First to Worst? Who is Leicester’s Competition in Relegation Battle?

As Chelsea has maintained its stronghold atop the Premier League table, the excitement has been at the bottom. A fascinating and close relegation battle features six teams within four points of the bottom three. Among those teams are the defending champions Leicester City who have endured a miserable campaign thus far. The Foxes sit in seventeenth place just one spot above the relegation zone. The Foxes face a variety of different sides in their battle to stay up.

15. Swansea City (24 pts)

After two managers and a miserable start to the season that saw them sitting in last for the majority of the first half of the season, Frenchman Paul Clement has turned the side around. With three wins in six league games, the Swans’ current form could see them to safety sooner than later.

Midseason hire Paul Clement has ignited Swansea and taken them out of the relegation zone.

Icelandic international Gylfi Sigurdsson is a class above everyone else on the team. Eight goals and eight assists show how much of a spark he gives to the attack. The aerial prowess of summer signing Fernando Llorente has also given Swansea a threat in the box. If Clement continues to coach inspired football, then Swansea could very well make their great escape.

16. Middlesborough (22 pts)

‘Borough’s four wins in the league this season is bottom in the Premier League. That pretty much sums of the season for the side as Middlesborough have consistently played defensive ‘park the bus” football in hopes of salvaging draws.

Their biggest problem is an inconsistent and uninspiring attack. 31 year old striker Alvaro Negredo is a poacher and has bagged six goals this season but the side lack creativity apart from inconsistent winger Adama Traore. Defensively, Middlesborough got a bargain when they signed goalkeeper Victor Valdes on the cheap. Valdes and a stout backline have kept Middlesborough in a lot of games this year and will need to continue to do so if they want to avoid relegation.

17. Leicester City (21 pts)

18. Hull City (20 pts)

The newly promoted Tigers started off the season well by stunning the reigning champs on opening day. Unfortunately for Hull, its been a bumpy ride then. As is the case with other newly promoted sides, Hull have endured major attacking struggles. Perhaps their best goalscorer Robert Snodgrass departed for West Ham in January. The second lowest scoring in the side needs to change that if they want to stay up.

The one positive for Hull is that two January signings have looked solid in defender Andrea Ranocchia and winger Lazar Markovic, formerly of Liverpool. It remains to be seen if the new signings can save the Tigers from relegation.

19. Crystal Palace (19 pts)

Apart from Leicester, Palace are probably the most surprising name on this list. With talented attacking players such as striker Christian Benteke and winger Wilfried Zaha and new goalkeeper Steve Mandanada, many fancied them to challenge for a Europa League spot.

Like Leicester, Wilfried Zaha (above) and Crystal Palace have underwhelmed this season.

However after several dull performances under former manager Alan Pardew, Palace are still struggling to put it all together under new manager Sam Allardyce. Big Sam has performed miracles to avoid relegation before but he will need to better utilize his players strengths. Still only a few months into his tenure at Selhurst Park, Allardyce is learning. But if Palace fans hope to stay up, adjustments must be made and they better hope Allardyce is a fast learner.

20. Sunderland (19 pts)

The only team below Crystal Palace is Big Sam’s former club, Sunderland. The Black Cats have been a one man show starring striker Jermain Defoe this season. The 34 year old Englishman is having a phenomenal season single-handedly carrying Sunderland’s attack. Having scored 14 of his sides’ 24 league goals, it isn’t hard to see why Sunderland did everything they could to keep him in January.

David Moyes has quite the job on his hand if he hopes to save Sunderland due to lack of funds. The inability to make purchases in January hindered Moyes’ plans for the club. He will need to improvise and get help from key players such as Defoe and center back Lamine Kone if Sunderland have any chance of saving themselves.

 

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Can Arsenal Break Round of 16 Curse?

As the match-ups for the Round of 16 were announced in December, Arsenal fans saw a picture that is all too familiar for them. Six consecutive seasons and six consecutive exits in the Round of 16 have shown Arsenal’s consistency, but also their underwhelming tendencies on the big stage.

The opponent this season is Bayern Munich. The Bavarian giants have twice been responsible for the Gunners’ early exits in recent years. This season, it will once again be a tall task to get by. Arsene Wenger will return to the touchline for Wednesday’s first leg and Munich and that is some rare good news for the Gunners.

Arsene Wenger will hope to end a run of six consecutive Round of 16 exits for the Gunners.

Midfielder Mesut Ozil will need to be in top form if Arsenal are going to keep up with Bayern’s scoring prowess. Ozil is one of the few players on Wenger’s squad who’s talent is equal to his Bayern opponents. It will be paramount for Ozil and Prem top scorer Alexis Sanchez to show up. Defensively, Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi are a quality centre back pairing, but they don’t face strikers the quality of Robert Lewandowski week in and week out in England. For Wenger and Co. it will be important to keep themselves in the tie on Wednesday so they have a shot when these two sides meet again at the Emirates in March.

