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Premier League Preview: West Ham United v. Newcastle United

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What has already been a banner, season-defining week for Newcastle United could get even better on Saturday when the Magpies visit West Ham United at the London Stadium (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com). Having already won twice in four days’ time — victories over Huddersfield Town and Burnley — Rafa Benitez‘s side now sits six points and five places clear of the Premier League’s relegation zone.

The challenge, now, is to translate their dominance at St. James’ Park to an away venue, something which has proven plenty difficult this season: just two of Newcastle’s eight wins have come away from the friendly confines of the northeast of England. Furthermore, they have taken just two points from their last five away games.

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

West Ham, on the other hand, have been a mixed bag at home: 6W-3D-5L. Even better of late, they’re 2W-2D-0L in their last four home games. Manuel Pellegrini‘s side sits 10th the PL table, but has won just two if its last nine league games.

West Ham lost 1-0 to Manchester City, but Pellegrini was clearly prioritizing Saturday’s showdown as the more winnable of this week’s fixtures, as he left Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, Mark Noble and Robert Snodgrass on the bench for all 90 minutes. With an 11-point gap between themselves and the relegation zone, 10th-place West Ham comfortably sit mid-table with little hope of climbing higher in the final standings, but plenty of room to fall should the season’s final 10 games go sideways.

Injuries

West Ham OUT: Andriy Yarmolenko (achilles), Jack Wilshere (ankle), Aaron Cresswell (toe), Carlos Sanchez (knee), Fabian Balbuena (knee), Winston Reid (knee) | Newcastle — OUT: Jonjo Shelvey (fitness), Ciaran Clark (knock)

What they’re saying

Manuel Pellegrini, on Newcastle’s progression: “I think that in both cases, in December and now, Newcastle were in a good moment. When we went to Newcastle and beat them there, they had come from a run of three games in a row winning. Now, I think they are a more consistent team, a difficult team to score against because they don’t concede too many chances. They have also won their last two games at home, so they are having a good moment.”

Rafa Benitez, on the season’s target: “My message to the players, and everyone, is that we still have a lot of work to do. We have to stay calm and have to approach every game with the same idea we had from day one. The next game is the most important and if we can get to 38 or 40 points, we can enjoy it a bit more if possible. We can see the future that we have along with the other teams around us. However, that means nothing because three or four weeks ago, we were thinking it would be very difficult. Now, we are starting to talk about finishing tenth. We have to stay calm and have to go there to try and get three points.”

Prediction

The difference in each side’s form while home and away is stark. West Ham will be the fresher of two sides after resting the aforementioned key figures, while Newcastle are due for a come-down. Saturday should be one of the three or four times each season when West Ham are unplayable and romp to victory, only to come crashing back down to Earth the following week.

Fans who want to try their hand at predicting PL games can down the NBC Sports Predictor app, with a chance to win up to $50,000 each week. Download it on iOS or Google Play.

Watch Live: West Ham United v. Arsenal

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Arsenal will be searching for their first win since firing Unai Emery as manager when they visit West Ham United, who could use a win in the worst possibly way themselves, at the London Stadium on Monday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

The Gunners have drawn one — coming back from a goal down, twice, against Norwich City — and lost at home to Brighton & Hove Albion on Thursday. It’s hardly been an ideal start to life under interim boss Freddie Ljungberg. As a result, they enter Monday’s game sitting 11th in the Premier League table.

As for the Hammers, Manuel Pellegrini is beginning to feel the pressure after winning just one of his side’s last nine games (1W-2D-6L). Following that exceedingly poor run of results, West Ham sit 16th in the PL table, just one point clear of the relegation zone.

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Messi’s hometown offers emotional trip to his childhood

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ROSARIO, Argentina — Soccer wasn’t always Lionel Messi’s favorite activity.

When he was a child in the modest neighborhood of La Bajada in his Argentine hometown of Rosario, he spent his time bicycling with friends, building forts out of branches and stones, playing hide and seek – and occasionally stealing lemons from a neighbor to make juice.

Those stories and others are the focus of a new tour being offered by Rosario to celebrate their 32-year-old hometown hero, an international sports superstar who just won an unprecedented sixth Golden Ball as world soccer’s player of the year.

The tour put together by Rosario’s city hall is free of charge and available in an app translated into several languages, guiding fans through 10 stops.

Few houses are higher than two stories in La Bajada, a middle-class neighborhood in the city that is 186 miles (300 kilometers) northwest of Buenos Aires.

Halfway down Israel street stands a gray house, closed off by shut curtains and protected by railings. There is no sign outside indicating it was Messi’s home, and no one lives there now, though it still belongs to his family.

The neighbors aren’t so shy about the Messi connection, however. Colorful paintings dedicated to the soccer star stand in front of houses and there are sidewalks colored in the blue and white of Argentina’s national team with Messi’s jersey number, 10, painted in black.

Messi’s neighbors and friends are often willing to share stories with visitors.

“Leo was normal and ordinary like other people here,” Diego Vallejos, one of Messi’s childhood friends, told The Associated Press on a sandy soccer field of the El Campito club as three youngsters played soccer.

