AP: Leicester City — The team that feared relegation now tops PL

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LONDON (AP) Leicester had little to celebrate last Christmas. Languishing in last place in the Premier League, the team was facing instant relegation back to the second tier.

Now Leicester is looking down on everyone.

From propping up the league, Leicester has surged to the pinnacle inside 12 months and rivals are trying to figure out how to replicate their feat. It has not been accomplished by a spending splurge but through astute bargain buys far expecting expectations and a managerial change that had most pundits forecasting a relegation struggle.

The turnaround is as astonishing and unforeseen as Chelsea’s collapse from champions to a team now hovering above the relegation zone. When Leicester beat the champions earlier this month it no longer seemed such a shock, although it cost Jose Mourinho his Chelsea job.

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The tale of the two clubs and their contrasting fortunes is the biggest surprise in the history of the Premier League.

“I don’t know how it’s possible,” Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri reflected this week. “I think it’s a fantastic achievement. If I understood very well, never at this time was Leicester top of the league.”

This team, based in an east Midlands city better known for its textiles industry and rugby side, has never won the top prize in English soccer. Not in the post-1992 Premier League era or any time stretching back into the 19th century. The only major honor Leicester has ever collected is the League Cup, with the third and most recent triumph coming in 2000.

Aware how close Leicester came to being relegated last season under Nigel Pearson – before a stunning late revival that was not enough to keep him in a job – Ranieri has cooled fan expectations. The target for this season remains reaching the 40-point mark that should guarantee a place in the Premier League next season. That can be achieved at the halfway point on Saturday when a win at Liverpool would lift Leicester to 41 points.

As Leicester has remained among the front-runners throughout the season, the widespread expectation has been it was a matter of if – not when – Leicester starts to slip down the standings. Two matches from the halfway point and everyone is still waiting.

The whole season has been one long mission in defying the critics. Leicester was considered foolish for plucking Ranieri from the ranks of unemployed coaches to replace Pearson in July. It had been 11 years since he had managed in England with Chelsea – during which he was often labeled “The Tinkerman” for constantly changing the starting lineup – and he had been out of work since an embarrassing spell in charge of the Greece national team.

“I am waiting for when people change my nickname from `Tinkerman’ to `Thinkerman,”‘ quipped Ranieri, whose avuncular and calm demeanor contrasts with the league’s more erratic coaches.

One thing Ranieri does not own up to thinking about is lifting the trophy for the world’s richest soccer competition in May.

“I think we aren’t ready to fight to be champions,” he said, even as Leicester sits two points in front of Arsenal and six ahead of Manchester City.

In the offseason, Leicester’s net spending of around $30 million was one sixth of Manchester City’s outlay.

“We don’t have the high quality like City, Arsenal, but we fight together,” Ranieri said. “Every ball for us is the last ball. That’s what we believe.”

And unlike Manchester United – which has spent around $400 million in the last 18 months but is only fifth – Leicester has goal-scorers on a hot streak.

Neymar, Luis Suarez and Cristiano Ronaldo might be the world’s most valuable attackers. But none of them have scored as many league goals this season in Spain as Jamie Vardy has for Leicester with his tally of 15.

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The only reason Vardy had made international headlines before this season started was for being filmed using racist language toward a Japanese man in a casino. The striker apologized and found the perfect way to show himself in a better light on the field: Breaking a Premier League record by scoring in 11 consecutive matches.

Not bad for a player who only cost Leicester 1 million pounds or 1/80th of Gareth Bale‘s world-record fee when he joined Real Madrid from Tottenham in 2013.

And yet Vardy’s transfer did represent a gamble in 2012 for Leicester, which paid a record fee for a non-league player in a country which has 92 professional teams across four leagues to pluck talent from.

At one point, the 28-year-old Vardy was only earning 30 pounds ($45) as he combined muddy pitches with manual labor as he played in front of a few hundred fans at best. Now he is being valued at anything up to $50 million and linked with Chelsea and Manchester United, which are both struggling for goals and desperate for such a prolific target man.

“I pinch myself every day,” Vardy said. “Everyone knows the road I have had in the game, and how I have managed to get myself to where I am today.”

The Foxes are not relying on Vardy for goals. They also have Riyad Mahrez, whose 13 goals make him the joint-second best scorer in the league. The Algeria international was another unknown quantity when he was signed for only 400,000 pounds from Le Havre in January 2014.

What would destroy the dream is if Leicester cashed in on their success and sold Vardy and Mahrez in the January transfer window, ripping the heart out of the team.

“We make the city proud and that is a very good feeling for us so we have to carry on,” Mahrez said.

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In recent years Leicester’s global claim to fame had been discovering the battle-scarred skeleton of a 15th-century monarch under a parking lot in 2012. King Richard III was buried in pomp earlier this year in a grave in the city’s cathedral.

