Top 5 Premier League Storylines: North London Derby and the clogged title race

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A week ago, the Premier League title race appeared to be headed towards the closest finish ever. And then it got closer. Going into Matchday 11, three teams are tied at the top of the table with 23 points, while one sits back at 22, another at 20, and one lurking at 18. Almost all of those teams are in good form. So who will take control?

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Derby Days

Arsenal vs. Tottenham Hotspur — Sunday, 7:00 a.m. ET (NBCSN/NBCSports.com)

One of these teams is on a roll, the other is reeling. One of these teams has weathered the injury bug, the other is seeing it scuttle their season.

Arsenal welcomes the hated Spurs to the Emirates for an early Sunday kick with the Gunners on an incredible 15-match unbeaten run across all competitions, with their only loss of the year coming in league play on the opening game of the season. Since then, they’ve won 12 times including seven of their last eight in Premier League play. They won a dicey yet gutty one over Ludogorets in Champions League play midweek and are in fantastic form.

Tottenham, meanwhile, is in the dumps. The club looks completely lost in the absence of Toby Alderweireld and Danny Rose, with Eric Dier forced from his usual holding midfield role back into defense. While the defensive record hasn’t faltered during the Belgian’s injury layoff, the build-up has, with Dier not there to provide link-up to feed the attack. Rose’s loss has compounded that problem, and now with Moussa Dembele limping off midweek in the disappointing loss to Borussia Monchengladbach that left Spurs looking likely to fall out of the Champions League, matters look even more dire.

Tottenham has been ravaged by injuries, with the latest hitting Moussa Dembele in the midweek Champions League loss Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
Tottenham has been ravaged by injuries, with the latest hitting Moussa Dembele in the midweek Champions League loss Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)

Winner’s High?

Manchester City vs. Middlesbrough — Saturday, 10:00 a.m. ET (NBCSN/NBCSports.com)

It wasn’t that long ago that Pep Guardiola faced the longest winless run of his career and the questions seemed to prod Manchester City from all directions. Now, after a demolition of lowly West Brom and a famous win over Barcelona in the Champions League, fortunes have drastically turned and City appears to be a title favorite yet again. They will be challenged against a defensively stout Middlesbrough side that held Arsenal scoreless two weekends ago and may have found its shooting boots last time out. Will City falter after the big win on Wednesday, or will they channel that momentum into a serious title hunt?

Desperate to Win

Swansea City vs. Manchester United — Sunday, 10:00 a.m. ET (CNBC/NBCSports.com)

Two managers enter Liberty Stadium in desperate need of a win. Only one can emerge victorious. Bob Bradley is under enormous pressure at Swansea City given the circumstances of his hire, and having taken a step back in last week’s comprehensive loss to Stoke, the need for a statement win – and the resulting three points – grows even greater. Jose Mourinho, meanwhile, has taken charge of lackluster performance after lackluster performance, and with Manchester United stuck in eighth in the Premier League table, the Red Devils needs points now to gain a foothold in the table’s clogged top half. Just one win in their last seven has Mourinho struggling for options up front; the 37 shots without a goal against Burnley last weekend was particularly infuriating. Which side – if any – will grab a win?

Bob Bradley is in desperate need of a win, but faces a manager in a similar situation (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images).
Bob Bradley is in desperate need of a win, but faces a manager in a similar situation (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images).

Establishing a Bottom 3

Bournemouth vs. Sunderland — Saturday, 11:00 a.m. ET (NBCSports.com)
Hull City vs. Southampton — Sunday, 9:15 a.m. ET (NBCSports.com)

With Swansea taking on Manchester United, the other two clubs that make up the relegation zone have tough tests. Sunderland must hit the road to take on a Bournemouth club that’s yet to pick up a marquee win but has also taken care of business against the bottom third. Meanwhile, Hull City hosts a Southampton side sitting ninth in the table and has picked up points against better sides. The Tigers have lost six in a row and seven of eight, and any further of a slide could condemn them to the drop even before Christmas.

Should these floundering teams all falter again, they are in serious danger of establishing an early bottom three, leaving them with lots of extra legwork to pull themselves out. At the moment, it’s hard to envision anyone else falling far enough to leave the door open, and it’s on the clubs in the drop zone to change that.

In-Form Feature

Chelsea vs. Everton — Saturday, 1:30 p.m. ET (NBC/NBCSports.com)

Chelsea is arguably in the best form of anyone in the Premier League, but that will be put to the test this weekend with a featured matchup against Everton at Stamford Bridge. The Toffees began this season with a bang, but had slumped from their fast start before a convincing 2-0 win over West Ham last weekend turned things back in their favor. Ross Barkley looks to be set for a stellar season as Everton could challenge for a European place, but with the Chelsea machine officially whirring at full capacity, three points for the Blues could see Antonio Conte capitalize on a slip-up by any of the three clubs tied just a point ahead of them.

Atletico Madrid temporarily cuts player salaries by 70 percent

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Atletico Madrid says it has reached an agreement with its players and coaching staff to reduce their salaries by 70 percent while competitions are stopped during the coronavirus pandemic.

[ MORE: FIFA extends men’s age limit for Tokyo Olympics due to virus ]

Atletico announced the agreement on Thursday and said it is temporarily suspending the jobs of club employees.

Atletico had previously said it would need to take such a drastic step but had yet to reveal the details.

A job suspension under Spanish law allows a company to greatly reduce its labor costs by having workers stay at home while guaranteeing they will go back to their positions when conditions improve.

[ MORE: UEFA threatens Belgian league with European expulsion ]

The Spanish club added that some of the money saved by the players’ salary cuts will be given to its other employees who will be furloughed.

Barcelona recently announced it had come to a similar agreement with its players.

Both clubs said that such cost-saving measures were necessary to ensure their financial stability due to the loss in revenue during the stoppage of competitions.

CONCACAF postpones Nations League finals, Gold Cup qualification

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CONCACAF announced on Friday that the 2019-20 Nations League finals and the opening rounds of 2021 Gold Cup qualification have been postponed due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

[ MORE: UEFA threatens Belgian league with European expulsion ]

The Nations League finals — featuring the U.S. men’s national team, Mexico, Costa Rica and Honduras — were previously scheduled to take place in Houston and Dallas in early June. CONCACAF says the semifinals and final will be rescheduled for a later date.

The seconds round of Gold Cup qualifying was previously scheduled to be made up in June — following their postponement in March, with four two-leg ties featuring largely Caribbean and Central American nations. Those, too, will be rescheduled for a later date.

Given the ongoing public health situation, and following consultation with FIFA regarding the international football calendar, we have made the decision to suspend the CONCACAF Nations League finals, which was scheduled for June 4-7, 2020 in the Houston and Dallas areas.

The event, which includes the Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico and USA men’s national teams, will be rescheduled to take place at a later date in venues to be determined. This will be confirmed following further discussions with FIFA regarding the remaining international windows in the football calendar, and will obviously be subject to public health authorities deeming it safe for professional sports events to resume.

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

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GENEVA — 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.

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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