North London derby will be marker for Arsenal

Arsenal aren’t used to looking upwards at Spurs. The Gunners finished above their North London rivals for 22 years in succession before the 2017/18 season, when Spurs broke the trend that had been over two decades in the making.

Indeed, the dynamic of the North London derby has been flipped in recent seasons, with Spurs setting a precedent for Arsenal to aspire to, rather than the other way around. While Mauricio Pochettino has built a team within touching distance of mounting a genuine title challenge, Arsenal have struggled to break into the top four.


The Gunners are in the midst of a revolution, with Unai Emery replacing Arsene Wenger in the summer. This is a long term project that won’t even be judged on what is achieved in the first season under the former Paris Saint-Germain and Sevilla boss. With this in mind, though, Arsenal have already made progress.

While the Gunners may not be good enough to challenge for the title this season, they are back in play for a top four spot. What’s more, Emery has restored Arsenal’s identity as a team. Once again, they are one of the most dynamic, entertaining teams in the Premier League, with the likes of Alexandre Lacazette, Mesut Ozil and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang all in good form.

After two years looking upwards at Spurs, Arsenal might be back on an equal footing with their North London rivals. The two teams are occupying the same section of the Premier League table this season, competing for the same places. That will give this weekend’s derby, the first of the season, a real edge.

In terms of sheer competitiveness, the North London derby might be the Premier League’s fiercest right now. The Manchester derby is a mismatch in its current form, with City streets ahead of United. The Merseyside derby is historically also a mismatch, and even more so at this point, with Liverpool title challengers and Everton only aiming for the top six.

Then there’s the Second City derby, with both Aston Villa and Birmingham City down in the Championship at present. Arsenal and Chelsea is a London derby, and like Arsenal and Spurs, they are competing for the same places this season, but it’s not a rivalry entrenched in history like the North London derby.

For Arsenal, this Sunday’s game will be a real marker for the improvement made, or not made, under Emery. The Gunners have won almost every game they have been expected to win so far this season, but they have lost or drawn to every higher calibre side they have faced. Spurs, at the very least, are a team of equal quality. This weekend’s match could have a real bearing on how this season turns out for both rivals. It will have a symbolic and sporting impact.

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West Ham must manage injuries over festive period

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Like many other Premier League teams, West Ham have an incredibly important period coming up in December, as they prepare to play seven matches in the space of a month. Each of those is seen as realistically winnable, as the Hammers will face: Newcastle United, Cardiff City, Crystal Palace, Fulham, Watford, Southampton and Burnley. However, at a time that is notorious for causing injury, it is vital that Manuel Pellegrini manages the squad well.

The Chilean is already without Andriy Yarmolenko, Ryan Fredericks, Manuel Lanzini and Carlos Sanchez among others. He’ll be boosted by the imminent returns of Andy Carroll and Jack Wilshere, though they will both need to have their game time managed in order to avoid a return to the treatment table.

Among these two, others who should have an eye kept on them are Marko Arnautovic and Pablo Zabaleta. The Hammers’ leading scorer this season has had trouble with his knee in recent weeks, if that were to be aggravated to the point where he can’t play then the Hammers will be without their main threat, with the impact on the team being heightened due to how quickly the fixtures come along.

In the case of Zabaleta, Pellegrini has already claimed that he will be looking to rotate the Argentine, saying that at 33-years-old he shouldn’t be playing that number of games in such a short space of time. With his usual replacement Fredericks suspected to be out until after the New Year, Pellegrini will have to find a suitable replacement for when Zabaleta is rested. Michail Antonio was used at right back by Slaven Bilic which didn’t go down well, so he may not be used. Another option could be Reece Oxford – seemingly down to his last chance to impress in a West Ham shirt- who played at right back multiple times while on loan at Borussia Monchengladbach last season.

