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Top PL storylines: Spurs vs. Man United; can Leicester inch closer?

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Week 33 of the Premier League is here and there are plenty of storylines swirling around with six games of the season to go.

[ MORE: Van Gaal to stay at United? ]

With Leicester City just four wins away from sealing a stunning title win, can the Foxes move one step closer this weekend?

[ MORE: Wambach admits past drug use ]

Let’s take a look at that and more in the top five storylines in the PL.


Defoe holds the key as Black Cats, Foxes clash

Sunderland host champions elect Leicester City on Sunday (Watch live, 8:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) at the Stadium of Light and one man holds their survival hopes in his hands: Jermain Defoe. The veteran striker, 33, is the one player the Black Cats possess who has world class finishing ability. Defoe has scored in two of his last three games for Sunderland, which is all of Sunderland’s goals in their last three encounters. After drawing four-straight games, Sam Allardyce has obviously sorted Sunderland’s defense out but scoring goals has become a real problem for Big Sam’s side who are running out of time. They are four points behind Norwich City heading into this weekend but do have a game in hand over the Canaries.

Defoe has to keep firing and Sunderland must get the supply he deserved if they’re going to get out of the mire. Facing league-leaders and high fliers Leicester is probably not what Sunderland needed right now but given the fact that Claudio Ranieri‘s side have won five of their last six games 1-0, there will be one decisive moment in this match. If it falls to Sunderland’s predtaory forward, chances are that Defoe will take it.


Title and fourth place aspirations collide at the Lane

Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United clash on Sunday at White Hart Lane (Watch live, 11 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) with plenty on the line.

Spurs know they must keep winning and hope Leicester slips up, while Manchester United is locked in a straight battle with crosstown rivals Manchester City and upstarts West Ham United for the fourth and final UEFA Champions League spot. A report this week from Holland suggested Louis Van Gaal will remain at Old Trafford next season but if United don’t finish in the top four it’s hard to see that happening.

Tottenham has the best defense in the PL and despite United’s host of injuries, they’ll have to keep a close eye on Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial who’ve struck up quite the partnership in attack in Wayne Rooney‘s absence.

Speaking of goals, Harry Kane is on fire right now with six goals in his last four PL games. He now has 22 for the season to lead the PL and if he’s on form he’ll be the difference. This will be a tight game, just like it was at the start of the season, as the two best defenses in the PL met with plenty on the line for both.


London Calling: Last-ever derby at Upton Park

West Ham United’s famous Upton Park home will host its final London derby on Saturday (Watch live, 7:45 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) as Arsenal arrive.

The Hammers have enjoyed a stellar campaign and led by the mercurial talents of Dimitri Payet, Slaven Bilic‘s first season in the PL could end up with a top four finish as they’re just three points off Manchester City. West Ham believe they can qualify for the UCL and with all the pressure mounting on Man United and Man City, maybe the Hammers will sneak in and shock everyone.

As for Arsenal, they’re also lurking on the edge of a battle. As the title race has seemingly become a two-horse race between Leicester and Tottenham, Arsene Wenger‘s men have the chance to momentarily close the gap with leaders Leicester to eight points on Saturday and have a game in hand. Maybe their title race isn’t over after all. Still, in a week which saw Wenger reveal he rejected the chance to sign Payet, the French international will likely score the winner to all but end Arsenal’s faint title hopes and significantly boost West Ham’s top four chances. That’s just the way this season has gone for the Gunners.


Top six scrap at Anfield

Liverpool and Stoke City have been evenly poised throughout this season and they clash on Sunday at Anfield (Watch live, 11 a.m. ET online via Live Extra) with plenty on the line.

The Reds have two games in hand of Stoke in the race for the top six but the Potters have caused them problems this season in both the League Cup semifinals and the opening day of the campaign where Philippe Coutinho‘s stunner (how many times have we said that over the past 12 months?) saved Liverpool. This will be a closely fought encounter at Anfield and with Jurgen Klopp‘s men facing Borussia Dortmund in a key Europa League quarterfinal either side of this game, expect some players to be rested and Stoke to have a big chance of winning at Liverpool. Mark Hughes‘ men have been inconsistent in recent weeks but big name players like Marko Arnautovic, Bojan Krkic and Xherdan Shaqiri usually get going when it comes to games like these.


Down and nearly out

Aston Villa could finally be put out of their misery this weekend. Villa face Bournemouth at home on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET online via Live Extra) and if they fail to better Norwich City’s result against Crystal Palace then they’re officially down. Villa are a massive club but have been poorly mismanaged for years as American owner Randy Lerner has cut corners, sold star players and hasn’t found a buyer for the Midlands club.

Without a manager and soon to be relegated from the top-flight for the first time in the PL era, Villa have made sweeping changes behind-the-scenes as Remi Garde and Tim Sherwood were both fired during this season. When all is said and done, relegation may finally correct plenty of the wrongs at Villa over the past few years. Then again, we may not see them back in the PL for quite some time as the second-tier is a brutal and unforgiving division. It is indeed a sorry state of affairs at Villa Park.

FIFA extends men’s age limit for Tokyo Olympics due to virus

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GENEVA (AP) FIFA has extended the age limit for the men’s soccer tournament at the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics due to the coronavirus pandemic.

[ MORE: UEFA threatens Belgian league with European expulsion ]

The amended Olympic rule on Friday retains the “players born on or after Jan. 1, 1997” standard for the Tokyo Games following a one-year postponement agreed last week by the International Olympic Committee and Japanese authorities.

It means players eligible for the intended under-23 tournament in 2020 can still play in Japan at age 24 next year. Men’s soccer kicks off ahead of the July 23, 2021 opening ceremony in Tokyo.

