Cristiano Ronaldo

La Liga season preview, predictions: Can anyone outlast Real Madrid?

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Last season, La Liga closed up shop with its first champion not named Barcelona or Real Madrid since 2004. Manager Diego Simeone led Atletico Madrid to the mountain top, their 90 points enough to outlast the usual names.

But Simeone has lost Diego Costa, Filipe Luis and Thibaut Courtois amongst others in his search to repeat, while both Real and Barca have loaded up in the transfer market (a task especially important to the latter, who won’t be able to make another transfer between the end of this window and January 2016).

[ RELATED: Torres in, Jimenez out for Mexico friendlies vs. Chile, Bolivia ]

La Liga would seem as unbalanced as ever, with 10 teams within 10 points of relegation and no one within 17 points of the ‘Big Three’, but is that an illusion? Who will win the league, who can make a charge and who will go down? Glad you asked…

Relegation battlers: Eibar and Cordoba are both making their first trips through La Liga in a long, long time. In Eibar’s case, it’s the first ever trip to the top flight, while Cordoba last played 42 years ago. Deportivo La Coruna is back after one year in the Segunda Division.

All three will struggle to stay up, but Almeria and Getafe both barely escaped with their safety last season. Can Rayo Vallecano replicated its second half of the 2013/14, and avoid the garbage dump that was the first half? Throw in Elche and Granada, and almost half the teams in the league could go down without qualifying as a major surprise.

source: AP
Can Sevilla improve on Europa League triumph?

The challengers: Athletic Bilbao finished in fourth place, 20 back of the title and 17 back of the third slot, and have not done much to replace the loss of Ander Herrera to Manchester United. Sevilla finished fifth and won the UEFA Europa League, though you get the feeling their place in La Liga would’ve been higher without the focus on winning Europa.

Real Sociedad faces major challenges to replicating its success, as Claudio Bravo, Antoine Griezmann and Haris Seferovic all skipped town, while Valencia made enough intriguing additions to move forward.

If you’re looking for a dark horse, try Malaga. They lost Wily Caballero but ably replaced the Man City-bound keeper with Mexican World Cup star Guillermo Ochoa, while also adding Arthur Boka from Stuttgart, Roberto Rosales from Twente and Luis Alberto on loan from Liverpool. Another dark horse is the aforementioned Rayo Vallecano, which has added Gael Kakuta and Alejandro Pozuelo.

The title tilters: Real Madrid’s Carlo Ancelotti faces the challenge of dealing with an embarrassment of riches after his club picked up James Rodriguez, Toni Kroos and Keylor Navas to its already jacked lineup (and what if Angel Di Maria doesn’t leave?).

Atletico added Griezmann, Mario Mandzukic and Raul Jimenez, but may end up struggling to stay with Barcelona and Real thanks to the adjustment period. Barcelona will be very strong once Luis Suarez returns from his four-month ban, but also faces a bit of uncertainty as names like Ivan Rakitic, Jeremy Mathieu and Thomas Vermaelen acclimate to the Camp Nou and their teammates learn to live life without Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez.

Predicted order of finish (2013/14 finish)
1. Real Madrid (3)
2. Barcelona (2)
3. Sevilla (5)
4. Atletico Madrid (1)
5. Villarreal (6)
6. Valencia (8)
7. Malaga (11)
8. Rayo Vallecano (12)
9. Athletic Bilbao (4)
10. Celta de Vigo (9)
11. Espanyol (14)
12. Levante (10)
13. Real Sociedad (7)
14. Granada (15)
15. Getafe (13)
16. Almeria (17)
17. Cordoba (N/A)
18. Deportivo La Coruna (N/A)
19. Elche (16)
20. Eibar (N/A)

Premier League Playback: Ranking the chance of relegation

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With 12 games to go in the Premier League season, the bottom seven teams are starting to get cut off from the rest of the league.

Just like at the top of the table, this is the “business end” of the campaign and strange things start to happen.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays

Team who looked dead and buried start to rise (see: Hull and Swansea, already) and others start to sink from midtable and towards the abyss with Bournemouth and particularly Leicester City struggling.

[ MORE: Premier League standings | Schedule

Below is a look at the seven main contenders for the three relegation spots, focusing on the toughest games they have remaining, their reasons for optimism and a percentage chance of relegation.

