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PL Sunday Preview: Wolves, Man United in action; Liverpool host Man City

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Sunday’s slate of Premier League fixtures features the likes of Wolves, Aston Villa, Manchester United and Brighton all in action. It is also headlined by the biggest match of the season yet: Liverpool vs Manchester City.

[ STREAM: Every PL match live ]

Wolves vs. Aston Villa — 9:00 a.m. ET, on NBC Sports Gold

Just weeks removed from a EFL Cup bout between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Aston Villa that saw the latter come out victorious 2-1, both West Midland sides will meet again.

This time, however, the scenario will be distinct. Both sides won’t meet at Villa Park; instead,  Stadium will be the stadium of choice. Second-choice sides will not be front and center. It’s a league match, both teams will lineup with the best they have to offer and, as a result the intensity, will be vastly fiercer.

That’s if Wolves have the legs for that scenario to be a reality in the first place.

With Europa League added to an already daunting schedule, Nuno Espirito Santo and company have played eight matches since the start of October, averaging more than one per week. Villa, who’ve lost back to back league matches, are mindful of that and hope it will benefit them when all is said and done.

“They’re very tough to beat, they’ve got great organization and structure,” Villa manager Dean Smith ahead of Sunday’s derby. “They’ve got players who can score goals having gone to Manchester City and won, gone to Arsenal and equalized to come away with a point…so they’ll feel they’re in a run of form.”

“People look from the outside and think ‘is the amount of games they’re playing going to catch up with them?,'” he added. “We’re hopeful that is does on Sunday.”

INJURIES: Wolves — OUT: Gibbs-White (back), Boly (leg)| Aston Villa — OUT: Keenan Davis (hamstring)

Manchester United vs. Brighton and Hove Albion — 9:00 a.m. ET, on NBCS and NBCSports.com

Brighton and Hove Albion have never won at Old Trafford.

Graham Potter and his group of players want to make history and change that against a historically-poor Manchester United.

“It would be great to get a result this weekend at one of the best places in world football,” Potter said. “Their quality is undoubted and we respect that – but we want to go there and be ourselves and take on the challenge in a positive way.”

Brighton are in positive form, sitting eighth on the table and two points clear of United, who haven’t had a start to the season as dreadful as 2019’s – 13 points in 11 matches – since 1986 under Ron Atkinson. In their last four bouts, Brighton have earned victories in three, defeating Tottenham, Everton and Norwich City.

It’s all very different for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and the Red Devils.

Despite a convincing 3-0 win over a paltry Partizan midweek, the pressure at Old Trafford keeps looming over the injury-riddled team, who lost their previous league match against Bournemouth 1-0. Time and time again, the questions have been asked, but the answers have yet to surface.

Even then, Solskjaer feels their latest Europa League victory has left them with a blueprint.

“This is a little bit of a template on how we want to play, definitely,” the Norwegian manager stated following his team’s win on Thursday. “No disrespect to Partizan, but they gave us spaces. Of course after we scored the first goal, they went forward.”

“These boys are learning,” he added. “Tonight will give them loads of pointers of how to play. Even though the opposition is not the same as in the Premier League, it was still good principles.”

Nowhere was the word “consistency” mentioned, however. If they want to right the ship, they’ll need to learn it.

INJURIES: Manchester United — OUT: Dalot (hip), Matic (knock), Luke Shaw (thigh), Tuanzebe (hip), Eric Bailly (knee), Fosu-Mensah (knee), Pogba (ankle); SUSPENDED: Ashley Young (one match) | Brighton — OUT: Bernardo (knee), Izquierdo (knee), Webster (ankle)

Liverpool vs. Manchester City — 12:30 p.m. ET, on NBCS and NBCSports.com

It’s the match everyone had circled on their calendars: Jurgen Klopp‘s unbeaten Liverpool against Pep Guardiola‘s Manchester City in front of a sold-out Anfield.

