Top PL Storylines: Merseyside Derby, relegation special

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The international break is over and the Premier League is back.

[ MORE: What’s left for each PL club? ]

This stretch run begins now, as teams have around eight more matches left in league play with which to move up or down. Who will climb the table, and who will lose spots? The best picks are below:


Merseyside clubs clinging to European places

Liverpool vs. Everton — 7:30 a.m. EDT Saturday online via NBCSports.com

Everton and Liverpool doesn’t need any sideshows to hype up the heated rivalry, but a little added spice won’t hurt anything. Spice is what we have as the two teams clash at Anfield Saturday as both teams are battling for European places.

Liverpool comes into the game in fourth, four points ahead of Manchester United for the final Champions League spot. A return to Europe’s top competition is overdue for Jurgen Klopp and the Reds, having made the tournament just once since 2010. It’s been a dogfight all year at the top of the table (aside from Chelsea, of course), and Liverpool is right in the mix. A misstep here would give Manchester United the chance to climb just one point back, really putting on the pressure. For Everton, they sit in seventh, level with Arsenal on points and just two behind Manchester United. They still have a good shot at Europa League play, and any spot in a European competition is a welcome moment for an Everton team that has appeared just once since 2010.

Both teams have to contend with injuries suffered over the international break. Everton’s Seamus Coleman is out at least for the rest of the season after his nasty leg break, while Liverpool will miss Adam Lallana who aggravated a muscle injury while on duty with England and will likely be out a month.

Will Arsenal or City turn their season around?

Arsenal vs. Manchester City — 11:00 a.m. EDT Sunday online via NBCSports.com

Arsene Wenger continues to find himself under more and more pressure. It seems Pep Guardiola takes one step back for every one step forward. As the two managers meet at the Emirates on Sunday, will either man manage to get a high-profile win to boost its season’s fortunes?

The Gunners are in serious peril. Wenger has never missed the Champions League in his 20 seasons in charge, but that could all change this year as Arsenal sits in 6th on 50 points, six back of fourth position. There is little to no room for error the rest of the way, and even against a strong opponent, the Gunners cannot afford to drop more points. For Pep Guardiola, City still sits in an envious position in third place and five points clear of dropping off the top four, but it’s not been without bumps and bruises. City is without a win in its last three matches, having dumped out of the Champions League and drawn a pair in league play over that time. Both managers are struggling. Will either turn things around?

A relegation special

Swansea City vs. Middlesbrough — 8:30 a.m. EDT Sunday online via NBCSports.com

Middlesbrough is in the relegation zone. Swansea City isn’t out of the weeds yet. Premier League status could be on the line.

As the two teams meet at the Liberty Stadium, Middlesbrough can go a long way towards climbing out of the bottom 3, while Swansea City can build space from it. Boro sits in 19th place, on 22 points, five back of safety. In that final safe spot is Swansea, on 27 points, and depending on the results of this match, things could get hairy for the loser. A draw helps nobody, so expect both sides to go all out.

Spurs with a tough road test

Burnley vs. Tottenham — 10:00 a.m. EDT Saturday online via NBCSports.com

Spurs sit in second, 10 points off the top but in control of the tight Champions League battle. Yet, they face a difficult challenge on Sunday. Burnley has lost just twice all season long at home, the latest coming January 2nd. Their away form has been miserable, but at home, they’re a completely different team.

Enter Tottenham, who has won three Premier League games in a row, but it’s not all rosy for the title contenders. They’re still without Harry Kane, who has returned to light training but still remains sidelined with his ankle injury. Sean Dyche can coach with the best of them in the English top flight, and it remains to be seen if Mauricio Pochettino can break down a strong Clarets defense. Spurs managed a 2-1 home win over Burnley, but a similar performance won’t get it done at the fortress of Turf Moor.

Championship Focus: Bluebirds flying, Villa second-last

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The wild 46-game slate that is the Football League Championship is already howling, with all 24 teams three matches deep into their campaigns toward Premier League promotion (or avoiding relegation to League One).

The three clubs relegated from the Premier League last season all sit within the Top 8 after three match days. Sunderland is unbeaten with a win and two draws, while Hull City is 1-1-1.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

Middlesbrough has two wins from three matches, three points behind three sides who’ve started a perfect 3-0.

Wolves and Ipswich Town are two of the three, and Cardiff City leads the way. Owner Vincent Tan has seen his club score six goals without conceding once in defeats of Burton Albion, Aston Villa, and Sheffield United.

Burton is 0-3, while Steve Bruce‘s Villa is just one point better and sits 23rd.

As for individual superlatives, Bristol City’s Bobby Reid has four goals to lead the league while familiar names Lewis Grabban (Sunderland) and Abel Hernandez (Hull City) are among a quartet of players to score thrice.

Meanwhile, PL transfer target Jota of Brentford continues to impress with three assists through three matches. Will he remain in the second tier by the close of the transfer window?

