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Top Premier League storylines – Week 8

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The international break is over, and while some hearts are broken and others are lifted with euphoria, all players must get back to work regardless of if they will be headed to Russia next summer.

From a club perspective, international breaks bring a chance for players to improve their form with a slight change of scenery, or the possible occurrence of a slight drop in momentum. But most of all, they just want their players to stay healthy.

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

With the players back to their training grounds, here are the four biggest storylines for the return of Premier League action…

Liverpool tests itself against the Premier League’s best

Last season, Liverpool was terrible against the lesser teams and up for it in games against the best. This time around, Jurgen Klopp will hope for more of the same – at least, the positive part – as he hosts heated rival Manchester United at 7:30 a.m. ET on Saturday (Watch live, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com). The Red Devils may not be atop the Premier League table, but that’s only because Manchester City has matched them the entire way, only slightly ahead by just a single goal on differential.

Unfortunately the Reds could not complete their international break objective – Sadio Mane returns injured and will miss six weeks, a massive blow to Liverpool’s top four hopes. Nevertheless, they still have Klopp, who has matched up extremely well against Jose Mourinho, with just one loss in seven matches against this weekend’s opposing boss. Can Liverpool manage to stave off the high-flying Red Devils?


Can West Ham break down Burnley?

The Hammers have put their poor start behind them and are beginning a climb up the table. A win this weekend against Burnley at Turf Moor at 10:00 a.m. ET (Watch live on NBCSports.com) would be a signature moment in their recovery, three points against a team that has been a pleasant surprise this season. The Clarets have been ridiculously hard to break down ever since their return to the top flight, but this season they’ve also discovered a newfound cutting edge up front.

Slaven Bilic has deployed Javier Hernandez out wide in an attempt to fit both he and Andy Carroll into the lineup, and with the Hammers healthy after the break, they should have a full disposal of players to look to break down the hosts. However, with Burnley now able to possess the ball in greater spells, the weak West Ham defense could be at risk.


Can Alexis Sanchez put World Cup heartbreak behind him?

Like the United States, Chile missed out on the World Cup in heartbreaking fashion. The two-time defending Copa America champions were poor throughout qualification, and ultimately ended up just short of the finish line. Arsenal star Alexis Sanchez must put this disappointment behind him, lest it bleed into his club career.

Arsenal travels to Watford at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday (Watch live, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com), and like Burnley, the Hornets have improved mightily from last season to this. Most importantly, they’ve capitalized on playing teams down on their luck such as Bournemouth, Southampton, and Swansea, and could do the same if Sanchez and Arsenal do not bring their best mentality to Vicarage Road.


Will Ronald Koeman stave off the sharks?

Everton is 16th in the table, and if this season is truly setting up to be a relegation battle, their match this weekend could be a vital one. The Toffees travel to Falmer Stadium to take on Brighton & Hove Albion on Sunday at 8:30 a.m. ET (Watch live, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com) with the Seagulls sitting just two spots above them in the table, with both sides sitting on seven points.

If Ronald Koeman is to keep Everton floating above the relegation sharks, he must win this match. Any dropped points on the road at a newly promoted team would only serve to leak even more water into an already listing ship.

WATCH LIVE: Everton vs. Swansea City

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Everton looks to continue its upswing while reversing the hoodoo of Swansea City when it hosts the Welsh side at Goodison Park on Monday (Watch live at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

Swans have not lost to Everton in three seasons, but sit bottom of the Premier League table.

Sam Allardyce started Gylfi Sigurdsson and Ashley Williams against the former side, while Paul Clement will hope to get an upset with Wilfried Bony up top.

LINEUPS

Everton: Pickford, Kenny, Martina, Holgate, Williams, Schneiderlin, Gana Gueye, Lennon, Rooney, Sigurdsson, Calvert-Lewin. Subs: Robles, Keane, Jagielka, Ramirez, Davies, Vlasic, Lookman.

Swansea City: Fabianski, Naughton, Fernandez, Mawson, Olsson, Roque Mesa, Fer, Carroll, Dyer, Narsingh, Bony. Subs: Nordfeldt, van der Hoorn, Rangel, Clucas, Sanches, Ayew, Abraham.

Timbers make it official: Savarese is the new boss

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The Portland Timbers have made it official, announcing the hiring of New York Cosmos architect Giovanni Savarese as the successor to Caleb Porter.

Savarese, 46, led the Cosmos to three NASL Championship Games in his first run as a manager, following a playing career that included stops at Millwall, NY/NJ MetroStars, and Swansea City. He attended Long Island University, and was capped 30 times with 10 goals for Venezuela.

[ BLANC: I turned down USMNT talks ]

He’s an intriguing hire for Portland, who won an MLS Cup but suffered from inconsistency under the highly-regarded Porter (twice missing the playoffs but twice earning the West’s No. 1 seed). While the Cosmos regularly spent well, Savarese navigated the uncertain waters of a nascent league with regular success.

From Timbers.com:

“I am both excited and proud to become the head coach of the Portland Timbers, and this is an ideal fit and outstanding opportunity for me as I take the next step in my coaching career,” Savarese said. “The passion, ambition and support surrounding this club is truly inspiring, and I am sincerely honored and grateful for this opportunity to lead it on the pitch and to build on the club’s history of success for the community and the incredible supporters of the Portland Timbers.”

The hiring has been rumored for some time. Though Savarese was loyal to the Cosmos, the NASL’s future has been hung in the hands of the legal system for some time due to a bold lawsuit against U.S. Soccer Federation. The NASL contends that the relationships between the USSF, Soccer United Marketing, United Soccer League, and Major League Soccer have conspired to stop the NASL from competing with MLS as a D-1 league.

LVG would only return to club football to get at Man Utd

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Leave it to The Daily Mirror to find that last bit of juice when it comes to Manchester United and former manager Louis Van Gaal.

Well, probably the last bit.

The Dutch manager said he does not expect to return to club football, unless one of the big boys in the Premier League offered him the chance to take a run at United. The Red Devils, of course, fired him shortly after an FA Cup title in order to hire Jose Mourinho.

[ MORE: WBA 1-2 Man Utd | Bournemouth 0-4 Liverpool ]

From The Mirror, quoting LVG at a Sunday night function in Rotterdam.

“I will probably not manage a club anymore,” Van Gaal said. “I would make one exception: If a big English club comes for me, than I would do it. Because then I can get the chance to get one over on Manchester United.’’

Could you see him getting a run at any of the Top Four contenders, even on a caretaker basis? Could Liverpool come calling if they tired of Jurgen Klopp one season, or might Arsenal or even Everton need a stopgap (should the Toffees spending come good)?

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.