in most of FIFA’s confederations (Africa took a break during the break, having staged AFCON in January).

[ MORE: All World Cup qualifying news ]

Brazil joined hosts Russia as nations to have qualified for the 2018 World Cup, and 30 spots remain. Let’s take the opportunity to project the field for Russia.

In October, we took the projected qualifiers and simulated all the way down to the World Cup final. Germany beat Brazil. Let’s go again. Who will “win” it this time?


QUALIFICATION

We’ll again use actual qualification, as flawed and early as it is in some confederations, to be predict our combatants.

Asia (7 of 10 qualifiers played)
IN: Iran, South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia
PLAYOFF: Uzbekistan vs. Australia

PROJECTION: While Uzbekistan has been better in terms of overall form, Australia’s experience boosts it into a match-up with the USMNT.

Africa (2 of 6 qualifiers played)
IN: DR Congo, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Egypt

CONCACAF (4 of 10 qualifiers played)
IN: Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama
PLAYOFF: United States

(AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

South America (14 of 18 qualifiers played)
IN: Brazil, Colombia, Uruguay, Chile
PLAYOFF: Argentina

Oceania (4 of 6 qualifiers played)
PLAYOFF: New Zealand vs. Tahiti

UEFA (5 of 10 qualifiers played)
IN: France, Switzerland, Germany, Serbia, Poland, England, Spain, Belgium, Croatia
UEFA PLAYOFFS: Sweden, Portugal, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Slovakia, Italy, Greece, Iceland

SIMULATED PLAYOFFS (random draw):
Sweden vs. Iceland — Sweden wins
Portugal vs. Republic of Ireland — Portugal wins
Northern Ireland vs. Slovakia — Slovakia wins
Italy vs. Greece — Italy wins

Intercontinental playoffs:

Australia vs. United States — USMNT wins
Argentina vs. New Zealand — Argentina wins


FIELD (FIFA Rankings)

  1. Russia (hosts, 60)
  2. Argentina (1)
  3. Brazil (2)
  4. Germany (3)
  5. Chile (4)
  6. Belgium (5)
  7. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

    France (6)

  8. Colombia (7)
  9. Portugal (8)
  10. Uruguay (9)
  11. Spain (10)
  12. Switzerland (11)
  13. Poland (12)
  14. England (13)
  15. Italy (15)
  16. Croatia (16)
  17. Mexico (17)
  18. Costa Rica (19)
  19. Egypt (20)
  20. Slovakia (25)
  21. USA (30)
  22. Iran (33)
  23. Burkina Faso (36)
  24.  (Photo by Richard Huggard/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

    DR Congo (38)

  25. South Korea (40)
  26. Nigeria (41)
  27. Sweden (45)
  28. Ivory Coast (47)
  29. Japan (51)
  30. Serbia (52)
  31. Panama (53)
  32. Saudi Arabia (57)

THE POTS

The 10 European qualifiers mean two will have to join Pot 2. Our random selections were… Croatia and Spain.

Pot 1 (seeds): Russia, Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Chile, Belgium, France, Colombia, Brazil

Pot 2 (CAF, CONMEBOL, UEFA): DR Congo, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Uruguay, Croatia, Spain

Pot 3 (AFC & CONCACAF): Iran, South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, USMNT

Pot 4: (UEFA): Sweden, Slovakia, Italy, Switzerland, Serbia, Poland, England, Portugal


THE DRAW

Group A: Russia, DR Congo, Saudi Arabia, Sweden
Group B: Chile, Croatia, Mexico, Portugal
Group C: Brazil, Nigeria, Panama, Switzerland
Group D: Germany, Burkina Faso, Costa Rica, Poland
Group E: Argentina, Spain, Japan, Slovakia
Group F: France, Ivory Coast, South Korea, Italy
Group G: Belgium, Uruguay, USMNT, England
Group H: Colombia, Egypt, Iran, Serbia

So… should we play it out? We’ll try to throw in some upsets and not just go with the chalk.

Round of 16
Mexico (B2) def. Russia (A1)
Brazil (C1) def. Poland (D2)
Spain (E1) def. Italy (F2)
Belgium (G1) def. Egypt (H2)
Portugal (B1) def. DR Congo (A2)
Germany (D1) def. Nigeria (C2)
France (F1) def. Argentina (G2)
Colombia (H1) def. England (G2)

Quarterfinals
Brazil def. Mexico
Spain def. Belgium
Germany def. Portugal
France def. Colombia

Semifinals
Brazil def. Spain
France def. Germany

Final
Brazil def. France

Dempsey leads way for MLS players during Cup qualifying

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The latest round of World Cup qualifying saw a major increase in the number of players from MLS called in for their national teams.

A number of those decisions paid off for their countries, perhaps no one more than Clint Dempsey.

A few months ago, Dempsey wasn’t even in consideration for the U.S. after missing the latter half of last season because of a heart issue. But the Seattle Sounders forward scored four times in two matches as the U.S. gathered four critical points in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.

[ WATCH: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago can win World Cup ]

Dempsey was part of an influx of MLS players contributing during the latest round of qualifying for next year’s World Cup in Russia.

In all, MLS had 55 players called in for qualifying in CONCACAF, CONEMBOL (South America) and UEFA (Europe) competitions. Last September, the league saw 58 players called in to their national teams, but there were more countries still alive in qualification at that time. The 55 players selected this time was an increase of 16 from the last round of qualifying matches in November, and 40 of the 55 saw action during the two days of competition in the past week representing 12 countries.

In the three CONCACAF games last Friday, 29 of the 84 players to see the field were from MLS. That outpaced LigaMX, which had 17 players among the 84 used in the three matches.