It’s the type of spectacle that requires no added hype, even though Klopp did just that heading into the season’s biggest match yet.

“From a sport’s point of view this rivalry is getting bigger and bigger,” the German manager said in front of an eager press conference room this weekend. “Thank god there is a rivalry because it means we are a pretty good team as well.”

“If you are not brave against Man City you don’t have the chance of even a point,” he added. “Everyone has to be in top shape in the stadium on Sunday, even the guy selling the hotdogs. Everyone has to be there from the warm-up and invest all our emotions.”

With City in position to jump to second and be only three points from Liverpool with a win, the match promises to have it all. And Guardiola main message is urging his players to leave it all on the field when they take on the league’s favorites.

“I just want my team to fight to the end,” the 48-year-old said. “Liverpool are a team that lost one game last season, none this season, so you cannot believe that they will lose many, but the season is long.”

“They do everything well,” he added. “You see the team, what is the weak point? They are a real complete team and we need this kind of rival.”

That said, City is stuffed with injuries – namely, Ederson and David Silva, who were both unable to recover and get fit for Sunday’s clash. Claudio Bravo, who saw a red card midweek in Champions League play, will be between the sticks for the defending champions.

What many think will prove to be problematic for the visitors, is the opposite of loss of quality for Guardiola. The Spaniard is convinced that the Chilean goalkeeper has the ability and is of the pedigree to play in matches of such stature.

“He is an exceptional goalkeeper,” Guardiola said. “He is an international goalkeeper. I have no doubts.

“Why shouldn’t I be confident about my players? I see him every day in training. We won’t lose because of Claudio.

“The red card the other day was because we lost the ball,” he added. Respect the guy. He is a top keeper.”

Surely, Liverpool, led by Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane, will look to exploit any deficiencies City puts forward. For now, those deficiencies are unknown.

What is public knowledge, however, is that very few matches – if any – this season will be as big as Sunday’s.

INJURIES: Liverpool  OUT: Joel Matip (knee), Xherdan Shaqiri (calf), Nathaniel Clyne (knee) | Manchester City  OUT: Ederson (knock), Rodri (hamstring), David Silva (thigh), Zinchenko (knee), Leroy Sané (knee), Laporte (knee)

Europa League wrap: Late heroics lead Celtic, Gladbach to wins

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Manchester United was one of five clubs to punch tickets to the Europa League knockout rounds by the end of play Thursday.

[ RECAPS: Man Utd-Partizan | Wolves-Slovan Bratislava ]

The Red Devils beat Partizan Belgrade to join Sevilla, Celtic, Espanyol, and Basel in the next stage, while five teams have been eliminated: Rennes, Trabzonspor, Rosenborg, Besiktas, and Astana.

Borussia Monchengladbach 2-1 AS Roma

Federico Fazio made amends for an early own goal by leveling the score for AS Roma, but if you’ve been following the Bundesliga this year you know there was always a pretty good chance that Lilian Thuram’s kid Marcus was gonna make an impact on the proceedings.

Lazio 1-2 Celtic

Ciro Immobile’s early goal threatened to thwart the visitors’ hopes of a clinched knockout round berth, but James Forrest leveled the score before halftime and Olivier Ntcham found a winner deep in stoppage time to deliver the goods. Celtic made the Round of 32 last year before bowing out to Valencia.

Rangers 2-0 Porto

Alfredo Morales and Steven Davis secured a keynote win for Steven Gerrard‘s managerial resume, taking four of six points from the Portuguese giants. It’s not over yet, though, as Rangers’ 7 points are joint-top with Young Boys and both Feyenoord and Porto have four with two matches to play.

