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Premier League preview: Southampton vs. West Ham United

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  • Southampton 7th in the PL (34 points)
  • West Ham 6th, five points ahead
  • Saints unbeaten in 4 in the PL; West Ham lost just 1 in last 11
  • First meeting (Dec. 28): West Ham 2-1 Southampton

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Saturday’s battle at St. Mary’s Stadium, between Southampton and West Ham United (Watch live, at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra), will showcase a pair of top-seven Premier League sides with hopes and dreams of upsetting the applecart by sneaking into the top-four in the wackiest PL season in recent memory.

Saints’ current four-game unbeaten run, which includes their famous victory at Old Trafford and a scoreless draw at the Emirates Stadium on Tuesday, put to bed a poor run of results that saw them win just once in eight league games from early November and into the new year. Ronald Koeman‘s side boasts of a defense that ranks in the top-five in goals conceded this season (24 in 24 games) and an attack that ranks seventh in goals scored (32). Graziano Pelle is Southampton’s leading goalscorer this season, but the Italian has failed to find the back of the net in each of his last seven games (413 total minutes). January signing and immediate impact-maker Charlie Austin is back in the PL and expected to be fit for Saturday’s game after suffering a knock in training this week.

[ MORE: Top 5 Premier League storylines in Week 25 ]

West Ham’s return to winning ways (eight straight without a win, in which they scored a total of four goals, from early November to late December) has, unsurprisingly, coincided with the return of star midfielder Dimitri Payet from an ankle ligament injury. The Hammers have scored 10 goals in the five league games since Payet’s comeback, though the Frenchman has played a part in just two goals himself. A win, coupled with any points dropped by Manchester United this weekend, would see West Ham jump the Red Devils for fifth place in the league table.

On the injury front, only Jay Rodriguez’s name (foot) appears on the latest injury report for Southampton. Meanwhile, West Ham will be without Manuel Lanzini and Diafra Sakho (thigh injuries), while Andy Carroll (hamstring) and Emmanuel Emenike (fitness) are expected to be available for selection.

What they’re saying

Southampton manager Ronald Koeman: “We know what we can expect because it’s not so long ago that we played against West Ham. When we played them away, we had a big disappointment after a great win against Arsenal. I think we deserved much more – we played very well in the first half but we weren’t clinical enough.”

West Ham manager Slaven Bilic: “I am sure every manager when they played against Juventus was saying: ‘Mark [Andrea] Pirlo.’ Yet still Pirlo was always unmarked and after the game the coaches would ask: ‘Why didn’t you mark him?’ The answer is that it is about Pirlo — and now for us, it is about Payet.”

Prediction

When two sides, both of whom are in equally sound form, face off, home-field advantage typically tips the scales in favor of the home side. That hasn’t pertained to West Ham much this year, though, as they’ve already grabbed massive away victories over Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool, among others. Never count out the Hammers away from home. Southampton 1-2 West Ham.

Atlanta heads into MLS playoffs looking to defend its Cup

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MARIETTA, Ga. (AP) It’s been a strange season for Atlanta United.

They’ve added more two more cups to their collection.

They’ve endured some rather baffling losses.

[ MORE: Monster deal for Mbappe? ]

After all that, the defending MLS Cup champions are heading into the postseason from essentially the same position as last season.

Atlanta, which was runner-up in the Eastern Conference, will host the New England Revolution on Saturday in the opening round of the playoffs, a rematch of their Oct. 6 game to close out the regular season.

“We’ve put ourselves in a pretty decent spot, as strange as the season has maybe been,” midfielder Julian Gressel said Wednesday after a training session. “We’ve already won two trophies, and now we have a chance for a third.”

In mid-August, United broke out the champagne after a 3-2 victory over Mexican powerhouse Club America to capture the Campeones Cup.

A couple of weeks later, they were celebrating again with a 2-1 victory over Minnesota United in the U.S. Open Cup final, guaranteeing a spot in next year’s CONCACAF Champions League.

“I felt like we were always there and pretty much at our best in those games,” Gressel said. “That’s why I’m pretty confident we’ll be at our best when it really matters.”

But there are reasons to be concerned. Atlanta struggled badly in some league games – especially on the road – and rarely looked like the dynamic team that won the MLS Cup in just its second year under former coach Tata Martino.

With Frank De Boer now at the helm, United got off to a sluggish start and spent much of the season juggling lineups and switching up tactics in a desperate bid to find some consistency. Atlanta never put together an unbeaten streak longer than five games – it had three such stretches a year ago – and finished with 58 points, 58 goals and a plus-15 goal differential. All were short of the 69 points, 70 goals and plus-26 differential from the 2018 season.

