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Week 15: Top Premier League storylines — Can Swansea stop Jamie Vardy?

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December football is upon us as Week 15 of the Premier League season gets underway this weekend.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

The run from now until the January transfer window can shape a team’s season, as getting a good string of results before the New Year is crucial for a club’s title (or survival) hopes.

Here are five things to look out for in Week 15 Premier League action.

Will Swansea beat Leicester and stop the rot?

After a hot start to the Premier League campaign, Swansea City has hit a real rough patch, falling all the way to 15th on the table. With a big match at home against Leicester City on Saturday, Garry Monk‘s men have a massive opportunity to turn things around. The Swans are winless in their last four league matches, and have scored just two goals over that span. Bafetimbi Gomis needs to get back on the scoresheet, as a loss could see the Swans drop as low as 17th. Swansea needs a burst of life, and ending Jamie Vardy‘s scoring streak with a win at the Liberty Stadium would do just that.

Surprisingly-hot Sunderland look to stun injured Arsenal

Sunderland has rattled off consecutive wins to climb out of the relegation zone for the first time this season. While a trip to the Emirates is never an easy task, Sunderland is facing Arsenal at just the right time. Arsene Wenger‘s men have a plethora of injuries, with key men Alexis Sanchez and Santi Cazorla both ruled out for this weekend’s match. With a must-win Champions League clash at Olympiacos next week, this is a trap game for the Gunners, who could be caught looking ahead. Look for the young Duncan Watmore to have a potential breakthrough performance for Sunderland, as Big Sam’s side could make it three wins on the spin.

[ RELATED: Koeman says Sadio Mane not for sale, not even for $150 million ]

Can Chelsea keep climbing?

Chelsea still sit 14th on the table, but Mourinho’s men have strung together two good performances in the Premier League, a win over Norwich City and a draw at Tottenham. Add in a Champions League win between those matches, and Chelsea are playing some of their best football of the season. With a home match on Saturday against a Bournemouth side that hasn’t won since September, the Blues will look to keep on climbing. What has been more encouraging than the recent results for Chelsea are the performances, as Eden Hazard is finally starting to pick up his play while Willian continues to impress. The key to Chelsea making a run into the New Year is Hazard playing like his old self, as he is the key man for the Blues’ success.

“Boring” Manchester United could kick-start a holiday run

Louis Van Gaal‘s Manchester United side has taken tons of criticism this year, as the goals have been lacking in LVG’s possession-based style of play. While United isn’t playing extremely attractive football, they’re playing extremely effective football. The Red Devils have conceded the fewest goals in the league and sit just one point off the leaders. Saturday’s match against a banged up West Ham side is a good opportunity for LVG to get a big win over a top-half opponent. After West Ham, the Red Devils have favorable matchups against Bournemouth and Norwich City, which means this “boring” United side could very well head into Boxing Day with 37 points, a five-point improvement from last season.

[ RELATED: Wayne Rooney ruled out with “nasty” ankle injury ]

McClaren’s future at Newcastle up in the air

Newcastle faces a tough test against a red-hot Liverpool side on Sunday, and the goal for the Magpies is to simply avoid embarrassment. After going up 1-0 against Crystal Palace last weekend, Newcastle broke down and ended up losing 5-1. Back in the relegation zone, Steve McClaren‘s first year in charge at St. James’ Park could be nearing an end. A result against Liverpool would be a bonus, but another heavy defeat could give the Newcastle board some big decisions to make.

Report: Galaxy leading way in Zlatan pursuit

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A report out of Italy hints at a win for the LA Galaxy when it comes to Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Football-Italia says the best offer sent the way of the big Swede, 38, is from the Galaxy, at about $15 million over two years.

MLS can pop its collar that the report says Ibrahimovic doesn’t believe Bologna is a big enough club to tempt him into a move away from LA, where he was MLS Best XI in consecutive seasons.

[ MORE: Stewart says Berhalter is safe ]

The report also notes that Napoli interest has cooled, while AC Milan (more on them later) and Manchester United have not made serious offers for the man with 456 career club goals and 173 assists between the Galaxy, Ajax, Man United, Juventus, Inter Milan, AC Milan, Barcelona, and Paris Saint-Germain.

Knowing the math, and that Zlatan has scored 53 times in 58 matches for United, you wonder whether he’s not hunting 500 club goals. He’s also a known trophy hunter. Both of those paths are markedly easier with the Galaxy than Bologna, and Ibrahimovic is already comfortable and locked in a fierce rivalry with Carlos Vela and LAFC.

Zlatan also had 116 caps with 62 goals for Sweden and is one of the biggest names to grace Major League Soccer’s pitches. Of course there’s a chance at his age that he could break down, or his form could drop off a cliff, but for now another run as both villain and hero in a major MLS market would be a win for the league (even if he regularly touts himself as bigger than the league).

