Championship Sunday focus: Southampton

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Story so far…  Saints have been one of the major success stories this season in the Premier League as their youngsters have played silky soccer that has wowed neutrals. In Mauricio Pochettino’s first full season in charge the South Coast club have equaled their best-ever PL finish of eighth and have amassed their record points tally. Captain Adam Lallana has shone all season and along with Rickie Lambert and Luke Shaw should be heading to the World Cup with England. Jay Rodriguez’s injury was a cruel blow as the clubs top scorer will miss Brazil. Superb season at St. Mary’s but can the hold onto their star youngsters?

MORE: Head here for all things Championship Sunday

This summer is pivotal in the clubs future. Saints are at at crossroads as they’ve risen from the bottom of England’s third-tier to being on the precipice of the Premier League’s top six in just five years. The owner Katharina Liebherr must now decide whether to keep pumping money into the team or to go with a more sustainable model. If they go with the latter approach it could be ‘bye. bye Lallana and co.’ as well as Pochettino.

Who do they play and where can I watch it: Southampton host Manchester United in their final game of the season, as they sit one place behind the Red Devils in the standings. They’ve upset the English giants plenty of times in the past, would it be a surprise if Pochettino’s side ended their superb season on a high? Watch live on SyFy at 10 a.m. ET and stream it online via NBC Sports Live Extra.

Form guide: Saints drew away at Old Trafford back in October thanks to a last-gasp goal from Adam Lallana to nick a 1-1 tie. After a lull in their season following some bad injuries to key players, Saints have picked themselves up and finished the season strongly with three wins from their last six and they are unbeaten in three.

March 29 – vs. Newcastle, W 4-0
April 5 – at Manchester City, L 1-4
April 12 – vs. Cardiff City, L 0-1
April 19 – at Aston Villa, D 0-0
April 26 – vs. Everton, W 2-0
May 3 – at Swansea, W 1-0

What’s at stake: They will finish in eighth, equaling their highest ever PL finish and they have already accumulated 55 points, their best-ever tally. One more chance to impress for Saints’ string of internationals before the World Cup.

When the final whistle blows: Saints will be in eighth spot no matter what and a true party atmosphere will be in full swing on the South Coast as Man United come to town. Lallana, Shaw and Lambert could well be off to Brazil this summer. Will this finale be Lallana and Shaw’s last game for Southampton?

Luiz back in Chelsea squad after being dropped by Conte

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David Luiz‘s pair of stints at Chelsea have been nothing short of a roller-coaster ride of emotions — joyous highs and painful lows.

[ MORE: Pogba, Zlatan back form injuries; available this weekend ]

After returning to the club for a second time in the summer of 2016, Luiz instantly slotted into Antonio Conte‘s three-man backline and was a pivotal part of the Blues’ title-winning team last season.

Much like the second half of his first four seasons at Chelsea, Luiz’s second season (the second time around) has started so hotly. After playing eight of the first 10 games during Chelsea’s ongoing title defense, Luiz was unexpectedly dropped from the squad for the victory over Manchester United.

Now, two weeks later, Conte has announced that Luiz has rejoined the squad and is available for selection when his side visits West Brom on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET, on NBC Sports Gold) — quotes from the Guardian:

“David Luiz is in the squad, yes. [His exclusion] was a technical decision. When it’s a technical decision every player has to react well and accept my decision. It’s normal, this.

“I like to speak about the team and the next game that we have to pay attention to. This is the most important thing, not speaking about a single player. I repeat: I don’t like to speak about a single player.”

Pogba, Zlatan, Rojo return from injuries for Man Utd-Newcastle

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The only saving grace when it comes to injuries is that, eventually (usually), players recover from them and return to the team.

[ MORE: 2018 World Cup Power Rankings — who comes out on top? ]

It’s been a long seven months for the soccer world to be without Zlatan Ibrahimovic (torn ACL on April 20), just as it’s been a painfully long 10 weeks for Manchester United fans following Paul Pogba‘s hamstring injury on Sept. 12. Man United have dropped eight points during the latter’s absence and now coincidentally sit eight points behind Manchester City in the Premier League title race.

