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Top Premier League storylines for Week 9

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An especially arduous international break is over, and here’s a hard reset as you prepare for this weekend’s return of the Premier League.

[ MORE: Sargent moves to Werder Bremen first team ]

Jose Mourinho’s latest trip back to Stamford Bridge carries plenty of intrigue, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

Is beat-up Liverpool’s depth ready for desperate Huddersfield Town?
Huddersfield Town vs. Liverpool, 12:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBC [ STREAM ]

Sadio Mane, Virgil Van Dijk, Mohamed Salah, Naby Keita. That’s not just a list of Liverpool’s best players, it’s also a few of the Reds who were banged up over the international break.

Jurgen Klopp signed a few players for situations like this, Xherdan Shaqiri in particular, and he does have the boost of a returning Adam Lallana. He insists they’ll be good to go.

“At the end, there will be a really strong side wearing a Liverpool shirt going to Huddersfield and then we will see what we can get there.”

Klopp’s also going against one of his best pals in David Wagner, who needs goals and wins in a hurry. The Terriers are deep in a relegation fight already, and may be getting the Reds at an opportune time.

Can Jose Mourinho get another big win at Stamford Bridge?
Chelsea vs. Manchester United, 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN [ STREAM ]

Well, duh. Do we need to write much under this one? Jose Mourinho’s had plenty of success at Chelsea, but needs to start stacking some wins for Manchester United. Five points adrift of the Top Four and seven back of table-topping Chelsea, now’s a time for a tactical masterclass and a win at the Bridge.

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Spurs hope returnees can help win unpredictable derby
West Ham vs. Tottenham Hotspur, 10 a.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN [ STREAM ]

The Irons have had two weeks to stew on a disappointing loss at Brighton, but all will be forgotten if Manuel Pellegrini leads West Ham past Spurs at the London Stadium.

Spurs defeat of West Ham last season was its first league away win at the Irons since 2014. But this derby is a real “throw out the records” affair, as the venue has been seemingly inconsequential. Spurs will have Christian Eriksen and Mousa Dembele back.

Will good Leicester City turn up to the Emirates Stadium?
Arsenal vs. Leicester City, 3 p.m. ET Monday on NBCSN [ STREAM ]

The Foxes have stumbled a bit too often to be in the Top Four race, and will need to be at their very best against an Arsenal side which hasn’t lost since opening the season 0-2.

Which underachiever will emerge happy from Merseyside?
Everton vs. Crystal Palace, 11 a.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN [ STREAM ]

Marco Silva‘s Toffees have won back-to-back matches to pull into 11th place in the league, five points clear of Palace. Neither expected to be as low as they currently stand. Judging by the way their seasons have gone, a draw where both teams claim they deserved better is coming to Goodison Park for Sunday’s only Premier League match.

Spurs issue injury update ahead of wild month

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Tottenham Hotspur has weathered an injury crisis to stay in the thick of the Premier League title race, and is getting some of its men back in the fold.

Christian Eriksen and Mousa Dembele have been boosted by the international break, Mauricio Pochettino revealed on Thursday.

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Dele Alli, Danny Rose, and Jan Vertonghen are going to require a bit more healing, though, via the BBC:

“Still maybe 10 days more for Dele Alli and Danny Rose is the same, one week more. Jan Vertonghen is a little bit longer. But the most important thing is that we start to recover players. It will be a tough month of competition for us.”

Spurs are two points back of the trio leading the Premier League ahead of a tricky month for all contenders.

Tottenham visits improving West Ham United on Saturday before heading to PSV Eindhoven and hosting Manchester City. A League Cup date with West Ham follows before a visit to Wolves and a return date with PSV. Then Palace, and another international break.

Get well soon, right?

PL Preview: Tottenham vs. Cardiff City

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Winless in the league through the season’s first seven matches, Cardiff City will look to take advantage of a banged up Tottenham Hotspur as they meet at Wembley Stadium on Saturday at 10:00 a.m. live on NBCSN or live online at NBCSports.com.

[ WATCH LIVE: Tottenham vs. Cardiff live on NBCSports.com ]

Tottenham will be without defender Jan Vertonghen who has picked up a hamstring problem and could miss as much as six weeks. Along with the Belgian defender, Spurs will miss Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli and Mousa Dembele who are all sidelined with various injuries. Spurs will especially miss the creativity of Eriksen, who has been out since suffering what Pochettino called an “abdomen problem” he picked up after the 2-1 victory over Brighton in late September.

