1. Sergio Aguero’s health scare
PEP GUARDIOLA WOULD be forgiven for not wanting Sergio Aguero to leave England again anytime soon.
Back in September, the Argentine striker was involved in a car accident in Amsterdam that saw him break his ribs and miss a couple of games for his club as a result.
After recovering from that setback, he regained his place in the City side before going on international duty.
And there was considerable concern for the striker after he collapsed at half-time on Tuesday, during Argentina’s 4-2 friendly loss to Nigeria.
However, the 29-year-old has since allayed worries about his health and looks set to be part of City’s matchday squad against Leicester.
Aguero had suffered dizzy spells owing to the incident, but has since tweeted: ”I’m set to go for Saturday’s match… The tests they run on me turn out well.”
League leaders Man City will be relieved the issue does not appear to be serious, particularly given Aguero’s excellent form — he has registered 10 goals in 12 appearances at club level this season.
2. Old foes Mourinho and Benitez go head to head again
It’s somewhat remarkable, given that both have remained fairly prominent figures in the intervening years, that Jose Mourinho and Rafa Benitez will meet as opposition managers on Saturday for the first time since August 2007.
That match ended 1-1, a typically close-fought affair between the two arch rivals at the time (Liverpool and Chelsea), with a 62nd-minute Frank Lampard penalty cancelling out an early Fernando Torres goal.
Benitez would last a little under three more years at Anfield, while Mourinho would depart Chelsea just over a month later.
Both managers have won five games apiece against the other, while the Spaniard could become the first-ever Premier League manager to win at Old Trafford with three different clubs, having previously done so with Liverpool and Chelsea.
As the pair prepare to meet again, you could make a case that both managers’ stock has fallen in the ensuing decade.
Granted, Benitez has won trophies since, including the Coppa Italia, the Europa League and most recently, the Championship.
He made little impact under difficult circumstances during a brief period in charge of Real Madrid, while he has not come close to emulating his biggest achievements — winning La Liga twice with Valencia (in 2002 and 2004) and winning the Champions League at Liverpool (in 2005).
By contrast, prior to his last meeting with Benitez, Mourinho had won two Premier League titles with Chelsea and a Champions League with Porto among other accolades.
He has won plenty more trophies since then, but they have invariably been qualified successes, with the controversial manager ultimately splitting the dressing room at both Real Madrid and Chelsea.
There have been rumours too about a degree of dissatisfaction at Man United, with neighbours City eight points ahead of them in the league, while playing the type of brilliant attacking football that Mourinho’s sides seem incapable of replicating.
“I respect him as both a person and as a professional,” Mourinho said of Benitez in his pre-match press conference.
He is with me in one privilege on the list of the few managers in Europe that won the Champions League and the Europa League, so we are side to side in that little group and I have immense respect for him. So, I am more than happy to see him and to salute him, and then to play one more match because at the end of the day, it’s just one more match.
“I know the way Newcastle play, I know the way Benitez prepares his team, I know that it’s going to be difficult but we have to try to get back to the points that we need.”
So Mourinho has played down the rivalry with Benitez ahead of the game, but it seems fair to assume both would privately love to get one over the other, following some high-profile spats even during the 10 years since they last went head to head in the Premier League.
3. Have Spurs left Arsenal behind?
Mauricio Pochettino heaped praise on counterpart Arsene Wenger ahead of Saturday’s North London Derby.
“To stay at a club five years, is because you are a good manager,” the Spurs boss said. “If you stay 10 years, you must be very good. But to stay more than 20 years, it is because you are special.
“I admire him a lot, he is a very special manager.”
Wenger was not quite complimentary about Pochettino, instead giving him advice on how to win trophies.
“By keeping your nerves and getting the players to focus on what is important,” the Arsenal manager told a news conference when asked how to challenge for a first trophy.
“At some stages, by fighting a little bit against your inhibitions — the fear that you won’t get over the line. Basically, you need to focus on what is important and not focus on the trophy too much.
