2018-19 EPL Match Day 23 Preview — Arsenal (12-5-5) vs. Chelsea (14-5-3)

Potential players comings and goings are all the talk ahead of Saturday’s mouth-watering London derby at the Emirates between top-five sides Chelsea and Arsenal.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

For fourth-place Chelsea (14-5-3), the rumours are that Gonzalo Higuain could be available for this match if the Pensioners are able to formally complete a loan deal with AC Milan and register him before the 12 p.m. Friday deadline.

If the signing goes through as expected, it would be a reunion of the Argentina international and coach Maurizio Sarri – their one season together at Napoli in 2015-16 resulted in Higuain scoring 36 goals in 35 league matches. That haul matched Gino Rosetti’s mark for most goals in the Italian top flight set in 1928-29 as Napoli finished runners-up to Juventus.

Higuain moved to Juventus in 2016 and totaled 40 goals in 73 league matches to help the Bianconeri win the scudetto each of the last two years. With the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo at Juventus this season, the 31-year-old Higuain was surplus to goods and loaned to AC Milan, where he has six goals in 15 Serie A contests and eight in 22 overall.

With Higuain’s arrival comes the expected departure of Alvaro Morata, who has similar numbers – nine goals in 23 matches in all competitions – to the Argentine but has never truly found a comfort level in Sarri’s 4-3-3 formation.

Morata’s likely move back to Spain – Atletico Madrid is reportedly his destination – would leave Higuain and Olivier Giroud as Chelsea’s lone centre-forwards, a position where Sarri has not had more than two players all season while also using Eden Hazard in that role as a false nine.

In the event Higuain is not registered in time for this match, he would likely make his Chelsea debut Thursday in the second-leg semifinals of the Carabao Cup at Stamford Bridge where the Pensioners will attempt to overturn a 1-0 deficit to Tottenham Hotspur.

Less than 13 kilometres to the north, the talk regarding Arsenal (12-5-5) again centers around Mesut Ozil. The former Germany international has been working his way back from an injury, but there have been times first-year manager Unai Emery has opted not to use Ozil, citing “matchups.”

Ahead of a match which could all but scuttle any chance of a top-four finish for the Gunners – a loss would leave them nine points adrift of Chelsea – Emery continued to be non-committal on what the midfielder’s role would be if he had one.

“I like to create the same spirit for all, and that spirit is every player gets and gives consistent work and moments with their performances but it’s not easy,” Emery told Arsenal’s official website about whether the whole Ozil saga is frustrating. “Sometimes you are better and sometimes you are worse. The most important thing for me is how he can helps us and how every player can help us with their consistency.”

Emery downplayed talk of Ozil potentially leaving in the January window but also did not commit to having him on the roster for the derby, simply saying that “after these two weeks maybe this Saturday will be okay for him.”

On the pitch, the Gunners seemed to be in need of Ozil considering their lack of playmaking options in a 1-0 loss at derby rival West Ham United. The lack of creativity was made all the more glaring as one-time Arsenal midfielder Samir Nasri provided the cross for Declan Rice’s 48th-minute goal that proved decisive.

Aaron Ramsey tried to make something in his minutes as a substitute – Emery’s decision to drop him from the first XI was curious considering he also had fellow midfielder Lucas Torreira on the bench – but there was something clearly lacking from the Gunners, who are 3-1-4 in all competitions after having gone unbeaten in 23 matches.

“I think Saturday is a big test and our first objective is to be in the top four,” Emery said. “It’s more difficult after our defeat against West Ham but we can take positives, like if we win on Saturday.

“It’s a difficult, tough match and I think it’s a good test for us also. We wanted to go into this match with three points difference in the table, but our defeat at West Ham doesn’t give us this possibility. But Saturday, I am looking forward to playing this match because I want to look at my team, our team, playing with a good performance and also to show our supporters we can do more and we can do better than we are doing away.”

Chelsea, who may have felt unlucky to lose to Spurs mid-week, channeled that frustration into a 2-1 win over Newcastle United last weekend. Willian ended a 10-match goalless drought with his go-ahead marker on 57 minutes, a well-taken shot after being set up by Hazard – playing the false nine as Morata failed to rate to be on the bench, where Giroud watched all but the final three minutes.

The Pensioners controlled the match for the final half-hour after a lack of focus following Pedro’s goal allowed Newcastle to draw level before halftime.

“It’s an important win, it’s three points at home and we did the job,” said David Luiz to Chelsea’s official website after his long ball set up Pedro’s goal on nine minutes. “It was not an easy game for us. I think we could have killed the game in the first 25 minutes, but we didn’t score the second goal.

“In the Premier League every team can be dangerous from set-pieces and that is what happened. ‘They scored the equaliser and after that it is always difficult but I think the team was mature enough to be calm at half-time. Then, in the second half, we controlled the game and scored the second goal.”

Though Higuain is close to signing, there is still no understudy for midfielder and playmaker Jorginho following Cesc Fabregas’ departure to Monaco. Based on the current roster, Hazard, Ross Barkley or Mateo Kovacic would handle such responsibilities if the Italy international were to be sidelined.

Chelsea are seeking their first league double over Arsenal since the 2015-16 season after winning the reverse fixture 3-2 at Stamford Bridge in August. The first half was marked by frenetic bursts of clubs transitioning to their first-year managers – Chelsea raced to a 2-0 lead in the first 20 minutes on goals by Pedro and Morata, only to have Arsenal peg them back before halftime through Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Iwobi four minutes apart.

Hazard entered as a substitute on the hour and set up Marcos Alonso for the match-winner on 81 minutes. Chelsea are 1-3-2 in their last six visits to the Emirates but 4-4-2 in their last 10 league matches there.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, Chelsea are 7/5 favourites to complete their double over Arsenal, who are 2/1 home underdogs. The odds of the sides splitting the points are a 13/5 longshot among the options.

Based on the reverse fixture, oddsmakers are expecting goals in this contest as well as there are 4/6 odds for more than 2.5 goals compared to 6/5 odds to finish under that bar. There also 8/15 odds for both teams to score compared to the 11/8 offering of an ending with at least one clean sheet.

Despite being underdogs, Arsenal striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is the favourite to open the scoring at 7/2, edging out both Hazard (4/1) and Giroud (5/1). Alexander Lacazette (11/2) and Morata (6/1) round out the top five, with Chelsea’s Callum Hudson-Odoi and Arsenal youngster Eddie Nketiah both 7/1 options.

Aubameyang is the only player better than even money at 10/11 for a goal over 90 minutes, while Hazard is 11/10 and Giroud rounds out the top three choices at 11/8. Lacazette checks in at 6/4, followed by Morata (7/4) and both Hudson-Odoi and Nketiah at 2/1. Chelsea wingers Willian and Pedro lurk further back at 11/5 and 5/2, respectively.

Ozil is a 9/4 option to score during the match and a 9/1 longshot to make it 1-0 to the Arsenal.

PREDICTION

If the projected Arsenal XI above happens to be the actual starting XI, there is a very large question that needs to be asked of Unai Emery: Who is going to create in the middle of the park for the Gunners in that set-up?

Neither Xhaka nor Torreira are true 10s, and if the Gunners use a three-man back with the pair as shields, Emery is all but ceding possession to Jorginho to let him ping passes all over the attacking third for Chelsea. And that does not even begin to speculate on how Hazard could conceivably drift between Xhaka and Torreira and in front of Arsenal’s back three to draw a higher lane before laying the ball off to Willian or Pedro.

Some of the gloss has clearly come off Emery in recent weeks as Arsenal have regressed to the mean to a degree. Couple that with resurgent Manchester United — who came calling to the Emirates on Friday for a fourth-round FA Cup tie — and there is now the long-awaited hand-wringing that came with the Gunners in this rebuilding season.

