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Week 26: Top 5 Premier League storylines — Top-four battle royal

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Whoever says, “No one could have ever predicted Leicester City would be top of the league on Valentine’s Day,” is wrong.

One group of Premier League savants knew: the PL schedule makers, which is why this Sunday shall henceforth be known as “Super Duper Mega Uber Sunday,” as it’s 3rd versus 1st, and 4th versus 2nd.

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Top-four battle royal, part 1

Arsenal vs. Leicester City — Sunday, 7 a.m. ET (NBCSN)

Will Arsenal “Arsenal it up?” Will Leicester finally fall apart and blow the PL title, as they were supposed to have done weeks months ago? The battle of narratives in so strong in this one. Are Leicester really title favorites? Upon further review, they are. No PL team has won more points away from home this season than Leicester (28). Is another giant-slaying on the cards for the Foxes? At this point, who would be crazy enough to doubt them?

[ MORE: PL schedule, stream links ]

Top-four battle royal, part 2

Manchester City vs. Tottenham Hotspur — Sunday, 11:15 a.m. ET (NBCSN)

The last time Tottenham were ahead of Man City this late in the season will have to have been the final day of the 2009-10 season, when Spurs qualified for the UEFA Champions League just ahead of City. Heading into Sunday, a single point is all that separates the sides. When they met earlier this season, Spurs hammered City, to the tune of 4-1. The importance of three points speaks for itself, as either side could surge into a commanding place in the title race with a victory on Sunday.

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

Man United’s top-four hopes hanging by a thread

Sunderland vs. Manchester United — Saturday, 6:45 a.m. ET (NBCSN)

As the PL’s top-four teams have kept winning in recent weeks, so too have Man United, to an extent. With that, the Red Devils are no closer to Champions League qualification today than they were three weeks ago before their mini-run of 11 points from six games. Only Aston Villa (10), who are rock bottom of the league, have won fewer points at home this season than Sunderland (12). United are currently six points back of 4th, so with at least two of the four sides ahead of them guaranteed to drop points on Sunday, it’s a big, big weekend for United to take of their own business and apply a little pressure.

[ MORE: The latest on those Mourinho-to-United rumors ]

The Fallen On Hard Times But Someone Has To Win (Maybe) Derby

Crystal Palace vs. Watford — Saturday, 10 a.m. ET (Premier League Extra Time)

When 2016 began, Crystal Palace were 5th in the PL. Unfortunately for them, the clock also struck midnight on what had been a hugely successful season to that point — five losses and one draw since, and they’re now 12th in the league table. The story is eerily similar for Watford, who were 7th after a Boxing Day draw with Chelsea — five losses, a draw and a win later, they’re 10th. A single point is all that separates Saturday’s combatants desperately hoping to regain their early-season form.

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

Is Roberto Martinez’s employment under review? It might be

Everton vs. West Bromwich Albion — Saturday, 10 a.m. ET (NBCSN)

Everton will be a fascinating club to watch as the 2015-16 season winds down. There’s essentially no chance of them finishing in the top-four or -five (12 and 6 points back, respectively), and they look essentially the same side that massively disappointed en route to an 11th-place finish last season — they’re atrocious and hugely naive defensively, which has been a characteristic of Roberto Martinez-managed teams since, well, the beginning of his managerial career. $100 million is a lot of money to spend over four transfer windows without any discernible progress.

Burning Question: Who is the best player in North America right now?

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It’s a question many have tried to answer recently, and now it’s ProSoccerTalk’s chance to give a verdict of their own: Who is the best player in North America right now.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

Knowing the loyalty of the devout Liga MX fan, the following statement may make a few onlookers cringe, or become enraged: Carlos Vela is currently the best player in North America. Period.

Truthfully, it shouldn’t take more than 15 seconds to generate such an answer. The question should instead be: What player comes at a touching distance from 31-year-old Vela?

Carlos Vela has been on a legendary streak since arriving in Los Angeles from San Sebastian, scoring for fun. Literally, scoring for fun – when he wants, how he wants: long or short range chips, stunning volleys, headers, from the spot, 30-yard runs leading to gentle tap-ins, free kicks, you name it. In numbers, it reads more like a humble 57 goals in 71 appearances.

That’s a healthy goal-per-game-ratio.

And to be clear, goalscorers aren’t the only type of players that qualify for the sweepstakes – supreme talent doesn’t discriminate. But in this case it just happens to be that an inverted winger, with a penchant for goal, happens to outdo not only every player in MLS, but in every other North American top-flight contest, including Liga MX.

And perhaps scoring goals isn’t his ultimate quality – Vela’s dynamism, agility and tenacity are at the core of his magic. There’s a reason why he’s considered the most talented Mexican player of his generation.

Still tough to accept? Ask yourself this: Who was the last player in North America that Josep Maria Bartomeu and Barcelona went after?

You guessed right – Vela. The Spanish giants know a thing or two about scouting elite talent, don’t they?

