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PL Sunday preview: Title chasers Leicester, Spurs face Sunderland, Man United

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Sunday’s slate of Premier League fixtures sees the last two remaining title chasers, leaders Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur, back in action after Arsenal dropped points and all but fell out of the title race on Saturday.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Leicester City vs. Sunderland — 8:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and Live Extra

With a victory over Sunderland in Sunday’s early game, Leicester will be 10 points clear of Tottenham by the time they kick off their Round 33 fixture at White Hart Lane, at which point the first royal blue ribbons are to be attached to the handles either side of the PL trophy in advance of the Foxes’ impending coronation (the white accent ribbons come next week, if/when the beat West Ham United to restore their 10-point advantage).

When Leicester visited the Stadium of Light on the opening day of the season, it was the visitors and eventual champions-elect who kicked off the campaign with three points, thanks to a trio of first-half goals scored by Riyad Mahrez (twice) and Jamie Vardy. Mahrez and Vardy, along with everyone else at the East Midlands club, haven’t looked back since. After a dry spell either side of the New Year, both Mahrez (5 combined goals and assists in his last eight PL games played) and Vardy (7 combined in his last 10 games played) are back amongst the goals as Leicester grind out 1-0 win after 1-0 win (each of their last four PL games have finished 1-0 in favor of the Foxes).

INJURIES: Leicester — None | Sunderland — OUT: Emmanuel Eboue (suspension), Duncan Watmore (ankle)

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Man City close gap to 3rd-place Arsenal ]

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Manchester United — 11 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and Live Extra

When Spurs visited Old Trafford on the season’s opening day, Mauricio Pochettino‘s side made their intentions for the season mighty clear from the word “go” — they were to be taken seriously this time around, and no side would outwork them — even in their 1-0 defeat courtesy of Kyle Walker‘s own goal. That ethos has paid off in spades this season, as the north London side has gone on to concede the fewest goals in the PL (25 in 32 games) and piece together the league’s best goal differential (+32) to boot.

Following in the path of their stinginess, you’ll find Man United, the side with the league’s second fewest goals allowed (27), but a vastly inferior attacking record (39 goals scored, to Spurs’ 57, for a goal differential of +12). United have scored multiple goals in just two of their last 10 league games (six wins), while Spurs have achieved the feat seven times in the same period (seven wins). Harry Kane (22 goals) currently sits three clear in the race for the Golden Boot (Jamie Vardy has 19, followed by Romelu Lukaku and Sergio Aguero on 18).

INJURIES: Tottenham — OUT: Nabil Bentaleb (knee), Clinton Njie (knee); QUESTIONABLE: Jan Vertonghen (knee) | Man United — OUT: Bastian Schweinsteiger (knee), Luke Shaw (leg), Will Keane (groin); DOUBTFUL: Wayne Rooney (knee), Daley Blind (undisclosed)

[ MORE: The Run-In — Analyzing the situation for all 20 teams ]

Liverpool vs. Stoke City — 11 a.m. ET, on Live Extra

The dogfight for eight place in the PL is on, and getting hot between Liverpool and Stoke. Ahead of Sunday’s meeting at Anfield, it’s the visitors who hold a slim one-point on the hosts in either side’s bid for mid-table superiority and perhaps avoidance of the UEFA Europa League. Following Thursday’s 2-2 draw away to Borussia Dortmund in that very competition, Jurgen Klopp simply has to survive his partial first season in the PL before his first summer transfer window, at which point he can begin building a squad in his own image.

When the two sides met back in August, Liverpool kicked their season off with a hard-fought 1-0 victory at the Britannia Stadium (they also faced off in the League Cup semifinals with the Reds scraping through over two legs, on penalties).

INJURIES: Liverpool — OUT: Jordan Henderson (knee), Emre Can (suspension), Christian Benteke (knee), Jordan Rossiter (hamstring), Danny Ings (knee), Joe Gomez (knee); RETURNING: Lucas Leiva (thigh) | Stoke — OUT: Jonathan Walters (knee), Jack Butland (ankle), Glen Johnson (knee) DOUBTFUL: Marko Arnautovic (knee)

Rodgers excuses Maddison’s behavior after England departure

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Leicester City and England midfielder James Maddison made headlines for the wrong reasons after he was pictured last week watching the England match at the Czech Republic from a casino.

Despite the negative attention from Maddison’s decision to watch the game at that venue, he has the backing of his club manager, Brendan Rodgers.

“The kid went away with the international team and took ill while he was away,” Rodgers said, via the Guardian. “He wanted to stay and hopefully be ready for the second game. But the England medical staff – which I can understand, as he had flu and they didn’t want that to spread to his teammates – decided it’s best for him to leave the camp. So he leaves, gets some tablets with our guys at the club, then he feels better.

“He watched the game at home on his own on the Friday and then goes out at half-time – probably he’ll make better decisions in his life but he went to a casino on his own to sit and watch the second half by a poker table. The suggestions are he left England purposelessly and then goes to a casino but that’s totally not the case at all. But his eyes have been opened now to the wider world in terms of what he did. He knows in hindsight he’s made a mistake.”

