Tuesday Premier League Preview: New managers square off in Midlands derby

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We have midweek Premier League action this week, and while most of the top-half teams are saved for tomorrow, there are still some important matches today in the relegation picture, with a trio of matches kicking off at 2:45 ET.

Most notably, a Midlands derby brings us Aston Villa vs West Brom, as Tim Sherwood and Tony Pulis do battle with their new squads. Tim Sherwood has yet to pick up a single point in two matches in charge of Villa, and they remain in the relegation zone, but snagging his first win today would pull the Claret & Blue out of the drop and send them above three other clubs.

Sherwood believes should they win today, Villa would “never look back” as they rise out of the relegation area. Their drop to the Championship would be a big story, given they were a founding member of the Premier League and have played in every year since despite flirting with the drop multiple times. Villa has not won since December 7.

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Hull City also hosts Sunderland, with the two teams just a point apart in the bottom quarter of the table. Hull City is just four points above the relegation zone, while Sunderland precariously lays a point behind them and three above the flashing red lights. The Tigers are coming off a match where they produced just a single shot against Stoke City over the weekend, and they take on a Sunderland side that has won once since the holiday season.

But with Sunderland now stunned with Adam Johnson – who scored in this reverse fixture on Boxing Day – now suspended indefinitely following his arrest for his alleged sexual encounter with an underage girl, Hull City could make its move. Three points for either side here would be absolutely enormous, and could mark a third home win in a row for the Tigers to give Steve Bruce some wiggle room.

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Finally, Southampton welcomes a roaring Crystal Palace squad, a matchup of teams on either ends of the table but also trending in opposite directions. Palace has been revitalized under Alan Pardew and got back to winning ways this weekend with a 3-1 victory over West Ham. Pardew arrived at Palace with the club in the relegation zone, and now has them a whopping eight points clear.

Saints, meanwhile, are just trying to cling to their European position for dear life. They sit a pair above Tottenham in sixth position, but have lost two straight and four of their last five. Graziano Pelle hasn’t scored in a whopping 10 matches, and after missing an absolute sitter over the weekend, there are calls for him to get a spell on the bench. Last time Alan Pardew visited St. Mary’s, he was in charge of Newcastle and was hammered 4-0 back in September. Now he gets another chance with a different squad.

What they’re saying

Aston Villa’s Tim Sherwood on two losses so far: “Zero points could have easily been six, it could have been four. We have to bounce back and get points as soon as we can.”

West Brom’s Tony Pulis on Tim Sherwood: “I like Tim. He’s a very, very honest, straight-talking chap. There’s no fluff surrounding him. He’s a good football man, he’s worked for some good managers and coaches and has taken lots of good things on board. He is what he is and he’ll leave all the jargon to other people.”

Hull City’s Steve Bruce on the relegation battle: “We’re in a horrible dogfight and there’s eight or nine teams in with us who are all feeling it. Two weeks ago we were in the bottom three and now we’re four points clear, but we’ve got to maintain it. We’re not out of the woods yet. If you can put another couple of results together at this particular stage of the season, it will really help.”

Gus Poyet on Sunderland’s position: “To play a certain kind of football I like you need to play with your heart but also be calm. There’s a tension but at the same time on the ball you need to relax. I don’t think there will be too much relaxing now. It’s a different kind of game now. We have to try our nuts off. We need to get something, somehow. It’s not about beautiful football any more, it’s just about making sure you beat your rival. I’m convinced we’ll be OK but I’m trying to make sure we do the right thing now. That’s a challenge and a big responsibility. It would be better not to be going through this again.”

 Alan Pardew on Crystal Palace’s aims: “We need to stay in the division, it’s as simple as that. That’s our only goal.”

Ronald Koeman on scoring early: “I think [our results are] also a lot down to scoring in the game. I think 90 per cent of when we scored the first goal we won the games. That means for us it is a comfortable situation. But if we are down in the result then it makes it difficult. We still try, we still have the spirit to score, but the opponents make it very difficult for us and then you need to be patient, then you need quality in the last part of the attacking.”

Injuries/Absences

Aston Villa: Ron Vlaar was suspended for the weekend for yellow card accumulation but is doubtful today with a calf injury. Kieran Richardson and Aly Cissokho are no-go’s. Allan Hutton must also prove fit before the match.

