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Top Premier League storylines — Week 7

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Following this weekend’s slate of Premier League fixtures, club soccer won’t take another break for five months, thus the meaty portion of the season is so nearly upon us. First, though, one more round of league games followed by that dreaded weekend off.

[ MORE: JPW’s PL predictions | TV, stream schedule for the weekend ]

Here are five of the biggest PL storylines to follow over the next 72 hours…

First of 6 battles among the “Big 3”

If we’re operating under the wide-spread notion that Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea — as they currently sit 1, 2 and 3 in the league table — are the main contenders for this season’s PL title, Saturday’s 12:30 p.m. ET kickoff at Stamford Bridge (Watch live, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com) is of massive importance: 3rd vs. 1st.

Man City (21-2 combined score through six games), like Man United, are yet to lose a game in the PL this season, while Chelsea haven’t lost since opening day (10-2 combined score in the ensuing five games). To say Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola‘s sides are in good form would be quite the understatement.

Conte got the better of Guardiola on both occasions last season, knocking off a nine-man City side at the Etihad Stadium in December before doing the double with a 2-1 win at home in April. Each side was victorious in the UEFA Champions League this week, with City brushing Shakhtar Donetsk aside, and Chelsea snatching all three points from their away trip to Atletico Madrid.


Undefeated vs. only defeated

Five wins, one draw — Man United’s start to the season. Zero wins, zero draws, six losses — Crystal Palace’s start to the season. Unfortunately for Frank de Boer Roy Hodgson, up next for the Eagles is a trip to Old Trafford (followed by a visit from Chelsea, so expect things to get worse before they get better). Will Palace score their first goal this season? Tune in to find out.

Further complicating matters for Hodsgon and Co. is the scintillating form of Romelu Lukaku (nine goals in eight games, all competitions) and the young attacking duo of Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial (10 goals between them, all competitions, already this season), even with Paul Pogba still unavailable through injury (hamstring). Jose Mourinho’s men did the double over Palace last season, winning 2-1 away in December and cruising to a 2-0 victory at home in May.


Rafa faces his former club

Rafa Benitez served six seasons as manager at Anfield, and while he’d previously faced his former club as manager of Chelsea, Sunday’s 11:30 a.m. ET kickoff (Watch live, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com) will be just the second time he’s done so while at Newcastle United. While it’s still early in the season, the Magpies’ current standing in the league table — 9th, and they trail the Reds by just two points — is undoubtedly one of the biggest surprises thus far.

No side currently in the top-16 of the league table has conceded more goal than Liverpool, which is welcome news for a Newcastle side that has struggled a fair bit in the goal-scoring department (six in six games). On the other hand, nothing they’ve seen thus far will have prepared them for the all-out attacking onslaught Liverpool are set to unleash.


Trouble ahead for Huddersfield?

Huddersfield were the single biggest story in the PL through two games — two wins as a newly-promoted side had them level on points for the league lead — though David Wagner‘s side has come back down to earth in its last four games — three draws and a loss, which slots them into 8th place ahead of Saturday’s visit from Tottenham Hotspur (7:30 a.m. ET, Watch live onNBCSN and NBCSports.com).

It’s the first time the Terriers have faced any of the PL’s “big six,” and signals the start of a run of five-of-eight games against those very sides — Man United, Liverpool, Man City and Arsenal all follow in relatively quick succession.


Battles at the bottom

  • Bournemouth vs. Leicester City — Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, on NBC Sports Gold
  • West Ham United vs. Swansea City —Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, on NBC Sports Gold

League-table places 15 through 19 currently read as follows: Swansea, Stoke City, Leicester, West Ham and Bournemouth. While it’s too early to call any game a relegation six-pointer, it’s far from too early to preclude yourself from the relegation dogfight which will be cultivated over the following two months.

Suspended Villar says Spain in danger of missing World Cup

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The suspended president of the Spanish soccer federation, who is under investigation for corruption, tried Monday to stoke up fears that the country could be kicked out of the World Cup because of government interference.

Angel Maria Villar, who is free on bail, spoke at a news conference in Madrid and again denied any wrongdoing. He also blamed the government for meddling in the federation’s affairs by suspending him.

“This government is putting Spain’s participation in the World Cup at risk,” the 67-year-old Villar said in his first news conference since being arrested in July along with his son, Gorka Villar, and two other officials.

[ BLANC: I turned down USMNT talks ]

“The risk is serious,” Villar said. “The only party responsible for Spain not going to the World Cup will be the Spanish government.”

