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Top Premier League storylines for Week 13

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The final international break of 2018 is in the rearview mirror, thus the Premier League takes center stage for the next three and a half months.

[ MORE: Barca’s next signing of a Liverpool player will cost extra $114M ]

Here are the five storylines we’ll be watching most closely this weekend…


Tottenham look to spoil Chelsea’s unbeaten start
Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea, 12:30 p.m. ET, Saturday, on NBC [ STREAM ]

Chelsea, alongside Manchester City and Liverpool, remain undefeated to begin the 2018-19 season, but the Blues are set for a tough test on Saturday when they take on Tottenham, the only side in the PL without a draw this season, at Wembley Stadium. Maurizio Sarri‘s side might be unbeaten, but they’ve endured a largely indifferent run of results in recent weeks, as they’ve drawn more games (four) than they’ve won (three) over the last two months. Each side won away from home in their two meetings last season.

Who will can play for Spurs?
Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea, 12:30 p.m. ET, Saturday, on NBC [ STREAM ]

Mauricio Pochettino has enough defenders and midfielder to pick a standard starting lineup on Saturday… probably. It’s been a tough season for Spurs on the injury front, but here’s a list of who’s currently unavailable: Davinson Sanchez, Mousa Dembele, Kieran Trippier, Danny Rose. Jan Vertonghen has been out for two months but is one of three players, alongside Eric Dier and Victor Wanyama, who could return just in time for this London derby. And yet, Spurs have managed nine wins from their first 12 games and sit fourth in the table. They are, however, yet to beat a side currently in the top-seven (losses to Man City, Liverpool and Watford).

Man City, Liverpool take title race on the road
West Ham vs. Man City, 10 a.m. ET, Saturday, on NBCSN [ STREAM ]
Watford vs. Liverpool, 10 a.m. ET, Saturday, on NBC Sports Gold [ STREAM ]

They look set to run neck and neck with one another all season — currently separated by just two points — and they’ll both hit the road on Saturday. Liverpool have the tougher of the two tests, as they’ll take on Javi Gracia’s seventh-place (just ahead of Manchester United) Watford at Vicarage Road. City will also be in London, taking on 12th-place West Ham at the London Stadium.

Bournemouth-Arsenal is a top-six clash
Bournemouth vs. Arsenal, 8:30 a.m. ET, Sunday, on NBCSN [ STREAM ]

Ever since Arsenal’s seven-game winning streak was snapped nearly a month ago, the points have been trickling in one at a time for Unai Emery‘s Gunners. Three straight draws — against Crystal Palace, Liverpool and Wolverhampton Wanderers — have dropped Arsenal to fifth place, three points behind Spurs, and made Sunday’s trip to the south coast of England a massively important one. No one has outperformed expectations more than Bournemouth thus far, as Eddie Howe‘s Cherries sit just four points back of Arsenal in sixth place.

Ranieri takes charge at Craven Cottage
Fulham vs. Southampton, 10 a.m. ET, Saturday, on NBC Sports Gold [ STREAM ]

The bad news for Fulham: they sit bottom of the league with just five points from 12 games. Now, the good news: they’re only three points from safety and there are 26 games still to play. Claudio Ranieri is set to make his Fulham debut when Southampton come to west London on Saturday, and nothing would do more to rally the club around the new boss than snapping the Cottagers’ six-game losing streak and securing their first victory since August..

PL Preview: Crystal Palace vs. Tottenham Hotspur

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  • Spurs (24 points) sit 4th in PL table
  • Palace (8 points) in 14th
  • Spurs won both meetings 1-0 last season

Mauricio Pochettino is four months into perhaps his greatest miracle (thus far) as Tottenham Hotspur manager — keeping the club in the thick of the Premier League’s top-four race despite a series of debilitating challenges from outset. Has it been a complete departure from the last two or three seasons when Tottenham played some of the most attractive, entertaining attacking soccer in the world? It absolutely has, and perhaps that’s why they’ve been criticized for perceived regression. That’s without even mentioning the ongoing stadium situation.

Due in large part to injuries — coupled with serious fitness struggles following the World Cup — and the fact they failed to sign a single player during the summer transfer window, it becomes quite clear, quite quickly, how any start to the season would be seen as unimpressive should a single aspect of recent successes change. But — and here’s the important part — they just keep finding ways to win. Saturday’s trip to Selhurst Park (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET, on NBC and NBCSports.com) — even to take on a struggling Crystal Palace side — will likely require a similar grind-it-out approach, given injuries to Jan Vertonghen (hamstring), Mousa Dembele (ankle), Eric Dier (thigh), Danny Rose (groin) and Victor Wanyama (knee), to those of recent weeks.

