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Top 5 Premier League Storylines: Merseyside Derby, Blues travel to Palace

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As the Premier League season nears its halfway point, it’s time to start separating the real contenders from the pretenders as Chelsea continues its impressive run atop England’s top flight.

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Merseyside encounter holds significant weight

Everton vs. Liverpool — Monday, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN

Entering the weekend, 11 points separate Liverpool and Everton in the PL, making a Toffees victory all the more important at Goodison Park. Fresh off of their 2-1 win against Arsenal, the Toffees could use a string of victories as the holiday season approaches if Everton is to catch the league’s elite once more.

Liverpool sits six points behind Chelsea at the summit, but Jurgen Klopp‘s side continues to fight through injuries to remain firmly in the mix. After stumbling against Bournemouth and West Ham, the Reds got back on track with a dominating win over Middlesbrough.

Which club will halt the Blues?

Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea — Saturday, 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN

Wednesday’s victory over Sunderland extended Chelsea’s unbeaten run to 10 games in the PL, and now the question remains: which team will be the one to stop Antonio Conte‘s side?

While the club’s wins as of late haven’t been overly-impressive, Chelsea holds a six-point lead atop the PL after Arsenal’s stumble against Everton on Wednesday. Conte’s switch to a three-back system continues to pay dividends for the Blues, who have allowed just two goals in 10 matches.

Meanwhile, Palace has won just once in its last 10 fixtures, as Alan Pardew‘s side have stumbled to 16th place after a hot start. Since the Eagles last won against Southampton, Palace has fallen to Manchester United and settled for a draw at Hull.

Gunners look to rebound against Citizens

Manchester City vs. Arsenal — Sunday, 11 a.m. ET on NBCSN

With the gap slowly widening at the top of the table, a loser in this weekend’s contest could be in a world of trouble. The Gunners need to rebound quickly following their defeat against Everton, and their task against Manchester City doesn’t get any easier.

The Citizens came back from their disappointing loss to Leicester with three points against Watford, but Arsene Wenger‘s side will be gunning for the Light Blues as they meet at the Etihad Stadium. City will still be without top scorer Sergio Aguero and midfielder Fernandinho, both of whom are suspended, which makes Pep Guardiola‘s task much more difficult.

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 14: Zlatan Ibrahimovic (L) of Manchester United celebrates scoring his team's second goal during the Premier League match between Crystal Palace and Manchester United at Selhurst Park on December 14, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

Surprise Baggies meet United

West Bromwich vs. Manchester United — Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC

The Baggies could become the West Ham of a season ago after their strong first half of the PL season. While aspirations of replicating Leicester’s dream season are likely far-fetched, West Brom will certainly present a challenge for United, who has been up and down in Jose Mourinho’s first season.

Despite United’s struggles, the Red Devils are unbeaten in seven straight PL matches, giving Mourinho’s men a lift in spirits as the critical juncture of the season continues. With Zlatan Ibrahimovic firing once more and Paul Pogba‘s play improving in the central midfield, United can start to make its way back into the title conversation with a victory at The Hawthorns.

Relegation battle heats up

Middlesbrough vs. Swansea — Saturday, 10 a.m. ET available online
Sunderland vs. Watford — Saturday, 10 a.m. ET on CNBC

With one win in their last six, Middlesbrough has fallen into a rut, while Swansea has struggled mightily in Bob Bradley‘s short tenure in England.

Meanwhile, Sunderland remain at the bottom of the table through 16 rounds of play but a recent upswing in form gives the Black Cats an opportunity to climb out from last place. Despite losses to Swansea and Chelsea as of late, Sunderland faces a tough task against a Watford side that sits mid-table.

 

“Three trophies and CL”: Mourinho relieved after “most difficult season”

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Don’t try to tell Jose Mourinho that his first season at Manchester United wasn’t a raging success, because all you’d get in return is a simple shake of the head before he walks away.

[ MORE: Pogba, Mkhitaryan fire Man United to Europa League trophy ]

Following Wednesday’s Europa League final victory over Ajax, one which put Man United into next season’s UEFA Champions League, Mourinho was adamant that the club’s 2016-17 season was a success, despite the fact the Red Devils finished sixth in the Premier League.

“Three trophies in one season and the Champions League,” as Mourinho put it, in his “most difficult season as a manager” — quotes from the BBC:

“We totally deserved the win. I am so happy to see the boys with the crutches with the trophy and now I am on holiday. I don’t want to see any international friendlies, I am selfish. I can’t do it.

