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PL Sunday preview: Last chance saloon for Man United, Arsenal

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24 hours from right now, the Premier League’s top-four race could be clear as crystal… just as likely, though, Sunday’s pair of games, featuring three-fourths of the four-team battle for two UEFA Champions League places, could leave the league table far less clear than its already muddled state.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Liverpool vs. Southampton — 8:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

The math surrounding Liverpool’s Champions League chase is extremely simple: if they win their final three games of the season, they can finish no worse than fourth; so much as two points dropped over their final three games, and the door is opened for Manchester United (who trail by four points, but have a game in hand) to leapfrog Jurgen Klopp‘s Reds. The run-in begins Sunday, when Claude Puel‘s 12th-place Southampton visit Anfield.

With just one defeat from their last nine PL games, only Tottenham Hotspur have won more points than Liverpool during that period. Had it not been the disastrous start to the 2017 calendar year (zero wins from five games, and just three total points), the Reds would be right alongside Tottenham right now, battling for a second-place finish behind runaway leaders Chelsea. The past is the past, though, and Klopp is keen to finish his first full season as Liverpool manager inside the top-four.

“The plan is for Sunday that we can use Anfield,” Klopp said when appraising his team’s top-four chances. “I know how it is, for some people it’s maybe a nervy situation and they bite on their (nails) and think, ‘hopefully, hopefully, hopefully it can happen.’

“But we need to be brave, we need to enjoy the game, we need to play football, we need to defend very serious and if possible, to use the crowd, creating a special atmosphere.”

INJURIES: Liverpool — OUT: Sadio Mane (knee), Jordan Henderson (foot); QUESTIONABLE: Philippe Coutinho (leg) | Southampton — OUT: Virgil Van Dijk (ankle), Charlie Austin (fitness)

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — The day Swansea staved off relegation? ]

Arsenal vs. Manchester United — 11 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

As stated above, Man United, having to make up a four-point gap, need a bit of help if they’re to finish in the top-four. Arsenal, on the other hand, must overcome a nine-point deficit (with two games in hand) to Liverpool in order to extend Arsene Wenger‘s streak of 20 straight seasons finishing fourth or better.

In a strange twist of priorities, Jose Mourinho has decided to focus his side’s full energy and efforts on winning the Europa League, rather than chasing a top-four finish which he says the Red Devils “lost [the] chance to fight for” in drawing 1-1 with Swansea City last weekend. Thus, the lineup the Portuguese puts out to face Arsenal might just be full of reserve and academy players.

“The players who have accumulated lots of minutes are not going to play next weekend,” Mourinho told BBC without naming names. “We are not going to Arsenal to say, ‘beat us 5-0 or 6-0.’ We are going there to fight for a result but it’s impossible. I cannot do it another way.

“If Celta were playing with their best team and, if Celta were fighting for important things in La Liga, we would go (into the second leg) in the same circumstances but I cannot play the same team that played here (at Estadio Baladios) and then we play again next Thursday. I think in the last match against Swansea, we lost our last chance to fight for the top four so I’m going to rest players.”

INJURIES: Arsenal — OUT: Granit Xhaka (ankle), Lucas Perez (fitness), Santi Cazorla (achilles); RETURNING: Shkodran Mustafi (thigh) | Man United — OUT: Zlatan Ibrahimovic (knee), Marcos Rojo (knee), Luke Shaw (foot), Marouane Fellaini (suspension), Timothy Fosu-Mensah (shoulder); QUESTIONABLE: Marcus Rashford (knee)

Gold Cup Final preview: USMNT needs a trophy vs. Jamaica

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The major selling point of Bruce Arena’s hire, aside from his being the anti-Jurgen Klinsmann, was that the United States men’s national team would not be out-foxed tactically (or at least not be caught without a game plan).

Thirteen games into the tenure, the jury is out on whether the American boss’ second stint is on the path to World Cup success — those assumed goal posts will likely be moved depending on the group draw in Russia — but he has brought stability to the team and engineered a positive change in mentality.

