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Premier League Storylines: Matchweek 23

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The January schedule is filling up, and teams are hoping to navigate the crowded fixture lists with injuries piling up through the winter months. With the FA Cup returning next week and managers hoping to limit minutes as much as possible, this weekend’s games will be critical.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

The race for the Champions League spots is heating up, and a number of teams can make serious moves this weekend.

Can Spurs gain ground against the tide? [ STREAM ]

  • Watford v. Tottenham Hotspur, Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN)

Tottenham doesn’t have Harry Kane. We know that. It’s time for Jose Mourinho to put up or shut up. Spurs haven’t scored in either of their last two Premier League games, and now Mourinho has had the time to figure things out. They now travel to Watford who is running on a high, having won each of their last three league games despite some discipline issues. The Hornets haven’t lost since December 4, which feels like an eternity ago.

Will Arsenal continue to improve under Mikel Arteta? [ STREAM ]

  • Arsenal v. Sheffield United, Saturday (Watch live, 10:00 a.m. ET on NBCSN)

The Gunners have shown real – but slow – improvement under Mikel Arteta. There are still serious flaws, however, and Sheffield United is a team that can take advantage if given the chance. This is a litmus test match for the Gunners, and a win could get them as many as three places in the table. They were held off the scoresheet against the Blades last time around, and could complete their first double over Arsenal since the 40’s. Oh yea, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is out suspended, a massive loss for the Gunners up front.

Can Aston Villa pull themselves out of the relegation zone, and Brighton into it? [ STREAM ]

  • Brighton Hove & Albion v. Aston Villa, Saturday (Watch live, 10:00 a.m. ET on NBC Sports Gold)

Aston Villa was pummeled by six Man City goals last time out, and the feeling around Villa Park is one of trepidation. Still, the results are there to give fans some hope, and one this weekend would turn things around completely. Three points on the road at Brighton would draw them level with the Seagulls in the table and give them a huge boost in the crowded relegation battle. Jack Grealish has been a motor for Villa this season, but the critical component in a game like this is the defense, a back line that’s given up 43 goals in 22 matches. Will Brighton punish the Villains at the Amex?

Which Chelsea will show up on Tyneside? [ STREAM ]

  • Newcastle United v. Chelsea, Saturday (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC)

Chelsea has been extremely Jeckell & Hyde over the past month, with wins over Arsenal and Spurs but losses to Bournemouth and Southampton and a draw with Brighton. All told, it’s been two months since their last back-to-back wins. Newcastle, meanwhile, put together a draw against a scrappy Wolves side before punishing Rochdale in their FA Cup replay. Christian Pulisic is still injured, but the Blues remain one of the strongest attacking threats in the Premier League. A road loss, however, and the five-point gap to Manchester United could thin considerably.

Can Manchester United put in a shift against Liverpool? [ STREAM ]

  • Liverpool v. Manchester United, Sunday (Watch live, 11:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN)

What a test for Manchester United and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Defensive problems at key moments have plagued Manchester United this season, and like Chelsea, inconsistencies have proven vital. This game is critical for Solskjaer in the top four race, because a loss risks them falling a significant eight points back of the Champions League places. Still, while the United defense doesn’t instill fear in Premier League opponents, they’ve pulled out solid shifts against good teams this season, like holding both Spurs and Manchester City to a single goal in early December.

Liverpool can afford a few missteps, and Jurgen Klopp has managed his players’ minutes to perfection this campaign. A 14-point lead at the top of the table and a game in hand over Man City means we could see more players rested, and that gives the Red Devils even more hope.

Bonus: Can Pep Guardiola win on his birthday? [ STREAM ]

  • Manchester City v. Crystal Palace, Saturday (Watch live, 10:00 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Gold)

No Man City manager has ever won on his birthday. Good luck, Pep!

State of play in CONCACAF Champions League

CONCACAF Champions League
AP Photo/Carlos Gonzalez
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Four of five Major League Soccer clubs alive in the CONCACAF Champions League Round of 16 are in fine shape to reach the quarterfinals after one leg.

The fifth has a tall hill to climb.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

LAFC trails Club Leon by two and did not collect an away goal in Mexico during first leg play last week.

“It’s 2-0, but we’re going to work hard,” said LAFC attacker Latif Blessing. “We’re going to prepare ourselves to win the next game. … We did good, but we want to win. It couldn’t happen that way but we’re going to prepare next game to win this game. We need to win.”