FIFA also postponed two women’s age-group World Cups due this year in Central America and India, and confirmed no international games for men and women will be played in the early June dates protected for national team call-ups.

Soccer’s world body said “health must always be the first priority and the main criteria in any decision-making process, especially in these challenging times.”

The Olympic decision was made by a FIFA panel of soccer officials worldwide, created to address the soccer shutdown during the health crisis.

The 16 men’s teams at the Tokyo Olympics next year can also select three over-age players in their rosters. A stellar lineup includes Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany and Spain.

Two women’s World Cup tournaments — the Under-20s hosted by Panama and Costa Rica in August and September, and the Under-17s in India in November — are postponed. No new dates were announced.

[ MORE: Report: Serie A could resume training May 2, games late in month ]

Until the COVID-19 outbreak, national team games scheduled in June included the 2020 European Championship, World Cup qualifying games in South America and Asia, and qualifiers for the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations.

After Euro 2020 was postponed for one year, UEFA hoped to schedule playoff games in June to confirm the last four places in a 24-nation lineup. Those playoffs were postponed indefinitely this week.

World Cup qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar now face uncertain scheduling in a congested calendar in Europe, South America and Asia.

FIFA said on Friday it would “organize bilateral discussions” with continental governing bodies “to finalize a revised match schedule pending health and safety developments.”

FIFA plans to direct hundreds of millions of dollars from its cash reserves to support a global emergency fund, and has agreed to appoint one official from each of the six soccer continents to coordinate the work.

Arsenal want season completed ‘to maintain integrity’ of PL

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Arsenal remain in support of finishing the 2019-20 season in order to “to maintain the integrity” of the competition, despite Friday’s unanimous vote that the Premier League cannot resume at the start of May as previously hoped due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

[ MORE: UEFA threatens Belgian league with European expulsion ]

The Gunners, who currently sit ninth in the PL table with 10 games left to play (one more than the majority of clubs around them), were five points back of fifth-place Manchester United for qualification to next season’s UEFA Champions League thanks to Manchester City’s two-year European ban.

In a statement released on Friday, Arsenal reiterated their stance that the current season should be played to completion rather than called to completion at things stand or abandoned altogether.

We are in full support of the objective for all remaining domestic league and cup matches from the 2019-20 season to be played, in order to maintain the integrity of each competition.

We also fully agree with the principle that any return to action will only be with the full backing of government and when medical guidance allows.

The restart date is under constant review as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic develops and we continue to work together with all stakeholders through this very challenging time

Premier League rivalries: The Merseyside derby

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While the Merseyside derby has been dominated by one side of late, that has not detracted from the spectacle of the most historic matchup in English top flight history.

Uninterrupted in top flight play since 1962/63, the two sides are situated less than a mile apart, with the proximity feeding an already intense matchup.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Despite the incredibly close geographic proximity, the derby is sometimes known as the “Friendly Derby” as there are often families with split allegiances. Still, the matchup has the most red cards in Premier League history with 21, including 17 of those in the especially heated timeframe between 1997 and 2008.

Unfortunately for Everton, the rivalry has become one-sided over the past decade, with the Toffees failing to win since October of 2010. Liverpool has won 11 of the 21 games, with the other 10 ending in a draw. That has somewhat deescalated the vicious nature of the matchup, especially since Liverpool has gone on to become one of the most formidable sides in Europe over the past few years while Everton continues to challenge for a top-half place in the league.

Still, the 228 all-time matches between the clubs continues to fuel one of the great matchups in the English domestic landscape, and sooner or later this rivalry will regain its venom to bring the bite back to this matchup.

Bayern Munich signs coach Flick as permanent boss

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Bayern Munich has locked down interim head coach Hansi Flick as permanent boss, signing the 55-year-old on through the summer of 2023, the club announced on Friday.

Flick took over on an interim basis for Niko Kovac when the Croatian was let go in early November with the club fourth in the Bundesliga table. He impressed during his time as interim manager, leading the club back to the top of the table thanks in large part to a current 11-match league unbeaten run that features 10 wins and a draw.

That streak includes a 0-0 draw with then-second placed RB Leipzig that kept Bayern atop the table, plus a dominant 5-0 win over then-fifth placed Schalke. Successive 2-1 defeats to Borussia Monchengladbach and Bayer Leverkusen are the only real blemishes on his record in charge so far, coming way back in late November and early December.

“I’m looking forward to taking on the upcoming tasks along with my staff and the team,” Flick said in the official team release. “The talks with Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Oliver Kahn and Hasan Salihamidžić were very good and in a spirit of good faith. We’ve determined the direction for the upcoming years. I’m sure we can achieve a lot together.”

Flick has also kept the club’s pristine Champions League record alive this season, with wins over Red Star Belgrade, Tottenham, and Chelsea by a combined 12-1 scoreline. The 3-0 first-leg win over Chelsea in the Round of 16 has the club primed to reach the quarterfinal round should the competition eventually resume.

Speaking to Flick’s adaptability, he also kept the club rolling in the recent absence of in-form striker Robert Lewandowski, working 6-0 and 2-0 wins over Hoffenheim and Augsburg without his lead frontman who began a long absence with a broken tibia.

“Bayern are very satisfied with Hansi Flick’s work,” said Bayern’s chief executive Karl-Heinz Rummenigge in the release. “The team has had a very good development under him, plays attractive football which is reflected in results. We are the only club still competing in all three competitions.”

Sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic added, “Hansi and I know in which direction we want to develop the team. We believe that Hansi is also the right head coach for the current time.”