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Top Premier League storylines: Week 32

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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.

Pique: Copa-losing Barca still “really hurting” from UCL exit

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Barcelona was the favorite to win La Liga, the UEFA Champions League, and the Copa del Rey for the majority of the season, but only claimed one.

Liverpool’s amazing comeback to beat Barca in the second leg of the UCL semifinals met Saturday’s loss to Valencia in the Copa del Rey Final to give Barca a league title alone.

[ MORE: Real, Chelsea debate Hazard fee ]

Even with that La Liga advantage being decisive — Barca carried the table by 11 points over Atletico Madrid and finished 19 ahead of Real Madrid — there’s a very dour mood and promised change for the Camp Nou set.

And Gerard Pique says it all traces back to the loss against Liverpool. From The Liverpool Echo:

“I believe that if we had gotten through at Liverpool, we would have won the treble. We would have come here [to the Copa del Rey final] with a different mood, and I’m convinced we would have won the Champions League final, but that is football. We are really, really hurting.”

There are hints of a massive clear-out at Barcelona, with Lionel Messi and Pique two of the only safe bets to stay. When will Barca get over it?

Brazilian team tangles in locker room futmesa (video)

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It was defense versus attack in the Brazil dressing room.

Neymar and Gabriel Jesus squared off with international teammates Filipe Luis and Ederson in a game of futmesa/table soccer this week.

[ MORE: Real, Chelsea debate Hazard fee ]

Neymar and Filipe Luis are used to be on different sides of the field from their time in La Liga, while Jesus and Ederson are teammates at Manchester City.

Brazil is hosting this summer’s Copa America and is the favorite to win its first tournament since 2007, when it claimed its fourth in five tries.

It’s really impressive stuff for us normal to subpar athletes, even if standard for those with such deft talent.

Quite a winner from Man City’s young striker.

Jovic could see himself in Premier League, Serie A

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Maybe Luka Jovic’s presumed move to Real Madrid won’t happen this summer.

Or at all.

[ MORE: Real, Chelsea debate Hazard fee ]

The Eintracht Frankfurt striker has been tipped for a move away from the Bundesliga after another strong campaign, and taking the center forward reins from Karim Benzema at Real Madrid.

Several outlets reported the deal as done, but Jovic isn’t speaking that way (or at least the Serbian is throwing us off the scent.

From Goal.com:

“In terms of the physique, the Bundesliga is very demanding, but after the games against Chelsea or Inter Milan, I personally had the feeling that I could feel even better [playing] in the Premier League or Serie A. … The way the teams play there suits me better.”

Jovic scored 27 times in 48 appearances for Frankfurt, adding seven assists at the tender age of 21. Ten of those came in the Europa League, and we’re not talking about flooding the nets of minnows; Jovic scored against Chelsea (twice), Marseille (three), Lazio (two), and Inter Milan (once).

Report: Chelsea, Real $38M apart on Hazard

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How much for Hazard?

Real Madrid are willing to pay $127 million, no small fee, to bring Eden Hazard from Chelsea, but that’s well off the Blues’ evaluation according to Sky Sports.

Chelsea sees Hazard’s price as $165 million. Belgian writer Kristof Terreur told Sky that Hazard wants his future sorted by June 4.

[ MORE: Bayern wins double ]

The Blues’ superstar is entering the final year of his contract, and could begin negotiating with other clubs in January and leave on a free transfer.

Hazard turns 29 in January. He recorded 19 goals and 16 assists in 51 matches this season, his best output in a Blues uniform.

The report says Chelsea feels no pressure to sell Hazard, but it would be a surprise if it dug in its heels too deeply considering the state of the Belgian’s contract.

Even for Chelsea, letting over $100 million walk out the door is wild, and for all Hazard’s won with Chelsea there’s also been consternation under several managers and a more than occasional habit of disappointing on the table.