The second leg in L.A. is one of the last two matches of the round, kicking off at 10 p.m. ET Thursday just as Seattle Sounders square off with Olimpia.

The Honduran side managed a controversial comeback in the 2-2 draw with Jordan Morris-fueled Seattle last week, but the Sounders will be happy to have those two away goals and home field.

Montreal Impact has the same situation for Deportivo Saprissa’s visit at 8 p.m. ET Wednesday, while Atlanta United scored an away goal in a draw with Motagua and hosts the visitors from Honduras’ capital at 8 p.m. ET Tuesday.

That leaves us with NYCFC, who got a Heber hat trick amongst five away goals at Costa Rican side San Carlos in a 5-3 win. The second leg begins at 6 p.m. ET Wednesday at Red Bull Arena (yes, you read that correctly).

Elsewhere, Liga MX sides don’t have it much better. Cruz Azul leads Portmore 2-1 heading back to Mexico, while Club America scored an away goal in a draw with Comunicaciones.

Finally, Tigres UANL trails 2-1 after one leg with Alianza in El Salvador.

CCL second leg schedule
all times ET

Atlanta United v. Motagua (1-1) — 8 p.m. Tuesday
Cruz Azul v. Portmore United (2-1) — 10 p.m. Tuesday
NYCFC v. San Carlos (5-3) — 6 p.m. Wednesday
Montreal Impact v. Deportivo Saprissa (2-2) — 8 p.m. Wednesday
Tigres UANL v. Alianza (1-2) — 8 p.m. Wednesday
Club America v. Comunicaciones (1-1) — 10 p.m. Wednesday
Seattle Sounders v. Olimpia (2-2) — 10 p.m. Thursday
LAFC v Leon (0-2) — 10 p.m. Thursday

Eleven to go: Ranking obstacles on Liverpool’s unbeaten path

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Liverpool has won all five of its matches since the last time we evaluated its path to an unbeaten Premier League season.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Those matches were ranked 14th, 12th, 11th, 10th, and 4th on our first rankings of obstacles to immortality, so very little of the heavy lifting has been conducted.

Let’s get something out of the way: If Liverpool is unable to overturn their first leg deficit against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League, you can probably etch that zero in the league loss column into stone.

That said, many expect the Reds to overcome that 1-0 disadvantage from Madrid, so here’s where we slot the difficulties moving forward.

Unranked — Crystal Palace at home (March 21) and Brighton away (April 18) — Both of these dates are very easy on the eyes, but will be moved if Liverpool is alive in the FA Cup.

9. Newcastle away, time TBD May 17 — We’re now calling this the easiest date left. Klopp’s men aren’t going to lose an unbeaten season at the altar just because Steve Bruce bunkers down. St. James’ Park is a hassle, but

8. Watford away, 12:30 p.m. ET Saturday Klopp probably feels like he’s already playing with house money in the FA Cup, so there’s no reason to think he’ll hand any priority at all to the following FA Cup meeting with Chelsea.

7. Bournemouth home, 7:30 a.m. ET March 7 Situated between Chelsea in the FA Cup and the home UCL second leg versus Atleti, it’s not easy…  but the Cherries have given us less reason to believe they’ll threaten the Reds than any other team besides Newcastle.

6. Aston Villa home, 11:30 a.m. ET April 12Dean Smith‘s desperate Villans will have Villa Park rocking before Liverpool’s possible UCL quarterfinals 2nd leg days later.

5. Burnley home, 7:30 a.m. ET April 25 — Taking place just before a possible UCL quarterfinal first leg, Burnley will try to trouble the Reds in a similar manner to West Ham.

4. Chelsea home, time TBD May 9 — Both the Blues and Reds could be coming off UCL semifinal second legs. Don’t forget that Chelsea took the Reds to the wire in the UEFA Super Cup despite it being very early in Frank Lampard‘s tenure.

3. Arsenal away, time TBD May 2 — Both sides may be days away from needing a result to qualify for the UCL or UEL final.

2. Everton away, 4 p.m. ET March 16 — This may as well be the only match left on the Toffees’ docket that matters more than another, as Carlo Ancelotti and his men know the message they could send regarding the building up of Everton.

Not only that, but Everton has nothing else left to circle, no other competitions, nothing.

