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Premier League Preview: Man City vs. Fulham

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  • Fulham has conceded 9 goals so far this season, one off the most in the league
  • Man City has scored 16 goals in its last 5 home league matches
  • Man City has beaten Fulham by a combined 10-0 over last 3 league meetings at the Etihad

Manchester City will host a discount version of itself as they meet Fulham at the Etihad Saturday at 10:00 a.m. ET on NBCSN or live online at NBCSports.com in a highly-anticipated clash of similar playing styles. It will be fascinating to see how this game progresses, as Fulham manager Slavisa Jokanovic insists the Whites will attempt to play their possession-based style even against the reigning Premier League champions.

Fulham led the Championship in possession the last two years under Slavisa Jokanovic before promotion, and this season they sit fourth in the Premier League in completed passes, above teams like Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, and Arsenal. Saturday’s meeting with City sees them match up against the side that sits second in the Premier League with 2,726 completed passes through four matches, 497 more than Fulham.

[ MORE: Top Premier League storylines for Week 5 ]

Manchester City has its full compliment of players aside from Kevin De Bruyne and Claudio Bravo who are out with long-term injuries. Raheem Sterling left the England over the weekend with a back injury, but Pep Guardiola says the 23-year-old is healthy enough to return to selection for City. Danilo is back in training as well, but may not have the match fitness to play this weekend.

The visitors will be without playmaking force Tom Cairney, a big loss for a team that requires a centralized creator in the attacking half. Also missing for the Cottagers is winger Neeskins Kebano, who is dealing with an ankle problem. Finally, American defender Tim Ream is still absent with a nagging thigh injury that is taking longer to heal than initially thought, still yet to debut this season.

What they’re saying

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola on Fulham – “I’m really impressed. I had two weeks watching them. I saw three games. They have good players – [Jean Michael] Seri, and players in the front like [Aleksandar] Mitrovic. It’s not just long balls and channels, they want to make their own game. I’m pretty sure they’ll have a good season.”

Fulham manager Slavisa Jokanovic on Pep Guardiola – “No, I don’t use his style of football, I try use my style or use my players. He’s one of the most experienced and successful managers. He’s shown a similar style in different places, he’s shown it’s possible to play that way in different competitions. All the credit to him; he made really important steps in the game. But to copy people is not good. It’s not easy for us to match this level. We try to find our way, we try to adapt ourselves, we try to interpret what we have in our hands.”

Prediction

Fulham is going to take it to some teams, but in games like this, it’s hard to see them stepping up to the competition. These are the games they will struggle in – against teams similar to their style. The Fulham defense has been a work in progress in Ream’s absence, with new signings Maxim Le Marchand, Alfie Mawson, and Calum Chambers all still working to to settle into new roles. Manchester City should feast, and it could finish at an ugly 4-1.

PL Sunday preview: Man City visit Arsenal; Liverpool vs. West Ham

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With seven games already in the books, the Premier League’s opening weekend concludes on Saturday with three more fixtures, including the 2018-19 campaign’s first clash of top-six sides.

[ MORE: What we learned from the first Saturday of PL 2018-19 ]

Liverpool vs. West Ham United — 8:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Champions League finalists — and fourth-place finishers in the PL — just four months ago, Jurgen Klopp has given himself an incredibly tough act to follow and a high bar to clear. The Reds are pretty widely agreed to have had the best summer transfer window of the 20 PL sides, while one could make a very strong case for West Ham to finish as runners-up: Felipe Anderson and Andriy Yarmolenko just shy of being considered world-class wingers on their days, while Carlos Sanchez and Issa Diop are likely to plug longtime holes at defensive midfield and center back, respectively.

New Hammers boss Manuel Pellegrini likely played a key part in the above summer signings choosing West Ham over a number of other suitors, and Sunday will be the Chilean’s first chance to put his stamp on the club on the field.

INJURIES: Liverpool — OUT: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (knee), Jordan Henderson (fitness), Dejan Lovern (fitness), Simon Mignolet (fitness); QUESTIONABLE: James Milner (head) | West Ham — OUT: Manuel Lanzini (knee), Andy Carroll (ankle)

Southampton vs. Burnley — 8:30 a.m. ET, on NBC Sports Gold

Just a year or two ago, Southampton were the PL club to go from recently promoted side to Europa League qualifiers in a relatively short period of time. While Saints were busy falling into a relegation battle last season, however, Burnley were more than happy to barge their way up the table and finish seventh. Now, it’s the Clarets’ turn to prove they have the depth and desire to compete on domestic and continental fronts this season, while Southampton hope to simply stabilize a club that has seen its fair share of turmoil over the last 24 months.

INJURIES: Southampton — OUT: None | Burnley — OUT: Robbie Brady (hamstring); QUESTIONABLE: Steven Defour (calf)

Arsenal vs. Manchester City — 11 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Last season’s runaway champions begin their title defense against a top-six side in the midst of arguably the greatest transition period the PL has ever seen — Arsene Wenger left Arsenal in May, and Unai Emery has replaced him. To state the obvious, it’s a tall task for Emery to end his winless run against Pep Guardiola, whom he has never beaten in 10 meetings, while also taking charge of his first competitive match at the Emirates Stadium.

