Top 5 must-see soccer games: Jan. 15, 2016

top5gamesAlthough it’s often tagged unfairly as the most exciting league on the planet, this season the Premier League has been lived up to the billing. So even though three of our five selections are from English soccer’s top flight this week, there’s little doubt the matches will be jam packed with thrills. This weekend, the league leaders, their surprise challengers and one of the country’s biggest derby matches will light up Saturday and Sunday.

Rounding things off will be matches involving the two most exciting sides in Italy and Spain at the moment.

All kickoffs are in Eastern time. Enjoy your weekend, and enjoy the games!

Aston Villa vs. Leicester City

Saturday, January 12, 12:30 PM, NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra

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Aston Villa will be seeking to keep their very slender hopes of Premier League survival alive as they welcome surprise joint-leaders Leicester City to Villa Park.

On Tuesday, the Villains notched their first win under Remi Garde and their first triumph in the Premier League since the opening day of the season. It was a determined display against a strong Crystal Palace outfit. There’ll have to be many more showings of that ilk if they’re to haul themselves out of trouble.

Leicester will certainly pose problems. Claudio Ranieri’s side have shown a different edge to their play in recent weeks, reverting to a solid shape as opposed to flying forward in massive numbers on the counter-attack. Their excellent 1-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur last time out was indicative of this tweak in approach.

It’ll be intriguing to see just how they approach this game, with both teams better when surrendering possession and playing on the break. Nevertheless, the respective ambitions of both mean three points are required . Subsequently, we should see goals in Saturday’s late kick off.

Napoli vs. Sassuolo

Saturday, January 17, 2:45 PM, beIN SPORTS and fuboTV

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Napoli are flying high at the summit of Serie A and will be seeking to continue their tremendous recent form when they welcome an impressive Sassuolo outfit to the San Paolo this weekend.

Inspired by the stellar goalscoring of Gonzalo Higuain, the Partenopei have swaggered their way to the top of the Italian top flight. Maurizio Sarri’s team have been excellent in recent weeks, winning their last three in a row, including a 5-1 thumping away at Frosinone in their last outing. Higuain has scored 18 in 19 appearances so far this season.

Sassuolo have proven they have the qualities to cope with the top sides in Italy, though. Indeed, just last week they were able to grind out a brilliant 1-0 win at Inter Milan, with goalkeeper Andrea Consigli playing a starring role. Given just how humble a club they are, Eusebio Di Francesco has done a magnificent job.

Napoli are on a roll at this juncture, and there are many who feel this could well be their season for the title, especially with Inter losing momentum and Roma deciding to part ways with manager Rudi Garcia. But with champions Juventus clicking into gear, having won their last nine in a row, it’s imperative the hosts take three points from this encounter.

Liverpool vs. Manchester United

Sunday, January 18, 9:05 AM, NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra

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After frantic 3-3 draws in their respective midweek matches, Liverpool and Manchester United will be hoping to bounce back in style this weekend at Anfield.

The draws came in different circumstances for these two great rivals. Having lead 2-0 and then 3-2 at Newcastle United, Louis van Gaal’s men surrendered a winning position on two occasions. United fans can at least take encouragement from the fact that Wayne Rooney seems back in form, having scored two and set up one in the midweek tussle.

Liverpool’s draw was much more of a booster. The Reds snatched a last-minute equalizer in a thrilling clash against Arsenal, having turned in a performance bristling with energy and intensity. Klopp was able to welcome back a few key men for that showdown and his players will have to reach similar levels if they’re to take all three points here.

The rivalry between these two sides always makes for an intriguing affair too. Anfield’s atmosphere has improved in recent weeks due to the colorful antics of their new boss on the sidelines. Expect Sunday’s crowd to be the most raucous of his reign so far, though.

Stoke City vs. Arsenal

Sunday, January 18, 11:15 AM, NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra

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Stoke City pose a completely different type of challenge these days and will pit their newfound, free-flowing approach against league leaders Arsenal on Sunday.

Against some of the big names, Stoke have thrived this term. Mark Hughes’s attacking trio of Xherdan Shaqiri, Marko Arnautovic and Bojan has put the likes of Manchester United and Manchester City to the sword already at the Britannia Stadium in 2015-16. There’s no reason why they won’t fancy their chances against the Gunners.

Arsenal head to the Potteries on the back of a 3-3 draw with Liverpool, surrendering two points late on in a pulsating game. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of shape Arsene Wenger’s side are in as a result, but with Alexis Sanchez reported to be close to making a full return, the traveling supporters could get a big boost.

There have been a few cracks in the Arsenal armory on the road this season. Against Southampton they conceded four on Boxing Day and last time out another three at Anfield. They’ll need to stiffen the back four  here if they’re to avoid becoming the latest elite side to drop points at this difficult venue.

Barcelona vs. Athletic Club

Sunday, January 18, 2:30 PM, beIN SPORTS, beIN SPORTS en Espańol and fuboTV

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Barcelona will be looking to keep pace with league leaders Atletico Madrid this weekend when they welcome a dangerous Athletic Club to the Camp Nou.

Granted, the Blaugrana do have a game in hand on the leaders, and that game will be against lowly Sporting Gijon, but it’s important they stay in touch at the summit. On home soil, they are a formidable proposition, and the Nou Camp crowd will be in place to laud Lionel Messi and Neymar, who finished first and third in the race for the Ballon d’Or on Monday.

The visitors from Bilbao are a team capable of springing a shock. Athletic have a decent record against the European champions, as was evident during their Super Cup triumph earlier in the season, and in Aritz Aduriz, a player who Luis Enrique’s side have struggled to cope with. They’re a team who can match Barca for effort and endeavor, too.

Ernesto Valverde’s side have something to play for themselves. They’re currently just three points back on fifth place Celta Vigo, and while it may seem a fanciful prospect given the quality Barcelona possess, if they can win here it’d blow the division wide open. Still, given the Blaugrana’s attacking options, you suspect Athletic would settle for a point.

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