There have been times already where a youngster has come in due to injury and ended up impressing enough to keep their place. Declan Rice and Grady Diangana are the two main examples, as they’re currently regular features in the starting line up. This could encourage Pellegrini to use the likes of Oxford, Nathan Holland, Marcus Browne and Joe Powell at certain points during the festive period in order to keep his older and more experienced players injury free.

The manager will of course need to find a balance between keeping players match fit and fielding a strong side. As he has already stated, it is far from guaranteed that the Hammers will win a plethora of games just because they’re avoiding the biggest teams in the league. However, it is important that they do pick up points, as despite being 14th in the table, they currently sit just four points outside the relegation zone. This is arguably the most vital period of Pellegrini’s tenure at West Ham to date, it is also likely to be the most difficult to manage. West Ham’s manager has struggled at times since moving to East London, though it’s imperative that he and his team get things right in December, as if they don’t they could be in trouble.


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Manchester City gear up for busy Christmas period

Pep Guardiola is expected to make changes ahead of Manchester City’s Premier League clash against Bournemouth on Saturday afternoon as the reigning champions enter their Christmas period which includes nine games in December alone.

Gabriel Jesus, Ilkay Gundogan and Bernardo Silva all face a race against time to be declared fit and will undergo a late fitness test while Kevin de Bruyne remains on the sidelines with a knee injury he picked up in early November, with Manchester City’s match against Bournemouth coming too soon for the Belgian. Continue reading

West Ham game crucial on and off the pitch for Newcastle


After months of protests and drumming up support on social media, Newcastle United fans are ready to take a stand. West Ham United are the visitors to St James’ Park on Saturday afternoon, but in a strange way, that is not the main focus of the day on Tyneside.

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Revisiting the Nainggolan deal before Roma-Inter

Last Wednesday I was out to lunch with some work colleagues from my day job at a restaurant by the office. On the big screen TVs they were showing a Champions League preview show where they were discussing the upcoming match between Tottenham and Inter, when it came time to talk about the nerazzurri the main talking points weren’t about Icardi, Skriniar or Perisic but rather Radja Nainggolan.
The Belgian international is a big name both because of his (past) performances on the pitch but also his outsized personality off it so I wasn’t surprised an American TV station would feature him prominently in their pre match previews.
Now how players are rated is obviously subjective, but many who have followed Serie A closely in the past 18 months have seen a player in decline after arguably his best season as a professional when he scored 11 goals in the 2016/17- but because it can take some time for perception to catch up to reality, when Roma sold him to Inter last summer many saw this as a home run for the nerazzurri, especially because they were in theory weakening a rival for a Champions League spot.
But with a third of the season in the books, the deal that involved Nainggolan, Nicolo’ Zaniolo, Davide Santon and €14 million can’t really be considered a success for either side. While Nainggolan scored in his league debut for Inter, he has missed five matches and rarely made an impact- as a matter of fact, after that lofty segment in the pre game show, Nainggolan ended up having to leave the match against Spurs in the first half.
On the Roma side of things, there has been a mixed return when you look at all the layers of the deal. Despite only being 19 years old, Nicolo’ Zaniolo has already started two matches against Real Madrid in the Champions League, he has also been selected by Roberto Mancini for the Azzurri senior squad and has continued to be a valuable player on Di Biagio’s Under 21 team.
While Davide Santon was essentially a throw in the deal for financial reasons since both Roma and Inter structured it in a manner to fit both of their Financial Fair Play restrictions, he has actually been more than adequate when Di Francesco called upon him. I know his mistake against Udinese is fresh on people’s minds, but few expected him to start 5 matches out of 13 and perform well enough to be Roma’s 5th best player on WhoScored.
While Zaniolo and Santon have so far performed better than expected, the player Roma reinvested most of the Nainggolan money on (and his salary slot) has struggled to stay healthy- of course that comes with the territory with Javier Pastore. But despite being one of the highest paid players on the team, the Argentine is now behind Lorenzo Pellegrini in the trequartista role.
The decline in Nainggolan’s performances on the pitch wasn’t the only reason Roma wanted to move on from him. The giallorossi’s plan is to rebuild around numerous young players- in addition to Zaniolo, Monchi also acquired Cristante, Coric and Kluivert to go with Under and Schick- they believed that having a wild spirit like Nainggolan wouldn’t allow them to develop them properly.
But while Roma is probably glad they don’t have their top young prospects sharing a locker room with someone who freely admits to drinking and smoking and who enjoys the night life, the team clearly misses his grit, determination and experience- all attributes that Di Francesco has pointed out as lacking especially when the team falls behind in matches.
While Roma is banking on the fact that Nicolo’ Zaniolo will become a star and Inter is hoping Nainggolan will finally get healthy (in the meantime he’s out for the game against his former team this weekend) and perform like he did for Spalletti a few years ago, it’s not out of the question that the biggest benefit this deal will bring to both clubs is the relief from Financial Fair Play they received based on how the deal was structured.
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West Ham face season-defining trip to Newcastle