Wenger’s Arsenal didn’t fare any better against Guardiola than Emery has done, as City dominated all three meetings between the two sides last season, winning 3-1 at home and 3-0 away in league play, plus another 3-0 thrashing away from home in the League Cup.

INJURIES: Arsenal — OUT: Sead Kolasinac (knee), Laurent Koscielny (achilles), Nacho Monreal (knee) | Man City — OUT: Danilo (ankle)

LAFC loses Kaye to injury, reportedly signs Danilo Silva

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LAFC had a roller coaster of a Thursday and they didn’t even take the field.

First, news broke that starting midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye would need ankle surgery, leaving him out for 4-6 months. The 23-year-old left the LA derby against the Galaxy in the 20th minute, with tears in his eyes after being fouled just outside the penalty area.

Kaye is a huge loss for LAFC, proving vital to the club in his first Major League Soccer season after coming over from USL club Louisville City. “He [Kaye] brings a little bit more range, a little bit more ability to get around the ball, a little bit of an ability to close down, win some balls in air, get into the box in both sides,” said manager Bob Bradley at training after news of the injury was announced. “All those things make him a little bit different.”

Bradley said he learned the extent of the injury at halftime of the eventual 2-2 draw with the Galaxy. Kaye had started all but one of LAFC’s 21 MLS matches this season, helping the side to a second-place spot in the Western Conference standings.

However, the club then signed Brazilian defender Danilo Silva, formerly of Brazilian club Internacional and Ukranian giants Dynamo Kiev. According to reports on social media, Silva has signed a one-year loan deal with LAFC from Internacional, with no loan fee and an option to buy. The 31-year-old was surplus to requirements at the Brazilian side, playing just two of their first 16 matches of the season. He has a bit of MLS experience, playing for the MetroStars way back in 2005.

Tite faces first true tactical test as Brazil meets Belgium

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With the Round of 16 complete, Brazil is one of the few favorites in the 2018 World Cup to have earned that nomenclature thus far. Germany slumped out in the group stage, Spain looked lost without its manager and bowed out in the Round of 16, and France still seems yet to put together a truly complete performance.

Now, staring down a quarterfinal date with Belgium’s “Golden Generation” on Saturday, Brazil faces its first true test. Manager Tite has yet to find himself truly challenged tactically over his two-year tenure with the national team, breezing through CONMEBOL qualification in a South American confederation that appears weaker than usual given its combined performance in the World Cup thus far.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Brazil sailed through qualification with a week one loss the only blemish along entire way, and to this point in the big dance they’ve done enough to push by Switzerland, Costa Rica, Serbia, and Mexico with few truly shaky moments. Now, Tite finds himself tasked with halting the seductively free-flowing Belgian attack that has multiple strengths with which to threaten an opposition.

In a vacuum, Tite wouldn’t have much to think about, his first-choice Brazilian side built well to handle an attacking juggernaut like Belgium. However, the numerous circumstances surrounding Saturday’s quarterfinal make this an exceedingly difficult prospect for Tite – his first truly mountainous trial.

The biggest concern Tite must to overcome is the loss of central midfielder Casemiro to yellow card suspension. The World Cup’s excessively strict yellow card policy sees players who accumulate a second caution before the semifinal suspended for the subsequent match, and thanks to Casemiro’s booking in the 59th minute of the 2-0 win over Mexico for a foul on Hirving “Chucky” Lozano, Brazil is without the Real Madrid rock.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.

Casemiro is essential to Brazil’s structure and shape, and protects a back line better than any number 6 in the world. His performance against Mexico was as stout as any, but it’s not a good illustration of his true abilities given how Mexico intentionally targeted Brazil’s flanks as their preferred outlet of attack. Instead, one should look to Brazil’s comfortable 2-0 win over Serbia to discover Casemiro’s true worth. Against the big, physical presence of Serbia’s attack, Casemiro was vital in preventing them from circulating through the middle. The 26-year-old completed six of eight tackles attempted, contributed four clearances, recovered nine balls, and went toe-to-toe with Serbia’s exceptionally physical presence winning three of his seven defensive aerial duels. He effectively forced Serbia’s attack out wide, where they are not nearly as dangerous. Below is their attacking dashboard, where you can see the void in the middle as opposed to the traffic out wide.

Serbia attacking dashboard vs. Brazil in Group E play of 2018 World Cup (dashboard via StatsZone app, statistics via Opta).

As you can see, they were completely neutralized in the center of the pitch. With this in mind, Serbia was forced to take a mammoth 26 crosses, of which they successfully connected on just four.

