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Premier League

Day of reckoning looms in Premier League survival race

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Fingernails will be bitten to the quick on Sunday as Everton, Leicester City and Leeds United make a dash for the last remaining seat on the Premier League lifeboat.

While the title and most of the other issues have been resolved ahead of final day, the relegation survival battle will provide the most absorbing viewing — for neutrals at least.

For the clubs, and fans, involved the 90 minutes on Sunday may feel like an eternity.

Southampton were long ago cast adrift and will already be planning for life in the second-tier Championship, but the other two relegation places are still to be decided.

Everton at least have their destiny in their hands as they seek to extend their unbroken 69-year stay in the top flight.

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Victory at home to Bournemouth on Sunday will render anything Leicester and Leeds manage at home to West Ham United and Tottenham Hotspur redundant and ensure the Toffees another great escape to rival the two they pulled off in the 1990s.

Everton are currently on 33 points and with Leicester and Leeds on 31 they could even lose and still stay up if the other two fail to win – a scenario that would break a Premier League record for the least points required to ensure safety, currently the 34 West Bromwich Albion accumulated in 2005.

It may sound straightforward, but final day survival battles usually have numerous twists and turns and Everton’s task was made more complicated by Leicester hanging on grimly for a 0-0 draw at Newcastle United on Monday.

That point lifted Leicester above Leeds on goal difference and meant Everton will begin against Bournemouth without the cushion of being able to draw to stay up, as Leicester have a superior goal difference.

“If somebody had said we’ll take it to the last game, I’d have taken that, but I’d rather us have the say on whether we stay up or not,” Leicester’s interim coach Dean Smith said.

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“It’s out of our hands but we have to go out to get the win and hope Lady Luck shines down on us.”

Relegation would have seemed unthinkable just a couple of seasons ago for Leicester when they won the FA Cup by beating Chelsea, five years after winning the Premier League title.

Leeds really do need all the cards to fall in their favour. To avoid a return to the championship after a three-season stay in the top flight they must beat Tottenham by any score, then hope Leicester fail to win and Everton lose.

There is also another survival scenario for Leeds in which they beat Tottenham by at least three goals, Leicester fail to win and Everton draw, in which case Leeds would stay up on goal difference, or if that is level, courtesy of having scored more goals.

Leeds beat the drop on the final day of last season by winning at Brentford, but even Sam Allardyce, the renowned escape artist who answered Leeds’ SOS call in May, sounded pessimistic after last weekend’s loss at West Ham.

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“It was difficult for him, coming in at this stage with this many games left,” former Leeds great Eddie Gray said. “You don’t get a real opportunity. It’s a difficult situation for everybody. But the club probably had to try something to try and get us out the situation.”

-Reuters

Kunle Solaja is the author of landmark books on sports and journalism as well as being a multiple award-winning journalist and editor of long standing. He is easily Nigeria’s foremost soccer diarist and Africa's most capped FIFA World Cup journalist, having attended all FIFA World Cup finals from Italia ’90 to Qatar 2022. He was honoured at the Qatar 2022 World Cup by FIFA and AIPS.

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Nigerian-born Man United’s new striker promises  creativity and unpredictability to fans

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Manchester United newcomer Joshua Zirkzee said fans can expect to see a creative, unpredictable player who developed his skills in cage football, and idolised Ronaldinho and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

He is a Dutch, but has Nigerian mother.

The 23-year-old striker signed for the Red Devils on July 14 after an excellent season with Italian Serie A club Bologna, where he scored 11 goals and made five assists and helped them secure a place in the Champions League.

“Yeah, it’s been a roller-coaster the past few weeks, but some very good experiences. I’m very happy to be here,” Zirkzee said in an interview for United’s website on July 17.

“Obviously, (I’m arriving) at a good point, making a transfer to Manchester United is something very positive. So yeah, I just can’t wait to get started and continue what I basically did last season.”

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The 1.93m-tall Dutchman is technically gifted for a player his size, which he attributes to his childhood in Spijkenisse, in the south of the Netherlands where he developed his skills in Johan Cruyff cages – enclosed football pitches named after the Dutch football great.

“As a young boy growing up, playing mostly with tougher, bigger guys who are older than you makes you adapt, so I think that’s something that you learn at a young age in Holland, especially where I grew up,” Zirkzee added.

“(I’m a) creative player, good with the ball, I’m just a bit unpredictable at times.”

He laughingly recounted the countless times he got in trouble with his mother for coming home late.