West Brom: Victor Anichebe is a definite no with a groin problem, while Saido Berahino and Brown Ideye are question marks. Berahino would be the biggest loss by far, as he limped off against Southampton with a foot injury.

Hull City: Robbie Brady is looking at the possibility of six weeks out after picking up a calf injury, but the rest is good news. Dame N’Doye was rested Saturday and should be back, while Nikica Jelavic has a swollen knee but should be good to go.

Sunderland: Adam Johnson is suspended by the club and unavailable, but Wes Brown is ready to go after winning his red card appeal for wrongful dismissal. The rest is good news as well, with Jack Rodwell, Ricky Alvarez and Billy Jones all set to make returns.

Southampton: Toby Alderweireld is available after seven weeks on the sidelines with a hamstring tear. That appears to have cleared up the only injury problem for Southampton aside from Jay Rodriguez’s long-term injury.

Crystal Palace: Mile Jedinak was suspended four matches for throwing an elbow at Diafra Sakho over the weekend, and decided not to appeal. Glenn Murray is also suspended, and a group of Jordan Mutch, Frazier Campbell, Marouane Chamakh, and Yaya Sanogo are all out, the latter trio with hamstring injuries.

In the Mixed Zone with JPW: Episode 1

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NBC Sports’ Pro Soccer Talk lead writer and editor Joe Prince-Wright shares his behind-the-scenes access into the Premier League mixed zones highlighting the intriguing interviews from this week’s marquee matches.

This week, JPW shares his mixed zone interviews from Chelsea-Manchester United, Arsenal-Newcastle and Manchester City-West Ham.

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To listen to more from the mixed zone with Joe Prince-Wright as he takes you deep inside Premier League stadiums, subscribe to In the Mixed Zone with JPW Podcast on Apple Podcasts or anywhere you listen to podcasts.

And you can follow him on Twitter @JPW_NBCSports here.

Click here for In the Mixed Zone with archive ]

Click play below to listen to Episode 1 in full.

Pep reacts to Sterling’s Real Madrid comments

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Man City boss Pep Guardiola has responded to comments from his player Raheem Sterling about their upcoming UEFA Champions League opponents Real Madrid.

Sterling, 25, spoke to Spanish outlet AS and confirmed that he is really happy at Man City ‘right now’ but admitted that Real Madrid are a ‘fantastic club’ and waxed lyrical about their famous white shirt.

“Right now I’m at City and I’m really happy. But I say Real Madrid are a fantastic club,” Sterling said. “When you see the white shirt you know exactly what the club stands for, it’s massive. [Rumours of their interest], it’s something that you see all the time, but I’m a City player and I’m enjoying it at the moment, even if things haven’t gone quite planned in the league.

“We now have a massive opportunity in the Champions League. I keep saying Real Madrid is a fantastic club, there’s lovely weather, but I keep saying that I am quite happy at City. I have a contract with City now and I have to respect this. But it’s a fantastic club.”

The photo on the front of AS showed Sterling with a Real Madrid shirt on one shoulder and a Man City shirt on the other.

Guardiola was asked about his response to those comments and if he thought Sterling, or any other players, would be less committed to Man City given their two-year ban from European competitions.

“Players are free to talk and say what they believe and think,” Guardiola said. “We are not hear to tell them what they think. I am sure about the commitment of our players. They have shown it for many years and nothing changes.”

Sterling has returned to training after two weeks out through injury and he could play at Leicester City on Saturday (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com) as Guardiola’s men aim to open up a seven-point gap to third-place Leicester with a win.

Sterling’s comments are complimentary about Real Madrid and given their reported admiration for him for quite some time, the timing of saying this is a little odd given City’s ban from UEFA and so much uncertainty around the future of the club in the Champions League.

Despite Guardiola committing himself to staying at Man City for next season and until the end of his contract in the summer of 2021, his players will get plenty of offers to leave if the Champions League ban is upheld. Lionel Messi has joked that Barcelona should “sign the lot of them!” when asked about Sergio Aguero and others signing for the Spanish giants.

Sterling isn’t the first or last Man City player who will be targeted by European giants over the next few months as the situation remains uncertain.

