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Week 25: Top 5 Premier League storylines — Title fight in Manchester; Relegation picture in focus

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The Premier League’s top dogs and bottom dwellers have the chance to create separation at both ends of the table when Week 25 hits in the Premier League.

Here are the best stories going this weekend in England and Wales.

[ MORE: PL schedule, stream links ]

The Etihad Stadium’s really, really, really big show

Manchester City vs. Leicester City — 7:45 a.m. ET Saturday (NBCSN) — FULL PREVIEW

When the Premier League schedule makers put this one atop the weekend slate, were they expecting it to be a title clash? The visitors enter City’s den with a three-point lead in the chase for a PL title. Both clubs have 12 points from their last six matches, and Leicester has five clean sheets in that stretch. Your move, Aguero.

Two giants scratching their heads in London

Chelsea vs. Manchester United — 11 a.m. ET Sunday (NBCSN)

The hosts with the most points last season now are quietly unbeaten in six, albeit with just a pair of wins. This wasn’t how a title defense was supposed to look, but it would feel much better if the Blues could top their old rivals at Stamford Bridge on Sunday. That said, United looked fantastic in unloading on Stoke City midweek, and could be geared up to take advantage of a wide-open Top Four race.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings | Schedule | Stats ]

SUNDERLAND, ENGLAND - JANUARY 10: Referee Craig Pawson shows a red card to Liam Bridcutt of Sunderland during the Barclays Premier League match between Sunderland and Liverpool at Stadium of Light on January 10, 2015 in Sunderland, England. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
(Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Can Klopp and the Kop help Liverpool right its ship?

Liverpool vs. Sunderland — 10 a.m. ET Saturday (USA)

Don’t look now, but the Reds have managed just one win in their last five Premier League matches. That stretch includes a 0-0 draw with Arsenal and failed tests against West Ham United, Manchester United and Leicester City. Given the fixtures this weekend, a loss to Sunderland could see Jurgen Klopp‘s crew in the bottom half.

A pair of relegation scraps could make the picture even clearer

Newcastle United vs. West Bromwich Albion — 10 a.m. ET Saturday (Premier League Extra Time)

Aston Villa vs. Norwich City— 10 a.m. ET Saturday (Premier League Extra Time)

Villa will be 13 points adrift and Newcastle five if Norwich and West Brom manage to nab three points each on Saturday. Given Sunderland’s plight at Anfield on Sunday, all three could be staring down only the greatest of escapes after the PL weekend.

[ WATCH LIVE: Stream every PL game via Live Extra ]

Can anyone slow down Spurs?

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Watford — 10 a.m. ET Saturday (NBCSN) — FULL PREVIEW

Saturday’s visitors to White Hart Lane are coming off a 0-0 draw against Chelsea, but Quique Flores‘ Watford has a heck of a task in slowing down a Spurs side that has scored 3, 3, and 4 goals in its last three outings (wins over Norwich, Palace and Sunderland. If Leicester and Man City draw, Spurs could be within three points of the top of the table at the end of the weekend.

VIDEO: River edge past Boca to reach Copa Libertadores final

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Boca Juniors scored a late goal to beat bitter rivals River Plate 1-0 at La Bombonera on Tuesday, but River held on to reach the final of the Copa Libertadores with a 2-1 aggregate win.

Jan Hurtado scored the second-leg winner for Boca in the 80th minute to send the home fans wild, but it wasn’t enough as River somehow held on to reach their second-straight Copa Libertadores final.

Amid fireworks, copious amounts of ticker tape and an incredible atmosphere generated by Boca’s supporters at their home in Buenos Aires, to hold on for the aggregate victory was an amazing display of defensive strength from River Plate.

Boca battered River for large swathes of this game, with the home side squandering plenty of chances. Click play on the video below to watch the highlights as River Plate goalkeeper Franco Armani was a busy man and came up with the goods.

Of course, the Copa Libertadores final between Boca and River last season was abandoned and then moved to Madrid, Spain over fan unrest as Boca Juniors bus was attacked.

River won the final 3-1 last season and they will face either Flamengo or Gremio in the final in Santiago, Chile on Nov. 23. This season will see the change in format to a one-off final to decide the Champions of CONMEBOL.

The Copa Libertadores winners will represent South America in the FIFA Club World Cup in Qatar in December.

Pogba, De Gea miss Man United training

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It doesn’t seem like either David De Gea or Paul Pogba will play in the UEFA Europa League for Manchester United on Thursday.

Neither stars were training with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s side on Wednesday, ahead of the Red Devils playing at Partizan Belgrade.

