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Its back: Premier league weekend preview

After the final international break of the calendar year top flight domestic football is back and heading into the most hectic part of an already condensed 2020/21 schedule.

The Premier League has already seen plenty of shock results this campaign and as things stand the top of the table is delicately poised with a host of clubs vying for supremacy.

Here are your big match previews for the weekend…

Premier League

Newcastle United v Chelsea Saturday 12.30pm

Frank Lampard’s side were in fine form before the break and the Blues legend will be hoping his side can pick up where they left off as they head to the North East.

Lampard will be without Ka Havertz and Christian Pulisic for the clash at St James’ Park while experienced centre-back Thiago Silva is a doubt.

Steve Bruce’s Magpies have been typically inconsistent so far this term without setting the world alight. However with the attacking threats of Ryan Fraser, Allan Saint Maximin and Callum Wilson, they can be confident of stopping the visitors heading to the top of the table.

Tottenham v Manchester City Saturday 5.30pm

A huge test of Tottenham’s early title credentials as Jose Mourinho’s men look to seize the opportunity to reach the summit of the table, albeit potentially for just 24 hours.

Spurs have been a tough team to beat this season and with the likes of Harry Kane, Gareth Bale and Heung Min-Son in attack they pose a danger to any team.

Pep Guardiola, fresh off the back of a new contract, will be looking for more consistency from his side as they look to close the small gap to the league leaders. Gabriel Jesus is likely to be available whilst Sergio Aguero is a doubt.

Manchester United v West Brom Saturday 8.00pm

United went into the break on the back of a morale boosting victory over Everton, a victory that arguably saved Ole Gunnar Solskjær from a difficult conversation over this job.

Slaven Bilic’s Baggies meanwhile are desperate for points already as they flounder in the relegation zone without a win in their opening eight matches.

Leeds United v Arsenal Sunday 4.30pm

Perhaps evevery neutral’s favourite side to watch, Leeds United have made for enthralling viewing this season, unless you’re a fan of stout defending.

Marcelo Bielsa’s charges are a fast flowing bunch who always look to play on the front-foot, occasionally to their detriment. The Yorkshire side have already shocked the big boys this season, taking a point from the game with Man City.

Mikel Arteta’s Gunners could almost do no wrong until they came unstuck in a big way against Aston Villa before the break. The North Londoners sit 11th in the table and will be desperate to start clawing their way up.

Liverpool v Leicester City Sunday 7.15pm

Arguably the game of the weekend as the reigning champions host the current leagues leaders at Anfield.

Jurgen Klopp’s side come into this game with almost an unprecedented amount of injuries with Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez out for the majority of the season at least. Captain Jordan Henderson, Thiago Alcantara, Mohamed Salah and Trent Alexander-Arnold are all major doubts for the clash whilst Fabinho has returned to full training.

The Foxes, not without their own injury concerns, must fancy their chances of taking a positive result back to the Midlands as former Reds boss Brendan Rodger’s pits his wits against Klopp.

Wolves v Southampton Monday 8.00pm

The weekend’s action rounds up at Molineux as this seasons surprise package Southampton head to Wolverhampton hoping to continue their positive start.

Ralph Hassenhutl’s Saints sit fourth in the table heading into the weekend after a 2-0 victory over Newcastle before the international hiatus. The visitors are likely to be without talismanic striker Danny Ings however as he recovers from a knee issue.

Wolves meanwhile haven’t quite hit the heights perhaps many expected this term so far as they struggle to get going with a host of new signings in their ranks. Nuno Espirito Santo will be hoping this period can bring about a new level of consistency from his talented squad.

Other Fixtures

Aston Villa v Brighton & Hove Albion Saturday 3.00pm

Fulham v Everton Sunday 12.00pm

Sheffield United v West Ham United Sunday 2.00pm

Burnley v Crystal Palace Monday 5.30pm

Man City vs Liverpool Preview

Champions Liverpool travel to the Etihad on Sunday to take on Manchester City in a mouthwatering test of both sides’ title credentials.

Liverpool currently sit top of the table on sixteen points after last weekend’s hard fought 2-1 victory over West Ham. City meanwhile, are down in 10th with eleven points having played a game less than the Reds, but having already dropped points against Leeds,West Ham and Leicester.

A win for Liverpool against City would see them open up an eight point lead over their rivals and would secure their first win at the Etihad in a domestic game in five years.

Team News

Nat Phillips picked up the man of the match award for his performance on his Premier League debut against the Hammers, but the 23 year old is set to drop down to the bench as Klopp has the experienced Joel Matip available again after injury.

