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Chase For Champion’s League To Provide Excellent Weekend Soccer

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - JULY 04: Mason Greenwood of Manchester United celebrates after scoring his team's fourth goal during the Premier League match between Manchester United and AFC Bournemouth at Old Trafford on July 04, 2020 in Manchester, England. Football Stadiums around Europe remain empty due to the Coronavirus Pandemic as Government social distancing laws prohibit fans inside venues resulting in all fixtures being played behind closed doors. (Photo by Peter Powell/Pool via Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – After an entertaining midweek set of fixtures, we’re in for another treat this weekend as we move into the last four rounds for the 2019/20 season. A three-team chase for the last two Champions League spots is by far the more interesting story.

I was hoping the relegation battle would provide more thrills and spills but the three teams in the relegation zone are limping towards season’s end without showing any kind of real fight or desire.

In Spain, Real Madrid holds a slender one-point lead over Barcelona, even though Los Blancos have a game in hand, the pressure is starting to mount in an intriguing title race.

In Italy, it’s a little more clear as Juventus sit top with a seven-point lead. Main challengers Lazio are falling away, but lookout for this season’s feel-good story in Europe, Atalanta have won nine on the bounce and come up against Juve this weekend. Most definitely the match to keep an eye on 1:30 p.m. kick off on ESPN +.

Sheffield United v. Chelsea

First up is your Saturday 10:30 a.m. kick off on KSL 5. A Sheffield United team that got a last gasp winner against Wolves midweek, leaving them just outside of the European qualification places. A team built on an incredible work ethic and organization and a familiarity of playing together in the lower divisions, with key and almost faultless additions to the squad, they’ve gelled.

With four games to go they are more than safe, which would’ve been the main objective when they won promotion, it’s truly a testament to the coach, Chris Wilder and his ability to harness a collective bunch and quickly integrate ideas to pick up results. To coin a term from legendary former Real Salt Lake, coach Jason Kreis “The team is the star.”

You’ll see that with the goals and assists stats that are spread throughout the team. There is nothing flashy about the Blades as they have all bought into the idea “what is good for the team is good for the individual.” There is no doubt that other clubs will be looking at the services of some of those players.

Keep an eye out for John Fleck and Jack O’Connell. Fleck is out injured for the next couple of weeks but has had an outstanding debut season in the EPL. Same with O’Connell, who got his first restart playing time midweek.

The ball-playing central defender doesn’t look out of place in his debut season in the top league and has impressed continuously. They come up against a Chelsea side that is in good form, a team next season, with the players that are set to arrive and ones that could potentially arrive on top of that, are 100 percent top-four contenders, potentially a little breakaway group to really pull themselves away from others that are sniffing around the top four.

Christian Pulisic has been a revelation since the restart and looks more than settled on the left-hand side of the Chelsea attack. Willian, who is out of contract come the end of the season has also been superb. They seem a lot more powerful, and besides the West Ham result, have looked extremely competitive.

The issue for Chelsea is breaking teams down, and then being hit on the counter-attack. This will be another massive test for the Londoners, as the organized back five of the Blades won’t allow too much space behind, and will need to watch themselves when they turn the ball over.

I’m high on Chelsea right now, they are incredibly slick on the attack, with the ball movement through the middle via Mason Mount and Ross Barkley, I think they might just shade the midfield over a stubborn Sheffield Utd.

Prediction: 2-1, Chelsea

Tottenham Hotspur v. Arsenal

NBCSN 9:30 a.m. kick off on Sunday is probably the match of the weekend. The North London derby, ninth versus eighth, with both teams having underwhelming seasons, this matchup is all about bragging rights. Both teams are massive outsiders to European soccer next season and both teams have sizable rebuilds in the summer that will have to take place if they are to challenge for titles.

Spurs have been poor since the restart, a solid point against Man Utd the first game back has not been built upon. Fingers are pointing towards Jose Mourinho, and rightly so. Let’s not forget, he took over Spurs when they were 14th in the table, and had been awful the months prior under Mauricio Pochettino. The fact of the matter is, Spurs made a mistake in sacking Pochettino.