It is likely both will be saved for their Premier League clash at Norwich City on Sunday (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET online via NBCSports.com), with Pogba in a race against time to be ready.

Pogba has missed United’s last three games after a reoccurrence of foot and ankle issues, as he travelled to Dubai over the international break to try and get himself fit as soon as possible.

De Gea wasn’t expected to play against Liverpool on Sunday after suffering a thigh injury playing for Spain, but the goalkeeper rushed back and will likely be rested with Sergio Romero set to start on Thursday.

Solskjaer’s injury woes are easing a little with Jesse Lingard returning, while Anthony Martial and Aaron Wan-Bissaka played against Liverpool to give the Red Devils a boost.

Luke Shaw and Nemanja Matic are closing in on a return from injury, while Diogo Dalot, Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Eric Bailly and now Axel Tuanzebe are out.

With four-straight away games coming up in all competitions, United have reached a pivotal stage of their season after their worst PL start for 30 years.

They play Partizan (Europa League), Norwich, Chelsea (League Cup) and Bournemouth in the next 10 days, and after a morale-boosting performance and draw against Liverpool, Solskjaer is hoping the treatment room continues to empty and confidence continues to build.

Women soccer players to go on strike in Spain

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MADRID (AP) Women soccer players in Spain plan to go on strike after failing to reach a deal with clubs over working hours and minimum wages.

About 200 players met in Madrid late Tuesday and voted in favor of the strike, which is expected to begin in November after legal requirements are met.

More than 90% of voting players favored the strike.

The players’ and clubs’ associations have been in negotiations for a collective agreement over the last year.

They disagree over issues including the clubs’ decision to limit working hours to 20 per week. Players want at least 30 hours to be guaranteed.

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

Benfica loanee Parks readies for playoffs with NYCFC

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Keaton Parks plays the kind of hard-to-quantify midfield role that sends both stat nerds and eye test takers to a very good place.

Barely 22, the New York City FC midfielder doesn’t stand out in any one particular area. Since arriving on loan from Benfica, the American shuttler (of sorts) ranks near the top of the club rankings in pass percentage and aerials won while chipping in tackles and successful dribbles.

[ MORE: PST talks public pitches, youth development with NYCFC director Reyna ]

He’s averaging near one key pass per game but has just a goal and an assist, due more to his responsibility in Dome Torrent’s system than a particular skill set (He has eight goals and seven assists across two-plus seasons between Varzim and Benfica B).

“In the midfield it really helps to play both sides of the ball,” Parks told ProSoccerTalk. “I take pride in doing that, and I love to make a tackle as much as getting in the attack and assisting or scoring goals. It doesn’t bother me that I’m not scoring or making all of the assists. I like to be the solid player who keeps the balance on the team.”

(Photo by Gualter Fatia/Getty Images)

Parks has been an enigma to American soccer fans for some time in that he’s been in a celebrated club in Benfica but playing in a developmental role that’s near impossible to track without single-minded dedication to Portuguese football (Dramatic? Sure, but you try to catch every Liga Pro game).

But in moving to New York City FC to play under Dome Torrent, he’s had an easier transition than most due to his upbringing with Benfica, which annually ranks amongst the top possession teams in Portugal. Torrent, of course, left his last managerial gig at Girona in Spain to spent a decade-plus on Pep Guardiola‘s staff at Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Manchester City.

“Dome likes to play a possession style, a confident style,” Parks said. “I still have to fight for my spot on the team but the playing style I was used to right away.

“You can see the experience Dome has, and he mirrors a little bit of what Pep does, so it’s been amazing to be able to learn from him and see the experiences of the players he’s been able to coach in his career.”

NYCFC begins its playoff run on Wednesday against Toronto FC at Citi Field in Queens, and Parks says he’s feeling better after missing three matches with injury.

And while he’s focused on the playoffs — “We want to win the Cup and be at the top” — there is a question of what’s next for him, still on the books at a perennial UEFA Champions League club but very important with a CONCACAF Champions League club.

[ MORE: MLS Playoffs preview/predictions ]

“I’m just going to be looking forward to whatever club I’m at next, whether here or back at Benfica or wherever I am and also with the U-23s going into Tokyo next summer.”

He’ll, in theory, be an imperative part to Jason Kreis, ironically a former NYCFC man himself, and the Yanks bid for a first Olympic run in three cycles. The team should be powerful, and Parks is happy.

“I’m definitely excited,” he said. “We have so much talent on the team with guys playing first division all over the world. I believe we can make a run all the way to these Olympics.”
NYCFC and Toronto FC kick off 7 p.m. ET Wednesday at Citi Field.