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Palace, on the other hand, are winless in their last six league games (two draws) and have slipped to within two points of the relegation zone. Admittedly, a run of fixtures against Arsenal, Chelsea, now Spurs, then Manchester United is going to be a tough period for any non-top-six side. The Eagles haven’t topped Spurs in a PL fixture in six tries, suffering defeat all six times — five of which came via a 1-0 scoreline.

What they’re saying

Pochettino, on unfounded criticisms of Harry Kane: “He is so obsessed with scoring that sometimes, when it is against him, he needs more freedom — not to be obsessed. But he is going to learn and he is starting to be really mature. Kane is English and sometimes you push him to the sky and paradise and then you put him on the outside. If Harry was Italian and playing for the Italian side, he would be a bit more protected because the Italian people are more protective of their players. It’s difficult to push them but when they are there, they try to keep them up there. It’s similar in Spain. Here, it is more up and down.”

Palace manage Roy Hodgson, on struggling to score goals: “I can’t in any way criticize or complain about what the players are trying to do either in training or in matches, and I’m sure that (the goals) will come when the ball goes in for us. But, as I say, we’ve scored three in the last games. “The only thing we can do is keep trying to give those performances, and hope that if there is any luck going, it goes our way”


Prediction

It’ll be something of a slog — perhaps with multiple goals for each side, given the lack of midfield options for Spurs — but they’re battle-tested and have given a fantastic account of themselves in recent weeks. At some point, the fatigue and grind will catch up to them, but not on Saturday.

More bad injury news for Spurs: Dembele out until new year

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It’s just about impossible to decide whether Tottenham Hotspur are enduring a miserable start to their 2018-19 season, or doing brilliantly well given all the circumstances which seem to be stacked against them.

[ MORE: Man United stun Juventus with late comeback ]

From the ongoing stadium saga, to not signing a single player in the summer transfer window, to all of the injuries Mauricio Pochettino has been forced to deal with, Tottenham somehow sit fourth in the Premier League table on the back of the club’s best-ever start to a PL season (24 points from 11 games, five points off the top spot).

Now, comes news that midfielder Mousa Dembele, the oft-injured engine of Spurs, is set to miss at least two months with ankle ligament damage suffered in the opening seconds of Saturday’s 3-2 win over Wolverhampton Wanderers. The club confirmed he’ll be out until the new year, at least.

“It is always about the patience, how he is going to react to the injury, but we hope he is going to be ready by early January,” Pochettino said on Thursday.

[ MORE: Pochettino: “This team is growing up” as Spurs keep UCL hopes alive ]

Dembele joins fellow key figures Jan Vertonghen (hamstring — out since September, until December), Eric Dier (thigh — out since the start of October), Danny Rose (groin — out since early October, until later this month) and Victor Wanyama (knee — out since mid-October) as currently unavailable due to injuries. So, the midfield and the defense, basically.

Perhaps Spurs will sign someone in the January transfer window, so as to field a full 18-man squad of first-team players through the end of the season.

CL preview: PSG and Barcelona visit Italy, Atletico hosts Dortmund

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There’s a star-studded lineup on Tuesday in the Champions League, and one of the biggest stars could make his return earlier than expected.

Lionel Messi was included in the Barcelona squad that visits in-form Internazionale on Tuesday, and while he’s not expected to start, he could make his return from a broken arm that has kept the superstar out for the last two weeks. Messi was expected to miss more time, but was included int he squad despite confirmation that he is training despite not yet receiving clearance from the medical staff to play.

With or without Messi, Barcelona visits Inter in a scintillating matchup of in-form sides. Barcelona leads La Liga and hasn’t lost in any competition since a late September miss at Leganes. Meanwhile, since a mid-September loss to Parma, Inter’s only defeat has come to this Messi-less Barcelona team in the reverse fixture two weeks ago. They have beaten good teams such as AC Milan, Lazio, and Tottenham over that time. A draw or win would confirm Barcelona as through to the next round, while a win for Inter would do the same, although both teams appear all but clearly on their way.

Mauro Icardi was rested for the 5-0 thumping of Genoa last time out, but the Argentine has five goals in his last three Serie A matches and is white-hot form. Meanwhile, Luis Suarez is on a similarly torrid streak, with six goals in his last three league games, including an El Clasico hat-trick.

Elsewhere, Napoli hosts Paris Saint-Germain. Napoli brings good goalscoring form into the match, with at least two goals in four of its last five matches across all competitions. PSG is steamrolling the French league again, but sits third in Group C and desperately needs a win to feel better about advancing. Kylian Mbappe did not score in the 2-2 draw the last time these teams met, but has bagged seven goals in his last four Ligue 1 matches and hopes to bring that form with him into Champions League play.

