Premier League 2014-15 preview: Liverpool

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This time last year, thoughts Liverpool could reclaim a spot in the Premier League’s top four seemed wishful, with a slew of buys from Tottenham putting Spurs in position to compete with the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea, and Manchesters City and United. Instead, Liverpool’s resurgence became one of the best stories of the season, with an 11-game winning streak (16, unbeaten) that ran through the end of April putting Brendan Rodgers’ team on the brink of the title.

Late slips against Chelsea and Crystal Palace threatened to put a damper on the 2013-14 campaign, but three months later, the season’s remembered less for its missed opportunities than the team’s huge leap up the table. After missing the tournament for four straight seasons, the five-time European champions are back in UEFA Champions League, and although they lost (read: cashed in, handsomely on) their best player this offseason, a new set of attacking talent, as well as an improved defense, could offset the absence of Luis Suárez.

This year, expectations are much higher, but they should be. As 2013-14 showed, Liverpool is finally back.

[RELATED: Full PL season preview]

Transfers In: Emre Can (Bayer Leverkusen, $16m), Adam Lallana (Southampton, $41.4m), Ricky Lambert (Southampton, $5.5m), Dejan Lovren (Southampton, $40m), Javi Manquillo (Atlético Madrid, loan), Lazar Markovic (Benfica, $33.4m), Divock Origi (Lille, $16m), Kevin Stewart (Tottenham, free)

Transfers Out: Luis Alberto (Málaga, loan), Iago Aspas (Sevilla, loan), Origi (Lille, loan), Jakub Sokolik (Yeovil, free), Luis Suárez (Barcelona, $108m), Andre Wisdom (West Brom, loan)

Full PL schedule | Watch Liverpool live via Live Extra | BPL on NBC schedule |

Last season: After four seasons of finishing no higher than sixth, Liverpool matched its best finish of the Premier League era, finishing second behind Manchester City. In the process, the team put up 101 goals and a +51 goal difference, losing only once after Dec. 29.

Star player: Daniel Sturridge

Worries about the loss of Suárez can be assuaged by the acquisitions of Lambert and Lallana, but Sturridge’s performance last year is fans’ biggest cause for hope. Just shy of 25, there’s reason to believe the English international can improve, having only two seasons with more than 20 starts under his belt. Coming off  21-goal, seven-assist campaign, Sturridge has already proven himself an elite attacker, but if he can continue to progress, he’ll draw the type of attention that will allow his new teammates to put up their own gaudy numbers.

Coach’s corner: Brendan Rodgers

The 41-year-old has delivered on the promise he brought from Swansea, not only producing an attractive, flexible brand of soccer but also returning Liverpool to its former prominence. In 2014-15, he’ll get his first taste of Champions League soccer, along with the balancing act that comes with it. If his recent past is any indication, expect Rodgers to be bold, and learn from the lessons that are likely to come.

PST predicts: Particularly with Mauricio Pochettino (Tottenham) and Louis van Gaal (Manchester United) improving two talented squads, the league’s top six or seven will be more competitive than ever. Even if the team regresses, it feels Suárez’s loss, and captain Steven Gerrard shows his age (and miles), there’s no reason Liverpool can’t keep up. The Reds are among the favorites to claim a top four spot and a have a dark horse’s place in any title discussion.

Ligue 1: Alves secures late win for PSG; Depay does same for Lyon

AP Photo/Claude Paris
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PARIS (AP) — Memphis Depay scored in the last minute of a frantic match to give Lyon a 3-2 win at third-placed Marseille that keeps alive its chances of Champions League soccer next season.

In the fight for a Champions League playoff spot, fourth-placed Lyon closed the gap on Marseille to two points with eight games left. Monaco is seven points ahead of Marseille in second spot.

The match at Stade Velodrome ended with players pushing and shoving after the final whistle. Lyon defender Marcelo then mockingly brandished a Lyon jersey in front of Marseille’s players as they were walking off. It sparked a further melee which took more than a minute before security officials brought it under control. Several players from both sides tried to get at each other, rather than walking away when they had the chance.

It was the latest volatile incident in the French league.

On Thursday, several police officers were injured after clashes with Lyon fans before a Europa League game against CSKA Moscow.

This followed on from a mass pitch invasion by angry fans of struggling Lille on March 10, when about 200 fans charged onto the pitch to confront players after a home draw with Montpellier.

The acrimony continued Sunday.

As the players walked back through the tunnel to the dressing rooms, Marseille center back Adil Rami had to be held back as he launched himself at Lyon goalkeeper Anthony Lopes. Marseille goalkeeper Steve Mandanda also had to be pushed away moments later as he sought to back Rami up.

“When I see that it just makes me sad,” said Lyon defender Jeremy Morel, who formerly played for Marseille. “This isn’t even about football. I think we’ve really had enough of this, we don’t need it.”