Full Europa League scoreboard

Vitoria 1-1 Arsenal — Wednesday, RECAP
APOEL Nicosia 2-1 Qarabag
Dudelange 2-5 Sevilla
CFR Cluj 1-0 Rennes
Standard Liege 2-1 Eintracht Frankfurt
LASK 4-1 PSV Eindhoven
Basel 2-1 Getafe
Lugano 0-0 Malmo
Manchester United 3-0 Partizan Belgrade — RECAP
Astana 0-5 AZ Alkmaar
Copenhagen 1-1 Dynamo Kiev
Krasnodar 3-1 Trabzonspor
Braga 3-1 Besiktas — USMNT’s Boyd scores
Rosenborg 0-2 Sporting Lisbon
Feyenoord 1-1 Young Boys
Porto 2-0 Glasgow Rangers
Ferencvaros 0-0 CSKA Moscow
Espanyol 6-0 Ludogorets
Wolfsburg 1-3 Gent
Oleksandriya 2-2 Saint-Etienne
Wolfsberg 0-3 Istanbul Basaksehir
Borussia Monchengladbach 2-1 Roma
Wolves 1-0 Slovan Bratislava — RECAP

MLS Playoffs: 5 Key Battles in 1st Round

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It’s playoff time! With the new MLS postseason format, featuring single-elimination matches, the margins between victory and defeat are razor thin. Winning individual battles, or a battle to control a zone in the field, are more important than ever.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at five key battles ahead of the start of the 2019 MLS playoffs.

5. Wayne Rooney v. Michael Bradley, Toronto FC CB’s

At this point of the season, every game could be Wayne Rooney’s last in a D.C. United uniform. Along with Luciano Acosta and Paul Arriola, Rooney is clearly the key man to D.C. United’s attack. The ball will flow through him as D.C. gets going, and it will be on TFC to mark him tightly and make sure he has no space to turn and strike the ball, or get on the end of a cross into the box.

Michael Bradley, at 32-years old, is no spring chicken. Especially late in the season, it will be interesting to see how he does marking Rooney when Rooney drops into the space between TFC’s backline, or whether he can pass him off to Omar Gonzalez or Chris Mavinga in the center of defense.

4. Union central midfield v. Red Bulls central midfield

The Philadelphia Union have enjoyed an outstanding season, and a large part of that has been the play in central midfield of Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin. The two veterans are adept on both sides of the ball, can play a pass, intercept passes, and control the tempo of the match. If they’re put off their game, with some pressure as soon as they receive the ball, the New York Red Bulls have a chance to win.

Whether it’s Sean Davis, Christian Caceres, Mark Rzatkowski, or Alejandro “Kaku” Romero Gamarra (who is coming off a goal for Paraguay during the international break), their work in the middle of the park will be crucial to determining which team controls the tempo, possession, and ultimately, who creates the most chances. Otherwise, Medunjanin and Bedoya will pick out Brenden Aaronson, Marco Fabian or Kacper Przybyłko and be off to the races.

3. Julian Gressel v. Jalil Anibaba

It’s a direct rematch of the last week of the season, where Atlanta United triumphed over the New England Revolution with a 3-1 win to close out a strong regular season campaign. While there’s plenty of focus on Josef Martinez, Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez – who didn’t play in the season finale – and Ezequiel Barco, the real difference-maker in the attack for Atlanta United is Julian Gressel. The German-born wing back has plenty of marauding runs forward, is always available to receive a pass and can deliver quality crosses too. He ended up with two assists in the season finale and Anibaba was eventually substituted, though it may have been more to give the Revs some offensive punch with Juan Aguedlo coming on. It will be up to either Anibaba, or someone on the Revs to shut him down, cutting off one supply line of balls into the box for Josef Martinez to rifle home.

2. Jordan Morris v. Reggie Cannon

It’s a battle of two U.S. Men’s National Team regulars. Jordan Morris has had a resurgent second half of the season and appears to be in the best form of his life. On the other side, Cannon’s parlayed his terrific form for FC Dallas, despite his young age, into a starting role for the USMNT.

