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English Premier League Preview: Manchester United vs. Arsenal and more

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Injury and fitness concerns reign supreme as the Premier League returns to action this week following the international break that saw many of its stars pick up knocks.

The finest action of the weekend takes place in Manchester, where United will be without the sevices of Zlatan Ibrahimovic who will serve a one-match suspension for yellow-card accumulation. They’ll take on a fourth-place Arsenal dealing with a laundry list of their own absentees. One player not on that list would appear to be Alexis Sanchez, who played through injury for Chile over the break and maintains that he will be fit for Saturday morning’s match. Arsene Wenger was far less pleased with Chile’s decision to play Sanchez, making it known that he believed the decision was irresponsible and dangerous. Arsenal will hope to assauge their manager’s worries by continuing their top-of-the-table assault, while his rival, Jose Mourinho, seeks to drag his team back into contention.

Both United and Arsenal are chasing their Merseyside leaders, Liverpool, who return to action on Saturday as well, taking on the mid-table Saints of Southampton. The Reds had plenty of international action of their own, with Phillip Coutinho and Roberto Firmino featuring for Brazil in two stunningly strong wins over Argentina and Peru. Both are facing fitness concerns, having only returned to England on Thursday, but will likely play. Southampton remain without the services of Shane Long, but Fraser Forster and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg should both be fit and active despite picking up knocks during international play. The bad news for Liverpool comes in the potential absence of Adam Lallana, who was forced off in the first half of England’s match against Spain and may miss Saturday’s match when the Reds seek to maintain their grip on the top spot.

While Liverpool attempts to stake their claim to the throne, Chelsea will be attempting to overthrow them as they visit Middlesbrough over the weekend. Both Diego Costa and Eden Hazard picked up knocks for Spain and Belgium respectively, but both are expected to play, though their exact fitness level remains unknown. George Friend is a doubt after picking up an injury during training for Boro, but good news as well, as Gaston Ramirez returns from his one match suspension for the hosts.

Here’s a closer look at all of this weekend’s Premier League action:

GAMES TO WATCH

Manchester United (18 points) vs. Arsenal (24 points), Saturday, 7:30 a.m., NBCSN

Injuries of note: The key absence for Manchester United comes not via injury, but suspension, as Zlatan Ibrahimovic will sit for one match after picking up his fifth booking of the season against Swansea City. Eric Bailly and Antoni Valencia remain sidelines with injuries, with Marouane Fellaini doubtful as well. Chris Smalling and Luke shaw remained in Manchester to recover during the international break, and their status remains up in the air as well. Arsenal had some doubts over the fitness of Alexis Sanchez, but the star forward appears to be ready to go. That being said, Arsenal will be lacking Hector Bellerin, Santi Carzola, Per Mertesacker, and Danny Welbeck in a star-studded absentee list.

Key to the game: Which team can better deal with their high-profile absentees? With the Gunners lacking what appears to be an all-star team of injured players, and with United missing the Zlatan Ibrahimovic, it’s difficult to say who will adjust better to their lineup changes. The difference seems to focus on just how healthy Sanchez will be for Arsenal, but perhaps it won’t be as impactful as usual with United potentially missing what is essentially their entire backline. All of this, of course, precludes the true storyline, which is another match in the famed rivalry of Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger.

Player to watch: The key turning point of the match could focus around the health of Chilean star forward Alexis Sanchez. After playing while injured over the international break, much to Arsene Wenger’s displeasure, Sanchez maintains that he is fit enough to appear on Saturday for the Gunners, but how healthy will he be? An in-form, fit Sanchez could be the difference between an Arsenal victory or defeat, and any signs that he is lagging will surely be pounced on by United’s back line.

Quote: “You know, we didn’t lose always. We have beaten them and there were many draws as well.” said Wenger of the rivalry between himself and Mourinho. “I think I have won against every manager in the world during my 20 years here and I do not make of this game a competition between two managers. It’s between two clubs and two teams and I think I can understand that people want to create controversy, but it’s not that that makes the audience. What will make the audience is the quality of the game.”

