Liverpool v Sunderland - Premier League

Premier League Preview: Liverpool vs. Manchester City

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  • Liverpool, at the top of the Premier League, has a four-point lead on Manchester City.
  • Manchester City hold matches in hand, having played 31 games (to Liverpool’s 33).
  • Liverpool have won nine Premier League games in a row.

A month of anticipation and a slip from previously league-leading Chelsea have set the stage for what should be the most important game of the Premier League season, but whereas a typical battle of titans would see one team adjust to the other’s approach, both Liverpool and Manchester City should prove unrelenting when the teams kick off Sunday at Anfield. The Citizens will view themselves as talented enough to impose their game on Liverpool, while the Reds’ flexibility and aggressive approach has proved profitable all season long.

Coverage begins tomorrow at 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN, with the match also available to stream live via NBC Sports Live Extra.

The match also takes place on the weekend English soccer observes 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough tragedy, one where 96 people in the Liverpool end of Hillsborough Stadium died during an FA Cup semifinal between the Reds and Nottingham Forest. Prematch ceremonies featuring Liverpool legends Kenny Dalglish and Ian Rush as well as Manchester City icon Mike Summerbee will accompany a minute of silence, with the game starting seven minutes late to commemorate the moment the 1989 semifinal was stopped in Sheffield.

In the teams’ first meeting, Manchester City took a 2-1 Boxing Day win over Liverpool, with first half goals from Vincent Kompany and Álvaro Negredo pulling back Philippe Coutinho’s 24th minute opener. Since then, Liverpool’s only lost two games, dropping 2-1 results at Stamford Bridge (Dec. 29) and the Emirates (Feb. 16, FA Cup). The team’s last loss at home, its only one this season, came Sept. 27 against Southampton when the Saints became one of two teams to hold the Reds scoreless this season.

With the quality Manchester City has in attack, the Citizens won’t have to rely on a shutout to take points from Anfield. Between Sergio Agüero, Edin Dzeko, and Negredo, City have a combined 35 goals from its forwards (though Luis Suárez and Daniel Sturridge have combined for 49). The midfield of David Silva, Yaya Touré, Fernandinho, and Samir Nasri have accounted for 33 goals, with Touré’s 18 tallies pacing the league’s midfielders. While Liverpool’s 90 goals in 33 games puts them on track to set a Premier League record, Manchester City are capable of keeping up.

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That’s why the teams’ defenses could prove the difference. City’s has been much derided because of the presence of Martín Demchelis, a weakness that isn’t reflected in the numbers. The Citizens’ 29 goals allowed are second fewest in the league to Chelsea’s 24. Liverpool, on the other hand, has had to overcome a more suspect defense, one that has conceded 40 times this season.

Those goals are part of the reason why a draw may hurt Liverpool more than City. With the goal difference tiebreaker currently in the Citizens’ hands, a point at Anfield will leave the Sky Blues within a manageable four with two games in hand. A loss on Merseyside, however, means the Manchester City no longer controls title fate.

What they’re saying:

Brendan Rodgers, manager, Liverpool (from The Guardian): “If you become fearful, that’s the first class ticket to fail. So for us, and for me, it’s exciting. It’s the joy of going and playing. This is why we work. It’s nothing to be frightened of. Nothing to be frightened of! We’ve an army of supporters behind us who are incredible. We’ve got a team high in confidence and belief, knowing we can beat anyone.”

Manuel Pellegrini, manager, Manchester City (via Sky Sports): “Of course if you defend with 10 players near your box, you are not going to have space for the other team. But the most important thing about these two teams is they play attractive, offensive football. Both teams are very close for this.

“Both teams have scored a lot of goals during the season but if we are with Liverpool and Chelsea at the top of the table, it is because we also know how to defend.”

Prediction: When you go player-for-player, it’s hard not to favor Manchester City, but Liverpool has transcended those expectations all season, hinting there’s something about the team’s talent, approach, or execution that we’re missing. While few still doubt the team’s rightful place in the title race, Manchester City is still favored to win the league, meaning a lot of people still aren’t convinced the Reds are as good as their record.

To a certain extent, I’m part of that group, but it’s impossible to look beyond Liverpool’s home form. It’s difficult to look at a run that’s seen them go undefeated in league since the calendar turned. It’s hard to look at that +50 goal difference and say ‘this team isn’t quite on the same level.

While ‘this one could end 4-3’ has been the type of refrain we’ve heard throughout the week, both defenses should prove slightly more resilient in the face of this challenge. I see a 2-2, with enough chances to leave each side convinced they could have won.

 

UEFA Champions League final preview — Madrid’s finest Real or Atleti?

MILAN, ITALY - MAY 27:  Diego Simeone head coach of Atletico Madrid looks on during an Atletico de Madrid training session on the eve of the UEFA Champions League Final against Real Madrid at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on May 27, 2016 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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Saturday’s UEFA Champions League final isn’t quite the unstoppable force against the immovable object — Real’s defense is good and Atleti has plenty of attacking intent — but it’s fair if you’re expecting the Madrid Derby final to be Diego Simeone’s diligent defenders attempting to counter Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid’s potent attack.