[ MORE: Full PL Playback archive ]

Even if you have points on the board right now, momentum means everything at this time of the season…


Bournemouth

Points: 26
Reason for optimism: The quality Eddie Howe‘s side possess on the ball will see them create chances, so there’s that. However, they have to score two or three goals a game recently to get a win. They have four of the the current top six coming up, then finish the season with four of their last five games against relegation rivals. That will test the nerve of this talented yet inexperienced team.
Toughest games remaining: at Man United (Mar. 4), at Liverpool (Apr. 5), vs. Chelsea (Apr. 8), at Tottenham (Apr. 15)
Relegation percentage: 50%

Swansea City

Points: 24
Reason for optimism: Things are looking much more solid in defense since Paul Clement arrived. Gylfi Sigurdsson and Fernando Llorente continue to score and assist, plus the Swans look dangerous on the break. Plenty of reasons to believe they’ll continue to pull away from the bottom three. Will complacency set in though? Swans next four games are against Burnley, Hull, Bournemouth and Boro. Huge few weeks ahead and then an easier finish to the season, on paper.
Toughest games remaining: vs. Tottenham (Apr. 4), at Man United (Apr. 29), vs. Everton (May 6)
Relegation percentage: 20%

Middlesbrough
Points: 22
Reason for optimism: They’ve got the fifth defensive record in the PL, so they can hang in there. That’s a good trait to have when the pressure is on. They just need a goalscorer to pop up with the goods. A run of three games against relegation rivals at the beginning of April is likely to decide their fate with four very tough games to finish the season.
Toughest games remaining: vs. Man United (Mar. 19), vs. Arsenal (Apr. 15), vs. Man City (Apr. 29), at Chelsea (May 6), at Liverpool (May 21)
Relegation percentage: 50%

Crystal Palace
Points: 22
Reason for optimism: Big Sam has never been relegated as a Premier League manager. Simple. That said, this task is tougher than he thought. The 1-0 win against Boro proved they can grind out a victory when they need to. Still, they have five of the current top six left to play in their final 12 games of the season. It will be a flip of the coin for the Eagles.
Toughest games remaining: At Chelsea (Apr. 1), vs. Arsenal (Apr. 8), at Liverpool (Apr. 22), at Man City (May 6), at Man United (May 21)
Relegation percentage: 50%

Leicester City

Points: 21
Reason for optimism: Scrapping the barrel here… Their incredible runs to safety in 2015 and then for the PL title in 2016 (that did happen, right!?) gives them experience in high-pressure situation. One big marquee win can help get momentum going again, either in the PL or by getting past Sevilla in the return leg. Claudio Ranieri‘s sacking could give the Foxes the jolt they badly need but it must happen soon.
Toughest games remaining: vs. Liverpool (Feb. 27), at Everton (Apr. 8), vs. Tottenham (Apr. 22), at Man City (May 13),
Relegation percentage: 50%

Hull City

Points: 21
Reason for optimism: Marco Silva’s side are much improved and have just two games remaining against the big boys. So many relegation scraps coming up. They look tough to break down and dangerous on the break. That’s a great combo at this point in the season. They have momentum among the teams at the bottom.
Toughest games remaining: at Everton (Mar. 18), at Man City (Apr. 8), vs. Tottenham (May 21),
Relegation percentage: 30%

Sunderland

Points: 19
Reason for optimism: Well, just look at pretty much the last four seasons. Down and out time and time again, somehow Sunderland survive. That’s the only reason for optimism. Oh, and Jermain Defoe‘s goals. David Moyes needs a miracle, especially what those remaining games…
Toughest games remaining: vs. Man City (Mar. 5), vs. Man United (Apr. 8), at Arsenal (Apr. 22), at Chelsea (May 21)
Relegation percentage: 70%


Premier League Playback comes out every week as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here.

VIDEO: Remembering Jamie Vardy’s magic vs. Liverpool

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Just over 12 months ago Leicester City beat Liverpool on a raucous evening at the King Power Stadium to ignite real belief into their Premier League title charge.

We all know how that turned out…

[ PREVIEW: Leicester host Liverpool

A year on and boy, Leicester could use some magic from Vardy as they host Liverpool on Monday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

The Foxes fired Claudio Ranieri last Thursday and the reigning champions have slipped into the relegation zone over the weekend as they’re in freefall with five defeats on the spin and they’ve failed to score in their last six PL games.

Click play on the video above to see Vardy’s wonderful volley from distance as the England international was in full flow on his way to 24 goals for the season. He has just five in the PL this season, three of which came in the 4-2 win against Manchester City at the KP back in December.

Again, caretaker Craig Shakespeare needs some magic from somewhere on Monday if the Foxes are going to gain momentum in their battle against relegation.

Report: Jordan Henderson out with foot injury

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 27:  Jurgen Klopp manager of Liverpool embraces Jordan Henderson of Liverpool after the Premier League match between Liverpool and Stoke City at Anfield on December 27, 2016 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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Liverpool will be without captain Jordan Henderson for the clash at Leicester City on Monday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) according to multiple reports.