Southampton (13 points) vs. Liverpool (26 points), Saturday, 10:00 a.m., NBCSN

Injuries of note: The big note for Liverpool is the health of Adam Lallana, who picked up a knock in England duty over the international break. He’ll be assessed by the Liverpool medical team before manager Jurgen Klopp makes a decision on his status. Also up for question is the status of Phillip Coutinho and Roberto Firmino, both of whom return from Brazil duty only on Thursday. Additionally, while Joe Gomez continues to progress in his recovery, Klopp has stated he prefers to take it slow with the 19 year-old and allow him to fully recover. For Southampton, both Fraser Forster and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg will be available after picking up knocks in international duty, and further good news comes in the form of Cedric, who is expected to return from injury. The Saints will, however, be without Shane Long and Matt Targett, both of whom have been ruled out.

Key to the game: The fitness of the returning internationals. With multiple players having picked up knocks in service of their countries on both sides, fitness concerns reign supreme in determining the outcome of this Saturday morning clash. Most affected players are expected to be available, with all but Lallana listed as likely to play this weekend. Lallana himself has returned to Liverpool and will have a scan done to determine the seriousness of his injury during the first half of England’s match against Spain.

Player to watch: Phillip Coutinho had a stellar break with Brazil, who thumped their opposition en route to two fantastic victories over Argentina and Peru. Liverpool will certainly hope his goalscoring form continues in his return to club, and doubly so that after arriving back in England on Thursday, he’ll be fit enough to play this weekend. It seems unlikely that a dedicated Coutinho will miss the match, and so Southampton will have to find some way to stop the diminutive midfielder.

Quote: “Always after an international break the games are important, but of course against Liverpool it’s special because they sit first in the table,” Saints manager Claude Puel said. “It will be interesting of course to make a good game and to try to win this game. It’s a very strong team, with great players and a good trainer. They are full of confidence because of the good results, but I think we can battle with them. As a collective, and with good spirit and quality on the pitch, we can do well.”

Middlesbrough (11 points) vs. Chelsea (25 points), Sunday, 11 a.m., NBCSN

Injuries of note: The big injury news comes on Chelsea’s side of things, and in a positive light too. After being forced to withdraw from the Spain squad over the international break with a groin issue, Diego Costa has made good progress in his recovery and is expected to be fit enough to face Middlesbrough on Sunday. More good news followed, as Eden Hazard was declared fit as well despite being removed from Belgium’s victory over Luxembourg as a precaution over the break. For Middlesbrough, George Friend is a doubt after picking up an injury during training. But good news as well, as Gaston Ramirez is set to return following his one match suspension.

Key to the game: Fitness seems to be the trend of the week, as it often is during the middle parts of the season. This week, the focus for Chelsea will be on the health of Diego Costa and Eden Hazard, both of whom left their national teams due to injury concerns. Both are set to play, but their level of fitness may be in question, particularly in the case of Costa and his groin. With either or perhaps both a bit laggard, could the door be open for Boro to snatch points away from the hottest team in the league?

Player to watch: Diego Costa reigns supreme here as well. The Spanish striker has been on his best form so far this season, particularly through Chelsea’s stunning October run that saw them go unbeaten. If they’ll hope to continue that streak through November, the health and ability of Costa will surely be a top priority and determining factor, starting with this week in a difficult away environment.

Quote: “We’re happy if people write us off against teams like this,” said Boro defender Ben Gibson, confident off recently earned points from Arsenal and Manchester City. “It gives us that extra motivation to prove people wrong. The Riverside will be rocking, I have no doubt. It might have taken us a little bit of time to adapt to the Premier League. But now I think we’ve remembered our identity. We’ve been difficult to break down, we’re frustrating teams, and we’re gaining points. Hopefully we can maintain those standards.”