The Cameroon defender has been absent since picking up a knock in last month’s ill-tempered Merseyside derby, but Klopp confirmed in his press conference that Matip had returned to training this week and it is therefore likely he will partner Joe Gomez at centre back.

One man who is still working his way back to fitness after the Everton game is new signing Thiago. He sustained a knee injury in the 2-2 draw after Richarlison’s lunging tackle on him, and although he played the full 90 minutes the Spain international has sat out their past five games.

He was spotted at Melwood this week doing some individual training and Klopp has assured fans that the injury is not a serious one, but he will again be missing for the trip to Manchester, the manager told the media today.

Virgil Van Dijk and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are longstanding absentees whilst Fabinho is also ruled out with a hamstring injury.

Liverpool warmed up for this weekend’s crunch trip in ideal fashion, thumping Atalanta 5-0 in Bergamo midweek in the Champions League with the man of the moment Diogo Jota netting a hat-trick.

He has now scored seven goals in just ten games in all competitions from Wolves and his performances have given Klopp a selection headache going into Sunday’s game.

On current form, the Portuguese international must start, especially when you consider he has more goals for Liverpool than Roberto Firmino has this year despite plying far less minutes.

The Brazilian has been a key cog in Jurgen Klopp’s front three for the past few seasons but his form at the end of last year and the start of this season has tailed off alarmingly.

He looks a shadow of his former self and given that Liverpool are likely to struggle at the back with the absence of Van Dijk, attack may be the best form of defence for the Reds and the inclusion of Jota adds to their attacking prowess alongside Salah and Mané who are still scoring goals.

Liverpool have responded well since their 7-2 drubbing at the hands of Aston Villa, winning their last five games in all competitions to bolster their quest to regain the Premier League title.

Sunday’s trip provides the sternest challenge yet, with Pep Guardiola’s men dispatching the Reds 4-0 on their last visit to Manchester after the restart. The Citizens are currently on an eight game unbeaten run in all competitions and have defeated Liverpool at the Etihad in each of the last three seasons. They will be hoping to make it four to kickstart their title charge this campaign.

City will be without striker Sergio Agüero for Sunday’s game. The Argentine has been nursing a hamstring issue since the draw with West Ham and has missed last three games. There was hope that he could feature from the bench against the Reds, but the game has come too soon and Guardiola confirmed in his press conference that he will be missing. His full return is expected after the international break.

They are still unable to call upon Fernandinho, who was forced off against Porto in the Champions League opener with a leg injury and Benjamin Mendy who is suffering from a muscle problem. Both players are eyeing up City’s game against Tottenham after the international break for their return.

City also enjoyed a comfortable Champions League win during the week, putting three past Olympiakos without reply. Gabriel Jesus marked his return to action with a goal whilst Phil Foden and Ferran Torres also impressed in that game.

Jesus should come in from the start against Liverpool to give City a focal point up top which they have lacked in his and Augero’s absence. Who he will replace is anyone’s guess given Guardiola’s constant rotation, the most likely candidate being Torres, allowing Sterling to move back out to the wing with Mahrez on the other side.

The City boss is also likely to revert to the back four who started last weekend’s victory over Sheffield United with Laporte, Dias and Cancelo coming in for Ake, Stones and Zinchenko who started midweek and Kyle Walker retaining his place.

Rodri will also be restored to the starting eleven alongside De Bruyne and Gundogan in midfield as the Citizens look to add some steel to thwart Liverpool’s devastating counter attacks. Foden is set to provide a spark from the bench if called upon alongside Bernardo Silva and the aforementioned Torres.

Key Battles

There are a number of intriguing match ups to watch out for in the game. Joao Cancelo up against Mo Salah will be one of them. The Egyptian has started the campaign like a house on fire, clinically scoring seven goals in seven games.

Cancelo, a right back by nature, has found his feet on the left side of Guardiola’s defence this season and has impressed going forward, but he will need to be switched on defensively to cope with Salah’s strength and direct running as well as Alexander-Arnold’s overlaps on the right flank.

Henderson against De Bruyne will see another battle between last year’s two outstanding players in the league. In the absence of Fabinho, captain Henderson has reverted to a deeper lying role and he will be tasked with picking up the Belgian De Bruyne and stop him from spraying passes out wide and from darting late into the box to get on the end of crosses.

Similarly De Bruyne will be keen to prevent Henderson having the time and space to launch Liverpool’s counter attacks when City are in transition.

Another key tussle will be Jesus up against Joe Gomez. The Brazilian starts City’s press from the front and will be alert to pounce on any little mistake from the England defender when attempting to play out from the back.

