We’re almost half way through the Premier League campaign and are we to believe that Leicester are credible title challengers? The Foxes’ are sitting pretty in first place – two points clear – and Jose Mourinho certainly thinks so.
"They deserve to be where they are. I said a few weeks ago that I did not believe that they could be champions, maybe I need to reconsider. It would be something magnificent, something to impress the football world.”
The Special One also added that Claudio Ranieri deserves to be called the 'Manager of the half-term' while it’s no wonder his counterpart at the King Power has promised “a very good Italian wine” post-match on Monday.
Predictably, Louis van Gaal downplayed his sides’ exit from the Champion League as the media questioned whether a club with the size and stature of Man United would be happy winning Europe’s second cup. “I have already won it once with Ajax. I was so proud that I won it. I don't have the same opinion as you. You will write tomorrow it is nothing. For me it is a big competition."
A midweek hat-trick for Olivier Giroud prompted Wenger to announce "Wednesday was one of his best performances.” The Gunners managed to sneak into the knock out stages (again) for the sixteen consecutive year.
Steve McClaren believes Europe is hampering Tottenham’s title aspirations. "If Spurs weren't in the Europa League they would be title contenders," claimed the Newcastle boss. Folly or are Pochettino’s young men finally coming of age. The Lilywhites remain unbeaten in the league since the opening day.
Remi Garde will go head-to-head with his former employers on Sunday, but the old boy does not expect any favours. "I played for Arsenal. Everything has probably changed there - except one. It’s a very good football club."
Southampton are targeting consistency during the second half of the season having endured an up and down season to date. Ronald Koeman can boast an away win at Chelsea but will point to dropped points at home to Stoke, Villa and Everton.
And finally, West Ham will move from Chadwell Heath in an attempt to combat a growing injury list after their training ground pitches were deemed unsuitable following injuries to Reid and Lanzini within past 7-days. "The pitches are soft on top but hard underneath, the worst combination," said Slaven Bilic. Players will train at Rush Green HQ from Monday.
Norwich City – vs – Everton
No fresh injury concerns for Norwich who welcome back Wes Hoolahan. The Irishman missed the defeat at Vicarage Road after picking up a knee injury against Arsenal in game week fourteen but manager Alex Neil confirmed. “He has trained for the last few sessions so will be fine. He's in the squad." There was also good news regarding Matt Jarvis who stepped up his recovery from a medial knee ligament strain. The West Ham loanee began running on grass this week and is hoping to be back before the year end. No word on who will play in goal for the Canaries after John Ruddy dropped to the bench against Watford following a string of poor performances - Declan Rudd was handed the goalkeepers jersey.
No changes to the Everton squad which was held by Crystal Palace on Monday night. “James McCarthy will have a late fitness test” but Tom Cleverley is poised to continue in midfield after a “very good” performance against the Eagles. Brendon Galloway looks set to retain his place for one more week (at least) after Martinez revealed “Baines is getting very close to starting but we need to manage his workload carefully.” Phil Jagielka “is well on track and is ahead of where he should be” which should see the defender return in early 2016. Romelu Lukaku and Gerard Deulofeu continue their formidable partnership. The duo were at it again combining for the strikers’ seventh goal in as many games (although granted the assist was inexplicable given to Gareth Barry).
Crystal Palace – vs – Southampton
Bakary Sako "won't be available" after failing to recover from a hamstring strain while club captain Mile Jedinak – who started his first Premier League game of the season at Goodison Park – is also ruled out after “rolling his ankle” in training. Dwight Gayle suffered an injury (hamstring) setback which is likely to keep him out until next year but Alan Pardew hinted that Marouane Chamakh will be handed his chance this weekend. Wilfried Zaha is available having served a one game ban and the winger could be in line for an instant recall.
Fraser Forster “is back in some sessions” said Koeman but the goalkeeper “still needs more time to be ready.” The England international is targeting a return in February or March having missed 9-months following a patellar tendon rupture. Jay Rodriguez is recovering from foot surgery. "It will take more than three or four weeks for him to return to training.” Victor Wanyama has trained after limping off against Aston Villa “and the rest are OK." The right-back spot is proving a little troublesome for Southampton. Maya Yoshida filled in 2-weeks ago but the Japan international was nowhere to be seen in GW15 as Cedric Soares returned to the side. Neither have been convincing this season.
