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.

Timbers sign Peruvian winger Andy Polo from Liga MX’s Morelia

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) The Portland Timbers have acquired winger Andy Polo on loan from Liga MX club Monarcas Morelia for the upcoming season.

The 23-year-old native of Peru played in 25 matches last year for Morelia and made six starts with two goals.

He’s also World Cup-bound, having appeared in Peru’s two-legged playoff against New Zealand in November. Peru won 2-0 on aggregate. Overall, he’s appeared with the Peruvian national team 15 times since his senior debut in 2016.

“Andy is a versatile, young player who will add another element to our attack, and we believe that he has further upside to his development,” Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese said in a statement.

The Timbers used targeted allocation money and have a purchase option. Polo’s arrival is pending a physical and receipt of a visa.

He will occupy an international roster spot.

Can Man United still sign Sanchez without Mkhitaryan swap?

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The answer to the (first) titled question is, undoubtedly, yes.

[ MORE: Wednesday’s transfer rumor roundup | Tuesday | Friday ]

The latter question — the “will they?” — remains a relative unknown at this point, but if reports out of the UK are to be believed, Manchester United are just as likely to send $40 million (or so) Arsenal’s way in exchange for Alexis Sanchez, should Henrikh Mkhitaryan refuse the move by declining any contract offers from the Gunners.

[ MORE: Conte bewildered VAR not used in Chelsea PK controversies ]

The thinking, at least for the last few days since Man United somewhat unexpectedly entered the Sanchez sweepstakes, was that swapping the Armenian for the Chilean was the obvious — and, perhaps only — way forward. Call it special circumstances or an obvious audible, but that’s not necessarily the case — from the Guardian:

“It is understood that if Mkhitaryan does not leave Mourinho believes that, given the club’s robust finances, [Man United executive vice-chairman] Ed Woodward could still sanction a move for a player who would potentially vastly improve United.”

By the time Sanchez is signed, sealed and delivered, United will have also paid Sanchez and his agent, Fernando Felicevich, massive signing-on fees that could total another $30 million. No matter the order in which the Sanchez-Mkhitaryan saga plays out, United will come out ahead with a superior player at a massively discounted price — should Sanchez ultimately move to Old Trafford, of course.

Conte bewildered VAR not used in Chelsea PK controversies

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If the FA, English football’s governing body, is insistent upon testing video-assistant refereeing (VAR) as they have done in recent FA Cup and League Cup fixtures, Antonio Conte believes they should darn well use it.

[ MORE: Wednesday’s transfer rumor roundup | Tuesday | Friday ]

Following his Chelsea side’s penalty-shootout victory over Norwich City in an FA Cup third-round replay on Wednesday, Conte was equal parts frustrated and confused by the fact that video-referee Mike Jones failed to prompt referee Graham Scott to consult the on-trial system on multiple occasions.

Most notably, Chelsea’s 92nd-minute (extra-time) penalty shout following Timm Klose‘s tackle on Willian. Scott, instead, booked the Brazilian for diving — one of three cards, all shown to Chelsea players, for simulation on the night — and that was that.

“If you watch the replay you see very clearly it is a penalty,” said Conte after the game — quotes from the BBC:

“I think that there was a penalty but not on [Alvaro] Morata — on Willian.

“With Willian, the referee heard what the other referee watched and decided to continue to play. If we want to try to use this new system, it is important for the referee to wait, especially in this incident that is not so clear.

“And then when the referee that is watching had a doubt, he has to call the referee to watch and he can make a decision. The referee on the pitch has to make the decision, not one off the pitch.

“We can improve it for sure but we need to try to take the best solution. The final decision is for the ref on the pitch. Otherwise, why is there this ref?

“The mistake wasn’t of the ref on the pitch but the person watching. When you see this, you have to call the referee.”

VAR was used in another third-round replay, on Tuesday, and helped to correctly rule Leicester City striker Kelechi Iheanacho as being in an onside position when he scored his side’s second goal. While offside/onside calls are much clearer, cut-and-dry decisions to make — and with the aid of a natural stoppage in play — clearly much work lies ahead with regard to the process of determining whether the referee has made a “clear and obvious error,” which remains the threshold for using VAR, in instances of fouls/diving.

Copa QF: Messi misses PK, Barca’s 29-game unbeaten run ends

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MADRID (AP) — Lionel Messi missed a penalty and Barcelona conceded late as its 29-match unbeaten streak ended in a 1-0 loss to city rival Espanyol in the first leg of their Copa del Rey quarterfinal on Wednesday.

Messi failed from the spot in the 62nd minute, his shot brilliantly saved by goalkeeper Diego Lopez.

Youngster Oscar Melendo netted the winner for the hosts in the 88th with his first goal as a professional.

“I have no words, I was looking forward to this first goal,” said the 20-year-old Melendo, who had come on as a substitute in the second half.

It was Espanyol’s first win against Barcelona at its RCDE Stadium.

The second leg of the Catalan derby is next week at Camp Nou.

Barcelona hadn’t lost since a 2-0 defeat by Real Madrid in the second leg of the Spanish Super Cup on Aug. 16. It had won 23 of its last 29 matches in all competitions.

“We knew we would lose one day,” Barcelona midfielder Sergio Busquets said. “The positive thing is that in a week we have a chance to rebound and advance.”

Messi had his chance from the spot after Sergi Roberto was fouled by Esteban Granero, but his low shot into the right corner was stopped as Diego Lopez dived to his left to tip the ball away.

It was a rare miss for Messi, who is having a stellar season and is the Spanish league’s top scorer with 17 goals.

“The penalty save gave us the boost that we needed,” Melendo said. “We were playing too defensively.”

Melendo netted the winner with a low shot from the middle of the area after a well-timed pass by Marc Navarro.

Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde did not use all of the team’s regular starters, leaving players such as Luis Suarez on the bench.

The match was interrupted for a few minutes in the 76th after Barcelona goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen was hit by an object thrown by fans behind his goal.

Barcelona midfielder Paulinho was replaced in the second half because of a foot injury.