Stephen Pond and Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Top 5 Premier League Story Lines ahead of Matchday 22

Leave a comment

The Premier League gives us another battle of Top Four hopefuls, while other competitors will see a key chance to either gain or make up ground.

[ MORE: Man United back atop money table ]

Down in the relegation zone, however, is another story. Tough matches await the four lowest sides, with three sides on the road and a fourth hosting Everton.

All that and more, below.

Make or break at the Etihad Stadium?

Manchester City vs. Tottenham Hotspur — Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC

If 10 points back of Chelsea isn’t enough for Man City boss Pep Guardiola to concede the PL title — and it shouldn’t be — 13 could do the trick. And Spurs’ seven point gap would feel dire should it dip to 10.

With the Blues expected to handle Hull City at Stamford Bridge, both Spurs and City are facing extreme damage to their title hopes when the London club looks to complete a season sweep of Guardiola’s side.

Time has proven that electric talent doesn’t mandate instant success in the Premier League, but many eyes will be trained on Gabriel Jesus should he debut for City. The Brazilian wonderkid has already made an impact in the Olympics, World Cup qualifying, and the Brazilian top-flight. The PL is next on his list.

Relegation candidates sweating bullets

Liverpool vs. Swansea City — Saturday, 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN
Crystal Palace vs. Everton — Saturday, 10 a.m. ET on CNBC
West Brom vs. Sunderland — Saturday, 10 a.m. ET on Premier League ExtraTime
Chelsea vs. Hull City — Sunday, 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN

It’s getting to be that time of year, when being more than three points above the drop zone feels like the freshest possible air.

No one in this batch of four knows that feeling well at all.

Crystal Palace and Hull City are level with 16 points, one ahead of Sunderland and Swansea City. Only the Black Cats will truly fancy their chances at a win this weekend.

That said, Hull supporters will feel confidence anew after a couple of transfer buys and a healthy Abel Hernandez joined new manager Marco Silva at the KC. A win over Bournemouth will buoy their confidence, but a trip to Chelsea is a tall task.

Right about now Palace fans are putting their hopes in goal differential and weak fellow relegation candidates rather than “never been dropped” Sam Allardyce. Their goal-leaking side welcomes an Everton side that hung four on Man City.

Sunderland simply needs to find a way to break down Tony Pulis‘ Baggies at the Hawthorns. Given the chance to put heat on the three other candidates, a win would serve much more than a few moments outside the drop zone.

Gunners need to avoid pitfall

Arsenal vs. Burnley — Sunday, 9:15 a.m. ET on NBCSN

The first of two home matches against middle or lower table sides, Arsenal needs all three points against Sean Dyche‘s cagey and well-oiled Clarets. They sit in the top half of the table, and would relish added a big-name to its list of defeated PL sides.

Simply put, Arsenal’s title hopes rest as much on the points it needs to claim as massive encounters like Feb. 4’s trip to Chelsea.

BURNLEY, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 02: Mesut Ozil of Arsenal (C) battles for possession with Burnley duo Stephen Ward of Burnley (L) and Ben Mee of Burnley (R) during the Premier League match between Burnley and Arsenal at Turf Moor on October 2, 2016 in Burnley, England. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
(Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

Mourinho’s Red Devils go for 17

Stoke City vs. Manchester United— Saturday, 10 a.m. ET on NBCSN

It’s been 16 matches since Jose Mourinho has tasted defeat as Manchester United boss, and Stoke’s recent dates against top sides haven’t gone well. All three were on the road, but the Potters have fallen to Liverpool, Chelsea, and Arsenal by a combined score of 11-4. Does this make it fait accompli? No, but like Arsenal vs. Burnley, you like to think a true title fighter finds a way to three points.

Slumping Saints and Foxes

Southampton vs. Leicester City — Sunday, 7 a.m. ET on NBCSN

Perhaps Saints and Leicester supporters figured their sides might struggle to repeat last season’s heroics, with European competition on the docket and key pieces leaving this offseason from either the dugout or the playing field. But 13th and 15th? Unlikely. Leicester can take another step toward righting the ship by heaping misery on the home side, who sits three points clear of the Foxes and eight ahead of the drop zone.

