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Premier League clubs, players send festive greetings

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Merry Christmas everyone!

With the festive season in full swing across the Premier League, all 20 clubs have been sending out messages to their fans and wishing them a happy holiday season.

[ STREAM: Watch every PL match live

Below are a collection of some of the best festive greetings from clubs and players, along with some wonderful gifts they’ve been giving out to their fans.

Champions League: Best bets to overturn 1st leg setbacks

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All eight UEFA Champions League Round of 16 ties have reached their midpoint, and only two are level.

Those are the scoreless draws involving Lyon and Barcelona, and Liverpool and Bayern Munich.

[ MORE: Watford smashes Cardiff ]

While there are slight advantages to Lyon and Liverpool in having not allowing away goals, those are mitigated by having to win or draw away from home in the second leg. We’ll leave those off our ranking of the most likely to collect a comeback.

6. Borussia Dortmund
First leg: Lost 3-0 away to Spurs

Extremely likely, aside from the whole “most likely needing to score a 4-goal win” thing.

5. Schalke
First leg: Lost 3-2 at home to Man City

In order to advance against a superior opponent, Schalke has to score the first two-goal away win at the Etihad Stadium in the Pep Guardiola era.

t-3. Ajax
First leg: Lost 2-1 at home to Real Madrid

An inspiring display at home leaves Ajax with the task of scoring a couple of goals at the Bernabeu at a minimum.

t-3. Manchester United
First leg: Lost 2-0 at home to Paris Saint-Germain

Beating PSG by two goals without Paul Pogba sounds borderline insane, especially since Les Parisiens picked up their 2-0 win at Old Trafford without Neymar and Edinson Cavani.

2. Juventus
First leg: Lost 2-0 away to Atletico Madrid

Scoring two or more goals against a Diego Simeone back line is an immense task, but Juve is loaded with offensive firepower and home in Turin.

1. Porto
First leg: Lost 2-1 away to Roma

Porto can go up 1-0 and know it’s prepared to advance into the quarterfinals.

The race for 7th: Who’s headed for Europa League?

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Since 2006, when Everton was eliminated in the third qualifying round, only seven Premier League clubs have played in the UEFA Champions League: Chelsea, Arsenal, Spurs, Manchester City, Manchester United, Leicester City, and Liverpool.

Expanding the pool for the Europa League finds some odd ducks via cup winners — Birmingham City, Burnley, Hull City, Wigan Athletic — but precious few times have those clubs been able to maintain runs deep into the tournament.

[ MORE: Watford smashes Cardiff ]

When Man City or Chelsea lifts the League Cup on Sunday, it will officially expand the Europa League qualification places in the Premier League table to seventh (assuming the Blues would fall no further than sixth should they beat City).

Six teams have realistic shots at seventh, with two leading the way in Wolverhampton Wanderers and Watford.

What’s exciting about the group is that there’s substantial reason to believe at least five of them would focus on deep runs in the UEL, which makes Thursdays in the Fall all the more interesting to soccer fans.

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 7. Watford 27 11 7 9 39 35 4 6-2-5 5-5-4 40
 8. Wolves 26 11 6 9 34 33 1 6-3-5 5-3-4 39
 9. West Ham United 27 10 6 11 35 40 -5 6-3-5 4-3-6 36
 10. Everton 27 9 6 12 36 39 -3 6-3-5 3-3-7 33
 11. Bournemouth 26 10 3 13 37 47 -10 7-3-3 3-0-10 33
 12. Leicester City 26 9 5 12 31 34 -3 4-2-6 5-3-6 32

Bournemouth is the outlier here, but chairman Jeff Mostyn has shown ambition and a UEL place might just give Eddie Howe the inspiration to stay even longer at the Vitality Stadium.

