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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.

Report: Man City could use Gabriel Jesus to get Rodri

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At the root of this report is a question to which we don’t know the answer: How highly does Pep Guardiola rate Gabriel Jesus?

A report from Spanish outlet AS says Guardiola could use his young striker to lure Atletico Madrid into a swap deal, landing Manchester City their stirring defensive midfielder Rodri.

[ MORE: Players to watch at U-20 World Cup ]

Rodri is a nearly year older than 22-year-old Jesus, and is more instrumental to his current club. One of Atletico Madrid’s top talents, his $78 million release clause is an obvious route for City.

If Guardiola doesn’t see Jesus as a huge part of the club’s future, however, the manager may be able to go nearly like-for-like money-wise.

Jesus scored nearly every other game for City in all competitions, nabbing 21 goals in 47 matches, and has 13 goals in 27 caps for Brazil. Those are good numbers, especially with still-electric Sergio Aguero turning 31 this summer.

At his relatively tender age, Jesus has appeared 100 times for Man City and his 45 goals are made more impressive by less than 5600 total minutes in those matches.

Giving up on him to complete his midfield is a tough one. We think it’s more likely Guardiola pays the release clause… unless the manager simply doesn’t rate the player.

Players to watch at the U-20 World Cup

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The U-20 World Cup begins this week in Poland, and there are a bevy of future stars to watch, as well as several who will make their names during the tournament.

We’ll focus on the former. While England’s failure to qualify somewhat limits the Premier League starlets on show, there are still plenty from the English top flight.


Tim Weah, United States (PSG) — After a loan at Celtic and time with the full USMNT, how much can he dominate back in his age group?

Alban Lafont, France (Fiorentina) — At age 20, he’s already the starter between the sticks for his Serie A mainstays.

Diego Lainez, Mexico (Real Betis) — Eighteen with 12 league appearances for Real Betis, Lainez is a massive part of El Tri‘s future and carries four caps to his name.

Ruben Vinagre, Portugal (Wolves) — Wolves were promoted, and Vinagre actually made eight more appearances (17) than he made in the Championship.

Ezequiel Barco, Argentina (Atlanta United) — His sophomore season for the Five Stripes has been better than his debut campaign, though that’s not saying a ton given the hype.

Evan N’Dicka, France (Eintracht Frankfurt) — Plenty of playing time in the Bundesliga at the age of 19 for this towering center back.

Paxton Pomykal, United States (FC Dallas) — Looking good in MLS. How much should that translate on this stage?

Andriy Lunin, Ukraine (Real Madrid) — Won’t be wearing the white of Madrid in meaningful action any time soon, but made four appearances on loan for Leganes as a 20-year-old.

Sebastian Soto, United States (Hannover 96) — Not the American-born Bundesliga starlet we expected had we created this list months ago, but Soto has made his Bundesliga debut, so there’s a lot to like while Josh Sargent works with the full USMNT.

Dan Zagadou, France (Borussia Dortmund) — The left- and center back has 25 first team appearances for BVB at 19.

Diogo Dalot, Portugal (Manchester United) — Red Devils supporters know about this fella, who was purchased under the watch of Jose Mourinho last summer.

Mickael Cuisance, France (Borussia Monchengladbach) — Took a step back after his blockbuster ‘Gladbach breakthrough in 2017-18, but will be a key piece for the favorites.

Moussa Sylla, France (Monaco) — The winger is already a factor for AS Monaco, even if they struggled this season.

Bonus: Erling Håland, Denmark (Red Bull Salzburg); Ronald Araujo, Uruguay (Barcelona); Tom Dele-Bashiru, Nigeira (Manchester City).

De Ligt reportedly chooses Barcelona; Klopp set at CB

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Liverpool, Manchester United, and pretty much everyone but Barcelona looks set to miss out on Matthijs de Ligt.

De Ligt, 19, has paired with Liverpool’s Virgil Van Dijk while in the Netherlands national team set-up, but reportedly is opting to join Ajax teammate Frenkie de Jong at Barcelona.

[ MORE: Brighton hires new boss ]

In the case of Liverpool, Sky Sports says that Reds boss Jurgen Klopp thinks he doesn’t need another center back.

Injuries hit Liverpool’s center backs this season outside of Van Dijk. Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren were rated highly and combined for just over 2500 minutes, while young Joe Gomez suffered a long-term injury midway through the season.

If all are healthy, Liverpool has decent depth. Yet even Gomez doesn’t have the upside to shake a stick at De Ligt if the 19-year-old was truly interested in coming to Anfield.

I mean, “Are you interested in this 19-year-old captain of a Champions League semifinalist? He’s interested in coming there” usually doesn’t yield a firm, “No.”

As for Barcelona, it will reinforce its back line a year after allowing 36 goals. That’s pretty decent, but the Blaugranas‘ third-highest total of the last decade.

Mkhitaryan assured of safety by Azerbaijan ambassador

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The Europa League Final in Azerbaijan has not been getting a lot of positive press due to fans unwillingness to travel for the event and Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s fears of stepping foot in the country.

That’s because Mkhitaryan is the captain of Armenia’s national team, and that nation’s long dispute with Azerbaijan.

[ MORE: Brighton hires new boss ]

Arsenal, of course, plays Chelsea in the May 29 final, and Mkhitaryan already missed an earlier UEL match against Azerbaijan powers Qarabag. He’s played plenty for the Gunners this season apart from a broken foot, and his absence would not be welcome news for this London Derby of a European Final.

Azerbaijan’s UK ambassador Tahir Taghizadeh has guaranteed safety for Mkhitaryan, and said he’d be happy to personally offer assurances to the Armenian. On the other hand, this doesn’t sound like the most positive messaging, via Sky Sports:

“My message to Mkhitaryan would be: you’re a footballer, you want to play football? Go to Baku you are safe there, if you want to play the issue then that’s a different story. What I can guarantee is that the Azerbaijan government will do everything what needs to be done and provide safety and security for every fan, player and staff member coming to this game.”

By using the phrase “play the issue,” it does launch the discussion firmly into political waters. One thing’s for sure: The issue may be debatable, but whether a player feels safe deserves to be his call and his call alone.