PL Sunday preview: Liverpool, Man Utd chasing top-four finishes
Are Manchester United really in the top-four race? Will Liverpool sprint or stumble to the finish line? Are Burnley and Crystal Palace safe from relegation?
Questions to ponder ahead of Sunday’s slate of Premier League fixtures…
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Burnley vs. Manchester United — 9:15 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com
After eight sterling months (17 PL goals, 28 in all competitions), now begins the post-Zlatan Ibrahimovic era at Man United after the Swedish superstar suffered a “significant” knee injury (as did defender Marcos Rojo) during United’s Europa League triumph over Anderlecht on Thursday. 22 games unbeaten (12 wins, 10 draws) in league play, and United have not only kept pace with Liverpool and Manchester City in the race for a top-four finish, but closed the gap to six and four points, with two and one games in hand, respectively.
With Ibrahimovic out for the remainder of the season — and perhaps the rest of the calendar year — Marcus Rashford has already stepped up and assumed the role of line-leading, goal-scoring striker in his absence. Last weekend, Rashford started in place of a healthy Ibrahimovic and scored what turned out to be the winning goal against PL leaders Chelsea. The 19-year-old followed that up with the 107th-minute winner against Anderlecht to reach double-digit goals, including three in his last four games, for the first time in his career.
With the Manchester derby not far on the horizon (Thursday), a United win would move the Red Devils to within a single point of fourth-place Man City, with the two sides finally level on games played.
INJURIES: Burnley — QUESTIONABLE: Sam Vokes (hamstring), Johann Gudmundsson (knee) | Man United — OUT: Zlatan Ibrahimovic (knee), Marcos Rojo (knee), Juan Mata (groin), Chris Smalling (knee), Phil Jones (toe)
Liverpool vs. Crystal Palace — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com
Unbeaten in their last seven PL games (five wins, two draws), Liverpool’s disastrous start to 2017 (zero wins in their first five games after New Years Day) has long faded from the rearview mirror. With signature victories over Arsenal and Everton, plus a convincing win over Tottenham Hotspur separating the above streaks, Jurgen Klopp’s first full season at Anfield sits 450 minutes from achieving a goal thought improbable or impossible by many back in August: Champions League qualification.
Klopp, for one, is wary of coming up against Christian Benteke, not long a former Liverpool striker, in red-hot form (three goals and an assist in his last four games — two wins and a draw for Crystal Palace).
“He is obviously another player with confidence, in a good run and all that stuff,” Klopp said. “Like it is always when you play against Zlatan, other strikers, these kinds of strikers — tall, good with their back to the goal — you have to avoid the crosses and you have to avoid the passes. That’s how it works.
“If we let them cross 50 balls it’s pretty likely he will have a few dangerous headers. That’s not his only strength, of course, but that’s a real strength.”
INJURIES: Liverpool — OUT: Sadio Mane (knee), Adam Lallana (thigh), Jordan Henderson (foot), Danny Ings (knee); QUESTIONABLE: Joel Matip (knock), Daniel Sturridge (hip), Ragnar Klavan (knee) | Crystal Palace — OUT: Scott Dann (knee); QUESTIONABLE: Loic Remy (calf), James Tomkins (calf)