Monday, Jun 27, 2022

EPL 2018-19, Round 13 Preview: Blockbuster Saturday Before Busy December Kicks In

Defending champions and leaders City will travel to West Ham while title contenders and second placed Liverpool visit Watford.

EPL 2018-19, Round 13 Preview: Blockbuster Saturday Before Busy December Kicks In
| File Photo
EPL 2018-19, Round 13 Preview: Blockbuster Saturday Before Busy December Kicks In

The top four teams will feature in blockbuster Saturday fixtures, including a London derby between third and fourth place teams Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur, before the English Premier League teams welcome busy December.

In six simultaneous kick-offs, defending champions and leaders Manchester City will travel to West Ham United while title contenders and second placed Liverpool visit Watford even as Manchester United host Crystal Palace. In other matches, Brighton play host to tragedy stricken Leicester City, while Fulham host Southampton with all the matches starting 8:30 PM IST, except the Wembley Stadium match, which starts at 11 PM IST.

West Ham vs Manchester City Preview

Pep Guardiola faces Manuel Pellegrini -- his predecessor as Manchester City manager -- this weekend with his defending Premier League champions on course to smash even more records.

While City go to West Ham with only a two-point lead at the top of the table, Guardiola's side has nevertheless looked even more impressive than they were 12 months ago. The statistics bear out that analysis, with City averaging exactly three goals per game and on course to better last season's Premier League records of 100 points and 106 goals for the whole campaign.

In that context, perhaps the fact that Guardiola this week claimed he is a better manager now than at any stage of his career with previous clubs Barcelona and Bayern Munich should not have come as a surprise.

Pellegrini, who spent three years in charge of City and won a league title and two League Cups in that period, will doubtless agree with Guardiola's assessment about the difficulty of succeeding in the English game.

The 65-year-old Chilean's meeting with Guardiola may also be slightly awkward given recent allegations in the Football Leaks reports. German newspaper Der Spiegel reported a claim that Guardiola had actually signed a contract to manage City in October 2015 even though the club did not announce his appointment until February 2016.

Since he took over for the 2016-17 season, Guardiola has led City to new heights, signing an extended contract with the club in May worth a reported USD 26 million a year that will keep him at the Etihad Stadium until the summer of 2021.

Guardiola has more mundane concerns ahead of the meeting with Pellegrini's side, with left-back Benjamin Mendy having been ruled out for several weeks after undergoing knee surgery.

With the Frenchman out, Fabian Delph, who captained England from midfield this week, is the likely replacement, having performed that role superbly for much of last season.

But the more pressing concern is influential playmaker Bernardo Silva, who left the Portuguese national squad this week with an unspecified injury. Bernardo has blossomed in the absence of another injury victim, Kevin De Bruyne, and his loss could prove problematic for Guardiola. City were awaiting medical reports on the Portuguese midfielder before taking a decision on team selection.

Watford vs Liverpool Preview

Jurgen Klopp is convinced that Liverpool are a stronger team now than they were a year ago but the next week promises to test that theory to the limit. Klopp's side face a trip to seventh-placed Watford, followed by a critical Champions League visit to Paris Saint-Germain and a Merseyside derby at home to neighbours Everton.

By the end of that run of fixtures, it will be a little clearer as to whether Liverpool have what it takes to maintain a challenge for domestic and European titles this season.

Defeat in Paris on Wednesday would leave Liverpool -- Champions League finalists in May -- in grave danger of going out, although a victory would see them through to the knockout stages with a game to spare.

Liverpool's squad looks stronger than it did last season, and they have eight more Premier League points than at this stage of the campaign 12 months ago. But few would claim they are playing as fluently as they did in their best periods in 2017-18.

Roberto Firmino is not performing as well as he did last season and the midfield has so far been inconsistent, not helped by the summer loss of Emre Can to Juventus and the delays in adjusting to English football experienced by new signings Fabinho and Naby Keita.

Liverpool are also missing the creativity of Philippe Coutinho, sold to Barcelona in January, as well as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who is recovering from a long-term knee injury.

Bedding down a consistent midfield is will be crucial to Liverpool maintain a European challenge -- the trio of James Milner, Georginio Wijnaldum and Adam Lallana were found wanting in the defeat to Red Star so the return of Jordan Henderson from a hamstring injury has come at a good time for Klopp.

At the back meanwhile, Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez have formed a fine understanding in front of goalkeeper Alisson Becker.

Manchester United vs Crystal Palace Preview

Marcus Rashford has proved with England that he has all the qualities required to be a consistent attacking threat -- but his task now is to replicate that form for Manchester United.

Rashford impressed as England beat Croatia 2-1 last Sunday to secure a place in next June's Nations League Finals, yet there is no guarantee he will start when Manchester United host Crystal Palace.

That is because manager Jose Mourinho is still wrestling with the question of how best to fit Rashford into his team, an issue that does not appear to be a problem at international level.

England manager Gareth Southgate, having switched from the 3-5-2 system he used at the World Cup to a more attacking 4-3-3 set-up, has started to use Rashford on the left of a front three, with Raheem Sterling on the right and Harry Kane in the centre.

