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Ragnar Klavan has neutralized Liverpool’s defensive woes

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Liverpool looked a title contender from the very start of the season, but one major flaw threatened to bring them down before they could mount a serious challenge to the Premier League crown.

The Reds conceded goals in bunches. At first, it didn’t cause a problem; two late goals in a 4-3 win over Arsenal on Opening Day, a goal past the hour mark in a 2-1 win over Chelsea, blowing two leads to Crystal Palace before putting them away late. But that trend wasn’t sustainable. Eventually, the defense would cost them points, and it began to.

Dejan Lovren lost Harry Kane, and lost two points against Spurs. The epic loss to Bournemouth featured a comedy of defensive errors that led to a historic collapse after holding a 3-1 lead with 20 minutes to go. They went up 1-0 to West Ham, only to conceded a pair, requiring a comeback to earn a point.

[ MORE: JPW’s Premier League picks for Matchweek 20 ]

After the Reds went down 2-1 to West Ham, Jurgen Klopp brought in Ragnar Klavan as a halftime substitute for Lovren.

The Estonian defender joined Liverpool this summer from FC Augsburg for $6 million, with Klopp using his intimate knowledge of the Bundesliga to pluck a value buy from a mid-table German side. Klavan rode the bench for much of October and November, as Lovren, Joel Matip, and occasionally Lucas stumbled their way around the defensive half.

Before Klavan entered against West Ham, Liverpool had three clean sheets in 14-1/2 matches. Since, they’ve conceded a single goal in 405 minutes. With opponents like Middlesbrough, Everton, and Stoke City, that streak wasn’t all that impressive.

Then Klavan and Liverpool shut out Manchester City and the Premier League took notice.

In that match, Pep Guardiola‘s bunch held 57% possession, out-passing Liverpool 461-306. But they were feeble in the attacking third, mustering just three successful passes in the Liverpool penalty area, with Klavan making seven clearances, completing three of four tackles, and man-marking Sergio Aguero on several occasions, holding the Argentinian without a touch in the penalty area.

Evaluating a single defender over a small sample size is difficult, and an uptick in form by Lovren has partially contributed, but it’s obvious that Klavan’s inclusion has made an enormous difference. With Matip out injured but expected to return shortly, it will be difficult for the Cameroonian to find his way back into a defensive line performing at a title-winning level.

Season over: Hudson-Odoi suffers suspected achillies tear

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One incident on Monday showed why some players are so desperate to change clubs when given the chance. They may never get it again.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Callum Hudson-Odoi said on his Instagram post Monday evening that he had suffered a ruptured achillies tendon. If confirmed by the club, it’s usually a nine-month recovery process, with some players needing a full year to return to full fitness. Considering the timing of this, towards the end of the season, it means that Hudson-Odoi may miss an entire season of top-flight soccer, as well as possibly miss out on a chance to move to Bayern Munich this summer.

The injury is a huge blow to the 18-year-old, who had forced his way into the Chelsea side after strong performances in the UEFA Europa League, and now he’s making regular Premier League starts at the tender age of 18. Hudson-Odoi had started four-straight Premier League games including Monday, but now he faces a long layoff.

In Hudson-Odoi’s favor is his youth. While it can be a career-ending injury, hopefully Hudson-Odoi could retain his electric pace once he recovers and can return to the starting lineup for Chelsea.

But it’s a big disappointment to the young Englishman, who surely would have played for England youth national teams this summer and could have potentially made a big-money move abroad.

Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks

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Four midweek Premier League games will be pivotal in shaping the title race, top four battle, race for seventh and the relegation picture.

Tuesday and Wednesday will be a lot of fun.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live ]

If you, like me, love to dissect all the games and predict what the score will be and which team will win, I encourage you to get involved in the comments section below. Let’s have a bit of fun.

Okay, so I’ve consulted my crystal ball and here’s how we see things panning out. Listen carefully, because this is very specific.

While you can download the NBC Sports Predictor app (below) and play the Premier League Pick ‘Em game yourself to predict the scores and win the prizes.

DOWNLOAD NBC SPORTS PREDICTOR

With the first section labelled “basically, free money” for the picks I think are dead certs. The section labelled “don’t touch this” means if you’re betting I advise you to stay clear, while the “so you’re telling me there’s a chance” section are the long shots. If it is better odds you are after, those are the picks to go for.


BASICALLY, FREE MONEY

Tottenham 3-1 Brighton – (Tuesday, 2:45 p.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Watford 3-1 Southampton – (Tuesday, 2:45 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM


DON’T TOUCH THIS…

Man United 1-2 Man City – (Wednesday, 3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM


“SO YOU’RE TELLING ME THERE’S A CHANCE…”

Wolves 2-1 Arsenal – (Wednesday, 2:45 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM

Relevant Sports sues USSF over proposed Ecuador match in Florida

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NEW YORK (AP) A promoter has sued the U.S. Soccer Federation, asking a court to order the governing body to sanction an Ecuador league match in Florida.

Relevent Sports filed suit Monday in New York Supreme Court in Manhattan, alleging the USSF illegally refused to approve its application to have Ecuador’s Barcelona and Guayaquil clubs play on May 5 at Miami Gardens.

The lawsuit quotes USSF policy as stating the governing body’s secretary general “shall grant such sanction unless it is decided by clear and convincing evidence that holding or sponsoring the international soccer competition would be detrimental to the best interest of the sport.”

The USSF did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

Relevent attempted to stage the first Spanish La Liga match in the U.S., between Barcelona and Girona at Miami Gardens on Jan. 26. That effort fell through following opposition from the governing body of Spanish soccer, the Real Federacion Espanola de Futbol, and the players’ union, the Asociacion de Futbolistas Espanoles.

Midweek Premier League TV, streaming schedule

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Four Premier League games are coming your way, and all four have huge implications in the title race, top four battle, race for seventh place and the scrap against relegation.

Bring it on.

MORE: Sign up for NBC Sports Gold ] 

The full TV schedule for the midweek games are below, plus you can watch every single second of every single game live online via NBC Sports.com,the NBC Sports App and by purchasing the new “Premier League Pass” via NBC Sports Gold.

Gold also includes an extensive selection of shoulder programming such as Premier League News, Premier League Today and NBC Sports originals such as Premier League Download and much more.

[ STREAM: Premier League live here ] 

You can also watch Premier League “Goal Rush” for all the goals as they go in around the grounds. Goal Rush is available via NBC Sports.com and the NBC Sports App.

[ MORE: Premier League “Goal Rush” ] 

If you’re looking for full-event replays of Premier League games, you can find them here for the games streamed on NBCSports.com and here for the games on NBC Sports Gold.

Here’s your full TV schedule for the next few days.


FULL TV SCHEDULE

Tuesday
2:45 p.m. ET: Tottenham v. Brighton – NBCSN [STREAM]
2:45 p.m. ET: Watford v. Southampton – NBC Sports Gold [STREAM]

Wednesday
2:45 p.m. ET: Wolves v. Arsenal – NBC Sports Gold [STREAM]
3 p.m. ET: Man United v. Man City – NBCSN [STREAM]