Bayern are yet to recapture the magic they had in 2013, winning the tournament over arch rivals Borussia Dortmund. Carlo Ancelotti’s first season with the club has seen the look underwhelming at times in the Bundesliga. Nevertheless, the former Madrid manager has Bayern seven points atop the table and his European successes make him a dangerous opponent in this tournament.

Bayern striker Robert Lewandowski will be a handful for the Arsenal defense.

Lewandowski has as strong a case as any for world’s best striker. With him and an attack that also includes Arjen Robben, Thomas Muller and Douglas Costa among others, Bayern are always a threat to put up goals. And defensively, Sanchez and Co. will have their hands full on the attack against arguably the best back four in the tournament, and the world’s best goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer. Many would say Bayern have the most complete side in the world and that is why they are among the favorites to lift the trophy in Cardiff this spring.

If Bayern avoid mistakes and play to the level we have accustomed them to playing, it will take something pretty special from Arsenal to advance. A good result on Wednesday could shift momentum in the Gunners’ favor, but they are clearly over-matched here. Arsenal do not have the talent at fullback and on the wing to compete with Bayern’s outside talent and that will turn out to be the Gunners downfall in a seventh consecutive Round of 16 exit.

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Promising Premier League Players To Watch Under the Age of 21

The Premier League has long prided itself on having some of the greatest youth programs in the world. Some of the world’s greatest players rose to the top at a young age. Players such as Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United), Gareth Bale (Southampton/Tottenham), and Wayne Rooney (Everton/Man United) are a few recent examples among the many quality players produced by the Premier League.

There is youth talent galore in the Premier League at the moment. Many managers have made a recent effort to get youth talent more involved and to start planning for the future. Here are some players who could be top dogs one day.

Alex Iwobi (Age 20), Arsenal/Nigeria

Alex Iwobi broke into the Arsenal first team last year and his promise has tempted Arsene Wenger to continue playing him. Iwobi is a winger with decent pace. He is very dangerous in one-on-one situations and crosses the ball effectively. If he can improve on his finishing, Iwobi will add another aspect to his already multi-faceted game.

Mason Holgate (20), Everton/England

Holgate is a very versatile defender who has thrived for Ronald Koeman when he has been called upon. With seven caps on the season, Holgate has amassed a 7.24 average match rating on WhoScored.com. This figure puts him third on the team. Holgate’s quickness allows him to get forward if he is playing at fullback, but he is also very strong and wise beyond his years for a young centre-half.

Tom Davies (18), Everton/England

Davies has exploded onto the scene in the last month. The previously unknown midfielder was impressive against Hull in December and put on a masterful performance in the Toffees’ 4-0 thrashing of Manchester City.

Davies shows tremendous poise in tight areas for someone his age. His goal against City showed he is a clinical finisher as well.

Ben Chilwell (20), Leicester City/England

The heir-apparent left back to the steady Christian Fuchs at Leicester, Ben Chilwell is highly coveted by many top teams across Europe. He is an outstanding dribbler who gives the Foxes a threat going forward when on the field. In addition to dribbling, Chilwell is also a prolific passer.

The one area in which he needs to improve before he is a regular starter at Leicester is his mentality. Too many times Chilwell has been caught out of position or put his team in a tough spot by trying an ambitious tackle. If he can stop mental mistakes, Chilwell has world-class potential.

 

Demarai Gray (20), Leicester City/England

Gray has seen his playing time increase this season at Leicester following some promising performances early. Gray is a skilled dribbler and a very solid finisher for a winger. He is still improving his passing, prompting Leicester to play him at striker on occasion. His pace and size suggest Gray is better suited on the wing, where he can give opponents nightmares.

Kelechi Iheanacho (20) Manchester City/Nigeria

Like his Nigerian countryman Alex Iwobi, Kelechi Iheanacho seized his opportunity when given substitute appearances under Manuel Pellegrini last season. New manager Pep Guardiola apparently sees the massive potential Iheanacho possesses as he has continued to keep him in the playing rotation.

Iheanacho is an excellent finisher with eight goals in 21 appearances this season for club and country. He also possesses a cannon left foot and is a threat from well outside the box. If Iheanacho can improve on his heading ability, he will be a complete striker who will be around for years to come.

Gabriel Jesus (19) Manchester City/Brazil

The most anticipated Brazilian youth since Neymar, Gabriel Jesus has already shown European fans what he can do since arriving in early January. After having a potential winner against Liverpool called back in his first appearance as a substitute, Jesus made history by becoming the first player in club history to score and assist in his Premier League debut.

Jesus is unique in that as a striker, he gets back and defends very well and threatens on the counter attack. He is still just 19, and mental lapses are not to be unexpected. If he matures with age and avoids injury, there is no reason he can’t fulfill his massive potential.

