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Top Premier League storylines: Week 32


The international break is over (yay!) and the Premier League is back in action as teams gear up for the stretch run of the domestic season. With seven or eight matches left to play in the league campaign, we’re treated to vicious battles up and down the table.

[ MORE: Glenn Murray opens up to PST ]

There’s a wide open fight for the title with Liverpool and Manchester City going punch for punch, while Manchester United, Arsenal, and Chelsea battle for the final Champions League slot. At the bottom of the table, Fulham looks for a miracle escape while Cardiff City, Southampton, and Burnley fight for Premier League survival.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ] 

Liverpool fights to keep top spot
Sunday, 11:30 a.m. ET: Liverpool v. Tottenham – NBCSN STREAM ]

Liverpool leads the Premier League at the moment, but just by the hair of their chinny chin chins. The Reds currently hold a slim two point lead, but Manchester City holds a game in hand, leaving Liverpool’s margin for error at essentially nil. They take on a Tottenham side that is no longer battling for the title, but instead battling for their Champions League lives, not with just a one-point lead over fourth-placed Arsenal.

The Reds may even be trailing in the title race when the game kicks off as Manchester City plays Fulham the day before, with a City win pushing them into the lead. Tottenham has lost three of the last four, leaving them vulnerable amidst the top four race, and that will give Mauricio Pochettino and his squad a sense of urgency coming into this match.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer takes charge of Manchester United permanently
Saturday, 11:00 a.m. ET: Manchester United v. Watford – NBCSN STREAM ]

On Thursday, Manchester United officially tabbed Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as the permanent manager, a fierce statement of support for the Norwegian to sign him now instead of waiting until the summer to make his position permanent. While there’s plenty of pomp and circumstance surrounding Solskjaer’s start to his Manchester United career, Saturday’s match is a critical juncture in his managerial career. After running an incredible 12 matches unbeaten to start his Premier League tenure, the club has lost two straight matches – a big 2-0 defeat to Arsenal to fall out of fourth in the table, followed by a 2-1 defeat to Wolves in the FA Cup quarterfinals. How Solskjaer bounces back – or doesn’t – amidst his first bout with adversity as Manchester United boss could very well define the rest of his career. The Red Devils’ boss is in relatively new territory, and Saturday’s game will be just as much a statement as his new position.

Relegation six-pointer sees Brighton host Southampton
Saturday, 11:00 a.m. ET: Brighton & Hove Albion v. Southampton – CNBC STREAM ]

Rarely at this point in the season are we treated to such critical relegation battles. 15th placed Brighton matches up with 16th placed Southampton with both sides desperately needing a win. While the Seagulls still have a bit of room for error sitting on 33 points, five above the relegation zone, Southampton is in a much more dire situation. The Saints are on 30 points, level with 17th placed Burnley and just two clear of the drop.

Brighton went seven matches without a win, but have crucially found victory in their last two. Southampton is in good form as well, having won two of their last three, having scored at least two goals in all three of those games as well. This should prove to be a fun one if both teams come out swinging.

Fulham faces daunting task against Manchester City
Saturday, 8:30 a.m. ET: Fulham v. Manchester City – NBCSN STREAM ]

The Whites come out of the international break needing a miracle, with fans hoping the club can conjure up shades of 2008 when they beat Manchester City in April to begin a stretch that is generally known as the Great Escape, with USMNT great Brian McBride at the top of the attack. This weekend’s task proves much more difficult, with Pep Guardiola at the helm of a Citizens side that can go top of the table with a win.

Fulham, meanwhile, has shown no signs of improving at the back, and now Scott Parker is in charge hoping to inject some kind of life into a defensive unit that has conceded a whopping 70 goals in 31 matches. The Whites have lost 10 of their last 11 to bump them into 19th, 13 points back of Premier League survival – insanely, Fulham has conceded at least two goals in every single match over that stretch. Manchester City, meanwhile, has conceded just one goal over its last five league matches and will be motivated to put more pressure on Liverpool.

Carlos Vela scored a celestial goal. We are blessed to have seen it

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Carlos Vela is making all other spectacular individual MLS seasons look run of the mill.

I mean, look at the gumption on this guy.

[ VIDEO: Rooney sent off, Kamara scores golazo ]

The Cancun-born playmaker left the San Jose Earthquakes back line on the beach with a soft shoe routine to give LAFC its third goal in a 4-0 win on Thursday

Vela, 30, now has 25 goals and 11 assists in 25 league matches for LAFC this season. He added two goals and an assist in Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup play.