Borussia Dortmund heads west to visit Atletico Madrid with both teams far and away the leaders in Group A. Similarly to the Barcelona vs. Inter game, a draw or win would see the German side officially advance, while Atletico would go through with a win or potentially could confirm advancement with a draw plus help. England youngster Jadon Sancho is the man to watch in Madrid, having pushed Christian Pulisic for Dortmund minutes thanks to his ridiculous form, with four goals in the 18-year-old’s last four matches across all competitions, including a tally in the 4-0 Dortmund win over Atletico in the reverse fixture two weeks ago.

Liverpool travels east to Serbia to take on Red Star Belgrade, leaving Albanian-born Xherdan Shaqiri behind “to avoid any distractions” with the political discord between the parties and “focus on football.” The Reds hammered Red Star at home, but playing in Eastern Europe is a different prospect. Liverpool needs all the points it can grab with PSG and Napoli hot on its heels, and can put pressure on the rest of the group with an early 12:55 p.m. ET kick.

Tottenham hosts PSV Eindhoven at Wembley Stadium in dire need of a result, with just one point through three matches in group stage play. Spurs likely need to win at least two of the next three to have any hope of reaching the knockout stage, and with Barcelona and Inter the two remaining opponents, this is as much of a must-win as it comes. Still, Spurs are winless in their last five European matches and will be without captain Hugo Lloris after he was sent off in the dying minutes of the reverse fixture. That’s just the beginning of Mauricio Pochettino‘s squad troubles, with Danny RoseEric DierMousa Dembele, Jan Vertonghen and Victor Wanyama all out injured.

AS Monaco and Club Brugge both meet in France needing a win to have any hope of catching the Group A leaders. Schalke hosts Turkish side Galatasaray with Group D still completely up in the air. On the other side of Group D, FC Porto welcomes Russian side Lokomotov Moscow to Portugal.

Pochettino hopeful for signings as injuries pile up, deadline looms

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If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse, is what they say, and doesn’t Mauricio Pochettino know it?

[ MORE: Mourinho slams anyone and everyone after preseason loss ]

No one feels the weight of the old cliche more so than Pochettino, who is still waiting for a signing — any signing … his club’s first and maybe only signing of the summer — to be made. With the transfer window set to close in 11 days, Tottenham Hotspur have done nothing.

No ins and no outs, though the vast majority of rumors involving last season’s third-place finishers in the Premier League have been of the outgoing variety. Mousa Dembele, Toby Aldeweireld and Danny Rose have all, at one point or another, been on the brink of a move away from the new White Hart Lane, only for nothing to happen, mercifully.

[ Preseason roundup: Arsenal clobber PSG, Liverpool swamp Man United ]

All of this has occurred — again — despite the fact Pochettino was reportedly given every assurance otherwise by chairman Daniel Levy during end-of-season talks amid rumors linking the Argentine with a number of arguably bigger, better jobs just two months ago.

Now, after weeks of preseason training and a handful of friendlies in the United States, injuries are beginning to pile up, and the midfield, which was already paper thin to begin with — Dembele, Eric Dier and Dele Alli are yet to return from their post-World Cup breaks — has been decimated. Victor Wanyama departed the group on Saturday to be seen by a doctor back in London, then Moussa Sissoko suffered and injury of his own during a friendly with Barcelona.

Pochettino is saying all the right things publicly, but if you read between the lines of the following press-conference exchange, transcribed by Football.London, a fairly bleak picture has been painted.

Q: Do these injuries make it more important to get transfers done?

A: “I think we’re going to, sure, see what happens in the next few days. If you say we need to sign there, maybe, but with or without injuries that was our target after we finished last season — to add some players with qualities that can help us achieve all that we want. With or without, I think we are going to.”

Q: Are you relaxed about it?

A: “Yes, of course. After many years in football, I think nothing’s going to change if you have different moods or humor. You need to be relaxed, working hard. My focus is trying to help the team and develop the way we want to play and arrive in the best condition to start the season. Nothing’s going to change if I change my behavior or the way I act.”

Liverpool spent $228 million on four players this summer; Manchester City boosted their record-setting title defense by signing Riyad Mahrez from Leicester City for a club-record fee; Manchester United spent nearly $70 million on one midfielder, Fred; Chelsea and Arsenal have each strengthened in meaningful ways, despite their lack of Champions League qualification. Everyone else has done something.

Meanwhile, the only news out of Tottenham is no news at all.