Marseille winger Florian Thauvin saw it differently.

“Some Lyon players took the liberty of mocking us. It’s not professional on their part,” Thauvin said. “They lacked respect. (Marcelo) is a professional player, he should be leading by example. They shouldn’t behave like that.”

Greece striker Kostas Mitroglou’s looping header in the 84th minute appeared to have earned Marseille a point, after Lyon midfielder Houssem Aouar put Lyon ahead 2-1 shortly after the break with a sweetly struck shot from winger Betrand Traore’s pass.

Mitroglou then almost went clean through from the halfway line in the 89th, only to be incorrectly called back for offside. It proved a key moment as Depay scored the winner one minute later.

Lopes took the free kick after the offside decision, striker Mariano Diaz headed the ball on just outside the edge of the penalty area and Depay read it well to nod it over the advancing Mandanda from just inside the area.

Rami’s own-goal late in the first half canceled out center back partner Jorge Rolando’s opener in the 31st.

“We defended really badly,” Mandanda said. “We just didn’t match them in the challenges.”

Dani Alves took Paris Saint-Germain a step closer to the French title, scoring his first league goal of the season with a late header as PSG won 2-1 at Nice.

The 34-year-old Brazil defender met midfielder Adrien Rabiot’s astute curling pass with a powerful header into the bottom right corner in the 82nd minute.

PSG is 17 points clear of defending champion Monaco and almost certain to win its fifth title in six seasons. PSG has seven games left and Monaco has eight.

Nice took the lead in the 17th minute. Mario Balotelli expertly chested down a high ball to the feet of strike partner Alassane Plea near the halfway line, and Plea’s pass sent Allan Saint-Maximin scampering though to finish coolly.

Four minutes later, Angel Di Maria took advantage of slack defending to equalize. It was his ninth goal in 25 league games and he needs one more to match his career-best tally.

The match started at 1 p.m. local time (1200 GMT) to capture a prime-time television audience in Asia. This follows on from the opening of a French league football office in Beijing last year.

“The Spanish and the English did this before. We train in the mornings, so it shouldn’t be a problem,” said Nice coach Lucien Favre, referring to the early kickoff. “I hope it was a good advert (for Ligue 1). It was a good game.”

Nice is in eighth place, three points above Saint-Etienne in ninth.

Bundesliga: Bayern finally lose; Batshuayi scores a stunner (video)

AP Photo/Martin Meissner
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BERLIN (AP) Runaway Bundesliga leader Bayern Munich lost 2-1 at Leipzig on Sunday in a rare stumble ahead of the international break.

Sandro Wagner headed the visitors into an early lead but Naby Keita equalized before the break and Timo Werner claimed the winner 10 minutes after it.

“We didn’t play like we have in the last weeks,” Bayern coach Jupp Heynckes said. “Leipzig is the deserved winner. You get such games.”

It was Bayern’s third defeat in 27 German league games and Leipzig’s first-ever win over the Bavarian powerhouse after three losses in the Bundesliga and a defeat on penalties in the German Cup last October.

Bayern leads Schalke by 17 points with seven games remaining. It can wrap up its record-extending sixth consecutive title with a win at home over third-place Borussia Dortmund on March 31 – if Schalke drops points to Freiburg on the same day.

Schalke and Dortmund had already postponed the celebrations by winning their 27th-round games, but Wagner got Bayern fans cheering when he scored in the 12th minute.

Wagner, selected to give Robert Lewandowski a rest, was one of several Bayern players waiting to head James Rodriguez’ brilliant cross inside the far post.

But Bayern failed to cope with Leipzig’s pressing game and Keita deservedly equalized on a rebound after Werner’s effort was blocked.

Keita then sent Werner through to score his first goal since Jan. 20 and end Leipzig’s four-game winless run.

Heynckes, who had called up Bayern under-19 midfielder Meritan Shabani to the senior squad for the first time, sent Lewandowski on for the last 20 minutes but the Poland striker was unable to add to his league-leading tally.

Cologne, which made the worst-ever league start by any team, rekindled its slim hopes of survival by beating Bayer Leverkusen 2-0 in the Rhine derby to leave the bottom of the table for the first time since the third round.

“The corpse is still alive,” said Leonardo Bittencourt, who was impressive for Cologne.

Yuya Osako fired the home side into an early lead after good work from Bittencourt, and Simon Zoller sealed the win with 20 minutes remaining when he lifted the ball over the outrushing goalkeeper.

Leverkusen’s hopes of claiming an equalizer were damaged after a half-hour when Lucas Alario swung his elbow back into Dominic Maroh in an off-the-ball incident, leaving the Cologne defender on the ground clutching his neck. Referee Harm Osmers sent the Argentine off after consulting video replays.

Cologne moved two points above Hamburger SV and five points behind Mainz in the relegation playoff place with seven games remaining. Relegation rivals Hamburg, Mainz, Wolfsburg and Freiburg all lost in the 27th round.