“For me, enough is enough. It has been a very hard last few months, we were short of numbers.

“Three trophies in one season and the Champions League. I am very happy in my most difficult season as a manager.”

[ WATCH: Pogba gives United an early lead ]

As for his summer shopping list and Wayne Rooney‘s future at the club, well… Mourinho was much clearer about one than the other — quotes from the BBC:

“Ed Woodward has my list, what I want, what I would like for more than two months. So now it’s up to him and the owners. But I don’t care about football for now.

“Wayne Rooney was ready to play, he was a big option. But I didn’t need to attack at 2-0. I told him yesterday that he could be the key man but he can perfectly be here next season. He is a very important player for us. If he stays next season I’d be very happy.”

USMNT’s Gedion Zelalem out 6-9 months with knee injury

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Following much fanfare as he rose through the ranks of Arsenal’s youth academy system, and even more after officially pledging his international allegiance to the U.S., Gedion Zelalem‘s progress stalled a fair bit this season.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage | U-20 World Cup ]

After failing to force his way onto the fringes of Arsenal’s first team, the 20-year-old was sent out on loan to VVV Venlo, where he made just nine league appearances (one start) in the Dutch second division. Now, with the U.S. U-20 national team at the U-20 World Cup in South Korea, his tournament is over after just 34 minutes.

Zelalen suffered ligament damage to his left knee during the first half of the Americans’ tournament-opening draw with Ecuador. The Washington Post received confirmation on Wednesday, from Zelalem’s family, confirming that he’ll be sidelined for at least six months. An earlier report, from Football.London, pinned the recovery time at up to nine months.

[ MORE: Pogba, Mkhitaryan fire Man United to Europa League trophy ]

“For Gedion, this was his second U-20 World Cup, so his experience was invaluable for us,” said U.S. U-20 head coach Tab Ramos. “His passing ability is second to none in this tournament, and we’ll miss that. He was running the team from his position.

Europa League final: Man United too tough for Ajax, qualify for UCL

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Though it may have required a minor detour in the journey to the intended destination, Jose Mourinho’s first season as Manchester United manager ultimately reached the promised land: qualification for next season’s UEFA Champions League.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Once it became clear that Man United’s season was unlikely to result in a top-four finish in the Premier League (they eventually wound up sixth), Mourinho put every Mancunian egg into the Europa League basket, and it paid off on Wednesday, as United topped Ajax, 2-0, in the Europa League final inside the Friends Arena in Stockholm, Sweden.

Paul Pogba put United 1-0 ahead after just 18 minutes (WATCH HERE), benefitting from a wicked deflection off a defender’s shin, and Mourinho’s famously rigid, organized midfield and defensive structure frustrated a young Ajax side (a starting lineup with an average age of just under 23 years old) that reached the final on the back of a free-flowing, attacking tidal wave.

[ WATCH: Pogba gives United an early lead ]

Down just a goal, Ajax needed little more than a moment of brilliance from any number of rising stars sure to fetch massive transfer fees and land big-money contracts elsewhere in Europe, in the not-so-distant future.

That hope lasted less than 180 seconds into the second half, though, as Henrikh Mkhitaryan doubled the lead, thanks to some unbelievably quick reflexes and a tidy overhead kick from three yards out. Ajax would manage just two shots on goal all night (four for United).

Not only did Mourinho deliver Champions League qualification, alongside a European trophy, United also claimed the EFL Cup back in February. With the allure of UCL football next season, expect another busy (and expensive) summer of spending at Old Trafford.

AT THE HALF: Man Utd lead Ajax in UEL final, thanks to Pogba (video)

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After 45 minutes of Wednesday’s Europa League final, between Manchester United and Ajax, in Stockholm, Sweden, Jose Mourinho’s Red Devils have one foot in next season’s UEFA Champions League.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

After a cagey opening 15 minutes that saw neither side create anything of consequence, Man United pulled ahead on a fair bit of luck in the 18th minute. Paul Pogba received the ball 25 yards from goal, took a touch toward goal and fired a low shot toward goal. Davinson Sanchez did everything he could to get his body in front of the strike, but the ball glanced off his shin, sending it one direction and goalkeeper Andre Onana the other.

[ FOLLOW LIVE: Europa League final ] 

Having conceded just eight goals in 14.5 Europa League games thus far this season, would you bet on United conceding an equalizer in the final 45 minutes? Hit the link above to follow along, live.