Spurs have been all over the place with results of late, but they’ve done enough to put themselves into fourth place in the Premier League table. They fell to Barcelona in midweek Champions League play, carved up by Lionel Messi and company. However, they’ve been perfect through Premier League play aside from a two-game losing skid back in early September.

For Cardiff City, manager Neil Warnock is fearing the sack if the Premier League new boys can’t pick up points, and fast. With just two points through the first seven matches, Cardiff sits in 19th, level on points with Huddersfield Town and Newcastle. They are without midfielder Aron Gunnarsson this weekend who is on his way back from a knee injury, while Junior Hoilett is reportedly fit and ready to go.

What they’re saying

Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino on playing a weaker team: “The most difficult game is the game that everyone believes, outside of the team, that you must win. For us it’s so important to be motivated at the same level. If not we’re going to struggle.”

Cardiff City manager Neil Warnock on the possibility of being fired: “If we don’t get results, no doubt it will become someone else’s problem. Every manager is under pressure. You do find every big agent is pushing managers’ names. I have heard two or three be mentioned already for my job, but that’s not just me, every manager gets that.”

Prediction

This Tottenham team is banged up, but right now Cardiff City is just not scoring enough to be trusted against such a disciplined team like Tottenham. An early goal will put Cardiff out of its comfort zone, and it will be elementary from there in a 2-0 Spurs win.

Lionel Messi’s masterclass a joy to behold

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LONDON — At the home of world soccer the greatest individual player the world has ever seen put in a display worthy of winning any game.

Lionel Messi made Wembley Stadium, and Tottenham Hotspur, gasp and gawk in awe as he scored twice, hit the post twice, was involved heavily in the other two goals and led Barcelona to a thrilling 4-2 win in the UEFA Champions League.

Every single person inside Wembley felt lucky to be there to witness his brilliance up close and in the flesh. It sounds boring to repeat this because we’ve said this so many times about Messi over the past 15 years.

At many moments many Tottenham fans stood up and applauded his play. That tells you all you need to know.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned | Recap

“He‘s a fantastic player. The most important thing is why Lionel Messi in every game shows why he is Messi. His average performance is this type of game, above everything else,” Tottenham boss Mauricio Pochettino said as he tried to claim Messi wasn’t that dangerous in the first 45 minutes. That wasn’t the case.

The truth is that we are witnessing greatness and those at Wembley on Wednesday will tell their children and grandchildren about seeing him in full flow, ripping defenders apart and doing everything with both sublime ease and supreme skill.

In truth, the 4-2 scoreline flattered Tottenham slightly. Messi and Co. were guilty of toying with Spurs a little too much before they finished them off in the closing stages.

At the age of 31 Messi’s brilliance shows no signs of slowing down as he scored goals number 561 and 562 in his 647th appearance for Barcelona.

“He [Messi] was unbelievable. When he’s in that form he’s magic to watch,” Spurs defender Kieran Trippier added.

And Spurs’ entire team spent most of Wednesday watching the magician glide across the Wembley pitch past them.

Not even a dried out patch of dodgy grass around the center circle stopped him from finding spaces then ruthlessly exposing Tottenham’s makeshift midfield and defense as Pochettino had to deal with missing several of his regulars.

Had Jan Vertonghen, Mousa Dembele, Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen been fit, it probably wouldn’t have made much difference with Messi in this form. Not only did he dazzle in attack but he chased back, dropped deep to start attacks and his understanding with Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho in particular made every player around him better.

Every superlative in the English language used one after another would not be capable of describing just how brilliant he is and what we witness on a weekly basis.

We aren’t sure if Messi will ever get to play at Wembley again. Given the fact that England don’t have any friendly games lined up against Argentina and Tottenham aren’t due to play any more UEFA Champions League games there after December, it seems likely he won’t be back at the iconic venue.

If that was to be Messi’s final game at the spiritual home of soccer, it was a fitting tribute to the true beauty of the beautiful game.

The truth is that magic like Messi’s is never likely to be seen again.

Three things we learned: Tottenham v. Barcelona

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LONDON — Barcelona beat Tottenham Hotspur 4-2 in their UEFA Champions League Group B clash at Wembley on Wednesday, with Lionel Messi putting on a show at the home of soccer.