Marcus Rashford (19) Manchester United/England

Speaking of seizing their opportunity, Marcus Rashford did just that when Louis Van Gaal put him in the lineup last season. He became the youngest United player to score in their debut and has gone on to become a regular player for the side under Jose Mourinho. Seven goals in 29 appearances is solid for someone who is still a teenager. If Rashford can use his pace to his advantage and broaden his game, Man United could have their Zlatan Ibrahimovic replacement already waiting in the wings.

Dele Alli (20) Tottenham Hotspur/England

Dele Alli burst onto the scene in early 2016 after his wonder goal against Crystal Palace. Since then, Alli has shown he is not a one trick pony. His eleven league goals are the most in the Premier League among midfielders this season. Starting out as a defensive midfielder, Alli has developed an attacking threat to his game that has torched opponents. His two headed goals against Chelsea in January kept Spurs’ title ambitions alive.

Known to get a hot head on occasion, Alli needs to be more careful if he wants to stay out of the referees book. Overall, many could argue that Alli is the best young talent in the world and he certainly backs up that high regard with his play.

 

 

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Premier League Matchweek 23 Preview and Predictions

A rare midweek slate for the Prem offers some enticing match-ups this week. Headlined by Liverpool hosting Chelsea at Anfield, Arsenal and Manchester City also have tough games.

Something to watch for will be if some managers opt to rest a few starters in preparation for another slate of games this weekend. However teams like Chelsea, with matches against Liverpool and Arsenal are likely to play their full lineup in both matches.

Liverpool vs Chelsea:

Jurgen Klopp’s men have endured a horrible recent run of form. Three consecutive home defeats in the last nine days has seen the Reds exit both domestic cups as well as falling back in the Prem table.

However, Liverpool have a reputation for performing very well against good sides while underperforming against lesser teams. The team has suffered from the absence of dynamic wimger Sadio Mane who was representing Senegal at the Africa Cup of Nations. It doesn’t look like he will be able to start as he missed training due to travel problems.

The good news for Klopp and Co. is that they will have Roberto Firmino, who managed to get a drunken driving court date pushed back 24 hours. At home, Liverpool will not make it easy on the league leaders.

Chelsea sit eight points clear of second at the moment and have recovered nicely since losing at Tottenham a few weeks back. The Blues have arguably their most important two game stretch of the season this week (@ Liverpool, vs Arsenal). If they can manage four points from these games, Conte would be satisfied and it would make it unlikely for Chelsea to fall back.

Leading goalscorer Diego Costa and the talented Eden Hazard will look to have a field day against an underwhelming Liverpool defense. But can Chelsea’s own defense hold against Liverpool’s dynamic and versatile attack?

Liverpool 2 Chelsea 2

 

West Ham United vs Manchester City:

Brazilian starlet Gabriel Jesus is expected to feature against West Ham.

The post-Dimitri Payet era begins at West Ham with a brutal matchup against a desperate Manchester City. Despite Payet causing distractions for much of the past month, West Ham have actually been in a good run of form. Slaven Bilic has guided the Hammers to 10th after flirting with relegation early in the season.

Even sans Payet, West Ham is not short on talent. Michail Antonio can defend while being a threat going forward from the midfield and Andy Carroll is a threat in the air and has been in a good run of form.

For the visitors, three points are paramount if City want to get back on track as they battle for a top four spot. Guardiola and Co. thrashed West Ham 5-0 here a few weeks ago in a cup tie and will look to build on that performance. West Ham’s struggles defending on the wing means that young wingers such as Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane and the new kid in town Gabriel Jesus could be in for big games.

West Ham 1 Manchester City 2

 

Arsenal vs Watford

Arsene Wenger is suspended for the Gunners’ match against Watford following his altercation with an assistant official vs Burnley

The second place Gunners will be doing a bit of scoreboard watching on Tuesday as a home victory and a Chelsea loss at Anfield would move Arsenal to within five points of the leaders. Such a result would reignite the title race for the Gunners. Arsene Wenger will have to watch the match from the stands as he is suspended from the touchline for his antics during last week’s match against Burnley.

The Gunners will be expected to win as they have arguably the league’s best player the season in Alexis Sanchez (20 goals and 7 assists in all competitions). Combine that with Mesut Ozil, who just oozes class and it isn’t hard to see why the Gunners are expected to win this match.

Watford have been miserable recently, but possess the players and they ability to play ninety tough minutes against anyone. Troy Deeney is Mr. Watford and the captain enters the match coming off a good performance against Watford. If Deeney finds the net and Etienne Capoue can navigate the midfield easily, Arsenal will have a game on their hands.

Arsenal 2 Watford 1

 

Other Matchups:

Manchester United 3 Hull City 0: Hull’s miserable defense will be exploited by Zlatan, Pogba and Co.

Sunderland 0 Tottenham 2: Sunderland have not improved in January window while Tottenham remain in good form. Dele Alli to score.

