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.

Leicester City record massive earnings from UEFA Champions League

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Leicester City’s UEFA Champions League campaign may have ended without a trophy, but the Premier League side pipped the European champions in the bank account.

UEFA announced on Friday that Leicester City earned $96,167,125 during the Champions League run that ended in the quarterfinals, the farthest of any Premier League club. Real Madrid, the back-to-back champions, earned a slightly less $95,385,679. Much of the difference comes from TV rights deals in England, which pays out more to teams compared to the TV rights deal in Spain.

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Juventus, the Italian giant, earned the most of any club in last year’s Champions League, making a whopping $129,965,357, mostly thanks to the TV rights again.

Mourinho: Ibrahimovic could return in December

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Dare to Zlatan? It could be only a couple of months away.

That’s according to Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho, who said the veteran striker could return from his torn ACL before the end of the calendar year.

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“Zlatan is here, he’s working here and under our control,” Mourinho told reporters. “He’s working as you would expect so, so, so hard. But he’s not to be back in the next week or next couple of weeks. Do I believe he’ll be back in 2017? Yes, I do. But it’s just a feeling.”

The big Swede scored 28 goals for Man United last year in all competitions, proving that he’s still got it at the age of 36, but it’s going to be tough for him to find his old form coming off an ACL injury at such an old age. After suffering the injury last April, it’s been a long road to recovery for Ibrahimovic.

However, with the play of Romelu Lukaku up top, Ibrahimovic would only play from time to time, which could help in his recovery both from the knee injury and just the general recovery between games.

Manchester City quartet called up by Brazil for friendlies

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Brazilian National Team coach Tite has decided on calling up a full-strength squad for November’s upcoming friendly matches in Europe, including four Manchester City players in his 25-man squad.

Gabriel Jesus, Fernandinho, Danilo and Ederson all made the squad as Tite looks to develop more chemistry among his side ahead of the 2018 World Cup, which Brazil breezed into after Tite took over in 2016.

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Luckily for Manchester City and the other European-based players in the squad, Brazil’s friendly matches will be played in Western Europe. The Selecao first faces Japan in Lille, France on November 10 before taking on England at Wembley Stadium on November 14.

The call-ups may be a tough pill for Guardiola to swallow though. As of Friday, Manchester City has 17 games remaining in the calendar year, and surely he would prefer for some of his starters to get a two-week break in November to preserve some energy instead of play in friendly matches.

Everton announce lifetime ban for fan involved in altercation with Lyon player

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On a night when UEFA unveiled a new campaign for respect, there wasn’t enough of it shown both on and off the field.

Everton has followed up on UEFA opening up disciplinary proceedings against them by banning a fan from Everton matches after the fan was seen to punch at an Olympique Lyon player in the second half of Lyon’s 2-1 win at Goodison Park.

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“Club Officials have reviewed the footage of an incident that occurred in the 64th minute of the game against Olympique Lyonnais where supporters towards the front of the lower Gwladys Street End became involved in a confrontation between players,” Everton said in a statement. “We have identified one individual whom action will now be taken against. This will include a ban from attending future Everton fixtures and the Club registering a formal complaint with Merseyside Police.”

The video below shows a fan – amazingly, holding onto a small boy in one arm – throwing some punches at Lyon players after a fracas on the field.

The punch and ban is yet another dark moment for Everton, which has just one point from its first three Europa League matches and sits in 16th place in the Premier League with eight points from eight games.