2018-19 Champions League Match Day 6 Preview — y-Barcelona (4-1-0, 13, +9) vs. Tottenham Hotspur (2-1-2, 7, -1)

(y-denotes clinched first in Group B)

It is not “Mission: Impossible” but still a daunting challenge for Tottenham Hotspur at the Nou Camp nevertheless: Spurs must at least match the result of fellow Group B side Inter Milan on Tuesday against Barcelona to reach the knockout round of the Champions League for the second straight year.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Inter are hosting last-place PSV Eindhoven in the other Group B match which is going on simultaneously. The Lilywhites have no one to blame but themselves for this predicament, throwing away points from winning positions at both the San Siro and Philips Stadion in their other two road matches before scrambling to give themselves a chance to advance with wins over both the Italian and Dutch sides.

Tottenham Hotspur, though, will face long odds in trying to deal the Blaugrana their first Champions League defeat at the Nou Camp since Bayern Munich stormed to a 3-0 victory in the second leg of their 2013 semifinal.

Barcelona have gone a staggering 26-2-0 at home since that loss to Bayern completed an embarrassing 7-0 aggregate defeat. Barca have outscored opponents 87-13 in those games and not conceding more than once in any of them. The current La Liga leaders have a chance to match the longest Champions League home unbeaten run set by Bayern at 29 games from 1998-2002.

“This is special because it’s special for Tottenham and it’s special for us to have the chance to go to the next stage of the Champions League – and that’s with all the respect to Barcelona,” Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino said at his Monday news conference, himself no stranger to Barcelona derbies from his days as a player and manager with Espanyol.

“We are focused on trying to prepare for the game in the best way. After the victory against Leicester I think it’s important in a decisive game to have confidence and a belief we can win. Of course, in front of us, we are going to have one of the best teams in the world and it’s going to be tough, but the most important thing is to be focused and concentrate on trying to play in our best way and trying to win.

“Without belief in football, it is too difficult to win,” Pochettino added. “I think it’s so important to arrive at that moment with the belief and the faith that we can perform in the best way. After that, we will see what happens in the game because you need some luck and some good things to happen for you but we are confident that we can do a good job.”

The big news for Spurs will be the likely insertion of third-choice Kyle Walker-Peters at right back since both Kieran Trippier and Serge Aurier did not make the trip due to injuries. Walker-Peters got a late runout Saturday in Tottenham’s 2-0 win at Leicester City, and the 21-year-old has the complete confidence of manager Mauricio Pochettino heading into this crunch encounter.

“His quality is unbelievable. Younger players always need trust and one day to be given a chance to play and to play here at a difficult place like the Nou Camp will make him stronger. We don’t have a doubt that he can perform,” Pochettino said at Monday’s news conference. “I’m so happy because from the beginning of the season we have three excellent players in that position, three players with different qualities. Kyle has the quality to play.

“He needs to feel free. He’s a very relaxed player and person and the most important thing is that we believe in him, we trust in him and whatever happens he will be a massive success at this Club.”

Walker-Peters is part of a back line who have been severely challenged throughout the season due to injuries as only Toby Alderweireld has emerged unscathed coming off the World Cup summer. Left back Danny Rose and fellow centre backs Jan Vertonghen and Davinson Sanchez have all missed time due to injury, with Sanchez still sidelined. A potential centre back replacement, Juan Foyth, is not eligible for this match since he was not on Tottenham’s 25-man roster for group play but is also injured at the moment.

Up front, however, there was good news as playmaking midfielder Erik Lamela was cleared to play and should see his first action since suffering a thigh bruise in Spurs’ win over Inter Milan on Nov. 28. Pochettino must choose between Lamela, Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli, Lucas Moura and Heung-Min Son among his attacking options alongside striker Harry Kane.

Kane leads the Lilywhites with 13 goals in all competitons, and both he and Son have bagged three in their last five matches in all competitions. Kane also has potted seven goals in his last seven Champions League away matches.

Eriksen has a goal and three assists in that stretch and Alli two goals and two assists as Spurs have racked up 11 goals in those five contests while winning four.

Barcelona have gone a staggering 26-2-0 at the Nou Camp in Champions League play since that loss to Bayern completed an embarrassing 7-0 aggregate defeat. Barca have outscored opponents 87-13 during this unbeaten run and have not conceded more than once in any of those contests. There have been five wins over Premier League teams in that stretch, including three over Manchester City.

The Blaugrana have won back-to-back matches and waxed Pochettino’s Espanyol side 4-0 on Saturday as Lionel Messi had a brace on either side of halftime via a pair of jaw-dropping free kicks. Messi also set up a goal by Ousmane Dembele, who set up a goal by Luis Suarez that gave Barca a 3-0 lead right before halftime.

Ernesto Valverde’s team have nothing to play for in this match — Barcelona will finish atop their Champions League group for the 12th consecutive year and the lone blemish was a 1-1 draw at the San Siro versus Inter. Valverde has already decided to hold out Suarez for this match, while it is possible Messi could also be a spectator for the Catalans.

That could prove largely beneficial for Spurs as Messi has tormented English sides with 22 goals and six assists in 29 career Champions League matches. His 22 Champions League goals are the most of any player against English clubs, far outpacing runner-up Cristiano Ronaldo (12).

“There are players with discomfort and it does not fit into my plans, of course, to play then in two games in three days,” Valverde said ahead of the Nou Camp clash when asked about player availability and maintaining the integrity of the match with nothing at stake.

“Inter has nothing to fear. If they had drawn or won, they would have no problem. We have to look after ourselves. We will go out to win but we respect the competition and we want to win.”

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, oddsmakers are still fairly confident in Barca being able to win without at least Suarez and potentially Messi as well, entering this contest as 19/20 favourites. Spurs are 5/2 underdogs to get a victory that could potentially propel them to the knockout round, and there are 10/3 odds on the sides splitting the points.

After the ragged six-goal match between the sides at Wembley on Match Day 2, it is also not surprising their are 1/2 odds for the clubs to clear 2.5 goals compared to the 13/8 odds to finish below it. There are similar 1/2 odds for both teams to score at least one goal, while 6/4 odds exist for at least one clean sheet.

With Messi still at least a possibility to play, he leads the toteboard for first goal-scorers at 11/4 with plenty of daylight between him and Kane at 4/1. Dembele is an 11/2 selection as the third-most likely option, while one-time Liverpool forward Philippe Coutinho has 6/1 odds. Barca’s El Haddadi Munir rounds out the top five options at 13/2 just ahead of a whole slew of Spurs to make it 0-1 — Fernando Llorente (7/1), Son and Moura (15/2), Alli and Lamela (10/1) and Eriksen (11/1).