Bournemouth 3 Crystal Palace 2: Youth trumps experience as Eddie Howe’s Cherries edge out Sam Allardyce’s Palace in an exciting one.

Burnley 1 Leicester City 1: Burnley are really good at home but Leicester have to turn it around at some point.

Middlesborough 0 West Brom 1: Low scoring affair predicted here as ‘Borough park the bus. Im thinking ninth-place West Brom eek it out.

Swansea 1 Southampton 1: The Saints are the better side but home field and improvements under a new manager earn Swansea a point.

Stoke City 1 Everton 1: Another big game as two of the best sides outside of the top six duke it out. Everton to steal a draw late.

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What is Going on With Leicester?

May 2, 2016

Chelsea’s Eden Hazard scores against Tottenham to force a 2-2 draw and clinch the unlikeliest of Premier League titles for Leicester City. One of the greatest underdog stories of all time, Leicester’s story is now well known. They had been fighting relegation the season before and were expected to go down last season before going on an unbelievable run.

The individual stories within Leicester’s team made the story even better. Whether it was Jamie Vardy rising from the seventh tier of English football to breaking the consecutive Premier League goals record in the matter of a few years or Kasper Schmeichel finally escaping the shadow of his legendary father. There were great feel good stories throughout the Foxes’ team last season that made them very likable as many rooted them on to the title.

Title Hangover

Unfortunately, Claudio Ranieri and his men have put up a less than encouraging following act. At this point last season, the Foxes were tied at the top of the table with Arsenal on 44 points. This year?, they have 21 points, less than half of last years points. Many predicted a setback for Leicester, but few could have guesses they would regress as severely as they have. Leicester stand only three points clear of relegation! They will look to avoid the unflattering title as the first reigning champ to go since Manchester City in 1938. There are many possible causes behind Leicester’s sharp decline. The first and foremost may be that last year was an anomaly. Leicester were fortunate to be the healthiest team in the league last year. They also enjoyed down years from many of the top contenders. Finally, the lack of an impact from last years stars have all likely contributed to Leicester’s decline.

The 2015-16 championship team was guided by three previously unknown commodities. Vardy scored 24 goals last season to lead the team but has only managed five to this point. Riyad Mahrez emerged as the team’s best play-maker but has also regressed. Mahrez looks set to take his talents to greener pastures in the summer, deepening Leicester’s future anxieties. The third was N’Golo Kante, a tenacious midfielder who only stayed at the King Power for one season before leaving for Chelsea in the summer. Kante led the Premier League in tackles last season. His ability to regain possession for the Foxes allowed them to get on their deadly counter attack. Kante’s departure forced Ranieri to tinker the way the team plays. He clearly still hasn’t figures out the right way.

N’Golo Kante’s departure in the summer was a big blow to the reigning champions.

Other contributors have also fallen off. The veterans on defense who saw Leicester through so many 1-0 victories last season have started to show their age. The lack of athleticism has seemingly caught up with the center back pairing of Wes Morgan and Robert Huth as Leicester have nearly flip flopped their goal differential from last season, going from +13 to -13 at this point in the season. Christian Fuchs and Danny Simpson have also struggled to give Ranieri’s men a threat going forward as they did last year from their fullback positions.

It is not all trending down for Leicester. They have talent with Vardy and Mahrez as well as summer signings Islam Slimani and Ahmed Musa. The Foxes are also home to some of the more talented young players in the Prem. Ben Chilwell (age 20), Demarai Gray (20), Daniel Amartey (22), and Wilfred Ndidi (20) have all shown potential at Leicester.

Quick winger Demarai Gray is one of the brightest young talents at Leicester.

If the Foxes can avoid the drop this season, the future is still bright. Maintaining key players and developing youth will determine if Leicester can use its shock title to build its future. If the transition from the veterans of the title team to the exciting youth is seamless, Leicester will be a force to reckon with.

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Weekend Preview and Predictions: Matchweek 22

Another weekend of important matches is nearly upon us in the Premier League. This slate of games has potential to shake up the table quite a bit. The marquee matchup of the weekend is between a red hot Tottenham Hotspur side and desperate Pep Guardiola-led Manchester City. Manchester United faces a test to stay relevant. Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal all face manageable games, which they must take advantage of.

 

Manchester City vs Tottenham Hotspur

Man City Goalkeeper Claudio Bravo has been heavily criticized in recent days. He will need to be stellar in between the sticks on Sunday against Tottenham.

The difference in current form between the two sides could not be larger. Tottenham are winners of seven straight in the league dating back to last month. They are also enjoying second spot in the table on goal differential over Liverpool. As for City, they have lost two of their last three including an embarrassing performance last weekend at Everton. City’s slim title hopes and fading Champions League aspirations are on the line this weekend.