[ MORE: Mourinho confirmed ]

Simeone’s built his name on tight teamwork, and La Liga teams broke Atleti down a mere 18 times in 38 matches this season. Before you crow about the weakness of Spain’s top flight from top to bottom, Real only managed a single goal against Atleti in a 1-1 draw that came at the Vicente Calderon. Atleti triumphed 1-0 at the Bernabeu to take four of six points from their derby mates.

But this is the big one, and a rematch of the late thriller we saw in the 2014 final. That’s when Diego Godin’s 36th minute goal came within seconds of being the difference, only for Sergio Ramos to net in stoppage time and Real to score three goals in extra time for a 4-1 win.

[ MORE: Torres ready for “game of my life” ]

Ronaldo will be fine to go, which is obviously bad news for Atleti. While his goal at the end of the 2014 final was just chiseled-ab window dressing, he has scored in both of his UCL finals (He scored for Manchester United in the 26th minute of their 2008 defeat of Chelsea).

(Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)

The beauty of Atleti’s defense is how well it springs into the attack, with Godin and Filipe Luis both capable of providing offense.

But really, with respect to Gabi and Antoine Griezmann… that defense! Atleti allowed three goals in the group stage, and just seven across its 12 UCL matches.

How will Simeone aim to stop Real this time around? Will it be banks of four or five, with Torres and Griezmann waiting to strike on a fleet-footed counter? That could serve their disciplined unit well, but something tells me Simeone has something special cooked up for this much-anticipated rematch, and manager is a distinct edge for Atleti against a still-learning Zinedine Zidane.

As an aside, Griezmann has been fantastic, scoring 32 times this year with seven coming in the UCL. Torres is second in scoring, with 12.

Championship playoff preview: Sheffield Wednesday vs. Hull City

DERBY, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 14:  Eldin Jakupovic of Hull City celebrates as Andrew Robertson of Hull City scores their third goal during the Sky Bet Championship Play Off semi final first leg match between Derby County and Hull City at the iPro Stadium on May 14, 2016 in Derby, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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One is hoping to rejoin the Premier League at the first time of asking, while the other to see its first top flight action since 2000 with a win in Saturday’s promotion playoff final at Wembley Stadium.

Hull City did not make the top flight from its inception in 1904 until winning the playoffs in 2008. Since, the Tigers have spent a pair of 2-season stints in the Premier League.

Sheffield Wednesday, for its part, spent nine seasons in the top tier from 1991-2000, but fell as low as League One in the 21st century before a run to the playoffs this season.

[ MORE: Three battles that could determine UCL final ]

Hull’s stingy defense allowed 35 goals this season, tied for the second-best mark in the league, while scoring the fourth-most goals (69). The Tigers finished in fourth place to Wednesday’s sixth, and the sides drew 0-0 at Hull and 1-1 in the reverse fixture.

Uruguayan striker Abel Hernandez was far and away Hull’s most deadly scorer, notching 21 goals in the Championship this season, while Sam Clucas paced the club with 8 assists.

Wednesday’s scoring was paced by former Watford attacker Fernando Forestieri’s 15 goals. Veteran Gary Hooper added 13 for the Owls, who got a team-best eight assists from Ross Wallace.

It’s the “richest game in sports”, and kicks off at Noon ET Saturday.

Sturridge injured again, Rashford set for England debut

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GATESHEAD, England (AP) England striker Daniel Sturridge has picked up another injury, potentially affecting his chances of being selected for the European Championship.

England manager Roy Hodgson says Sturridge has a calf injury that has prevented him from training and is a doubt to play in the warmup match against Australia on Friday. Hodgson has until Tuesday to finalize his 23-man squad for the tournament in France.

[ MORE: Mourinho confirmed | Speaks more ]

Sturridge has been beset by injury problems in recent years.

His latest injury increases the possibility of 18-year-old Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford‘s fairytale season being extended to include Euro 2016.

Hodgson said Thursday that Rashford will make his debut against Australia in Sunderland – as a starter if Sturridge isn’t fit. Rashford only made his United debut in February.

Ex-Leicester boss Pearson hired by Derby County

Nigel Pearson, Leicester City FC
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Nigel Pearson lives.

The combustible former manager of Southampton, Hull City and Leicester City will now lead Derby County in the hopes of Premier League promotion.

Derby has been on the edge of promotion to the Premier League for several seasons, but neither Steve McClaren and Darren Wassall could do the trick.

[ MORE: Mourinho confirmed | Speaks more ]

Enter Pearson, 52, who has been hired on a three-year deal. It’s his first stop since a roller coaster ride saw him guide Leicester into the Premier League, only to be fired in the aftermath of some players being involved in a racist sex tape incident on a tour of Thailand.

This was after a bizarre season that saw him put his hands on an opposing player’s throat, call a journalist an ostrich, and ultimately save Leicester from the drop.

From Derby County’s site:

“I am honoured to be named as the Manager of Derby County, which is one of the biggest clubs in the country, a club in excellent shape and one with strong ambitions. It is firmly focused on achieving Premier League football.

“I will give absolutely everything I have to this role and do all I can to bring exciting, entertaining and winning football which our supporters can be proud of.”

At the very least, the Rams will be interesting to watch next season.