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.

source: Getty Images
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.

Premier League storylines: First vs second at WHL, Saints meet Foxes

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 14:  Kelechi Iheanacho of Manchester City tackles Mousa Dembele of Tottenham Hotspur during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur at Etihad Stadium on February 14, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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My goodness, do these European weeks allow the Premier League to just reach out and smack you in the face or what?

The PL returns Friday with a match-up of two team on the precipice of the Top Four, and doesn’t stop until a thrilling Sunday leads us into an international break.

[ MORE: Man Utd-Zorya recap | Zlatan reacts ]

Let’s dig into our Top Five storylines for the PL weekend.

First versus second at White Hart Lane

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Manchester City — 9:15 a.m. EDT Sunday (NBCSN)

Pep Guardiola has already presided over a Manchester City win across town at Old Trafford, and scooping three points at White Hart Lane would be yet another gorgeous feather in his new sky blue cap. Want more insight into this 1v2? Here’s JPW with a PST Extra.

Gunners look to keep firing in classic trap game

Burnley vs. Arsenal — 11:30 a.m. EDT Sunday (NBCSN)

Arsene Wenger has Theo Walcott and the Gooners humming, with three-straight clean sheets and just four goals allowed in their last eight contests. With an international break coming, Arsenal just has to do what’s expected of it and take a week to revel in its fine form.

That’s kinda the problem. In the past, Arsenal would make a trip like this much harder than it looks on paper. If the Gunners are truly on the path to something special, that doesn’t happen at Turf Moor.

Will Chelsea responds to furious Conte?

Hull City vs. Chelsea — 10 a.m. EDT Saturday (NBCSN)

As good as Chelsea has been at times this year, there are still lingering worries that the group that quit on Jose Mourinho is lacking the leadership necessary to make a title push (and yes, we know that group won the title one year previous).

Manager Antonio Conte was ticked off after the Blues were bounced all over the Emirates by Arsenal, and are supposed to making the most of this season without a congested European schedule. That should mean a win at Hull, right?

HULL, ENGLAND - MARCH 22: Gaston Ramirez of Hull City challenges Nemanja Matic of Chelsea during the Barclays Premier League match between Hull City and Chelsea at KC Stadium on March 22, 2015 in Hull, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Pretender alert, pretender alert

Leicester City vs. Southampton — 9 a.m. EDT Sunday (CNBC)

Here’s a tale of four teams in one two-team game. Leicester and Southampton have been solid, if not terrific, in Europe, and look threats to advance into the knockout rounds of both the Champions and Europa League.

Leicester and Southampton have also combined for a mere 15 points though 12 Premier League games, far off the pace for fans hoping both could become European fixtures. At least one, or two, maybe four of these teams will feel better come 11 a.m. Sunday. Not three, though. Definitely not three.

Last stop for Guidolin?

Swansea City vs. Liverpool — 7:30 a.m. EDT Saturday (NBCSN)

As the rumor vultures circle above Francesco Guidolin crowing, “Bob Bradley, Bob Bradley“, the Swansea boss looks to engineer a home win over Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool that could save his job. That won’t worry Klopp too much, who is hoping to lead his Reds into the international break as high as second in the PL table.

Second coach in England loses job after newspaper sting

BARNSLEY, ENGLAND - JULY 23:  Tommy Wright assistant head coach of Barnsley during the pre-season friendly match between Barnsley and Everton at Oakwell Stadium on July 23, 2016 in Barnsley, England. (Photo by Clint Hughes/Getty Images)"n
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BARNSLEY, England (AP) A British newspaper investigation led to a second soccer coach getting fired in England on Thursday.

Two days after Sam Allardyce lost his job as England manager following an undercover operation by the Daily Telegraph, second-tier club Barnsley fired assistant coach Tommy Wright.

Wright was filmed apparently accepting an envelope which the Telegraph said contained 5,000 pounds ($6,500) from a fake Asian firm to help place players at the northern club. Video footage was released by the newspaper late Wednesday and Wright was immediately suspended by Barnsley.

[ MORE: Man Utd-Zorya recap | Zlatan reacts ]

“After considering Mr. Wright’s response to allegations in today’s Daily Telegraph about breaching (Football Association) rules over player transfers, Mr. Wright was dismissed,” the club said after a meeting with the coach on Thursday.

Barnsley said it was “unaware of such matters or involved in any wrongdoing.”