The key player in this match will be City goalkeeper Claudio Bravo. Bravo was brought in from Barcelona to replaced the out of favor Joe Hart. His play has been heavily scrutinized as he owns the worst save percentage in the league this year. Tottenham is playing too well to not get their chances, but can Bravo make enough saves to keep City in it? Man City’s attack has also stalled recently and must get back on track. Although it won’t be easy against league-best defense. Can City break through? Maybe, but it won’t be enough for three points at home.

Manchester City 1 Tottenham Hotspur 1

 

 

Stoke City vs Manchester United

Zlatan Ibrahimovic will look to get on the score sheet against Stoke City.

 

The Red Devils travel to Stoke this weekend in what is always a tricky match to get three points from. Stoke have long prided themselves on tripping up title contenders late in the season and derailing their hopes. If Mourinho wants to keep any chance of a title this year, United must get three points from this match.

One thing to watch for will be who controls the aerial game. This match features the top two aerial sides in the Prem according to WhoScored.com. It is not hard to see why, with the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Stoke’s 6’7 striker Peter Crouch featuring in the game. In the end, it will come down to what it always has this season for United, finishing chances. Mourinho’s men will dominate possession, but can they score enough?

Stoke City 1 Manchester United 2

 

 

 

Chelsea vs Hull City

 

Chelsea will reportedly welcome back star striker Diego Costa to the lineup.

 

The Blues have built a seven point lead for themselves already in their first year under the guidance of Antonio Conte. They managed to win last week despite the absence of Diego Costa and the drama surrounding his situation. Costa will reportedly be back on the pitch at Stamford Bridge this weekend against Hull City. The Blues will be heavy favorites to continue to build on their impressive point total.

Unfortunately for Hull, a David and Goliath story doesn’t seem to be in the cards this weekend. The Tigers have only taken four points away from home all season and Chelsea have taken 29 of a possible 33 at Stamford Bridge. Look for Chelsea’s attacking trident of Costa, Eden Hazard, and Willian/Pedro to feast on one of the worst defenses in the league. Unless Conte’s men show up horribly under-prepared, I would expect no problems for the hosts here.

Chelsea 4 Hull City 0

 

Other Matches: 

Arsenal 2 Burnley 0: Burnley is worst in the league away from home, and Arsenal don’t seem in the mood to drop points at the Emirates.

Liverpool 4 Swansea 1: League-worst Swans are badly undermanned defensively to deal with Liverpool’s attack.

Middlesborough 0 West Ham 0: Two stingy, conservative defenses play to a stale mate with no Dimitri Payet to guide the Hammers.

Bournemouth 1 Watford 1: Interesting match up, thinking Watford sneaks one in here to salvage an away point.

Crystal Palace 1 Everton 2: Everton look good were very impressive last week, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see them lay an egg here.

West Brom 1 Sunderland 0: West Brom are very sound defensively and aren’t in eighth for no reason.

Southampton 1 Leicester 1: Maybe a bit optimistic for Foxes to get an away point sans Mahrez and Slimani.

 

Why West Ham Should Let Dimitri Payet Leave

No Going Back

It is never easy to lose your best player. Especially in a game like soccer where there are no salary caps. For a team like West Ham United, talent such as French midfielder Dimitri Payet doesn’t come around very often. As a matter of fact, there are many West Ham supporters who would say Payet is the most talented player West Ham has ever had.

It is easy to understand why the Hammers are doing everything in their power to keep Payet. The disgruntled Frenchman reportedly told manager Slaven Bilic that he no longer wanted to play for the club. Payet’s eight goals and eight assists on the season in are perfect examples of his value. If Payet is truly homesick, then there is nothing West Ham can do but send him back to France and cash in on his success.What Bilic and the board need to realize is that they are at the point of no return.

It is very rare in any sport for a player to publicly acknowledge he wants to leave a team and then continue playing for them. The way Payet has handled the situation has turned the fans and his teammates on him. Even if he were to stay, the strain on the relationship between him and cub would be very tough to overcome.

An important aspect to remember is that Payet is 29. He is approaching the twilight of his career in the next few years. West Ham would be foolish to invest massive amounts of money into an aging star. A Payet sale will undoubtedly bring in lots of spending money. West Ham should sell while they still have time to use the money to buy in their bid to stay up.

Scott Hogan has had a wonderful season for Brentford and has caught West Ham’s eye

Replacement?

If West Ham do sell Payet, they will need to replace his tremendous talent as best they can in their relegation battle. One target is Hull City’s Robert Snodgrass. Snodgrass has been a surprise this season and one of the primary reasons that Hull is still competitive. His nine goals leads the team and is one more than Payet. If West Ham snatch him up for cheap they can chose to spend again.

West Ham’s other top target in January is from the Championship. Brentford striker Scott Hogan is just 24, and enjoying a breakthrough season. The Englishman has 14 goals in 25 appearances. A Snodgrass/Hogan combination would surely help West Ham with damage control post-Payet. And the cost of these two players would likely still leave money left over for summer.