West Ham are level on points with Newcastle – their opponents this Saturday – and only four points above the bottom three. There has been plenty to be positive about as a Hammer of late, yet the table does not make happy reading.

If results go against them, West Ham could be precariously positioned above the relegation zone by Monday. Manuel Pellegrini’s team are not exactly cut adrift, though they are already six points off the top half. They are closer to 20th then they are 10th.

This is not the group of teams the Hammers were meant to be in. Sure, it’s early and a couple of results can flip it all on its head, but this is a disappointing start. A favourable run of fixtures up to Christmas are an opportunity to turn this around – they do not face a top six side until they play Arsenal on 12th January.

Having drawn away to Huddersfield and been thrashed by Manchester City, Saturday’s clash with Newcastle is a big one. A win against the resurgent Magpies would set the tone for December. A defeat or poor performance would increase the pressure for the upcoming visits of Cardiff and Crystal Palace.

The Hammers might not be at relegation threat in the minds of many. Their performances and quality in the final third make that understandable, though they will be in as much trouble as anyone if December does not start as hoped. Their contest with Rafael Benitez’s side could be a turning point for Pellegrini’s men.

Newcastle have put together three straight one-goal victories. They have ridden their luck in each match, but this is kind of what we expect from them. Benitez was always going to find a way to pick up points. In contrast, West Ham have perhaps not quite got the results that their displays have warranted. Taking just one point from trips to Brighton and Huddersfield was a disappointment.

For all the fun of Marko Arnautovic and Felipe Anderson, West Ham lack guile at times. Arnautovic needs service and too often he has to live off scraps from Pedro Obiang, Declan Rice and Mark Noble. They had a tonne of possession against Brighton and Huddersfield and, while they created chances, they should have done more with the amount of the game they had.

Newcastle will follow a similar game plan to their fellow second season teams. Benitez’s side have been far from secure at the back in their last three, but they have been a threat when able to transition quickly. Salomon Rondon holds the ball up and links play well, while Matt Ritchie and Kenedy are capable of causing problems down the flanks.

This is going to be a test for West Ham. Winning on the break like they did against Everton and Manchester United is one thing, but they still have to prove they can beat teams who will sit deeper and let them have possession. If Pellegrini is to take the club to the top-half/top-eight promised land, these are matches West Ham need to make a habit of winning.

The coming weeks will give us a clear idea of what West Ham are this season. How they get on at St James’ Park might just pick their path for the rest of 2018.

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Allegri’s presser ahead of the Fiorentina clash

Juventus Press Conference

Massimiliano Allegri previewed today the Fiorentina tilt: “We will have to play well because the matches in Florence never end. Their squad will be pushed by the entire city, they will be fierce and will try everything to beat us. The first three teams will all play on the road in this round. It is not a trap game, but certainly a difficult one.”