“I hope she forgives me now for all the times I came home late, or if I broke something in the backyard,” he said.

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“Eventually, it all worked out pretty well… that was just life back when I was younger, playing football, forgetting about the time and getting back home late.”

Zirkzee also said that having a Dutch manager in Erik ten Hag is a “privilege” and the added presence of Ruud van Nistelrooy – the former Netherlands and United striker who joined ten Hag’s coaching staff earlier this week – will help him adjust to his new team.

But they are not the only reasons he made the move to United.

“Manchester United is a great, huge club so it’s just an extra privilege,” he said.

“Having some Dutch people around obviously makes it a bit easier, (but) to be fair I’m not too difficult adapting.

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“When I was younger, watching the Dutch national team, Manchester United, watching (van Nistelrooy) play, he was one of the guys who you pretend to be when you were playing with friends. So, having him out here is a bit special.

Zirkzee was a late addition to the Netherlands squad for the European Championship, making his senior debut in the quarter-final victory against Turkey.

On the heels of Euro 2024, he will be given some time off and is not expected to link up with his new teammates until early August.

Following his arrival at Old Trafford for a fee of about £36.5 million (S$63.6 million), United are set to sign Lille’s promising teenage defender Leny Yoro in a £52 million swoop, according to reports on July 17.

The 18-year-old had been linked with a move to European champions Real Madrid, but he has since travelled to England and has undergone a medical test with the Red Devils, before putting pen to paper.

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United will reportedly pay £52.7 million as an initial fee, with add-ons worth a further £6.7 million.

Yoro, who made his Lille debut at the age of 16, has been ranked as one of the best young players in Europe.

Ten Hag has been keen to land a new centre-back after Raphael Varane left at the end of last season.

Varane and Lisandro Martinez were United’s starting centre-backs in their FA Cup final victory over Manchester City in May, with Harry Maguire missing the showpiece due to an injury that also ruled him out of Euro 2024.

United have also been chasing Bayern Munich’s Dutch defender Matthijs de Ligt and is understood to have had two offers rejected for Everton’s Jarrad Branthwaite.

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Reuters/AFP

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Sancho back in training with Man United after positive meeting with Ten Hag

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Jadon Sancho was back training with Manchester United for the first time in 10 months, with a club source confirming the winger and manager Erik ten Hag have resolved their differences following their public fallout last year.

Sancho and Ten Hag had a positive meeting at Carrington Training Centre and the two have decided to draw a line under last season’s drawn-out argument, the club source said.

The 24-year-old Sancho made just three appearances for United last season, spending the second half of the campaign on loan to Borussia Dortmund after his relationship with Ten Hag soured in September.

Ten Hag had left the winger out of his squad for United’s 3-1 loss to Arsenal, saying Sancho’s performances in training had not warranted a place in his team. Sancho immediately lashed out on social media, accusing Ten Hag of making him a “scapegoat.”

He was banished from the first team and trained with United’s youth squad before returning to his former club Dortmund in January, where he shone during their Champions League semi-final victory against Paris St Germain, earning praise from Ten Hag. Dortmund were beaten by Real Madrid in the final.

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“(Sancho) is a very good player… he showed why Manchester United bought him and he showed he represents a high value for Manchester United, which is good,” Ten Hag told reporters following Dortmund’s 1-0 win over PSG in the first leg.

“I’m happy for Jadon, for the performance, and we’ll see what is going to happen in the future.”

Sancho will not travel with the team to Norway for their pre-season opener against Rosenborg since he began training later than the other players but the club source said he would be available for selection after that.

-Reuters

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Another Nigerian blood replaces Ndidi at Leicester

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Wilfred Ndidi who has just left Leicester City will have another Nigerian blood replacing him.

Leicester has never been without a Nigerian since Ahmed Musa joined in 2016. Ndidi and Kelechi Iheanacho joined in 2017.

Another Nigerian blood, Caleb Okoli, a centre back, has just been signed from Italian  Serie A side Atalanta on a five-year contract. Born in Itali, Caleb Okoli is Igbo and Yoruba by descent.

The 22-year-old, who spent the last season on loan at Frosinone Calcio, represented Italy at the European Under-21 Championship last year.

“I think now is the right moment (for me) to make a step forward and a very big one. I’m very happy with the choice I made, so I’m very excited to start in the Premier League,” Okoli said in a statement. The clubs did not disclose financial details of the deal.

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