Equally off-putting is Arsenal’s lack of movement in the January window, now exacerbated by Ramsey coming to terms to join Juventus next season. On the one hand, it is all well and good that this lingering distraction is put to bed, but as one playmaker is set to leave and a second (Ozil) is both recovering from injury and/or does not rate high enough to consistently make the first XI, it is fair to wonder what the long-term plan is or who a potential midfield target will be come season’s end.

Arsenal will not finish worse than sixth barring an unforeseen disaster, but winning the Europa League will be no easy task — especially if Chelsea are likely going to play with an eye to win it as well with United now mucking things up for a top-four spot. These next two matches are precariously poised for the Gunners, and two losses could create a maelstrom.

For Chelsea, there will be no Higuain for this match, but the eagerly anticipated reunion with him and Sarri will be made for the second leg of the Carabao Cup. Nothing like a little pressure to mark your debut on the Bridge. That said, bringing in Higuain and letting Morata walk — if that does wind up being the case — is going to put a lot of pressure on this club to either re-sign Hazard or command an outrageous transfer fee for the Belgium international.

It could also mark the beginning of a clear-out in the attacking positions in which Chelsea go younger and build around Hazard or find the next superstar to take some of the heavy burden that will accompany Christian Pulisic when he arrives next season.

As for the derby itself, Chelsea appear to be in a much better frame of mind on and off the pitch. They were unlucky losers at Wembley versus Spurs and shook off a lull versus Newcastle last weekend to win.

The reverse fixture against Arsenal will be a reminder the Pensioners cannot switch off like that because the Gunners can make them pay, but if Jorginho and N’Golo Kante can boss the midfield while staying on Arsenal’s half of the pitch, this is a match Chelsea should be able to control and claim three points from.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Arsenal 1, Chelsea 2.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 23 PREVIEWS:

Wolverhampton (8-5-9) vs. Leicester City (9-4-9)
Liverpool (18-3-1) vs. Crystal Palace (6-4-12)
Manchester United (12-5-5) vs. Brighton and Hove Albion (7-5-10)
Southampton (4-7-11) vs. Everton (8-6-8)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 22 Preview — West Ham United (8-4-9) vs. Arsenal (12-5-4)

West Ham United already knew they had a fight on their hands in a bid for a top-half finish while potentially contending for a spot in European play next term.

Now they have another one to keep their top striker in place ahead of Saturday’s derby at home against London rival Arsenal.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

The Irons (8-4-9) are currently in 10th place but only three points out of seventh, a spot that could result in a Europa League qualifying round berth depending on the Carabao Cup and FA Cup results. But an unnamed Chinese Super League club – rumoured to be Shanghai SIPG – has thrown a spanner into the works with a £35 million bid for striker Marko Arnautovic.

Arnautovic’s brother Danijel, who also represents him, went public with the Austria international’s desire for the London club to accept the offer, telling TalkSport, “He wants to go to a new market and challenge for titles. This is what he wants. It is his great desire West Ham accept the offer from China.”

West Ham, who bought Arnautovic from Stoke City for £20 million in July 2017, issued a terse statement that read: “Marko has a contract and we fully expect him to honour it. He is not for sale.”

Arnautovic is the joint-leader in goals for West Ham with eight after scoring the opener in their 2-0 FA Cup win over Birmingham City on Saturday. He nearly got into a row with Manuel Pellegrini upon his precautionary removal after 20 minutes due to a twinge in his back, but the Chilean manager would not back down from his decision given the Irons have 17 league matches remaining.

“It is not very important,” Pellegrini said post-match according to the Guardian. “It was better to change him because he is just coming back from an injury. He could continue but it was better to protect him. He was angry for one minute.”

West Ham do not have many true centre-forwards beyond Arnautovic, with Andy Carroll also rumoured to be on the move in the January window. The oft-injured Carroll scored in second-half stoppage time to seal the victory with his first goal since April.

The win also marked the debut of midfielder Samir Nasri, who arrived on West Ham on a free transfer and was eligible after serving an 18-month ban for doping. The one-time Arsenal midfielder played 58 minutes before being subbed out for Robert Snodgrass, and the expectation is the former France international will at worst be among the 18 for this contest.

Arsenal (12-5-4), who are three points behind Chelsea for fourth and three ahead of hard-charging Manchester United, also emerged unscathed in the third round of the FA Cup as they won 3-0 at Blackpool on Saturday. Joe Willock had a first-half brace as Unai Emery overturned seven of his starting XI that won 4-1 over Fulham to ring in the new year.

While West Ham are being dragged into the January transfer window, it appears the Gunners do not have much interest in it. Emery raised a few eyebrows at his Thursday news conference when he announced the club would only add players via loan in this window, which adds to the intrigue of whether midfielder Aaron Ramsey would leave this month.

Ramsey started in the win over Blackpool and has been linked with a move to Juventus, but he and Emery appear to be on the same wavelength regarding professionalism. To Emery, that makes Ramsey available for selection.

“It’s an individual situation rather than the team,” he said about Ramsey. “My idea and focus, I say to him every day, is that we need his performance for us. In the last match I was very happy with him. I asked in the last match at Blackpool if he is OK to help us play and he said, ‘Yeah, coach, I want to play’ and he played with a very big behaviour and commitment to us.

“Every day he’s here with us, he’s working very well. I want his behaviour and his focus to be on West Ham on Saturday.”

The break for the FA Cup allowed Arsenal to start working back to full health as Hector Bellerin, Laurent Koscielny, Dinos Mavropanos, Shkodran Mustafi, Nacho Monreal and Mesut Ozil all resumed training with the first team this week. Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Rob Holding and Danny Welbeck all remain long-term injury absentees, with Mkhitaryan expected to resume practicing next month.

The teams have kicked on to differing levels since Emery recorded his first league win at Arsenal in the reverse fixture in late August. The Gunners ran out 3-1 winners in that match, with West Ham defender Issa Diop’s own goal on 70 minutes snapping a 1-1 deadlock. Arnautovic and Monreal traded goals five minutes apart in the first half, and Welbeck scored in stoppage time to seal the win.

Arsenal have won three on the bounce in all competitions in this derby and are unbeaten in the last seven (5-2-0) overall. The Gunners are also unbeaten in their last 11 trips (8-3-0) to east London since a 1-0 loss at Upton Park in 2006 and 18-4-1 in the last 23 overall meetings.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, Arsenal are 21/20 favourites to win this London derby, with West Ham 5/2 underdogs to claim all three points amid the distractions of the Arnautovic saga. There are 3/1 odds on the sides splitting the points.

Oddsmakers are overwhelmingly expecting goals, with 8/15 odds on clearing 2.5 goals compared to 6/4 going under that total. It’s also expected both teams will score, with 1/2 odds of no clean sheets compared to 6/4 with at least one.

Arsenal’s strikers Aubameyang and Lacazette lead the line for first goal-scorers at 3/1 and 4/1, respectively. The man of the moment — Arnautovic — is an 11/2 selection and top option among the Irons. Arsenal reserve Eddie Nketiah checks in at 6/1, just ahead of Carroll at 13/2, while his Hammers teammates Chicharito (13/2) and Lucas Perez (7/1) follow.

Aubameyang is a 4/6 pick to score during the match, and Lacazette is even money to do so. Arnautovic is tabbed as a 7/5 option, while Nketiah again pips Carroll and Chicharito, this time at 8/5 compared to the Irons duo at 7/4. Ozil lurks as a 2/1 anytime option and 15/2 pick to make it 0-1.

PREDICTION

Well this is less than ideal for West Ham, isn’t it? After the Chinese Super League had cooled off in recent windows regarding exorbitant offers of Premier League players, here come Shanghai to drop a haymaker of an offer for Arnautovic. The grandstanding between his agent brother and the club (though, to be fair, the club’s terse statement after his Danijels statement almost caused whiplash it came so fast) will be something to watch in the coming days or perhaps weeks.