Villar spoke three days after FIFA said it was concerned about the independence of the Spanish soccer federation and that it would soon send a delegation to analyze the situation. FIFA made no mention of a possible suspension of the federation, which could keep Spain out of next year’s World Cup in Russia or even knock Real Madrid and Barcelona out of the Champions League.

Villar, who has spent time behind bars to impede the possible destruction of evidence, and the other three officials are being investigated for alleged improper management, misappropriation of funds, corruption and falsifying documents.

Villar resigned his vice presidencies of both FIFA and UEFA following his arrest. But he tried to stay on as the head of Spanish federation, a post he held for three decades.

His refusal to listen to pleas for him to step down led the Spanish government to suspend him from the post for one year pending the outcome of the investigation. Court documents allege that besides misappropriated funds, Villar is suspected of corrupting several regional federations by offering favors in exchange for votes.

Villar fired back at the government, saying his suspension had broken FIFA rules since it represented interference in the federation’s management.

“It’s easy to see that the source of concern was my arbitrary and unjustified removal from the presidency of the federation and for not respecting the presumption of innocence,” Villar said, adding that other teams are ready to take Spain’s place at the World Cup.

“Be careful. There are other powerful countries that didn’t qualify like Italy that are waiting to pounce and take our place,” Villar said.

Spain, which won the World Cup in 2010, is considered to be among the favorites for next year’s tournament.

Blanc: I turned down USMNT talks

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U.S. Soccer has not been inactive when it comes to the USMNT coaching search, despite its uncertainty with an impending presidential election.

Le Parisien has an interview with Laurent Blanc in which the ex-Bordeaux, France, and Paris Saint-Germain boss says he was approached by the United States Soccer Federation, but was not interested in the gig.

[ MORE: Making sense of the PL table ]

Blanc said an international job would have to touch his roots, and he’s most certainly not American. The tall 52-year-old had a glittering playing career with Saint-Etienne, Barcelona, Marseille, Inter Milan, and Manchester United amongst other stops.

More important, it shows that Sunil Gulati and his men have to some degree moved forward with keeping their imprint on the national team.

That’s a little worrying on any team: A hierarchy that may not be around much longer may be working to fill a position arguably more important than its own. It’d be nice to have them commit to not hiring anyone until after February’s election.

Premier League Preview: Everton vs. Swansea City

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  • Everton leads all-time 15W-9D-3L
  • BUT Swans unbeaten in 7 vs. Toffees
  • Toffees go ninth with win
  • Swans four back of safety

Everton hopes its up-turn in form can end three seasons of futility against visiting Swansea City when the two sides meet at Goodison Park on Monday (Watch live at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

Gylfi Sigurdsson gets a chance to face his former club for the first time, while longtime Swans man Ashley Williams may also feature for Sam Allardyce.

Swansea has no time to focus on the past, as Paul Clement‘s men sit deep in the drop zone. The last place Swans are four points shy of safety.

What they’re saying

Everton’s Ashley Williams on facing his former club (again)“The game is a little bit more important to me, I would be lying I said it wasn’t. You always want to play against your old teams and it’s a fixture you always look for.  I have been looking forward to this one and it will be nice to see old faces and old friends. It is a game we want to win and to keep a clean sheet in, especially at home, in order to keep our momentum going.”

Swansea City’s Roque Mesa on the match“This is a massive game for us. We need to pick up points because we are bottom and we need to improve our position. Everton have a new manager and their players have done very well under him – you can see their confidence has grown since he joined. But we did well against West Brom and picked up three points, which was very important. Then we faced Manchester City and they proved too good for us. They are the best team in the league, and unfortunately, we couldn’t match them on the night.”

Prediction

Swans need to move past that Man City loss and build on a 1-0 win over West Brom a few days previous. That may not be possible at Goodison, and the Welsh side would be thrilled to escape with a draw. It seems unlikely. Everton 2-1.

Report: Man City, Guardiola to discuss new contract this summer

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Manchester City does not want to let Pep Guardiola start the third year with the club without signing on for longer term.

Guardiola enters the third and final year of his deal in August, and the BBC reports that Man City plans to negotiate a new deal with the Catalan wizard this summer.

[ MORE: Making sense of the PL table ]

This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise given City’s outstanding sophomore season under Guardiola.

Unbeaten City has an 11-point lead on the Premier League table after 18 weeks, with one draw and a PL record 16-straight wins. They have 56 goals scored, conceding just 12.

They’ve won five of six UEFA Champions League matches, only losing a match their opposition needed and they did not, 2-1 to Shakhtar Donetsk in Ukraine. City faces Basel next, and visits Leicester City in the League Cup quarterfinals Wednesday.