Messi is an 8/13 pick to score over the course of 90 minutes, and Kane is even money to do likewise. Dembele again edges out Coutinho for third at 7/5 compared to 8/5 for the Brasil international, with Munir (7/4) and Llorente (15/8) completing the group at better than 2/1 odds. Son and Moura start that group, followed by Alli and Lamela at 11/4 and Eriksen at 3/1.

PREDICTION

Let’s be blunt about this for a second: Spurs are going to have to win this match because the odds of PSV getting a victory at the San Siro are far longer at 17/2 than the Lilywhites at that more modest 5/2 offering. That said, Tottenham are going to have to withstand the first half-hour of this match — no small challenge since Barcelona were two up in the reverse fixture before 30 minutes had passed at Wembley.

That means the spotlight will shine brightest on Walker-Peters, who has not played a minute of the previous five group contests. His under-20 turn with England aside, Walker-Peters’ lone match action for Spurs before Saturday’s late runout came in their Carabao Cup win over West Ham United on Halloween.

While he may miss out on Suarez, Coutinho will undoubtedly be someone to mark, and that does not even account for the interplay between the Brasilian and Messi, who would likely move into the false No. 9 role without Suarez into the middle of Barca’s three-man front. Messi has accounted for six of Barcelona’s 13 goals in Champions League play, but no one else on the La Liga side has more than one.

Tottenham have shown plenty of fight in getting to this point, and they also showed plenty of it in that loss to Barcelona at Wembley, twice drawing within one goal before a 90th-minute marker from Messi sealed that victory. But a victory at the Nou Camp by any English club is rare — the lone one in 30 matches since the start of the 1976-77 season was a 2-1 win by Liverpool in 2007.

There will be plenty of heart for Tottenham to display, but the fact Pochettino’s side have to play an open match to equal Inter’s result means Barcelona will have many opportunities themselves, and the Catalan side are too ruthless to not take advantage.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Barcelona 3, Tottenham Hotspur 2.

OTHER UEFA Champions League Match Day 6 Previews:

Liverpool (2-0-3, 6, +1) vs. Napoli (2-3-0, 9, +3)
x-Manchester City (3-1-1, 10, +9) vs. Hoffenheim 1899 (0-3-2, 3, -2)
Valencia (1-2-2, 5, -1) vs. x-Manchester United (3-1-1, 10, +4)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 16 Preview — Leicester City (6-4-5) vs. Tottenham Hotspur (11-0-4)

Easily shaking off their north London derby loss, Tottenham Hotspur seek back-to-back wins as they face Leicester City on Saturday at King Power Stadium.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

 

The Spurs (11-0-4), though, must also resist the temptation to peek beyond this match to their crunch Champions League encounter at Barcelona midweek. Tottenham must at least match the result of Inter Milan, who host group-bottom PSV Eindhoven, for a second consecutive appearance in the knockout round.

But first things first, and that means building on a 3-1 victory over Southampton on Wednesday in which the Lilywhites barely had to get beyond second gear. Harry Kane scored his 13th goal in all competitions and assisted on Heung-Min Son’s marker on 55 minutes that lifted Spurs to third in the table on 33 points, two better than London rivals Chelsea and Arsenal.

It was also Son’s 100th goal in European competitions in a career that included stops at Hamburg and Bayer Leverkusen before joining Spurs in 2015, and all four of his goals this term have come in Tottenham’s last eight matches in all competitions after helping South Korea beat Japan in the Asian Games final.

“We are so happy in the way he has started to perform in the last few games, after the international break,” manager Mauricio Pochettino said post-match about Son. “It’s difficult to guess because he’s still so young, a great character, he’s so professional and he’s enjoys playing football a lot, but enjoys training the same in the same level.

“If you want to go further as a player you must love your job. You must love training and spending time with your team-mates on the training ground. If you are capable of that and feel like he feels, it’s possible to do everything.”

All told, Pochettino made five changes to his starting XI from the north London derby, including three at the back. In all likelihood, Juan Foyth will retain his centre back spot for this contest since he is not on the Champions League roster, while Toby Alderweireld may be given a rest in this contest.

Fellow central defender Jan Vertonghen still needs more match fitness after missing 10 matches with a hamstring injury before returning last week and then served a one-match ban Wednesday after his two yellow cards versus Arsenal. Kieran Trippier may also sit this one out as Pochettino is still annoyed at the groin injury he believes the right back picked up due to overuse by England.

“I think it’s the same problem, the same problem that started in the World Cup. If you remember the semi-final against Croatia, when he left the pitch,” Pochettino said. “Then I think to play after three days against Belgium, I think maybe it affected a little bit. Now he’s suffering in that situation. In situations like today when the pitch is not in a good condition, this area, the groin, suffers more when the pitch is different.

“It’s a thing that we need to care a lot for him, protect him, he needs to work a lot to protect and sort that problem.”

Pochettino will also have to ponder resting Kane, who is in both a purple patch in terms of scoring and an absolute terror to Leicester City. The Three Lions talisman has six goals in his last seven matches in all competitions and 11 in seven career matchups with Leicester City. Kane had a brace and the winner in the most recent matchup, a wild 5-4 Spurs win to cap last season, and had a four-goal effort at King Power to cap the 2016-17 term.

Dele Alli will likely be restored to the starting XI for this contest, though fellow attacking midfielder Erik Lamela could be held out of a third straight match due to a thigh injury suffered in Spurs’ win over Inter Milan on Nov. 28.

Leicester City (6-4-5) are unbeaten in their last six in league play (2-4-0) after playing Fulham and former manager Claudio Ranieri to a 1-1 draw at Craven Cottage on Wednesday. James Maddison scored the equaliser on 74 minutes, with substitute Shinjo Okazaki providing the assist two minutes after his insertion by Claude Puel.

“I think in the first half we missed a lot of chances and they scored,” midfielder Vicente Iborra told Leicester City’s official website. “In the first half we tried to combat the game, we had a lot of chances and at the end we could’ve scored, but I think the point is fair.”

The draw left the Foxes ninth in the table on 22 points, but they are also just one back of sixth-place Everton. Leicester have not conceded at home in 330 minutes in all competitions dating to Fabian Balbuena’s 30th-minute goal for West Ham in a 1-1 draw Oct. 27.

