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Top Premier League Storylines – Week 29

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The Premier League this weekend sees a number of teams come back from European play – some empty-handed, some with injuries, and some with momentum.

With the stretch run on hand, it’s looking less likely that anyone will catch Chelsea, but the top of the table is still clogged below the Blues, and the relegation race is heating up as teams rise and fall in the maelstrom at the bottom.

Week 29, what do you have in store for us?


Leicester City goes for 3 in a row

West Ham United vs. Leicester City — 11 a.m. EDT Saturday online via NBCSports.com

Craig Shakespeare has completely turned around Leicester City, and the Foxes are on their way back up the table. Still, all three have come at King Power Stadium, and now Leicester hits the road for the first time in the league in nearly a month. Winning away in the Premier League is a completely different animal, and it’s something the Foxes haven’t done in at all in Premier League play this season, and haven’t done in any competition since January in FA Cup play.

They’ll have an excellent chance against a West Ham side that has just a single win since selling Dimitri Payet in the winter, and hasn’t won at home since beating Crystal Palace on January 14th. Can Shakespeare dial up a road win and keep the momentum flying?

Will Liverpool or Manchester City score an important leg up?

Manchester City vs. Liverpool — 12:30 p.m. EDT Sunday on NBCSN or online via NBCSports.com

A massive top four matchup pits two teams looking to score any kind of advantage near the top of the table. The title race seems lost, but the Champions League race is still open and both these teams could look to pull away from the pack slightly. This has draw written all over it, but should one team come out on top, they would be an important three points earned.

Manchester City especially needs to bounce back after they were dumped out of the Champions League in a wild thriller against Monaco. Pep Guardiola was criticized for his team selection in that one, and the players admitted they were unable to carry out his orders, especially in the first half when Monaco overran the City midfield. Now, against a Liverpool side that put its ugly January in the rear-view mirror, City must bounce back itself.

How will Lukaku and Barkley play amid transfer rumors?

Everton vs. Hull City — 8:30 a.m. EDT Saturday on NBCSN or online via NBCSports.com

Rumors have swirled this week regarding two of Everton’s most visable players, and it will be very interesting to see how they respond in front of the home fans at Goodison Park — and how the home fans respond to them. The biggest rumors have suggested that Romelu Lukaku has refused to sign a new contract with the Toffees, and could leave in the summer if no deal is agreed to by then. The loss of Lukaku would be a gigantic blow to Ronald Koeman and Everton, as the Belgian has been a constant supply of goals up front.

Ross Barkley remains in the same boat, and while nothing as defiant as Lukaku’s refusal has come from Barkley’s situation, there is still no new contract for the 23-year-old Everton youth product, and Koeman admitted he could lose Barkley as well if nothing is agreed to by the summer. As Everton battles for a Europa League place, will they get their superstars’ best?

Middlesbrough plays (Pogba-less?) Manchester United without a manager

Middlesbrough vs. Manchester United — 8:00 p.m. EDT Sunday on NBCSN or online via NBCSports.com

It’s not confirmed yet, but watching Paul Pogba limp off with what appeared to be a hamstring problem against FC Rostov, it’s highly possible that Manchester United will be without big signing Paul Pogba this weekend against a team fighting for its life.

Middlesbrough parted ways with Aitor Karanka earlier Thursday, and Steve Agnew will be in charge when they welcome the Red Devils to Riverside Stadium on Sunday. With both teams facing adversity, which will gain massively important points? Manchester United sits just a point back of Arsenal for 5th position, while Middlesbrough is three points in the hole in the drop. Who will come away with the good stuff?

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.