Transfer news: Kane to Real Madrid, Alexis Sanchez to West Ham

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The latest transfer news continues across the Premier League and here’s a look at some of the juiciest rumors.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

According to Sport, Real Madrid president Florentino Perez has his sights set on signing Tottenham striker Harry Kane this summer.

With Luka Jovic failing to impress at the Santiago Bernabeu, Los Blancos are set to make some moves to consolidate the presence up top. Kane, 26, and Wolves striker Raul Jimenez are some of the few names to have been mentioned thus far.

Kane, who has a running contract with Spurs until 2024, recently mentioned that he wouldn’t rule out a move out of north London, if Tottenham were unable to capitalize on winning silverware.

“I’m an ambitious player, I want to improve, I want to get better, I want to become one of the top, top players,” Kane said earlier this month. “It all depends on what happens as a team and how we progress as a team. So it’s not a definite I’m going to stay there forever – but it’s not a no either.”

As far as transfers go, nothing gets bigger and more “ambitious” than a summer blockbuster move to Real Madrid. Kane has a promising project spearheaded by Jose Mourinho himself at his boyhood club, but the opportunity to represent Real Madrid – at such a prime age, with an astronomical amount of hype – may only come around once.


Alexis Sanchez’s time at Inter Milan is coming to a close, and his next destination may be a Premier League team not named Manchester United, according to FC Inter News.

The 31-year-old Chilean’s agent, Fernando Felicevich, has reportedly been inquired by West Ham, who are considering placing a bid to lure the winger out of Old Trafford.

Sanchez arrived at Inter last summer on loan but has failed to impress when healthy, recording a mere goal and three assist in 15 appearances this season. With the possibilities of Sanchez remaining at Manchester United past the summer getting slimmer by the day, the Hammers are hoping to land the South American at a reduced price.

Sanchez, one of United’s highest earners, is reportedly also gathering interest from other unnamed Premier League and Bundesliga sides.

Belarusian Premier League roundup: FC Energetik-BGU edge FC Minsk, moves to top of league

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The Belarusian Premier League – the only active European top-flight league at the moment – continued on Sunday despite the coronavirus pandemic.

FC Energetik-BGU 2-0 FC Minsk 

FC Energetik-BGU are the new leaders of the Belarusian Premier League, following a 2-0 victory over FC Minsk, who were atop of the table prior to Sunday’s bout.

Aleksey Nosko broke the deadlock in the 21st minute, while winger Jasurbek Yakhshiboev sealed the victory for the hosts in stoppage time.

With the victory, Energetik-BGU are the only unbeaten team in the league after three matchweeks, winning all three matches. The positive spell began with a 3-1 against Belarus giants BATE Boristov. Since, Energetik-BGU have scored three goals, while managing to concede none.

Slutsk, who also featured on Sunday, moved up to second on the table following a hard-earned 3-2 victory over Isloch, which saw them play the final minutes of the match with 10 players.

Elsewhere in Belarusian Premier League 

Smolevichi-STI 0-0 Vitebsk

Isloch 2-3 Slutsk

Spanish players criticize league’s call for furloughs

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MADRID (AP) Soccer players in Spain on Sunday criticized the Spanish league’s decision to ask clubs to put the footballers on government furloughs during the coronavirus crisis.

The league on Friday said the furloughs were needed because there was no agreement on the size of the salary cuts players must take to reduce the financial impact of the pandemic.

“It is strange that the Liga supports (the furloughs),” Spain’s players’ association said in a statement.

It said the league should have created a financial cushion for this period considering it always boasted about its “economic control measures” and the “well-balanced economy” of the Spanish clubs. The association said it also should be taken into account that the league has been temporarily suspended and not yet canceled.

The league and the players’ association have been in talks to try to find ways to mitigate losses that could reach nearly 1 billion euros ($1.08 billion) if the season cannot be restarted because of the pandemic.

The players said they agree with a salary reduction to help the clubs during the crisis, but not to the extent the league wants, which could amount to nearly half of the total losses if the competition is not resumed.

Players said they want to keep negotiating directly with the clubs instead of being forced into furloughs.

“The clubs and the players have been reaching agreements regarding the salaries,” the players’ association said. “What footballers are not going to do is relinquish labor rights.”

Barcelona and Atlético Madrid are among the Spanish clubs requesting furloughs, but both directly negotiated the amount of the salary reduction with players — 70% in both cases. Both clubs and their players are contributing to guarantee the wages of non-playing employees being furloughed.

The government furloughs help reduce the clubs’ labor costs while also guaranteeing players their jobs once the crisis is over.

Spain has more than 130,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with nearly 12,500 deaths. The nation is expected to remain in a lockdown until April 26.

There is no timetable for the return of the Spanish league.

Players maintained their position to only resume competing when health authorities deem it safe for everyone’s heath, a view also shared by the Spanish league.

The league has suggested it will recommend teams start mini-camp while the lockdown is still in place, if it’s possible to do so within the restrictions imposed by authorities.

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