It is unfortunate because at the very least, West Ham had the appearance of a team that looked like they had a proper 18 for league play and definitely did not lack for options in attack. One almost wonders whether they secretly wished it was Carroll and not Arnautovic being the apple of Shanghai’s eye to finally be rid of the oft-injured forward.

It almos gives the feel that Arnautovic’s anger about being lifted was premeditated, that he and his brother knew this offer was coming down the pike. That’s a conspiracy theory for another day, but something to chew on.

For Arsenal, they are near or at the point where they have their entire first-choice back four for Emery to begin seeing just how good this team can really be. And Emery deserves credit for plugging players in uncomfortable spots and pragmatically flexing between different formations to not only mask deficiencies but keep Arsenal in the hunt for a top-four spot. There is still a gulf in class to the top three, but fourth is most certainly attainable.

It would not be surprising to see Ramsey start over Ozil, but there has to be a stick-or-twist moment with the former Germany international decides he is on board or starts plotting his next move. It’s laudable to hold everyone accountable, but Emery cannot keep citing “matchups” as a reason to keep his most creative playmaker off the 18-man roster at times.

This is the first time West Ham have had to deal with an external distraction, but to Pellegrini’s credit, he did well to right the ship after a self-created one with his side’s four-loss start in league play that included the defeat at the Emirates.

Arsenal, though, look primed to take advantage of the circus around Arnautovic and should power through for three points here.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: West Ham 0, Arsenal 2.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 22 PREVIEWS:

Brighton and Hove Albion (7-5-9) vs. Liverpool (17-3-1)
Leicester City (9-4-8) vs. Southampton (3-7-11)
Chelsea (13-5-3) vs. Newcastle United (4-6-11)
Tottenham Hotspur (16-0-5) vs. Manchester United (11-5-5)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 21 Preview — Arsenal (11-5-4) vs. Fulham (3-5-12)

Coming off a chastening defeat in which all of their shortcomings were laid bare, Arsenal look to regroup and start the new year on a positive note Tuesday when they host relegation-threatened Fulham at the Emirates in a London derby.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

The goodwill of all the positives the Gunners (11-5-4) accumulated under first-year manager Unai Emery – the 22-match unbeaten streak, the gaffer’s demands of accountability extending throughout the roster, the easy passage through to the Europa League knockout round en route to a top-five status with designs on a Champions League berth through a top-four finish – has been squandered with three losses in the last five matches in all competitions.

Each defeat has shown the gulf in class Arsenal must traverse to reclaim their status as Premier League title contenders, but Saturday’s 5-1 hiding at Anfield by Liverpool revealed all the flaws Emery must fix. Ainsley Maitland-Niles staked the Gunners to a 1-0 lead on 11 minutes when he knocked home a cross by Alex Iwobi, but the wheels came off shortly thereafter.

Arsenal’s threadbare defence was shredded by Roberto Firmino, who leveled the match in the 14th minute and put Liverpool ahead two minutes later as he slalomed through a pair of weak challenges. Then it was Stephan Lichtsteiner keeping Mohamed Salah onsides as he set up Sadio Mane for a third on 32 minutes. Penalties by Salah and Firmino on either side of halftime capped the bruising evening for the Gunners, one Emery did not hide from post-match.

“I think we started well, but after our goal, they pushed, and when they push here, they play with great determination and with players who can make difference all over the pitch,” Emery said. “They scored three quick goals and it was a difficult moment for us. We spoke in the dressing room – it’s another experience for us. A bad experience but an experience to learn from. In the second half we needed to stand up, to keep our position individually and collectively on the game.”

Mesut Ozil did not accompany the team to Anfield due to a knee injury, starting a fresh round of speculation whether there is any room for him on the squad, let alone the starting XI, going forward. Equally curious was Emery’s decision not to play top two scorers Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexander Lacazette together, with Aubameyang completely starved of service up front – the Gabon international totaled just six touches and completed four passes, three of them coming on restarts after Liverpool goals.

“We have to work. We’ve been doing well until now,” Lichtsteiner told Arsenal’s official website. “We just need to keep working, looking forward at every game and try not to have more injuries, because it’s been a bad moment for us with injuries. It’s a challenge and one we need to accept.”

Laurent Koscielny will likely be restored into the starting XI to partner with Sokratis in central defence after Shkodran Mustafi had a torrid time and was subbed off at halftime. Arsenal are still dealing with a spate of injuries on the back line that have sidelined Nacho Monnreal and wide back Hector Bellerin, leaving open the possibility of Emery switching to a three-man back for this contest.

Fulham’s issues defensively come more from a lack of quality than injury issues, but the Cottagers (3-5-12) have begun to find their footing in that area with their first two clean sheets of the season in the last three matches.

Unlike their scoreless draw at Newcastle United on Dec. 22, Fulham made the most of their stingy defense and left it late to top Huddersfield Town 1-0 in a six-point relegation belter. Aleksandar Mitrovic slotted home a pass from Ryan Sessegnon in second-half stoppage time, saving the blushes of teammate Aboubakar Kamara, who vociferously demanded to Mitrovic he take the penalty awarded for a handball in the 82nd minute only to be stoned by Jonas Lossl.

Manager Claudio Ranieri was livid with Kamara post-match, telling Sky Sports, “”The man who should shoot the penalty is Mitrovic, and Kamara did not respect me, the club, the team-mates, the crowd, anybody.

“He take the ball and want to shoot the ball, it is unbelievable. I want to kill him.”

It was Mitrovic’s team-high eighth goal as he ended a six-match goalless drought. What Ranieri will do with Kamara is anyone’s guess, though Andre Schurrle could move ahead of him on the pecking order with the quick turnaround after the winger was a spectator from the bench for Saturday’s win.

Ranieri will also have to make at least two changes to his starting XI. Central midfielder and Arsenal loanee Calum Chambers cannot face his parent club, which makes Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa the most likely candidate to fill that spot. Anguissa has not played since being sent off for two yellow cards in Fulham’s 4-1 loss to Manchester United on Dec. 8.

The second change is more concerning since it involves injured centre back Alfie Mawson and comes at a delicate point for Fulham, who appeared to have made the necessary adjustments to a three-man back in which Mawson was flanked by Tim Ream and Dennis Odoi. Maxime Le Marchand replaced Mawson for the second half against Huddersfield and appears the best option to continue deputising in that role.

Arsenal played arguably their best league match of the season in the reverse fixture, storming to a 5-1 victory at Craven Cottage on Oct. 7. Lacazette snapped a 1-1 tie four minutes after the restart and completed his brace. Aubameyang set up Aaron Ramsey on 67 minutes and then added a brace of his own in the final quarter-hour.

The Gunners have won four on the trot over Fulham and are 9-4-0 against them at home in the Premier League era. The Cottagers have never left Arsenal grounds victorious in 26 all-time trips to north London (0-5-21) spanning 104 years since the first match Sept. 12, 1914.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, Arsenal are solid 1/3 favourites to get off the schneid and get back to their winning ways, with Fulham established as 13/2 underdogs to get back-to-back league victories for the first time this term. The odds of a draw, also helpful to the Cottagers, are 9/2.

Despite Fulham’s improved defence of late, oddsmakers are not taking too much stock in another such performance as they are offering 4/9 odds on the sides clearing 2.5 goals compared to 7/4 for under that threshold. There are also 7/10 odds on both teams scoring one goal compared to 21/20 odds on at least one clean sheet being posted.