Puel has injury concerns to his two best players as centre back Harry Maguire only returned to training this week following a lower-body injury and is uncertain to feature in this match, but Jamie Vardy has been definitely ruled out of thie contest. The striker picked up a groin injury in training ahead of Wednesday’s match, and Puel hinted surgery could be an option for Vardy – Leicester’s joint-top scorer with Maddison with five goals in league play.

Vardy was as much a thorn in Tottenham’s side as Kane was to the Foxes last term, scoring in both matches and bagging the winner in Leicester’s 2-1 victory at King Power. That ended a five-match unbeaten run (4-1-0) in the Midlands for the Lilywhites, who are 5-3-2 in their last 10 league meetings.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, Spurs are even-money favourites to claim all three points from the Midlands, and a draw at 11/4 rates slightly above Leicester City pulling off a surprise victory at 14/5. There are 4/5 odds for the teams to combine for more than 2.5 goals, and it is even money to stay under that threshold.

Even with the likely absence of Vardy, oddsmakers rate Leicester’s offense, as there are 4/6 odds for both teams to score compared to 11/10 for at least one clean sheet.

As would be expected given his prolific track record versus the Foxes, Kane leads the way for first-goal scoring honours at 3/1, while his understudy Fernando Llorente is second at 5/1. Vardy has 11/2 odds along with Lucas Moura, while Son is a step back at 13/2 and Lamela at 15/2. Leicester striker Kelechi Iheanacho is an 8/1 pick to give the hosts a 1-0 lead, with Maddison and Demarai Gray both 9/1.

Kane is a 5/6 pick to score over the course of the 90 minutes, with Llorente a 6/4 selection. Vardy and Moura are again paired together, this time at 13/8, while Son is 2/1. Lamela checks in at 12/5, Iheanacho is 5/2, and both Eriksen and Alli are 11/4 picks to put one past Schmeichel.

PREDICTION

This is a tough ask for Leicester, even if Maguire does find his way into the starting XI for the first time since Nov. 3. Kane has been an unholy menace to the Midlands side, and even with Maguire back, he will be a handful for Leicester’s central defence.

But this match does put Pochettino in a tough spot considering he will need all hands on deck for Tuesday at the Nou Camp. In an ideal world, Kane buries a brace in the first hour of the match and Pochettino pulls him for the final quarter-hour with the match done and dusted. It also would not be surprising to see Lamela get a late runout for Eriksen just to make sure he could be available to face Barcelona.

Pochettino has almost every player available for Saturday and Tuesday, but it also comes down to man management for the Argentine. Each of the three substitutions are going to be scruitinised, and the primary goal beyond the three points is to get out of this match with no injuries, no knocks and able to choose the best 25 players.

Spurs have almost always taken care of business before a Champions League match — they are 4-0-1 in the league contests ahead of such a contest, and the lone loss came to Liverpool. It will require some graft, but for all the talk about the lack of Tottenham’s squad depth throughout the season after a dormant summer, this will be the match where it will make a difference.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Leicester City 0, Tottenham Hotspur 1.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 16 PREVIEWS

Manchester United (6-5-4) vs. Fulham (2-3-10)
Chelsea (9-4-2) vs. Manchester City (13-2-0)
Newcastle United (3-4-8) vs. Wolverhampton (5-4-6)
Everton (6-5-4) vs. Watford (6-2-7)

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)

 

2018-19 EPL Match Day 13 Preview: Tottenham Hotspur (9-0-3) vs. Chelsea (8-4-0)

Contenders or pretenders?

Both Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur are in search of three vital points to stay within stalking distance of reigning champions and frontrunners Manchester City when the top-four clubs face off Saturday in a London derby at Wembley Stadium.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Chelsea (8-4-0) are third in the table, four points back of City and one of three unbeatens in the league along with the Citizens and Liverpool. While Maurizio Sarri has made a successful transition to the Premier League from Napoli and the Blues will progress to the knockout rounds of the Europa League, there is a sense there is not much space between where his side are and their ceiling.

The Pensioners are 1-2-0 thus far against the other members of the Big Six, and their showdown at home versus Manchester City looms on Dec. 8. Chelsea beat a similarly transitioning Arsenal squad in Match Day 2 and have been held to draws versus Liverpool and Manchester United, conceding goals in the 89th and 93rd minutes, respectively.

While Chelsea are always among the league leaders with players who toil for their respective countries during the international break, few have drawn as much speculation in the recent recesses than striker Olivier Giroud.

The France international, who has just one goal this season and yet to break his duck in league play, once more tried to put an end to the talk he is unhappy at Chelsea as Sarri has played the hot hand between Giroud and Alvaro Morata – the only two true strikers on the club.

“I feel like I’m going back a few months with these questions, so I asked the same questions before the World Cup,” Giroud told Telefoot after converting a penalty in Les Bleus’ 1-0 win over Uruguay in a friendly. “I’m at peace, happy with this title of world champion, and that’s the best thing I could do in my career, I’m putting a lot of things in perspective.

“I do not need to put a lot of pressure on me to have more play time. I’m not going to let go, I’m going to continue working to make my way in. Today there’s no question of moving, of changing anything, I’m going to hang on, do not count on me for give up.”

While Morata may be Sarri’s first-choice striker, the Italian may be forced into a change in the midfield as Mateo Kovacic was held out of both of Croatia’s matches due to a knock. If he is unable to go, Ross Barkley would take his spot in the starting XI to the left of Jorginho in Chelsea’s 4-3-3 set-up.

Tottenham Hotspur (9-0-3) may finally be ready to kick on after an early season of uneven play, especially in the Champions League. In fact, their lack of success in the continental tournament – the Lilywhites still have heavy lifting to reach the knockout round – has brought a sharper focus in grinding out league results.

The Spurs have six wins in their last seven top-flight matches, the lone reverse a 1-0 defeat at home to City. Last season, their inspired Champions League play in which they finished atop a group with eventual three-times champion Real Madrid led to a lull domestically that contributed to City easing to the Premier League title.

“We are up there. Maybe we haven’t played the best football we have showed for the last few years. But we have still got the points. Sometimes that is necessary,” winger Christian Eriksen told The Mirror. “That is how it goes and at some point if it clicks and we get the points, then we will be different.

“We will go for it and we will see where we end up. We will do our best and then, if we are lucky or not lucky , we will see.”

The big issue for Mauricio Pochettino heading into this match is depth on the back line. Left back Danny Rose and centre back Davinson Sanchez remain long-term injury absentees, and right back Kieran Trippier is unlikely to play after suffering an injury in the 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace prior to the international break.