Casemiro’s suspension will be a massive loss for Brazil against Belgium’s impressive attacking assualt. In the Red Devils’ 5-2 demolition of promising African nation Tunisia, they were relentless down the middle. Roberto Martinez has Kevin De Bruyne playing in a deeper midfield role with Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens ahead of him in the attacking midfield, and the Manchester City playmaker has been able to marshal the Belgian buildup from deep. Against Tunisia he created five chances and was given free reign through the middle of the field to control the pace of play. That ultimately saw Belgium’s attack bask in plenty of sunlight through the central areas.

 

Kevin de Bruyne’s complete dashboard in Belgium’s 5-2 win over Tunisia in Group G play (dashboard via StatsZone app, statistics via Opta).
Belgium’s attempted take-ons in the 5-2 win over Tunisia in Group G play.
Belgiums attacking third passes in the 5-2 win over Tunisia in Group G play.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With this in mind, Tite will be forced to counter the loss of Casemiro. With Paulinho deployed next to Casemiro thus far throughout the World Cup, it’s unlikely Tite would want to leave him on an island against Belgium. The most likely scenario is the addition of Fernandinho in Casemiro’s place, with the Manchester City holding midfielder a fitting selection to deputize against his Belgian club teammate with the Premier League title winners. Fernandinho was fabulous last season for his club, a big reason why Manchester City was able to win a championship in record-setting fashion. He was the 12th best player in the Premier League last season according to Squawka Statistics as he executed Pep Guardiola‘s tactics to perfection. However, the biggest weakness for Fernandinho is his defensive ability, with the 25-year-old making 5.3 defensive contributions (tackles, interceptions, clearances, blocks) per 90 minutes in the Premier League last season compared to Casemiro’s 9.1 in La Liga play.

Instead of Fernandinho, we could see the likes of new Manchester United signing Fred or veteran Renauto Augusto if Tite wants to be more aggressive, which may be a preferable tactical choice given Belgium’s weak defensive midfield that Japan exploited in the first half of their Round of 16 meeting, before Roberto Martinez shored things up with the introduction of Marouane Fellaini.

Another conundrum Tite must solve is the looming question up front: what to do with Gabriel Jesus. The 21-year-old attacker impressed in his first season in England, but has proven underwhelming in Russia this summer. He has been upstaged by Liverpool striker Roberto Firmino late in World Cup games, most recently watching from the bench as Firmino iced the Mexico game with a late goal. There are calls to replace Jesus with a more centrally inclined striker like Firmino in the starting lineup, and it is Tite’s job to deduce whether Firmino is a fitting replacement for Jesus from the get-go, or if his success is molded by his use as a late sub against tired legs. If his Champions League performances are any indication, Firmino is more than capable of causing problems for opposition defensive structure for an entire 90 minutes at a high level, and his World Cup performances seem to suggest he has a better understanding with Neymar than Jesus has shown.

Finally, Tite has issues to solve on the back line as well. Injuries have decimated the Brazilian full-back ranks, and while it appears those injured may be somewhat subsiding, there are still lingering questions. Danilo was reportedly fit for the Mexico game, but Tite stuck with understudy Fagner at right-back, who was subsequently torn to shreds by Carlos Vela early and Lozano as the game progressed. Vela created four chances throughout the match – three in the first half – while completing 13 of 16 pass attempts in the attacking third. Lozano, meanwhile, completed six of 10 take-ons including five of his first seven before Brazil’s pressure became too much for Mexico to handle. Meanwhile on the left flank, Filipe Luis was troubled by Mexico’s wide attack as well – although not to the extent of Fagner – and while Marcelo’s presence in the Brazilian lineup would seem a given if healthy, some believe Filipe Luis has performed well enough to keep his place in the eleven.

Brazil has passed every test to this point, but in a World Cup full of chaos and upsets, Tite cannot afford to underestimate any personnel choice or tactical decision, no matter how small. His conclusions over the next few days will shape the 2018 World Cup’s first true heavyweight bout.

Injured Marcelo will not start for Brazil against Mexico

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Brazil is already down a pair of right-backs in this 2018 World Cup, and they could be down the world’s best left-back as well.

Marcelo went off just 10 minutes into Brazil’s final group stage match against Serbia, and it appears a back problem will keep him out of the starting lineup for their Round of 16 matchup against Mexico. Brazil manager Tite confirmed that while Marcelo has returned to training, he will start the Mexico match among the substitutes.

Filipe Luis came on to replace Marcelo against Serbia, and Tite confirmed the Atletico Madrid man would start the knockout stage game in his place as well. Luis was good against Serbia, completing 68 of 77 pass attempts, but he doesn’t provide the same two-way threat that Marcelo give the Seleçao.

Marcelo reportedly was removed from the Serbia game with back spasms, and the Brazil team doctor suggested that a bad hotel mattress was to blame for the 30-year-old’s issues.

Brazil is also down right-backs Dani Alves and Danilo, both missing out due to injury. That has pressed Corinthians right-back Fagner into duty, starting each of the final two group stage matches and playing well defensively. Still, neither Filipe Luis nor Fagner provide the attacking threat that the Brazilian starting full-backs give the World Cup favorites.