But his fate may be tied to taking care of visiting Wolves on Saturday. Here are some of the key duels that will decide the Europa League places:

Bournemouth v. Wolves — 10 a.m. ET on NBC Sports Gold

March 3
Watford v. Leicester City — 7 a.m. ET

March 30
Leicester City v. Bournemouth — 11 a.m. ET
West Ham v. Everton — 1:30 p.m. ET

April 20
West Ham v. Leicester City — 10 a.m. ET

April 27
Watford v. Wolves — 10 a.m. ET

May 12
Watford v. West Ham — 
10 a.m. ET

League Cup Final preview: Sarri, Pep match wits for 4th time

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Sunday’s League Cup Final could be a moment for one manager to right his ship, or drive the other to the start of an improbable quadruple.

Chelsea’s Maurizio Sarri duels with Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola on Sunday at Wembley Stadium, just 14 days after the latter outmaneuvered the former to the tune of a 6-0 shellacking at the Etihad Stadium.

[ RECAP: West Ham 3-1 Fulham ]

The loss was Chelsea’s second to City this season, though the Blues did manage a 2-0 defeat in league play at Stamford Bridge on Dec. 8.

It’s also the second time the two will go head-to-head for silverware, as Man City outlasted Chelsea 2-0 for the Community Shield on Aug. 5.

That loss to City didn’t send the Chelsea faithful scurrying from “Sarriball,” but they’ve become far less supportive of the Blues’ boss.

And Chelsea defender Antonio Rudiger says Friday is a chance for his side to show the supporters the better side of what Sarri has implemented at Stamford Bridge.

“That will show the truth,” Rudiger said. “That will show our way this ­season. It will be the truth in terms of  keeping up with opponents like City Liverpool and Tottenham. What if it shows we are not that close? Then that is the reality.”

“You always play for your manager but you want results. You want to win. No player likes to have the kind of run we’ve had.”

Rudiger is a quote-giving marvel. Chelsea needs to keep him just for the departure from the norm he provides the media.

As for Guardiola, he’s also supportive of Sarri and thinks the Blues faithful should take a step back. He references the heat given to Antonio Conte the year after he won a Premier League crown.

Guardiola is also not thrilled that the 6-0 result is the last time City played Chelsea. From The London Evening Standard:

“In that moment I was so happy to beat them 6-0, but now in this moment I would prefer not to have beaten them 6-0. I don’t like to play in a short period of time when you’ve beaten them by so much,” he said. “They are incredible professional players, they are proud, they will do extra.”

“When we lost there and when we won here, my opinion of Sarri and his teams is always high. When we reviewed the game against us, maybe people don’t believe me, but they did incredible things.”

They’ll have to do more incredible things Sunday at Wembley, or City will lay claim to its fourth League Cup title in six tries (and seventh overall).

The winner Sunday will have the second-most League Cup wins in history.

USMNT’s Sargent makes 1st Bundesliga start in Bremen’s 1-1 draw

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BREMEN, Germany (AP) Werder Bremen’s European hopes were damaged by a 1-1 home draw with Stuttgart in the Bundesliga Friday.

Bremen had been hoping to get closer to Wolfsburg, which occupies the last Europa League qualifying position in sixth spot, but had to be content with a move up to ninth.

Steven Zuber fired Stuttgart ahead after 61 seconds. The former Hoffenheim striker stayed cool after he was sent through by Mario Gomez to shoot beyond Bremen keeper Jiri Pavlenka and inside the far post.

Despite more possession for the hosts, it was Stuttgart which had the better chances – Gomez spurning two good opportunities – and the visitors were left to rue the misses when Max Kruse set up Dutch midfielder Davy Klaassen to equalize with a powerful strike before the break.

“I’m sorry for the team,” Gomez said.

Bremen brought on Claudio Pizarro, who became the oldest ever goalscorer when he grabbed a late equalizer against Hertha Berlin last weekend, for the last half-hour but the 40-year-old Peruvian could not find the winner.

American forward Josh Sargent made his first league start for Bremen.

Stuttgart remained in the relegation zone with 16 points from 23 games.

On Saturday, second-place Bayern Munich hosts Hertha. Leader Borussia Dortmund takes on Bayer Leverkusen on Sunday.

More AP German soccer coverage: and