PL Sunday preview: Unexpected battlers at the top, bottom

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Sunday’s slate of fixtures features a pair of relegation battlers as well as a pair of top-six chasers, only very few of the above happen to be who you thought they’d be at the start of the season…

[ PL ROUNDUP: Man City, Spurs win while everyone else drops points ]

Brighton & Hove Albion vs. Everton — 8:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Of the four sides set for action on Sunday, only Brighton have started the season as many predicted: in 16th after seven games, just two points clear of the relegation zone. Of the other three, Newcastle United would have been the next most likely to be faced with a relegation battle, but alas it’s Everton who head into Falmer Stadium 17th in the PL table, one spot and four goals worse off than the newly promoted Seagulls.

After spending $200 million in the summer, the Toffees were supposed to be the ones bidding to break up the top-six hierarchy — not Newcastle, as is actually the case.

“I accept that everyone is entitled to his opinion and as a coach I don’t run away from criticism,” Everton boss Ronald Koeman said this week. “We know within Everton that we currently play under our level and that the results should be better. The moment I made the move from Southampton to a club with such ambitions, I knew I could be in a difficult situation if investments were not accompanied by results. I’m pretty calm with it.”

As for Brighton, things are slowly but surely turning around. Having scored just five goals through seven games, four of the five have come in their last two home games — 3-1 and 1-0 victories over West Bromwich Albion and Newcastle, respectively. Brighton boss Chris Hughton, for one, isn’t panicking.

“We could have had slightly more than seven points but we’re a new team coming into this division and we’ve already played Arsenal and Man City,” he said this week. “There’s not a sense of satisfaction at this moment because when you have competitive players, you don’t like losing. But there’s more positives to come from the game than negatives.”

INJURIES: Brighton — OUT: Tomer Hemed (suspension), Steve Sidewell (back), Beram Kayal (leg), Sam Baldock (calf); QUESTIONABLE: Davy Propper (thigh) | Everton — OUT: Ross Barkley (hamstring), Ramiro Funes Mori (knee), Seamus Coleman (leg), Yannick Bolasie (knee); RETURNING: James McCarthy (knee)

[ MORE: De Bruyne’s brilliance lauded | Klopp no fan of Mourinho’s style ]

Southampton vs. Newcastle United — 11 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

A win at St. Mary’s Stadium on Sunday could see Newcastle climb as high as fifth in the league table, depending on the margin of victory (a run-of-the-mill five-goal win would do the trick). Rafa Benitez‘s side is undoubtedly one of the biggest stories of the still-young season, having lost their first two games following a tumultuous summer of transfer dealings, only to rebound with three straight wins and points from four of the following five games.

As for their opponents, back-to-back losses to Manchester United and Stoke City leave Southampton chasing three points just to climb back into the top half of the table. While Newcastle will have been disappointed for the recent international break to arrive when it did (their 1-1 draw with Liverpool two weeks ago put everyone on notice), it couldn’t have come at a better time for Saints. These kind of early-season struggles are to be expected, though, according to midfielder James Ward-Prowse.

“This season we have a new manager, a new style of play and a few new signings as well, which have had a positive impact on the team,” he said this week. “It’s a building process still for us all, but it’s a positive one in the making. After this two weeks, it’s a great chance for us to hit the ground running and take the league by storm now.”

INJURIES: Southampton — PROBABLE: Shane Long (hip) | Newcastle — OUT: Paul Dummett (hamstring); PROBABLE: Jonjo Shelvey (finger), Matthew Ritchie (thigh), Christian Atsu (knee)

Liga MX wrap: Pachuca earns first win, Leon stays unbeaten

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All of Saturday’s action from around Mexico’s top flight…

Pachuca 3-1 Lobos BUAP

A strong first-half push from the hosts was all Pachuca needed on Saturday night to earn their first victory of the 2018 Clausura season. Angel Sagal brought the home side in front after just 10 minutes off of a near-post header, before Pachuca’s lead soon doubled 14 minutes later from the penalty spot when strike Franco Jara converted on the dead-ball attempt.

Just prior to halftime, Pachuca was out to a 3-0 advantage when 20-year-old outside back Erick Aguirre tallied his first goal for the club.

Last-place side Lobos got on the board three minutes into the second stanza via a finish from Heriberto Olvera, however, it wasn’t enough to provide anything more than a consolation for the visiting side.

Necaxa 1-3 Chivas Guadalajara

Mexican international Alan Pulido made it a dream start for the visitors from Guadalajara at the Estadio Victoria, however, that lead was cancelled out in first-half stoppage time after Carlos Gonzalez leveled the match up at 1-1.