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Weekend Preview & Predictions: Matchweek 21

As we round into January, the chances to make up for past mistakes become fewer and far between. It seems that this is where the eventual champion makes a move every year. This weekend could potentially show a shake up in the table.

Manchester United vs Liverpool:

Paul Pogba (right) and Zlatan Ibrahimovic will be two of Man United’s most important players Sunday vs Liverpool

A truly classic rivalry between two of the most storied clubs in England. Man U-Liverpool entertains every time these two sides meet. This weekend, the stakes are much higher in a virtually must-win game for Mourinho’s men. United, winner of ten consecutive in all competitions, at least need a point to have any chance of catching Chelsea.

One way they can possibly snag all three is off set pieces and crosses. With players like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba, as well as Chris Smalling coming up on corners, United will have an advantage in the air. Expect Manchester United to create plenty of opportunities in this game. The real question is whether they will be able to capitalize on those.

For Liverpool, they sit in second, so their situation is not as dire as United’s. However a win and a Chelsea loss would move the Reds within two points. Liverpool will be missing dynamic winger Sadio Mane, who is participating in the Africa Cup of Nations. Exciting Brazilians Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho will look to make up for some of what Liverpool will miss from Mane. Firmino and Coutinho will look to make Man United sorely miss their own Africa Cup of Nations participant. The Red Devils will be without Eric Bailly’s patience and athleticism at the back.

Manchester United 2  Liverpool 2

 

Leicester City vs Chelsea:

N’Golo Kante makes his return to the King Power Stadium on Saturday

Chelsea still maintain a solid grip on the league at this point in the season. The Blues will look to further distance themselves from the pack with a win against reigning champions Leicester. The Foxes have been underwhelming this season, but still remain dangerous at home.

This match got much more interesting Friday, when reports that Chelsea star striker Diego Costa had been dropped from the starting lineup. Costa and manager Antonio Conte had an apparent argument in training and Costa hasn’t trained in three days. This puts an interesting strain on Chelsea from a tactical standpoint. Young Belgian striker Michy Batshuayi is Costa’s backup. Conte could play Eden Hazard as a False 9 and Willian and Pedro as wingers. Chelsea are still favorites, but it will be interesting to see how this in addition to coming off a 2-0 defeat to Spurs affects them.

Leicester will also be missing a key piece in Riyad Mahrez. The Foxes’ most creative player is representing Algeria at the Africa Cup of Nations along with striker Islam Slimani. They do have the benefit of playing at the King Power, which they play significantly better at. Leicester could potentially cause Chelsea problems with their lightning quick counter attacks finished by Jamie Vardy. This match also marks the return of N’Golo Kante to the King Power, where he won the title last season with Leicester.

Leicester City 1 Chelsea 1

 

Everton vs Manchester City

Kevin De Bruyne will look to exploit an undermanned Everton midfield.

As we approach this critical stretch of the season, very few have as much on the line as Pep Guardiola. Guardiola’s debut season in Manchester has had its bumps. City are only seven points back and games like this can be crucial. Everton aren’t quite top tier quality, but they can certainly surprise at Goodison Park.

Expect league leaders in possession, Man City to do exactly that. David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne should run free as Everton will miss Idrissa Gueye. Gueye, the leader in tackles this season, is also playing in Africa. Sergio Aguero’s prospects look good for a goal this weekend. If City control the pace and limit counter attacks, they should cruise by the Toffees.

For Ronald Koeman’s men, they must make the most of every opportunity. When you play against a team that likes to control the game, your chances are going to be limited. Romelu Lukaku and Ross Barkley will need to be in top form if Everton are to keep up with the visitors.

Everton 1 Manchester City 3

 

Other Matches:

Swansea 0 Arsenal 1: I sense a late winner from Olivier Giroud saving the day for the Gunners.

Spurs 2 West Brom 0: Dele Alli’s form as of late has been stunning and playing at home will be too much for West Brom.

Burnley 0 Southampton 1: Burnley’s Tom Heaton is a quality goalkeeper. But I think one slips through for the Saints.

Hull 0 Bournemouth 3: Eddie Howe is one of the world’s best young managers. Bournemouth power by weak Hull.

Sunderland 0 Stoke 2: Sunderland are not focused with all these transfer rumors surrounding them.

Watford 1 M’Borough 0: Watford continue successful season, Deeney and Co. break through vs stingy Borough defense.

West Ham 1 Palace 3: The Payet rumors cannot be good for morale. Zaha and Puncheon always make Palace dynamic.

 

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Champions League Prospects for City, Arsenal, Leicester

 

The Premier League has the world wide reputation for being the “best league in the world”. It is by far the most widely covered and pulls in the highest television and media revenue. But year in and your out in the past five years, Premier League teams have consistently disappointed on the big stage of European football. This year, the usual four English teams have already been cut to three after Tottenham failed to qualify for the knockout round. This leaves Manchester City, Arsenal and reigning Premier League Champs Leicester City as the three remaining hopes among English clubs.

