Not many could’ve predicted that Manchester City versus Leicester City would’ve been billed as a top-of-the-table clash with almost two-thirds of the season gone. But that’s exactly what Saturdays’ early kick-off is. A real David taking on Goliath. The haves facing the have nots. The pretenders against the champions-elect. A win for the Foxes could see them open up a six-point gap. Truly remarkable.
Elsewhere – manager of the month nominee for January – Slaven Bilic will take his side to St Marys’ in the hope of cementing their European credentials. The Hammers have lost just once in 12 league games. At the opposite end of the form table, shot-shy Crystal Palace will be aiming for their first win in eight against a rejuvenated Swansea side who taken four points in two games under their new Italian coach Francesco Guidolin. The Eagles have dropped out of the Top Ten for the first time this season and are currently engulfed in a mid-season injury crisis.
Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino is refusing to get carried away by his side's good form which has seen them move up to third in the league: “The key is to be focussed and improve our game every day," he said. "We can improve and have the potential to improve.”
Eddie Howe thinks the Premier League safety target might be "more than 40 points" this season and while pleased with his January additions, admits that consistency is the next challenge. The Cherries face Arsenal who have stuttered in recent weeks although Arsene Wenger believes: “We are still in the title race." How apt that it could be former Gunner – Benik Afobe – who could scupper the Arsenal title charge even further by getting one over on his over old boss. “I gave him the authorisation to go somewhere and play. He has done extremely well and go past the expectations of many people. Congratulations to him,” Wenger said of the 22-year.
Manuel Pellegrini said: “I was so bored in the last press conference that I tried to make it interesting!” By announcing to the world that he would be leaving his post at the end of the season with Pep Guardiola taking over the reins. The news will come as a welcome relief to city neighbour Louis van Gaal with many believing the Dutchman was on his way out of Old Trafford. However, wins bring confidence and with that blind optimism: “I feel that if we beat Chelsea, our league challenge shall start again." No comment Louis.
Manchester City – vs – Leicester City
There’s not much change in the Man City treatment room this week: “Vincent Kompany, Eliaquim Mangala, Bony, Kevin de Bruyne and Samir Nasri are injured.” Jesus Navas picked up a hamstring problem on Tuesday which will keep the winger out for a minimum of “three-weeks.” Manuel Pellegrini hopes that in another seven-days his captain: “Will be back and working fully with the squad. We know exactly what happened, the risk for the future is exactly the same as it is with every player." Mangala suffered a setback and will be "another couple of weeks” while “inflammation of the bone” is delaying the return of Wilfried Bony - the club await a specialist report. Sergio Aguero grabbed the only goal of the game at Sunderland, but the Argentine did pick up a small reminder of his brief visit to Wearside for his troubles in the form of Billy Jones’ raked studs down his calf. Fortunately, the wound was only superficial. Fabian Delph is back after missing the trip to the Stadium of Light as a precaution.
No major problems for Leicester. Claudio Ranieri will check for fatigue (tiredness) before naming his starting eleven at The Etihad. Daniel Amartey could be added to the squad: “I will talk with my coaches and with him and then I will decide.” Jamie Vardy continues to party after the England international grabbed another two-goals in front of Roy Hodgson to take his tally to 18 for the season. The 29-year-old was back and firing on all cylinders following recent groin surgery to help maintain the unlikeliest of title challenges - the Foxes charge shows no sign of abating. Matty James (ACL) suffered a slight setback playing for the Under-21s - the midfielder will be assessed over the next 7-14 days. Ritchie de Laet has joined Middlesbrough on-loan until the end of the season.
Swansea City – vs – Crystal Palace
Swansea manager Francesco Guidolin confirmed that midfielder Ki Sung-Yueng will miss the game against Palace after suffering concussion in the draw against West Brom. New signing Alberto Paloschi is in line for his first Premier League start after he impressed from the bench. Leroy Fer may be involved after completing his loan switch from Queens Park Rangers. Swansea are looking to make it four unbeaten having taken seven from a possible nine points to edge further away from the drop zone.
James McArthur could miss the remainder of the campaign after damaging ankle ligaments on Tuesday while a hamstring strain will keep Jason Puncheon out for a "long period." Losing them both is a "significant blow," Alan Pardew said. “They’ve been fabulous this season for us." Jordon Mutch and Chung-Yong Lee "are going to be in the frame now." Dwight Gayle and Sullay Kaikai "are both available" but Joe Ledley (thigh) is worse than expected and could miss a further two weeks. Palace youngster Hiram Boateng will travel to the Liberty - Yohan Cabaye (ankle) "should be back on Saturday." Meanwhile, Bakary Sako and Yannick Bolasie are targeting Spurs in the FA Cup. Emmanuel Adebayor will begin on the bench although it won't be too long before he's included from the start. Connor Wickham serves the final game of his three-match ban.
