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Lineups and discussion: Cardiff City vs. Manchester City

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They came into the weekend in first place, their 4-0 opening rout of Newcastle United vaulting them top on goal difference. Today in Wales, a second straight win to start their season should see 2011-12 champions Manchester City resume their place atop the Premier League table, with newly promoted Cardiff City standing in the way of Manuel Pellegrini’s perfect, six-point start.

As much as Edin Dzeko, Fernandinho, or Jesus Navas were on the pitch, Pellegrini was the star off it, his fingerprints all over the running start City made at the Etihad on Monday night. Goals from David Silva, Sergio Agüero, Yaya Touré, and Samir Nasri were the product of a typical Pellegrini-esque approach, the team’s 4-4-2 seeing Touré and Fernandinho control, Navas and Silva probe, while Agüero and Dzeko pushed.

On paper, it’s all a bit too much for most teams, let alone the Bluebirds, but playing their first home game in the Premier League, Cardiff City could have emotion on their side. And with two extra days’ rest, they could also have a fitness edge, though City’s deep squad and five days off should render that edge useless.

Last week at Upton Park, Cardiff began Premier League life with a 2-0 loss to West Ham United – a tepid performance in which Malky Mackay’s side only put one shot on target despite being ceded most of the game’s possession. Cardiff’s four attacking players — Fraizer Campbell, Craig Bellamy, Kim Bo-Kyong, and Peter Whittingham — combined for nine shots, but none of them tested Jussi Jääskeläinen.

That attack gets a major break today with the absence of Vincent Kompany. The City captain and central defender left Monday’s came with a groin strain that will sideline him three-to-four weeks. With the team’s other first choice center back Matija Nastasić and potential cover Micah Richards also out, Pellegrini turns to Joleon Lescott and Javi Garcia in central defense. Lescott is an accomplished English international (no problem there), but Garcia is a natural midfielder being pressed into service.

Depending on how Cardiff play, having Garcia’s distribution in central defense could be a bonus. If, however, City gets caught with both Touré and Fernandinho going forward from central midfield, an exposed weakness could be Cardiff’s route to an upset.

If Cardiff gets a surprise three points, it will be a nearly unchanged side that does so. Mackay returns 10 players from the team that started against West Ham, with only Andrew Taylor coming in for Declan John at left back.

For City, only Kompany’s absences keeps this from being an unchanged side.

If you’re not within Tottenham vs. Swansea on NBCSN, head over to NBC Sports Live Extra to check out streaming options for today’s match in Wales, one that kicks off at 11:00 a.m. Eastern.

Starting Lineups

Cardiff City: David Marshall; Matthew Connolly, Steven Caulker, Ben Turner, Andrew Taylor; Gary Medel, Aron Gunnarsson; Peter Whittingham, Kim Bo-Kyung, Craig Bellamy; Fraizer Campbell

Manchester City: Joe Hart; Pablo Zabaleta, Javi Garcia, Joleon Lescott, Gael Clichy; Jesus Navas, Yaya Toure, Fernandinho, David Silva; Sergio Aguero, Edin Dzeko

 

Report: Granit Xhaka accused of racial abuse

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 22:  Granit Xhaka (R) of Arsenal protests to referee Jonathan Moss after shown a red card during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Burnley at the Emirates Stadium on January 22, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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Arsenal midfielder Granit Xhaka has not had the best 48 hours of his life.

[ MORE: Coutinho key to Liverpool? ]

Xhaka, 24, was sent off for the ninth time in his career on Sunday for a two-footed lunge in Arsenal’s dramatic 2-1 win against Burnley.

It has new been reported by the Telegraph that Granit Xhaka has been accused of racially abusing a member of staff at Heathrow Airport on Monday, just over 24 hours after being sent off.

The Swiss midfielder, who joined Arsenal from Borussia Monchengladbach for $43.8 million in the summer, was reported by a third party for abusing the staff member as he dropped off a friend at Heathrow airport but they were then refused entry to security after turning up late for the flight.

Xhaka is said to have abused the staff member in German but he refutes the claim.

“Police were called at 19:29hrs on Monday, 23 January following an allegation that a member of staff had been racially abused at Heathrow Airport, Terminal Five. The allegation was made by a third party. Officers attended and spoke with a man in his 20s. He was not arrested. He voluntarily attended a west London police station where he was interviewed under caution. Enquires continue.”

Arsenal have no comment on what they call “a private matter” according to Sky Sports, but it has certainly not been a great 48 hours for the club who also had manager Arsene Wenger hit with a misconduct charge by the FA after being sent to the stands for his reaction at a late penalty kick was awarded to Burnley.

Wenger is also being investigated for an apparent push on fourth official Anthony Taylor as he watched from the tunnel area with many expecting Arsenal’s manager to receive a touchline ban.

Again, not a vintage 48 hours for Arsenal as they sit eight points clear of Chelsea and prepare for a pivotal week in their Premier League title hopes which culminates with a battle against their London rivals on Feb. 4 at Stamford Bridge.

How important is Philippe Coutinho to Liverpool?

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24:  Philippe Coutinho of Liverpool scores their fourth goal during the Premier League match between Liverpool and Hull City at Anfield on September 24, 2016 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
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With reports circulating that Philippe Coutinho‘s agent is in talks with Liverpool over a new deal, it is easy to see why the Reds want to reward the Brazilian playmaker.

[ MORE: Klopp on title chances

Coutinho, 24, is undoubtedly the key cog in Jurgen Klopp‘s offensive machine and since he went down with an ankle injury in November against Sunderland they’ve missed him being back to his best.