[ MORE: USMNT player ratings ]

Still, United’s second-place showing in the East behind New York City FC matches last year’s finish, guaranteeing the team at least one home game in the playoffs and another in the conference semifinals should it beat the Revolution.

That’s a crucial edge for a franchise that has essentially broken every MLS attendance record and again averaged more than 52,000 per game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, doubling up every team in the league except Seattle and Cincinnati. In 17 home games, Atlanta lost only twice.

While United closed out the season with a 3-1 victory over New England, the Revolution has been one of the league’s hottest teams over the second half of the season.

Atlanta will be further tested by the possible absence of its best defender, Miles Robinson, who is dealing with a strained left hamstring sustained during a workout with the U.S. national team last week.

If Robinson can’t go, United will have to change up their lineup once again and possibly adopt a more defensive approach to Saturday’s game.

“If I do push up, it’s more so getting back a little faster than I normally would, things like that,” said midfielder Darlington Nagbe, one of those who may be affected if Robinson can’t go. “Just feel the game out and see how it plays out.”

In the regular-season finale, Ezequiel Barco got the start over Pity Martinez, a lineup that de Boer might go with again in the playoffs.

Barco played only 15 league games this season because of injuries and a lengthy stint with Argentina at the FIFA U-20 World Cup, but he provided the sort of spark de Boer was looking for against New England. Martinez, who was the 2018 South American player of the year and Atlanta’s major acquisition during the last offseason, has struggled to find his nice in MLS with just five goals in 32 appearances.

“We have to see,” de Boer said. “The only thing that concerns me is to win the playoffs.”

MLS switched up the playoff format this season. Instead of the top two teams from both the East and the West receiving byes and two-legged rounds to determine the winner of conference semifinals and finals, only the first-place finisher gets the opening round off and every step of the playoffs is a single-game elimination.

There is no room for error.

“If you have an off day, you might be out,” Gressel said. “I feel like it’s a format that favors the underdog a bit more, or gives the underdog a bit more hope.”

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 His work can be found at https://apnews.com

Zlatan paces MLS jersey sellers, offers fresh quip on Minnesota challenge

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic: He’s like a more charming, less anarchist version of Tom Hardy’s Bane.

The LA Galaxy man was revealed to again have the top-selling jersey in Major League Soccer on Wednesday, days before the club begins its 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs run with a match in Minnesota.

[ MORE: Monster deal for Mbappe? ]

Snow is in the forecast, but Zlatan is not bothered by such weather.

“I’m from Sweden I was born in the snow. When it snows, I’m a viking. When it’s warm, I’m a lion. We adjust for every condition there is.”

Back to the jerseys, the MLS MVP finalists are 1-2-3 in sales. Ibrahimovic is first, followed by Atlanta’s Josef Martinez, and LAFC’s Carlos Vela.

The top sellers amongst Americans are Seattle’s Jordan Morris (7) and Cristian Roldan (12). Chris Wondolowski of San Jose is 13th, while other domestic names on the Top 25 include Sebastian Lletget, Brad Guzan (!?!), Dom Dwyer, Jozy Altidore, and Graham Zusi.

Midweek El Clasico possible in December following political unrest

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Political unrest in Catalonia has both La Liga and the Spanish government looking to move the first El Clasico of the season.

Barcelona and Real Madrid are scheduled to meet at the Camp Nou on Oct. 26, but the jailing of nine Catalan separatists has caused uproar in-and-around Barca.

In fact, Barca as a club has denounced the imprisonment, so it plays more than a peripheral role in the controversy.

[ JPW: What now for Berhalter, USMNT? ] 

Players heading to and returning from international break have faced in challenges in getting to the club.

Instead, Marca says that we may see a midweek match played in Madrid on Wednesday, Dec. 18, with the reverse fixture in March moved from Madrid to Barcelona.

Dec. 18 would give both teams three matches in eight days before La Liga’s winter break. Barca would play Real Sociedad, Real Madrid, and Alaves, while Real would play Valencia and Real Betis in addition to the Clasico. Both difficult runs, but fairly even.

Reports claim Allegri linked with Manchester United, Spurs

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The international break can be a slow time for news, but what to make of multiple reports claiming that Max Allegri is in discussion with a pair of struggling traditional Premier League powers?

Tuttosport claims that Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur have interest in hiring the Italian manager, adding that United has had “intensified” contact with him.

[ MORE: Monster deal for Mbappe? ]

Noise out of Old Trafford continues to back Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, while there is no real buzz that Mauricio Pochettino is on the verge of leaving Spurs.

The 52-year-old Allegri has won Serie A once with AC Milan and five times with Juventus, claiming a Serie C title with Sassuolo in 2007-08.

Is there anything to it? He’d be a great hire for either side. In United’s case, he’d be a marked upgrade on their current boss.