English Premier League: Latest EPL Rumors, Preview and Predictions for Week 26

Tim Daniels@TimDanielsBRFeatured ColumnistFebruary 4, 2013

English Premier League: Latest EPL Rumors, Preview and Predictions for Week 26

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    Another strong week allowed Manchester United to extend their Premier League lead to nine points. With 13 matches left in the season, it now would take a collapse from the Red Devils down the stretch for another squad to catch up.

    Manchester City, the defending champions, are in second place. While their hopes of repeating aren't completely gone, they can't afford any more slip ups like they had last week in consecutive draws with QPR and Liverpool.

    Chelsea, Tottenham, Everton and Arsenal are in a close race for third place. After that, there's a drop off to the Reds in seventh. The relegation battle is also starting to heat up with a handful of clubs still in danger of getting sent down.

    It should be an exciting finish to the EPL season for fans across the league. Let's take a look at some of the latest news and rumors making headlines, followed by previews and predictions for this week's matches.

Mario Balotelli Buy-Back Clause

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    Mario Balotelli completed a high-profile move to AC Milan before the January transfer window closed and proceeded to score two goals in his debut. It's the type of production Manchester City expected from the striker, but didn't receive on a consistent basis.

    Balotelli may not have played his final match in a City jersey, though. As part of the agreement with the Serie A side, Greg Stobart of Goal.com reports that the Premier League champions will receive the right of first refusal if Milan attempts to move the forward in the future.

    While that's not something either club will be worried about now, Balotelli is just 22 years old and continues to grow as a player. It will be interesting to see if this clause comes into play during the latter portion of his new deal with Milan.

Asmir Begovic to United?

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    Asmir Begovic was a popular name during the winter window, but ended up staying with Stoke City. He's emerged as one of the top young goalkeepers in the Premier League, so it's no surprise other clubs are showing interest.

    Alan Nixon of the Daily Mirror reports Manchester United are considering Begovic as a possible replacement for David de Gea during the summer. The Potters are seeking at least £15 million in return for one of their top assets, however.

    De Gea put together a much stronger performance in a 1-0 win over Fulham. It shows things can clearly change before the next window opens, especially if he plays well down the stretch. With that being said, Begovic is a very good option—even at that price—if United looks elsewhere.

Match of the Week: Manchester United vs. Everton

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    Manchester United and Everton opened the season with a match at Goodison Park. The Red Devils entered with all the hype after landing Robin van Persie, but it was the Toffees who walked away with three points.

    It was the first of just three losses United have suffered so far. They will be looking to exact some revenge in the rematch before turning their attention to a Champions League clash with Real Madrid. The Red Devils must be careful not to look ahead, or Everton will steal another one.

    In order to secure a UCL spot for next season, the Toffees need to start turning their draws into victories. They are tied for the league lead with 12 draws. It's kept them within striking distance of the top three, but it also represents a lot of lost points.

    Everton have only dropped two matches on the road, but United are 11-0-1 at Old Trafford. It should be an exciting game with a couple of different plot twists over the course of 90 minutes.

Saturday Predictions

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    Tottenham Hotspur vs. Newcastle United

    The combination of Gareth Bale and Jermain Defoe has helped push Spurs back within one point of third place. If Clint Dempsey can find his form, they will feature one of the league's most dangerous attacking trios. Newcastle won't be able to keep up.

    Prediction: 2-1 Tottenham

    Chelsea vs. Wigan Athletic

    Even though Chelsea's recent skid continued with a loss to Newcastle, the Blues possess too much talent to keep fading. Sooner or later, they are going to take out all their frustrations on another club, and don't be surprised if it's Wigan on Saturday.

    Prediction: 3-0 Chelsea

    Norwich City vs. Fulham

    Fulham were competitive with Manchester United over the weekend, which should boost their confidence ahead of a trip to Norwich. However, the Canaries have been a much stronger club at home and should be able to earn a draw.

    Prediction: 1-1

    Stoke City vs. Reading

    Don't expect many fireworks in this one. Stoke City are committed to playing a defense-first style and Reading have struggled to generate consistent scoring opportunities, which explains why they are battling to avoid relegation.

    Prediction: 0-0

    Sunderland vs. Arsenal

    Lukas Podolski and a fortunate deflection allowed Arsenal to keep pace in the race for a Champions League spot over the weekend. These are the matches—against inferior competition on the road—that they must win from here on out.

    Prediction: 2-1 Arsenal

    Swansea City vs. Queens Park Rangers

    Swansea's offense has gone silent. The Swans haven't scored a goal in their last three matches, but still managed two draws thanks to strong play from the back line. A match against last-place QPR should get them back on track.

    Prediction: 1-0 Swansea

    Southampton vs. Manchester City

    The pressure is on City now. They can't afford to drop many points if they want to make a comeback. A road match with a Southampton side that is fighting to stay above the relegation zone is a must-win situation for the Citizens.

    Prediction: 2-0 Manchester City

Sunday and Monday Predictions

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    Aston Villa vs. West Ham United

    Christian Benteke has been trying to pull Villa out of the relegation zone by himself, scoring a goal in three straight league matches. West Ham have relied on a more balanced attack and should be riding high after a win over Swansea, leading to a draw.

    Prediction: 1-1

    Manchester United vs. Everton

    Can Everton keep United at bay for the entire match again? Probably not. The Red Devils are in good form and should be able to find the net a couple of times against a back line that looked shaky against Villa. The Toffees don't have enough scoring depth to respond.

    Prediction: 2-1 Manchester United

    Liverpool vs. West Bromwich Albion

    Draws with Arsenal and Manchester City show how far the Reds have come since the beginning of the campaign. That said, they are in need of an extended point streak if they are going to challenge for a European spot. A struggling West Brom squad should help the cause.

    Prediction: 2-0 Liverpool