PL Sunday preview: Man Utd, Spurs begin title quests

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We’re 80 percent of the way through the opening weekend of the 2017-18 Premier League season, which means two games — featuring two of the six presumed title hopefuls — on the Sunday schedule…

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — A wild return for the top flight! ]

Newcastle United vs. Tottenham Hotspur — 8:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Tottenham haven’t spent a penny all summer (maybe you’ve heard), despite netting $65 million in exchange for Kyle Walker, but worst of all, Danny Rose went public with his own frustrations this week, leaving one to wonder if everyone in the dressing feels the same. Suffice to say, Mauricio Pochettino welcomes the “distraction” of real games to be played.

The last time Spurs visited St. James’ Park, Newcastle embarrassed Pochettino’s men, 5-1, on the final day of the 2015-16 season. The defeat saw Spurs fall from second in the league table, down to third, behind Arsenal. The Magpies had been relegated to the Championship weeks earlier, but manager Rafa Benitez stuck around for a season in England’s second division and brought the club back to the PL at the first time of asking.

INJURIES: Newcastle — OUT: DeAndre Yedlin (hamstring); QUESTIONABLE: Dwight Gayle (hamstring) | Tottenham — OUT: Danny Rose (knee), Erik Lamela (hip), Son Heung-min (arm); QUESTIONABLE: Kieran Tripper (ankle), Victor Wanyama (knee)

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

While far from the busiest of the PL’s six title hopefuls this summer, Man United’s transfer business was conducted on a must-be-addressed basis — star striker Romelu Lukaku, to replace Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney; Nemanja Matic, to anchor the midfield and protect a shaky set of center backs; Victor Lindelof, to displace those shaky center backs — perhaps more so than any other side. Given the number of injuries Jose Mourinho was forced to navigate last season, spending just short of $190 million on reinforcements was the Red Devils’ only way back into genuine title contention.

As for West Ham, Slaven Bilic needs to deliver serious improvement on last season’s 11th-place finish — and a much faster start to the campaign — if he’s to complete his third full season in charge of the Hammers. While Marko Arnautovic goes down as the club-record signing ($26 million) from the summer, it’s Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez ($18 million) on whom all eyes will be focused on Sunday, as Mexico’s all-time leading goalscorer returns to Old Trafford, to face the manager who many believe forced him out, for the first time since leaving the club for Bayer Leverkusen nearly two years ago.

“I can just say it’s luck,” Hernandez said when asked about his storybook return to life in the PL. “It was a great experience [there] … only happiness. I was living my dream and made that big step, which is not common. There is nothing negative about going there. It’s going to be my first game with my new club, against my old club in my old house. It’s only positive things – it’s an important moment for me.”

INJURIES: Man United — OUT: Luke Shaw (foot), Marcos Rojo (knee), Ashley Young (hamstring), James Wilson (knee) | West Ham — OUT: Michail Antonio (hamstring), Sofiane Feghouli (hamstring), Andy Carroll (groin); QUESTIONABLE: Manuel Lanzini (knee), Marko Arnautovic (leg)

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.

Neymar makes history in PSG’s 8-0 thrashing of Dijon

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A pair of statements which are both true, and not at all mutually exclusive, if you allow logic and balance to prevail: 1) Neymar and his friends at Paris Saint-Germain are quite good at the soccer; 2) they aren’t challenged enough in Ligue 1.

[ MORE: Wednesday’s transfer rumor roundup | Tuesday | Friday ]

Of course, they’ll be challenged plenty during the latter stages of the Champions League (they drew Real Madrid in the round of 16), but on a weekly basis, the level of competition in their domestic league isn’t of a high standard to indicate just how good they are. That’s the new debate with regard to PSG — it’s no longer, “Are they good? Maybe they’re just a big fish in a small pond.”

On Wednesday, led by Neymar, the most expensive transfer signing of all-time, Unai Emery’s side thrashed 10th-place Dijon to the tune of 8-0. As mentioned, Neymar did slightly more than just pull his own weight — four goals to go with a pair of assists; he lent a direct hand in six of the eight goals.

[ MORE: Chelsea survive Norwich in PKs, reach FA Cup 4th round ]

Even the statistical whizzes at Opta appear somewhat stumped by such an abundance of goals.

Anytime the keepers of stats toss out a “since we started collecting data,” be proud of your achievement. Be very, very proud.