But this one, yeah, this one takes the cake.

First, there’s Vela’s non-chalant dummy before picking up the pass.

Then, there’s Florian Jungwirth’s body language during and after his being cooked with a nutmeg. That’s an entire mood.

Next, Vela dribbles around the keeper and allows a slide tackler so glide past him before finishing with aplomb, the magic touch his going near post as if to say, “Can I beat this guy a second time, or do I have to use the easier route?”

Diego Rossi also had a goal and an assist, while Mark-Anthony Kaye continued his strong season with an assist to ex-Fiorentina prospect Joshua Perez. It’s a first MLS goal for the California-born Perez, now 21.

WATCH: Rooney sees red for forearm shiver, Kamara scores golazo

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Midweek MLS provided plenty to talk about on Wednesday, with two red cards and a golazo in one match alone.

The two main talking points from the New York Red Bulls’ 2-1 win over DC United weren’t really part of what led the victors to three points.

[ MORE: Europa League preview ]

How? Well, one of the world’s marquee names earned a red card via VAR and a returning star scores an absolute stunner, that’s how.

Here’s Ola Kamara’s debut marker for the Black-and-Red, adding to a record which included 49 goals in 97 matches between Columbus and the LA Galaxy before moving to the Chinese Super League for a wildly disappointing time with Shenzhen FC.

All of that is forgotten.

As for the Rooney incident, the Red Bulls already led 1-0 when DC’s star striker went forearm shiver on Cristian Casseres Jr.

It’s the second red of the season for Rooney, who is set for Derby County in January.

Amro Tarek was later sent off for the Red Bulls, who moved ahead of DC in the standings. Kaku and Daniel Royer had RBNY’s goals.

Newcastle takeover could be back on if in holiday relegation battle

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How much do Newcastle United supporters dislike their owner Mike Ashley right now?

Enough that this report is likely to condemn many to hoping their favorite club in the world is in the Bottom 3 come Christmas.

[ MORE: Europa League preview ]

The Chronicle’s Mark Douglas speculates that Ashley will lower his asking price for the club if it is in a relegation fight come December — something that looks certain after the Steve Bruce-led Magpies got bossed around by promoted Norwich City.

Nothing But Newcastle transcribed Douglas’ chatter from his podcast, in which he says,

“It wouldn’t surprise me if we hear more in December because there are still people sniffing around that football club and if the team are in the bottom three, there’ll be people thinking they can get a bargain out of Mike Ashley again. … He will probably more open to listening to lower offers in January and December which is what happened last December. He was basically saying ‘take it off my hands, you now have to take the risk’'”

This is notable for two reasons. First: the social experiment of wondering how many fans could see themselves rooting for their team to take a major and perilous back step just to see the back of a man they perceive is at the root of their failures (and that perception is widespread in this case).

But second, we can see if this rumor comes true because it’s difficult to imagine Newcastle as comfortably mid table by Christmas.

Fan protests and anger are nothing new, but here’s an effort to show how wobbly Ashley’s reputation is on Tyneside: Fans have taken to selling a black and white striped shirt with player name and number but no sponsor just so they can have a Newcastle jersey that doesn’t put money into Ashley’s pockets. And this is after he broke the club’s transfer record twice in one year.

If we’ve learned anything from the past few seasons, though, it’s that boycotts and anger will spur Ashley into insisting that he’s willing to sell and just conveniently enough it will be before the January transfer window. He “won’t be able to buy any players” with the takeover in play, and talks will hit a wall come late January, when they’ll loan a couple young players from Top Six sides.

Yes he spent significant money on Joelinton, Allen Saint-Maximin, and others this summer, but one decent window doesn’t make a culture. Count us amongst the skeptical, for now.

Messi back in training, could be fit for Betis

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Lionel Messi was back in full training again on Wednesday and may be fit to face Real Betis in the Spanish league on Sunday.

Messi had been training separately from the squad since injuring his right calf in the preseason.

He missed the team’s 1-0 loss to Athletic Bilbao in the league opener on Friday.

Barcelona has not said how long it expects Messi to be sidelined.

[ MORE: Europa League preview ]

Coach Ernesto Valverde is also dealing with injuries to forwards Luiz Suarez and Ousmane Dembele.

Dembele is certain to miss Sunday’s match at the Camp Nou because of a left thigh injury that should keep him out for about five weeks.

Suarez also isn’t likely to play this weekend because of a muscle injury sustained before halftime of Friday’s game in Bilbao.

Two-time defending champion Barcelona hadn’t loss a league opener in 10 seasons.

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