Chelsea: No exact date for Pulisic return; Kante out

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USMNT superstar Christian Pulisic remains out injured for Chelsea and his manager Frank Lampard has admitted the injury is a ‘difficult one’ to assess.

Slumping Chelsea host in-form Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday at Stamford Bridge (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) with the Blues in fourth place but just one point ahead of Spurs.

N’Golo Kante, who hobbled off in the 2-0 defeat to Man United on Monday, is out for three weeks but the most concerning news was about Pulisic as Lampard revealed he can’t give an exact date on when the USMNT star will be back after his adductor injury which saw him last play on Jan. 1. 

“N’Golo is not fit. A muscle injury, the same as the one he came off with Arsenal with. Should be, hopefully, three weeks,” Lampard said. “Christian Pulisic is still not fit. At the moment I can’t give an exact date. Difficult injury, we are working with that. Ruben is in the squad but not fit to start. Andreas Christensen is fit. He went to get a mask for a broken nose.”

Tammy Abraham has trained the last two days at about ’70 percent’ while it is not expected that Callum Hudson-Odoi will be fit. The news on Kante is particularly damaging as he will miss the UEFA Champions League last 16 first leg against Bayern Munich as injures are piling up all over the pitch.

The good news for Chelsea? Ruben Loftus-Cheek will return to the squad this weekend after being out since May 12 when he injured his Achilles in a friendly against the New England Revolution in a friendly.

That is the only decent bit of injury news for Lampard’s young Chelsea squad.

Chelsea are still in fourth but have won just four of their last 14 games in the Premier League and with Spurs just one point behind them and United three points behind them, the chasing pack are closing in. Tottenham have plenty of injuries with Harry Kane and Heung-min Son out injured but Jose Mourinho knows this is a good time to play against his former club Chelsea.

Injuries to Abraham, Pulisic and Hudson-Odoi are tough as scoring goals has become an issue for the Blues in this poor run of form which stretches back to November.

All season long Chelsea have squandered goalscoring chances and even if the Champions League qualification goes down to fifth place due to Man City’s European ban, they may still miss out. They have been unlucky with injuries this season and missing Kante for a pivotal stretch of the season and the stop-start campaigns for Pulisic and Hudson-Odoi have been frustrating for Lampard.

“Whenever I speak to fans, and this season is a transitional year so we can’t please everybody, but what I’m getting is they’re recognising a team that wants to play,” Lampard said.

Injury news and a lack of goals aside, it is easy to forget this is a very young Chelsea side who have so far exceeded expectations.

A strong finish in the final 12 games of the season, starting with a win against bitter rivals Spurs, is exactly what the doctor ordered for Lampard and Co.

Liverpool’s Henderson ruled out with injury

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Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson has been ruled out for up to three weeks after picking up a hamstring injury.

Jurgen Klopp confirmed the injury, which Henderson suffered in the 1-0 defeat at Atletico Madrid on Tuesday, and that means the central midfielder will miss the games against West Ham, Watford and Bournemouth in the Premier League, plus the FA Cup clash at Chelsea and probably the last 16 second leg at Anfield against Atletico.

Speaking to reporters ahead of Liverpool’s clash with West Ham at Anfield on Monday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com), Klopp had an update on his captain.

“Hendo, could have been worse, it was a hamstring. He will be out for I think three weeks or so, which is not cool, but how we see it is that we were lucky,” Klopp said.

He also said that he doesn’t plan to rotate his squad as they have almost a full week of rest after their UCL last 16 clash against at Atleti and there are no other injury concerns: “Apart from Hendo, all of the other boys are fit.”

Naby Keita or James Milner would be the obvious replacements for Henderson but it is getting increasingly tough for Liverpool to replace. The England international has taken his game to a whole new level this season and after leading Liverpool to Champions League glory last season he is so close to lifting the Premier League trophy this season.

Henderson is in the conversation to be crowned the PFA Player of the Season with his quality passing, driving runs and incredible workrate keeping Liverpool on track as they aim to go the entire season unbeaten.

With a 22-point lead atop the table, Klopp doesn’t have to rush Henderson back but he’s the kind of character who will pushing hard to bee back as soon as possible.