West Ham United – vs – Stoke City
Slaven Bilic confirmed that Winston Reid has been added to an ever-growing list of crocked Hammers’ after the defender slipped in training suffering significant damage to the hamstring, although the full extent of the injury is not yet known. “It doesn't look good,” admitted Bilic. “We don't know how long he'll be out for yet; we'll know more after the scan.” Initial reports suggest Reid will be missing for between 4-6 weeks and his absence this weekend should earn Carl Jenkinson a recall. Victor Moses joins Reid after limping off at Old Trafford with a similar problem, again, West Ham expect the Chelsea loanee to miss the next month or so. Michail Antonio is lined up for his first Premier League start since joining from Nottingham Forest in the summer. Mixed messages regarding Manuel Lanzini who was originally expected to be out until January but Bilic stated on Thursday that he was “hopeful” that the Argentine could be back for Swansea in game week seventeen. Dimitri Payet and Enner Valencia “are looking good, we will have to wait and see.” The latter in particular is close and will have an outside chance of making Saturdays’ squad. Diafra Sakho will miss up-to three months following thigh surgery. Andy Carroll looks likely to lead the attack while the previous unfancied Nikica Jelavic may get a chance to prove himself.
Long-term absentee Shay Given will remain out until the New Year but Peter Crouch (hamstring) is not as bad as originally feared and the gangly striker could be back in December. "He's probably got a couple of weeks before he is back in action," confirmed Hughes. Peter Odemwingie is available again but unlikely to make the match-day squad, otherwise “everyone else is fine.” Stoke will be looking to continue their fine form – just one defeat in seven [all competitions] – which includes a win over champions Chelsea plus three points from champions elect Man City. Performances have been built upon a solid foundation and the Potters’ are yet to concede in the Premier League when Ryan Shawcross has been on the pitch.
Manchester City – vs – Swansea City
Sergio Aguero "is improving" but he won't be ready for Saturday. "We hope he'll start working next week and be fit for Arsenal," said Pellegrini. Pablo Zabaleta and Vincent Kompany should join the Argentine - putting the pair in contention for game week seventeen. Martin Demichelis "is back" after missing the win over Monchengladbach due to a niggling tendon problem but Fernando and Nasri remain on the sidelines. City were back to their irrepressible attacking best on Tuesday night and Pellegrini will be looking for his side to continue in the same vein having stumbled along in recent weeks.
“Something needs to change,” said Swansea chairman Huw Jenkins earlier this week as Swansea fell to their fourth defeat in 5-games. And change it did, as Garry Monk was sacked. No press-conference but Eder is expected to miss out after damaging ankle ligaments at Liverpool 2-weeks ago. Forgotten Frenchman Franck Tabanou will miss out due to a thigh strain and Jonjo Shelvey should earn a recall following his non-selection against Leicester.
Sunderland – vs – Watford
Steven Fletcher is a doubt after the striker injured his foot in training on Thursday. The specifics of the problem aren’t yet known but the Scotland international will be given every chance to prove himself. Jermain Defoe re-joined the group in training and providing the clubs’ leading goal scorer does not suffer any adverse reaction between now and kick-off, he will lead the attack. No Lee Cattermole though who continues to battle an ongoing back complaint – assessed daily – while Seb Larsson will be lucky to play again this year having strained medial knee ligaments. Wes Brown has recovered from a knee injury to provide cover for O’Shea, Coates and Kaboul who have added some much-needed stability to the Sunderland defence.
Quique Flores insists the calf injury keeping Valon Behrami out is not serious despite the midfielder missing the last three-games. The Swiss international is targeting a return before the end of the year. Sebastian Prodl has trained this week but could miss out again; the defender hasn’t featured since injuring his calf while on international duty. Joel Ekstrand is training with the first team but after more than 8-months out, Flores won’t be making any rash decisions. Tommie Hoban and Rene Gilmartin are long-term absentees.
AFCB Bournemouth – vs – Manchester United
"Adam Federici’s injury wasn't as bad as we first thought," revealed Eddie Howe which could mean a return this year. However, Artur Boruc looks set to continue in goal following his surprise appearance in game week fifteen. The 35-year-old will be carefully managed as the keeper attempts to play through pain-barrier having postponed knee surgery. Marc Pugh (Achilles) is back in training and progressing well; the midfielder is not ready for a start but could make the squad. Sylvain Distin returns having missed the historic win at Stamford Bridge due to illness but Lee Tomlin is "not fit enough” to be considered. Tommy Elphick is ruled out until 2016. Josh King has been passed fit despite his mild concussion last weekend and Christian Atsu have to go through a second pre-season in order to get himself in a position where he can compete for a place in the team.
Unsurprisingly Chris Smalling (groin) and Matteo Darmian (hamstring) are ruled out having suffered muscular problems during the loss to Wolfsburg. However, neither is thought to be serious and the pair could return – along with Ander Herrera – next weekend. Morgan Schneiderlin has been passed fit and the former Saint will come straight back into the side following the news that Bastian Schweinsteiger will serve a 3-game ban relating to violent conduct. No Wayne Rooney or Phil Jones either. Marcos Rojo will be out for around 2-months after undergoing shoulder surgery and with six defenders missing, Louis van Gaal has problems at the back. Varela could start his first Premier League game with Paddy McNair joining Ashley Young and Daley Blind (possibly)! Another option would see Cameron Borthwick-Jackson come into the side.