Dempsey wasn’t the only MLS player coming up big for his country. Minnesota midfielder Kevin Molino had the only goal for Trinidad and Tobago in its 1-0 win over Panama. The Vancouver duo of Christian Bolanos and Kendall Waston teamed for the only goal in Costa Rica’s 1-1 draw with Honduras.

But not all went well for MLS players during qualifying.

Young Atlanta star Josef Martinez injured his left leg during the second half of Venezuela’s 2-2 draw with Peru in CONEMBOL qualifying. Martinez returned to Atlanta and an MRI revealed a left quadriceps injury that will keep the MLS leader in goals scored out for four to six weeks. Martinez had five goals in Atlanta’s first three games.

U.S. midfielder Sebastian Lletget was forced off early in the match against Honduras but not before scoring the opening goal for the Americans. Los Angeles announced Tuesday that Lletget suffered a Lisfranc injury that will require surgery and he will be sidelined for four to six months.

[ MORE: BWP a DP; Nephew called up to England U16 ]

MATCH OF THE WEEK: The club that set the bar for expansion debuts faces the newcomer looking to topple that standard.

The Seattle Sounders will host Atlanta United on Friday night. It’s the only regular-season matchup between the two sides, but there’s more than just the competition on the field.

Seattle’s expansion season of 2009 was regarded throughout the sports industry as arguably the best franchise launch ever, not just in MLS. Between ticket sales and fan engagement, Seattle’s start could not have gone better.

Atlanta might be setting a new standard. Atlanta drew more than 55,000 for its first match and more than 45,000 for its second home game, a win over Chicago. Atlanta seems to be following significant parts of Seattle’s blueprint, down to having an influential NFL owner highly involved from the start.

As for the on-field product, the validity of Atlanta’s promising start will be tested over the next month with four straight road matches.

“It’s definitely still an expansion team,” Atlanta defender Michael Parkhurst said. “We’ve got our bumps and bruises along the way. Off the field, everyone’s still trying to get sorted and situated to the new city.”

BEST OF THE REST: Toronto finally gets to come home after opening the season with three straight road games. The Reds will host Sporting KC on Friday night. The trade-off for opening the season on the road is that Toronto gets five of its next six league matches at home and was able to get five points out of those three road contests to start.

Also of note will be what kind of lineup Vancouver rolls out on Saturday night against Los Angeles. The Whitecaps play in the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals four days later.

BACK ON THE BENCH: Real Salt Lake introduced Mike Petke as its new head coach Wednesday, less than two weeks after firing Jeff Cassar. Petke was the head coach of the New York Red Bulls for two seasons, including the 2013 season when they won the Supporters’ Shield. After two years out of coaching, Petke signed on to be the head coach of the Real Monarchs, the minor-league club associated with RSL.

OFF TARGET: The other expansion debut this season by Minnesota United is on pace to set records, but not any they want to be associated with. Simply put, Minnesota can’t play defense.

Minnesota allowed at least five goals for the third time in four matches in last week’s 5-2 loss at New England. Minnesota allowed five goals to Portland and six to Atlanta and is on pace to allow more than 150 goals this season.

LAST WORD: “I’ve been very encouraged by what I’ve seen over the last 10 days. It’s going to take some time to piece that team together.” U.S. coach Bruce Arena after the latest round of World Cup qualifying.

Messi explains actions that warranted 4-match ban

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Lionel Messi is set to miss four Argentina matches for something we arguably see every week on TV.

That doesn’t make it okay, but is anyone else scratching their head at the suspension handed down to the world’s best player for verbal abuse of an official?

[ MORE: Barca defends Messi ]

Messi, 29, shouted an obscenity at the linesman in Thursday’s 1-0 win over Chile, and was both banned and served the first match of his ban on Tuesday, as Argentina was beaten 2-0 in Bolivia.

Messi explained his actions Wednesday with the following:

“My expressions were never directed to the referee, they were said to the air,” Messi told La Nacion.

That’s pretty ridiculous, yeah? But I can’t help but feel the four matches are a bit harsh. Hardly a high-level match goes by without seeing a player clearly being derisive toward an offical, and usually lipreading proves it wasn’t G-rated.

Again, I have no problem for setting a standard, as abuse of officials is unnecessary (and even those of us who are serially offenders know it).

But if confederations and leagues want to get serious about cutting it out, this can’t be a one-off suspension; End the group upbraiding of referees during games, the wild gesticulations, so on and so forth.

Bradley Wright-Phillips gets new deal; Nephew called up to England U-16

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It’s been a big 24 hours for the Wright-Phillips family.

Bradley Wright-Phillips signed a new Designated Player deal with the New York Red Bulls, while his nephew has been called up the England U-16 national team.

D’Margio Wright-Phillips is the son of Shawn Wright-Phillips, the former RBNY player currently plying his trade with Phoenix Rising of the USL.

[ WATCH: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago can win World Cup ]

Of course that will only serve to grow the pride of Arsenal legend Ian Wright, who adopted Bradley and Shaun.

The details:

BWP has signed a new multi-year deal with the Red Bulls which brings the 70-goal man into Designated Player status.

“I’d like to thank Denis, Jesse, and everyone at the club for the opportunity to continue wearing this shirt and playing in front of the best fans in MLS,” said Wright-Phillips. “I am very proud of what has been accomplished in my time here, but my sole focus is on trying to win MLS Cup.”

As for D’Margio, he’s in Manchester City’s academy and obviously taking the right steps toward making it three generations in the Premier League. Both Shaun and Bradley spent time in City’s academy.