Manchester City: Rd of 16 match-up vs Monaco

Sergio Aguero will look to lead Manchester City on a deep run in the Champions League

The Good:

City have been wildly inconsistent in all competitions in its first year under Pep Guardiola. However, they have shown they can beat anyone when playing well. They took down Barcelona 3-1 in the group stages. Guardiola is one of the most highly regarded managers in the world. It is difficult to imagine a Guardiola led side exiting Champions League in the Round of 16. City also have supreme talent on the pitch. Kevin De Bruyne and Sergio Aguero are two of the premier players on the planet. Raheem Sterling has had a bit of a resurgence under Guardiola.

The Bad:

The inconsistencies previously mentioned that have plagued City this season could very well be their downfall in the Champions League. One bad game and they could be in a hole that they cannot escape. Another concern for City is injuries. Particularly at the back where Captain Vincent Kompany is regularly injured and they have lost Ilkay Gundogan for the season. Monaco leads Ligue 1 in scoring by a large margin and will exploit any City holes at the back.

Arsenal: Rd of 16 match-up vs Bayern Munich

 

Mesut Ozil and Co. face a tough opponent in Bayern Munich.

The Good:

The Gunners have no shortage of talent. Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez are good enough to play anywhere. Petr Cech is still a top goalkeeper and Laurent Koscielny heads a strong back line. Like City, Arsenal clearly have upside and can have runs of brilliant play. In a brutally difficult Round of 16 match-up vs Bayern, they will need to be near perfect. But if Sanchez is finishing well and Ozil is given the ball in space, Arsenal could surprise.

The Bad:

Most of the bad for Arsenal comes from their opponent. For all of their talent, they are still severely outmatched by Bayern. It will very difficult for Arsenal to gain possession against the midfield prowess of Xabi Alonso, Arturo Vidal and Thiago. Arsenal will likely have to resort to striking off the counter attack. This is not something that possession minded manager Arsene Wenger likes to deal with. Wenger also does not have a great track record in knockout stages of the Champions League. Arsenal have been eliminated in the Round of 16 every year since 2010.

Leicester City: Rd of 16 match-up vs Sevilla

 

Riyad Mahrez will play a critical role in Leicester’s Champions League exploits.

The Good:

Well, the tale of two Leicester’s in this hangover season for the Foxes continues into the Champions League Round of 16. Claudio Ranieri’s side has looked anemic at times in its quest to defend its Premier League crown. However, in its first Champions League appearance ever, Leicester won their group to qualify for the knockout stage. Riyad Mahrez has looked significantly better in European competition and is the type of player who can single-handedly win you a game. Strikers Jamie Vardy and Islam Slimani also looked impressive in group stages. Leicester are also fortunate to not have drawn a tougher opponent in the Round of 16.

The Bad:

Quick, decisive counter attacking is the trademark style which the Foxes used to stun the world in 2016. However, in European competitions against top opponents, it can be difficult to win using such tactics. Sevilla is a very possession oriented side which will undoubtedly control the matches against Leicester. Can the Foxes find a way to strike swiftly when given a chance? It won’t be easy at this stage in the tournament.

 

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One Signing Each Premier League Contender Should Make in January

 

We are just past the halfway point in this Premier League season. As it stands, six teams are within ten points of the top. January is the final chance for these sides to polish their team as the final dash for the title is in sight.

Chelsea: Tiemoue Bakayoko, Monaco

Monaco’s Tiemoue Bakayoko could help stabilize Chelsea’s midfield.

The Blues have been tearing through the league this season. New manager Antonio Conte has instilled his 3-4-3 formation into the side and Chelsea has rocketed to the top of the league. The brilliant play of summer signing N’Golo Kante has been a large reason behind Chelsea’s turnaround season. The ability to win the ball in the midfield has allowed the Blues to feed their very talented attacking players. Eden Hazard and Diego Costa have each enjoyed bounce-back seasons.

If a side is going to run the 3-4-3 effectively, they need excellent defensive midfield play to make up for the one less defender at the back. While Kante and Nemanja Matic have done well thus far, Chelsea is still thin at the position. Bakayoko is just 22 years old and is enjoying a breakout season for Monaco. His dribbling ability through the middle would allow Hazard and Willian to play more wide. From there they can whip in crosses to Costa, one of the best in the air in all of England. Bakayoko’s youth is enticing as Matic is 28 and has been inconsistent at times this season. Although his playing time could be limited initially, Bakayoko will undoubtedly be a big part of the future at Stamford Bridge if Conte is able to acquire his services.

