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English Premier League Relegation Battle Finally Sparks To Life

Michail Antonio of West Ham United scores his team's fourth goal during the Premier League match between Norwich City and West Ham United at Carrow Road on July 11, 2020 in Norwich, 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 Ian Walton/Pool via Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – It’s getting down to the wire, and the relegation-threatened teams are finally wagging their tails. I’m fully invested in what they’ll fight for. Major money and another season in the English Premier League.

Elsewhere we’ve got the semi-finals of the FA Cup at Wembley Stadium, with some absolute belters on Saturday and Sunday. First, will be Arsenal versus Manchester City a 12:45 p.m. kick off. Then Sunday you’ll be able to catch the 11:00 a.m. kick-off.

That’s right, you can catch three games on the bounce, 7:00 a.m., 9:00 a.m., and 11:00 a.m. You can catch both Semi-Finals on ESPN+.

In Spain, Real Madrid is right on the edge of title glory. In fact, when you read this they might already be champions if they secure victory at home against Villarreal on Thursday. If not, then La Liga ends this Sunday, and there will be a champion either way, but the four-point lead over Barcelona gives them the edge.

In Italy, Juventus are still in control, even if they don’t look fantastic. They hold a seven-point lead but are looking over their shoulder at Atalanta and Inter Milan on the charge. With five games to go, all eyes will switch to Serie A if Juve slip up next Monday against Lazio.

Back to EPL action, and whilst there is not a full slate because of the FA Cup semi’s, we’re in for a thunderous weekend of action.

West Ham United v. Watford

This is your Friday lunchtime kick-off, 1:00 p.m. on NBCSN. I’ll tell you right now, the winner of this matchup will be safe come season’s end. This is why this game should be an absolute cracker. Both teams have shown a bit of life lately, but the fact Bournemouth and Aston Villa are still in the hunt for EPL safety, there will be no holding back from the Hammers or the Hornets.

West Ham has been bitterly disappointing after what seemed a very good transfer window last summer. A change of manager in early November didn’t help matters much, but the delay in the season has shown West Ham didn’t waste any time in getting some of the defensive frailties under control and picking up seven points since the restart.

West Ham confined Norwich to relegation in their last match, a thumping 4-0 win at Carrow Road saw hard-working West Ham attacker Michail Antonio, grab all four goals. Playing as a center forward of late because of injuries, he’s shown that he’ll put the team first and put in a solid shift. He will once again be looking to be the focal point. Leading the Hammers with eight goals now, you can see what the problem has been at London Stadium this season. Much more organized at the back since the restart, they’re relying on the good defensive shape to give their often misfiring attack a platform to succeed.

Watford have had a hard slog of a season. When they brought in Nigel Pearson, their second manager change this season, it looked all doom and gloom but they’ve stuck to it, haven’t panicked in any of the games I’ve watched them in, and currently have their noses out of the relegation zone, just. The return of Captain Troy Deeney earlier in the season has been a huge blessing, he’s not a free-scoring #9, but he is a motivator and someone who will carry out his coach’s instructions and make sure his teammates carry out their responsibilities as well. A 2-1 victory against Newcastle helped Watford move to 17th in the table. They’ll be desperate for all three points as their final two games will be against Man City and a much improved Arsenal.

Ismaïla Sarr is the Watford player to look out for. The five goals for the wide attacker doesn’t tell the whole story, as his speed and ability to get in behind hasn’t been used nearly enough but certainly, something to build on and certainly something to test the left side of West Ham’s defense.

I expect this match to be all about blood and guts, with hopes to find someone with composure in the penalty area and shoot either team to glory and most likely, EPL safety. It’s going to be close, but I will side with the Hammers at home.

Prediction: West Ham United, 2-1

Bournemouth v. Southampton

A local rivalry that will keep fans glued to their TV sets on Sunday with this 7:00 a.m. kick off from Dean Court, on NBCSN. Just 31 miles separate the two teams and it will all be played for. Bournemouth burst back to life against Leicester City last week with a second-half performance for the ages.