There is plenty of confidence by oddsmakers in Aubameyang regaining his scoring stride, with 11/5 odds on him scoring the first goal of the match. Lacazette (10/3) and Arsenal reserve forward Eddie Nketiah (9/2) round out the top three, with Aaron Ramsey and Bukayo Saka another step back at 7/1. Iwobi is a 17/2 option before Mitrovic unsurprisingly heads the choices for the Cottagers at 9/1. Kamara is one of three Fulham options at 14/1 with Schurrle and Luciano Vietto.

Aubameyang is a staggering 4/9 pick to score over the course of 90 minutes, and Lacazette is also a better than even money offering at 8/11. Nketiah is just off that standard at 21/20, while Ramsey and Saka are both 7/4 options. Mitrovic is a 12/5 pick to pace Fulham, while Iwobi is an 11/5 pick and Maitland-Niles offers a 15/4 return for confidence in scoring in a second straight contest.

PREDICTION

To sum up Arsenal’s performance in a word: Woof.

Simply put, there was nothing Emery could take from that performance save the nice finish from Maitland-Niles that gave the Gunners their short-lived lead. The ease in which Liverpool tore through Arsenal’s midfield — something that one always had a sense could happen if Torreira was off his game given the inconsistent nature of his holding partner Granit Xhaka — has to be a concern for Emery as much as the constant shuffling at the back that also appears to have finally caught up to him.

That is partially enforced because of all the injuries and figuring out how to replace Bellerin and Monreal — only Sead Kolasinac has proven to be a reliable option at left back among the understudies at the moment. Once this holiday fixture list ends and once the FA Cup is done next weekend, Emery has to begin finding the back three or four to go forward with as Arsenal vie for a top-four finish while running a parallel course to get into Champions League via the Europa League.

The fragility of the improvements Fulham have made defensively will be sorely stress-tested in this match without Mawson, whose absence could loom large in their bid to escape the drop. Le Marchand’s 45 minutes Saturday was his first match action since Dec. 5, and the summer signing will be thrown right into the fire against Aubameyang, Iwobi and Lacazette.

Ranieri’s other enforced change in central midfield with Chambers ineligible to play his parent club will also cause problems. How Fulham are going to break up plays in the middle with Jean Michael Seri and Anguissa will be pivotal in any bid Fulham make to nick a point from this contest.

Ranieri claimed he found something with Tom Cairney playing in the hole underneath Mitrovic and Luciano Vietto, but the bigger issue is whether “The Tinkerman” has the bottle to put young Sessegnon in a more forward role in one of those two spots or whether he keeps him wide on the flank in the midfield four. Sessegnon can play either position, and he was in the former position on the play that led to Mitrovic’s dramatic late winner.

Some of this match may be limiting the damage for Fulham as the bottom of the table has tightened considerably with clubs starting to separate themselves from last-place Huddersfield Town — 14th through 19th are separated by five points, and Fulham are four points clear of the Terriers.

But this is also a match where Arsenal must provide a response to their hammering by Liverpool, and though it may be a scruffy one as they regain their footing, they should be able to provide one.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Arsenal 3, Fulham 1.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 21 PREVIEWS:

Chelsea (13-4-3) vs. Southampton (3-6-11)
Wolverhampton (8-5-7) vs. Crystal Palace (5-4-11)
Newcastle United (4-6-10) vs. Manchester United (9-5-5+Sun)
Manchester City (15-2-3) vs. Liverpool (17-3-0)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 20 Preview — Liverpool (16-3-0) vs. Arsenal (11-5-3)

The holiday fixtures have been the gifts that keep giving to Liverpool, who suddenly find themselves six points clear atop the Premier League at the halfway point of the season.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

They look to maintain that gap and continue their unbeaten ways Saturday at Anfield against an Arsenal side encountering that first prolonged stretch of patchy play under first-year manager Unai Emery.

While no one has coronated Liverpool (16-3-0) champions – especially since they are the only team over the past decade to fail to win the Premier League when atop the table at Christmas – some of the tension that came with overtaking Manchester City has ebbed as the reigning title-holders have lost back-to-back matches in the always-demanding holiday fixture run.

The upshot for Jurgen Klopp’s side is they are seven points clear of City as new challengers Tottenham Hotspur are their closest pursuers – but still six points back of the Reds. Liverpool maintained the status quo of their best Premier League start with a clinical 4-0 hiding of former manager Rafa Benitez and Newcastle United on Boxing Day.

Mohamed Salah broke open a close game shortly after halftime when he drew and converted a penalty on 47 minutes to make it 2-0. Liverpool added some gloss to the scoreline in the final quarter-hour as Xherdan Shaqiri and Fabinho added markers, with the latter netting his first goal since arriving from Monaco this summer.

“A pretty perfect day for us; not a perfect performance, but a really good performance,” Klopp told Liverpool’s official website post-match. “Result-wise and a lot of parts of the performance, really good.”

It was Klopp’s 100th victory at Liverpool in all competitions, but the lopsided scoreline Wednesday also gave them an equal goal difference with City. The teams play each other at the Etihad on Jan. 3 in what could very well be a make-or-break match for Pep Guardiola’s side to repeat as Premier League champions, but the Reds boss refuses to make anything more of the match at the moment with a top-five Arsenal squad serving as a precursor to that showdown.

“It means nothing. We play Arsenal and City (in our next two games), so it’s good that we have six or seven points more than other teams. But that’s pretty much all,” Klopp said about the table at the moment. “What we wanted to do all the time (was) create a situation, a basis for the rest of the season and now the first part of the season is over.

“What we said as well is that we want to create our own history. We are the first Liverpool team in the Premier League to be unbeaten in 19 matches – a little history and a nice step. (We have) conceded seven goals – all really, really good numbers. A good situation, that’s clear, but 19 games to go.”

Trent Alexander-Arnold, who assisted on Shaqiri’s goal, made his return at right back after missing the previous two games with an ankle injury. The expectation is Klopp will retain his 4-2-3-1 set-up for this match, with Fabinho and Giorginio Wijnaldum his central midfielders as he has for the last two high-profile league matches versus Everton and Manchester United. They, along with centre back Virgil Van Dijk, have been key linchpins in helping Liverpool record seven clean sheets in nine league matches at Anfield (8-1-0) while outscoring opponent 22-2.

Though he has scored just two goals in his last 15 league matches, Klopp is expected to keep Roberto Firmino in the middle of his three across since his nous and movements off the ball give Salah, Shaqiri and Sadio Mane the space to operate throughout the final third.

Salah, on the other hand, has found a rich vein of form with six goals and two assists in his last five matches in all competitions. The Egypt international is tied with Tottenham’s Harry Kane for second with 12 goals in league play, trailing only Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (13).

Speaking of Aubameyang, he too is in splendid form as his seventh-minute goal Wednesday was his third in the last two games. Arsenal (11-5-3), however, failed to build on that early marker and was held to a 1-1 draw at Brighton and Hove Albion. It was a frustrating match all around for the Gunners, who are 1-1-2 since having their 22-match unbeaten run in all competitions end at relegation-threatened Southampton earlier this month.

“I think the key to the match today was the first 45 minutes, when we controlled the match as we wanted to,” Emery explained post-match. “We scored and we had the advantage, with another two good chances for Aubameyang to get the second. Their goalkeeper saved with two good actions and from then, they equalised.

“In the second half we tried again to control the match, to create the chances, but we didn’t do that. We had control with possession but not with creating chances against them. It wasn’t enough to win the game today.”

If there was good news for Arsenal in addition to the point gained, it was holding midfielder Lucas Torreira did not pick up a fifth yellow card that would have forced him to sit out this match. Emery is still mixing and matching personnel along his back line, with Said Kolasinac and Sokratis seemingly the only consistent fixtures at left back and centre back, respectively.

By the end of Wednesday’s match, Granit Xhaka was playing centre back after serving as the base of a midfield diamond in front of Arsenal’s back four the first 70 minutes.