Considering all that went on during England’s international break, from the poor performance in Prague to the horrible racism endured in Bulgaria, this is a bit of a silly scandal. To be honest, as long as Maddison is taking care of his body and himself, why does it matter if he was at a casino, or a pub, or anywhere?

However, there’s no denying that the optics look bad. Folks didn’t know that he arrived to England camp with the flu, or a flu-like illness at least, and the England medical staff are right to send him away to make sure no one else gets sick. He may have been feeling better by Friday and wanted to get out of the house. I think we’ve all been there after being sick for a few days.

The most important lesson for Maddison is to learn that his actions, out of context, can be misunderstood. In terms of soccer, after Ross Barkley’s performance for England, Maddison will have to prove in his club form that he should still have a place in the England team for the near future. There’s only two more international dates left before the 2020 Euros, so time is running out for Maddison to make an impact to Southgate.

 

Tierney, Lacazette available for Arsenal

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Arsenal are edging closer to finally having a full-strength squad.

Ahead of Monday’s prime-time matchup with Sheffield United, Arsenal manager Unai Emery confirmed that Kieran Tierney was in line to make his Premier League debut, while Alexandre Lacazette was back in full training and should be in the gameday squad.

“Today is Lacazette’s first training back with us,” Emery said in a press conference on Thursday. “He finished it well and he’s feeling well with his injuries. Tomorrow we will be training again and he will be with us. We will decide.

“The most important thing is that first he is training, then secondly it’s whether he can be with us and it depends how he can feel in the next days training with us, whether his ankle is not giving him any more problems.”

This is a huge boost to Arsenal, which has had to rely on some youngsters and have made some lineup changes to accommodate not having Lacazette on the field. Tierney meanwhile could step into a position where there’s already a decent starter, Sead Kolasinac.

Lacazette’s return also couldn’t have come at a better time. In Premier League action, Arsenal’s high-powered offense has been stymied, scoring just two goals in the last two league games. Meanwhile, against weaker defenses in the UEFA Europa League and the Carabao Cup, Arsenal has bagged a total of 12 goals.

The veteran Frenchman has scored two goals in three appearances so far this season, including a big goal just before halftime in the 2-2 draw with Tottenham. However, he suffered a long-term ankle injury in that match that has kept him on the sidelines for more than a month.

“[Tierney is] ready to play,” Emery later said. Now we have two options in that left-back role with Sead Kolasinac and him. We’re going to play a lot of matches after Monday. We will need every player. It depends how he comes into the first training with us, Sead, after his international matches. We now have two players in that position and we can use one on Monday, it depends how they are, one or the other.”

Tierney, the 22-year-old Scottish left back, has made two appearances for the Arsenal first team since recovering from a double hernia operation over the summer. Signed from Celtic for around $32 million, Tierney adds a skill that Kolasinac has struggled with – expert crosser of the ball into the box, where the likes of Lacazette, Nicolas Pepe, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang can score when given a decent chance.

USWNT star Rapinoe, boxer Shields win sportswomen of year

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Soccer star Megan Rapinoe and boxer Claressa Shields have been honored as Sportswomen of the Year by the Women’s Sports Foundation.

They won in the team and individual categories, the awards coming at the foundation’s 40th annual Salute to Women in Sports.

Rapinoe led the U.S. to victory at the World Cup in France and earned the FIFA Player of the Year award. Shields is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and middleweight champion.

Sheila Johnson, part-owner of the Washington Wizards, Capitals and recent WNBA champion Mystics, won the Billie Jean King Leadership Award. Marta Vieira da Silva, star of the Brazilian national soccer team, won the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award.

Rapinoe thanked her teammates Wednesday night and lauded Marta, a six-time FIFA Player of the Year, calling the Brazilian the greatest of all time and an “absolute hero in our sport.”

John Burke, president of the Trek Bicycle company, received the inaugural Champion for Equality Award.

MNUFC’s Opara wins MLS Defender of the Year

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For the second time in three seasons, Ike Opara has been named MLS Defender of the Year, this time as the foundational piece of Minnesota United’s much-improved defense.

[ Report: Sacramento finally gets MLS expansion franchise ]

Opara becomes just the fourth player to win multiple Defender of the Year awards, joining Carlos Bocanegra (2002, 2003), Robin Fraser (1999, 2004) and Chad Marshall, the only three-time winner (2008, 2009, 2014) in MLS history. Opara won the award going away, nearly doubling the percentage of votes received by second-place Walker Zimmerman.

Defender of the Year Player % Club % Media % Final %
Ike Opara  25.75% 27.27% 44.88% 32.64%
Walker Zimmerman 20.40% 17.17% 12.20% 16.59%
Miles Robinson 19.40% 13.13% 15.75% 16.09%
Maxime Chanot 1.67% 16.16% 4.33% 7.39%
Eddie Segura 4.35% 9.09% 5.91% 6.45%
Aaron Long 2.34% 5.05% 1.97% 3.12%

[ MORE: Berhalter slams USMNT after Canada defeat — what now? ]

This time last year, the 30-year-old was a member of one of the league’s stingiest defensive units as a member of Sporting Kansas City. Following a contract dispute with Sporting, Opara was traded to Minnesota in exchange for $900,000 of targeted allocation money, plus an additional $100,000 after Minnesota qualified for the playoffs for the first time since joining MLS.