Top Premier League storylines – Week 27

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Heading into an intriguing Premier League weekend there are so many questions in the air.

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Can Liverpool and Arsenal cement themselves in the top four? Will Chelsea slip up? Can Leicester continue their resurgence?

All of that, and more, is analyzes below.


What now? – Liverpool vs. Arsenal, Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com

Both Liverpool and Arsenal harbored hopes of winning the Premier League heading into the winter months. Now, just two months into 2017, those hopes are all but over.

A poor start to 2017 has derailed the title bids of both Jurgen Klopp and Arsene Wenger and they both appear to be at crossroads. Wenger, 67, has yet to sign the two-year contract extension he has been offered and it remains to be seen what lies in store beyond this season, but it is the same old story for Arsenal. They’ll likely reach the FA Cup semifinal, they’ve been hammered in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 game and yet another title bid has faded badly as they scrap for yet another top four finish.

For Liverpool, Klopp has been left scratching his head with just one PL win in seven to open up 2017. Against the smaller teams they’ve struggled, with all five of their defeats coming against teams currently in the bottom half of the table. Klopp’s men are so good going forward with Sadio Mane the spark, Philippe Coutinho the conductor and Adam Lallana and Roberto Firmino the silky industry. Yet, in defense the Reds are struggling again with an average of 1.3 goals a game being conceded. Klopp didn’t address his biggest need in the offseason and like Wenger it seems like his side can’t seriously challenge for the title until he becomes more comfortable playing in a more defensive manner.

Unless Liverpool or Arsenal chance their tact or playing philosophy (which seems unlikely) how can they become anything other than top four contenders? Even that is under serious threat this season given that two of the current top six will miss out on UCL action. This is a massive game at Anfield which will go a long way to deciding which team kicks on a cements a top four finish this season.


Hammers hope to halt Chelsea’s title procession – West Ham vs. Chelsea, Monday, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com

Some are already calling for the blue ribbons to be attached to the Premier League trophy. Chelsea’s title procession has begun. Right now, the Blues aren’t showing any weaknesses and have yet to show any signs of breaking down with their defense strong, multiple offensive weapons firing and N'Golo Kante running the show in midfield as they lead their closest contenders by 10 points.

Antonio Conte isn’t getting ahead of himself though, and neither should his players. West Ham’s players and supporters would love nothing more than to scupper the title chances of Chelsea. They beat the Blues 2-1 in the EFL Cup at the London Stadium earlier this season and Slaven Bilic‘s side will pose a very direct threat to Chelsea with Andy Carroll set to be back in the starting lineup. Chelsea didn’t cope well with that away at Burnley recently.

Crowd troubled erupted in the EFL Cup game this season between these sets of fans and that shows you just how much passion surrounds this London derby. For some reason I keep thinking back to last season when on a cold early March night at Upton Park the Hammers beat Tottenham 1-0 and put a big dent in their title bid. Surely they can’t do it again to another London rival, albeit this time in slightly more salubrious surroundings…


Aguero, Guardiola set for showdown – Sunderland vs. Manchester City, Sunday, 8:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com

When he dropped Sergio Aguero for Gabriel Jesus last month, Pep Guardiola created a huge problem for himself. That issue is only getting bigger.

Aguero, 28, has spoken out about talks in June between himself and the club to see where his future lies. After scoring another two goals in the midweek FA Cup last 16 replay against Huddersfield, Guardiola described Aguero’s performance as perhaps his best of the season. The predatory Argentine striker seems happy enough at City but with reported interest from Real Madrid, if he isn’t the main man at the Etihad, is it the right time for him to move on?

He has a contract until 2020 — plus he is just 20 goals away from becoming City’s all-time leading scorer — and it isn’t like Guardiola doesn’t appreciate what he brings to the table. His goals have been a big reason why City could well finish second in the PL despite all of their defensive issues and also why they look like making a deep run in the UEFA Champions League. Yet, in Guardiola’s system he needs three mobile strikers who hunt back, do defensive work and can drift around the the flanks and central positions. Aguero is a pure finisher and doesn’t do that. Therein lies the biggest problem of all.