In the nine games since Coutinho was injured Liverpool have dropped 12 points in the Premier League. In the 13 PL games before his injury they dropped just nine.

Now, this isn’t down to one man but there’s no coincidence here. He makes Liverpool tick and as good as Adam Lallana and Roberto Firmino have been, Coutinho is the main man. Even when you look at Liverpool’s defensive record, their much-maligned backline is slightly better with Coutinho in the team. They conceded 14 goals in 13 games before he was injured and they’ve conceded 13 in their last nine games.

Maybe that’s because Coutinho takes the pressure off his teammates by getting on the ball, dipping between the lines of defense and attack and easing pressure to allow Liverpool to dominant play rather than seeing them susceptible to counter attacks like we did against Swansea City.

Klopp’s main man started at Plymouth last week and against Swansea at the weekend, playing over an hour in each game and showing flashes of his ability. Slowly but surely he is getting back to his best and Liverpool need him to be fully fit for a pivotal stretch of games.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

On Wednesday they host Southampton in the EFL Cup semifinal second leg as the Reds trail 1-0 from the first leg. They then play an FA Cup game against second-tier Wolves and host Premier League leaders Chelsea next Wednesday in a game which they simply must win to have any hope of overhauling Chelsea to win the Premier League title.

Top four is the priority for Klopp’s men but keeping Coutinho fit and in-form is a close second.

This season he has scored five goals and added five assists in just 13 starts in the Premier League and Coutinho’s ability to thread balls in-behind to onrushing attackers, always seem to have time on the ball and ability to change the direction of play has been much missed by Liverpool over the past two months. It is inevitable that in recent displays Coutinho hasn’t looked as sharp as he did before he got injured but Klopp will be hoping the rust has been shaken off and he’s back to his best in the next week.

Along with Sadio Mane‘s absence at the Africa Cup of Nations with Senegal (which will likely be until the first week of February at least as he led them to the knockout stages) Liverpool’s attack looks less dangerous and that extra bit of quality and pace is missing.

That’s because Mane and Coutinho have been missing.

With Mane away, more pressure is now on Coutinho’s shoulders.

Last season was Coutinho’s most productive of his career with 10 goals and seven assists in all competitions. He is well on the way to breaking that record this season based on goals and assists in the Premier League alone.

If Liverpool is going to at least finish in the top four this season and make at least one Wembley final, they have to keep calm and pass it to Coutinho.

He’ll do the rest.

Yaya Toure slams big money moves to China

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 21:  Yaya Toure of Manchester City looks on during the UEFA Champions League Group D match between Manchester City and Sevilla at Etihad Stadium on October 21, 2015 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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Yaya Toure is sick of hearing about players moving to the Chinese Super League for big money.

[ PLAYBACK: Ref calls cost Man City ]

Toure, 33, is out of contract at the Etihad Stadium this summer but after coming back into the fold at Manchester City in recent weeks (thanks to an apology from his agent to manager Pep Guardiola) he has been a key cog in central midfield and wants to stay at City.

The towering Ivorian midfielder has been instrumental since joining City in 2010 from Barcelona. Toure has won the FA Cup, two League Cups and two Premier League titles with City and has questioned what means more to players.

Money or enjoyment?

“I always say that if I went to China I would end up feeling angry there. Do you play football because you love football, or do you play because you want to make money? What’s the purpose?” Toure said. “Me, I just want to play football because I enjoy it, I love playing. I enjoy helping my team-mates, I enjoy playing against the big players and teams. I want to carry on in that way. Some people have the mentality that they want to do that, to try something different but, for me, my feeling is that I want to play more football.”

Toure also said that he hopes to remain at City beyond the end of his current deal which expires in the summer.

“I’ve said before that I’ve been involved with a lot of clubs but, especially at City, I want to give something back to the fans,” Toure said. “I’d like to continue to work hard for them, keep giving them entertainment, keep them happy – that’s what I want. If I was tired, I’d say ‘no more, move on’, but I don’t feel like that. I feel very, very good. I feel young.”

Over to you Pep and Man City. Toure clearly wants to say.

Toure certainly has a lot more to give and now that Pep is on board, a two-year extension would surely be signed if it was offered.

The song below becomes more and more poignant. All together now…

Hull give latest update on Ryan Mason after skull fracture

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 22:  Ryan Mason of Hull City is examined by a medical staff after the collision with Gary Cahill of Chelsea during the Premier League match between Chelsea and Hull City at Stamford Bridge on January 22, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
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Ryan Mason is making “excellent progress” after fracturing his skull in Hull City’s 2-0 defeat at Chelsea on Sunday.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays

Mason, 25, collided with Chelsea’s Gary Cahill when challenging for a header in the first half.

The English midfielder has since been diagnosed with a fracture in his skull and has undergone surgery at a central London hospital

On Tuesday the Premier League club gave the latest update on Mason’s condition.

The Club can confirm that Ryan Mason continues to make excellent progress after sustaining a skull fracture in Sunday’s game against Chelsea. He will continue to be closely monitored by staff at St Mary’s Hospital over the next few days, whilst also remaining in contact with our medical team to assess his progress. There will be no further updates from the club until there are any changes in Ryan’s condition. We also ask that people respect Ryan and his family’s privacy whilst he remains in hospital.

Mason has been visited in hospital by Chelsea’s John Terry, Gary Cahill and assistant manager Steve Holland, plus Hull captain Michael Dawson and members of their staff have also been by his side.

This is very promising news.