Aston Villa – vs – Arsenal
Jack Grealish “is back and available for selection” having spent the last few weeks training with the development squad. The young midfielder was disciplined for what Remi Garde called his “unprofessional behaviour” after he was seen partying just hours after the defeat to Everton. Micah Richards has a (slight) knee problem but won’t feature. “He is still struggling” but Leandro Bacuna and Rudy Gestede have trained ahead of the game and should be fine along with Carlos Sanchez. Jores Okore started his first game of the season at St Marys, but Ciaran Clark is available again, so it remains to be seen whether Remi Garde will make any changes to the side which earned a well-deserved draw against Southampton. Gabby Agbonlahor and Tiago Ilori both returned to the match-day squad in game week fifteen.
"No fresh injury concerns," for Arsenal following Wednesday nights’ historic Champions League win over Olympiakos. Alexis Sanchez is closest to a return (along with Mikel Arteta) but "the rest will be back after Christmas." Reports that Jack Wilshere would return this month appear to be a little wide of the mark. "There is no chance he will be fit before the end of December," confirmed Wenger. Theo Walcott played for over 70-minutes midweek while Aaron Ramsey put in another full shift. Santi Cazorla had knee and the Spaniard will miss up-to four months.
Tottenham Hotspur – vs – Newcastle United
Harry Kane was rested for the emphatic Europa League victory over Monaco as Spurs ran amok thanks to a Eric Lamela first half hat-trick. No Danny Rose, Kyle Walker or Jan Vertonghen either as Pochettino aims to keep his side as fresh as possible for the visit of Newcastle. Nabil Bentaleb and Nacer Chadli were given run outs on their return to the squad although neither are ready for the rigours of the Premier just yet. Eric Dier picked up a foot injury which will be assessed, but initial reports suggest his withdrawal was more of a precaution. Mousa Dembele is expected to recover from illness. Ryan Mason will return to training next week but Alex Pritchard won’t be available until early next year.
Cheick Tiote and Rolando Aarons are “very close” to re-joining the group, but neither will be ready for Sunday. Newcastle travel to White Hart Lane full of confidence with the same squad that took all 3-pts against Liverpool last weekend. The Geordies will be hoping for a post-Europa hangover although the Lilywhites are unbeaten following their European adventures this season, however, that does include three draws and Steve McClaren would happily take a point right now. Jamal Lascelles and Mike Williamson have been ruled out (both hamstring) with the former Forest favourite slightly ahead of the recently recalled 32-year-old.
Liverpool – vs – West Brom
Alberto Moreno, Lucas Leiva and Joe Allen were rested for the midweek trip to Sion in preparation for the visit of West Brom, but the trio are expecting a recall along with Jordon Ibe, who missed Thursdays’ game due to illness. Daniel Sturridge was back in the treatment room this week after tweaking his hamstring at Newcastle, however, the problem is not thought to be too serious and Jürgen Klopp remains hopeful that he can return within the next 7-10 days. Philippe Coutinho managed a 30-minute cameo in the Europa and that should set the Brazilian up nicely for a start this weekend. Jordan Henderson gained some valuable game-time in Switzerland, but the captain is likely to drop back to the bench on Sunday.
Tony Pulis granted Saido Berahino his request to play for the under-21s this week as the striker looks to recapture last season’s fitness and form. “His attitude was first class,” said the Baggies boss post-match. A hamstring strain will keep Stephane Sessegnon out with the likes of Craig Gardner, Callum McManaman and the returning Claudio Yacob fighting for a place in the starting eleven. Ben Foster is closing in on a return having missed the last eight months due to a knee ligament injury.
Leicester City – vs – Chelsea
“Everyone is good, fit. It means De Laet and James only absentees,” reveals Claudio Ranieri. Ritchie de Laet is out until January following a training ground ankle injury while Matty James is closing in on a return after rupturing knee ligaments last season. Jamie Vardy drew a blank in the Premier League for the first time since August but while the England striker has been grabbing all of the headlines, teammate Riyad Mahrez has been quietly going about his business. The Algerian took his tally to ten on Saturday with a superb hat-trick against Swansea meaning the pair have contributed 24-goals and 8-assists between them. They are the main reason Leicester currently find themselves two-points clear at the top of the Premier League.
No injury concerns for Chelsea as normal service was resumed with a comfortable win over FC Porto in the Champions League. John Terry and Ramires both returned from injury while Diego Costa started having been benched for the two previous games. Only Radamel Falcao is expected to miss out. The Colombian has returned to training but lacks fitness and won’t be ready for another 7-10 days.