[ MORE: How will USMNT line up? ] 

I have a great deal of respect for Joe Prince-Wright’s view of the national team, and ProSoccerTalk’s editor wrote today that U.S. Soccer would be proven right in its hiring of Arena if the Yanks won the Gold Cup with a Wednesday win over Jamaica.

But it doesn’t take a devil’s advocate to ask if it is quite that simple?

As much as I’m sure the removal of Klinsmann became necessary due to the morale of the USMNT and its players’ opinions of the German manager, I’m far from certain we’ve learned much about the hiring of Arena. Frankly, I can’t imagine any of the results being much worse under Peter Vermes, or Caleb Porter, or Ben Olsen.

The best win of Arena’s second tenure so far was probably the semifinal defeat of Costa Rica this weekend, and the best moment was the 1-1 draw at Azteca against Mexico. There’s no denying he’s righted the World Cup ship —  and that’s paramount — but it’s hard to imagine just qualifying for Russia should give Arena some sort of status, 0-2 hole or not. Any coach needs to be judged by his tournament, and Arena knows this. He’s helped author the best World Cup performance in modern U.S. men’s history, and he’s also presided over a train wreck (Imagine pulling that performance with that roster into the 2018 supporters’ climate. I’m shuddering on behalf of social media).

Which brings us to the import of Wednesday in Santa Clara. The United States lineup is experienced in big games and superior to Jamaica, which is coming off one day less rest. Yes, Jamaica’s squad features an incredible goalkeeper in Andre Blake and a half-dozen MLS players, but the rest are largely players who ply their trade in the U.S. second tier or Jamaica’s top flight.

Again, against Michael Bradley, Tim Howard, Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, et cetera, et cetera.

The bookmakers say a Jamaica win would pay off 8:1. Just getting to penalty kicks would pay 3:1.

(Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

The U.S. should win the 9:30 p.m. ET start, and put one foot in the 2021 Confederations Cup in Qatar. If it doesn’t, it’ll be because the side couldn’t sort out its wobbly back line or find its way past Blake. The latter would be more forgivable than the former, but really only in a “Tim Howard vs. Belgium but unblemished” fashion.

And it could be wrong to call Arena’s tournament a failure if the Yanks lose, depending on how it happens, but this is a man who helped a much lesser U.S. side to a 1-0 home friendly win over Jamaica just a few months ago (a Jamaica side who’s only missing player of consequence was Darren Mattocks). Arena trotted out Luis Robles, Graham Zusi, Steve Birnbaum, Walker Zimmerman, Jorge Villafana, Dax McCarty, Chris Pontius, Benny Feilhaber, Sebastian Lletget, Jordan Morris, and Juan Agudelo. The team he’ll start on Wednesday will be miles better.

Mattocks and his Reggae Boyz are true to their country’s national reputation of electrifying speed, and it’s imperative that Arena sets his backs to handle that. That means true outside backs — sorry, Graham Zusi — and center backs who won’t be forced to foul too often. That is, after all, the only way Jamaica found its way past Mexico via a free kick from a dangerous spot.

Mexico attempted 200 more passes, converting 150 more than Jamaica in the semifinal. It’ll be on Arena’s enterprising attackers to find a way past a stacked defense without opening up the midfield too much to counter attacks. Jamaica also played a borderline perfect game when it did have the ball, missing on just 16 of 143 passes and, again, scoring on a free kick.

Frankly, if the U.S. loses to Jamaica in the same way as Mexico did, it probably wouldn’t be proper to lay it on Arena. It would mean another batch of American players had failed to find a way to goal. But what we’re counting on is a better organized team than the baffled bunch that fell 2-1 to Jamaica under Klinsmann in the 2015 Gold Cup.

In that way, yeah, we can count on Arena being a relative success. But winning this tournament, especially given who Mexico called up, needs to be treated the same way you’d view it under any other manager: expectation. Anything less wouldn’t make Arena a failure, but would certainly qualify as a failure for the U.S. program.