It is an approach that is working well for Southgate, with Rashford outstanding as England won 3-2 in Spain last month before using his pace to good effect against Croatia to create danger on the counter-attack.

However, to secure the left-sided attacking role at United, Rashford will need to force his way past Anthony Martial, whose current form is as good as anything he has shown during his three years at Old Trafford.

The France forward has been consistently better that his England rival since the start of last season, with 15 goals to Rashford's nine in the Premier League.

Mourinho has also been impressed with the way Martial has begun to understand better his defensive responsibilities, meaning that Rashford will probably need to find a role elsewhere.

For now, the centre-forward position does not appear to be the answer for Rashford, even though that was where he played initially when making his debut under Louis van Gaal in February 2016.

Rashford has not been a consistent goalscorer in 2018 -- while four goals in 16 England appearances is a decent return, a tally of six in 34 games for United suggests there is room for improvement.

His finishing too often lacks a ruthless touch, so perhaps in the short term his best hope of a regular starting place at United is to prove himself on the right side of the attacking three, a role in which he played when they drew 2-2 at Chelsea in October.

The forward has proved that he has the discipline to stick to his position when playing in a wide role, and is an undoubted threat when cutting in off either flank.Playing in that role could, in turn, give him the regular starts that help to build his 

For while Mourinho has talked repeatedly about the number of games he gives Rashford, the striker has not been able to settle into a role and a large chunk of the forward's appearances have come as a substitute.

There is no doubt, though, that Mourinho rates Rashford, which is why reports this week talking about a potential move to Real Madrid appear unlikely to lead anywhere.

Brighton Vs Leicester City Preview

Leicester City manager Claude Puel says the team must now look to the future following last month's helicopter crash that cost the life of owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha.

Vichai died with four others when his helicopter came down following a 1-1 home draw with West Ham on October 27.

Heartfelt tributes were paid at the club's away match against Cardiff a week after the tragedy before Puel and many of the squad and senior staff flew to Bangkok to attend Vichai's funeral.

They returned for the goalless draw against Burnley at the King Power Stadium on November 10. The players are now back at the club after the international break ahead of Saturday's trip to Brighton and, however hard it will be, Puel wants to focus on the football.

Forward Jamie Vardy is a major doubt for Leicester's trip to the south coast, battling a groin injury he sustained in the draw against Burnley.

The former Premier League champions are currently 10th in the table.

Chelsea vs Tottenham Hotspur Preview

Tottenham will be banking on more Harry Kane heroics at the start of a potentially season-defining week against Chelsea after their talisman fired England to a dramatic last-gasp victory at Wembley.

Kane scored the winner at Tottenham's temporary home last weekend to relegate Croatia in the Nations League and exact some revenge for England's semi-final defeat to the same opponents at the World Cup.

Kane is one of just three Spurs players not to have picked up a muscle injury from Tottenham's 12-strong World Cup contingent, nine of whom were involved on the final weekend of the tournament less than a month before the new season began.

Despite battling fatigue and fitness concerns, added to the uncertainty over when the club's new stadium will be finished, Pochettino has admirably kept Spurs on track for a top-four finish for the fourth straight season.

Maurizio Sarri has rightly earned rave reviews for his 18-game unbeaten start to life as Chelsea boss.

Yet, should Spurs inflict Sarri's first defeat, they will leapfrog Chelsea into third, thanks to their impressive start to the Premier League season.

That run has been built on relentless consistency against the lesser lights of England's top tier. By contrast, Tottenham have been found wanting against better opposition.

Liverpool and Manchester City have already won at Wembley, as have Barcelona in the Champions League to put Spurs' chances of reaching the last 16 in serious danger.

After Chelsea, Pochettino's men must beat Inter Milan in midweek to retain any hope of Champions League progress, before facing Unai Emery's rejuvenated Arsenal for the first time in the North London derby next weekend.

With a good week, Spurs can re-establish themselves as top dogs in London, having finished above both Arsenal and Chelsea for the first time in 23 years last season, and move above Inter into second place in the Champions League Group B.

Pochettino has rightly praised his side's resolve, resilience and spirit in recent weeks, which contrasts so sharply with Spurs sides of the past, recently labelled as "spineless and soft" by former Manchester United captain Gary Neville.

Despite early season concerns over his own post-World Cup fatigue, the England captain  has scored 10 times in 16 club appearances this season and only Sergio Aguero, Eden Hazard and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang have more than Kane's tally of six Premier League goals.

However, when Kane does not score, Spurs struggle. Four of Tottenham's five defeats in all competitions have come when the World Cup's Golden Boot-winner has failed to find the net.

Spurs teammate Erik Lamela said earlier this season that Kane could not shoulder the goalscoring burden alone, adding: "All the attacking players need to score."

In stretching every sinew to turn home the winner as time was running out last Sunday, Kane sparked scenes of wild celebration that Southgate said he had not witnessed since Wembley reopened more than a decade ago.

Now his club needs more moments of Wembley magic to keep them afloat before they can settle into the comforts of a new home.

(With AFP inputs)


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