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PL Sunday preview: Man City-Liverpool; Spurs host Saints; Boro-Man Utd

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Sunday is Super once again in the Premier League, as four of six top-four hopefuls are in action, two of the four facing off directly…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Middlesbrough vs. Manchester United — 8 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

If Jose Mourinho is to guide Man United to a top-four finish in his first season at Old Trafford, Sunday’s trip to Boro represents a must-win opportunity for the Red Devils to leapfrog Arsenal for fifth place in the PL table, and potentially finish the weekend just three points back of fourth-place Liverpool while holding two games in hand. To do so, though, United must overcome a rash of injuries and suspensions.

Unavailable on Sunday: Zlatan Ibrahimovic (suspension), Ander Herrera (suspension); doubtful or questionable through injuries: Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial, Daley Blind, Wayne Rooney, Bastian Schweinsteiger. Woof.

“I can imagine some people will say we should play better, we could play better, we should score more goals, we should not have so many difficulties to beat this opponent, but the reality is we have lots of things going against us and we have to try and fight,” Mourinho said ahead of Sunday’s clash at the Riverside Stadium. “The boys are amazing and we will probably lose the game on Sunday but we will try our best.”

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Chelsea delight, Arsenal misery ]

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Southampton — 10:15 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Life without Harry Kane begins, again, for Tottenham. A top-four finish — not to mention the chance to finish above Arsenal for the first time in 22 years — are very real for a second straight season, but Mauricio Pochettino‘s side will have to navigate the all of, or most of, the season’s final 11 games without their 19-goalscorer (37 percent of his side’s league goals — 4th-highest in the PL) after the 23-year-old re-injured his left ankle during last Sunday’s FA Cup thrashing of Millwall. Up first, it’s a visit from Southampton, which sees one of the PL’s most confounding, up-and-down sides fighting for a top-half finish in Claude Puel‘s first season at St. Mary’s Stadium.

Heung-Min Son bagged a hat trick while playing up top in Kane’s absence last weekend, which seems Pochettino’s most likely Plan A to replace last season’s Golden Boot winner. The problem, of course, is the South Korean’s lack of size and strength to hold the ball up, bring others into the attack, and muscle defenders around the 18-yard box in order to create space for himself. Dele Alli will likely play further forward, and more centrally, to provide a greater numerical advantage for Spurs.

“We have different options (up front) — you could see in the last game against Millwall,” Pochettino believes. “At the beginning of the season, Harry got injured in the Sunderland game and we missed him for nearly two months but we played with different options – with Son, with Vincent Janssen. We used different players, but we are sure that we will play well.

[ MORE: Wenger to determine his future “very soon” ]

Manchester City vs. Liverpool — 12:30 p.m. ET, on NBC and NBCSports.com

It’s a matchup between third and fourth in PL, as Jurgen Klopp‘s Reds visit the Etihad Stadium to a Man City side which hasn’t lost a league game in over two months (six games — four wins, two draws). After failing to win a single one of their first five PL games of the 2017 calendar year, Liverpool’s title challenge was put to bed, as their dreams of returning to the top-four for just the second time in eight seasons so nearly were as well.

Pep Guardiola‘s men must rebound immediately after bowing out of the UEFA Champions League on Wednesday, having blown a two-goal advantage in the second leg away to Monaco. Having played one game more than City thus far, Liverpool trail Sunday’s opponents by a single point, and currently sit five points clear of Arsenal.

“These games are always important. Actually, I can’t remember a not-important game in the Premier League, to be honest,” Klopp said. “But I think we all know about the quality of Manchester City, probably a few people think they’re out of the Champions League now against Monaco, but I think the way they played was quite impressive.”

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.