PSG, Barca quizzed on Neymar rumors; Pique blasts Ligue 1

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We don’t have a ton of sympathy for them, but credit to Barcelona stars Javier Mascherano and Gerard Pique for giving actual answers when put in the awkward position of hearing the media’s Neymar-to-PSG questions on Tuesday night.

PSG boss Unai Emery was far less interested in doing that.

Emery has refused to comment on speculation linking Neymar to big move to the Parc des Princes.

[ MORE: Van Dijk to Liverpool after all? ]

Speaking ahead of Wednesday’s International Champions Cup match against Juventus, Emery had nothing of substance to say to the idea of Brazil’s captain heading to his stable.

“Our focus is to talk about the game tomorrow and a season to get ready for. I prefer to focus on the present moment and the preparation with the team.”

As for Edinson Cavani?

On the Barca side of things, Mascherano said he thinks Neymar will stay because he’s very important to the team, while Pique backed off a little after causing a stir by posting a photo of the defender with Neymar captioned, “He stays.”

“The post was nothing official, it was a gut thing, it doesn’t depend on me. Only (Neymar) can say what will happen, but I hope he stays. I tried to explain to Neymar, as a team-mate and a friend, the situation he’s in. I would say don’t go to a league which, with all due respect, is not as good.”

Boom, roasted (Though there’s some pot-kettle-black here, as there’s a fairly precipitous drop-off further down La Liga’s table, too).

Spanish report claims Coutinho (not Liverpool) agrees deal with Barca

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According to Sky Sports’ transfer centre, Spanish radio station RAC1 reports that Barcelona has agreed a deal with Liverpool midfielder Philippe Coutinho.

The report comes on the heels of the half-hour delay of Barca’s nightly press conference, though that could be coincidental.

It also states that the agreement is between Barcelona and Coutinho, and that no fee has been agreed between Liverpool and the La Liga giants. That’s a huge obstacle, with Liverpool maintaining that no offer will work this summer, so the idea of a transfer being imminent could be beyond the pale.

[ MORE: Van Dijk to Liverpool after all? ]

A sale like this risks overturning Jurgen Klopp‘s apple cart, as the Reds boss was quoted this week as saying, “The very important message is that we are not a selling club and that’s how it is.”

Mohamed Salah is good, but he’s no Coutinho. Meanwhile, Coutinho has the potential to be as close to a like-for-like replacement for Neymar — one of the Top Five players in the world — as there is on the market.

The two clubs have done business before, and in more trying circumstances; Barcelona bought Luis Suarez from Liverpool within a month of the Uruguayan striker being banned for a biting incident at the 2014 World Cup.

A spectacular deal, Liverpool would have to make such a move this early in the summer when it can invest what would have to be a wild amount of money given the fees splashed about this transfer window.

Source close to Van Dijk expects Liverpool move within window

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It wasn’t too long ago that Liverpool apologized for its pursuit of Southampton center back Virgil Van Dijk, ending its quest for the big Dutchman.

Is it apology accepted and then some at St. Mary’s? Sky Sports reporter Kaveh Solhekol says not much has changed since the big sorry toward Anfield, but that a source close to Van Dijk expects Van Dijk will be a Red “by the end of the window.”

[ MORE: JPW’s take on the Van Dijk saga ]

That said, Sky’s report makes it unclear what’s changed to lead to such a proclamation.

There is no suggestion that Liverpool have done anything wrong since they apologised and ended their interest. Southampton’s position remains that Van Dijk is not for sale but Chelsea and Manchester City are also interested.

So… it’s happening then? Money does talk, and a massive fee from Liverpool could make Southampton’s life easier in explaining the sale to its fans. It would also mean Saints sold Van Dijk and Jose Fonte within a year. For more on the possible transfer, here’s JPW’s take.

Van Dijk averaged 1.9 tackles, 2.6 interceptions, 6.8 clearances, and 4.7 aerials won per Premier League matches last season, his second since a Summer 2015 move from Celtic.

[ MORE: Milan talk to Costa, Falcao agent ]