Jan Vertonghen was expected to be sidelined until next month, but the Belgium international could be in line to make a return for this contest. If Pochettino wants to be conservative and not reunite Vertonghen with his compatriot Toby Alderweireld, Juan Foyth would get another call to central defence.

Serge Aurier would get the call should Trippier not be able to play.

This match kicks off an intense eight-day stretch for Tottenham, who have a must-win Champions League encounter at home versus Inter Milan midweek before a north London derby at Arsenal on Dec. 2.

The road team won both matches last term, with Dele Alli helping Spurs end their 28-year run of misery at Stamford Bridge with a brace four minutes apart in the second half of a 3-1 victory. Chelsea recorded a 2-1 win at Wembley as left back Marcos Alonso completed his brace on 88 minutes, making sure an own goal by Michy Batshuayi would not result in a draw.

Chelsea have an impressive 30-19-6 record versus their London rivals in the Premier League era and have taken points in 16 of the last 19 meetings in all competitions (9-7-3).

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Chelsea are slight favourites to claim all three points and further burnish their title credentials with 6/4 odds for a victory. Spurs have 17/10 odds to pip the Pensioners for third while handing Sarri his first defeat, and there are 12/5 odds on the teams finishing in a deadlock.

There are 27/10 odds on Chelsea winning with more than 2.5 goals, with Spurs offering a 3/1 return on such an outcome for them. A 0-0 or 1-1 draw has 15/4 odds, and both sides have 11/2 odds on a victory with less than 2.5 goals. A 2-2 draw and higher has 17/2 odds.

In a match with attacking superstars, Kane rises highest to be the odds-on favourite to open the scoring at 10/3, followed by Chelsea’s Eden Hazard at 9/2. The striker tandem for the Blues — Morata and Giroud — follow their teammate as the Spaniard has 5/1 odds and the Frenchman 11/2. Spurs reserve striker Fernando Llorente rounds out the top five at 6/1, and there are a host of players at 8/1 — Heung-Min Son, Erik Lamela, Willian, Lucas Moura and Pedro.

Kane is narrowly better than even money to score during the course of the match at 91/100, with Hazard above the threshold at 7/5. Morata’s form makes him a 17/10 selection, edging out Giroud (7/4). Llorente is further back at 19/10, and the group of scorers at 8/1 for the first goal are again lumped together for an any-time marker as Willian, Pedro, and Moura are 5/2, while Son and Lamela are 13/2.

PREDICTION

This is a match that could go in any direction, especially with Spurs seemingly threadbare at the back in which Alderwiereld — the one wooed by Manchester United in the summer transfer window — the last one standing of the back four. This is also a curious clash of styles — Pochettino is able to strategise on a match-to-match basis and likes to push opponents wide, yet going through the flanks is how Chelsea operate once Jorginho initiates the offence.

Giroud’s comments were interesting, but also interesting is that no one seems to have any idea if Chelsea will add a third striker in the January transfer window. One of the appealing parts of Sarri to Chelsea was the gaffer’s perceived indifference to the comings and goings on of the market, but it also seems impossible a man who gets to granular levels on tactics is wholly ignorant of who is available and more importantly, who can help Chelsea.

And that is the issue right now because despite not having a loss, Chelsea need help. Or at the very least, Morata and Giroud must score goals. Both have played well in spurts and both are willing foot soldiers, but at some point, they have to put goals on the scoreboard. Otherwise, these late concessions that have already cost the Pensioners four points on two occasions will cost them three in one.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Tottenham Hotspur 1, Chelsea 2.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 13 PREVIEWS:

West Ham United (3-3-6) vs. Manchester City (10-2-0)
Fulham (1-2-9) vs. Southampton (1-5-6)
Bournemouth (6-2-4) vs. Arsenal (7-3-2)
Watford (6-2-4) vs. Liverpool (9-3-0)

Champions League Match Day 4 — Tottenham Hotspur (0-1-2, 1,-3) vs. PSV Eindhoven (0-1-2, 1, -5)

With their proverbial backs to the wall and without their No. 1 goalkeeper, Tottenham Hotspur look to keep their flickering Champions League hopes alive in a de facto elimination match in Group B on Tuesday at Wembley Stadium versus PSV Eindhoven.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

 

Spurs have had a trying fortnight that started with their 2-2 draw at Philips Stadion that left both them and PSV teetering on the edge of elimination with three matches remaining. Barcelona are in command of the group with the maximum nine points, three better than Inter Milan, and both sides are rooting for the Catalan giants to complete a sweep of Nerazzuri that would give the winner of this match — provided they do not draw again — a lifeline to escaping the group as runners-up.

Tottenham, though, have a selection dilemma on their hands since No. 1 Hugo Lloris must serve his red card suspension for his challenge outside the penalty area on Hirving Lozano in the reverse fixture. Paulo Gazzaniga would appear to be the frontrunner consideirng he has won all four of his starts this season — two in the Premier League and two in the Carabao Cup after a 3-1 derby victory at West Ham United last week in the latter — but Mauricio Pochettino admitted Monday he has yet to land on a starter among Gazzaniga, Michel Vorm and Alfie Whiteman.

“We try to be fair in our selection,” Pochettino told the club’s official website. “We talk about form and performance and my decision is to choose the best player who is going to affect the team. In my mind, there is not a number one, two and three. Football is dynamic and things change a lot. We always try to be fair to them with our decisions.”

Vorm made three starts earlier this term when Lloris was sidelined with a thigh bruise and then dealt with the aftermath of his drink-driving arrest. The Netherlands international started Spurs’ Champions League play opener, a 2-1 loss at Inter Milan. Vorm suffered an injury in that contest, giving way to Gazzaniga for three matches before Lloris returned for the 4-2 home defeat to Barcelona.

The hangover from the draw in the Netherlands carried into league play, where the Lilywhites lost 1-0 to reigning champions and current table-toppers Manchester City on a ragged Wembley Stadium pitch that had been worn out due to a series of NFL games played there. Tottenham regrouped to a degree with the cup win over West Ham United then survived a nervy 20 minutes to record a 3-2 victory at Wolverhampton on Saturday.

Erik Lamela and Lucas Moura scored three minutes apart in the first half, and the match appeared done and dusted when Harry Kane followed up his own saved shot to lash one into the net for a three-goal lead on 62 minutes, but defender Juan Foyth lost the plot as he committed two fouls 10 minutes apart — movements that began with gaffes by right back Kieran Trippier — that Wolves converted from the spot.

