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Is it time for Thomas Vermaelen to move on from Arsenal?

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Things are going so well for Arsenal right now.

Top of the Barclays Premier League table. Top of Group F in the Champions League Group Stage.

Aaron Ramsey is on fire. Mesut Ozil is on the books. Olivier Giroud is looking like he may score 20+ goals. Heck, Arsene Wenger even looks a bit – dare I say it? – relaxed.

Yet amongst this joy sits a rather perplexing situation, that of Belgian defender Thomas Vermaelen, who has hinted that he may seek a move away from the Emirates Stadium if first-team opportunities remain hard to come by.

Speaking on ahead of Belgium’s clash with Wales on Tuesday, Vermaelen told the Daily Mail he may leave Arsenal. “I’ll have to think about that when it’s necessary. January is still a few months ahead. Of course, never playing will not be the ideal situation for me to go to the World Cup, that’s for sure.”

For now, he’s playing it cool. “People ask me if I panic because I’m not playing a lot but I’m not. I have spoken to the manager but it will remain private between us. Things can happen in a split second and change my situation. That can happen tomorrow or next weekend. . . . In that case, we will speak differently in January. I have to be ready for that.”

Vermaelen’s words won’t come as a shock to anyone who’s paid attention to his career of late.

Arriving in North London in 2009, Vermaelen needed little time to settle in scoring an incredible seven league goals in 33 matches while leading the Gunners to a third place finish. After an achilles injury shortened his sophomore season, the center-back returned in 2011-12 to impress once again, scoring six goals in 29 matches to help Arsenal finish third.

When Robin van Persie bounced to Old Trafford in the summer of 2012, Arsene Wenger handed Vermaelen the captain’s armband. It was deserved and expected. What wasn’t expected was the turn in form that Vermaelen’s play would take, consistently putting in dreadful appearances, most notably against Liverpool and Manchester City.

His trademark runs up the pitch no longer proved effective, and worse, left Arsenal exposed in the back. His ineffectiveness was (in part) due to continued achilles trouble but moreso to poor decision making.

One almost felt like Vermaelen’s overzealous play was a reaction to the armband, as if he felt the need to do more to prove himself. Unfortunately, his poor performances left Wenger with no decision but to bench the Belgian. It had to be done and it proved the right decision as Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny formed a formidable defensive partnership that conceded the second fewest league goals in 2012-13.

This season Koscielny and Mertesacker have continued their outstanding form, leaving Vermaelen with only 10 minutes of Premier League time to his name. With the World Cup fast approaching and stiff competition in Belgium’s starting lineup – Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen and Daniel van Buyten – Vermaelen needs to prove himself, and fast.

But where will the opportunities come from? Even when Mertesacker was absent against Sunderland Wenger chose to start Bacary Sagna as a center-back and Carl Jenkinson as a right-back instead of utilizing Vermaelen.

So will Arsenal sell the Belgian this January?

Do so and they’ll need to find cover. As a team with a notable injury history and long-shot hopes of making a Premier League title run (while also competing in the Champions League), Arsenal require depth. But Wenger is a conservative business man and a slow mover when it comes to the transfer market. Expecting him to take a loss on Vermaelen and also find a player he believes in enough to purchase could be asking a lot.

Failing to sell Vermaelen, however, could be a big mistake. As Wenger is well aware, having your captain buried on your bench does a club no favors. Plus, the last thing the Frenchman will want is a disgruntled player who could potentially disturb an otherwise promising season.

Decisions will need to be made.

Premier League Playback: Ranking the chance of relegation

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With 12 games to go in the Premier League season, the bottom seven teams are starting to get cut off from the rest of the league.

Just like at the top of the table, this is the “business end” of the campaign and strange things start to happen.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays

Team who looked dead and buried start to rise (see: Hull and Swansea, already) and others start to sink from midtable and towards the abyss with Bournemouth and particularly Leicester City struggling.

[ MORE: Premier League standings | Schedule

Below is a look at the seven main contenders for the three relegation spots, focusing on the toughest games they have remaining, their reasons for optimism and a percentage chance of relegation.

