Sterling to play or be rested vs. QPR?

Can Liverpool recreate last season’s Premier League magic?

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What do you get when you take the Player of the Season, add an unclogged fixture schedule, a pinch of tactical genius, a cup of top goalkeeping, sprinkle in a dash of youthful talent, and garnish with a seasoned on-the-field leader?

Why, you come a slip away from a Premier League championship, of course.

Unfortunately, with last year fallen through the grasp and gone forever, some of those ingredients are missing now, and Liverpool can’t exactly go to the grocery store and pick up another Luis Suarez out of the bread aisle.

Liverpool’s magical season last year should have earned them the Premier League title, except for the part where it didn’t. Now, with it all to do again, it will be hard for the Reds to repeat everything that helped move them to the top.

Now don’t get me wrong, they earned every bit of their second-place finish, and probably should have won it all.

But there were plenty of contributing factors that are no longer around in the brand new season.

First, every team around them got better. Arsenal got better. Manchester United got better. Chelsea got better. Manchester City got marginally better with an already loaded squad. Tottenham will be better. Last season, it seemed nobody wanted to win the league, but somebody had to. This year, that won’t be the case.

Another ingredient to last season’s success was their lack of other fixtures to keep the squad tied down, draw their attention away, and tire the players. They weren’t playing in Europe, were knocked out in the fifth round of the FA Cup, and eliminated in the third round of the League Cup. Across those two domestic competitions, they played just five matches.

This season, all that appears to be different. They’ll have the Champions League to contend with (not that that’s a bad thing by any means, but in a vacuum, it can only distract from their domestic season), and surely will look to progress further in the cup competitions.

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With Luis Suarez gone, the Liverpool attack is Daniel Sturridge’s to command, but his teammates will be needed to relieve some pressure.

But through it all, when asked about what his goals were next season, the only one manager Brendan Rodgers mentioned was the same one he targeted last year. “The first aim is to qualify for the Champions League, and then try to build your way up through. That’s what we did last year, going into every game just focusing on the next game.”

Despite all this, Rodgers doesn’t believe there will be much of a change. “There’s no great difference [from last season],” he told me after Liverpool’s win over AC Milan in Charlotte. “We’ve brought players in that understand the way of working, and obviously there are a lot of players that were retained from last season.”

But then, he recanted just a touch and admitted one difference. One key difference that may just be what the club needs to make up for what they no longer have on their side. “I think what we have this year, we have a greater belief. We were probably surprised for most of last season.”

He then talked about their preseason game against the Italian side. “I think you see tonight with the level of our football…what pleased me tonight was their maturity.”

It will be just that, the club’s experience of having challenged for the title last season, that will carry them through any sort of similar situation this season, should one arise.

Younger players such as Raheem Sterling, Jordan Henderson, Joe Allen, and Jon Flanagan will have to help take some of the pressure off Daniel Sturridge’s shoulders, and having been through last year’s title fight gave them a priceless wealth of knowledge.

It’s hard to imagine a scenario this year where other clubs haven’t surpassed Liverpool with big-money purchases from abroad and a level playing field in the fixture congestion department. Hard, but not impossible. And even if Liverpool finish as low as fourth, and do maintain their Champions League status, the atmosphere surrounding supporters should be positive.

Brendan Rodgers has, since his arrival, instilled a belief of the long-term project. And even if this club takes a step or two backwards this season, that gold nugget at the end of the tunnel is still very much intact.

And who knows. After laying out next season’s goals, Rodgers said with a smile, “It’s very difficult to forecast in football.” True that. Maybe this season, Gerrard will stay on his feet, and the slipper will fit.

Ahead of huge top four showdowns, who are the title favorites?

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This weekend is massive. Huge. Monumental.

[ VIDEO: Arsenal-Leicester preview ]

In terms of the Premier League title race having two games between all of the current top four means one thing: bedlam.

Following the Arsenal vs. Leicester City (Watch live, 7 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) and Manchester City vs. Tottenham Hotspur (Watch live, 11:15 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) encounter, we should be provided with a much better idea of where the title is heading.