Alexis Sanchez-Henrikh Mkhitaryan swap official (video)

@ManUtd
Leave a comment

Arsenal and Manchester United have completed their American-style trade, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan joining the Gunners and Alexis Sanchez on board the Red Devils’ train.

Both 29 years old, the playmakers arrive at their new homes with plenty to prove.

More to come…

One player for each of the Premier League’s Top Six

Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)
Leave a comment

The Premier League’s transfer window is going to close within the next two weeks, and each of the big boys feels a need to find help in at least one position on the field.

[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup ]

Manchester City: Yes, it’s laughable that City would require another piece; They’ll be fine either way. But injuries to Fabian Delph and Benjamin Mendy and lack of faith in Danilo does mean that left back would be a spot of interest for Pep Guardiola. This is not shot at young Oleksandar Zinchenko, but City wants at least a treble. This is why City is being linked with Fred, who can play at left back as well as his traditional center mid. It makes sense.

Manchester United: Yeah, yeah, Alexis Sanchez, we know. But with Michael Carrick retiring and Ander Herrera‘s surprising lack of consistent starting time, perhaps Jose Mourinho is aiming for more presence in the center of the park. It betrays things in terms of age, but Lassana Diarra is a free agent and could provide the competition United craves at an easy-to-digest budgetary addition.

Chelsea: Adding Ross Barkley was a nice pick-up, but depth behind Alvaro Morata is clearly a desire for Antonio Conte considering the names which have been linked with Stamford Bridge: Andy Carroll, Ashley Barnes, Edin Dzeko, Peter Crouch. West Ham might like a Carroll-for-Batshuayi swap, and the big Englishman would be a huge get for the Blues should he stay healthy. We wonder if newly available loan target Andre Schurrle has any love left for Chelsea

Liverpool: Here’s a name you probably expected in the City portion of this post: Johnny Evans. The ex-Manchester United defender may be on the move from West Brom, and pairing him with Virgil Van Dijk would give Jurgen Klopp‘s 4-4-2 perhaps the toughest center back pairing in England. Obviously pushing the Naby Keita transfer earlier would be way more effective for Klopp’s project, but it is extremely unlikely to happen in January. So we stick with Evans. Bold statement: With Evans, Liverpool could post the most points in the PL the rest of the way. With Evans and Keita, they’ll be a favorite to rival Man City next season.

Tottenham Hotspur: This club is very, very good and two deep at nearly every position. Heck, Victor Wanyama can’t even get on the field. That’s why it makes sense that the club’s been linked with unfinished project Malcom as well as Schurrle, who Bordeaux said today will not be moving in January. So while that’s the name we’d choose, we’ll instead nod to Cagliari youngster and Golden Boy nominee Nicolo Barella, whose name continues to pop up as a target of several top clubs in the Premier League.

Arsenal: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang would be nice, and forward is being magnified as a position at the Emirates Stadium thanks largely to a slow period for the very good Alexandre Lacazette. But his numbers are going to increase with (probably, almost certainly) Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Mesut Ozil as twin playmakers, the former who will be motivated to prove his Manchester United critics wrong (See his amazing final Bundesliga season for hope, Gunners fans).

So we’ll seek Arsenal help closer to the back, where they need center back experience thanks to the predictable slide of Per Mertesacker and the unpredictable dip in form of Laurent Koscielny. Man, Evans is a good shout here, but we’ll go off the board completely and speculate that Ajax teen center back Matthijs de Ligt is a very Arsene Wenger type player. In other words: instantly effective or not, how Wenger would it be to add a teenage CB? In a window in which he’s (maybe) sated those who want both a playmaker (Mkhitaryan) and striker (Aubameyang), that seems pretty possible.

LA Galaxy looks set for massive turnaround

Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Major League Soccer’s parity lends itself to dramatic turnarounds, and 2018 should be no different.