Top 4 contenders vs. Top 4 hopefuls – Tottenham vs. Everton, Sunday, 8:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com

Tottenham Hotspur continue to batter the smaller teams in the PL (see: Spurs 4-0 Stoke City) but they will be tested by an in-form Everton at White Hart Lane. This game will be a good measuring stick for Ronald Koeman‘s Everton to see how far they are from the top four conversation and it will also be a great chance to see two red-hot strikers in action as Harry Kane and Romelu Lukaku — they lead the PL in goals with 17 each — do battle.

Spurs and Everton have always been very evenly matched over the last 20 years or so, as they’ve hovered just outside the top six and been in plenty of cup semifinals, finals and the Europa League. Still, Spurs have kicked on considerably in the past three season since Mauricio Pochettino arrived and it looks like Koeman will have a similar impact at Everton. Spurs’ fluid attack may just have too much for Everton’s defense in this encounter but this will be an open game between two teams who hope to challenge for a top four spot for many years to come.

If they can keep hold of Kane and Lukaku, goals won’t be a problem for Spurs and Everton.


Ranieri-less Leicester to continue resurgence? – Leicester City vs. Hull City, Saturday, 10 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com

The turnaround in Leicester’s performance during their 3-1 win against Liverpool was quite remarkable. That suggested that the much-maligned decision to get rid of Claudio Ranieri last week could be the correct one, however caretaker boss Craig Shakespeare knows that the visit of fellow strugglers Hull City is perhaps an even a bigger task than facing Liverpool.

Hull will sit back, defend and look to hit Leicester on the break. The Foxes aren’t great at taking the game to teams and aren’t comfortable in possession. This should be an intriguing encounter and telling as to whether these players stopped trying under Ranieri or were simply fired up by all the criticism they had been getting and got the better of a very poor Liverpool side.

Time will tell if firing Ranieri was helpful. If the Foxes get another win this weekend they’ll finally give themselves some breathing space between from the relegation zone after they briefly slipped into the bottom three last week. The reigning champions finally seem to be regaining some of their title-winning form from last season and whether you like it or not, Ranieri’s departure has coincided with it.

Ligue 1: Depay’s goal streak hits 5 games; Lyon reeling in Monaco

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MONACO (AP) Lyon won at Dijon 5-2 and moved within one point of second-place Monaco in the French league on Friday.

Lyon’s sixth straight league win kept them level on points with fourth-place Marseille.

The team finishing second qualifies automatically for next season’s Champions League, while the team in third goes into the playoffs. After this weekend, there will be four rounds remaining.

Memphis Depay has scored or created 12 of Lyon’s 16 last goals.

The Netherlands forward opened the scoring in the fourth minute with a close-range volley, and set up the fourth goal for winger Bertrand Traore in the 77th.

Depay almost scored another, just failing to reach right back Rafael‘s cross in the 50th. Midfielder Houssem Aouar followed up and his strike was turned into his own net by defender Valentin Rosier.

Lyon’s other goals came from forwards Nabil Fekir in the 53rd and Maxwell Cornet in the 82nd.


MONACO (AP) — After losing the French title last weekend, Monaco is in danger of throwing away second place after losing at Guingamp 3-1 on Saturday.

The defeat leaves Monaco just one point ahead of Lyon and Marseille as the three sides chase an automatic place in the Champions League with four games left.

Monaco was thrashed by champion Paris Saint-Germain 7-1 last Sunday and the defense leaked easily again, albeit with a little help from one of its defenders.

A makeshift Monaco fell behind midway through the first half after Brazilian defender Jemerson was given a red card for stopping a shot on the line. He was sent off and veteran forward Jimmy Briand netted from the penalty spot for mid-table Guingamp.

Monaco capitulated and trailed 3-0 after 47 minutes. Defender Almamy Toure replied in vain with a consolation goal midway through the second half.


Marseille crushed Lille 5-1 to join Lyon on 69 points. Lyon, which won at Dijon 5-2 on Friday for a sixth straight win, has a better goal difference.

Marseille also has the Europa League and plays the first leg of its semifinal at home to Austrian side Salzburg next Thursday. But Lyon has only Ligue 1 to think about.