MLS Snapshot: Montreal Impact 3-0 Chicago Fire

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The game in 100 words (or less)Ignacio Piatti is very good at soccer, and Chicago backstop Matt Lampson is going to see him deep into his dreams. Piatti beat Lampson up close on a turnover and then, with Montreal ahead 2-0 off a PK, the Argentine curled a surprise shot from distance around the keeper. Game, set, match, and it wasn’t even halftime. The loss keeps Chicago from using its match-in-hand to catch second place New York City FC, while the three points move Montreal to within two points of the East’s final playoff position.

Three moments that mattered

6′ — Piatti starts the party — Gifted a chance with the keeper by a sloppy missed clearing attempt, the Argentine deftly pops the ball over Fire keeper Matt Lampson.

36′ — Lampson hurts his cause — Chicago’s backstop wasn’t at fault on the opening goal, but he was for the second. After chopping down Matteo Mancosu in the box, Lampson guessed wrong on the striker’s penalty kick and the Fire went down 2-0.

38′ — It’s not your night, Lamps — Pretty sure you can anyone named Lampson, Lamps. Anyway, this time it was one of MLS’ top newcomers who set up Piatti for a goal. “Nacho” has his 12th of the season thanks to Blerim Dzemaili, and my goodness did Piatti do well here.

Man of the Match: Piatti.

Forbes ranks the top supporters in Major League Soccer

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Forbes claims the shared honor will give two Cascadia Cup rivals one less thing to argue about, but we completely disagree.

The celebrated magazine says their metrics show the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders tied for the honor of who has the best fans in Major League Soccer.

The post says the determination was made through four factors: attendance, local TV ratings, merchandise sales, and social media followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Attendance was weighted heaviest, which certainly gives Atlanta United hope to go charging up the rankings in the future. For now, the “Five Stripes” are not included in the list.

The Galaxy finish third in the rankings, while the sixth-place New York Red Bulls edge New York City FC by one spot.

For the report and full explanation, head here.

Europa League preview: Everton, Milan, Marseille take next steps

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The UEFA Europa League playoff round takes full flight Thursday, a day after Utrecht struck a blow for the Eredivisie with a 1-0 win over Zenit Saint-Petersburg in a Wednesday first leg.

Premier League participants Everton will be seeking a result at home against Hajduk Split, the third-place team from Croatia’s top flight.

Gylfi Sigurdsson passed his medical at Goodison Park but will not be available for Everton on Thursday.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

As for the match, manager Ronald Koeman knows the Thursday matchdays for the UEL will try his club’s endurance and depth. From EvertonFC.com:

“We know English teams have some problems. I think it is more mental than physical because if you play in the Champions League – so Wednesday and Saturday – you have the same amount of days to recover. I try to put out the strongest team to start the game. That will take into account the tactical aspects of each game. That will mean different players start and different options in terms of substitutions.”

Captained by Zoran Nizic and managed by Joan Carrillo, Hajduk has a young star in the making in the form of 19-year-old attacking midfielder Nikola Vlasic, but Everton is heavily favored at home with Hajduk given 12:1 odds by bookmakers.

[ MORE: Barca GM says Coutinho, Dembele “close” ]

Those numbers are a relative sure thing compared to AC Milan’s visitors. Macedonia club Shkendija are a 33:1 underdog for its trip to Italy.

Elsewhere, Slovenian side Domzale is a longshot at home to visiting Marseille.

Speaking of bookmakers, Arsenal won’t enter the competition until the group stage but is considered the favorite to win the UEL by a hair over Milan. Everton, Villarreal, and Athletic Bilbao are level with third-best odds.

UEFA Europa League playoff first legs
Utrecht 1-0 Zenit — Weds.
BATE Borisov vs. Oleksandriya — 1 p.m. ET Thursday
Apollon Limassol vs. Midtjylland — 1 p.m.
Krasnodar vs. Red Star Belgrade — 1 p.m.
Dinamo Zagreb vs. Skenderbeu — 1 p.m.
FH vs. Braga — 1:45 p.m. ET Thursday
PAOK vs. Ostersund — 2 p.m. ET Thursday
Vardar vs. Fenerbahce — 2 p.m.
Plzen vs. AEK Lamaca — 2:15 p.m. ET Thursday
Altach vs. Maccabi Tel-Aviv — 2:30 p.m. ET Thursday
Ludogorets Razgrad vs. Suduva — 2:30 p.m.
Panathinaikos vs. Athletic Bilbao — 2:30 p.m.
Domzale vs. Marseille — 2:45 p.m. ET Thursday
Osijek vs. Austria Wien — 2:45 p.m.
Viitorul vs. Red Bull Salzburg — 2:45 p.m.
Ajax vs. Rosenborg — 2:45 p.m.
Legia Warsaw vs. Sheriff — 2:45 p.m.
AC Milan vs. Shkendija — 2:45 p.m.
Club Brugge vs. AEK — 2:45 p.m.
Partizan vs. Videoton — 3 p.m. ET Thursday
Everton vs. Hajduk Split — 3:05 p.m. ET Thursday
Maritimo vs. Dynamo Kyiv — 3:30 p.m. ET Thursday