Though midfielder Mesut Ozil made way for Alex Iwobi at halftime, Emery said that decision was more tactical than anything the former Germany international did or did not do on the pitch in the first 45 minutes. Still, much will be made if Emery sits Ozil against a high-profile opponent as he has for the two matches against Tottenham Hotspur.

Iwobi, though, did set up Lacazette’s equaliser on 82 minutes in the reverse fixture at the Emirates in November when Emery opted to attack for the point by sending in Iwobi, Aaron Ramsey and since-injured Danny Welbeck to play with Ozil, Lacazette, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan over the final 22 minutes of that 1-1 draw.

James Milner had given Liverpool the lead just after the hour at the Emirates prior to Lacazette’s match-tying marker.

Liverpool are unbeaten in their last seven league matches (3-4-0) versus Arsenal since a 4-1 loss in 2015. The Gunners are winless in their last five trips to Anfield (0-2-3) since a 2-0 win in the 2012-13 season and are 6-8-13 there in all competitions in the Premier League era.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, Liverpool are commanding 1/2 favourites to continue their winning ways with another three points, with Arsenal’s form of late consigning them to 6/1 underdogs at Anfield. The odds of the sides splitting the points are 15/4.

Oddsmakers are expecting a substantial goal haul, with 8/15 odds the teams will clear the 2.5 goal threshold unlike the reverse fixture at Emirates, and 6/4 odds for a second such low-scoring result. There are also 8/13 odds on both teams scoring in this match, with 6/5 odds on at least one team posting a clean sheet.

Salah’s form has made him the first goal-scorer favourite with 3/1 odds, followed by Daniel Sturridge (7/2). Fellow Liverpool substitute Divock Origi completes the top three at 9/2, while Mane and Firmino are 5/1 options to give the Reds a 1-0 lead. Aubameyang is the top pick of the Gunners at 11/2, closely followed by Shaqiri (6/1). Arsenal striker Lacazaette is a few notches back at 8/1.

Over the course of 90 minutes, the Egypt international offers a 4/6 return on a goal, while Sturridge is also better than even money at 5/6. Origi is just off that standard at 11/10, and both Firmino and Mane are again joined together at 5/4. Aubameyang, the Premier League’s leading scorer, is a 7/5 pick to continue his goal-scoring exploits, edging out Shaqiri at 6/4. Lacazette lurks further back at 21/10, while the much-discussed and mercurial Ozil offers a 4/1 return for a goal.

PREDICTION

There are certain things about both lineups that are in a state of flux. While Fabinho and Wijnaldum have been the defensive midfield axis for Liverpool, it would not be surprising to see Jordan Henderson replace either of them in the first XI as Klopp ponders his options.

Arsenal’s four-man back for this match could wind up morphing into a five as Xhaka could sit deeper in the midfield to help Laurent Koscielny and Sokratis with the added benefit of shielding right back Stephan Lichtsteiner from the meancing pace of Mane. Since Liverpool do not have a No. 10 who can spray passes to their attacking four — the Reds are more of a possession and carry team offensively — how Wijnaldum and Fabinho deal with Guendouzi and Torreira nipping at their heels will likely shape how this match plays out.

Something else to watch will be what Klopp’s patience level with Firmino is. No one argues the Brasil international is tactically astute and the consummate teammate for all his selflessness up front. But at some point, the goals have to come. If the match is tied at halftime, would Klopp introduce Sturridge? It’s something worth pondering considering Firmino’s form.

Aubameyang and Lacazette will prove a handful for Van Dijk, who has answered almost every challenge thrown at him in the year since he made the move from Southampton. The Dutch international has comfortably combined with Dejan Lovren in central defence like he has done with injured predecessors Joe Gomez and Joel Matip, and keeping Aubameyang from finding any half-chance will be important.

For all the talk about whether or not Ozil plays, it is hard to see where Ramsey is going to impact the game aside from his tireless two-way play. If Emery is going to use all three of his defensive midfielders, it is essentially conceding the hope for a draw in which Arsenal are going to play deep and try to hit on the counter. Injuries have limited Emery’s flexibility to a great degree, but it also feels counterproductive to not have Lacazette serve as a solo striker and play more narrow to give Aubameyang and Ramsey chances to operate in the final third.

Arsenal showed plenty of bravery in taking the fight to Liverpool late in the reverse fixture, but this match appears a bridge too far for the Gunners as they become the latest team to fall to the Jurgen Klopp juggernaut.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: LIVERPOOL 3, Arsenal 0.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 20 PREVIEWS:

Watford (8-3-8) vs. Newcastle United (4-5-10)
Tottenham Hotspur (15-0-4) vs. Wolverhampton (7-5-7)
Southampton (3-6-10) vs. Manchester City (14-2-3)
Manchester United (9-5-5) vs. Bournemouth (8-2-9)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 18 Preview — Arsenal (10-4-3) vs. Burnley (3-3-11)

Arsenal went from having gone four months without a loss to now picking up the pieces from two defeats four days apart.

Unai Emery faces his first real crisis since taking over as the Gunners look to right themselves Saturday at the Emirates against Burnley.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

The patience afforded Emery when Arsenal (10-4-3) opened the season with back-to-back losses to defending champions Manchester City and derby rivals Chelsea was largely shunted aside in a positive manner as the Gunners embarked on a 22-match unbeaten run (17-5-0) in all competitions.

Arsenal have played themselves into contention for a top-four spot – with Champions League play in 2019-20 a potential welcome bonus to end Emery’s first season in contrast to a third straight Europa League campaign for his second – but a lack of depth in defence has caused issues that finally became too much to paper over this past week.

First there was the surprising loss at relegation-threatened Southampton last weekend, the kind of loss that left Arsenal supporters frothing at the mouth under predecessor Arsene Wenger in the final years of his tenure. Some of that defeat could be chalked up to not having suspended first-choice centre backs Sokratis and Shkodran Mustafi available due to suspension.

Wednesday’s 2-0 home loss to north London rival Tottenham Hotspur in the Carabao Cup quarterfinals, however, was a harsh reminder of the gap Emery and Arsenal face in trying to break the top four this term – even though they are just three points behind Chelsea for fourth.

It was another makeshift back four to a degree as central midfielder Granit Xhaka was in central defence with Sokratis as Emery rang in four of his five changes from Sunday’s loss in goal and defence. Dele Alli, though, had too much class for the Gunners as he set up Heung-Min Son’s goal on 20 minutes and took one himself just before the hour.

“Today I am happy with our performance, but not happy with our result,” Emery told the club’s official website. “But also I think we are doing our process. They are ahead of us in this process. We need to continue creating our identity, our strong ideas to be more consistent in the games. But this is our way.”

The question surrounding Emery that is gaining volume and repetition is whether Mesut Ozil is part of that way. The former Germany international did not make the 18-man roster for this match and has started just once in the last eight in all competitions. It was also the second time Emery declined to select him to face Spurs, saying it was “a tactical decision because I thought that the players that were with us today were the best choices for this match.”

Another area of concern is Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s form as he went a fourth consecutive match without a goal. He leads the team with 12 in all competitions, with the most recent one coming in the 4-2 victory over Spurs on Dec. 2.

Burnley (3-3-11) have plenty of their own problems to sort out, having been denied back-to-back league wins for the first time this season after a cruel 1-0 loss at Tottenham Hotspur last weekend. The Clarets did enough work, especially in defence, to deserve a point from their trip to Wembley, but a stoppage-time strike from Christian Eriksen left Sean Dyche’s team still at the top of the drop on 12 points as Southampton climbed over them on goal difference.

“I don’t think anyone is performing badly,” keeper Joe Hart told Burnley’s official website. “This league is just so strong that if you are not quite there you are probably going to lose the game. That’s not an excuse, so we need to be more ruthless at both ends.