But it is another king, The King Power stadium – named after the Thai duty free company controlled by Leicester’s owners – that is now capturing global attention.

“The city has only just got over burying a king and we had eyes of the world on us in that period and we believed it couldn’t get any better,” Leicester mayor Peter Soulsby said by telephone. “Well it just did.”

And it could get even better if there’s an open-top bus parade come May to exhibit the Premier League trophy.

“I haven’t yet wanted to pencil the date in my diary because that might just be tempting fate,” Soulsby said. “But I have made a mental note.”

Rob Harris can be followed at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

Wolves vs Liverpool: How to watch, stream link, team news

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Liverpool hopes it can boost its top-four hopes by hurting Wolves’ plans for Premier League safety when the duo meet Saturday at the Molineux (watch live, 10am ET Saturday online via Peacock Premium).

It’s the third meeting since early January between the sides following a 2-2 draw in the FA Cup and a 1-0 Liverpool win in the replay.

STREAM LIVE WOLVES vs LIVERPOOL

Wolves sit 17th with 17 points, only outside of the bottom three due to Bournemouth’s poor goal differential. Last place is just two points away, as there are seven teams within three points between 14th and 20th.

Liverpool, meanwhile, is 10 points off the top four but has played at least one fewer match than all but two of the eight teams ahead of them (Sixth-place Brighton and leaders Arsenal).

Here’s everything you need to know ahead of Wolves vs Liverpool.

[ MORE: How to watch Premier League in USA ]


How to watch Wolves vs Liverpool live, stream link and start time

Kick off: 10am ET, Saturday
Online: Premier League on Peacock


Key storylines & star players

Winning games is about scoring goals and only two Wolves players have more than one. Daniel Podence has collected five, while Ruben Neves has four. Even more surprising, Wolves are still waiting on a goal from Raul Jimenez, Diego Costa, or injured Pedro Neto. Perhaps Matheus Cunha or Pablo Sarabia will chip in soon.

Liverpool has one win from its last three Premier League outings, but there’s a heaping helping of bad luck to their struggles. The Reds have 24 goals from open play and 20 allowed in that same situation. Their expected goals in those spots is 34.6 – 24. Mohamed Salah and Darwin Nunez have been especially unlucky despite combining for 12 goals and six assists on the season.


Wolves team news, injuries, lineup options

OUT: Pedro Neto (ankle), Sasa Kalajdzic (torn ACL), Boubacar Traore (undisclosed), Chiquinho (knee)

Liverpool team news, injuries, lineup options

OUT: Virgil van Dijk (thigh), Roberto Firmino (calf), Ibrahima Konate (hamstring), Luis Diaz (knee), Diogo Jota (thigh), Arthur Melo (thigh) | QUESTIONABLE: Fabio Carvalho (undisclosed), Nathaniel Phillips (illness)

Newcastle vs West Ham: How to watch, stream link, team news

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Newcastle United can become the third Premier League team this season to cross the 40-point marker when it meets West Ham on Saturday at St. James’ Park (watch live, 12:30pm ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com).

The Magpies have been terrific at home in all competitions, including at midweek where they finished off Southampton to claim a spot in the League Cup Final.

STREAM LIVE NEWCASTLE vs WEST HAM

And while the 40-point marker used to just mean safety, Newcastle would stay within sight of second-place Man City and first-place Arsenal.

Meanwhile, West Ham’s mix of bad luck and substandard performances have them just a point above the drop zone, in 16th. A win here would be huge,

Here’s everything you need to know ahead of Newcastle vs West Ham.

[ MORE: How to watch Premier League in USA ]


How to watch Newcastle vs West Ham live, stream link and start time

Kick off: 12:30pm ET, Saturday
TV Channel: NBC
Online: Stream via NBCSports.com


Key storylines & star players

The Magpies won’t have their best all-around player in influential Brazilian midfielder Bruno Guimaraes, and center forward Alexander Isak will miss out following a head injury suffered against Saints. Sean Longstaff will need to shine again after scoring twice against Saints.

As for West Ham, they have three attackers out but can look to Michail Antonio and Jarrod Bowen to continue upturns in form.


Newcastle team news, injuries, lineup options

OUT: Bruno Guimaraes (suspension), Alexander Isak (concussion), Javier Manquillo (undisclosed), Matt Targett (foot), Emil Krafth (knee)

West Ham team news, injuries, lineup options

OUT: Gianluca Scamacca (knee), Maxwel Cornet (calf), Kurt Zouma (thigh), Danny Ings (knee)

Manchester United vs Crystal Palace: How to watch, stream link, team news

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Manchester United looks to keep climbing up the Premier League table when its hosts improving Crystal Palace at Old Trafford on Saturday (watch live, 10am ET online via Premier League on Peacock).

