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Top Premier League Story Lines: Relegation race running hot

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Forget five story lines, as the Premier League has just six matches altogether this weekend thanks to the FA Cup semifinals.

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With the semifinalists all being PL powers, the focus will largely be on the relegation race aside from three Top Seven sides looking to put pressure on Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal, and Manchester City.

Can Man Utd overcome short turnaround to keep up Top Four push?
Burnley vs. Manchester United — 9:15 a.m. ET Sunday

Defender-depleted Manchester United was home for Thursday’s UEFA Europa League second leg, which is the only blessing of a midweek match before a trip to Turf Moor to take on a Clarets side who is much better at home. The Red Devils control their Top Four destiny, but dropping a point would lend an advantage of both Liverpool and Man City while opening things up for Arsenal.

United will be keen to avenge the draw at Old Trafford which saw Tom Heaton making like Superman, nearly shattering his arm in a sublime save on Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

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Palace seeks to be influential at both ends of table
Liverpool vs. Crystal Palace — 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday

Crystal Palace’s rise out of the drop zone has shaken up the Top Four a bit, too. Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend have helped the Eagles to April wins over Chelsea and Arsenal, and will hope to add Liverpool’s name to the list. Jurgen Klopp‘s Reds are two points clear of fourth place Man City and six ahead of fifth place Manchester United, but have would drop out of the Top Four if the aforementioned clubs win their matches-in-hand the rest of the way. Lost points would hit hard.

Cherries aim to put relegation in rear view mirror
Bournemouth vs. Middlesbrough — 10 a.m. ET Saturday

Eddie Howe‘s Bournemouth opens the day seven points clear of the drop with five matches to play, and a win would lift the Cherries well above the fray. Boro would just like to see safety, sitting six points shy of 17th.

Can Tigers keep up safety pace?
Hull City vs. Watford — 10 a.m. ET Saturday

While the unexpected is possible during the stretch run, the final relegation slot will likely come down to Hull and Swansea. Marco Silva’s Tigers are two points ahead of Swans and just need to maintain that pace barring a miraculous run from Boro. The next obstacle is a Watford side which has claimed three wins in four, the lone setback coming against the rolling Spurs.

Swans looking for any sign of life from the Liberty Stadium

Swansea City vs. Stoke City — 10 a.m. ET Saturday

One point from six matches does not make a successful relegation fight, and Paul Clement‘s side has lost to four lower tier sides since beating Burnley on March 4. Swansea have showed relegation form playing defense-first under Francesco Guidolin, throwing attack-first on Bob Bradley‘s watch, and now in a variety of ways under Clement. Maybe it’s the players?

Will Toffees be able to make improbable run to fifth?
West Ham United vs. Everton — 10 a.m. ET Saturday

Ronald Koeman‘s Toffees can been fairly consistent in piling up points, except when it comes to the teams above it. That’s what is keeping Everton from being a real threat to the Top Four. West Ham is not above Everton, and would love to hit a reset button on the entire season. No way the Toffees foul this up, even on the road, right?

Leicester City’s Rodgers: ‘Good news’ on Vardy injury

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Brendan Rodgers says there’s good news when it comes to the injury suffered by Jamie Vardy in Leicester City’s 4-1 blowout of West Ham United on Wednesday.

Vardy hurt his glute in the win, temporarily returning to the match after treatment from the trainer but ultimately subbing off before halftime.

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“It wasn’t his hamstring, so that’s good news for us,” Rodgers said, via The Leicester Mercury.

“He just felt a twinge in his glute, so we just have to wait and see on that in the next day or so. Thankfully his hamstring is okay and he just felt some pain in his glute, so we will have to assess that over the next few days.”

Vardy has a Premier League-best 17 goals, one more than Man City’s Sergio Aguero.

He was replaced by Kelechi Iheanacho, who assisted one of Ayoze Perez’s two goals on the day. Perez’s seven goals are second on Leicester, while James Maddison‘s six are third.

Iheanacho has six goals and three assists in 485 minutes and there’s reason to believe he can feast off Leicester’s playmaking if Vardy needs a match or two to heal.

Whether he can fill Vardy’s shoes in the long-term is a big question, especially as Leicester aims to return for the Champions League.

Transfer rumor roundup: Willian Jose to Spurs, Bournemouth after Croatian CB

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London could get itself another Willian.

Willian Jose, 28, was left out of Real Sociedad’s squad at his request on Wednesday, with the club Tweeting that he’d prefer not to play until his situation is resolved.

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Jose Mourinho said he would not comment on another team’s players, but Willian Jose could help Spurs bridge the gap to Harry Kane‘s return.