Liverpool: Quincy Promes, Spartak Moscow

Liverpool target Quincy Promes has helped Spartak Moscow to the top of the Russian Premier League

In Jurgen Klopp’s second season at Anfield, Liverpool have arisen as serious title contenders at this point in the season. Their plethora of attacking players, including Sadio Mane, Philippe Coutinho, and Roberto Firmino have been very efficient in the attacking third.

However, Klopp will be without Mane for a large part of the next month. The Senegal international will be participating in the Africa Cup of Nations. The tournament comes at a critical time in Liverpool’s season with matches against Manchester United and Chelsea on there horizon. Promes has had a great season at Spartak. He has netted six goals and also has six assists in the Russian Premier League as Spartak have surprised by leading at this point in the season. It may be tough to coax Promes from Spartak, but Klopp should try. Promes will give Liverpool some width while Mane is away. He can play opposite Mane, which will benefit the Reds when Mane returns from international duty.

Tottenham: Wilfried Zaha, Crystal Palace

Wilfried Zaha would bring creativity on the wing to White Hart Lane

Once again, Mauricio Pochettino has put Spurs squarely in the title conversation. Tottenham sit third in the table at the turn of the calendar year. Young players have stepped up this season, including 20-year-old midfielder Dele Alli. Spurs are fighting off Real Madrid for his services.

However, Spurs could use an outside threat to compliment their plethora of middle attacking players. Alli, Harry Kane, and Christian Eriksen have combined to score 25 goals in the league this season. All of those players are under the age of 25. 24-year-old Zaha could add to this “young core” that Pochettino has built at White Hart Lane. Zaha, who plays on the left wing at Crystal Palace, would compliment Kane, Eriksen, and Alli in the middle. Zaha is extremely skilled with the ball at his feet and has a tremendous ability to get crosses in from tough angles. Erik Lamela has been underwhelming again this season and Zaha could fill the void for Spurs.

Manchester City: Holger Badstuber, Bayern Munich

Holger Badstuber’s experience at the back could prove invaluable for Guardiola’s Manchester City.

Pep Guardiola’s highly anticipated first year at the Etihad has been up and down. A victory against Barcelona in the Champions League showed City’s potential under Pep. However, they have been very inconsistent at times domestically. Their inconsistency, especially at the back, is the primary reason why they find themselves seven points adrift at this juncture.

Man City payed quite a bit to sign promising young English center back John Stones from Everton over the summer. Stones, while very talented and promising, is still raw. There has been more than one occasion where he has looked lost this season. Captain Vincent Kompany’s injury woes have continued and it is difficult to rely on him for an extended period of time. Eliaquim Mangala consistently underperforms when given a chance in the starting XI. Badstuber is very experienced at just 27 years of age. He has 119 caps for Bayern and 31 for the German National Team. While a permanent deal is unlikely, Pep could explore a six-month loan deal for Badstuber. This would give City added security and depth at the center back for the remainder of the season while Stones continues to develop.

 

 

 

Arsenal: Ricardo Pereira, Porto (on loan at Nice)

Ricardo Pereira is a perfect solution to Arsenal’s right-back injury crisis.

Arsene Wenger is notorious for not making moves in the January transfer window, even when his team could really use them. Fifth place Arsenal have been by no means bad this season, but there is always room for improvement at the Emirates.

Promising young right back Hector Bellerin will be out for an extended period of time with an injury and his predecessor Mathieu Debuchy is rumored to be at odds with Wenger and on his way out of North London. This leaves the underwhelming Carl Jenkinson as the only right back on the Gunners’ roster. Ricardo, who is on loan at Ligue 1 leaders Nice from Porto has exploded this season. His 7.6 match rating on WhoScored.com has him placed in their Ligue XI team of the season. He provides sound defending and security at the back. Pereira is also a threat going forward, with a goal and three assists this season. He could be a perfect solution in the interim while Bellerin is injured. And his ability going forward could see him utilized as a wing-back or midfielder when the Spaniard returns.

Manchester United: Antoine Griezmann, Atletico Madrid

Antoine Griezmann would be an expensive, but worthwhile signing for Manchester United.

After a disastrous start to the season, Jose Mourinho has begun to right the ship at Old Trafford. Despite being ten points back of Chelsea, things are looking up at Old Trafford. Manchester United have played well throughout the season, but have failed to convert the many chances they create. 31 goals in the League is significantly less than the other five “contenders”.

Griezmann is widely considered one of the best players in the world and would not come cheap. However is precision in the final third is exactly what United need. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a pure striker who doesn’t create, and while Paul Pogba is one of the most creative midfielders in the world, he is limited going forward to do the teams reliance on him from a defensive standpoint. Griezmann would fit right into Mourinho’s 4-2-3-1 as an attacking midfielder. He played this role brilliantly for France in this summer’s European Championships where he scored a tournament-high six goals. It also doesn’t hurt that Griezmann is close friends with fellow Frenchman Pogba. The two could do lots of damage if they play together under Mourinho.

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