“Burnley’s success over the past couple of seasons has been about turning half-chances into a goal and restricting a lot of chances at the other end to get clean sheets,” he added. “Getting back to that would be a great foundation and, as proven last season, it’s about sticking to that mantra and not necessarily being too expansive and trying to win games by four or five, but knowing one goal will be enough.”

Hart may be fighting to keep the No. 1 shirt through the holiday fixtures as original first-choice keeper and England international Nick Pope is back practicing after missing five months with a dislocated shoulder. Dyche had an injury situation solve itself to a degree as winger Aaron Lennon – who appeared in all but one league contest – is expected to miss time following a knee procedure, but Johann Berg Gudmundsson is expected to return after missing the Spurs loss with a knock.

Arsenal did the double last term, sending Wenger off in style with a 5-0 thrashing of Burnley in his final match at the Emirates. Aubameyang’s brace bracketed goals by Alex Iwobi, Alexandre Lacazette and Sead Kolasinac.

The Clarets have dropped eight on the trot in all competitions to the Gunners, with their lone win in 12 meetings (1-1-10) in the Premier League era a 2-0 victory in the 2008 League Cup quarterfinals. Arsenal are 7-1-0 versus Burnley in league play and outscored them 13-2 in their four home victories.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, Arsenal are heavy 1/4 favourites to right themselves and claim three points from this match, while Burnley are 14/1 underdogs to pull off a shock scoreline. The odds of the clubs splitting the points are also a distant 11/2.

Oddsmakers are expecting plenty of goals in this contest despite Burnley’s improved defensive form — there are 1/2 odds to finish with more than 2.5 goals compared to 13/8 for under the mark. Oddly, though, the oddsmakers also feel it will be Arsenal who carries that line since the 4/5 odds of one team not scoring edge out the yes for both teams bagging a goal at 19/20.

Despite his current dry run, Aubameyang leads the line for first goal-scorers at 21/10, with Alexander Lacazette second-choice at 3/1. Arsenal’s kiddie corps of Eddie Nketiah (9/2) and Emile Smith-Rowe (6/1) are next, with Ozil surprisingly slotting in with Smith-Rowe at 6/1. Ashley Barnes, Chris Wood and Matej Vydra all share honours as Burnley’s top option to make it 0-1 at 12/1.

Aubameyang and Lacazette are both expected to score in this match with 4/9 and 4/6 anytime odds, respectively, and even Nketiah is close to even money at 21/20. Smith-Rowe and Ozil are paired together at 6/4, while midfielder Aaron Ramsey is 13/8.

Barnes, Wood and Vydra are all 10/3 picks to prevent Bernd Leno from recording a clean sheet, and Sam Vokes is another step back at 15/4.

PREDICTION

While it is far from a crisis, the cold water thrown on Arsenal this past week is a reminder of just how stagnant things got in the final seasons of Wenger’s run in north London. That said, it does have to be refreshing to a degree that Emery is pragmatically trying to fix things from match to match.

Both of these defeats can be chalked up to certain factors — the lack of bodies in central defence at Southampton, and quite frankly — Arsenal’s post-match celebrations from their 4-2 win over Spurs apparently aggravated enough of them to come out and put the Gunners in their place in the Carabao Cup quarters.

There’s no shame in being fifth in the table right now, but there is a very visible line of demarcation with that top four.

Arsenal needs to get Aubameyang going again, because as he goes, so go Arsenal. The Gabon international has seven goals at home in all competitions, but the only two he has scored in his last seven at the Emirates came in the win over Tottenham. The Gunners are 7-1-0 in all competitions when he scores, including a 4-0-0 mark when he bags a brace.

Despite the result against the Lilywhites, Burnley at least appear to have turned a corner with regards to shape and quality. Hart’s comments suggest there is no panic in the dressing room and Dyche still has their ears.

The concern for the Clarets now is finding goals. While it will technically not happen in this game since they were blanked by Spurs, Burnley have not scored in consecutive matches since Sept. 30 and Oct. 6 versus Huddersfield Town and Cardiff City. Dyche has tried every combination up front among Vydra, Wood and Vokes, even throwing Barnes up there at times, but to little or no avail.

There appears to be some sort of disconnect in supply from the midfield to the forwards because Burnley do have talent in those areas from Gudmundsson, Robbie Brady and Steven Defour, but it has not translated into enough goal-scoring chances.

The industry is almost always there for Burnley, but the results have been too few and far in between. Alas, that is the expected outcome for this game as well.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Arsenal 3, Burnley 0.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 18 PREVIEWS:

Wolverhampton (7-4-6) vs. Liverpool (14-3-0)
Chelsea (11-4-2) vs. Leicester City (6-4-7)
West Ham United (7-3-7) vs. Watford (7-3-7)
Everton (6-6-5) vs. Tottenham Hotspur (13-0-4)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 15 Preview — Manchester United (6-4-4) vs. Arsenal (9-3-2)

Fourth place in the Premier League table is a spot Arsenal have been intimately familiar with for more than a decade. But unlike seasons past, currently occupying that slot is providing previously unseen optimism as the Gunners go from an intense north London derby win to a mouth-watering clash at Old Trafford against Manchester United on Wednesday.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Since winning their last Premier League title in 2004, Arsenal (9-3-2) have finished fourth in six of the previous 14 seasons. The constant battle to remain a Champions League participant under predecessor Arsene Wenger hid the gradual erosion from the elite status the London club enjoyed – something that came home to roost over the Frenchman’s final two seasons with fifth and sixth-place finishes.

Unai Emery’s arrival, initially met with skepticism following his flameout from Paris-St. Germain, has brought renewed spark and life to Arsenal, who are now unbeaten in 19 matches (15-4-0) across all competitions after a 4-2 victory over north London rival Tottenham Hotspur in a white-hot derby clash at the Emirates on Sunday.

The Gunners shook off a 2-1 halftime deficit with three unanswered goals in the final 45 minutes. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who converted a first-half penalty, completed his brace on 56 minutes with a well-placed shot inside the right post that left Spurs keeper Hugo Lloris flat-footed.

The Gunners then grabbed the match with two goals two minutes apart starting in the 75th. Aaron Ramsey forced a Spurs turnover at midfield and sprung Alexandre Lacazette, whose shot took a fortunate deflection off Spurs midfielder Eric Dier and snuck inside the left post. Lucas Torreira then scored his first Arsenal goal, ripping a shot across Lloris after being sent through by Aubameyang.

The Emirates crowd, roiled so much by “Wenger In” and “Wenger Out” factions in recent years, roared their approval in unison as Arsenal overtook their eternal rivals for fourth place on goal difference and are one back of Chelsea for third.

“It’s not just an important game for a manager to win against a team from the top six, it’s important for us as a team,” keeper Bernd Leno told the club’s official website. “We lost the first two games against Chelsea and Manchester City but against Liverpool we played very well. We didn’t win that one but today we won against a good team and showed a very good performance.”

Emery will be forced into one change since defensive midfielder Granit Xhaka picked up his fifth yellow card and must serve a one-match ban. Matteo Guendouzi will likely fill that spot as Emery could continue with a 3-4-3 set-up for a second straight contest.

It is uncertain if Mesut Ozil will be available after the playmaker missed Sunday’s match through a back injury. Ozil did not play against Bournemouth per Emery’s decision, and with Ramsey surprisingly coming on after the club rescinded a contract offer for beyond next season, the former Germany international’s status is starting to bubble into an unwanted distraction for the Gunners. Emery, though, seems to be relishing his English adventures as they take him from one high-stakes game to another with Wednesday’s match-up.

“It’s a new match, a new challenge, a big challenge,” he said Monday. “It’s away and we need to continue improving our mentality away. We know we need to change to get more competitive away. I think the team is doing that, but it’s a new challenge because we’re going to play against Manchester United away, and the challenge is bigger than other matches.