On the midfield: “Rodrigo Bentancur still has some energy in him and will start, then we will evaluate the conditions of Miralem Pjanic and Blaise Matuidi. Juan Cuadrado could be used there, but we will see where they are at physically. Wednesday’s bout was intense and draining, we need mental and physical energies.” Continue reading

Will Mourinho last the season as Man Utd manager?

For a short while it looked – on paper at least – as though Manchester United had recovered from their poor start to the new season and Jose Mourinho was back on track. Wins in tricky matches, such as the 2-1 at Bournemouth before the international break and a 2-1 win in Turin against Juventus, had the hallmarks of vintage Mourinho.

Successive league games without victory, along with a wholly unconvincing last-minute win against Young Boys, has reopened the debate. It should never have been closed.

Mourinho’s complaints against his own players and general hostility in the media have long portrayed a man desperately trying to preserve his own image rather than protect the club or its players. A few wins should not have stopped pundits from questioning his methods and certainly should not have made anyone assume the Portuguese had the support of the United players.

Even when winning United have been unconvincing, their performances coming in bursts of quality or emotional comebacks – a sure sign the players are not being coached effectively. There is far too much volatility within each 90 minutes for the dressing room to be feeling genuinely affectionate towards their manager. And why should they? Mourinho has thrown his players under the bus countless times over the last two years with no clear game plan. It hasn’t worked.

Man Utd are lucky to be as high as seventh in the Premier League table. Having started matches so poorly and rarely (if ever this season) looking like the better team, it was only poor opposition finishing that prevented them from losing several matches they ultimately won – including Bournemouth, Watford, Everton, and Leicester. It is simply good luck that separates their points tally this season from Chelsea’s abysmal points tally in 2015/16.

But this is a results business – and Manchester United is increasingly little more than a business. The owners won’t care about performances until it begins to affect their commercial revenue, which is why Mourinho’s tediously dull football is tolerated – for now. Surely eventually, and sooner rather than later, the monotony of their football matches will impact how the club is viewed globally, negatively affecting their commercial interests.

That’s the main reason why pundits assume Mourinho won’t last beyond the current campaign, something the manager also seems to think (judging by his self-preservation tactics after every United game). However, it is certainly possible Ed Woodward will pull the trigger much sooner.

United currently sit seven points off the Champions League places. That is the one fact that Woodward will not be able to ignore. Mourinho would be due a huge compensation package should he be sacked this season, and yet this financial loss pales in comparison to the money they would lose from failing to qualify for Europe’s premier competition. Money governs everything United do these days – and Mourinho could be about to cost them tens of millions.

Anything less than victory at Southampton will pile the pressure on Mourinho and onto Woodward to act. Should the gap between United and the top four widen between now and Christmas then it seems unlikely Mourinho will last the whole season.

There are lots of people at Man Utd to blame for the malaise since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, and yet Mourinho must take the brunt for a dreadfully dull couple of years at Old Trafford. His time is surely coming to an end.

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Klopp can improve Liverpool by giving Firmino a new role

The final score made it look as though Liverpool had comfortably beaten Watford last weekend at Vicarage Road, but in fact the game could easily have swung the other way on another strangely stilted, nervy day for Jurgen Klopp’s side. The transition from blood-and-thunder counter-pressing football to a more cautious possession approach has not been an easy one, and indeed Watford were comfortable for long periods on Saturday.

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Serie A Probable Lineups – Round 14



SPAL XI: 3-5-2 Gomis; Cionek, Vicari, Felipe; Lazzari, Missiroli, Schiattarella, Kurtic, Fares; Antenucci, Petagna.

Potential lineup changes: Djourou for Vicari, Costa for Fares, Paloschi for Petagna.

Questionable: Vicari (thigh),

Ruled Out: Simic (ankle).


Empoli XI: 3-5-2 Provedel; Veseli, Silvestre, Maietta; Di Lorenzo, Acquah, Bennacer, Krunic, Pasqual; La Gumina, Caputo.   Continue reading