Lloris made some key interceptions and interventions to preserve the three points as Tottenham remained five back of Manchester City, but Pochettino did note after the win the England international right back’s defensive play must improve.

“Of course Kieran needs to improve in the defensive situation, because in the last few games we have conceded a few actions,” the gaffer told The Times. “Like him, all the players need to improve in the defensive situation and be more aggressive. [Against] Barcelona, Manchester City and now, we concede very poor goals and that is a thing that we need to improve on. That is mentality, it’s belief that you can improve: it’s about will, not about quality. Quality is when you have the ball at your feet and you score a fantastic goal, or a great pass. But for me, in football, the key is when you don’t have the ball.”

Whether Pochettino is willing to sacrifice Trippier’s superb crossing ability with a more defensive-minded right back in Serge Aurier is yet to be determined, but in a match like this where Spurs not only need three points but a multiple-goal win to give themselves a fighting chance at overtaking Inter Milan, Tripper’s spot likely appears safe.

The good news for Spurs is most of their attacking options finally appear fully healthy. Dele Alli was held out of the Wolves match as a precaution, but after starting in the Carabao Cup victory, it would appear he is ready to re-join the fray. Heung-Min Son appeared as a substitute after a brace against West Ham and could be among the 18 for this match.

“We know what we have to do if we want to progress in this group and that’s win all of the games that we have coming up,” left back Ben Davies said at Monday’s news conference. “That’s our mindset. That’s been our mindset since the start but it hasn’t gone the way we’d have wanted. But that’s what we have to do from now on.”

PSV extended their perfect start in the Eredivisie, making it 11 wins in as many matches with a 1-0 victory over 10-man Vitesse on Saturday. It was the usual suspects teaming up for Eindhoven’s lone goal as Hirving Lozano set up Luuk de Jong’s winner in the 69th minute.

“We know how to score a goal but we have been made to work very hard for it. When Doekhi had been sent off, Vitesse defended stoutly  and we found it hard to break down their compact defence”, De Jong told the club’s official website. “That was a good cross and that’s the way I like to have them. I was in the right place to slot home.”

PSV coach Mark Van Bommel is expected to field almost the exact same starting XI from the first encounter between the teams. The most likely change will be at left wing, where Steve Berwijn is expected to get the nod over Danyell Malen after missing the first game through injury.

It was the ninth goal in 11 league matches for de Jong as PSV bounced back from a surprising second-round loss in the KNVB Cup to RKC Waalwijk 3-2 in extra time in which Mark Van Bommel overturned his entire side from their 2-1 win at FC Gronigen.

Eindhoven have not won an away match in Champions League group play since a 1-0 victory at CSKA Moscow in 2007, going 0-2-8. PSV, however, did win at BATE en route to reaching the group stage this term and also at Zulte Waregem in preliminary qualifying rounds in 2013.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, the Lilywhites are overwhelming favourites to claim all three points at 4/11 odds, while PSV are 7/1 longshots to pull off a shock scoreline and keep their fleeting hopes of advancement alive. There are 4/1 odds on a draw that would all but mathematically eliminate both sides unless Inter win, which in that case, a draw would leave both teams playing for third place and a spot in the Europa League.

After a four-goal thriller in the Netherlands, it is not surprising a Tottenham victory with more than 2.5 goals would lead the way with 5/6 odds. A Spurs victory by a 1-0 or 2-0 count checks in with 18/5 odds. A 0-0 or 1-1 draw has a 6/1 return, and a PSV victory with more than 2.5 goals gets 10/1 odds. A defensive Dutch road victory is the longest of longshot at 18/1, while another 2-2 draw or higher has 12/1 odds.

Kane leads the list for first-goal scorers at 9/4 odds, with a parade of Spurs teammates behind him. Fernando Llorente is 7/2, while Son has 5/1 odds, having picked up some momentum with his Carabao Cup brace. Moura and Lamela are 11/2 and 13/2, respectively, while playmakers Alli and Christian Eriksen are both 7/1 picks to make it 1-0. Unsurprisingly, Lozano and de Jong are the top options for PSV, both getting a listing of 8/1.

Kane is a staggering 8/15 to get a goal during this match, while Llorente is just worse than even money at 21/20. Son (7/5), Moura (8/5) and Lamela (19/10) are all better than 2/1 selections, which is where you can find Alli and Eriksen. Lozano and de Jong are again paired together for PSV’s top selections — weighing in at 23/10 — and PSV playmaker Gaston Pereiro has 7/2 odds to find the back of the net.

PREDICTION

It was in some ways comical to see the absolute disdain Pochettino had over the final 20 minutes of Spurs’ win over Wolverhampton as he watched the match go from walkabout in the park at 3-0 to “(Bleep), we could actually drop points here” after Raul Jimenez calmly stroked his penalty to make it 3-2 with 12 minutes to play.

Yet Spurs persevered and got the three points, which were absolutely vital after their tetchy 1-0 loss to City in which both good Spurs and bad Spurs were on display. But for this match, Pochettino really has to release the hounds and go after a victory. That means the attacking rotation must include Alli, Son, Moura, Lamela and Eriksen behind Kane, and Trippier must play right back, warts and all on the defensive side of the moment.

The Wembley pitch will again be a concern, with UEFA actually dispatching an inspector before determining if PSV will be given the federation-allowed one hour of training on the grounds. Per Sky Sports, the Wembley grounds crew did not think the seven days between the match against City and this contest were enough for the pitch to be 100 percent recovered, but it would still expect to be much better than the condition for the City contest in which the middle appeared to have more dirt than grass, and the NFL yardage lines and league logo still clearly visible.

This is match where Spurs’ wide backs — Davies and Trippier — will have to play well given PSV’s pace on the flanks. They caused plenty of problems in the Netherlands, evidenced by their late fightback after Lloris was banished, and there must be a commitment to help Gazzaniga, who has acquitted himself well with wins in all four matches, including one via penalties.

The panic period for Spurs may have passed by them hanging on for a victory over Wolverhampton. Hopefully, Pochettino lets them play a fearless match because the only thing they control in this group at the moment are these 90 minutes.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Tottenham Hotspur 4, PSV 1.