You always do [feel anxiety]. It is always difficult to finish a job as, it must be difficult to finish a book. It is difficult to finish any job.”
Yet despite Wenger having trophy-winning experience unlike his opposite number, few would dispute the claim that the Argentine coach has the superior set of players at his disposal.
At best, three or four Gunners stars would get in the Spurs team, and even that number could be considered generous. Would Alexis Sanchez be good enough to displace one of Tottenham’s attacking three: Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli or Harry Kane?
In the 20-plus years that Wenger has been in charge, Arsenal have for the most part had the upperhand on their North London rivals, overwhelmingly so at times.
But while Arsenal have remained relatively stagnant and even receded in many people’s eyes during the last few years, Spurs have progressed season on season to become a side capable of competing with the Premier League’s elite clubs.
Finishing above Arsenal in the Premier League last season for the first time since 1995 was a big psychological milestone for Spurs, even though their players inevitably played down its significance at the time.
Moreover, the last time the sides met, Tottenham thoroughly outclassed their rivals, earning a convincing 2-0 win in April 2017.
That said, the outcome of Saturday’s early kick-off is not easy to predict, especially given Spurs’ woeful away record against their fellow ‘big-six’ teams. In 16 games on the road against these sides, under Pochettino they have only won once.
This form, more than anything else, has cost them at least one Premier League title, so a win tomorrow may later be looked back upon as another significant moment in their ongoing development.
4. Van Dijk saga looms over Liverpool-Southampton clash
It is often joked that Southampton are Liverpool’s ‘feeder club’.
The Anfield hierarchy indisputably are fond of recruiting former Saints players, with the Reds spending well over €100 million in the process.
Of their current squad, Nathaniel Clyne, Dejan Lovren, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Adam Lallana and Sadio Mané all once lined out for the Saints, with only Oxlade-Chamberlain not moving to Anfield directly, undertaking a spell at Arsenal in between.
Past players from the Premier League era to make the move between clubs also include Rickie Lambert, Peter Crouch and Paul Jones.
Yet so far anyway, Saints defender Virgil van Dijk has been ‘the one that got away’ after a lengthy and protracted transfer saga.
Van Dijk has only started five times for the Saints since the beginning of the season, and the 26-year-old will be under intense scrutiny if he is chosen to play at Anfield this weekend.
Asked about the player’s future in the build-up to the game, Mauricio Pellegrino was non-committal, explaining: ”You never know, because when we talk about money everybody has got a price.”
And with Liverpool having conceded 17 goals so far this season, more than any other team in the top half of the table apart from Watford, there will surely be a level of regret that they were unable to recruit their top central defensive target in the summer.
5. Could Leicester be the team to end Man City’s unbeaten run?
Pep Guardiola could hardly have imagined the season starting much better for this Manchester City side.
They are already through to the next round of the Champions League, having won all four of their group games so far, while they have taken 31 points from a possible 33 in the Premier League.
Consequently, it would be a major surprise if this run came to an end on Saturday.
However, there are a few factors working against the Etihad outfit.
Firstly, in the past, the international break has tended to disrupt top sides’ rhythm, so City must be wary of this potential pitfall.
Secondly, the Foxes have lost just twice at home in all competitions this season, suffering narrow defeats against Liverpool (2-3) and Chelsea (1-2).
And Claude Puel’s side will be expected to make it difficult for their opponents again, particularly given that they won the equivalent fixture last season 4-2, with Jamie Vardy grabbing an impressive hat-trick in the process.
Premier League fixtures (matches kick-off at 3pm unless stated otherwise):
Arsenal v Tottenham (12.30)
Bournemouth v Huddersfield Town
Burnley v Swansea City
Crystal Palace v Everton
Leicester City v Manchester City
Liverpool v Southampton
West Brom v Chelsea
Manchester United v Newcastle United (17.30)
Watford v West Ham United (16.00)
Brighton v Stoke City (20.00)
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