Morris in recent weeks has proven he still has his game-changing pace, as well as an improved left-footed touch. It’s going to be up to Cannon to stay with Morris down the wing, or pass him off to a teammate such as Reto Zeigler should Morris cut inside and not leave space open behind Cannon for a runner down the left wing.

1. Zlatan Ibrahimovic v. Ike Opara

One of the league’s best strikers against the reigning MLS Defender of the Year. 6-foot-5 (Zlatan) against 6-foot-2 (Ike Opara). When Ibrahimovic and Opara meet, it will be one of MLS’s duels of the ages. Zlatan has been nearly impossible for defenders to contain in MLS, as he not only uses his incredible size and tactical nous to win headers, but his technical ability on the ball ain’t bad. However, if there’s one player who can push around Zlatan, it might be Opara.

Opara has been a revelation to Minnesota United and could single-handedly be the reason they’re hosting a home game in the playoffs this year, rather than hitting the road or watching from home. He’s also part of the reason Sporting KC has been a complete mess this season.

If history is to be used as a precursor, the only meeting between Opara and Ibrahimovic this season ended in a scoreless draw. We’ll see if Opara can notch another win over Ibrahimovic this weekend as well.

League Cup: Norwich City, Palace bounced

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There were extremes in the fortunes of Premier League teams who opened their League Cup runs on Tuesday.

[ MORE: What we’ve learned from PL so far ]

Aston Villa rang up six goals and struggling Watford posted a 3-0 blowout win, while Norwich City was expelled from the tournament by a League Two side and was Crystal Palace in penalty kicks.

Brighton was taken to the brink as well, but an old friend saved the Seagulls.

Watford 3-0 Coventry City

Ismalia Sarr and Daryl Janmaat scored on either side of half time as the Hornets finally got in the win column following a 0-3 start to the PL season. Adalberto Peñarnda of Venezuela added the third goal.

Crawley Town 1-0 Norwich City

Congolese striker Bez Lubala scored the goal that knocked down the Canaries. Lubala has five goals in six matches for the League Two outfit and is enjoying a new lease on life after failing to make an impact with Birmingham City in the Championship.

The win was the first against top flight opposition in the club’s 120-plus years.

Lubala scores (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

Newport County 0-2 West Ham United

Jack Wilshere scored right before the break and Pablo Fornais added one off a Felipe Anderson feed soon after halftime as the Irons overcame a stiff challenge from the side that knocked Leicester City out of the FA Cup last season en route to a fifth round exit.

Fulham 0-1 Southampton

Michael Obafemi‘s 57th minute goal was the difference as Saints were ready for the tricky test at Craven Cottage.

Crewe Alexandra 1-6 Aston Villa

The hosts were up to the challenge, but Villa quite clinical as Ezri Konza scored in the fourth minute and Conor Hourihane added two to give the Villans a three-goal halftime lead. Keinan Davis, Frederic Guilbert, and Jack Grealish scored late to heap misery on the hosts.

Sheffield United 2-1 Blackburn Rovers

Chris Wilder‘s top flight men only managed two shots in the first half, but put them both in the goal.

Bristol Rovers 1-2 Brighton and Hove Albion

The Seagulls had all of the ball and a first half lead through Aaron Connolly before allowing an equalizer in the second. Glenn Murray — who else? — scored in stoppage time to save Graham Potter‘s men the upset.

Crystal Palace 0-0 (4-5 pens) Colchester United

Roy Hodgson‘s men had a good crew on the pitch, but couldn’t manage much of anything in attack even after inserting Wilfried Zaha and Jordan Ayew.

Penalties started poorly, with U’s goalkeeper Dean Gerken saving Andros Townsend, and the Eagles never recovered.

Oxford United 2-2 (4-2 pens) Millwall

Iceland national team winger Jón Daði Böðvarsson scored both of the visitors goals to put Oxford down 2-0, but Mark Sykes’ 87th minute marker joined James Henry’s stoppage time penalty to make for a remarkable comeback.