Stoke City – vs – Everton
Captain Ryan Shawcross and US international Geoff Cameron won't be available, but the defensive teammates should be back next weekend. Philipp Wollscheid has a calf problem “but we think the extra 24 hours will help.” The German “has a chance” of making the game – Marc Muniesa is the only available central defender currently. Eric Pieters suffered a leg laceration at Old Trafford although the chances of him missing this one are very small. Marc Wilson has been diagnosed with medial knee ligament damage and will miss up-to 12 weeks. New signing Giannelli Imbula is poised to make his Premier League debut as Stoke look to bounce back from successive 3-nil defeats.
Kevin Mirallas is in line to return against Stoke after missing the three previous games because of a knee injury. But Saturday is likely to come too soon for John Stones (hamstring) and Tim Howard (knee) although the pair could be back in game week twenty-six. Romelu Lukaku "has shown improvement" following a knee to his back on Wednesday: "We hope he can join training today (Friday).” Oumar Niasse is still waiting for his visa application to be approved: "But we are confident he will be available," says Martinez. Mo Besic is targeting the FA Cup in 14-days. Meanwhile, Tony Hibbert and Tyias Browning remain long-term absentees.
Aston Villa – vs – Norwich City
Rudy Gestede (hamstring) is still not available but the striker will be back before fellow forward Libor Kozak who has been ruled out for “several weeks.” Further tests revealed the unfortunate 26-year-old has fractured a bone in his ankle. Carlos Sanchez and Alan Hutton will be assessed but Ashley Westwood should return following a calf strain. The midfielder has trained with the group. Gabby Agbonlahor completed 80 minutes at West Ham on Tuesday - the forward had only managed a (very) brief cameo under Garde previously in the league. Jordan Ayew has been fined following his needless sending off for an elbow on Aaron Cresswell. The summer acquisition from Lorient apologised to his teammates and manager after his dismissal on 17 minutes at the Boleyn Ground.
Graham Dorrans "is still ill" and won't be make the squad but Robbie Brady will come back into contention after recovering from the sickness bug which swept through the Norwich camp midweek. No fresh injury concerns for the Canaries who will add Chelsea loanee Patrick Bamford to the squad. Gary O'Neill completes his suspension but Alex Tettey will sit the next two out after accruing ten cautions already in 2015/16.
Liverpool – vs – Sunderland
Joe Allen is said to be close to a Premier League start. However, the midfielder took a knock to the shoulder midweek and will be checked ahead of Saturday’s game. Daniel Sturridge “has been excellent on his return to training.” But, the striker won’t be considered just yet. The FA Cup replay against West Ham on Tuesday is a possibility. Philippe Coutinho and Divock Origi are also with the group. Meanwhile, Martin Skrtel has suffered a setback and is likely to need another 2-3 weeks. Ten games so far in 2016 and a stretched squad is beginning to creak under the strain. Jordan Henderson is managing a painful foot condition which has limited his pitch time in recent games, but the Liverpool captain will not want to miss facing his former employers again.
Allardyce will be reluctant to shuffle his pack too much following the disappointing home loss to title contender’s City on Tuesday. Big Sam described the performance as the best under his tenure and were it not for an injury time Otamendi goal-line clearance the Blacks Cats would’ve taken a share of the spoils. Younes Kaboul returns to the squad having missed the last seven-weeks and the defender could be named amongst the substitutes at the expense of Wes Brown. No Seb Larsson though, who is taking a lot longer than expected to recover from a medial knee ligament strain. Yann M’Vila suffered a bruised foot in a challenge with Sergio Aguero, and although the Frenchman has missed training, he should be passed fit. However, Jeremain Lens (groin) is a major doubt which could see Wahbi Khazri come for his first Premier League start.
Tottenham Hotspur – vs – Watford
Dele Alli will undergo further tests after feeling dizzy midweek although the midfielder is expected to face Watford on Saturday. Ryan Mason (ankle) is due to have a late fitness test. Jan Vertonghen (medial knee ligaments) and Clinton N'Jie (knee surgery) remain out. Kevin Wimmer partnered Toby Alderweireld at Carrow Road but Eric Dier is an option if required. Kieran Trippier and Ben Davies will pressure Danny Rose and Kyle Walker for the right / left back roles. Erik Lamela is another pushing for a starting place having fallen out of favour in recent weeks.
Miguel Britos will be assessed after missing draw with Chelsea due to illness. The defender was due to train on Friday and providing there are no problems he will return to the squad. Quique Flores will also check on Etienne Capoue who is suffering from a sickness bug. Nathan Ake missed the midweek draw under the terms of his loan agreement. Joel Ekstrand and Tommie Hoban remain sidelined for the Hornets. New signings Nordin Amrabat and Mario Suarez are ready to start "if required."