While we have not seen Ibrahimovic in a top league since he was injured for Man United, there’s little doubt he could still do a job over there. He’s only 2.5 seasons removed from a 28-goal, 10-assist season in all comps for Man United.

Don’t sleep on the idea that AC Milan could make a call to Ibrahimovic’s people, having scored just three goals in their past four games including high-profile 1-goal losses to Roma, Juventus, and Lazio. Milan has just 11 goals in 12 league outings, and was supposed to be a Serie A threat without the schedule congestion of Europe.

Top teams in good shape as EURO 2020 qualifying reaches climax

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With the Netherlands missing out on Euro 2016 and Italy absent from the World Cup in 2018, some of Europe’s traditional soccer powers have surprisingly failed to advance to recent major international tournaments.

Don’t expect any big shocks when qualification for next year’s European Championship wraps up over the coming days.

Six teams – Belgium, Spain, Italy, Poland, Russia and Ukraine – have already booked their places in the tournament and the remaining 14 automatic qualifiers will be determined after the final group games.

World champion France, European champion Portugal, and heavyweights such as Germany, England and the Netherlands are in good shape to finish in the top two in their respective groups, ensuring spots in the Europe-wide finals taking place in June and July.

There are big opportunities for Europe’s so-called lesser soccer nations, too. Finland, for example, needs only to beat Liechtenstein to qualify for its first major tournament.

France, the World Cup winner last year, is tied on points with Turkey in Group H and will secure a top-two finish by beating Moldova on Thursday. In case of an upset in that game in Paris, the French have another shot at qualification at Albania on Sunday.

Portugal, led by Cristiano Ronaldo, is guaranteed to advance in the defense of its title with wins over Lithuania at home and Luxembourg away – the bottom two teams in Group B.

England needs one win from its final two games – at home to Montenegro on Thursday and away to Kosovo on Sunday – to top Group A.

Editor’s note: Need tickets for the England game? Click here

And in Group C, Germany and the Netherlands are tied on points and need a maximum of four points from their final two qualifiers. Both have to play Northern Ireland, which is three points behind in third place.

The last four qualifying spots for the 24-team Euros will be decided in the playoffs in March.

RONALDO’S CHALLENGE

Could Cristiano Ronaldo fail to qualify for a major tournament?

UEFA would hate to see the Portugal star miss out, but his team has lacked a spark in qualifying and is eight points off Group B leader Ukraine.

Portugal is favored to beat Lithuania on Thursday and Luxembourg on Sunday to secure second place.

Still, there’s little margin for error. Dropped points could allow Serbia to overtake, forcing Portugal into the playoffs.

ENGLAND LANDMARK

England will be playing its 1,000th men’s international in the match against Montenegro and the occasion will be marked in a number of ways, including recognizing the notable contributions of former players and managers. Players will wear individual “legacy numbers” on their jerseys.

England manager Gareth Southgate is hoping a line can be drawn following scenes last month when his players were racially abused by some Bulgaria fans during England’s 6-0 win in Sofia. The game was stopped on two occasions by the referee. England’s match away to Montenegro in March was also marred by racist chanting toward England’s black players, notably Raheem Sterling.

“The players will want to move on, really,” Southgate said. “I think, for all of them, they dealt with it brilliantly and it would be wrong not to discuss it at all but I know that they want to get on with the football.”

Kosovo, which was accepted as a member of UEFA and FIFA only in 2016, is third in the group and could secure automatic qualification with a win at the Czech Republic on Thursday and a draw against England.

FINALLY FINLAND?

Finland is the only Nordic team never to have qualified for a World Cup or a European Championship. That could all change this week.

The Finns are second in Group J, five points clear of both Armenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and will join Italy in advancing to the finals with a win at home against last-placed Liechtenstein on Friday or if Bosnia fails to beat the Italians. Finland’s second chance, if needed, comes against Greece on Monday.

Finland is coached by a primary school teacher, Markku Kanerva, who led the country to a first ever European Under-21 Championship in 2009 and is impressing with the senior team a decade on.

Teemu Pukki has seven goals in qualifying as the team looks to go further than it ever did with past greats such as Sami Hyypia and Jari Litmanen.

CROATIA AT RISK

Croatia is finding European qualifying harder than last year’s World Cup.

The Croatians lead the evenly matched Group E but if they lose to Slovakia on Saturday the World Cup finalists could end up relying on other results to go their way.

Another team in a fight to qualify is Switzerland, which is third in Group D behind Ireland and Denmark, but is a big favorite against Gibraltar.

PLAYOFF SHOOTOUT

The playoffs offer a last chance for unsuccessful teams, but it’s a complex process.