He’s also very comfortable taking players on one vs one and Gomez will have stand tall and marshal him in these scenarios, avoiding diving in as Jesus will take it past him punish him.

Gomez is one of the quickest centre backs in the league however, so will have no qualms about catching Jesus if he makes a run in behind.

Managers’ View

Guardiola is under no illusion of how difficult a game this will be considering City’s inconsistent start to the season, telling reporters, “ When you play against teams like Liverpool you always have moments where you have to suffer. We know it, we have to do it and try to use our strength as much a possible.”

He played down the notion that the game is season defining, however, comparing the fixture to the race for the Presidency in the USA, stating:

“It is an important game but, like the presidential elections in the USA, all the votes must be counted – there are a lot of points to play for.”

His opposite number Klopp echoed these sentiments, telling the media that Sunday’s game will be:

“The most difficult game in the world of football.

Klopp continued:

“It’s a very difficult game, hopefully for both teams. So many things are different this year, nothing can be compared with last year or the year before. I enjoy these kind of games, I enjoy the preparation, but it doesn’t make it easier, it’s just a really tough task.”

Prediction: Man City 1-2 Liverpool

Given the weaknesses in both back lines it is hard to see either side keeping a clean sheet. Chances are likely to be in abundance on Sunday as a result, and it should be the case of whoever is most clinical will take home all three points.

Liverpool have made a knack of scoring crucial goals and grinding out important wins even if they aren’t playing well, and it seems hard to overlook them edging this one if their front three have their shooting boots on.

City will cause them problems going the other way and Robertson and Alexander-Arnold will have to put in a shift defensively to prevent Sterling and Mahrez from wrecking havoc out wide.

It is sure to be a great game of football and you can watch all the action on Sky Sports with the game kicking off at 4:30 pm.

Liverpool facing defensive crisis: can they come out on top?

Liverpool, already without talismanic central defender Virgil van Dijk were dealt another huge blow on Tuesday night when Fabinho pulled up, before being forced off with a hamstring problem.

The Brazilian had been deputising, successfully, for the missing Dutchman when he stopped in his tracks whilst defending an FC Midtylland attack in the UEFA Champions League.

Indeed, Reds fans and players alike wait with bated breath for the severity of the injury. It is almost certain they will be without Fabinho for at least the weekends visit of West Ham to Anfield.

Central defender Joel Matip also remains side-lined, leaving Jurgen Klopp with just one senior central defender – Joe Gomez.

So how can the Premier League champions cope with such flimsy numbers? I’ve had a look at the options…

Youngsters

Tuesday night saw 19-year-old Rhys Williams play out the remaining hour, and in doing so the powerful looking teenager looked comfortable as he helped the Reds to a clean sheet.

Williams seems most likely to start on Saturday in the absence of Fabinho, although Nat Phillips will be pushing for a place after he spent the 2019/20 campaign season playing senior football for Stuttgart in the German Bundesliga 2.

Versatility

Fabinho himself was operating out of position when his injury came and there is a chance captain Jordan Henderson could be asked to do the same after playing in the role during the FIFA World Club Cup last term.

Missing Henderson’s influence in midfield, however, may be too much of a blow to Klopp’s side.

Should James Milner, Thiago, Naby Keita and Gini Wijnaldum all be fit and available, there is certainly scope for Henderson to drop back into centre-half temporarily.

Time

Albeit an obvious huge blow to Liverpool, and indeed their title chances, with an impended international break and with football a little all over the place at the moment, there is hope the Reds could make it to January without suffering too much damage to their hopes.

In January they would at least have the option of signing reinforcements, with many names linked with the club. The likes of Dayot Upamecano, Ben White and Ozan Kabak to name just a few.

In the mean time Klopp, fans and teammates will be hoping Fabinho’s injury isn’t serious, Matip can get run of fitness, and Rhys Williams can deputise successfully. All of this while not dropping too many points along the way, which with a trip to rivals Manchester City on the horizon, may be easier said than done.

NO VIRGIL, NO TITLE?

With Liverpool’s central defensive colossal Virgil van Dijk likely to miss the remainder of the 2020/21 season following a frankly hideous knee high challenge from Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford.

After scans and a trip to the specialist confirmed the centre-back had suffered damage to his ACL, the Reds chances of back to back Premier League titles have taken a huge blow.

But does the absence of the Dutchman mean Jurgen Klopp’s men cannot defend their crown?

Here’s the reasons for and against Liverpool being able to challenge without their main man.

