Philippe Coutinho, Steven Gerrard

Premier League Power Rankings: Liverpool or Chelsea for the title? – Week 34

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The business end of the Premier League season is upon us, and we’re still waiting for any of the positive or negative transactions to be confirmed.

At both ends of the standings question marks still remain, as the title chase and relegation battle are reaching their climax.

Liverpool and Chelsea are holding their nerve but Manchester City are struggling to stay in the race for the crown after two games without a win. At the bottom Fulham and Cardiff have given themselves a fighting chance with vital wins, as they’ve dragged plenty of other teams back into the scrap against the drop.

(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: That can’t do it, can they? Every week Liverpool are expected to slip up, and yet they keep on trucking. Their huge 3-2 win vs. Man City has put them in the driving seat with four games to go. Plus the hugely emotional 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster is spurring them on to glory. Norwich away this weekend for Brendan Rodgers’ men. (24-5-5)
source:  2 UP 1
Chelsea: The Blues are getting it done under Mourinho, as the ground out a crucial 1-0 win on the road against Swansea. You don’t win prizes for beautiful performances at the stage of the season… Chelsea wouldn’t win any. Sunderland at home should be a routine win, then it’s the Champions League semis for Jose Mourinho’s boys. (23-6-5)
source:  3 DOWN 1
Manchester City: A bad, bad week for the Citizens, as first they lost away at title rivals Liverpool and then they chucked away two points at home to bottom club Sunderland. Manuel Pellegrini’s side are unraveling before our eyes. West Brom at home this week must yield a win, otherwise it is curtains for City. (22-5-6)
source:  4 UP 1
Arsenal: The Gunners ground out a 3-1 win over West Ham on Tuesday and are buoyant after reaching the FA Cup final last week. After Everton’s slip up against Palace, Arsene Wenger’s side now know if they win their last 4 games, they’re in the UCL next season. (20-7-7)

source:

5 DOWN 1  Everton: Roberto Martinez felt his side were “fearful” vs.  Palace, as the Toffees came unstuck in a shock home defeat. Now their UCL destiny lies out of their hands and with both Manchester clubs still to come, their season could fizzle out. Regardless, it has been a great season but that ‘what if’ feeling could be hanging around. David Moyes is heading back to his old club this Sunday. (19-9-6)
source:  6
Tottenham: Spurs are battling away but draws against the likes of West Brom won’t get you in the top four. The North London club did come from 3-0 down to draw 3-3, but still, you shouldn’t be 3-0 down to the Baggies. London derby against Fulham this weekend. Tim Sherwood’s side HAVE to win to keep their top four hopes alive. (18-6-10)
source:  7 UP 2 Stoke City: Mark Hughes has worked wonders at the Britannia, as the Potters have won five of their last seven. Solid at the back but playing some nice stuff going forward, Stoke have finished the season superbly. Tricky trip to Cardiff this weekend. (11-10-13)
source:  8 DOWN 1
Southampton: Saints’ season is in danger of petering out, as the South Coast club seem to have already put their flip flops on and dusted off their bucket and spade. A shock home defeat to Cardiff means they will finish anywhere from eighth to tenth. That’s guaranteed. Aston Villa away for Mauricio Pochettino’s boys. (13-9-12)
source:  9 UP 2
Crystal Palace: The Eagles are safe! Tony Pulis has worked wonders at Selhurst Park, as many are calling for him to be manager of the season. Four wins on the spin, with Jason Puncehon scoring 4 goals in 3 games, has seen the Eagles soar to midtable. West Ham away this week. (12-4-18)
source:  10 DOWN 2
Manchester United: Okay, so United didn’t play last week, but they are struggling their way into the final few weeks of the season. After losing to Bayern Munich there’s been a somber mood about the place. Can Moyes’ men grab him a win on his return to Everton this weekend? (17-6-10)
source:  11 DOWN 1 West Ham: The Hammers put on a brave fight against Arsenal in midweek but after Matt Jarvis’ opener, who later should have won a controversial PK, the Irons were beaten. London derby vs. Palace should be lively at Upton Park. (10-7-17)
source:  12
Hull City: The Tigers are going to Wembley! Congrats to Steve Bruce and his side as they will play in the club’s first-ever FA Cup final. They face Arsenal this weekend at the KC Stadium in a dress-rehearsal of the final in what will be an intriguing encounter. (10-6-17)
source:  13 UP 3
Fuham: Felix Magath is working his magic at Fulham with the Cottagers sensing the great escape is on. A narrow win over Norwich was their second-straight PL victory, as they’ve hit a good run of form at the perfect time. Tough trip to Spurs next up, yet Fulham are just two points from safety. (9-3-22)
source:  14
Aston Villa: Paul Lambert has had to sack his two assistants this week and turmoil is in the air at Villa Park. Four straight defeats for the Villans and they face Saints at home this weekend. Must win. (9-7-16)
source:  15 DOWN 2
Newcastle: The Toon continue to drop as Pardew’s men have lost four games in a row. Swansea at home this weekend for the Geordies but they are in free fall at the moment. (14-4-16)
source:  16 DOWN 1
Swansea City: Swansea head to St. James’ Park after a narrow home defeat to Chelsea. Garry Monk’s side have been dragged back into the relegation battle and are now just three points above the drop zone. (8-9-17)
source:  17
West Brom: Pepe Mel’s side threw away another nailed-on win, as they blew it at home against Tottenham. Will letting a 3-0 lead slip come back to haunt the Baggies at the end of this season? The draw specialists won’t get much from Man City this weekend. (6-15-12)
source:  18 UP 2
Cardiff City: Ole Gunnar Solksjaer can see a glimmer of hope after the Bluebirds beat Saints 1-0 away from home. Now can they follow that up by beating Stoke in the Welsh capital? If they do, they have a great chance of staying up. (7-8-19)
source:  19
Sunderland: Gus Poyet’s side battled to a brave 2-2 draw with Man City away in midweek and should’ve probably won had Vito Mannone not made a late error. Can they recreate their heroics away at Chelsea? (6-8-19)
source:  20 DOWN 2
Norwich City: The Canaries were the better team against Fulham, but lost. New manager Neil Adams needs three points, fast, if he’s going to keep this sinking ship from going under. Facing the league leaders Liverpool at home isn’t ideal. (8-8-18)