[ MORE: Messi’s masterclass a joy ]

After going 2-0 up Barcelona threatened to run away with things but goals from Harry Kane and Erik Lamela pulled it back to 2-1 and 3-2 before Messi finished off Spurs late on.

From Ivan Rakitic’s mind-boggling goal to Messi’s brilliance and the grit of Kane, this game had it all.

Here’s what we learned from a thrilling encounter at Wembley which will go down as a classic.


MESSI, KANE PUT ON A SHOW

Ahead of the game Harry Kane was ridiculed for saying he’d like to score more goals than Lionel Messi. Yes, Kane is still only 25 years old and has time on his side, but he will have his work cut out to get on Messi’s level.

Everybody who will play the game in the future will also be struggling to match him.

Messi scored twice at Wembley to cap off a fine individual display as he petrified Tottenham’s defense every time he dropped deep to pick the ball up and set off on yet another mesmeric run. He hit the post twice with near identical efforts at the start of the second half and it was one of those nights where the 31-year-old proved, once again, why he’s the best player on the planet.

He also loves to play against Premier League teams, as he’s scored more goals and provided more assists versus English teams than against teams from any other nation in European competitions.

At the other end Kane tried his best without his usual support acts of Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen (both injured) and he did an admirable job. He held the ball up, tracked back and ran around like a man possessed in the second half to try and get his team back in the game. What Messi had in skill, Kane matched in grit.

And, in case you are wondering, Messi has scored 562 goals in 647 games for Barcelona, with 105 in the Champions League. He has five goals in two UCL games this season, at a rate of one goal every 36 minutes. Kane has 146 for Spurs but has scored 10 goals in his 12 UCL appearances to date.

Still a long, long, long way to go for Kane, but Tottenham’s talisman stood tall on Wednesday. But unfortunately for him, so too did Barcelona’s.


RUTHLESS BARCELONA STILL HAVE ISSUES

In recent weeks there have been murmurs that Barcelona have been struggling after three games without a win in La Liga.

They were obviously saving themselves for this game. At least in terms of their attacking prowess.

Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho pressed Tottenham’s shaky back line early and they never stopped. The pressure was relentless and Barcelona’s finishing was ruthless. This looked like it would be a lesson in how you kill off a game as quickly as you can, then continue to force your opponent into awkward defensive situations.

Coutinho finished with poise after Hugo Lloris‘ rush of blood to the head early on to sprint out for a ball he was never going to get to. Then Davinson Sanchez’s cheap giveaway led to Coutinho keeping the ball in play as Rakitic hammered home a stupendous volley which will live long in the memory. Messi twice hit the post after mesmerizing runs, then finished calmly for Barca’s third as that looked to be it.

But question marks do remain about their ability to seriously challenge for the Champions League title this season, despite making it two wins from two to open up group play.

The main area Barcelona can improve is defensively. Sure, they missed the pace and dominant aerial ability of the suspended Samuel Umtiti as Harry Kane in particular bullied their back line in the second half. Marc-Andre ter Stegen came up with a big save in the first half and, generally speaking, you can assume they’d still win plenty of games even if they conceded an average of one per game due to the prowess of their attack.

Messi and Co. have been written off by many already, and after going three years without winning the Champions League, they will have to clean up their defensive deficiencies to have a real chance of winning it all in Madrid in May.


TOTTENHAM’S INJURIES ERODE FLUIDITY

It is easy to blame Spurs’ haphazard display on having key players out injured, but there’s no doubt that had a huge impact on their fluidity at both ends of the pitch as they’ve started up their UCL group stage with defeats to Inter Milan and Barcelona.

They have a tough job to get out of the group now with both Barca and Inter having six points on the board.

Kane did his job, as he usually does, in holding the ball up and trying to bring others into play, but when he dropped deeper to lay balls off, neither Eriksen or Alli were there to link up with him. Heung-Min Son, Lucas Moura and Erik Lamela were all looking for the ball in-behind and nobody was there to slot them in, even though Harry Winks put in a fine display to try and shut Barcelona down.

Losing Eriksen, Alli, Mousa Dembele and Jan Vertonghen through injury ahead of such a big night was a cruel blow for Pochettino. Yet, Spurs had chances and took two of them, and they showed real desire to try and drag themselves back into the game.

But the damage was done due to defensive errors from Lloris and Sanchez as they badly missed Vertonghen’s calming influence and Dembele’s presence in front of the back four.

Had Spurs had a fully fit squad to choose from, they could have nicked a point against Barcelona, or maybe even more.