Newcastle United – vs – West Brom
Steve McClaren will draft in three players from the development side with at least thirteen first-team squad members missing through either injury or suspension. Defensively, United have major problems. Chancel Mbemba (ankle) will seek a second opinion in Belgium next week amid speculation that the DR Congo international is out for at least a month having limped off at Goodison Park. Steven Taylor will step into the breech for his second Premier League appearance of the campaign. Paul Dummett is ruled out and Jack Colback hasn’t progressed as hoped while Jamal Lascelles will serve a one match ban. New addition Seydou Doumbia "will feature at some stage" although "it may be asking too much of him to start tomorrow," McClaren said.
Jonny Evans (hamstring) is out for a couple of weeks which leaves the Baggies a bit short on options at left-back with Chris Brunt (calf) also sidelined. James Chester could make a rare start if Tony Pulis decides to shuffle his back-four, alternatively the versatile Craig Gardner might slot in. Saido Berahino is still not fit-enough for a PL start but the club will work hard over the coming weeks to get the striker up-to speed. Callum McManaman is out following ankle surgery and James Morrison (hamstring) is at least a month away. Darren Fletcher (knee ligaments) will be monitored between games.
Southampton – vs – West Ham United
Matt Targett is out after picking up an ankle injury in training on Thursday: "It's not a big issue,” Koeman said and the midfielder should be back in GW26. Charlie Austin has been passed fit after missing the draw at the Emirates due to an unspecified knock and Steven Davis re-joined the group on Wednesday: "But remains a doubt.” Fraser Forster “showed his qualities” against Arsenal keeping his fourth consecutive clean-sheet since returning from a serious knee injury.
Andy Carroll should be available following his recent hamstring problem while Slaven Bilic will make a decision on Emmanuel Emenike after the forward was granted his work permit this week. Sam Byram comes back into contention along with Angelo Ogbonna who has recovered from illness. Manuel Lanzini and Diafra Sakho are hoping to be back next weekend.
AFC Bournemouth – vs – Arsenal
Josh King is approaching full fitness and the Cherries striker will put pressure on Benik Afobe for a place in the starting eleven. Eddie Howe will make a late call on Junior Stanislas although Matt Ritchie should continue to deputise. Charlie Daniels plays down any talk of a potential England call-up: “I just want to keep turning in performances for Bournemouth. If it happened in future I'd be proud.” Max Gradel is targeting a return in March. Callum Wilson will be a little longer: "They'll be like new signings when they come back." Eddie Howe says it has been "difficult" not to include Tokelo Rantie in his match-day squad. Benik Afobe continued his excellent start at Selhurst Park midweek, scoring for the third Premier League game in-a-row. The Cherries move up-to fifteenth and find themselves knocking on the door of a place in the top half having taken 18-pts (W5, D3) from the last ten matches.
Arsene Wenger expects Danny Welbeck to play 2-3 games for the development side before reintegrating the forward into the first team: “He hasn't played in 10-months. We need to be patient.” Tomas Rosicky may have played his last game for Arsenal after a scan revealed the Czech midfielder partially ruptured a tendon in his thigh during his comeback in the FA Cup: “The injury is quite serious. He will not need surgery. It could be 2-3 months." No fresh concerns from the midweek draw with Southampton. Francis Coquelin is ready to start in the Premier League for the first time this year - Mathieu Flamini expected to make way. Per Mertesacker will be hoping for a recall at the expense of Gabriel. Likewise, Theo Walcott who was surprisingly dropped on Tuesday as Wenger went with Joel Campbell.
Chelsea – vs – Manchester United
Pedro missed some training this week due to a minor groin strain. The Spaniard should be okay after he trained on Friday morning but Guus Hiddink will check the winger for any reaction. Radamel Falcao and Loic Remy are the only injury absentees. The latter is expected to be back next weekend. Alexandre Pato will not be involved for a few games. The Brazilian “is on a special pre-season training plan” and will undertake a minimum of two sessions per day to fast track his way into the first team. Hiddink will manage Eden Hazard very carefully due to his recent muscular problems.
Matteo Darmian returned for the comprehensive win over Stoke City on Tuesday having missed the cup victory at Derby because of a chest injury. United were excellent on the night as Anthony Martial took all the accolades with a man-of-the-match performance while Wayne Rooney grabbed his 99th Premier League goal at Old Trafford. Phil Jones is the closest to a return having trained on Friday but Bastian Schweinsteiger remains out with reports from Germany suggesting we may have to wait until March before the 31-year-old is back on the pitch. Marcos Rojo "is doing well," but can't train just yet confirms Louis van Gaal. Luke Shaw “is progressing” and targeting the Europa League final in May – if - United make it that far!