Everton (18 points) vs. Swansea City (5 points), Saturday, 10:00 a.m., NBC Sports Live

Injuries of note: Everton’s absentee concerns begin with a suspension to star midfielder Gareth Barry, who sits one match after accumulating five yellow cards this season. Returning from suspension, however, is Idrissa Gana Gueye, who sat out last match against Chelsea. Leighton Baines and James McCarthy have returned to training, but the extent of their roles remain unclear, while Muhamed Besic and Matthew Pennington will certainly miss the match with long-term knee and hamstring injuries. Swansea City will be bolstered by the return of Jefferson Montero, who returns after injuring his hand against Manchester United before the international break, and could see the return of Nathan Dyer as well, though his exact fitness remains unknown.

Key to the game: How will Everton bounce back from a massive defeat at Chelsea? How will Swansea City turn things around from their current disappointing form. Both teams are coming into the match off negative performances, though Everton remains in much better shape generally speaking. Swansea City have not yet adjusted to life under Bob Bradley and continue their losing ways. They’ll need to break their fall against an Everton side that was absolutely obliterated in a 5-0 loss to Chelsea and could be vulnerable this week.

Player to watch: A split decision between Baines and McCarthy. With both returning to training from their several-month-long injuries, an extended run of play from either could make a big difference to an Everton team low on confidence. This goes doubly so for Baines, as the back line was simply tortured in their last match against Chelsea and his return could provide a stabilizing effect.

Quote: “Romelu Lukaku is a top player. He is physical and he can score all kinds of goals.” said Swansea leader Bob Bradley. “We have to be aware of what kind of chances he lives off, and we also have to be aware of Everton on the counter-attack. They are a talented team – as well as Lukaku you have (Yannick) Bolasie, (Kevin) Mirallas and (Ross) Barkley. The two full-backs also get forward well, especially (Seamus) Coleman.”

Crystal Palace (11 points) vs. Manchester City (24 points), Saturday, 10 a.m., NBC Sports Live

Injuries of note: Crystal Palace lead the injury news with their fair share of missing pieces. Loic Remy, Jonathan Benteke, and Pape Souare are all confirmed to be out injured for the match against Manchester City, not an insigificant amount of talent to replace. Manchester City, meanwhile, will be bolstered by the return of Bacary Sagna from his extended injury absence after picking up a hamstring knock during France’s victory over Bulgaria in October. In other international news, Sergio Aguero played just one half for Argentina over the break, leaving him fit and well-rested for Saturday’s match, bad news for Palace.

Key to the game: City enter as heavy favorites, just two points off leaders Liverpool with Crystal Palace lounging near the relegation zone. But City have struggled of late, earning only five points from their past five matches, including draws to Middlesbrough and Southampton at home, which indicates their vulnerability to teams determined to defend strongly. They’ll need Aguero to really return to top form in order to break through their poor run of results and earn a win in London this weekend.

Player to watch: While Aguero is certainly an impactful force any time he’s on the field, the return of Bacary Sagna to the City XI could be just as important. While City haven’t been awful defensively, they have allowed goals at home to Middlesbrough and Southampton recently, not exactly attacking powerhouses of the league. If Sagna can stabilize the back four while Aguero forces the issue in attack, City should be just fine.

Quote: “They are very strong and have very good wingers so they will believe they can win this game.” said City striker Kelechi Iheanacho. “We have to be careful, respect them and expect this to be a very difficult match. Crystal Palace will always be a special game for me because I scored my first goal against them and if I play on Saturday, I hope to score another against them.”

Sunderland (5 points) vs. Hull City (10 points), Saturday, 10 a.m., NBC Sports Live

Watford (15 points) vs. Leicester City (12 points), Saturday, 10 a.m., NBC Sports Live

Stoke City (13 points) vs. Bournemouth (12 points), Saturday, 10 a.m., NBC Sports Live

Tottenham (21 points) vs. West Ham (11 points), Saturday, 12:30 p.m., NBC Sports Live

West Brom (13 points) vs. Burnley (14 points), Monday, 3:00 p.m., NBCSN

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