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Top Premier League Story Lines: Relegation race running hot

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Forget five story lines, as the Premier League has just six matches altogether this weekend thanks to the FA Cup semifinals.

[ MORE: Rojo injured ]

With the semifinalists all being PL powers, the focus will largely be on the relegation race aside from three Top Seven sides looking to put pressure on Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal, and Manchester City.

Can Man Utd overcome short turnaround to keep up Top Four push?
Burnley vs. Manchester United — 9:15 a.m. ET Sunday

Defender-depleted Manchester United was home for Thursday’s UEFA Europa League second leg, which is the only blessing of a midweek match before a trip to Turf Moor to take on a Clarets side who is much better at home. The Red Devils control their Top Four destiny, but dropping a point would lend an advantage of both Liverpool and Man City while opening things up for Arsenal.

United will be keen to avenge the draw at Old Trafford which saw Tom Heaton making like Superman, nearly shattering his arm in a sublime save on Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

(Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

Palace seeks to be influential at both ends of table
Liverpool vs. Crystal Palace — 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday

Crystal Palace’s rise out of the drop zone has shaken up the Top Four a bit, too. Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend have helped the Eagles to April wins over Chelsea and Arsenal, and will hope to add Liverpool’s name to the list. Jurgen Klopp‘s Reds are two points clear of fourth place Man City and six ahead of fifth place Manchester United, but have would drop out of the Top Four if the aforementioned clubs win their matches-in-hand the rest of the way. Lost points would hit hard.

Cherries aim to put relegation in rear view mirror
Bournemouth vs. Middlesbrough — 10 a.m. ET Saturday

Eddie Howe‘s Bournemouth opens the day seven points clear of the drop with five matches to play, and a win would lift the Cherries well above the fray. Boro would just like to see safety, sitting six points shy of 17th.

Can Tigers keep up safety pace?
Hull City vs. Watford — 10 a.m. ET Saturday

While the unexpected is possible during the stretch run, the final relegation slot will likely come down to Hull and Swansea. Marco Silva’s Tigers are two points ahead of Swans and just need to maintain that pace barring a miraculous run from Boro. The next obstacle is a Watford side which has claimed three wins in four, the lone setback coming against the rolling Spurs.

Swans looking for any sign of life from the Liberty Stadium

Swansea City vs. Stoke City — 10 a.m. ET Saturday

One point from six matches does not make a successful relegation fight, and Paul Clement‘s side has lost to four lower tier sides since beating Burnley on March 4. Swansea have showed relegation form playing defense-first under Francesco Guidolin, throwing attack-first on Bob Bradley‘s watch, and now in a variety of ways under Clement. Maybe it’s the players?

Will Toffees be able to make improbable run to fifth?
West Ham United vs. Everton — 10 a.m. ET Saturday

Ronald Koeman‘s Toffees can been fairly consistent in piling up points, except when it comes to the teams above it. That’s what is keeping Everton from being a real threat to the Top Four. West Ham is not above Everton, and would love to hit a reset button on the entire season. No way the Toffees foul this up, even on the road, right?

Pep Guardiola praises Man City’s “animals”

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Pep Guardiola‘s Manchester City have set a new English top-flight record with 15 consecutive wins and, of course, comparisons are already being made as to just how good this City side are.

Runaway leaders of the Premier League with an 11-point lead heading into the busy festive period, City are being compared to the great teams in PL history.

Their winning run means they’ve accomplished something none of the other great PL teams have, and it seems like there is no stopping City.

Speaking to the media after the 4-0 win at Swansea on Wednesday which clinched the record, Guardiola praised his players for breaking the record but also their ability to not only excel when they have the ball but to hunt in packs to win it back.

“In history there have been some amazing teams – Liverpool, [Manchester] United with Sir Alex Ferguson, Chelsea with Jose Mourinho. A lot of good, good teams and we are the first ones to win 15 games in a row,” Mourinho said. “Of course that will not make sense if we do not win the title, if we don’t win the title it will just be a record. This record will be broken but it will not be easy. When (my players) don’t have the ball they go to win it like animals. At this level it’s so competitive. That means we are strong in the head.”

