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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.

 

Lletget diagnosed with foot sprain, escaping further damage

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Word has arrived from the LA Galaxy camp that will see USMNT fans feel relieved as Sebastian Lletget has escaped the news many feared.

The young attacker was impressive in the first 18 minutes of the United States’ 6-0 win over Honduras, but was injured minutes after scoring the opening goal and could not continue. Replays showed that Lletget got his foot caught underneath a defender in the process of a hard challenge on the right wing.

There was concern that Lletget would be out for a significant amount of time, but the Galaxy announced that after testing over the weekend, Lletget did not suffer any structural damage and was diagnosed with a left foot sprain.

[ MORE: USMNT adds Paul Arreola to roster, drops Lletget, Brooks, Morris ]

Lletget will visit a specialist on Monday to determine a plan for recovery, and it’s possible that he will still have to miss some time in the near future. The Galaxy visit Vancouver on Saturday, and his status for that match has to be considered up in the air. They then host Montreal on April 7.

While Lletget obviously misses out on the next USMNT game at Panama on Tuesday having already been dumped from the roster, he will most definitely be available for the June games against Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico, and will likely be an option for Bruce Arena given the manager’s history with Lletget at Los Angeles.

The United States have been struck with a collection of injuries that all occurred just before the international break, hampering the squad significantly. Bobby Wood, Jordan Morris, and Fabian Johnson all went down in the days before reporting for international duty, and the team lost Lletget and John Brooks in the Honduras win. Lletget’s departure could see Alejandro Bedoya into the starting lineup on Tuesday, with the Union midfielder having replaced Lletget in the Honduras match. Also in contention is Jermaine Jones, who could come in after his suspension and push Darlington Nagbe onto the wing.

Southgate can see Defoe in England squad long-term

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Gareth Southgate praised Jermain Defoe after his contributions to England’s 2-0 win over Lithuania on Sunday, but accidentally put a condition on his position in the squad.

The 34-year-old scored the opening goal and contributed heavily to the buildup of Jamie Vardy‘s score, and Southgate was happy that his decision to play an in-form striker paid off.

“If he scores like he is in the Premier League, there’s no reason why he wouldn’t be,” Southgate said. “We’re never able to pick a full cohort, so it’s important we can call upon the likes of Jermain and he can have the impact like he did today.

“I think we’ve got to look every time we get together as to who is in form. I don’t know if we can have a distinct pecking order because players who are playing well deserve the opportunity. If we are going to be successful, we have to have that competition for places. The reality is we will always lose players to injury.”

[ MORE: Defoe walks out Bradley Lowery before England game ]

A reporter asked him to clarify why he specified that Defoe should be scoring in the Premier League, and with his club Sunderland under heavy threat of relegation, Southgate admitted he let one slip.

“I walked into that,” Southgate said. “I guess the ideal world for all our players is they are playing regularly at a high level. The flip-side is we don’t have a huge pool of players to pick from.  We have to balance off a few different things. I can’t constrain myself on selection entirely, but I know ideally what I’d like to have. His performances and his goalscoring form this season have counted for him.”

Defoe has 14 goals in 28 Premier League appearances for Sunderland this season, but he’s proved the Black Cats’ only threat as they sit bottom of the league table with 20 points. Defoe has become the center of opposition game plans, and as a result he’s slowed down, with just two goals in his last seven games, and the club has little else to pick up the slack.

Still, at 34 years old, many wonder how much longer Defoe can contribute, and if he’ll be a viable option for next year’s World Cup.

Group F gets messy as Slovakia and Scotland grab wins

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England is in control at the top of Group F, but below them things are beginning to get complicated.

Despite the absence of Marek Hamsik due to a last-minute injury, Slovakia defeated Malta 3-1. They took the lead just 97 seconds in as Vladimir Weiss put the visitors in front with a beautiful curling strike from outside the box. Malta struck back through domestic striker Jean Paul Farrugia in the 14th minute, but that was all Malta could muster.

Slovakia would go ahead just before halftime as FC Copenhagen midfielder Jan Gregus put them in front in the 41st minute. The speculative shot from Gregus came from a great distance out, and as it skipped across the ground, it appeared Malta goalkeeper Andrew Hogg saw it late, as his dive was poor and it skipped off his hands and in.

Both teams ended with 10 men on the field, as Farrugia was sent off with 16 minutes to go for a second yellow, and Adam Nemec saw the same fate in injury time, but before he was sent off, Nemec was there to kill the game off in the 84th minute.

That put Slovakia up to nine points, and it moved them into second place thanks to late drama in Glasgow. Chris Martin gave Scotland all three points with an 88th minute strike as the home side won 1-0 over Slovenia, who dropped from second to third with the loss. The Fulham striker got a beautiful feed through the back line from Stuart Armstrong, and while his shot wasn’t terribly accurate, it was enough to win the game as Slovenia goalkeeper Matus Kozacik gave it a poor effort.

The win for Scotland pulls them above Lithuania and into fourth, a point back of Slovenia in third.

Wasteful Poland snatches late 2-1 win at Montenegro

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Poland was in control for much of the game, but failed to finish in front of net until Borussia Dortmund full-back Lukasz Piszczek found the winner with eight minutes to go as the visitors increased their lead at the top of World Cup qualification Group E.

Robert Lewandowski put Poland in front five minutes before halftime with a brilliant free-kick that left Montenegran goalkeeper Mladen Blozovic completely baffled, but Montenegro looked sturdy at the back for much of the game and dangerous on the counter. They’d hit just past the hour mark as Stefan Mugosa headed in to level the score.

Lewandowski had a pair of massive chances in the second half, but couldn’t get either to go down as Blozovic was there to turn him away, and Montenegran defenders cleared off the line as well. Luckily for Poland, they had Piszczek who burst down the right to beat Aleksandar Sofranac, and he produced a stunning finish looped over the closing Blozovic from a tight angle, dinked off the far post, and into the back of the net.

That would do it for Montenegro who had little attacking ability outside of their countering abilities, and with Poland happy to ease out the clock, the hosts didn’t have enough.

The win pushes Poland six points clear at the top of Group E, a sizeable lead with five matches remaining. The battle for the second-place spot is tight, with Montenegro still in command on seven points, level with Denmark but ahead on goal differential. Armenia and Romania are even with six points each.