“For us, it’s a very exciting match. The preparation for this match is also a big motivation for us. If we are stronger now, we need to (show that) on Wednesday.”

As Arsenal bring a tidal wave of momentum to Old Trafford, the inconsistencies persist for Manchester United (6-4-4). For the second time already this term, Jose Mourinho’s team recovered at least one point from a two-goal deficit after finishing 2-2 at Southampton on Saturday.

With a lack of available bodies in central defence, Mourinho opted for a 5-3-2 set-up that included midfielders Nemanja Matic and Scott McTominay as his three centre backs. The plan backfired spectacularly as a relegation-threatened Saints squad were two up after 20 minutes.

United’s fightback revolved around Marcus Rashford, whom Mourinho exasperated midweek after missing a gilt-edged chance in their Champions League win over Young Boys. The England international set up goals by Romelu Lukaku and Ander Herrera six minutes apart late in the first half – the latter a spectacular run along the end line before spotting a charging Herrera — that was enough to see United through for a point.

“Yes (it was two points dropped),” Mourinho said post-match. “The result is not good so I have to say we dropped two points. If you are losing 4-0 and you get to 4-4 I would say maybe not. I think the comeback is good from 2-0 down to 2-2 in normal conditions everybody says it is a point gained, you have the game lost and you get a point, so normally you say it is a positive point, but it is a match that we want to win.”

Mourinho, though, was optimistic Lukaku’s goal will get the Belgium international to finally kick on. His fifth goal of the season in all competitions ended a personal 981-minute drought stretching back to Sept. 15 at Watford.

Like his counterpart, Mourinho is forced into one change for this match since right back Ashley Young picked up his fifth yellow card. The most likely option to replace him is Diogo Dalot, who made his long-awaited Premier League debut after left back Luke Shaw was forced off with a knock. Mourinho could also turn to Antonio Valencia or play Marcus Rojo at left back if Shaw cannot play.

Central defence, though, continues to be a nightmare as Phil Jones figures to be the only centre back certain to play. Chris Smalling sat out Saturday with a knock, and Mourinho continues to have little faith in Eric Bailly. Victor Lindelof is out until Boxing Day with a hamstring injury, so there could be more of Matic and McTominay as part of a five-man back line.

Mourinho hopes to have Rashford available after lifting him for the final 15 minutes with a knock. Jesse Lingard would be the most obvious replacement on the right attacking side for United, while Anthony Martial could be restored to the starting XI if Mourinho reverts to a 4-3-3.

Also unavailable through injury is ex-Arsenal winger Alexis Sanchez, who did play in last season’s corresponding fixture after his January move from the Emirates. Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who was shipped to London as part of the move, did score in that 2-1 United victory.

Manchester United did their first double over Arsenal since 2011-12 last term and are unbeaten in their last 11 league matches (8-3-0) against them at Old Trafford. The Gunners did record an FA Cup quarterfinal win in 2015, but they are just 4-7-19 at the Theatre of Dreams in the Premier League era.

Arsenal’s last league victory at Manchester United was a 1-0 win in 2006 courtesy an 85th-minute goal from Emmanuel Adebayor.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, Manchester United are slight favourites at 29/20, with the Gunners 2/1 underdogs to leave Old Trafford with three points for the first time in league play in over a decade. The odds of the sides splitting the points are 5/2 and the longshot of this contest.

Oddsmakers are expecting the same kind of frailities at the back they showed over the weekend, with 8/13 odds for the total to clear 2.5 goals compared to 13/10 for two or fewer goals. There are 1/2 odds for both teams to score while there are 6/4 odds of at least one team recording a clean sheet.

While not surprising given his form and his club’s form, it is still a little jarring to see a Gunner lead the toteboard at Old Trafford with Aubameyang getting 7/2 odds to open the scoring. Lacazette and Lukaku are joint-second at 5/1, with the United duo of Martial and Paul Pogba at 13/2. Young Arsenal striker Eddie Nketiah and ex-United winger Mkhitaryan join Rashford at 7/1 odds to open the scoring.

Aubameyang is also better than even money to score during the 90 minutes, getting 10/11 odds. Lacazette and Lukaku are again paired together at 13/10, with Martial and Pogba likewise at 7/4 odds. Nketiah, Mkhitaryan and Rashford all have 15/8 odds to find the back of net, with Lingard and Emile-Smith Rowe are both 13/5.

PREDICTION

These are the type of matches where Mourinho is renown for finding a way to win and defy the odds of the moment… and then letting everyone know about it. Yet his refusal to play Bailly — though it was revealed before the Southampton match he has a back injury —  and now, not playing Rojo has created a discombobulated back line that will have its hands full trying to stop an Arsenal offence flowing at top pace.

Then there is the on-going war of trying to get the best out of Pogba, with whom Mourinho had another tete-a-tete in the locker room at halftime of the Southampton match in which the manager “calmly” criticised the France international for turning the ball over so much. In turn, Pogba said Mourinho’s system does not give him the freedom of movement to make the passes he wants.

This is a match United need to at worst not lose if they have any serious designs on a top-four finish. They are not overturning the already-16 point deficit to front-running City. Lose this match, and Arsenal are 11 points clear of United with 23 matches to play. It sounds doable, but given the week-to-week fluctuations in quality of play and mood of Mourinho, does anyone truly know what they will get from Manchester United?

There will be many things interesting about this contest, starting with Dalot at right back in a pressure cooker of an environment with an in-form Aubameyang ready to corkscrew him into the ground. Yet the real X-factor on that side may be Kolasinac, who looks like Emery’s mad scientist experiment come to life with unorthodox runs.

Another point of curiosity is who starts in the middle of the park for United. Does Mourinho risk Matic being exposed for his lack of pace, or does he put either Herrera or Pogba? Herrera may be the better answer considering Pogba leads the Premier League in lost balls this season, but it may sacrifice link play to their front three. 

This is where Lingard could be the most vital part of United’s XI because he’s the one who enjoys doing damage on the edge of the penalty area and will not be afraid to test Leno from distance.

For the Gunners, there is still concern about the back, three in this case. Xhaka’s absence could loom large, but the moment should not be too big for Guendouzi to fill his spot. Additionally, Torreira has been everything and then some since arriving from Sampdoria via Uruguay this summer. The 22-year-old embodies the renewed vigour and, dare it be said? — swagger of Arsenal, taking the yellow card for the shirt removal celebration after Arsenal’s fourth.

This could be the ships passing in the night moment where Arsenal are truly on their way while Manchester United continue to pile up a list of questions and holes that need to be answered and addressed. Yet again, it could very well be the case where Mourinho has one or two last aces in his deck and will find a way to snare a point.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Manchester United 1, Arsenal 1.

Other EPL Match Day 15 Previews:
Bournemouth (6-2-6) vs. Huddersfield Town (2-4-8)
Watford (6-2-6) vs. Manchester City (12-2-0)
Burnley (2-3-9) vs. Liverpool (11-3-0)
Wolverhampton (4-4-6) vs. Chelsea (9-4-1)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 14 Preview — Arsenal (7-3-2) vs. Tottenham Hotspur (10-0-3)

Sunday’s north London derby at the Emirates features two in-form sides of varying degrees in hosts Arsenal and guests Tottenham Hotspur. But the first north London derby without Arsene Wenger since 1996 is expected to offer another clue for just how far the Gunners have come under first-year manager Unai Emery.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Arsenal (8-3-2) are unbeaten in their last 18 matches (14-4-0) across all competitions since Emery’s tenure began with losses to Manchester City and Chelsea. Faced with a logistical nightmare for Thursday’s Europa League tie at Vorskla Poltava in which the match was moved for Vorskala to Kiev 48 hours before kickoff coupled with a crunch derby match on a short turnaround, Emery opted for a younger squad with fringe players while leaving his regulars behind.