A bit of good news on this Friday: United manager Jose Mourinho announced today that the dynamic duo, along with defender Marcos Rojo (knee ligament damage on April 20) have returned to full fitness and will be available for selection during Saturday’s home clash with Newcastle United (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET, on NBC and NBCSports.com) — quotes from ManUtd.com:

“The players that stayed here and [were] recovering from injuries, even the ones that are recovering from big injuries, they are ready to play — Pogba, Ibrahimovic and Marcos Rojo.”

“[Ibrahimovic] made a full recovery. Now you cannot expect him to be ready to play 90 minutes or to be ready to play consecutive matches like he did all his career.

“Now he needs time to be back to his level, his fitness, his confidence, his sharpness, his everything. But, from the clinical point of view, to be good and ready is fantastic.”

2018 World Cup Power Rankings — 7 months B.W.C.

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209 days — that’s how long the world is still being made to wait for the opening game of the 2018 World Cup. It’s close, in that all 32 berths have been secured, but still so far, in that the draw is still two weeks away.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s 2018 World Cup coverage | USMNT | Premier League ]

Perhaps then, and only then, will it begin to feel really real.

According to our esteemed panelists — Joe Prince-Wright, Nicholas Mendola, Kyle Bonn, Matt Reed, Dan Karell and yours truly — four clear-cut favorites for the semifinals have separated themselves from the rest of the pack, followed by another six or eight sides with one half of their squad firing on all cylinders but some serious kinks to work out elsewhere.

[ MORE: Round 1 of the WC power rankings | Round 2 ]

Finally, the latest edition of PST’s 2018 World Cup Power Rankings, now featuring all 32 teams qualified for Russia…

Team Points Best Worst
1 (1) Germany 189 1 2
2 (2) Brazil 188 1 3
3 (4) Spain 177 3 5
4 (3) France 176 3 5
5 (8) Argentina 158 4 10
6 (5) Belgium 156 4 10
7 (7) Portugal 153 6 10
8 (11) England 150 5 12
9 (6) Uruguay 141 6 14
10 (9) Colombia 140 7 12
11 (10) Mexico 129 8 14
12 (12) Poland 125 10 14
13 (20) Croatia 118 7 20
14 (17) Switzerland 115 12 16
15 (NR) Sweden 92 16 19
16 (NR) Denmark 86 13 23
17 (NR) Serbia 83 9 28
18 (NR) Peru 80 15 25
19 (15) Iceland 79 15 24
20 (16) Japan 71 16 27
21 (NR) Egypt 66 18 27
22 (NR) South Korea 64 13 32
23 (NR) Senegal 63 17 26
24 (18) Nigeria 58 15 27
25 (19) Costa Rica 57 14 29
26 (NR) Morocco 48 18 29
27 (NR) Australia 45 22 30
28 (NR) Russia 36 20 32
29 (NR) Iran 34 22 31
30 (NR) Tunisia 30 23 31
31 (NR) Panama 19 28 32
32 (NR) Saudi Arabia 9 31 32

Zidane anxiously awaiting goals from Ronaldo

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MADRID (AP) For Zinedine Zidane, the Madrid derby on Saturday is just what Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema need to break their scoring slump.

The Real Madrid forwards have been struggling in the Spanish league, with just two goals between them.

Ronaldo, while striking six times in the Champions League, has tallied only one in seven Liga appearances.

Benzema is having an even tougher time, with just two in 12 matches across all competitions.

“It’s true that this is not normal, but they just need to keep training and keep trying as they have been doing,” Zidane says.

“You don’t need to tell Karim and Cristiano that they should train more, it’s something they do. They will go out on the pitch and score, I am sure of it.”

Over his career, Ronaldo has thrived against Real’s crosstown rival, Atletico. He holds the record for the Spanish capital derby with 21 goals.

Benzema’s performances, however, have not been as impressive, with three goals in his last 14 league matches against Atletico.

Zidane says Ronaldo and Benzema focused on recovering their scoring form last week during the international break, when they stayed at the club instead of joining their national sides.

“We have been working on it,” he said. “What I want is that my players, my forwards, play well, and tomorrow is a good match for them to keep trying.”

Their scoring droughts have contributed to Real’s irregular season.

Real is in third place and level on points with Atletico, which is fourth after having trouble winning at its new Wanda Metropolitan Stadium.

Both sides need a victory to keep pace with leader Barcelona, which visits Leganes hours earlier.

If Barcelona wins, Madrid and Atletico will be staring at an 11-point gap by kickoff.