[ MORE: Full PL Playback archive ]

Even if you have points on the board right now, momentum means everything at this time of the season…


Bournemouth

Points: 26
Reason for optimism: The quality Eddie Howe‘s side possess on the ball will see them create chances, so there’s that. However, they have to score two or three goals a game recently to get a win. They have four of the the current top six coming up, then finish the season with four of their last five games against relegation rivals. That will test the nerve of this talented yet inexperienced team.
Toughest games remaining: at Man United (Mar. 4), at Liverpool (Apr. 5), vs. Chelsea (Apr. 8), at Tottenham (Apr. 15)
Relegation percentage: 50%

Swansea City

Points: 24
Reason for optimism: Things are looking much more solid in defense since Paul Clement arrived. Gylfi Sigurdsson and Fernando Llorente continue to score and assist, plus the Swans look dangerous on the break. Plenty of reasons to believe they’ll continue to pull away from the bottom three. Will complacency set in though? Swans next four games are against Burnley, Hull, Bournemouth and Boro. Huge few weeks ahead and then an easier finish to the season, on paper.
Toughest games remaining: vs. Tottenham (Apr. 4), at Man United (Apr. 29), vs. Everton (May 6)
Relegation percentage: 20%

Middlesbrough
Points: 22
Reason for optimism: They’ve got the fifth defensive record in the PL, so they can hang in there. That’s a good trait to have when the pressure is on. They just need a goalscorer to pop up with the goods. A run of three games against relegation rivals at the beginning of April is likely to decide their fate with four very tough games to finish the season.
Toughest games remaining: vs. Man United (Mar. 19), vs. Arsenal (Apr. 15), vs. Man City (Apr. 29), at Chelsea (May 6), at Liverpool (May 21)
Relegation percentage: 50%

Crystal Palace
Points: 22
Reason for optimism: Big Sam has never been relegated as a Premier League manager. Simple. That said, this task is tougher than he thought. The 1-0 win against Boro proved they can grind out a victory when they need to. Still, they have five of the current top six left to play in their final 12 games of the season. It will be a flip of the coin for the Eagles.
Toughest games remaining: At Chelsea (Apr. 1), vs. Arsenal (Apr. 8), at Liverpool (Apr. 22), at Man City (May 6), at Man United (May 21)
Relegation percentage: 50%

Leicester City

Points: 21
Reason for optimism: Scrapping the barrel here… Their incredible runs to safety in 2015 and then for the PL title in 2016 (that did happen, right!?) gives them experience in high-pressure situation. One big marquee win can help get momentum going again, either in the PL or by getting past Sevilla in the return leg. Claudio Ranieri‘s sacking could give the Foxes the jolt they badly need but it must happen soon.
Toughest games remaining: vs. Liverpool (Feb. 27), at Everton (Apr. 8), vs. Tottenham (Apr. 22), at Man City (May 13),
Relegation percentage: 50%

Hull City

Points: 21
Reason for optimism: Marco Silva’s side are much improved and have just two games remaining against the big boys. So many relegation scraps coming up. They look tough to break down and dangerous on the break. That’s a great combo at this point in the season. They have momentum among the teams at the bottom.
Toughest games remaining: at Everton (Mar. 18), at Man City (Apr. 8), vs. Tottenham (May 21),
Relegation percentage: 30%

Sunderland

Points: 19
Reason for optimism: Well, just look at pretty much the last four seasons. Down and out time and time again, somehow Sunderland survive. That’s the only reason for optimism. Oh, and Jermain Defoe‘s goals. David Moyes needs a miracle, especially what those remaining games…
Toughest games remaining: vs. Man City (Mar. 5), vs. Man United (Apr. 8), at Arsenal (Apr. 22), at Chelsea (May 21)
Relegation percentage: 70%


Premier League Playback comes out every week as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here.

VIDEO: Remembering Jamie Vardy’s magic vs. Liverpool

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Just over 12 months ago Leicester City beat Liverpool on a raucous evening at the King Power Stadium to ignite real belief into their Premier League title charge.

We all know how that turned out…

[ PREVIEW: Leicester host Liverpool

A year on and boy, Leicester could use some magic from Vardy as they host Liverpool on Monday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

The Foxes fired Claudio Ranieri last Thursday and the reigning champions have slipped into the relegation zone over the weekend as they’re in freefall with five defeats on the spin and they’ve failed to score in their last six PL games.

Click play on the video above to see Vardy’s wonderful volley from distance as the England international was in full flow on his way to 24 goals for the season. He has just five in the PL this season, three of which came in the 4-2 win against Manchester City at the KP back in December.

Again, caretaker Craig Shakespeare needs some magic from somewhere on Monday if the Foxes are going to gain momentum in their battle against relegation.

Report: Jordan Henderson out with foot injury

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 27:  Jurgen Klopp manager of Liverpool embraces Jordan Henderson of Liverpool after the Premier League match between Liverpool and Stoke City at Anfield on December 27, 2016 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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Liverpool will be without captain Jordan Henderson for the clash at Leicester City on Monday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) according to multiple reports.