OTHER CHAMPIONS LEAGUE MATCH DAY 4 PREVIEWS:

Red Star Belgrade (0-1-2, 1, -9) vs. Liverpool (2-0-1, 6, +4)
Juventus (3-0-0, 9, +6) vs. Manchester United (1-1-1, 4, +2)
Manchester City (2-0-1, 6, +3) vs. Shakhtar Donetsk (0-2-1, -3)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 11 Preview — Wolverhampton (4-3-3) vs. Tottenham Hotspur (7-0-3)

Coming off a needed palette-cleansing victory in the Carabao Cup, Tottenham Hotspur look to begin the business of closing the distance between themselves and leaders Manchester City on Saturday when they face struggling Wolverhampton at Molineux.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Tottenham Hotspur (7-0-3) had a pair of matches to forget, first being held to a 2-2 draw at PSV Eindhoven in Champions League play that all but scuttled their hopes for advancing to the knockout round despite having three matches remaining. The hangover continued Monday at Wembley Stadium, where the Lilywhites never fully recovered from a sixth-minute goal scored by Riyad Mahrez as they fell 1-0 to the reigning champions.

Manager Mauricio Pochettino’s lineup deserved some scrutiny, most notably in the form of selecting Moussa Sissoko for the left wing in Spurs’ 4-2-3-1 set-up when a creative tandem of Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela was there in the offering. It was Lamela, though, who was left to rue his scuffed chance during the final quarter-hour, the ball taking a slight skip on the worn Wembley pitch before he sent his shot for the upper left corner well over the bar.

The loss dropped Spurs five points behind City, but for all intents and purposes, it feels like 50 given the chasm in quality the Citizens enjoyed for a good portion of the match before Spurs desperately chased – and nearly caught – an equaliser late. While it would be easy to use playing at Wembley for a second straight season as an excuse since the re-opening of White Hart Lane has now been pushed back to January, defender Toby Alderweireld said his team cannot lament what has been.

“We never used Wembley as an excuse and we will not do that now,” Alderweireld told Sky Sports. “But it has affected us. I am grateful to play at Wembley, it is a very historical place, but it is not the same feeling as White Hart Lane. There we had a special home feeling.

“But in that way, we did very well to be successful at Wembley. But I know the club is doing everything in their power to play as quickly as possible in our stadium.”

That is what made Wednesday’s 3-1 victory at West Ham United to reach the Carabao Cup quarterfinals so vital to getting rid of the negative vibes. Heung-Min Son had a brace on either side of halftime for his first two goals of the season, and the relief was palpable for the South Korea international as he celebrated the goal with Pochettino.

“You feel sorry when a player works hard and does not get rewarded and Sonny has been ready to work more and more to change his situation,” the gaffer told The Times. “I never usually celebrate the goal but was a little worried for him.”

Fernnado Llorente helped Spurs see out the match with a goal shortly after West Ham pulled within 2-1, and the spoils of the win included another London derby in the round of eight, this time against Arsenal and Pochettino’s old friend and new Gunners manager Unai Emery.

As the preparations continue to eventually move back to White Hart Lane, Spurs did lock up an important piece of the side’s nucleus to play there for years to come by extending Alli’s contract through 2024. He joins striker Harry Kane and keeper Hugo Lloris as the only players with a wage packet of at least £100,000 per week, and it may also put to rest the rumours of Pochettino taking the Real Madrid job that opened up following the sacking of Julen Lopetegui.

“He’s a massive part of wanting to be at this club,” Alli said of Pochettino. “The fans are amazing, the chairman, everyone, the whole club is amazing. But as players, you work with the gaffer, you want to have a good relationship with the manager and we all feel like we’ve got that here.

“We all love the way we work. The style of play, we all want to be a part of it. He’s done a lot for me so far and hopefully he can keep helping me to improve.”

After an impressive start to the season in which they lost just one of their first eight matches, new boys Wolverhampton have come back down to earth some with back-to-back losses. The Wolves (4-3-3) continue to struggle offensively – their nine goals are the fewest of any club in the top half of the table – and have gone 214 minutes without a tally following their 1-0 loss to Brighton and Hove Albion last weekend.

“We’ve got a tough week ahead in training, improving on Brighton because we need to get back to winning ways,” centre back and talisman Conor Coady told the Birmingham Mail. “It’s been an OK start for us, we’ve won a couple but we’ve been beat the last two games which isn’t a nice feeling at all.”

Coach Nuno Espirito Santo may attempt further changes for the second straight contest after finally altering his starting XI for the first time last weekend. Adama Traore, however, failed to make much of an impact as right wing back Matt Doherty had the side’s two best chances at AMEX Stadium.

Traore, though, is likely to get a second bite at the apple since left winger Diogo Jota has been ruled out of this match with a thigh injury. Whether he stays on his preferred right side or goes left for a second consecutive contest with Helder Costa on the right remains to be seen.

Coady is hoping the prime-time kickoff will give a boost to the team through their supporters as Wolves have claimed eight points through their first five home contests (2-2-1) in the top flight.

“What it does do is get you looking forward to a game under the lights,” Coady told the club’s official website. “There’s nothing better than a game under the lights, it’s brilliant, especially here at Molineux, because the crowd are electric at the best of times.”

Wolves do not have any injuries of note, while Spurs continue to be without central defender Jan Vertonghen. With Eriksen and Alli playing 83 and 63 minutes, respectively, versus West Ham, Sissoko and Lamela are likely to be restored to Pochettino’s first XI.

This will be the first meeting between the clubs since Wolves were last in the top flight in 2011-12. Tottenham are unbeaten in the last four matchups (2-2-0) and are 4-2-2 against them in the Premier League era. Wolverhampton’s lone win in four tries against the Lilywhites at Molienux was a 1-0 victory in 2010.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Spurs are clear favourites to return to London with three points, currently getting 13/10 odds, while Wolverhampton are a 2/1 pick to regroup and consolidate their top-half status. The odds of the teams sharing the points are 9/4.

Tottenham are an 11/4 pick to win this game with more than 2.5 goals scored, while there are 4/1 odds for both a Spurs win with less than 2.5 goals and a Wolves victory with more than 2.5. There are 16/5 odds on a draw ending in 0-0 or 1-1, and Wolverhampton offer an 11/2 return on a 1-0 or 2-0 scoreline.

Unsurprisingly, Kane leads the way for the first-goal options at 16/5, with understudy Llorente second at 5/1. Wolves centre forward Raul Jimenez is the top pick for the hosts at 6/1, with Spurs forwards Son and Lucas Moura at 7/1. Leo Bonatini squeezes in between that trio at 13/2, while Lamela offers an 8/1 return to make it 0-1.