His faith in those players was rewarded with a 3-0 victory that left the Gunners needing only a draw at home versus Qarabag in their group finale to claim Group E honours and seeding for the knockout round. Emile Smith-Rowe and Joe Willock had first-half goals on either side of Aaron Ramsey’s penalty on 27 minutes.

Of the three goal-scorers, only Ramsey stands any chance of playing for Arsenal in this contest. As much as Emery is trying to prepare for the derby as just another match, he knows it is impossible to avoid the scrutiny and increased attention that comes with facing Tottenham (10-0-3).

“Each match for me is very special,” said Emery, who is friends with Spurs counterpart Mauricio Pochettino. “The derby is perhaps more special because my responsibility is bigger because of every supporter. Also we need three points in the league because we want to be closer to the other teams, like Tottenham, and we have this challenge.”

It’s a different match on Sunday against Tottenham, but the derby for every supporter is different. For us it’s the same but also with a cool head and our thinking on three points. In the last matches we drew and also Tottenham have a three point lead over us, and we will do a lot of things to prepare for a difficult game and a tough match, but we need to deliver the best performance to win.”

The main talking point around Emery’s lineup selection has been Mesut Ozil. The former Germany international was a surprise omission from the first XI and did not play in last weekend’s 2-1 victory at Bournemouth, with the manager not liking the matchup against the physical Cherries defence for Ozil.

Considering how Wenger all but wrote Ozil’s name in lineup in pen for every match, the pragmatic approach Emery took caught most by off-guard, and he is not tipping his hand whether the playmaker will make his return in this contest.

“I don’t know because tomorrow is the last training, but every player is very important with their qualities,” Emery demurred when asked. “We need to continue preparing and continue improving in our work and as a team with bigger performances and individual quality. I will prepare for the match with every player.”

Tottenham’s unbeaten run pales in length when compared to Arsenal’s current stretch, but the Lilywhites have been impressive all the same with six wins on the bounce in all competitions while remaining within touching distance of leaders Manchester City.

The chance at a second derby victory in a span of eight days around a Champions League triumph that gave them a fighting chance to reach the knockout round for a second straight year has sent Spurs supporters’ spirits soaring as the quality of a side that provided a good portion of England’s World Cup squad has shined in part due to Pochettino’s deft tactics and man management.

Start with last weekend’s 3-1 romp at Wembley over Chelsea in which Pochettino flummoxed counterpart Maurizio Sarru by playing a diamond midfield with Heung-Min Son and Harry Kane on the wings. The formation forced Chelsea midfielder Jorginho to stay deeper than normal in his midfield role, and when one of his midfielders pushed forward, there would be pockets of space to pour into. Kane and Dele Alli – the forward tip of the diamond – scored in the first 16 minutes before Son blazed by Jorginho and added a third after the restart.

The momentum continued with Wednesday’s 1-0 victory over Inter Milan that gave the Lilywhites a chance to reach the round of 16. Granted, having what is essentially a must-win match at the Nou Camp versus already-qualified Barcelona is less than ideal, but after taking one point from their first three matches, Spurs are taking the fight to teams – epitomized by Christian Eriksen’s winner seven minutes from time.

“The mentality so far is good, now it’s about delivering the job,” Pochettino said at his Friday news conference. “We have the belief and that is the most important thing in football and the faith that you can beat any team away from home.

“It’s a special game, it’s tough to play this sort of game, it means more. We know that it means to our fans this game. The players feel that and are aware what it means. We have a lot of players that have arrived to the first team from the academy and they know what it means.”

Pochettino does have some selection decisions to make, most notably along his back four. Centre back Jan Vertonghen made his return in a pressure cooker of a situation after a 10-game absence due to a hamstring injury. With Juan Foyth available after not being on the initial Champions League roster, it is possible Pochettino will turn to the young Argentina international and not tax the veteran Belgian further this week.

Right back Kieran Trippier may be available after missing the last two games due to a groin injury, and left back Danny Rose could be in line for his first appearance in 10 showings after making the bench midweek. Ben Davies, though, has made the most of his playing time since Rose got hurt and could get one more start.

Up front, Erik Lamela will be a match-time decision due to a thigh injury, but Pochettino has plenty of options there as he can start Eriksen – who came off the bench on 70 minutes versus Inter – as well as Son or Lucas Moura.

The Lilywhites have a miserable record at both Highbury and the Emirates in the Premier League era with just two wins in 27 overall matches (2-10-15). The lone victory in the last 26 was a 3-2 triumph in 2010 after fighting back from two down. Arsenal are 5-3-0 in the last eight at the Emirates and posted a 2-0 victory last term as Shkodran Mustafi and the since-departed Alexis Sanchez scored five minutes apart late in the first half.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, Arsenal are narrow favourites to extend their unbeaten run at 13/8, while Tottenham are a 7/4 selection to win the match and keep the heat on Liverpool for second. The odds of the teams splitting the points are 13/5.

Oddsmakers are expecting a back-and-forth affair with 4/7 odds of there being more than 2.5 goals compared to 11/8 odds on a total under that threshold. There are 4/9 odds neither keeper will post a clean sheet compared to a 13/8 return for a shutout on either or potentially both sides.

Kane and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang are joint-leaders for the first goal-scorer options at 10/3, with Arsenal’s Alexander Lacazette at 5/1 edging out Spurs’ Fernando Llorente (6/1) for the third spot. A mix of players — Nketiah, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Moura — are all 13/2 while Son lurks just behind the trio at 15/2.

For any-time scorers, Kane and Aubameyang are better than even money to find the back of the net at 4/5 odds, while Lacazette is again third, this time with a 13/10 return. Of the more intriguing options in a match that figures to be a back-and-forth affair, Son is 2/1 while Alli and Eriksen are both 11/4 picks for the Lilywhites. Moura and Mkhitaryan are 7/4 picks while Ozil is a 3/1 option for the Gunners.

PREDICTION

Compared to the feeling like the world will end at Merseyside if there is a loser between Liverpool and Everton, the north London derby rages white hot because of the expectation both teams are going to put on a show. Arsenal laid down an important marker in their draw against Liverpool when Emery went all out and got a deserved equaliser through Lacazette, that they will no longer curl into the fetal position when adversity arrives.

The change in culture and accountability Emery has instilled in less than a year on the job is nothing short of remarkable, and it is now starting to dawn on Manchester United and the other hopefuls for a top-five spot just how hard it is going to be to dislodge Arsenal from that spot or potentially higher in the table depending on how they survive the holiday fixture list and then evolve from that point forward.

Then there are Spurs, who come into this match with a full tailwind and esprit de corps in a bid to cap what would be a truly glorious eight days around the construction cones of White Hart Lane. Tottenham are fully deserving of the plaudits given to them, first last weekend with their pillar-to-post thrashing of Chelsea and then mid-week with their relentlessness to see off Inter late.

While there are some injury concerns for this match — will Lamela play, is Trippier healthy, does Pochettino trust Vertonghen’s hamstring to survive two high-impact matches four days apart — Spurs are all they got right now, and they are making it more than enough. For this derby, though, this is where Kane must be the bogeyman of the Emirates like he is for the Gunners at White Hart Lane.

Note: This has not been due to a lack of effort or results since has has seven goals in eight lifetime matches versus Arsenal. It’s just his two match-winners have come at home, and there would be nothing more fitting than to see Tottenham see out these eight days with their talisman putting the finishing touch on a slumpbuster.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Arsenal 2, Tottenham 3.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 14 PREVIEWS:

Manchester City (11-2-0) vs. Bournemouth (6-2-5)
Southampton (1-5-7) vs. Manchester United (6-3-4)
Chelsea (8-4-1) vs. Fulham (2-2-9)
Liverpool (10-3-0) vs. Everton (6-4-3)