Sixteen teams who didn’t qualify automatically will be ranked according to their divisions from the 2018 Nations League and put into four single-elimination brackets.

At the bottom end, there’s the League D playoff, which is guaranteed to hand one team its debut at a major championship. Georgia and Belarus have secured a place in that playoff mini-tournament and will likely be joined by Kosovo and North Macedonia.

The highest division almost certainly won’t have enough unqualified teams to make a four-team bracket, so will recruit extras from lower tiers. That could hand League A’s Iceland a fortunate draw with League C teams such as Bulgaria and Israel.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

AP Sports Writer James Ellingworth in Dusseldorf, Germany, contributed to this story

USMNT boss Berhalter won’t be fired; USA confident of making World Cup

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USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter is under pressure, but he will not be fired if they lose against Canada or Cuba in the coming days.

Or anytime soon, for that matter.

That is the resounding message of support from USMNT General Manager Earnie Stewart, who spoke to reporters via a conference call on Tuesday and had to answer plenty of questions about the U.S. losing 2-0 at 69th ranked Canada last month.

Stewart batted away speculation about Berhalter’s future, as the USMNT need to win their remaining two CONCACAF Nations League Group A games against Canada in Orlando on Friday and then against Cuba, plus overturn a three-goal deficit on Canada, to reach the finals of the inaugural tournament.

“We’re looking at the future. So when I evaluate Gregg and the staff, what I’ve seen today, I’m a pleased man. An individual result is not going to change that,” Stewart said. “I’ve seen that progress, and when you look at these individual results of the Canada away game, no, we weren’t happy. We weren’t happy at all. We have now a moment to rectify that as well. This Friday is about that. We need to perform.”

Stewart then doubled down in his support of Berhalter and this group of players, led by the likes of Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and now Sergino Dest, saying he is incredibly confident of reaching the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

“I have no fear at all that we are not going to qualify for the World Cup. I am very, very confident of that,” Stewart added.

The former USMNT player then revealed he’s felt personally attacked by the USMNT fanbase accusing the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) of nepotism as Jay Berhalter, Gregg’s brother, is high up in USSF and running to becoming the new CEO.

“I am the one making the decisions. All the conspiracy theories out there are very disrespectful to me and to the individuals: to Jay Berhalter, to Gregg Berhalter, myself,” Stewart said. “When people insinuate these things … I’ve worked a little bit too hard to be in the position where I’m in today to actually have people think that.”

Berhalter’s reign has seen mixed results so far, as the USMNT reached the 2019 Gold Cup final but were beaten by Mexico’s B team in the summer.

They were smashed 3-0 by Mexico’s A team in a friendly in September and the lackluster displays have infuriated the USMNT fanbase who have been hurting for over two years since the failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

Aside from the results, the major issues have been the possession-based style of play not seeming to suit the USMNT player pool, with so many talented youngsters struggling to adapt to what Berhalter wants, plus some player seemingly picked regardless of their performances.

So, Berhalter will stay, for now. But when is the next major flashpoint?

2022 World Cup qualifying starts next summer and if the USMNT get off to a bad start, it will be intriguing to see how Stewart and USSF react.

No matter what Stewart says this is a federation, and coach, under pressure. Let’s see if his team respond.

Premier League player Power Rankings

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Our latest Premier League player Power Rankings see plenty of players remaining in the upper echelons.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

Matchweek 12 was wild, with players from Liverpool, Chelsea and Leicester City continuing to dominate our top 20. The likes of Ciaran Clark, John Lundstram and Dwight McNeil were so close to cracking the top 20…

Remember: this is a list of the top 20 performing players right now in the Premier League. If they didn’t play in the last matchweek, they aren’t getting in this list!

Let us know in the comments section below if you agree with the selections.


1.  Christian Pulisic (Chelsea) – Up 2
2. Jamie Vardy (Leicester) – Up 2
3. Sadio Mane (Liverpool) – Down 2
4. Tammy Abraham (Chelsea) – Down 2
5. Wilfried Ndidi (Leicester) – New entry
6. Caglar Soyuncu (Leicester) – Up 1
7.  Fabinho (Liverpool) – New entry
8. Andy Robertson (Liverpool) – Down 2
9. Virgil Van Dijk (Liverpool) – Up 6
10. Willian (Chelsea) – Up 6
11. Gerard Deulofeu (Watford) – New entry
12. Raul Jimenez (Wolves) – Down 7
13. Kevin De Bruyne (Man City) – Even
14. Youri Tielemans (Leicester) – Even
15. James Maddison (Leicester) – New entry
16. Marcus Rashford (Man United) – Down 4
17. Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool) – Up 2
18. Fernandinho (Man City) – New entry
19. Matteo Kovacic (Chelsea) – New entry
20. Richarlison (Everton) – New entry