Kane is slighty worse than even money to put one past Rui Patricio at 23/20, with Llorente at 15/8 and Jimenez getting 2/1 odds for Wolves. Moura and Son are again paired together, this time with 5/2 odds, while Eriksen and Alli lurk further down the toteboard at 10/3 and 7/2, respectively. Wolverhampton’s trio of Ivan Cavaleiro, Helder Costa and Ruben Neves all have 3/1 odds to score at Molineux.

PREDICTION

Though injuries did force his hand some, this space is still aggravated Pochettino didn’t “go for it” against City and put his more creative playmakers together in a bid to unlock City’s defence. Yes, there are a million different ways Guardiola’s team can beat a side, but there were periods of play when the Lilywhites were the better side and arguably deserved the equaliser Lamela fluffed his lines on, and that makes the Sissoko decision all the more agitating.

Pochettino’s rotation all but insures Sissoko will get another start in this match, though at the next international break, the Argentine will have the opportunity to reset everything in terms of personnel selection and try to climb back into the Premier League race.

While Jota’s injury forces Nuno into that Traore insertion for the second straight match, one has to wonder if Wolverhampton have been found out to a degree offensively in terms of style. Wolves were more unlucky than anything else in losing at Brighton — Glenn Murray’s goal was one that can be attributed to the nous of a 35-yard-old goal-scorer — and they did have seven shots on target.

But with the expectation Wolves will not see much of the ball versus Tottenham — Nuno’s team had 40 percent possession or less in both of their previous matches against “Big Six” sides — scoring chances could be few and far between, and when Spurs get flowing, they can be irresistible.

Wolverhampton have punched above their weight in getting draws against both Manchester sides and have the potential to nick another point in this contest. But Spurs are cagey enough where they can find a way to get space between the middle four and Wolverhampton’s back three, and that could be the difference against a side struggling to put the ball in the back of the net.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Wolverhampton 0, Tottenham Hotspur 1.

OTHER MATCH DAY 11 PREVIEWS:

Arsenal (7-1-2) vs. Liverpool (8-2-0)
Bournemouth (6-2-2) vs. Manchester United (5-2-3)
Newcastle United (0-3-7) vs. Watford (6-1-3)
Chelsea (7-3-0) vs. Crystal Palace (2-2-6)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 10 Preview — Tottenham Hotspur (7-0-2) vs. Manchester City (7-2-0)

Firing on all cylinders and close to full health in attack, Manchester City look to regain their status atop the Premier League on Monday in a mouth-watering clash at Wembley Stadium against top-five side Tottenham Hotspur to close out Match Day 10.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

A victory by City (7-2-0) would put them back atop the table on goal difference over fellow unbeaten Liverpool, who thrashed Cardiff City 4-1 on Saturday. After a brief blip in form in their first two Champions League matches, Pep Guardiola’s team is coming off their best week of play this term as they tore through both Burnley domestically and Shakhtar Donetsk in Europe’s top club competition.

The Citizens followed up their 5-0 demolition of the Clarets by smashing another three without reply against the Ukraine side. David Silva and defender Aymeric Laporte scored five minutes apart in the first half before Bernardo Silva added the third on 70 minutes for City, who extended their shutout streak in all competitions to 359 minutes since an opening-minute marker by Hoffenheim’s Ishak Belfodil on Oct. 2.

Kevin De Bruyne made his first start of the season after appearing as a substitute against Burnley last weekend and provided the corner Laporte headed home for his first assist of the season. The Belgium international had 20 assists in all competitions last season, and with De Bruyne back in the fold, City have all of their best attacking players healthy and available to contribute, which has led to the most pleasant of headaches for Guardiola – choosing the best among them for his starting XI.

“All the players want to play good, play well and be part of the team,” Guardiola said at his Friday news conference. “We have a squad with huge quality and when they play they play good because if it doesn’t happen another one can play.”

Despite their fast start and status as defending Premier League champions after cruising to the title by 19 points over closest pursuers and eternal rivals Manchester United, Guardiola is under no such illusions his side will be able to repeat in a canter to lift the trophy, and he counts Spurs among those who will push his team.

“Two points difference in five, six teams. It’s strong. You see the line-up for Tottenham. Tottenham are always there,” Guardiola said. “They can’t invest because they build an incredible stadium but it’s a top side. Last season we did really well in both games, but they are a top team.

“When you know a team does the same thing, it’s easier to control it. They sometimes play Son with Dele Alli, they can change it. You have to be prepared for that. Tactically they are very well prepared. When we see their game at Inter in Champions League, they were not worse than opponent. I say they were better. But the competition is special. The numbers are the numbers.

“It’s one of the teams I like the most to watch, I learn when I see them.”

Guardiola is expected to restore both striker Sergio Aguero and right back Kyle Walker to his starting XI. He was able to rest Aguero against the weakest side in City’s Champions League group, and the ex-Spurs and current England international Walker had a late runout versus Shakhtar after missing the victory over Burnley with a groin injury. Leroy Sane could also return at right wing, though that would mean either Riyad Mahrez or Raheem Sterling would be coming off the bench.

Such is City’s depth that Guardiola was able to slot central defender John Stones into Walker’s spot the last two matches, though Stones is likely to resume his normal partnership with Laporte in City’s spine as they try to record a sixth consecutive clean sheet in league play. The Citizens have not conceded in 510 minutes since Newcastle’s DeAndre Yedlin beat Ederson in City’s 2-1 victory at the Etihad on Sept. 1.

Though Tottenham Hotspur (7-0-2) are just provisionally five points out of first place, the gap feels larger considering the apparent chasm in form at a truly elite level between the two sides. Their Champions League campaign appears to be over before it started, as a disheartening 2-2 draw at PSV Eindhoven on Wednesday left them with one point from their first three contests with three remaining.

The Lilywhites are in third in Group B, five points behind Inter Milan, and still must travel to leaders Barcelona. A red card to goalkeeper Hugo Lloris in the 79th minute for his challenge outside the box on Hirving Lozano trying to protect a 2-1 lead proved costly as the Dutch side equalised through Luuk De Jong on 87 minutes.

Christian Eriksen was a key contributor offensively in his first start in five matches due to a hamstring injury and assisted on Harry Kane’s goal that gave Spurs a 2-1 lead, but the Denmark international also made a poor back pass that forced Lloris to make the challenge that got him sent off.

“If you watch the game we should have won, there is no other conclusion,” Eriksen dejectedly told the club’s official website. “We should have finished the game off. “We didn’t do that and PSV had the chance to come back. I gave a bad pass away, Hugo was sent off but again, if we finish the game off, we don’t have that at the end. We could have done better.”