The difference proved to be with 25 minutes left to play, when a goalkeeping error by Marcelo Barovero allowed Chivas to regain possession inside the Necaxa penalty area, before Ronaldo Cisneros tapped home the winner.

Then, a third goal came just prior to the end of regulation when Edwin Hernandez killed the game off for Matias Almeyda’s men, who also earned their first victory of the Clausura season.

Rest of Saturday’s Liga MX action

Cruz Azul 0-0 Club Leon
Queretaro 0-0 Tigres UANL
Monterrey 0-0 Club Tijuana

Sunday’s matches

UNAM vs. Club America — 1 p.m. ET
Santos Laguna vs. Morelia — 7 p.m. ET

The 2 Robbies: Alexis/Mkhitaryan transfer saga and more

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Robbie Mustoe and Robbie Earle recap all the key stories from the latest Premier League Saturday fixtures including Manchester City’s 3-1 win over Newcastle (0:20), Chelsea’s 4-0 victory at Brighton (10:15) and the latest on the Alexis Sanchez/Henrikh Mkhitaryan saga after wins for Arsenal and Manchester United (19:00). Plus, a closer look at the bottom of the table and thoughts go out to James McCarthy after his serious injury against West Brom (29:00).

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

All of the The 2 Robbies content can be accessed by clicking on this link:

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Follow them on Twitter @The2Robbies

Video: Stoke’s Imbula scores stunner on loan at Toulouse

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Stoke City supporters know the name Giannelli Imbula, and perhaps they’ll be clamoring for the Frenchman to return to the bet365 Stadium if he can score more goals like this.

[ MORE: PL Roundup — Top three all victorious; Gunners thrash Palace ]

The holding midfielder is currently on loan with Ligue 1 outfit Toulouse, and for the first time this season, Imbula opened his goalscoring account in some fashion.

Right on half-hour mark, Imbula unleashed a left-footed strike from nearly 40 yards out to give Toulouse the lead over Montpellier (below).

Imbula joined Stoke during the 2015/16 PL season, and has made 26 appearances for the Potters in his time with the club, prior to his loan to France.

Willian proves he’s Chelsea’s x-factor against Brighton

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There’s a considerable difference when watching a Chelsea team that plays with and without one of its Brazilian influences in the attacking part of the field.

Willian — who first debuted for the Blues back in 2013 — hasn’t always managed to be a regular starter for Chelsea, whether it was Jose Mourinho, Guus Hiddink or current manager Antonio Conte at the helm, though.

[ SOURCES: Jack Harrison expected to join Stoke City this winter ]

The 29-year-old plays with considerable flair, something that certainly isn’t uncommon amongst many players that have grown up in Brazil.

At times Willian’s overconfidence is a significant blessing, and at others it can be considered a curse, however, the former Corinthians player’s presence is something that Chelsea needs now more than ever.

That was on display on Saturday during the side’s 4-0 win at Brighton, a match in which Chelsea dominated from start to finish with Willian on the pitch. While the performance cannot solely be attributed to the attacking midfielder’s showing, it’s easy to argue that the Blues midfielder is becoming the club’s biggest x factor — one that can determine the outcome of a match.

Just look six minutes into the match, when the Blues put together one of the best team goals you’ll see in a match this year (or any year for that matter), which of course, was started and finished by none other than Willian.

What stands out about the play isn’t the brilliant slicing shot into the near post corner by the veteran playmaker, but instead the confidence that Willian exudes and brings to a Chelsea lineup that has plenty of talent to be considered one of the best teams in England and all of Europe.

After all, Conte’s group is just a season removed from winning the Premier League and still sits inside the top three in the world’s top league.

Then, there’s the Blues’ third goal against Brighton, which was set up by a smart, and instinctive, through ball played into the path of Eden Hazard by Willian (below).

Even though Hazard ends up with a ton of time on the ball to make his next decision, which was ultimately to cut inside on his preferred right foot, the run by Willian towards the end line dragged a defender away from the Belgian international — allowing the sequence to progress.

Arguing Willian’s importance isn’t a knock on Hazard — a world-class player in his own right — or Alvaro Morata, who has had the intolerable task of replacing a key player like Diego Costa.

Instead, it simply shows that Chelsea has a plethora of talent, and that some of the club’s attacking struggles throughout the 2017/18 season can be chalked up to Willian being left out of the starting XI on a regular basis.

[ MORE: Sergio Aguero continues to display brilliance for Man City ]

The Brazilian international has scored eight goals and added seven assists this season in all competitions for the Blues, despite only starting 19 matches.

The mind of manager Conte is an ever-changing one, so maybe Willian still doesn’t get the starting nod on an every week basis, but just by watching the team’s performance at the Amex Stadium it’s quite hard to argue against the player being on the field as much as possible.