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.

Aguero left off Argentina starting XI to face Bolivia

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Sao Paolo striker Lucas Pratto will receive a fantastic opportunity on Tuesday when Argentina faces Bolivia in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying.

[ PREVIEW: USMNT travels to Panama in CONCACAF WCQ ]

It just so happens that Pratto’s gain is a major letdown for one of the Premier League’s top strikers. The 28-year-old is tied for second this qualifying campaign for Argentina with two goals.

La Albiceleste have announced their starting lineup ahead of tomorrow’s clash in Bolivia, which features mainstays Lionel Messi, Angel di Maria and goalkeeper Sergio Romero.

Meanwhile, Aguero — who started in Argentina’s 1-0 win over Chile on Thursday — is the lone change from manager Edgardo Bauza.

The Copa America runners’ up are currently depleted with a combination of injuries and suspensions. Four players will miss Tuesday’s meeting in La Paz due to suspension, including Gonzalo Higuain, Nicolas Otamendi, Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia.

Elsewhere, Gabriel Mercado and Emmanuel Mas will each miss the match after sustaining respective hamstring and knee injuries.

Argentina currently sits third in the CONMEBOL table while Bolivia is in danger of elimination with a loss on Tuesday. La Verde have managed just seven points in the first 13 rounds of World Cup qualifying.

Three keys for USMNT against Panama

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Coming off of Friday night’s dominating effort against Honduras, the U.S. Men’s National Team looks for their second win in five nights when Bruce Arena and co. head to Panama.

[ PREVIEW: USMNT goes for second win in Hex on Tuesday ]

Strong performances from players like Clint Dempsey and Christian Pulisic have USMNT fans buzzing ahead of Tuesday’s clash in Panama City, but there are several questions that lie ahead for Arena as the U.S. goes for its second win in the Hexagonal.

How does Arena cope with injuries?

The only downside of the team’s 6-0 win over Panama on Friday was the aftereffects if the match. John Brooks, Sebastian Lletget, Michael Orozco and Jordan Morris are no longer with the USMNT after sustaining injuries/illnesses, leaving Arena shorthanded as the Stars and Stripes head into the Estadio Rommel Fernández.

While Clint Dempsey’s emphatic national team return will provide Arena with some assurances up front, along with the emergence of Borussia Dortmund star Christian Pulisic, there are some questions in the midfield and defense for the U.S.

Jermaine Jones is available to return from his one-match suspension and could potentially fill the void left by Sebastian Lletget after his injury on Friday. While, Alejandro Bedoya — who replaced Lletget in the Honduras match — will also be in line for a starting spot.

Defensively is where it gets a bit tricky though, as Arena has to make up for an already-depleted backline. There was no DeAndre Yedlin or Fabian Johnson coming into this round of qualifiers, and John Brooks’ release from camp leaves the defense even thinner. Tim Ream appears to be Arena’s next choice to start at centerback with Brooks unavailable, but will he stick with Omar Gonzalez in the center or slide Geoff Cameron back into the middle?

It seems like the latter choice, especially given Cameron’s experience in the central defense, but that would mean Arena has to slot somebody else into the right back position. Graham Zusi has had slight experience in that role as of late, but it could be a bit of a gamble for Arena in another high-stakes match.

Bradley must control the middle once again

Forget Michael Bradley’s superb goal, which lifted the U.S. lead to 2-0 on Friday, it was the captain’s overall performance that is exactly what should be expected from the center midfielder.

Bradley completions/MLSSoccer

In 90 minutes of play against Los Catrachos, Bradley only missed on six passes while also making several successful tackles and recoveries to limit the Honduras attack.

The loss of Lletget is definitely a significant one for the Americans, given his lively movement going both ways. However, LA Galaxy teammate will likely be in line to replace the vibrant midfielder on Tuesday as he returns from a one-match suspension.

In regards to Bradley though, the U.S. veteran is at his best when he is able to move freely throughout the midfield, but Jones’ inclusion could present more of a burden for the Toronto FC player.

Jones is still a very capable midfielder, but he simply doesn’t have the pace to match that of a Lletget, which leaves Bradley more liable for covering ground defensively in front of the backline.

On top of that, the back four will see more changes on Tuesday after Brooks’ exit from the USMNT, making Bradley’s role all the more critical when facing players like Luis Tejada and Gabriel Torres.

[ MORE: CONCACAF qualifiers resume Tuesday afternoon ]

Dempsey/Pulisic bond continues to evolve

It couldn’t have gone much better for the pair on Friday night as Clint Dempsey and Christian Pulisic were directly involved in five of the game’s six goals.

The budding relationship between the two key attackers though is an intriguing one, and will likely determine just how successful this USMNT can be down the road. At 34, Dempsey is certainly on the back end of his career, however, his effort against Honduras shows just how dangerous the Seattle Sounders man can be, even after missing significant time due to a heart problem.

Meanwhile, Pulisic continues to shine in European with giants Dortmund, appearing both in the Bundesliga and UEFA Champions League. The two likely won’t be together on the international scene for long, perhaps only until the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but the partnership is something to monitor over the next year-plus.

Not only does the duo represent a dangerous one-two punch in the attack but also a changing of the guard. Dempsey has been one of the most talented USMNT players in the nation’s history, and many believe Pulisic has the talent to match or even surpass that of the 55-time goalscorer.

We’ve seen it before when Landon Donovan was phased out of the U.S. squad and Dempsey was essentially handed the reigns of the attack, and this time Pulisic will be doing so with much more time to make an impact. The 18-year-old already has four international goals in 12 appearances, and if he improves on that goalscoring pace the U.S. will be enjoying his presence for many years to come.

At long last, Butland returns to full training with Stoke

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Stoke City’s long-coming goalkeeping dilemma will come to a head soon, as Jack Butland is back in training.

A year ago today, the Potters confirmed that star backstop Butland would miss EURO 2016 with a broken ankle. He’d need multiple surgeries as recovery dragged on and on.

[ MORE: Complete Panama-USMNT preview ]

That was more palatable thanks to the play of Lee Grant, who arrived on loan from Derby County but became a permanent Potter in January. Grant has been a key part of Stoke’s season.

Butland is contracted to Stoke through 2021, and he’ll ascend to the starting gig sooner rather than later. But Grant is in the catbird seat for now, and at least will have made himself attractive to other clubs seeking a keeper.

Report: Everton linked with $4 million swoop for Canada’s Larin

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The Sun only hits on a few of the many transfer rumors it tosses around, but this one bears a second look for fans of Everton, MLS, and Canada.

Everton is already eyeing replacements for Romelu Lukaku, according to the report, and is hunting for a bargain in Canadian national teamer Cyle Larin.

Larin, 21, was the first overall pick in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft by Orlando City SC after an electric career at UConn.

[ MORE: Complete Panama-USMNT preview ]

He’s since scored 35 goals in 63 matches for the Lions, picking up three in his first two matches of the 2017 season. The 6-foot-1 Ontario native has five goals for Canada in 19 caps.

The Sun says Larin would cost close to $4 million, a fraction of what the Toffees will get if they sell Lukaku.