The red card does not carry over to domestic competition, so Lloris is expected be between the sticks for this contest. Spurs, though, will get a boost in attack with the likely availability of winger Dele Alli, who has missed the last five matches in all competitions with a hamstring injury.

“We have to be careful with Dele because he was re-injured after Watford (Carabao Cup). Of course he’s okay, he’s training, but we’ll see what happens in the next few days,” manager Mauricio Pochettino told SpursTV on Friday. “We are happy that he’s started (training) today with the group and we hope he’s available for Monday but I’m not sure if we are going to put him in the squad or not.

“Dele is Dele, we all know he’s an important player for us but when he’s injured, we cannot complain because we have the squad. For me, the most important thing is the collective and it’s always important to have everyone available.”

Tottenham are still without half of their back line as central defender Jan Vertonghen and left back Danny Rose are out through injury. If Alli does not return to Pochettino’s first XI, the left wing spot will either go to Erik Lamela or Heung-Min Son in Spurs’ 4-2-3-1 set-up. Lamela has been in fine form with four goals and an assist in his last six matches across all competitions.

Despite their continental struggles, Spurs have won four on the bounce in league play and recorded clean sheets in the last three. The last goal they conceded came in second-half stoppage time in their 2-1 win at Brighton and Hove Albion on Sept. 22.

City did the double over Spurs last season en route to the title, recording wins of 4-1 and 3-1. In the game at Wembley, the match swung on a penalty call in City’s favour by Jon Moss that would have been overturned had there been VAR. But three minutes after Gabriel Jesus opened the scoring, Ilkay Gundogan doubled the lead on 25 minutes, and the Citizens were on their way to victory, secured by Sterling’s late strike after Eriksen made a match of it with a goal.

Manchester City are 10-2-4 in their last 16 matchups with Spurs, who had gone 3-1-0 in the previous four meetings before last term’s two setbacks.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, City are solid favourites to return to the top of the table with 7/10 odds to claim all three points. There are 29/10 odds on the teams sharing the points, while Spurs have 18/5 odds on dealing Guardiola’s side their first loss and adding some drama to the title race.

A Manchester City win in a match featuring more than 2.5 goals leads the way with 27/20 odds, while an 0-1 or 0-2 scoreline in their favour has 4/1 odds. A low-scoring draw offers 9/2 odds, while a Spurs victory with 2.5 goals checks in at 11/2. A 1-0 or 2-0 victory for the hosts is a 10/1 longshot.

Aguero is the leader of the pack for first-goal honours at 16/5, followed by strike partner Gabriel Jesus (4/1). Kane is the only Spurs option among the first six players listed at 9/2, with Sterling (5/1), Mahrez (11/2) and Sane (6/1) forming an ordely queue behind the England talisman.

Aguero is even money to find the back of the net over the course of 90 minutes, with Jesus (5/4) and Kane (7/5) again lurking just behind him. Sterling checks in with 6/4 odds, while the in-form Lamela could fetch a decent return at 4/1. The Silvas — first David (14/5) the Bernardo (16/5) bracket De Bruyne (3/1).

PREDICTION

To borrow a phrase from Emperor Palpatine in “Return of the Jedi,” Manchester City’s attack is indeed “quite operational” with the return of De Bruyne. This space will sing his praises until hoarse, not just because he is so good, but it is because he has the vision to dream. He and David Silva are two wildly creative sides of the same coin with their playmaking and ingenuity.

Yet for all that offence and all those goals, City’s defence has shined for pretty much the enitre month. It helps when you limit the opponent to 25 percent possession, but the other truth is that the back three or four — depending on personnel and Guardiola’s preference — have evolved into a unit as lethal as his attacking four, with Fernandinho their protector while the offence pulls opposing defences apart the way a puppetmaster pulls the strings of a marionette.

About the only thing City can arguably get wrong is personnel selection up front. That Guardiola addressed it this week was somewhat surprising given how easy a time he had — dispatching of Burnley and Shakhtar without hitting top gear. After Mahrez’s missed penalty at Anfield that may still be in orbit, he seems the most likely candidate to be dropped because it is a “big match,” but there’s always a “yeah, it kind of makes sense” once you get over the surprise of which big name is left out of Guardiola’s first XI.

Tottenham, on the other hand, are in a dangerous place heading into this match, because if the hangover from the draw at Eindhoven has not worn off, City will run them right out of Wembley, and that five-point gap between the sides that will result may as well be 50. The hedge here is Alli will be on the bench to start this game, with Lamela getting the nod over him and Son on the left wing since he only appeared as a substitute mid-week.

The choice of Lamela over Son is one for Pochettino to deliberate, but in a match against a team like City in which you know you are not going to see much of the ball, the impetus should be on the moment of creativity — something Lamela has in droves — compared to the industry — which Son has in equal droves — which could go frustratingly unrewarded in a match such as this.

Lloris is another figure who bears scrutinising. It has been a year of wildly fluctuating fortunes for the France No. 1, from winning the World Cup to the anguish of his drink-driving charge to still being considered among the elite keepers in the Premier League to his latest walkabout adventures on the pitch in the Netherlands. Some have spent the past week comparing the maddening similarities he shares with France’s other World Cup winning keeper — Fabien Barthez — but more times than not, Lloris has been the one to save Spurs from their blushes.

This Spurs team is almost a photo negative of the one from last term that had so much fun playing Champions League football because there was nothing to lose domestically because City were so imperious. This game and this moment, however, matter greatly for the Lilywhites and could be the bellwether for the rest of Tottenham’s season.

Win this game, or even split the points, and there’s a bonafide Premier League title race. Lose this game, the pressure intensifies ahead of the reverse Champions League fixture versus Eindhoven before the international break, and then have a derby match versus Chelsea after it.

At this moment, it feels City are just too irresistible, even with the knowing step up in class Tottenham are after last week’s two impressive yet lightly challenging wins. There are gears Spurs have hit only in brief flashes this season, and it does not look like they will be able to hold them long enough in this encounter to get what they need.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Tottenham Hotspur 0, Manchester City 2.

OTHER MATCH DAY 10 PREVIEWS:

Brighton and Hove Albion (3-2-4) vs. Wolverhampton (4-3-2)
Southampton (1-3-5) vs. Newcastle United (0-2-7)
Burnley (2-2-5) vs. Chelsea (6-3-0)
Manchester United (4-2-3) vs. Everton (4-3-2)