SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – The international break is over and we switch our focus back to round nine in the English Premier League.
With multiple injuries and positive COVID-19 tests, teams are starting to use their entire squads and as the only top league in Europe to revert back to three substitutions rather than keeping the five substitution rule, we’re seeing fatigue injuries like we’ve never seen before. There is hope that this decision will be revisited as the Championship (the tier below the EPL) agreed upon and will implement five substitutions moving forward from this Friday.
On top of this, the round of COVID-19 testing last week for players and staff returned 16 positive tests.
On to the task at hand … there are some absolute crackers this weekend when it comes to matchups.
Tottenham Hotspur v. Manchester City
Your KSL 5 premiere match came up trumps with this battle that kicks off 10:30 a.m. on Saturday.
Spurs have designs to take the next step in their quest for glory and silverware. Starved of success in recent history where they have been firmly pushed into the shadows of London rivals Arsenal and Chelsea, they now have their neighbors paying attention.
The new stadium is attractive and a home worthy of aspiring champions. They have, in Jose Mourinho, a manager that has been there and done it. The ability to get his teams to win beautifully, but more often than not, able to get every drop of grittiness out of his squads and win ugly when it counts, a sign of serial winners. We’ve seen both examples of this so far, and this is also the first season that Mourinho has been able to get his claws into the squad and make it his.
There is a confidence about Spurs that has been missing in years past, an air of focus that they are legitimate top-four challengers, and maybe even a title run. The squad is as deep as I can remember a Spurs team ever being, and the attacking talent available is hugely impressive. There is a balance that is allowing them to attack with such speed and power, that, if they continue in this fashion they will raise eyebrows and have both Liverpool and their Saturday opponent, Man City, looking over their shoulders over the course of the season (yes I know the Reds and City aren’t ahead in the table). Son Heung-min and Harry Kane have had an absolutely blistering start to the season, netting 15 goals and supplying 10 assists between the pair.
Man City got a huge boost this week. Manager Pep Guardiola signed a two-year extension to keep him at the Citizens until the summer of 2023. With that uncertainty out of the way, might we see a more consistent City?
They were excellent in the match up with Liverpool right before the international break. The match ended 1-1 in a thoroughly entertaining first 45 minutes, only for both teams to run out of steam as the second 45 minutes wore on. In truth, we’ve already seen flashes of City’s brilliance this season, and a large part of them looks promising as the season goes on with the arrival of Ruben Dias, a more than suitable partner it seems for standout center back Aymeric Laporte. Pep, for all the money spent on the squad, seems to have finally found his left-back as well, Joao Cancelo. Arriving last season and taking a bit of time to settle, we are now seeing a more resolute backline and the defensive performances are proof of this. Marshaling behind them is the excellent Ederson in goal. Coming up against City and how an opponent adapts to their style is always an indicator if you are a true top side, and Spurs haven’t faced this style so far this season.
We also haven’t mentioned that arguably the best playing in the EPL could well be on show, in Kevin De Bruyne. The Belgian international will once again be at the heart of the midfield and attacking intent, pulling the strings and dictating the pace of play, and looking to unleash the myriad of attackers in front of him, whoever that may be.
This one will be a close affair, but some of the soccer we’ll see will be of the highest standard. Mourinho is as good as any coach when it comes to picking and choosing battles, and don’t be surprised if he tries to take the sting out of the game and make his Spurs difficult to break down and then hit on the counter-attack.
I’m really looking forward to this one, but I have to give the slight edge to City. Their desire to close last season’s gap on the title might just give them the edge.
Prediction: City will come into London looking to prove a point, and whilst they won’t have things go their own way, I think just that added bit of play making ability from their midfield will ensure all three points go to City.
Liverpool v. Leicester City
Another exciting matchup for league leaders, Leicester City, visiting the home of the reigning champions Liverpool. You can catch this fixture on Sunday with a 12:15 p.m. kick-off, on NBCSN. This has the makings of a good encounter. Both teams trying to play attractive football, but both teams nursing some injuries throughout their squads.
Liverpool has been okay this season. After the thumping loss to Villa and then the big injury loss of Virgil Van Djik for the season, the Reds have slightly tweaked the way they line up formation wise, moving from the tried and trusted 4-3-3 to a variation of 4-2-3-1 and 4-2-4. They set up well against City in the last match and deserved a point but since then they’ve also lost Joe Gomez, potentially for the season. This loss has recreated what was previously the basic likely addition of a new center-back in January, to now desperately needing a new center-back in January.
As always though, the attack will be Liverpool’s focus. Mohamed Salah will miss out because of a positive COVID test while he was on international duty. But the likes of Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino will provide plenty of normalcy upfront, and the arrival of Diogo Jota will help with the loss of Salah. Then there is Shaqiri who has made a valuable impression, and his decision to not leave in the summer has paid off, not only for himself but for Jurgen Klopp. Not known for his goal return at Liverpool, his main role has been to make an impact off the bench, and open up the stubborn deeply lying defenses.
Leicester has been very good so far, and the arrival of Wesley Fofana from St. Etienne has made their defensive play more mobile. Adapting to the EPL is tough, adapting almost faultlessly and immediately is another thing entirely, yet the 19-year-old has done just that.
I’m intrigued to see this Leicester team fully fit. Their 3-4-2-1 formation is paying off, adding the wing-backs in their role of working hard on both sides of the ball; and then having two attacking midfielders behind Jamie Vardy has given them a license to express themselves a little more centrally. What can we say about Jamie Vardy? At 33, he has eight goals on the season so far, and he’s evergreen. A constant busy and buzzing menace who talks to his markers to get under their skin. Yet, I still wonder what could have been if he made the jump from Leicester, believe me, there are a few clubs around Europe that would love his services. I believe England still misses him as a central option. Although I understand his reasons to call time on his international career and also his loyalty to the Foxes, the team that gave him everything and took a chance on a non-league player. In short, I think he’s fantastic and the Foxes have done a phenomenal job in building a team around him to use his strengths. Either on the counter-attack or getting the ball to him, in and around the penalty area, where he can isolate himself one on one with a defender.
This really will be a fast-moving and slick game. We might not see the quality we’re used to as both teams struggle with key players being unavailable, but it will be a really good test for both teams, with the Reds trying to adapt to a massive target on their backs as champions, and for the Foxes, can they really be title contenders?
Prediction: With so many key players missing I think a draw is likely, but write off the champions at your peril.
It’s so good to be back, and next week we all get to work off our thanksgiving treats with another full slate of matches. Enjoy the holiday, and make sure you keep safe.