Kaka hoping to stay in Orlando beyond 2017

ORLANDO, FL - MARCH 08:  Kaka #10 of Orlando City SC dribbles the ball during an MLS soccer match between the New York City FC and the Orlando City SC at the Orlando Citrus Bowl on March 8, 2015 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images)
Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images)
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Kaka is enjoying life in Florida.

The former Ballon d’Or winner is hoping to stay with Orlando City SC beyond the end of his contract, which runs its course after the 2017 season.

[ MORE: Real Madrid now winless in three ]

Kaka has been very good for the Lions, scoring 19 goals and 15 assists in 53 total matches. Reports had said he’s skip town after the third year of the deal, but Kaka refutes that idea.

From MLSSoccer.com:

“A misunderstanding because I am very happy here,” Kaká told reporters at MLS Media Day on Tuesday. “I had a three year contract, so this is the last year under this contract, but my idea is to stay here.

“Of course we never know what can happen at the end of the season or during the season, but my idea for now is to stay in Orlando and stay in the league.”

Kaka turns 35 in April, but has been consistently good even if injuries kept him to 24 MLS contests last season. If he puts forth a similar season, there’s little reason for Orlando — or another team — not to take a chance on Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite.

Gabriel Jesus cleared, could make Man City debut

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - NOVEMBER 20:  Gabriel Jesus of Palmeiras runs with the ball during the match between Palmeiras and Botafogo for the Brazilian Series A 2016 at Allianz Parque on November 20, 2016 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  (Photo by Friedemann Vogel/Getty Images)
Photo by Friedemann Vogel/Getty Images
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Gabriel Jesus could go straight into Manchester City’s starting lineup.

The 19-year-old Brazilian has finally been cleared to suit up for the English side after finishing a title-winning campaign with Palmeiras.

With four goals in six caps for the Brazil national team and an Olympic gold medal with their U-23 side, Jesus is among the hottest prospects in the world.

[ MORE: City fifth in “Money League” ]

City is struggling, and the fresh injection of attacking talent could be music to the ears of boss Pep Guardiola (who, fun fact, celebrates his 46th birthday today).

From the Manchester Evening News:

“He’s a great player. Going to Europe is a good thing for a player. He will grow quicker, he will start to understand football in another way and also be respected inside the football scene.

“I guess that for Gabriel Jesus it was a good thing to leave Brazilian soccer, he did everything he had could in [Brazil]. He’s going to a very difficult, competitive [type of football] but I think that he can be successful.”

Jesus had 21 goals in 46 matches this season with Palmeiras.

Casemiro: “Real Madrid aren’t ever allowed to lose”

MADRID, SPAIN - JANUARY 18:  Henrique Casemiro of Real Madrid heads the ball against Daniel Wass of Celta de Vigo during the Copa del Rey Quarter Final, First Leg match between Real Madrid CF and  Celta Vigo at Bernabeu on January 18, 2017 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images
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The pressure at Real Madrid can be overwhelming, and the players who thrive there generally have thick skin and short memories.

They also take losses pretty seriously.

That goes for the manager as well, as both Real Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane and Casemiro have reacted to Real’s third-straight non-win in serious fashion.

[ MORE: Real no longer No. 1 in money ]

Remember, this is coming after the first match of the “slump” — a 3-3 draw with Sevilla — was the final match of a world record 40-match unbeaten run.

Casemiro, whose record in the Real Madrid lineup is as good as anyone’s, said this (via Marca):

“Yes, it’s worrying to lose again,” he said just after the full-time whistle. “Real Madrid aren’t ever allowed to lose. The defeat against Sevilla has hurt us.”

And if you want to tell Casemiro to relax, that only one of those matches was in league play and the club still leads the table by a point with a match-in-hand on nearly everyone… well… enter Zidane.