[ VIDEO: Man City-Tottenham preview

Then again, if Arsenal beat Leicester and Man City draw with Spurs, there will be just five points between all four teams. With 13 games to go this is tight and tense and the most open title race we’ve had in decades. It is also awesome.

[ MORE: Arsenal to play in 2016 MLS All-Star Game ] 

Let’s take a look at all four title contenders and try to see who has the best chance of winning this thing on May 15.


Leicester City
Current position: 1st (53 points)
Biggest plus: No pressure, they were meant to be relegated
Biggest negative: None of their current squad have ever been in this situation. How will they cope?
Key man: Jamie Vardy – A few off days in front of goal recently for the PL’s main man. If he regains his touch, the Foxes will win it.
3 key games: Feb. 14 at Arsenal, Apr. 30 at Man United, May 15 at Chelsea
Strength of remaining schedule (1 is weak, 10 is tough): 2/10 – The best of any of the title contenders, on paper, and no cup games.


Tottenham Hotspur
Current position: 2nd (48 points)
Biggest plus: Mauricio Pochettino. He’s met every major challenge head on.
Biggest negative: Having the FA Cup and Europa League to contend with. Relatively small squad compared to the rest.
Key man: Harry Kane – If he can hit yet another purple patch, combined with Spurs’ solid defense, then that will be huge.
3 key games: Feb. 14 at Man City, Mar. 5 vs. Arsenal, Apr. 9 vs. Chelsea
Strength of remaining schedule: 3/10 – A very soft run-in for Spurs between now and the end of the season.


Arsenal
Current position: 3rd (48 points)
Biggest plus: They have the biggest squad and with Cech in goal their defense looks very settled.
Biggest negative: How many times have we been here before? Have to get over mental barrier, plus UCL and FA Cup to focus on too.
Key man: Alexis Sanchez – Hasn’t quite hit top form since returning from his hamstring injury. Can he hit top gear during crunch time?
3 key games: Feb. 14 vs. Leicester City, Mar. 5 vs. Tottenham, May 7 at Man City
Strength of remaining schedule: 6/10 – Probably the toughest out of all the contenders. Really need Sanchez and Mesut Ozil to pull through.


Manchester City
Current position: 4th (47 points)
Biggest plus: Strongest squad and Vincent Kompany should be returning soon. That, and wanting to send Pellegrini out on a high.
Biggest negative: Guardiola arriving means plenty of uncertainty. If Aguero or Kompany go down injured, title run could be over.
Key man: Vincent Kompany – City will always score goals with Aguero, Sterling, Silva and De Bruyne but they need Vinny back. Big time.
3 key games: Mar. 2 at Liverpool, Mar. 20 vs. Man United, May 7 vs. Arsenal
Strength of remaining schedule: 5/10 – Marginally easier than Arsenal’s because they play United and the Gunners at home. Still. Very tough.


 

Arsenal named as 2016 MLS All-Star Game opponent in San Jose

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 28:  Mesut Ozil (C) of Arsenal celebrates scoring his team's second goal with his team mates Hector Bellerin (L) and Aaron Ramsey (R) during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and A.F.C. Bournemouth at Emirates Stadium on December 28, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
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Arsenal is coming to San Jose, California.

On Thursday it was announced that the Premier League giants will take part in the 2016 MLS All-Star Game at Avaya Stadium, home of the San Jose Earthquakes.

[ VIDEO: Ferrell – “I got Mourinho fired”

The decision to play against another PL opponent makes it the ninth time that’s happened and MLS’ best will have faced seven different PL clubs in Fulham, Chelsea, West Ham United, Everton, Manchester United, Tottenham and now Arsenal.

The venue for the 2016 ASG will be San Jose’s splendid, yet slightly compact, Avaya Stadium and the game will take place on July 28 at 9 p.m. ET.

[ VIDEO: Arsenal-Leicester preview

Gunners fans in North America hoping to get tickets for the clash will have to act fast as the ‘Quakes home only holds 18,000 people, but there will be another chance to watch Arsenal play as they will face Chivas Guadalajara at the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif. on July 31.

