Premier League Playback: Who has edge in top four race?

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There is a special scenario playing out in the Premier League this season, hence why this edition of Premier League Playback is focusing solely on the crazy top four race.

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With Chelsea eight points clear at the top, it seems like this season will become all about the race for second place. And third place. And fourth place. Just two points separates Spurs in second place and Manchester United in sixth after the weekend games in Week 25.

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With six giants of English soccer scrambling for the top four with their big-name managers, there is so little to divide these behemoth clubs.

Yet, let’s have a go shall we? Might as well…

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Below is a look at how many points each of the five contenders for the three remaining UEFA Champions League spots (let’s be very realistic a little wild and assume Chelsea wins the PL…) will get, thus predicting who will finish in the top four.

My word, it’s going to be tight.


MANCHESTER CITY

Why they’ll finish in the top four: Pep Guardiola‘s side have to play four of the top six in the final 13 games of the season, leaving them with a very tough schedule. A spell at the end of March and start of April will decide their season with a triple header of Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea, plus potential Champions League and FA Cup games. Given the fact they’ll likely go deep in the UCL and the FA Cup, that will mean plenty of rotation in the squad. With Sergio Aguero, Vincent Kompany and Kelechi Iheanacho in reserve right now, that should be fine. You get the sense the penny has dropped for Pep’s players in recent weeks. Expect them to go on a run and finish his opening season as a coach in the PL strongly. Chelsea will beat them to the title, for this season at least, but finishing second (especially after their poor start) would be a good achievement. 
Toughest games remaining
: vs. Manchester United (TBA), vs. Liverpool (Mar. 19), at Arsenal (Apr. 1), at Chelsea (Apr. 5)
Predicted final points total: 82 points (2nd place finish)


TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR

Why they’ll finish in the top four: Following their early UCL exit, Spurs’ players will be determined to put things right in Europe next season. Given their remaining schedule, plus it being their last season at the old White Hart Lane, motivation levels will be high. You’d like to think there won’t be a late season collapse a la 2015-16 and Mauricio Pochettino and his players will have learned from that. Harry Kane and Dele Alli have to turn up in the big games as Spurs only have one win this season against the current top six. Luckily they only have two games against the current top six in their remaining 13 fixtures. That’s the main reason they’ll seal a top four finish. 
Toughest games remaining
: vs. Arsenal (Apr. 29), vs. Manchester United (May 13)
Predicted final points total: 78 points (3rd place finish)


LIVERPOOL

Why they’ll finish in the top four: With no European or cup action to worry about, Klopp’s men have 13 cup finals to get themselves into the top four. Like Chelsea, that’s a massive bonus. With Sadio Mane back, plus injuries at a minimum, Liverpool has a great chance to finish in the top four. Like Spurs, they could easily go unbeaten in their final 13 games of the season and delivering a UCL spot was always the target this season. Looks like Liverpool will do it. Just about. It all depends on limiting those sloppy defensive mistakes and the only other issue is the fact that they play a couple of relegation contenders who will be scrapping for their lives in the final weeks of the season. That always throws up some bizarre results. 
Toughest games remaining
: vs. Arsenal (Mar. 4), at Manchester City (Mar. 19)
Predicted final points total: 77 points (4th place finish)


MANCHESTER UNITED

Why they’ll finish in the top four: All of those draws look like they will cost surging United dear. Jose Mourinho’s men have only lost three games this season and none of their last 16 in the PL in a fine unbeaten run. But with Man City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Spurs to play in the final six weeks of the season, they’ll likely drop plenty more points. With Chelsea, Arsenal and Spurs to come in their last six games of the season, Mourinho’s men have to rack up the points now and then hope they can power over the line. Having a taxing Europa League campaign, plus FA Cup involvement, will make that tough. You get a horrible sense that they may have left this surge in the second half of the season just a little too late. 
Toughest games remaining
: at Manchester City (TBA), vs. Chelsea (Apr. 15), at Arsenal (May 6), at Tottenham (May 13)
Predicted final points total: 77 points (5th place finish, on goal difference)