“I’m the one responsible and I must find the solution,” he said in his post-match press conference. “I wasn’t surprised by the way Celta played, as we knew that they’re a team that can really hurt you. I’m not worried, although it’s a bad moment. We know that we can overcome it and we are going to overcome it.”

I’m far from a Real Madrid fan, and you can credit Florentino Perez’s ideas and the hanky-waving fans for a lot of that, but it’s impossible not admire how seriously Real takes the business of winning. And maybe, just maybe, the fan and board expectations occasionally help the squad.

Run-up shootouts, per-player match limits on FIFA’s agenda

Marco van Basten, Dutch football manager and former football player, poses for a photo on the green carpet while arriving prior to the The Best - FIFA Football Awards 2016 ceremony held at the Swiss TV studio in Zurich, Switzerland, Monday, Jan. 9, 2017.  (Walter Bieri/Keystone via AP)
Walter Bieri/Keystone via AP
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Restricting players to 60 games a year. Replacing penalty shootouts with eight-second run-ups. Introducing orange cards to send players off for 10 minutes. Scrapping offside.

Former AC Milan and Netherlands forward Marco van Basten is using his role as technical director at FIFA to propose a series of changes to soccer to stir a debate.

[ MORE: Costa back for Chelsea ]

Rather than using his job to meddle, Van Basten highlights the need to preserve soccer as the world’s most popular sport.

“I have spoken to a lot of coaches and players,” Van Basten said in an interview with The Associated Press. “We have to promote quality instead of quantity. We are playing too much football now. We have to defend players because they have to play so much and are not fresh or fit anymore.

“That’s bad for the quality of the game. Even in June when the big tournaments are played players cannot perform to their maximum because now if players are really successful they can play up to 75 official games in the year. I think that’s a bit too much and maybe they should stop at 55 or 60.”

Although FIFA will expand the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams from 2026, that won’t burden players with any additional games. Instead, clubs sides would have to explore reducing the number of fixtures, potentially by reducing the number of lucrative friendly games played on tours.

[ MORE: Real Madrid now winless in three ]

“That’s all for money but we have to think about football and not money,” said Van Basten, who was hired by FIFA in September. “For a lot of clubs that’s not easy. But there is enough money in football.

“(Cristiano) Ronaldo and (Lionel) Messi are earning so much money. If they are earning a little bit less but performing better that’s good for football.”

Asked about countries like England or France no longer playing two cup competitions alongside their league fixtures, Van Basten said: “In my opinion that should be an interesting discussion.”

Van Basten knows some of radical changes he proposed to the AP could make traditionalists uneasy. But the 1992 FIFA world player of the year wants to ensure the global game has a say on its future.

“We should not just let the game be organized by those with the money,” he said from FIFA HQ in Zurich. “The big clubs like Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City and Real Madrid who have everything.”

“In football you need opponents, competition because if you are alone with two or three clubs controlling everything you don’t have any competition.”

Here are some potential changes to soccer proposed by Van Basten:

PENALTY SHOOTOUTS

Rather than burdening players with an additional 30 minutes of action when cup games are level after 90 minutes, Van Basten is suggesting going straight to penalties.

“I think everybody is pretty tired after 120 minutes,” Van Basten said.

Now penalties are a test of nerves with players having one chance to beat the goalkeeper from the penalty spot.

“Maybe the player should start 25 meters from goal and then you can dribble the goalkeeper or shoot early,” he said. “But you have to make a goal within eight seconds. It’s more skill and less luck. It’s maybe a bit more spectacular. It’s more football but it’s still nervous for the player.”

NO OFFSIDE

Scrapping the offside rule could make soccer more visually appealing, Van Basten advises.

“I think it can be very interesting watching a game without offside,” he said. “Football now is already looking a lot like handball with nine or ten defenders in front of the goal. It’s difficult for the opposition to score a goal as it’s very difficult to create something in the small pieces of space they give you.

“So if you play without offside you get more possibilities to score a goal.”

FOUR QUARTERS

Soccer is increasingly intense and grueling, with a single 15-minute break between 45-minute halves.

“We are trying to help the game, to let the game develop in a good way,” Van Basten said. “We want to have a game which is honest, which is dynamic, a nice spectacle so we should try to do everything to help that process.”

Introducing four quarters could be advantageous.

“The coach can have three times with his players during the game,” Van Basten said.

SINBINS

Now there is no middle ground between players being shown a yellow card and receiving a red card and then being removed for the rest of the game.

“Maybe an orange card could be shown that sees a player go out of the game for 10 minutes for incidents that are not heavy enough for a red card,” Van Basten said.

Such an instance could be when a player commits repeat fouls that didn’t warrant yellow cards or obstruct opponents. Five misdemeanors could earn a player a place in a sin bin for 10 minutes, Van Basten said.

NEXT STEPS

Any changes to the laws of the game cannot be forced through by Van Basten, however close he is to FIFA President Gianni Infantino. He said he wants to listen to the views of world before any proposals are taken to the game’s law-making body, The International Football Association Board. FIFA controls half of the eight votes on IFAB, with the other four retained by the British associations.

Rob Harris is at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports