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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.

Should Tottenham sign or pass on Bale?

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Tottenham just broke its transfer record with the signing of Tanguay Ndombele. Could it break the bank for a second time this summer?

However unlikely that could be, Spanish publication Marca reports that Tottenham has continued to express interest in bringing Gareth Bale back to White Hart Lane and Northwest London. The report states that Tottenham is willing to spend between $56 and $67.6 million to sign Bale but that it could not afford Bale’s $19 million yearly salary after tax. Even more, it could only afford to pay half of that, or $9.5 million per season.

[READ: Fabian Delph moves to Everton]

There’s no doubt that, on paper at least, Bale would improve Tottenham’s squad and could potentially even immediately step into the starting lineup. But that’s assuming Tottenham could sign him anyway.

It seemed unlikely just a few weeks ago, after Daniel Levy and the club went an entire calendar year without spending money on a new player, that it could spend more than $100 million on two players to improve the squad. But perhaps now, with television revenues growing and more seats to sell at Tottenham’s new stadium, Levy feels he can spend big this summer to take Tottenham to the next level.

Whether due to luck or not, Tottenham took advantage of its opportunity and manager Mauricio Pochettino did a masterful job guiding the club to the UEFA Champions League final. But to challenge Manchester City at the head of the Premier League, it’s going to take a talent like Bale coming in.

That being said, that are the chances that Bale, who turns 30 on Tuesday, can dramatically regain his fitness after years of recurring injuries, are low. So the big question now is, is it worth it for Tottenham to spend more than $60 million on re-signing Bale, and is it worth it for Bale to leave, instead of getting to stay on his salary for the next three seasons.

Bale’s agent Jonathan Barrett has long stated his client wants to retire in Madrid. It’s seeming less likely by the day, and yet, as Bale doesn’t move, perhaps he’ll call it quits ahead of schedule, and turn down a chance to return to Tottenham.

Delph completes transfer to Everton

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Everton has added an England international in a move to bolster its midfield.

The club announced that it had signed Fabian Delph to a three-year contract, after an undisclosed permanent transfer from Manchester City. Delph comes to the blue half of Liverpool after spending the last four seasons at Manchester City, where he began as a central midfielder but was quickly pushed out wide as a left back, and only featured 20 times in all competitions for the Sky Blues last season.

“Every time I have played against Everton, whether it was home or away, straight away the first thing that comes to mind when you see the fans is passion,” Delph said on Everton’s website. “The Everton fans seem to know football, seem to understand it, it seems to be in their blood and they really back the team. You are always going to hear Evertonians and I’m excited to play at home and hear them when I am playing. I’m really happy to be here, I’m going to give absolutely everything – nothing less than 100 per cent.

Although it feels like he’s been around forever, Delph is actually still only 29-years-old, and should still have a few years left in the tank to help propel Everton to the next level. At the least, Delph adds steel and technical ability in the middle of the park, where he could likely partner with Andre Gomes, who made his move to Everton permanent this summer from Barcelona.

Delph also adds versatility, and that should help him stay in the Everton lineup, should it need him out wide or to play in the center of the park.

However, the most important aspect Delph brings is the winning mentality. Even though he didn’t play a massive role, Delph has had the opportunity to train and play alongside the likes of Vincent Kompany, David Silva and Sergio Aguero, all winners in their careers who do whatever it takes to get three points and win a title.

Bringing that attitude and mentality to Everton is huge for the club, which needs a lift after the departure of Wayne Rooney and other big names who have departed since the end of the David Moyes era.

Report: Ajax in negotiations to sign El Tri’s Alvarez

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One of the Mexico National Team’s brightest stars appears to be heading to Ajax, where he could potentially be the replacement for one Matthijs de Ligt.

According to a report in Voetbol International, a publication in the Netherlands, Ajax technical director Marc Overmars confirmed the club’s interest in signing Club America and El Tri defender Edson Alvarez. Club America are reportedly demanding nothing less than nearly $17 million for Alvarez, who has in just two years become a regular for El Tri.

[READ: USMNT’s Boyd signs with Besiktas]

The report states that Wolverhampton Wanderers – which has Alvarez’s El Tri teammate Raul Jimenez – and PSV Eindhoven were also interesting in signing Alvarez.

The 21-year-old made his debut for Club America as a right back under long-time Liga MX manager Ricardo La Volpe in 2016, and just a few months after his club debut, he was already playing for the national team. He was included and featured at the 2017 Gold Cup, becoming Mexico’s youngest scorer in the competition (at age 19) and he then started all four of Mexico’s games at the 2018 World Cup, including against Neymar and Brazil in the Round of 16.

Alvarez has continued his strong play over the past year and has moved into more of a centerback and holding midfielder role at times. He played as a No. 6 for Mexico in its 1-0 win over the U.S. Men’s National Team at the 2019 Gold Cup final, at times dropping into the back line to defend while providing support in the attack.

As Alvarez is still young but continues to grow, it’s a perfect time for him to join Ajax. There, he’ll face even better attackers than in Liga MX, and he’ll have a lot of responsibility on his shoulders to play for a prestigious club like Ajax. The pressure to perform will only make him better, like it’s helped countryman Hirving “Chucky” Lozano across the Netherlands at PSV Eindhoven.

Interestingly, Alvarez would be the second summer signing for Ajax with a North American connection. Defender Kik Pierie was actually born in Boston, while his father was studying at Harvard Medical School, though he’s been raised almost entirely in the Netherlands and has featured for the Oranje internationally.

USMNT’s Boyd signs with Besiktas

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Add another American to the list of players who will be playing in UEFA competitions this fall.

Turkish giant Besiktas announced on Monday that it had signed winger Tyler Boyd to a four-year contract in a transfer from Portuguese side Vitoria Guimaraes. Boyd has had a pretty impressive last six months, from scoring six goals in 14 games with Ankaragücü in the Turkish Superlig on loan, to scoring goals and making the Gold Cup roster for the U.S. Men’s National Team.

[READ: Transfer Rumor Roundup]

The New Zealand-born pacey winger completed a one-time switch to play for the USMNT in May, and he went on to score a brace in the USMNT’s Gold Cup opener against Guyana. While Boyd made five appearances for the U.S. this summer, he was left on the bench as the U.S. bowed out to Mexico, suddenly appearing out of Berhalter’s plans as quickly as he entered them.

Regardless, this is a great move for Boyd, assuming he can get some first team minutes. It’s a big step up from Ankaragücü to play for Besiktas, which not only includes the heated Istanbul derbies against Fenerbahce and Galatasaray, but next season will also include at least six matches in the UEFA Europa League. By finishing third in the Turkish league, Besiktas earned a place direct in the Europa League group stage.

Of course, like we saw this summer with the USMNT, Boyd has to break into a more talented group of players and earn minutes, both for league and European matches. If he’s not playing much, it’s possible we won’t see much of him with the national team, as Jordan Morris gets regular playing time as well as others in that position like Timothy Weah, Corey Baird and possibly Kenny Saief, now that he’s back with Anderlecht.

Boyd is undoubtedly a talented player. Hopefully, this move up in stature and pressure can help the 24-year-old take his game to a new level.