Plymouth Argyle 2-4 Reading

Posting this to show how far American striker Andrija Novakovich is from the plans of Reading, who is reportedly open to sanctioning another Eredivisie loan for him. PEC Zwolle is the clubhouse leader according to football-oranje.com.

Elsewhere
Southend United 1-4 MK Dons
Burton 4-0 Morecambe
Grimsby Town v. Macclesfield (abandoned)
Leeds United 2-2 (4-5 pens) Stoke City
Nottingham Forest 3-0 Derby County
Preston North End 2-2 (5-4 pens) Hull City
Rochdale 2-1 Carlisle
Cardiff City 0-3 Luton Town
Southend United 1-2 Coventry City

St. Louis awarded MLS expansion franchise

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Major League Soccer is heading to soccer’s spiritual home in the United States of America.

St. Louis, Missouri was awarded an MLS expansion franchise on Tuesday, as it became the 28th team in the rapidly expanding league.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS coverage

The franchise is expected to enter the league in 2021, along with Austin FC as Inter Miami and Nashville SC are schedule to arrive for the 2020 season.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber was on hand in downtown STL to make the announcement.

Garber was alongside Mayor Lyda Krewson, plus the ownership group led by Andy Taylor and Carolyn Kindle Betz of Enterprise Holdings and Jim Kavanaugh, CEO of World Wide Technology and Saint Louis FC, who celebrated their success of bringing top-tier soccer to St. Louis. Kindle Betz will be joined by other female members of the Taylor family, which will make STL the first female majority-owned team in MLS history.

“After two decades of discussion about St. Louis becoming part of Major League Soccer, we are here today to announce it,” Garber said. “Saint Louis, with its incredibly rich soccer history, not only deserves an MLS team but has earned one.”

With the owner of Saint Louis FC, the USL franchise in the Midwest city, also involved in the arrival of MLS it is believed the team name, badge and colors will now be selected.

“Our ownership group has come a long way since we first announced our bid last October at Mathews-Dickey Boys and Girls Club, and it’s an incredible feeling to now be able to say, St. Louis is home to the first official majority female-led ownership group in MLS,” Kindle Betz said. “Our MLS team and stadium will only add to St. Louis’ renaissance currently underway and will provide us with a great opportunity to bring together many different segments of the community, uniting people in their love for the game.”

St. Louis’ Downtown West district is now set to be transformed with the stadium kickstarting a larger development which will include mixed-use retail, restaurants and gathering spaces open year-round to the public.

The ownership group have previously released plans for a 22,500-capacity stadium in the West Downtown neighborhood. Not having a solid stadium plan curtailed the efforts of others to bring MLS to St. Louis in the past, with the city council voting against partial funding for a stadium near Union Station in 2017.

But just when it looked like St. Louis would miss out on the MLS expansion race, they’re in.

With St. Louis losing the NFL’s Rams to Los Angeles, this is a shrewd move from MLS and follows their model of placing teams in major U.S. cities which do not have major league franchises across all sports. It takes the league to 28 teams, with Sacramento, Phoenix and Charlotte said to be among the favorites for the next two franchises as the league aims to expand to 30 teams.

It also helps to link up Midwest cities, as FC Cincinnati, the Chicago Fire, Columbus Crew, Sporting Kansas City and Nashville SC now have a new rival.

STL has brought in very good crowds for their USL side Saint Louis FC and also USMNT and USWNT friendlies, plus international friendlies between European clubs in recent summers.

Many of the USA’s top talents hail from the STL region (Taylor Twellman, Tim Ream, Brad Davis and Steve Ralston to name a few) and there is a rich soccer heritage in the city, with five of the 11 starters for the U.S. side in their historic 1950 World Cup win against England from St. Louis.

College soccer, amateur teams and former pro teams from St. Louis have all had a major impact on soccer in the USA.

There is now an MLS team to build on that legacy and create new iconic moments in St. Louis.