Time for new chapter in Liverpool, Chelsea rivalry

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Liverpool host Chelsea at Anfield on Saturday (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com) with the Premier League rivals aiming to hunt down runaway leaders Manchester City.

Expect a raucous, fiery atmosphere as these foes lock horns with a changing dynamic to their growing rivalry.

[ VIDEO: PL score predictions, previews ]

Since Rafael Benitez and Jose Mourinho both landed at English soccer at Liverpool and Chelsea respectively in 2004-05, there’s been an extra edge to games between Liverpool and Chelsea as they often battled for the Premier League and Champions League titles.

Yet in recent years this rivalry has subsided a little, with both clubs enduring roller-coaster seasons with title challenges mixed in with disappointing campaigns and managerial changes.

Now, both teams are challenging in the Champions League (Chelsea are in the last 16, while Liverpool will certainly join them in 10 days time) and both are in a very similar position in the chasing pack behind Man City. With young, exciting squads the future is now looking bright for both teams.

Both also have talented, passionate managers in Jurgen Klopp and Antonio Conte who are in their second full seasons in the Premier League and both still have similar targets each season: to win major trophies. Heading into Saturday’s clash Chelsea sit in third place with 25 points, while Liverpool are in fifth and three points behind.

The main reason this rivalry has lost some oomph in recent years is because Chelsea have continued to add silverware to their trophy cabinet (the Champions League in 2011-12, plus the Premier League title in 2014-15 and 2016-17) and Liverpool haven’t won anything since the League Cup in 2011-12, while the Champions League triumph under Benitez in 2005 particularly got under Mourinho’s skin after the “ghost goal” from Luis Garcia.

Yet it now feels like both clubs are ready to challenge consistently for the PL title and they’ve moved on from glorious playing eras as legendary figures such as Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, John Terry, Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard.

Will this rivalry reach the heights of Mourinho and Benitez clashing on the sidelines during Champions League semifinals at Anfield, or the former then riling home fans during his second stint at Chelsea as his under-strength side ruined Liverpool’s title hopes back in 2014?

That day on April 27, 2014 (Liverpool fans do not need reminding) reignited this rivalry as a disheveled, unshaven Mourinho — he had been feeling unwell in the lead up to the game and was focusing on a UCL semifinal v Atletico Madrid — ran down the sideline to celebrate the victory, pounding the Chelsea badge on his chest like a madman in his tracksuit. He quickly retreated to the dressing room as vitriol arrived from home supporters who had seen their legendary captain, Gerrard, slip to gift Chelsea a soft goal and deal a hammer blow to Liverpool’s hopes of winning a first league title since 1990.

Getting the train from London to Liverpool, and back, that day, I remember scuffles breaking out between rival fans at Liverpool train station as police intervened. The atmosphere was toxic as this rivalry once again gathered steam. It wasn’t quite the heyday of Benitez vs. Mourinho, but it was getting there. The divide between the London clubs and those in the North West of England in the PL have always had an extra edge with geography and inter-city pride, plus the North-South divide in England, playing a big part.

But since Mourinho left Chelsea (for the second time) this rivalry now has a different feel to it. Last season it was Liverpool trying to play the spoiler for Chelsea’s title bid as they drew at Anfield in January with a wild Diego Costa winning, then failing with a late penalty kick which would’ve grabbed victory for the Blues. The flickers of a fiery rivalry are still very much there.

Sadio Mane vs. Eden Hazard. Mohamed Salah vs. Alvaro Morata. Philippe Coutinho vs. N'Golo Kante. Those are the new heavyweight rivalries in a clash which was one of the main events in the Premier League just over a decade ago. It’s importance is building once again under Klopp and Conte who have so far kept things respectful in their exchanges.

It feels like it is time for a new chapter to be written in this rivalry and Saturday evening under the floodlights at a packed out Anfield seems like the perfect place to do that.


Team news

Liverpool have Joel Matip back in training and he could be available to return in central defense but Emre Can is a major doubt in midfield.

Chelsea’s Victor Moses continues his recovery from a hamstring issue and could be on the bench but Michy Batshuayi will likely remain sidelined.


What they’re saying

Jurgen Klopp on Chelsea: “If we can create a special atmosphere that would help us. Our job is to stay really consistent. Chelsea, what a team, champions of last year, it will be a really tough job. They lost decisive players with Matic and Costa. With Chelsea last year, everything worked. They didn’t need many chances to win a game. It’s difficult to play the same season again, especially when you lose players.”