Guardiola’s team have made the best start in Premier League history to a season with 49 points from their opening 17 games and 16 wins from those matches.

They’ve scored 52 goals and the duo of David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne are controlling the tempo of each and every game they play in, but not much has been said about the tenacity in City’s play to win the ball back.

That quality has always been a hallmark of Guardiola’s teams at Barcelona and Bayern Munich with the fabled “six second rule” mentioned time and time again as he set his players a target of six seconds to win back possession of the ball.

City did that time and time again against Swansea on Wednesday with Silva regaining possession on multiple occasions in midfield and releasing the likes of Sterling and Sergio Aguero to attack.

There is a lot more behind this ruthless City side than just breaking winning and scoring records. Their extreme hunger for success and doing the dirty work was duly noted by Guardiola.

USSF says nominations submitted for 8 president candidates

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CHICAGO (AP) The U.S. Soccer Federation says it received the required three letters of nomination for eight candidates in its presidential election, one fewer than the total of people who announced their intention to run.

The USSF is conducting background checks on the candidates whose nominations were received by Tuesday night’s deadline. The governing body said the check is to ascertain that a candidate has “no conviction or no contest plea to a felony or crime of moral turpitude” and it will announce the candidate slate after completing the process.

[ MORE: Atlanta acquires Nagbe ]

Sunil Gulati, the USSF president since 2006, decided after the Americans failed to qualify for the World Cup that he will not seek a fourth four-year term.

The nine people who announced they are running include former men’s national team players Paul Caligiuri, Eric Wynalda and Kyle Martino; U.S. women’s goalkeeper Hope Solo; Soccer United Marketing president Kathy Carter; USSF vice president Carlos Cordeiro; Boston lawyer Steve Gans; New York lawyer Michael Winograd; and Paul LaPointe, Northeast Conference manager of the United Premier Soccer League.

The election will be held in February.

Madrid rallies to beat Al Jazira, reach Club World Cup final (video)

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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) Gareth Bale scored an 81st-minute winner as Real Madrid came from behind to beat Emirates club Al Jazira 2-1 on Wednesday and reach the Club World Cup final.

Madrid will try to win its third world title in four seasons when its faces South American champion Gremio on Saturday.

[ MORE: Premier League Weds. roundup ]

The match had two goals disallowed by video review, one for each team.

Madrid struggled early and allowed the local league winners to open the scoring with a goal by Brazilian forward Romarinho just before halftime.

But Cristiano Ronaldo equalized early in the second half and Bale netted the winner less than a minute after entering the match as a substitute for Karim Benzema.

Paul Clement admits helplessness at facing Man City

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Swansea City manager Paul Clement may have the enduring quote of the season so far when it comes to facing the behemoth that is Manchester City.

[ RECAP – City hammer Swansea ]

The suffering Swans have had their share of poor performances this season — Clement later said January transfer spending “is a must” if the club wants to stay up — but he’s throwing his hands up in the air when it comes to Wednesday’s loss at the Liberty Stadium.

The man sounds exasperated, and sorry for his team. From the BBC:

“At times it was horrible to be on the sideline watching that, seeing my side trying but suffering for long periods. They’re not the games that will decide our season but it was hard to watch at times because they were so dominant. For me, one of the best sides I’ve ever come across. So many good athletes, so many intelligent footballers and it’s really hard to pin them down. We actually had some attempts on their goal so I’m disappointed we didn’t get on the score sheet but they were a far superior side to us. We’ve got to put it aside that game. We’ve got Everton away (next) and we’ve got to try and pick something up there.”

All that’s left is for Clement to pick up a clarinet, awkwardly blow into it, then point at Pep Guardiola and say, “He’s good.”

Free message board points to the first one to name the reference.