Leverkusen dropped to fifth, one point behind Eintracht Frankfurt in the last Champions League qualification place.

Michy Batshuayi‘s brilliant first-half strike was enough for Borussia Dortmund to beat visiting Hannover 1-0 and consolidate third place in the Bundesliga on Sunday.

The home side enjoyed the better start as it looked to make a statement following its disappointing Europa League exit to Salzburg on Thursday.

Batshuayi scored in the 24th minute, running toward Andre Schuerrle’s corner and flicking it on the volley with his heel to send the ball inside the far post.

Dortmund stayed a point behind Schalke with seven games remaining, while Hannover dropped to 13th after its fourth consecutive loss.

Serie A: Napoli make good on Juve’s slip-up, now just 2 back

Photo by Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images
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A roundup of all of Sunday’s action in Italy’s top flight…

[ MORE: Barcelona still unbeaten after 29 league games; Ronaldo scores 4 ]

Napoli 1-0 Genoa

Juventus slipped up in a big, big way on Saturday, stumbling to a scoreless draw away to tiny SPAL 2013, and opening the door ever so slightly for Napoli. With a win on Sunday, secured by Raul Albiol’s late winner, Napoli now trail Juve by just two points with the two sides level on games played (29) once again.

The victory snapped a two-game winless skid for Napoli, a run which saw them cough up the top spot which they had held for nearly the entire season, and set up perhaps a colossal title decider on April 22, when first hosts second in their quest to claim a seventh straight Serie A title.

Crotone 0-2 Roma

One spot and 14 points further down the table, you’ll find an interesting battle for third, with Roma picking up their third straight win, 2-0 over 18th-place Crotone on Sunday.

Stephan El Shaarawy (38th minute) and Radja Nainggolan (74th) bagged the goals for Roma, who lead Inter Milan by four points with nine games to go (Inter have a game in hand).

Sampdoria 0-5 Inter Milan

No one was more impressive this weekend than Inter, who put four past Sampdoria in the first half, including a hat trick from Mauro Icardi, who would then go on to add his fourth — Inter’s fifth — in the second half. That’s 22 league goals for the Argentine forward, who now trails Lazio’s Ciro Immobile by two in the Golden Boot race.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Lazio 1-1 Bologna
AC Milan 3-2 Chievo
Hellas Verona 0-5 Atalanta
Torino 1-2 Fiorentina
Benevento 1-2 Cagliari

La Liga: Barcelona unbeaten after 29 games; Ronaldo scores 4

Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images
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A roundup of all of Sunday’s action in Spain’s top flight…

[ MORE: Man United vs. Spurs in FA Cup semis; Chelsea-Southampton]

Barcelona 2-0 Athletic Bilbao

Updated numbers for Barcelona’s current unbeaten run in La Liga: 29 games this season; 36 dating back to last season. The quest for the unbeaten league season is now just nine games from reality.

Perhaps even more impressive than the W-D-L record is their defensive record: 13 goals conceded in 29 games (they’ve also scored 74 and have a +61 goal differential).

Sunday’s 2-0 victory over Bilbao saw Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Co., go 11 points clear in the title race and all but secure their third title in four seasons, thanks to results elsewhere (see below).

Paco Alcacer opened the scoring after just eight minutes, and Messi made it 2-0 right on the half-hour mark (his league-leading 25th goal of the season; 34 in all competitions).

Real Madrid 6-3 Girona

Cristiano Ronaldo bagged four goals of his own to bring his season total to 22 (32 in all competitions), now second ahead of Suarez and three behind Messi for the Golden Boot, and in the process push Real Madrid (60 points) to within four points of Atletico Madrid in the race for second.

Ronaldo scored goals no. 1, 2, 4 and 6 for Madrid, with tallies from Lucas Vazquez and Gareth Bale sprinkled in between.

Villarreal 2-1 Atletico Madrid

Atletico Madrid were the last side within touching distance of Barca — “just” eight points back coming into the weekend — but that’s no longer the case following a late collapse and a 2-1 defeat away to fourth-place Valencia.

Antoine Griezmann put the visitors ahead from the penalty spot in the 20th minute, but Enes Unal bagged an equalizer in the 82nd and the game-winner in the 91st. Atleti finished the game with 10 men after Vitolo was sent off in the 92nd minute.

Real host Atleti in the Madrid derby on April 8, a game which will go a long way towards crowning this season’s runners-up.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Valencia 3-1 Alaves (Saturday)
Leganes 2-1 Sevilla
Real Betis 3-0 Espanyol (Saturday)
Celta Vigo 0-0 Malaga
Real Sociedad 1-2 Getafe (Saturday)
Levante 2-1 Eibar (Friday)
Deportivo La Coruña 1-1 Las Palmas (Saturday)