“We fell, we scratched ourselves riding bikes. We went to the street with water bombs and threw them at buses,” said Vallejos, who is one year older than Messi.

Also are on the tour are the school Messi attended and the Abanderado Grandoli club, where he learned his first soccer moves.

The city long had a somewhat distant relationship with Messi, and officials say the tour seeks to change that. Rosario’s city hall said Messi’s family did not take part in the creation of the tour.

“What we want to emphasize is that Leo is a product of his city, and that there is a life and many stories behind the superstar,” said Santiago Valenti with Rosario’s tourism agency.

Messi was born June 24, 1987, in the Hospital Italiano Garibaldi in Rosario. He lived in the city until 2000, when he moved to Barcelona.

A recently opened sports museum, a few blocks from Messi’s old house, offers an interactive tour of the lives of local stars in racing, boxing, basketball and soccer.

Messi’s section of the museum is introduced by a painting that mixes monuments from Rosario and Barcelona, and the sentence: “All that I did, I did for soccer.” Two giant screens display goals and testimonials from his teammates.

“The idea is not to pay a tribute to his sporting success,” said museum coordinator Juan Echeverría. “It is to value the path he walked, everything that an athlete has to go through to get to the tip of the iceberg that we see when he is on the podium.”

The museum has contacted Messi’s family and the player’s father said he would donate more memorabilia.

One of items on display is a small red coat with a white collar. Below it is Messi’s official register as a Newell’s Old Boys academy player and a picture of him smiling.

Downtown is the Malvinas compound where Newell’s has its soccer academy. It was there the young Messi was filmed out-dribbling much bigger opponents.

“This is where it all started,” said Lisandro Conte, an employee at the academy.

Messi did not play for Newell’s. “At that time there were players who looked more promising, and the bet was placed on them,” Conte said.

Still, Messi has said he wants to finish his career at Newell’s, playing for his hometown club in his own country after a professional career in Barcelona’s storied Spanish league team.

Fans visiting Rosario might even be able to catch a match between teams like the recent clash between Newell’s and arch-rival Rosario Central. Among the 14 youngsters chasing the ball might be Rosario’s next star.

Solskjaer: Man Utd must keep big-game mentality v. lesser teams

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Things are going quite well for Manchester United right now, but manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer insists they still could — and should — be better.

[ MORE: Man arrested in connection to racist abuse at the Manchester derby ]

Following back-to-back wins over Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City in the span of four days last week, Man United now sit fifth in the Premier League table and trail Chelsea by just five points in the race for top-four.

The win over Man City could very well go down as the result of the season, having thoroughly outplayed their rivals, on their own field, for 45 minutes before holding on for all three points. Solskjaer was proud of his player’s mentality on Saturday, but it left him wondering what could be if they managed to maintain that level of focus and performance against the so-called “lesser” teams as well — quotes from the Guardian:

“That’s up to me, to make sure that for every single game they know they have to earn the right to win a game of football. You’ve got to earn the right to win. Sometimes you’ve got to earn it by passing quicker, winning the ball back — there are different ways of winning games of football.

“We’ll work with the mentality of the boys. It’s been very much about margins in those games [we lost]. But if you look behind the results I’m not as negative as you are. I’m not so worried, so concerned. If the boys are then telling me they can’t get up for these games, then we’ve got a problem. Then I’ve really got to work with them because when I played that’s how we won the league. We never gave points away against the lesser teams, the not-so-good teams. The Premier League is difficult. If you don’t have that mentality, you won’t get results. I’ll work on the mentality.”

Up next for United is a visit from a potentially tricky opponent, Everton (Watch live, Sunday, 9 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com), who last week fired manager Marco Silva and beat Chelsea 3-1 less than 48 days later.

Vinicius Junior is the latest player to flourish under Zidane

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MADRID — Vinicius Junior has become the latest Real Madrid player given new life by coach Zinedine Zidane.

The Brazilian teenager started this weekend for the first time in nearly two months, taking full advantage of his chances.

After a long time being overlooked, Vinicius Junior put in an exciting performance in the team’s 2-0 win over Espanyol on Saturday, being loudly cheered by the Santiago Bernabeu crowd.

“Vinicius has done very well after not playing for long time, that is important,” Zidane said. “He got his chance and did well. He never stopped working hard.”

Zidane has been trying to keep his entire squad motivated this season, constantly rotating players and not leaving them on the sidelines for too long. He recently recovered Francisco “Isco” Alarcon by making him a starter again following a long period on the bench, and had done the same with other players who did not have many minutes this season.

Vinicius Junior hadn’t started since the team’s 1-0 loss at Mallorca in the Spanish league in October, coming off the bench only three other times since then. The team’s other Brazilian teenager, Rodrygo, had gained space and was having more opportunities under Zidane recently.

But on Saturday, Vinicius Junior put his talent on display again, using his nifty moves to get past defenders and create numerous scoring opportunities for his teammates. Rodrygo also played from the start, but it was Vinicius Junior who attracted all the attention.

Vinicius Junior’s only goal this season came in a league match against Osasuna in September, but Zidane said that’s not something being held against him.

“The important thing is that the player wants to score and is doing his best,” Zidane said. “The goal may come or may not. It will be the result of his good work on the field.”