Against

Virgil van Dijk has undoubtedly been a major contributing factor to the recent success at Anfield. Since his arrival from Southampton in January 2018 the 29 year old has been almost a constant at the heart of the Reds defence, stopping almost all comers and solidifying a previously shaky backline.

The Netherlands captain hasn’t just brought clean sheets and the occasional towering headed goal to Klopp’s side, he has been instrumental in bringing the sixth UEFA Champions League, UEFA Super Cup, FIFA Club World Cup, and the much sought after Premier League title back to Anfield for the first time in 30 years.

His absence leaves Klopp with only Joe Gomez and Joel Matip as available out and out centre-backs, with Fabinho a willing and able deputy. As well as youngsters Billy Koumetio and Rhys Williams, who despite their obvious talents, are someway off being ready for Premier League action right now.

Clearly a huge concern for the Reds who have already shipped seven goals away to Aston Villa this term, with van Dijk in the side. Surely a team who have been so reliant on the Dutchman, who has barely missed a minute’s action since he arrived on Merseyside, can’t cope without him?

For

Despite the obvious hole left in the middle of the defence not only in terms of ability, but also leadership and organisationally, in a league campaign which to date has seen goals aplenty, Liverpool certainly have the firepower to cut it with the rest, and could well adopt a more pragmatic defensive approach with their remaining options, whilst going all out attack at the other end.

The Liverpool squad, whilst now low on defensive numbers, has the midfield quality to both shore up a match as well as attacking one, something which could prove pivotal whilst VVD sits out.

Another interesting plot twist could be the almost impending January transfer window. Previously the club have been reluctant to spend big without securing the finances, however, given the nature of the loss and the situation, their hand could well be forced.

Providing Klopp’s men are still within touching distance of any title race, the German boss could well be on the lookout for a big name centre-half in the mid-season window. This was most likely something that was expected to wait until next summer, however, these plans will almost certainly now be accelerated. A shrewd acquisition getting the second half of the season under his belt and a returning to full health van Dijk could well bode well for future seasons.

There is, however, some good news for the Red half of Merseyside with the impending return of their number one keeper Alisson Becker in the next week or so. The Brazilian was initially expected to be out for six to eight weeks, but it turns out he could now make an earlier than planned comeback. This will almost certainly help sure up the Premier League Champions at times shaky back line.

One final point to make for Liverpool still being capable of retaining their title is the current shape of the league. As things stand it doesn’t seem as though any potential winners will need to acquire 90+ points like they have in recent seasons, Man City with 98 in 2018/19 and Liverpool with 99 last term for example. Instead it seems this year the league could be won with far fewer points, pointing towards a level of consistency lower than we’ve seen previously – whilst Liverpool had a healthy Virgil van Dijk.

Ultimately time will of course tell and there’s no doubting the magnitude of the loss, however, there remains hope Liverpool could still mount a serous title challenge, and in truth perhaps even still run out comfortable winners. But it’s been made far harder with the absence of one of the best around over the last few seasons.

Liverpool v Arsenal preview

Liverpool welcome Arsenal to Anfield on Monday for the first of two clashes inside four days.

The first one will perhaps be seen as the more important fixture as the pair do battle in the Premier League looking to maintain their 100% starts to the 2020/21 campaign.

The two teams meet again on Thursday in the Carabao Cup fourth round in what is likely to be an encounter between tow much changed teams.

The Preview

Mikel Arteta and Jurgen Klopp are becoming regular acquaintances since the Spaniard took charge at the Emirates, with the managers meeting recently in both the league and the Community Shield.

Arteta came out on top of both outings and will be hopeful of his sides’ chances of completing a hat-trick of victories over the champions.

However, Klopp’s Reds were almost back to their imperious best last week as they overcame Chelsea thanks to a Sadio Mane masterclass. Bolstered by the arrivals of Thiago Alcantara from Bayern Munich and Diogo Jota from Wolves in the last fortnight, signings that have only further strengthened the German manager’s options.

Team News

Liverpool will be without their talismanic captain Jordan Henderson who misses the match with a knee injury. They do welcome back Joe Gomez to the reckoning after a short spell in the sidelines.

Arsenal are hopeful of having their own Scottish left-back fit and available as Kieran Tierney recovers from an injury absence. The Gunners do have a host of injuries to squad players.

The Match

Arsenal have had a confidence-boosting few months and will come into this match buoyed by their recent results, however, they should be wary of overplaying as they come up against a side determined to both retain their title as well as attack multiple other honours.

Prediction

Liverpool 2-1 Arsenal

Details

Liverpool v Arsenal, Anfield, Monday 8.00pm, Sky Sports