The English Football Association decided to terminate Allardyce’s contract on Tuesday after video showed him appearing to offer advice to fictitious businessmen on how to sidestep an outlawed player transfer practice and also negotiating a 400,000 pound ($519,000) public-speaking contract to top up an annual England salary of 3 million pounds ($4 million).

English soccer is reeling after three days of accusations by the newspaper following its months-long investigation into alleged wrongdoing in the game.

Second-tier Queens Park Rangers is investigating footage that appeared to show its coach, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, seeking a fee of 55,000 pounds ($71,600) to work for a fake Far Eastern firm that had suggested selling players to the second-tier London club.

[ MORE: JPW hangs with USMNT prospect Gooch ]

Hasselbaink denied any wrongdoing, saying he was only offered a fee to make a speech in Singapore and did not ask QPR to sign players said to have been represented by the fake firm. QPR said it had “every confidence” in Hasselbaink, and its chief executive and director of football spoke to Hasselbaink on Thursday to get his version of events.

QPR said it wanted to view an unedited version of the video footage and a full transcript.

Hasselbaink, a former Chelsea and Leeds striker, will prepare the QPR team for the league match against Fulham on Saturday.

The Daily Telegraph also filmed an agent accusing 10 managers, which it did not name, of taking bribes linked to player transfers.

Premier League Preview: Everton vs. Crystal Palace

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - APRIL 16: Yannick Bolasie of Crystal Palace chases down Seamus Coleman of Everton  during the Barclays Premier League match between Everton and Crystal Palace at Goodison Park on April 16, 2014 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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  • Lukaku back for Everton
  • Bolasie faces former club
  • Palace on three-match win streak

An angry Everton looks to make amends from a rough outing, when improving Crystal Palace pays a visit to Goodison Park on Friday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on USA Network and online via NBC Sports).

The Toffees fell 1-0 to Bournemouth last weekend, dropping out of the Top Four after a strong start to the season.

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After winning three-straight over lower table competition, Palace gets a big test in Everton. Road wins over Northeast opponents Sunderland and Middlesbrough highlights the run, which includes a home win over Stoke City.

Yannick Bolasie has been very good for Everton, and now gets his first look at former club Palace. And he’ll have company in Romelu Lukaku, who’s passed a fitness test and will start the match.

What they’re saying

Everton’s Gerard Deulofeu on Friday night football: “It’s a different day for us, it’s not normal to play on a Friday but it’s a good chance to put on a good performance and get a win for the Toffees to enjoy. It’s a good opportunity for us to take three points because we are coming into the game on the back of a loss to Bournemouth.”

Alan Pardew on Bolasie’s return: “I love Yala but I just hope he is not going to have one of his super games that he is capable of but of course he will be looking to impress. He has nothing to prove to us or our fans, they still love him although I don’t think they are particularly happy that they have the song but that type of thing goes with a club signing big players.”

Prediction

Alan Pardew‘s charges will have a lot of trouble with Bolasie, the sort of player who has given Palace fits in the past. Ashley Williams and Phil Jagielka also present the sort of center back pairing that can handle a Christian Benteke type, so look for Everton to win at home, 2-0.

Mourinho praises Rooney, stays level after Manchester United’s third-straight win

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 29:  Jose Mourinho, Manager of Manchester United celebrates following his sides 1-0 victory during the UEFA Europa League group A match between Manchester United FC and FC Zorya Luhansk at Old Trafford on September 29, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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Jose Mourinho implored Manchester United to relax after a three-match losing streak included losses to Manchester City, Feyenoord, and Watford.

So it makes sense that the Portuguese boss isn’t throwing a parade after United went in the other direction with a trio of wins over Northampton Town, Leicester City, and Zorya Luhansk.

[ MORE: Match recap | Zlatan reacts ]

“One week, three defeats. One week, three victories,” Mourinho explained after Thursday’s 1-0 win over Zorya at Old Trafford.

“But I was not depressed by the defeats and I am not over the moon with three wins.”

United looked ready to score from the opening whistle, but only found a single goal. Mourinho went out of his way to praise substitute Wayne Rooney, whose flubbed shot turned into an assist to Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

From the BBC:

“Since the first minute we were waiting for the goal but it didn’t arrive. You never know what happens and Sergio Romero made a good save when the score was 0-0.

“I had good players on the bench to help change the game. Wayne Rooney gave us different positions and speed when the opposing team was getting tired.”

United has a visit from Stoke City before the international break, with Sunday’s Premier League kickoff slated for 7 a.m. ET.