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Irish underage starlet could return and more Premier League talking points

Declan Rice could be back in the West Ham side as they prepare to face Tottenham this weekend.

Declan Rice, West Ham United.
Declan Rice, West Ham United.
Image: EMPICS Sport

1. Irish starlet could return for West Ham

IRISH FOOTBALL HAS been crying out for a top-class up-and-coming player for some time.

In the recent World Cup qualifier at home to Serbia, five of the players who started were over 30, while the services of 34-year-old striker Daryl Murphy were required from the bench.

Moreover, just two players in the final squad for that game — Cyrus Christie and Callum O’Dowda — were under the age of 25.

Particularly given the team’s recent struggles, there isn’t much optimism in relation to Martin O’Neill’s side, but West Ham’s Declan Rice is a rare bright spot.

Ireland’s U17 International Player of the Year will surely graduate to senior level for the Boys in Green in the near future, having featured in four out of five of the Hammers’ Premier League games so far this season.

The 18-year-old was taken off at half-time, after making a mistake that led to a goal during the Hammers’ 3-0 loss to Newcastle last month, and he has been reduced to a peripheral role in the team by boss Slaven Bilic since then.

However, a rejuvenated Rice caught the eye during his side’s 3-0 League Cup win over Bolton earlier this week.

Having largely been deployed as a defensive midfielder at senior level, the youngster was given a chance to play in his preferred centre-back role on Tuesday.

Bilic had previously urged his second-string players to give him a selection headache, and Rice did just that with an assured display against the Trotters.

Now, the London-born player, who trained with Ireland’s senior squad prior to their games last summer, will be hoping to get the nod as West Ham host London rivals Tottenham in Saturday’s early kick-off.

Of the player’s mid-week display, the Evening Standard reported: “Rice, 18, once again demonstrated that West Ham have a special young player in their ranks. Playing in his favoured central defensive position in a much-changed line-up, Rice showed a maturity beyond his tender years.”

Bilic certainly has shown plenty of faith in the Irish U19 international already, so it would be no surprise if the player made his third Premier League start of the season tomorrow.

2. Leicester aim to down Liverpool for the second time in less than a week

Having already beaten Liverpool 2-0 in the Carabao Cup on Tuesday, Leicester host the Reds for the second time in the space of less than a week on Saturday.

The midweek match, however, is unlikely to have much bearing on how the upcoming fixture pans out, with both sides expected to ring the changes, having been reliant on largely second-string XIs during the week.

And the Foxes are a classic example of the type of the team that the Reds have had difficulty beating during Jurgen Klopp’s maddeningly inconsistent reign.

With an average of 36%, no side has had less possession than Leicester in the Premier League this season.

So expect the visitors to dominate the ball and the territory this weekend, with Craig Shakespeare’s side adopting their usual counter-attacking strategy in what is expected to be a closely fought contest.

A potentially pivotal factor is whether Leicester’s star striker Jamie Vardy is deemed fit enough to play — the England international has an impressive tally of 12 goals and three assists in his last 18 appearances, though he is doubtful for Saturday’s game with a thigh injury potentially ruling the 30-year-old out.

3. Can Jose Mourinho find room for Anthony Martial?

Manchester United v Burton Albion - Carabao Cup - Third Round - Old Trafford Manchester United's Anthony Martial has started just one Premier League game so far this season. Source: Martin Rickett

It’s a reflection as to how well Man United have started the season that the main issue being talked about currently is how Jose Mourinho can keep all his star players happy.

One prime example is Anthony Martial, who arrived at Old Trafford in September 2015 for a reported fee of £36 million, potentially rising to £58 million.

The France international looked phenomenal at times under Louis van Gaal, though he has found life tougher since Mourinho took over.

The 21-year-old forward has started just one of the Red Devils’ five Premier League games so far this season, though he has still managed an impressive haul of four goals in all competitions this season despite limited game time.

Martial was on target in the comfortable 4-1 victory over Burton Albion on Wednesday and will hope he has done enough to be handed a chance to impress from the start, as United bid to continue their unbeaten start to Premier League life away to Southampton this weekend.

And Mourinho had words of encouragement for the youngster ahead of this week’s game.

“I see great improvement in the person, in the moods, the face and in the body language,” the Portuguese coach said.

“What I see? In a word; happiness. He is a happy guy, working extremely well.

“He starts matches trying to do well; he comes from the bench, even if for just 10 minutes like in the last match [in the Premier League against Everton], he tries to enjoy and to give something in these extra minutes.

“I’m very pleased with his attitude overall, and then it is easier to play well.”

4. Who is able to stop Man City’s formidable attack?

It’s hard to think of a side playing better football right now than Manchester City, not just in England but any club around the world.

Last week, they faced what looked a difficult game on paper, coming up against a Watford side that were fourth in the table prior to the fixture.

Yet Pep Guardiola’s side side demolished the Hornets with ease, winning 6-0, with the likes of Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus demonstrating moments of frightening attacking brilliance.

Reservations remain about their defence — they could easily have conceded a couple against Liverpool earlier this month, before Sadio Mane’s controversial red card effectively ended the game as a contest. Their backline, though, is at least set to be boosted by the imminent return of influential Belgian international, Vincent Kompany, who has been sidelined by a calf injury of late.

City are currently top of the league on alphabetical order, given that they are level in terms of points, goals scored and goals conceded with rivals United.

And they are unlikely to let that lead slip on Saturday, as arguably the Premier League’s best team comes up against the top-flight’s poorest side going by the form guide.

Having registered no goals, wins or points since the season began, Crystal Palace could hardly be facing the table toppers at a worse time.

In addition, with Manchester United and Chelsea to come in their next two Premier League matches after tomorrow, it could prove to be quite the baptism of fire for recently appointed manager Roy Hodgson.

5. Tough test for Chelsea

With the two Manchester clubs beginning their campaigns so convincingly, Chelsea can ill afford to drop too many points even in this early stage of the season.

On Saturday, they come up against the one team that has avoided defeat against Mourinho’s United so far — Stoke.

The reigning Premier League champions set the pace relatively early on last season, and scarcely looked like slipping up from there, as they won the title by a relatively comfortable margin of seven points in the end.

Yet the Blues have been less convincing since the start of the new campaign — their 0-0 draw with Arsenal last Sunday, in which they were second best for large parts of the Stamford Bridge encounter, epitomised the marked uncertainty with which they have begun proceedings.

And 13th-placed Stoke, who have already beaten Arsenal this season, could heap more misery on Antonio Conte’s side.

Given that their next two games after Saturday are against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League on Wednesday and title rivals Man City next weekend, the London club may well rest star players at the bet365 Stadium.

Moreover, if the games against the other top sides they have faced this season are anything to go by, Mark Hughes’ men will be ready to capitalise on any weaknesses shown by the under-pressure victors tomorrow.

Premier League (all games kick-off at 3pm unless stated otherwise)

Saturday

West Ham v Tottenham (12.30)
Burnley v Huddersfield Town
Everton v Bournemouth
Man City v Crystal Palace
Southampton v Man United
Stoke v Chelsea
Swansea v Watford
Leicester v Liverpool (17.30)

Sunday

Brighton v Newcastle (16.00)

Monday

Arsenal v West Brom (20.00)

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