Antonio Conte on Chelsea not having enough rest before the Liverpool game after playing at Qarabag: “It was a problem to land. I think to get to your house at six o’clock in the morning is not simple to then rest and recover. We’ve only had one day to prepare for a big game and I think this is not right, I must be honest. But we have to do this and today we’ve had a good training session and we’ve tried to prepare for the game against Liverpool very well. I think to only have one day to prepare for a big game, especially to only have one day to rest is not right for all the teams, not only for Chelsea.”


Prediction

I’m expecting big things from this game, and the atmosphere, at Anfield. Both teams are in fine goalscoring form heading and the vast array of attacking talents on display has everything set up for an enthralling battle. With Hazard, Morata and Willian purring for Chelsea, plus Salah, Roberto Firmino and Mane on fire for Liverpool, you can expect one thing: goals. I’m going for a 2-2 draw.

Why Aston Villa deserve Premier League promotion

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With the Championship playoff final at Wembley Stadium on May 27, the richest game in soccer will see one of Aston Villa or Derby County promoted to the Premier League.

[ MORE: Latest Championship news ]

Which club deserves a spot in the English top-flight more? You can use metrics such as fanbase, stadiums, players, historical success and quality of coaches to try and sort this out, but the fact of the matter is, the playoffs are always a complete, and utterly brilliant, lottery.

The path Villa and Derby took to get to the final this season proves that.

Here’s a look at why Villa deserve to return to the PL after a three-year absence, while tomorrow we will focus on Derby…


Everything about Villa is a Premier League club.

Their incredible home at Villa Park is among the most historic and boisterous in England when it gets going and the Holte End is the jewel in its crown.

European champions in 1982, Villa are the biggest club from England’s second-city, Birmingham, and their fanbase is loyal, if not overly pessimistic as most Brummies are. The fact that there are no PL teams from Birmingham is astonishing. It is like having no top level sports teams in LA.

For three years they’ve now fought to get back into the top-flight after several seasons of struggle as former American owner Randy Lerner cut costs wherever he could. Under manager Dean Smith, a lifelong Villa fan, they now play wonderfully attractive soccer and have youngsters like Jack Grealish, Andre Green and Tammy Abraham leading the way.

Villa would be fun to watch if they were promoted to the Premier League. That much is sure. They’ll concede a lot of goals, but they would score a ton too.

There is also the potential for Villa to emulate Wolverhampton Wanderers. Seriously.

Their ownership group has strengthened in recent months with Chinese businessman Tony Xi selling 55 percent of his stake in the club to Egyptian billionaire Nassef Sawiris and American billionaire Wes Edens.

If Villa come up the financial fair play shackles which restricted them in the Championship in recent years will come off. The potential for them to spend big is there, but they have a team full of players on loan from PL clubs who have formed a bond and could likely be kept together and bought permanently this summer.

Quite simply, Villa are a top 10 team in the Premier League. They have suffered due to Lerner’s decision to pull out his investment but they have now rebuilt themselves with a strong core of young talent and have a manager in place who is progressive and ambitious both with his style of play and where Villa can get to in the PL.

Under Steve Bruce, Villa lost to Fulham in the playoff final last season at Wembley. But with local lad Grealish leading their charge there is a sense that failure last year was a blessing in disguise. This Villa side are young and hungry and they are exciting to watch.

That is why Villa deserve to be promoted to the Premier League for the 2019-20 season.

Sevilla: Caparros won’t stay as coach for next season

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MADRID (AP) Sevilla says Joaquin Caparros will not be the team’s coach next season.

The Spanish club says Caparros will stay linked to the team but in a different position that will be announced in the future.

The former sports director has coached Sevilla since replacing the fired Pablo Machin in March, leading the club to a sixth-place finish in the Spanish league and a spot in the Europa League.

Caparros was also in charge of Sevilla for the final stretch of last season after Italian coach Vincenzo Montella was fired.

The 63-year-old Caparros last month announced he was fighting chronic leukemia but could keep working normally at the club.

He coached Sevilla in 241 matches in total, more than any other coach.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Transfer rumor roundup: Mata to Newcastle; Wilson to Saints

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The Premier League transfer window is officially open again and that means one thing: transfer reports are going to start kicking up a few notches.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Here’s a look at some of the latest gossip from around the PL…


Juan Mata is out of contract at Manchester United this summer, and it appears he could be staying in the Premier League.

