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Top PL storylines for Week 21

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We are officially halfway through the Premier League season (plus one), and the title race is not only shaping up, it’s rounding into form. Liverpool leads the way with a healthy margin, but should Manchester City or Tottenham get hot, one slip (sorry, Steven Gerrard) could see it all fall to pieces.

With the festive period in full swing, teams look to navigate the fixture congestion as best they can. It’s not easy, as players can get injured if they don’t receive enough rest to recuperate their bodies from difficult matches. So, as the managers play merry-go-round with their squads, let’s look at what some of the top storylines are headed into the midweek matches that begin the new year.

Manchester City meets Liverpool with high expectations
Manchester City v. Liverpool, 3:00 p.m. ET, Thursday on NBCSN [ STREAM ]

The last time these two teams met in early October, the world exploded with anticipation, and were treated to a 0-0 dud. Back then, it was understandable given both sides would rather earn a point against a solid opponent than lose a match early in the season and hand a title rival all three points. Now, Manchester City cannot afford to fall further behind in the race, and needs points in a direct head-to-head with the Reds given Liverpool is unlikely to open the door with too many dropped points the rest of the way.

It promises to be an explosive matchup with it all on the line. Last year, this match produced a 4-3 thriller that Liverpool won game of the year in our 2018 year in review. Can the teams give fans what they crave and set the winner up for a great 2019, or will another draw keep the status quo?

Can Tottenham rebound again?
Cardiff City v. Tottenham, 12:30 p.m. ET, Tuesday on NBCSN STREAM ]

Spurs has lost just five times this season. After three of the previous four, Spurs rattled off at least three straight wins (somehow, they have not drawn a single match this season – an insane realization). So, after disappointingly falling 3-1 to Wolves last time out, can they turn things around against Cardiff City on short rest?

Mauricio Pochettino‘s squad is reeling from a few key injuries, especially to the midfield, where Victor Wanyama, Mousa Dembele, Eric Dier and Erik Lamela will all be missing, plus Jan Vertonghen is out as well. Despite the injury struggles, Spurs had conceded just two goals over five wins prior to the Wolves loss. Against Cardiff, Spurs can potentially get it rolling again and gain some momentum with a key match against Manchester United around the corner.

Will reeling Arsenal save its Top 4 hopes, or will Fulham save its season?
Arsenal v. Fulham, 10:00 a.m. ET, Tuesday on NBCSN [ STREAM ]

Fulham has begun to put things together under Claudio Ranieri, on a three-match unbeaten run and even earning a pair of clean sheets over that span, but the Whites’ squad still has plenty of deficiencies. That could be exactly what the doctor ordered for an Arenal side with just one win and four points over its last four matches.

The Gunners sit five points back of the Champions League places, and with Manchester United lurking right behind them, any more unexpected slips could be the end of their top four hope this season. Against a Fulham squad knocking on the door of safety but losing its most steady defender in Alfie Mawson to a knee injury, Arsenal needs to turn on the jets or be left in the dust in Unai Emery‘s first season.

Chelsea looks to keep pace near the top against do-or-die Saints
Chelsea v. Southampton, 3:00 p.m. ET, Wednesday on NBCSN [ STREAM ]

Southampton is in dire trouble, but Chelsea has its own lives to worry about – Champions League lives. Chelsea sits in fourth place, five points above Arsenal and two back of Tottenham as the Blues look to continue its improvement under Maurizio Sarri. Still, there’s a more dire feeling about the second half of the season for Chelsea with Eden Hazard potentially moving on this summer. The Blues clobbered Southampton last time around, and would love another big win to start 2019 off right. Southampton, meanwhile, has lost two in a row and needs to build on the pair of wins from earlier in December.

Italian soccer federation signs deal with Chinese government

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ROME (AP) The Italian soccer federation has signed a wide-ranging memorandum with the Chinese government to promote soccer between the two countries.