ARSENAL

Why they’ll finish in the top four: Because it’s Arsenal. Duh. Seriously, they have a better defense than last season and despite the “Wenger Out” brigade once again warming up their vocal chords, things aren’t that bad. The only thing which could derail their top four chase is if one, or all three, of Wenger, Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil decide to make an announcement about a future move away from the Emirates before the end of the season. That, plus actually getting past the UCL Round of 16, would throw a major spanner in the works. It will be a close call for the Gunners because they arguably have the hardest remaining schedule of any top four contender. Looks like they may just miss out when you consider the fixtures below…
Toughest games remaining: at Liverpool (Mar. 4), vs. Manchester City (Apr. 1), at Tottenham (Apr. 29), vs. Manchester United (May 6)
Predicted final points total: 74 points (6th place finish)


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.

While PSG has won the title, Areola’s playing for his future

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PARIS (AP) Although Paris Saint-Germain has easily won the French title, Alphonse Areola still has plenty to play for.

The next four games could be crucial in deciding whether PSG keeps the goalkeeper or tries to sign a big name in the transfer window, possibly Thibaut Courtois. The 25-year-old Areola is the same age as Courtois, but has nowhere near the international standing of the Chelsea keeper.

[ MORE: Turkey hands bid plans to UEFA for EURO 2024 ]

It is hard for Areola to stand out, however, in a team noted almost singularly for its attacking prowess. While PSG has already scored more than 100 league goals, and remains on course to reach 100 points this season, Areola has rarely been talked about.

The common perception is that PSG will thrash teams in the French league, so letting in a goal or two is irrelevant.

However, Areola has been one of PSG’s most consistent players this season, and last Sunday he made a personal record of eight saves in a 1-0 win at Bordeaux.

He was also one of the few PSG players to come through the loss to Real Madrid in the last 16 of the Champions League with any credit. Without Areola’s shot-stopping, and particularly his bravery rushing off his line, the 5-2 aggregate loss would have been bigger.

With 104 goals, PSG’s attack is the best in the league by far and has netted 25 more than deposed champion Monaco.

But PSG’s defense is also the best and Areola has conceded only 21 goals in the 31 he has played. Although PSG has dominated most of those, losing only twice all season, he has still made on average four saves per game.

Having replaced Kevin Trapp as No. 1, Areola has missed only three league games all season. It represents a reversal for both.

When Trapp was signed by former coach Laurent Blanc in 2015-16, Areola went on loan to Spanish club Villarreal. He established himself as regular in Villarreal’s side and gained further experience in the Europa League. Spanish media were largely impressed by his consistency and his agility on the goal-line.

He returned to PSG and battled with Trapp for the starting position last season. But coach Unai Emery seemed unsure who he really preferred, with Trapp starting 24 games to Areola’s 14. PSG ended up losing the title to Monaco.

But the hierarchy is much clearer now and the error-prone Trapp, once hailed by Blanc for his passing out from goal, is the one expected to leave.

Areola has further incentive to do well with the World Cup coming up. He is challenging Marseille goalkeeper Steve Mandanda to be France’s No. 2 behind Hugo Lloris in Russia. For now, Areola is a squad member but has yet to make an international appearance under coach Didier Deschamps.

But he has done well at every level for France, starting with the under-16s a decade ago. He got his first taste of international success when he helped France win the Under-20 World Cup in 2013.

While Paul Pogba was one of the stars of the tournament, Areola’s crowning moment came in the final itself. France drew 0-0 with Uruguay and he saved two shots in the penalty shootout. Prior to the shootout he had a word with France’s designated penalty takers, confidently telling them “do your job and I’ll do mine.”

With Emery almost certain to be replaced next season, it promises to be a frenetic offseason of buying and selling at the club.

But whoever replaces Emery should perhaps think twice before letting Areola leave. The Parisian-born Areola came through the youth ranks at PSG, as did center half Presnel Kimpembe and midfielder Adrien Rabiot.

Star-studded sides like PSG often import their best players and fans are happy to see them arrive, because it shows ambition. But they nevertheless identify more closely with homegrown talents such as Areola.