Still, Marseille is also brimming with confidence these days, especially winger Florian Thauvin.

He scored twice against Lille to extend his career-best league tally to 19. Greece striker Kostas Mitroglou also netted twice, and forward Lucas Ocampos completed the rout against 19th-place Lille.

In other matches: Amiens won against Strasbourg 3-1; struggling Toulouse beat Angers 2-0, and last-place Metz drew at home to Caen 1-1.

PSG is at Bordeaux on Sunday. Also, Nice is at home to Montpellier, and Saint-Etienne takes on Troyes.

UEFA says Europa League trophy not damaged after being stolen

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NYON, Switzerland (AP) UEFA says the Europa League trophy was not damaged after being stolen in Mexico.

The silverware was at a promotional event in the central city of Leon when it was reported by authorities to have been taken from a vehicle.

The theft came ahead of the semifinals of Europe’s second-tier club competition.

UEFA says the “Europa League trophy was in Mexico for a partner event and got briefly stolen. It was quickly recovered and has suffered no damages.”

In the semifinal first legs next week, Arsenal plays Atletico Madrid and Marseille takes on Salzburg.

Serie A: Roma prep for Liverpool by beating SPAL; Benevento win at Milan

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A roundup of all of Saturday’s action in Italy’s top flight…

[ MORE: Man United reach FA Cup final | Premier League preview ]

SPAL 2013 0-3 Roma

A few hours after a reserves-heavy Liverpool side played last-place West Bromwich Albion to a 2-2 draw in the Premier League, Roma, the Reds’ UEFA Champions League semifinal foes beginning Tuesday, hammered 17th-place SPAL on the back of goals scored by Radja Nainggolan and Patrik Schick.

Roma shocked the world — and Barcelona — to reach the semifinals, but still have a battle on their hands to finish inside Serie A’s top-four and qualify for next season’s Champions League. Following Saturday’s victory, Eusebio Di Francesco’s side is three and four points clear of fourth- and fifth-place Lazio and Inter Milan, respectively, though both of the chasing sides play on Sunday.

AC Milan 0-1 Benevento

The 2017-18 season has treated AC Milan, who spent massively last summer, far worse than Roma. Following Sunday’s home defeat to first-year top-flight (and last-place) side Benevento, Gennaro Gattuso’s side sits sixth (final automatic Europa League place) and lead seventh-place Atalanta, who play on Sunday, by just two points.

Pietro Iemmello scored the game’s only goal in the 29th minute.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Sassuolo 1-0 Fiorentina

Sunday’s Serie A schedule

Cagliari vs. Bologna — 6:30 a.m. ET
Lazio vs. Sampdoria — 9 a.m. ET
Chievo vs. Inter Milan — 9 a.m. ET
Atalanta vs. Torino — 9 a.m. ET
Udinese vs. Crotone — 9 a.m. ET
Juventus vs. Napoli — 2:45 p.m. ET

Barcelona cruise past Sevilla, lift historic 4th straight Copa del Rey

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MADRID (AP) Barcelona became the first team in 85 years to win four straight Copa del Rey titles after blowing away Sevilla 5-0 in the final on Saturday.

Luis Suarez scored twice, and Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, and Philippe Coutinho also made the scoresheet for Barcelona’s record-extending 30th Copa triumph, and sixth in the last decade.

Sevilla was trying to win a sixth Copa and save a season which will end without any trophies and maybe not even a place in the Europa League next season.

The final took place at Atletico Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano Stadium in the capital amid the ongoing political turmoil involving Catalonia’s bid for independence.

There were jeers by part of the Barcelona crowd when the national anthem was played, but the boos were largely subdued by the reaction of the numerous Sevilla fans in the crowd. Spain’s King Felipe VI smiled and saluted the fans after the anthem.

No other team had won four Copa titles in a row since Athletic Bilbao from 1930-33. The only other team to do it was Real Madrid from 1905-08.

Barcelona lost a chance to win the treble when it was eliminated by Roma in the quarterfinals of the Champions League, but it is three points away from winning the Spanish league.