The deal foresees playing the Italian Super Cup or Italian Cup in China within the next three years.

[ MORE: Upsets in EURO qualifying ]

The Italian Super Cup – which pits the Serie A champion against the Italian Cup champion – has already been played in China four times over the last 10 years.

The meeting with China Media Group head Shen Haixiong also focused on TV content and rights, collaboration over developing young Chinese players in Italy and instruction for using the video assistant referee.

Shen was in Rome for the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Italian federation president Gabriele Gravina says, “Soccer has shown once again to be a bridge between different cultures.”

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

WATCH: Asprilla scores terrific bicycle kick on USL cameo

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Portland Timbers forward Dairon Asprilla has had to spend some time in the USL Championship this season, and the second tier would probably like to see Gio Savarese keep the Colombian in Major League Soccer.

[ REPORT: Liverpool to sell Keita? ]

Asprilla scored twice and added an assists on Saturday night in a defeat of Eric Wynalda’s Las Vegas Lights, and he put up a near picture perfect bicycle kick on the highlight reel.

Watch as he sets himself up, willingly or not, for the endeavor before splashing a shot in the side panel for an amazing aesthetic.

Report: Bayern, BVB ready to buy Keita from Liverpool

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A report claims that Liverpool is ready to admit defeat in the case of Naby Keita.

Keita, 24, was bought from RB Leipzig last season and arrived at Anfield in the summer, but has struggled to find consistent playing time under Jurgen Klopp.

[ VIDEO: USMNT’s Saief shines for FC Cincinnati ]

Viewed as the missing link between the Virgil Van Dijk and Liverpool’s torrential attack, Keita has not come close to replicating the form that saw his price tag reach $69 million.

Indeed, Team Talk says Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich look prepared to pay around $53 million to bring Keita back to the Bundesliga.

Keita has played 27 matches in all competitions for Liverpool, accumulating 1,388 minutes and just one assist. He had nine goals and seven assists in more than double the minutes one season ago.

According to WhoScored.com, he’s passing the ball better and taking almost a foul less than last season, but almost every other measurable has declined since he moved to England.

I’m as guilty as anyone of thinking Keita would be everything the Reds required after an improved 2017-18, but he’s either being used very poorly or having trouble adjusting to the culture.

It’s early to quit on a player so talented, but maybe Klopp and he just don’t mesh well. But if it isn’t a case of clashing with the club, it may be worth waiting out a player who looked a giant just eight months ago.

EURO qualifying: Hungary stings Croatia, Israel hangs 4 on Austria

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It wasn’t just Germany and the Netherlands staging a tight and entertaining match in EURO 2020 qualifying on Sunday.

[ VIDEO: Saief, Manneh lead FC Cincinnati ]

Hungary 2-1 Croatia

Ante Rebic’s early goal made a “business as usual” statement for the World Cup runners-up, but Hungary can be a handful against any opponents and rallied at home.

Hoffenheim striker Adam Szalai brought the hosts level at halftime, and Mate Patkai gave Hungary a deserved 2-1 win in Budapest.

Coming three days after a loss in Slovakia to start qualifying, it was an early almost-must-win for Marco Rossi’s men.

Israel 4-2 Austria

Marko Arnautovic‘s brace in defeat couldn’t have come with different vibes. His eighth minute marker gave the Austrians a leg up, his 75th minute goal meaning very little with the side having conceded four-straight in between.

China-based striker Eran Zahavi scored a hat trick for Israel, and RB Salzburg star Munas Dabbur scored the fourth goal to keep the hosts within sight of first place Poland.

Austria is winless through two qualifiers.

Elsewhere
Wales 1-0 Slovakia
Cyprus 0-2 Belgium
San Marino 0-2 Scotland
Netherlands 2-3 Germany — RECAP, VIDEO
Northern Ireland 2-1 Belarus
Poland 2-0 Latvia
Slovenia 1-1 Macedonia
Kazakhstan 0-4 Russia