Safe to say Arsene Wenger won’t need to don his famous long padded jacket for matches in California this July…

As well as seeing Arsenal stars Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez, Petr Cech, Olivier Giroud and more, the chance to watch young U.S. international Gedion Zelalem in action will excite many. That said, with the game coming late in July, plenty of Arsenal’s top stars may be on extended breaks due to their exertions for their national teams at the 2016 European Championships and the 2016 Copa America Centenario also being staged in North America.

VIDEO: Previewing the massive Man City vs. Tottenham encounter

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On the same day Arsenal host Leicester City in a clash between two title contenders (Watch live, 7 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) the two other teams in the top two also meet on Sunday.

Your Valentine’s Day is officially sorted.

[ VIDEO: Ferrell – “I got Mourinho fired”

On Sunday Manchester City welcome Tottenham Hotspur (Watch live, 11:15 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) to the Etihad Stadium as second-place Spurs sit just one point above fourth-place City. It could not be tighter at the top.

Earlier this season Spurs hammered an injury-hit City 4-1 at White Hart Lane and revenge will be sweet for Sergio Aguero and Co. as both teams are in serious contention to win the Premier League this season.

[ MORE: Preview – Arsenal vs. Leicester ]

In terms of their clashes at the Etihad, Spurs have not found it a happy hunting ground in recent years as they’ve lost four of their last five games away at City. Their last two defeats have been 6-0 and 4-1. Expect a tighter clash this time around as Harry Kane looks to keep his hot-streak going and City will aim to bounce back from their demoralizing, and potentially crucial, home defeat to Leicester last weekend.

So much on the line this Sunday. Click play on the video above to hear all the major headlines heading into this clash.

Mourinho to Man United: Key players to be sold? Locker room unrest, transfer gossip

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The papers are having a field day with the Jose Mourinho to Manchester United whispers.

[ VIDEO: Ferrell – “I got Mourinho fired”

Several different outlets are reporting numerous pieces of gossip about Mourinho, 53, taking over at United this summer and now seems like a good time to round it all up and have a look at what is out there.

[ VIDEO: Arsenal-Leicester preview

Here it goes…

[ REPORT: Mourinho tells friends he’s going to United


First up, the wages.

Okay, Louis Van Gaal, 64, still has a contract with the Red Devils through the 2016-17 season but many believe that barring a miraculous finish to the current campaign the Dutchman will be let go this summer. If that’s the case — and with United six points off the top four it certainly seems like another season of disappointment will play out — then El Confidencial is reporting that Mourinho will be handed a contract worth $20 million a year. That may seem like a lot, but actually it would be $9 million less a year than Manchester City is paying Pep Guardiola to be their boss. Interesting.

Juicy nugget number two: The Daily Mail states that Mourinho has already instructed executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward to sell Juan Mata and Marouane Fellaini. The midfield duo aren’t in Mourinho’s plans with the Portuguese coach selling Mata to United during his time in charge of Chelsea, while he doesn’t appear to be a fan of Belgian midfielder Fellaini either.

No. 3: The Daily Star reports that Mourinho will be handed $420 million to spend on new players and totally rebuild the under-performing squad. The same report claims Mourinho has his eye on Neymar, Edinson Cavani, Thomas Muller, Paul Pogba and Raphael Varane to help restore United to past glories and add to his tally of three Premier League titles during five full seasons with Chelsea.

And finally, and perhaps not unsurprisingly, the Sun reports that United’s locker room is split over whether Mourinho arriving would be a good thing. Well, yeah, with a massive cull on the horizon if he does arrive, it’s not too difficult to understand that the general feeling among the players will be one of trepidation. However, the main issue seems to be where No. 2 Ryan Giggs will fit into Mourinho’s plans if he does get the job.

Again, take these reports with a pinch of salt but it’s certainly interesting to keep your ear to the ground and listen to all of the tidbits circling about Mourinho’s potential arrival at Old Trafford.