1. Man City away, 11:30 a.m. ET April 5 — Taking place 3-4 days before the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals and on the heels of an international break, it’s the lone date on the calendar that Liverpool won’t be heavy favorites to win.

Champions League: Chelsea, Napoli aim to slow Lewandowski, Messi

UEFA Champions League preview
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Four of the most dangerous attacks in Europe begin their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 ties on Tuesday.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

For Chelsea that means trying to find a way to limit the damage of away goals when Bayern Munich visits Stamford Bridge.

Of course, that means trying to slow lethal Robert Lewandowski. The 31-year-old Polish striker has scored 38 times in 32 appearances this season.

Here’s Frank Lampard, via Football.London:

Form of his life means something special with Lewandowski because of how well he’s been consistently in Europe for the last, how many years, I don’t know,” Lampard said. “Everything about him, from a distance, from afar, is just top class. Having the opportunity to watch a lot of Bayern in build-up to this game, that shines through. Of course, he’s going to be a huge threat. He’s not the only threat but he is a spearhead.”

Lampard points to the Blues work without the ball and away from it that will determine whether they can limit Lewandowski and Bayern.

“We traveled to Ajax and had a fantastic game off the ball,” he said. “We’ve had games like that this year in the league as well. But the levels have to go up.”

The Blues won’t have Christian Pulisic, Callum Hudson-Odoi, and N’Golo Kante, while Ruben Loftus-Cheek is finally available after a long injury absence. Pedro may play.

[ MORE: JPW’s score predictions ]

Tuesday’s other first leg sees Napoli hosting Barcelona, which means Gennaro Gattuso trying to find a way to cool down Lionel Messi.

The world’s top player scored four goals at the weekend and had six assists in his three previous La Liga outings.

Another player who’s helped Barcelona reclaim the league lead will be critical to controlling the midfield against Napoli, and that’s Frenkie de Jong.

The 22-year-old has had fits and starts at Barca, especially this month. He admits that he’s had an odd time adjusting to Messi, the teammate, though it hasn’t been part of the problem. From FCBarcelona.com:

“When I began training with him it was strange, because when I was 12, still in secondary school, I used to watch a lot of football. He was already the best in the world. He won the Ballon d’Or back then, so I was a fan, or whatever you want to call it.”

Napoli boss Gattuso was a bit more effusive when addressing Messi, via Football.Espana:

“I have read whether to make a cage or not, but we need the collective game to combat someone like him, and it is not just him,” Gattuso said. “He is the best in the world, for how he has lived his entire career. He is always perfect, never a misplaced word, he is an example for everyone. He does things that I only see on the PlayStation. He has an incredible quality and for years he has been the best of all-time.”

Both matches kick off at 3 p.m. ET Tuesday.

Moyes: West Ham needs to overcome letdown of errors in Liverpool loss

David Moyes
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A Lukasz Fabianski howler opened the door for Liverpool, and the soon-to-be Premier League champions again handed a down day to David Moyes.

[ MORE: Klopp reacts to comeback ]

The Reds came back to win 3-2 against West Ham at Anfield to move 22 points clear of the chasing pack, keeping the Irons in the drop zone.

West Ham led 2-1 at Anfield when a low-pace Mohamed Salah shot squired through Fabianski’s hands and legs en route to the final score.

David Moyes says Fabianski’s error and how he rebounds from it can be a microcosm of what the Irons need to survive the current relegation scrap.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

“He’s done great for us but when you’re in a position, you make individual mistakes you need to quickly get over them and get on with it and not let it happen again. Our real big games start now. Liverpool wasn’t a big game and Manchester City wasn’t a big game. The big games come in the next eight to 10 weeks and I need everyone in the best form they can be in.”

Moyes believes the Irons had a good plan for the day but made two too many mistakes.

“I felt as if we’d done a really good disciplined, organized defensive performance at Manchester City. It’s a different game to the way Liverpool plays I felt tonight we could maybe try and go another way and see if we could get a result here, but it’s not easy because whatever you do Liverpool have got the ammunition to do something different. We had actually made plans to chop and change two or three times during the game… but overall it wasn’t good enough.”

West Ham hosts Southampton next before meeting Arsenal away, Wolves at home, Spurs away, and Chelsea at home. That’s a heavy lift, and it’s true that they wouldn’t have expected much from Man City and Liverpool but it’s not getting that much easier.