The Spanish attacking midfielder has spent the last nine season in the Premier League at Chelsea and Man United, scoring 78 goals in 353 appearances in all competitions.

Mata, 31, has been linked with a free transfer for Newcastle United with the Sun saying that Rafael Benitez is keen to bring in the Spanish midfielder. He will have to use his powers of persuasion with owner Mike Ashley to try and get in the players they need this summer.

Benitez is still not assured of being at St James’ Park himself next season, as talks with Ashley over a new contract are ongoing, but it is clear that the Spanish coach needs to be backed in the transfer market if the Magpies are going to improve on their 13th and 10th place finishes in the last two seasons.

Mata played for Benitez at Chelsea and it is believed he has offers to return to La Liga.

With Matt Ritchie, Miguel Almiron and Ayoze Perez in attack, Newcastle could probably strengthen in other areas of their squad first. However, with Salomon Rondon only on loan from West Brom last season and no deal to sign him permanently currently in place, Benitez will know he needs extra attacking options and must do it on the cheap to appease Ashley.

Given that fact, Mata is a quality player who would demand high wages but no transfer fee is a clincher.


Harry Wilson is a man in demand after his superb loan spell at Derby County this season.

Wilson, 22, is wanted by Newcastle, Southampton and Brighton according to Sky Sports, while the likes of Wolves, Crystal Palace and Bournemouth, as well as several Bundesliga clubs, have all been previously interesting in the Liverpool youngster. Jurgen Klopp has loaned Wilson out to Crewe, Hull and now Derby, and it is unlikely he will break through at Liverpool soon considering the attacking talent they possess.

A fee of $32 million has been suggested for Wilson, as the Welsh international has excelled under Frank Lampard at Derby and has been key in their run to the Championship playoff final against Aston Villa next Monday. His set piece delivery is sensational and Wilson has scored 18 goals and added four assists in all competitions for the Rams this season.

If Derby are promoted, maybe Wilson will remain at Pride Park, but the likes of Southampton, Wolves and Newcastle would seem like a very good spot for him to kick on and prove himself in the Premier League. Saints and Newcastle would offer him guaranteed playing time almost immediately and that has been key in his development this season at Derby.

Ralph Hasenhuttl has been keen to stress Saints will only sign young players or those who are hungry and searching for a first big contract of their career, and Wilson would slot into their attack nicely alongside Nathan Redmond and James Ward-Prowse in support of Danny Ings.

Sarri to discuss Chelsea future

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Maurizio Sarri isn’t sure if he will be in charge at Chelsea next season.

The Italian coach has confirmed that he will sit down and meet with Chelsea’s hierarchy after the UEFA Europa League final with Arsenal next Wednesday.

Speaking ahead of Chelsea’s trip to Baku, Azerbaijan, Sarri was asked about news reports linking him with a return to Italy to manager Juventus.

“It is very exciting to be here, but now it is time to think of the final,” Sarri said. “I have two years of my contract here. I have no contract with other clubs. I have to speak with my club after the final. I want to know if they are happy with me.”

Sarri added that he will discuss the situation in detail, but is extremely happy to remain at Stamford Bridge.

“I’m very happy to stay in the Premier League, with Chelsea, one of the most important clubs in the Premier League. I’m very, very happy but we have to discuss the situation. It’s normal. You have to discuss things with the club. It’s like this,” Sarri said.

Chelsea have hardly set the world alight this season, but finished third in the Premier League as they limped over the line at the end of the season. A top four finish was key for Sarri in his first season, so he achieved that, but the style of play was lambasted by many fans and neutrals, as the predictable, slow build-up play turned out to be easy to defend against. The reports around his future state that Chelsea are quite happy to let him leave this summer if another club wants to pay his $7 million release clause.

Sarri has reached the League Cup final and Europa League final in his debut season in England too, but his downbeat demeanor in press conferences has translated to a negative vibe with supporters.

Many want Frank Lampard — who has excelled in his first season as a manager at second-tier Derby — to replace Sarri this summer and given the impending transfer ban for Chelsea and Eden Hazard leaving, will he be able to improve the squad of players he currently has?

A big few weeks coming up for Sarri and Chelsea and their immediate futures.