More AP Ligue 1 coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/Ligue1

Jerome Pugmire on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/jeromepugmire

Infantino has ‘full confidence’ in Samoura amid ethics issue

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ZURICH (AP) FIFA President Gianni Infantino says he retains “full confidence” in secretary general Fatma Samoura after an attempt to embroil her in an ethics investigation.

[ MORE: Turkey hands in bid plans to UEFA for 2024 EUROs ]

Samoura has expressed irritation at “totally ridiculous and baseless” claims she broke FIFA rules by not declaring an alleged conflict of interest in the 2026 World Cup bidding contest.

FIFA has not specified the exact nature of the complaint or the progress of any ethics investigation after it was alleged she was a relative of former Senegal player El Hadji Diouf, who is an ambassador for Morocco’s bid.

Samoura insisted on Wednesday the former Liverpool forward “is not a member of my family and therefore everything is crystal clear.”

FIFA’s top administrator received a public show of support from Infantino.

“I can confirm my full confidence in Fatma Samoura to lead the FIFA administration,” Infantino said in a statement to The Associated Press on Thursday.

The former United Nations official was hired by Infantino in 2016 months after he was elected as Sepp Blatter’s successor.

Morocco is due to take on a joint bid from the United States, Canada and Mexico in the June 13 vote for the 2026 World Cup host.

Photo: Flamengo supporter tattoos club jersey on body

MAURÍCIO DOS ANJOS VIA VICE
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A supporter in Brazil has taken fandom to a whole new level with a piece of body art that shows his devotion to the club.

[ MORE: Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks ]

Maurício dos Anjos, a passionate Flamengo fan, has been a life-long supporter of the Rio de Janeiro-based club, and has the tattoo to prove it.

While it may look like body paint, Dos Anjos has a tattoo on the upper-half of his body depicting the Flamengo jersey, and it’s pretty awesome.

“People ask me if I don’t find it strange that I’m always wearing a Flamengo shirt. And I just don’t,” dos Anjos told VICE. “To me, it’s normal. But it doesn’t seem like anyone I talk to about it actually dislikes my tattoo.”

In total, Dos Anjos says the body work took over 90 hours and 30 sessions to complete the tattoo.

Has the perception of MLS really changed?

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When David Beckham arrived in Los Angeles back in 2007 his presence changed the complexion of Major League Soccer for all the right reasons, and the perception of the growing league changed.

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Over the years, MLS has strived to move into the upper-echelon of the global game, in an attempt to compete with the likes of the Premier League, Bundesliga and La Liga, but naysayers still indicate to this day that the United States’ top flight lacks the quality of the aforementioned.

Phrases like “retirement league” and “uninspired” have been used to describe MLS in the past, particularly when it comes to the league’s willingness to spend boatloads of cash on notable players well past their prime.

Examples such as Andrea Pirlo, Steven Gerrard and Rafael Marquez have at times dampened the perception of MLS due to the lack of quality on the pitch from those players, along with several others that had previously boasted extensive resumes.

Now, we’re at a time where MLS has picked up its scouting, with clubs focused more on younger, more skilled talents from South America and Europe.

That has led to major signings over the past several years, such as Ezequiel Barco, Miguel Almiron, Diego Rossi and Jesus Medina, to name a few.

Has that changed the overall complexion of MLS though?

On Thursday, Kevin De Bruyne‘s agent, Patrick de Koster, suggested in an interview that the Belgium international would likely “finish” his career in MLS.

“For now, he’s very happy at this club,” De Koster said. “We always look what the best solution for the player, both financially and football wise. Kevin’s future? I can see him finish at Los Angeles.”

This comes on the heels of a 36-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic joining the LA Galaxy in a move that has sent shockwaves across the league and the world because of the Swede’s great presence on a global scale.

It’s not to say that players like Ibrahimovic, or previous signings like David Villa and Didier Drogba cannot help the overall growth of MLS, because they certainly bring an awareness to the matches and draw attention to their respective clubs.

However, the long-term viability of MLS has been and will continue to be sustained on youth players succeeding in the league, as well as being able to draw promising young talents into the top flight of the U.S.