It might not be hugely different results-wise, but I think the style of soccer would be better than what we’re seeing now. Jose Mourinho, once the greatest coach in Europe, has, in my opinion, gone stale. He was so good for so long, but the drop off at Man Utd and now Spurs is evidence of his decline.

Against Bournemouth, on Thursday the soccer was so slow and tepid that it was a stark reminder that this Spurs team competed in a Champions League final and solidified a top-four position just twelve short months ago. There is something amiss at Spurs, and I don’t just mean the manager or the players. It is an environment thing, meaning upper management.

With Arsenal, it’s a little bit of the same. I suspect the upper management doesn’t seem harmonious but they got one thing right, Mikel Arteta. They went the inexperienced route, even though he would have learned so much under Pep Guardiola, but he gets Arsenal. Long time player and now manager, he’s not afraid to make the tough calls. He’s just starting to show coaching ability, the ability they gambled was in there. Heck, even their defense has looked a little more organized during the last few weeks.

In the offseason I expect to see changes, but not in style. Arteta played under Arsène Wenger and coached under Guardiola and is immersed if playing the game the beautiful way. You’ve seen Arsenal play a much better style in flashes since he took over. This weekend though will be a test of mettle and will. Battling qualities over style, the game suits Spurs more in this regard, as they’re a more robust team. I think we’ll see a thumping encounter that will be short on quality in some respects and more about giving everything for the shirt.

It will be close, and I think Spurs will run out winners, but that doesn’t mean they’re in a more sustainable place. I think the future is a little brighter for Arsenal and next season is already considerably more exciting than the unknown at Spurs.

Prediction: 1-0, Spurs

Manchester United v. Southampton

Rounding out the weekend is Monday’s 1:00 p.m. kick off on NBCSN. United is fun to watch, and more specifically, Mason Greenwood is fun to watch. Against Southampton, who have had a really good season. Would you have said that earlier in the season after Saints got smashed 9-0 by Leicester? Looking strictly at statistics this match pairs off fifth in the league against twelfth in the league.

United’s remaining fixtures should see them snatch a top-four place, and, to be fair to the Red Devils, it will be thoroughly deserved if they do. Ole Gunnar Solskjær at the wheel has given United a plan and things seem to be going well. The transfer signings have been good, and the mixture of experience and youth has also complimented each other very well.

I’m starting to warm to OGS and what he’s achieved. It has been subtle and the fact he’s been able to get his best team on the pitch hasn’t hurt. The big test will come next season, 38 games, not the light schedule they’ve had since the restart. That’s not me taking anything away from what they’ve achieved, they’ve been brilliant and thoroughly ruthless to their opponents. They have also been a really good watch. Fernandes and Pogba’s partnership has grown in the midfield will have all eyes on them, and rightly so.

Another player standing out is the youngster Mason Greenwood. Another goal against Villa takes his EPL total to nine goals. The 18-year-old is so fluid in the attack, and, even though he may lack experience, he seems to make the right decision every time. His finishing and movement are all-natural and United have a gem on their hands for many years to come.

As for Saints, they will come into Old Trafford full of confidence, Danny Ings is in the hunt for the golden boot, moved on to 19 goals in the EPL after his goal against Everton. Special mention must be made to manager Ralph Hasenhüttl, as he’s steadied the ship. Saints were going nowhere fast before his arrival, but he’s instilled a good philosophy, and they look like an established EPL team. Finally!

Much like Sheffield United, they’re a collective group that is well drilled, difficult to break down and a front line led by the in-form and extremely confident Ings. They’re a busy team that will test the United team. It won’t be enough to knock Man Utd’s march towards Champions League football, but it will certainly be a reminder of how far Saints have come over the last few months and a reminder of how far United still need to go to really be deemed title challengers next season.

Prediction: 3-1, United