United has won all three of its cup matches since a Jan. 22 setback at Premier League leaders Arsenal, and now face Palace before two matches with Leeds

STREAM LIVE MANCHESTER UNITED vs CRYSTAL PALACE

Palace hasn’t won in 2023, though the Eagles managed back-to-back draws with Manchester United and Newcastle in their past two matches. Both of those were at Selhurst Park.

Here’s everything you need to know ahead of Manchester United vs Crystal Palace.

[ MORE: How to watch Premier League in USA ]


How to watch Manchester United vs Crystal Palace live, stream link and start time

Kick off: 10am ET, Saturday
Online: Premier League on Peacock


Key storylines & star players

Man United’s lost Christian Eriksen through April but acted quick and in impressive fashion with the loan addition of Marcel Sabitzer from Bayern Munich. Desperate for playing time and a more attacking role than what was asked of him by Bayern, the Austrian star may be just what the doctor ordered even before Eriksen went down. This is a hard-edged player with plenty of attcking firepower to boot.

Palace, of course, is still all about their creative players, as Wilfried Zaha, Michael Olise, Eberechi Eze, and Odsonne Edouard can deliver the goods with just a half-chance, but look out for Deadline Day adds Albert Sambi Lokonga, on loan from Patrick Vieira’s former team Arsenal, and Naouirou Ahamada, who they hope will add a needed ball progressor in the heart of the pitch.


Manchester United team news, injuries, lineup options

OUT: Christian Eriksen (ankle), Donny van de Beek (knee), Mason Greenwood (suspension – MORE) | QUESTIONABLE: Jadon Sancho (undisclosed), Anthony Martial (undisclosed), Diogo Dalot (thigh), Luke Shaw (illness), Scott McTominay (undisclosed)

Crystal Palace team news, injuries, lineup options

OUT: Wilfried Zaha (hamstring), Joachim Andersen (calf), Nathan Ferguson (undisclosed), James McArthur (groin)

Everton vs Arsenal, live! How to watch, stream link, team news

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The first match of the Sean Dyche era at Everton is a visit from the leaders, as Arsenal visits Goodison Park on Saturday (watch live, 7:30am ET on USA Network and online via NBCSports.com).

Dyche has been out of work since his time ended at Burnley last April, but he’ll have instant familiarity with Dwight McNeil, James Tarkowski, and Michael Keane.

So how’s it been around the club as he prepares to take hold of a team that isn’t Burnley for the first time since, thumbs through calendars… still thumbing…2011!

STREAM LIVE EVERTON vs ARSENAL

“A new voice, training ways, going about your business, building a bit of rapport,” Dyche said. “I had a good chat with a few players, not in an office kind of chat but speaking to them generally. Their careers, life, how they’re feeling, I always thought if you affect their lives you’ll affect their performance. It’s hard to do visa-versa, I’ve been honest with them. I’ve been down that, we did a Q+A session, I just wanted their feedback. What was the feedback? After that I shared it back with them, this is what we fed back ,what do you think? Gives us a chance to open it up a bit. We need to get to the truth of them, what we can offer, best thing to do is ask them – simple as that. Giving our feel, a different feel to understanding, that’s all. Hopefully they’ll respond and flourish. We’ve got to work, it can’t all be fluff, plenty of hard work this week.”

Former Everton star Mikel Arteta leads Arsenal into the affair with a five-point lead on Man City and a match-in-hand, but it’s also the first match since Arsenal fell 1-0 to City in an FA Cup match considered by many to be a first test for the leaders’ title hopes.

Everton sit 19th in the Premier League table, ahead of last-place Southampton by five goals in the goal difference column.

Here’s everything you need to know ahead of Everton vs Arsenal.

[ MORE: How to watch Premier League in USA ]


How to watch Everton vs Arsenal live, stream link and start time

Kick off: 7:30am ET, Saturday
TV Channel: USA Network
Online: Stream via NBCSports.com


Key storylines & star players

Is this what Dwight McNeil has been waiting for after stop-start usage from Frank Lampard? He’s one of the key pieces to monitor when team news arrives Saturday.  Everton hasn’t played since Jan. 21, when it rolled out a 5-4-1 in a 2-0 loss to West Ham. Dyche hasn’t used five at the back since 2019, but this Arsenal team, man…

Arsenal enters having navigated the absence of Gabriel Jesus pretty darn nicely, thank you very much. Will Eddie Nketiah keep feasting off the playmaking of Martin Odegaard and Bukayo Saka?

Let’s just say Everton’s new manager bounce is going to have to include Flubber.


Everton team news, injuries, lineup options

OUT: Michael Keane (knee), Nathan Patterson (knee), Andros Townsend (knee) | QUESTIONABLE: Ben Godfrey (knee), James Garner (back)

Arsenal team news, injuries, lineup options

OUT: Gabriel Jesus (knee), Reiss Nelson (thigh), Mohamed Elneny (knock) | QUESTIONABLE: Thomas Partey (chest), Emile Smith Rowe (thigh)