[ PREVIEW: Leicester host Liverpool ]

Sky Sports are reporting that Henderson suffered a “badly bruised foot” injury in training over the weekend and will not be available to lead Jurgen Klopp‘s side against a Leicester side in freefall.

Henderson has struggled with injuries recently, missing two weeks in January with a heel injury.

The 26-year-old has become the main holding player in Klopp’s fluid 4-3-3 system and has built up a formidable partnership alongside Georginio Wijnaldum. Henderson provides energy and a wide-range of passing and he would’ve been key against a Leicester which will be fired up following the departure of manager Claudio Ranieri last week and having slipped into the relegation zone over the weekend.

In his absence either Emre Can or Lucas Leiva will seamlessly slot in to the lineup, both can play Henderson’s more defensive role admirably and provide balance to Klopp’s somewhat top-heavy time when you think of Sadio Mane, Adam Lallana, Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino ahead of them.

Klopp has options but it’s still far from ideal to lose your captain after two weeks off and following a break to Spain for training.

Why Mourinho needs Zlatan to stay at Man United

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 14:  Jose Mourinho, Manager of Manchester United congratulates Zlatan Ibrahimovic after the Premier League match between Crystal Palace and Manchester United at Selhurst Park on December 14, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images)
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LONDON — Following Manchester United’s EFL Cup Final victory on Sunday, Jose Mourinho laughed off a question about Zlatan Ibrahimovic‘s future at Old Trafford beyond this season.

He shouldn’t be laughing. He should be taking this situation very seriously. United need Zlatan. End of.

[ MORE: United, Mourinho get lucky

Ibrahimovic, 35, scored twice in the 3-2 win against Southampton at Wembley, including the game-winner with a late header, to hand Mourinho his first piece of major silverware as United’s boss. The veteran Swedish striker has now scored 26 goals in 38 games in all competitions this season, including six in his last four games.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned

The incredible stats aside, his impact and influence on this team is clear for all to see. That’s why Zlatan needs to remain at United for at least one more season, and he could probably go on for longer. That said, he isn’t giving anything away about where he will be next season.

“We have another two months of the season to go,” Ibrahimovic said. “Let’s see how I feel, the situation. Somebody made up a story that if we don’t qualify for the Champions League I will not extend. It has nothing to do with that.”

Mourinho thinks otherwise.

“One day, Zlatan decided to [leave me and Inter Milan to join] Barcelona, I was very sad, but I did nothing to try to stop him to go, so I don’t beg for players,” Mourinho said. “But, if needed, maybe United fans can go to the door of his house, and stay there all night, if needed. We all want, and believe, that he is going to stay another season.”

It simply has to happen.

Zlatan has a contract until this summer with United with an option to extend it for another year. Mourinho has suggested in the past Zlatan will stay but we’ve never had too much of a definitive answer from the player himself.

Right now, aside from his play on the pitch, Zlatan is having a massive impact on the confidence and belief levels of his teammates. He has scored the game-winner on eight occasions this season and comparisons are being made about Eric Cantona and the impact he had.

Zlatan’s aura is helping United win games at the moment and even at the age of 35 he has played more Premier League minutes than any other United outfield player, plus he’s played in more games this season, in all competitions, than any other PL player.

He can play until he is 40. Mourinho said it last week and he’s right. Zlatan doesn’t rely on pace to play the game. He has always had power, panache and predatory instincts in abundance.

With United’s creative talents and other pacey forwards, not to mention the potential arrival of Antoine Griezmann in the summer, he not only brings the best out of them on the pitch but off it too. Mourinho clerly needs to rebuild parts of his defense to take United from top four hopefuls to title contenders next season and beyond, but without Zlatan’s goals this season they’d be in midtable.

United and Mourinho need Zlatan to stay next season, even if Griezmann arrives. Ibra knows it. He’s playing the game.

It would be a huge shock to see him anywhere other than Old Trafford next season. It wouldn’t be a huge shock to see him score the winner for United in the FA Cup and Europa League final this season, and then lead them to even greater glories next season and beyond. After his latest trophy, the 22nd of his playing career, Zlatan revealed he keeps all of his medals in one of his houses. He was also asked if United are building something special under Mourinho?

“I came. That’s special,” Ibrahimovic said.

Anyone who doubted Zlatan’s ability (something he has never done) last summer ahead of his move to the Premier League will be scratching their heads. Like United right now, he seems to always find a way to score goals and get the job done. In that sense, Mourinho needs him to be the focal point of United’s attack for as long as Zlatan can play.

And also, well, he’s Zlatan. In this mammoth rebuild of a roster and self-belief, he’s the X-Factor Mourinho can’t do without.