[ MORE: High profile loan for Palace ]

We’ll detail several in the run-up to the 2018 season, but the confirmation that Chris Pontius is taking his talents to Carson really blasts one side’s turn-around into the stratosphere.

Part of this admittedly feels like cheating considering the LA Galaxy’s awful 2017 campaign may have always been destined to be a one-off after suffering through a miserable season under Curt Onalfo and Sigi Schmid.

At the risk of carrying Bruce Arena vitriol from the USMNT realm and into MLS, this was about more than him. Part of it was happenstance: The Galaxy were one of just two teams to finish below .500 at home, and they were absolutely miserable there.

The other part was the departure of so many parts of their 2016 base: Robbie Keane, Steven Gerrard, Mike Magee, and Alan Gordon all left after accounting for 22 goals and 18 assists. Gerrard, for what it’s worth, never overcame league-wide fan perception of his worth and was responsible for 11 assists.

Throw in Gyasi Zardes’ continued regression and both his, Sebastian Lletget‘s and Jermaine Jones’ battles with injuries, and the Galaxy were up against it despite their status as a flagship institution of MLS competition (We got this far without mentioning Jelle van Damme’s desire to go home, which was granted before the end of August).

Now Zardes is gone. That’s a more than acceptable loss as the Galaxy sent a lot of money to land Ola Kamara, who will join up with Pontius, Romain Alessandrini, Giovani dos Santos, Jonathan dos Santos, Perry Kitchen, and Lletget to form a verifiably solid front. David Bingham arrives to steady the back, too.

Plus, there are rumors of Ross McCormack arriving on loan, with Colorado and Orlando (another flip candidate) in the running as well.

In a world where the Galaxy weren’t dead last in the league, Alessandrini would’ve been an MVP candidate last season.

The West was largely underwhelming last season, as seventh place FC Dallas simultaneously finished just seven points shy of first while also missing the playoffs. LA could flip its script as dramatically as 2017 Chicago, and this should be a wonderful West Coast battle given Bob Bradley and the excitement across town.

West Brom: Evans relegation release reportedly just $4m

Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Jonny Evans has been fantastic for West Bromwich Albion this season, shepherding the Baggies back line while being involved in as many goals as any player not named Salomon Rondon or Jay Rodriguez.

[ MORE: High profile loan for Palace ]

So it would make sense for West Brom to hang onto the player at almost all costs given its status as a team in danger of the drop after its slow start under Tony Pulis has kept its lackluster pace under Alan Pardew.

Here’s the rub: Some big clubs would like to purchase Evans, who has 18 months left on his deal but reportedly no interest in signing a new deal the Hawthorns. Even worse? Monday’s story that a Baggies’ relegation would make his buyout clause just over $4 million.

Defenders who cost more last summer on the Premier League market include Jan Bednarek, Nathan Ake, Victor Lindelof, Harry Maguire, Michael Keane, Florian Lejeune, Mathias Jorgensen, Andrew Robertson, Bruno Martins Indi, and many others.

Heck, Evans’ buyout clause is the same price Derby County paid Liverpool for Andre Wisdom. And these fees are all pre-Virgil Van Dijk to Liverpool madness.

Considering only Swansea and Brighton have scored fewer league goals than the Baggies, who are just now committing to a two-striker approach under Pardew, does it make sense for West Brom to sell now?

Evans’ value at 18 months out will be more than it is at 12 months out even if the Baggies avoid relegation, but he’s possibly a lynch pin of the team. And the volatile value for attackers mean the $25-35 million he’d generate may not make for like-for-like value.

It’s not an easy decision, but desperate times call for similar measures. The Baggies have played in four nil-nils this season, and lost 1-0 to relegation rivals Southampton and Huddersfield Town away. Both of the reverse fixtures remain.

There are creative options here, too. Would Jurgen Klopp sanction a high(ish) profile attacker loan to WBA in order to pair Evans with Van Dijk? Same for Pep Guardiola at Man City?