They went up to Manchester City and gave Pep’s team all it could handle in an eventual 2-1 loss, but the attack was sharp and full of life, carrying on from the second half against Leicester. David Brooks with a few games under his belt looks like the player the Cherries had been desperately missing all season, coming up with an expert finish to ensure a nervy end to the match for City. If we had written/read this sentence a week ago we would have all laughed, as we would’ve expected the Citizens to score five, for the third game running but Bournemouth is fighting for their very EPL lives and finally, something seems to have clicked on the pitch.

Bournemouth were always an attractive ball-playing side under Eddie Howe but moved away from that in the first EPL season to ensure there was some substance and reward for their nice play. This season has been a disaster though, and whilst injuries have played a part, the whole close-knit feel of seasons past, seemed a distant memory. As I mentioned, the return of Brooks from a long injury lay off that included two surgeries to repair his ankle has given the hosts a massive boost and he will be vital in the remaining two games. The former Man City academy product and Welsh international seems very much at home in the EPL and if the worst comes to worst, I think he’ll have plenty of suitors for his services at the top level come next season.

Saints have been fantastic of late, and won a thoroughly deserved point on the road against Manchester United. Manager Ralph Hasenhüttl has been a revelation since he took over. Yes, results haven’t always been great, but he has been given time and the team now looks much better with plenty of attacking intent. Nathan Redmond continues to be a fantastic attacking outlet, and with Danny Ings, he is always a goalscoring threat. The former Bournemouth academy could seal his former club to the Championship , as he is still in the hunt for the golden boot. This is a man that has overcome multiple serious knee injuries and when international play resumes, deserves to add to his solitary England cap. He is a hugely likable character, but an even more likable footballer. Any young player watching him can learn so much from what he provides, pressing from the front to close down defenders, and a sharp finisher, he’s a modern-day #9 that can do a bit of everything.

This one is an incredibly hard game to call, as both clubs are in good form over the last week. Saints are safe and out of the European places, so effectively have nothing to play for, just local bragging rights. Bournemouth desperately need all three points, and if they play like they did against City, could just scrape all three points but the pressure must be almost unbearable. I think they get it done, ensuring an amazing roller coaster of a final day.

Prediction: 3-2, Bournemouth

Tottenham Hotspur v. Leicester City

Straight after the Cherries and Saints finish you’ll be able to stay on NBCSN for the Sunday 9:00 a.m. kick-off. Spurs are on a late charge for European soccer next season, after picking up 10 points in the last four matches. They’ve looked a little better in spells (minus the awful performance against Bournemouth). With just four points separating the two sides, this is a cracker of a match up. Spurs have struggled all season, and even if you’re not a fan of Jose Mourinho, you have to remember that this squad underperformed for Mauricio Pochettino as well. I’m intrigued to see what Jose can do with a full pre-season under his belt and maybe selecting a couple of players that he’d prefer.

One issue since he took over is the service to Harry Kane, or lack thereof. Thankfully for him he got some against Newcastle on Wednesday, as his brace proved that when you get the ball to him in dangerous areas he’s still one of the sharpest finishers in European football. Flanked by the tireless South Korean in Heung-Min Son, the movement and power from midfield can give even the best teams an issue on its day. Sadly this hasn’t happened consistently this season, and you’re never quite sure what Spurs will give come kick-off.

Leicester is in a sharp free-fall and are clinging on to the top four whilst running on fumes. Ben Chilwell, James Maddison and Ricardo Pereira have been an obvious miss over recent weeks, and the fact the Foxes will be without Turkish center back Çağlar Söyüncü for the rest of the season leaves a huge hole to fill. The problem is, Brendan Rodgers has been tinkering to try and get something going since the restart, but in the process has overdone it. The once fluid attack has come to a stall, even with Jamie Vardy still finding the back of the net and on course to win the golden boot at the ripe old age of 33. He’s been one of the few positives in recent weeks, he’s an absolute menace for opposition defenses. Apart from his constant movement and goals, it’s another thing that gets under the opposition skin, his constant talking and chirping to whoever is marking him. He is hyperactive and will score from any position if you give him an inch. He’s lacked consistent service over recent weeks, much like Harry Kane.

The issues for the Foxes are a little different than Spurs. Their squad is smaller and they just can’t cope with the absence of three influential players that most top four sides have. With potentially three regular starters missing in Leicester’s backline, I just can’t see them pulling a win out of the bag. Spurs will grind out another result, even if it’s not overly flashy.

Prediction: 2-0, Spurs