Willian Jose has been a double-digit scorer for Real Sociedad in La Liga for the previous three seasons, and is well on his way to another 10-goal campaign. He’s got eight goals in 20 matches this season.

Bournemouth needs defensive help, and is reportedly rivaling Newcastle United and Blackburn Rovers for Portuguese giant Toni Borevkovic.

The 22-year-old Croatian has one goal in just over 3000 minutes with the side since arriving from domestic side NK Rudes.

He’s averaging 1.3 interceptions, .9 tackles, and 3.3 clearances per game in league play.

Rio Ave sits seventh in Portugal’s top flight and is managed by former Premier League boss Carlos Carvalhal.

Dropped points in Top Four race point to wild February

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Regardless of whether Wolves end Liverpool’s unbeaten Premier League season on Thursday, there will be five teams within seven points of fourth place heading into Matchweek 25.

Chelsea has 40, a comfortable-enough six-point lead on Manchester United, Spurs, and Wolves (who meet Liverpool at 3 p.m. ET Thursday on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com). Sheffield United has 33 points.

February, specifically the next three matchweeks, will see the teams inside that group learn a lot more about their fates, and give Chelsea and Sheffield United big opportunities to cement their places in the Top Four and Seven, respectively.

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In the case of the latter, it’s because the Blades are the only team in the bunch who don’t face a Top Four six-pointer; Chris Wilder‘s men will meet Crystal Palace, Bournemouth, and Brighton, while the others will be beating up each other.

Chelsea’s path is fraught, but a big opportunity. The Blues travel to Leicester City before hosting both Manchester United and Spurs. Nine points there would effectively Top Four-proof Frank Lampard‘s side.

By the way, how’s this for a hot take? If any of Chelsea, Man Utd, or Spurs find their center forward or playmaker help in the window, they’ll have a leg up on their Top Four rivals. And, really, is that extra few million pounds worth the spoils of the Champions League? Yup.

Bruno Fernandes is not (yet) with United, and the Red Devils face Wolves and Chelsea in their next two matches. Spurs have City and Chelsea. Tumult is probable!

A draw with Newcastle and loss at Watford dampened Wolves’ hopes of riding into fourth. Beginning with Thursday’s visit from Liverpool, however, Nuno Espirito Santo‘s men face three of the Top Seven and then a visit from Norwich City. It’s not over.

And don’t entirely rule out Leicester City from dropping into the fray; The Foxes host Chelsea and Man City, and visit Wolves.

One more nod, however improbable: Arsenal sits 10 points back of fourth but meets Burnley, Newcastle, and Everton over those three match weeks. A perfect run could have the Gunners thinking big (Man City is after that, alas).

Matchday 25
Leicester City v. Chelsea
Crystal Palace v. Sheffield United
Manchester United v. Wolves
Spurs v. Man City

Matchday 25
Sheffield United v. Bournemouth
Wolves v. Leicester City
Chelsea v. Manchester United
Aston Villa v. Tottenham Hotspur

Matchday 27
Chelsea v. Tottenham Hotspur
Leicester City v. Man City
Wolves v. Norwich City
Sheffield United v. Brighton
Manchester United v. Watford

Spurs play Wolves the next week, too!

Mourinho: Spurs don’t have attacking depth, but do have ‘family’

Mourinho on Spurs win
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In this “whole new Jose Mourinho” world, the key word is family.

Mourinho said it six times in his post-match presser after Tottenham Hotspur scrapped to a 2-1 defeat of Norwich City on Wednesday in London.

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Spurs had an early lead disappear when Ryan Sessegnon gave away a penalty to Max Aarons, and Teemu Pukki converted it for a 70th-minute deadlock.

Heung-Min Son scored nine minutes later. It was a win that is good for the whole family.

From Football.London:

“It was fantastic what happened after the 1-1, which happens in a difficult moment for us where I look to the bench and I don’t have attacking players to change the game the team is a little bit fatigued, especially Lucas, Son and of course Lamela. I took him off because he was in trouble and he is a player who is coming from very important and long injury, so very difficult.

“How can we change the game? With the family spirit, the family character and desire.”

Mourinho also praised Giovani Lo Celso‘s work on the wing for attack-short Spurs as “a good experience for the family,” and Paulo Gazzaniga‘s support for returned goalkeeper Hugo Lloris as “a good member of the family and he is such a special friend of Hugo.”

I mean, I’m getting the warm and fuzzies.

Clearly, Mourinho is stressing unity and there’s a bit of bunker mentality involved, as the manager mentioned some dicey calls not going their way against Watford, Liverpool, and now Norwich.