[ PREVIEW: Leicester host Liverpool ]

Sky Sports are reporting that Henderson suffered a “badly bruised foot” injury in training over the weekend and will not be available to lead Jurgen Klopp‘s side against a Leicester side in freefall.

Henderson has struggled with injuries recently, missing two weeks in January with a heel injury.

The 26-year-old has become the main holding player in Klopp’s fluid 4-3-3 system and has built up a formidable partnership alongside Georginio Wijnaldum. Henderson provides energy and a wide-range of passing and he would’ve been key against a Leicester which will be fired up following the departure of manager Claudio Ranieri last week and having slipped into the relegation zone over the weekend.

In his absence either Emre Can or Lucas Leiva will seamlessly slot in to the lineup, both can play Henderson’s more defensive role admirably and provide balance to Klopp’s somewhat top-heavy time when you think of Sadio Mane, Adam Lallana, Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino ahead of them.

Klopp has options but it’s still far from ideal to lose your captain after two weeks off and following a break to Spain for training.

Why Mourinho needs Zlatan to stay at Man United

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 14:  Jose Mourinho, Manager of Manchester United congratulates Zlatan Ibrahimovic after the Premier League match between Crystal Palace and Manchester United at Selhurst Park on December 14, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images)
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LONDON — Following Manchester United’s EFL Cup Final victory on Sunday, Jose Mourinho laughed off a question about Zlatan Ibrahimovic‘s future at Old Trafford beyond this season.

He shouldn’t be laughing. He should be taking this situation very seriously. United need Zlatan. End of.

[ MORE: United, Mourinho get lucky

Ibrahimovic, 35, scored twice in the 3-2 win against Southampton at Wembley, including the game-winner with a late header, to hand Mourinho his first piece of major silverware as United’s boss. The veteran Swedish striker has now scored 26 goals in 38 games in all competitions this season, including six in his last four games.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned

The incredible stats aside, his impact and influence on this team is clear for all to see. That’s why Zlatan needs to remain at United for at least one more season, and he could probably go on for longer. That said, he isn’t giving anything away about where he will be next season.

“We have another two months of the season to go,” Ibrahimovic said. “Let’s see how I feel, the situation. Somebody made up a story that if we don’t qualify for the Champions League I will not extend. It has nothing to do with that.”

Mourinho thinks otherwise.

“One day, Zlatan decided to [leave me and Inter Milan to join] Barcelona, I was very sad, but I did nothing to try to stop him to go, so I don’t beg for players,” Mourinho said. “But, if needed, maybe United fans can go to the door of his house, and stay there all night, if needed. We all want, and believe, that he is going to stay another season.”

It simply has to happen.

Zlatan has a contract until this summer with United with an option to extend it for another year. Mourinho has suggested in the past Zlatan will stay but we’ve never had too much of a definitive answer from the player himself.

Right now, aside from his play on the pitch, Zlatan is having a massive impact on the confidence and belief levels of his teammates. He has scored the game-winner on eight occasions this season and comparisons are being made about Eric Cantona and the impact he had.

Zlatan’s aura is helping United win games at the moment and even at the age of 35 he has played more Premier League minutes than any other United outfield player, plus he’s played in more games this season, in all competitions, than any other PL player.

He can play until he is 40. Mourinho said it last week and he’s right. Zlatan doesn’t rely on pace to play the game. He has always had power, panache and predatory instincts in abundance.

With United’s creative talents and other pacey forwards, not to mention the potential arrival of Antoine Griezmann in the summer, he not only brings the best out of them on the pitch but off it too. Mourinho clerly needs to rebuild parts of his defense to take United from top four hopefuls to title contenders next season and beyond, but without Zlatan’s goals this season they’d be in midtable.

United and Mourinho need Zlatan to stay next season, even if Griezmann arrives. Ibra knows it. He’s playing the game.

It would be a huge shock to see him anywhere other than Old Trafford next season. It wouldn’t be a huge shock to see him score the winner for United in the FA Cup and Europa League final this season, and then lead them to even greater glories next season and beyond. After his latest trophy, the 22nd of his playing career, Zlatan revealed he keeps all of his medals in one of his houses. He was also asked if United are building something special under Mourinho?

“I came. That’s special,” Ibrahimovic said.

Anyone who doubted Zlatan’s ability (something he has never done) last summer ahead of his move to the Premier League will be scratching their heads. Like United right now, he seems to always find a way to score goals and get the job done. In that sense, Mourinho needs him to be the focal point of United’s attack for as long as Zlatan can play.

And also, well, he’s Zlatan. In this mammoth rebuild of a roster and self-belief, he’s the X-Factor Mourinho can’t do without.