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Xhaka to miss Arsenal clash with Leicester

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For the second-straight Premier League match, and fourth in all competitions, Arsenal will be without its now-ex captain, Granit Xhaka.

Still dealing with the fallout from Xhaka’s disconcerting exit from Arsenal’s 2-2 draw with Crystal Palace and his follow-up half-apology, Arsenal manager Unai Emery revealed on Friday that Xhaka would miss Saturday’s top-6 clash with Arsenal traveling to face Leicester City.

[READ: Top PL Storylines for Week 12]

Xhaka had his club captaincy stripped away from him earlier this week, and while the British media loves to jump to conclusions, there’s certainly a possibility that Xhaka has actually played his last match as a Gunner, driven out by hateful messages from supporters in response to his rough run of form this year.

“I spoke with him,” Emery said of Xhaka. “I spoke with him on Tuesday about how he’s feeling now and how he is in his mind. He’s working well, he’s training well, but he said to me that he’s not feeling good enough at the moment to play. We are going to wait.”

Xhaka’s mental and emotional stability may be teetering, and it’s certainly best for him to take some time now to reevaluate his career and where he wants. to be.

In the meantime, while Xhaka’s situation plays out, it leaves Arsenal with just two first-choice central midfield players, Matteo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira. Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Joe Willock could potentially help out there as well, or even David Luiz in an emergency situation. That position on the field should be important this weekend, with Youri Tielemans and Wilfrid Ndidi both having great seasons.

Pepe: I hope to play more with Auba, Lacazette

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Arsenal winger Nicolas Pepe may have had his breakout moment on Thursday after scoring two tremendous free kicks to lead Arsenal to victory.

The two Pepe strikes off the bench helped Arsenal to a 3-2 win over Vitoria SC of Portugal, overcoming a 2-1 deficit and a performance that seemed heading towards defeat at home. It’s been a struggle for Pepe early on in London, as he admitted in an interview with the Telegraph, but things could be turning around as Pepe adjusts to life in the Premier League.

It certainly helped Arsenal and Pepe that Alexandre Lacazette returned from an siz-week ankle injury and played 75 minutes on Thursday, and with Pepe getting regular Premier League minutes with teammate Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, it’s only a matter of time before we see a Pepe-Laca-Auba trio up front, which could be a top-3 Premier League attack on paper.

“We have played very little together but we get on well, we are all French [speaking], Pepe said of Aubameyang and Lacazette. For us, it is to understand each other. I hope we will play more together.

“As soon as I arrived they [Lacazette and Aubameyang] helped me. I talked a lot to them. Matteo [Guendouzi] too. I also manage to talk to the other players because it is important to learn the language to communicate with everyone.

Later in the interview, Pepe added what could be the most important aspect of his adjustment: the trust and blessing of his manager, Unai Emery. The Spaniard has come under a lot of scrutiny this season with Arsenal struggling at both ends of the pitch, but Emery has never wavered in his faith of Pepe. In 12 matches for Arsenal so far, Pepe has three goals and three assists in all competitions, including the two against Vitoria. The speedy French-born, Ivory Coast International looks to finally be finding the confidence and form that made him one of the top goal scorers in Ligue 1 last season, and what helped him become a high profile transfer to Arsenal in the first place.

Former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger used to comment that it takes at least six months for a player to settle into the Premier League, so fans will have to stay patient as Pepe continues to adapt. However, with the breakneck speed of the Premier League, Pepe could be able to take his game to new heights.

Tierney, Lacazette available for Arsenal

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Arsenal are edging closer to finally having a full-strength squad.

Ahead of Monday’s prime-time matchup with Sheffield United, Arsenal manager Unai Emery confirmed that Kieran Tierney was in line to make his Premier League debut, while Alexandre Lacazette was back in full training and should be in the gameday squad.

“Today is Lacazette’s first training back with us,” Emery said in a press conference on Thursday. “He finished it well and he’s feeling well with his injuries. Tomorrow we will be training again and he will be with us. We will decide.

“The most important thing is that first he is training, then secondly it’s whether he can be with us and it depends how he can feel in the next days training with us, whether his ankle is not giving him any more problems.”

This is a huge boost to Arsenal, which has had to rely on some youngsters and have made some lineup changes to accommodate not having Lacazette on the field. Tierney meanwhile could step into a position where there’s already a decent starter, Sead Kolasinac.

Lacazette’s return also couldn’t have come at a better time. In Premier League action, Arsenal’s high-powered offense has been stymied, scoring just two goals in the last two league games. Meanwhile, against weaker defenses in the UEFA Europa League and the Carabao Cup, Arsenal has bagged a total of 12 goals.

The veteran Frenchman has scored two goals in three appearances so far this season, including a big goal just before halftime in the 2-2 draw with Tottenham. However, he suffered a long-term ankle injury in that match that has kept him on the sidelines for more than a month.

“[Tierney is] ready to play,” Emery later said. Now we have two options in that left-back role with Sead Kolasinac and him. We’re going to play a lot of matches after Monday. We will need every player. It depends how he comes into the first training with us, Sead, after his international matches. We now have two players in that position and we can use one on Monday, it depends how they are, one or the other.”

Tierney, the 22-year-old Scottish left back, has made two appearances for the Arsenal first team since recovering from a double hernia operation over the summer. Signed from Celtic for around $32 million, Tierney adds a skill that Kolasinac has struggled with – expert crosser of the ball into the box, where the likes of Lacazette, Nicolas Pepe, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang can score when given a decent chance.

What should Emery do with Xhaka?

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Arsenal fans have directed their ire at many different people, but aside from manager Unai Emery, many fans have been criticizing the recent play of midfielder Granit Xhaka.

Named Arsenal captain this summer after Laurent Koscielny‘s insubordination and eventual departure, Xhaka looked set to take Arsenal to the next level this summer, with three stars up top and a veteran defense behind him. However, in Premier League matches where Arsenal has struggled, it seems that Xhaka has been right in the middle of it. Sometimes, that’s just because of his holding midfield position. Other times, it’s because he didn’t make the play that was necessary.

[READ: 10-man Arsenal beats Aston Villa in a thriller]

Take Saturday’s eventual 3-2 win by Arsenal over Aston Villa at the Emirates Stadium. Despite having a decent game by all accounts, Xhaka allowed Ahmed El Mohamady to run right past him on a mazy run through the middle of the field, eventually centering to Wesley which gave Aston Villa a 2-1 lead. It gave the visitors the advantage yet again right after Arsenal equalized.

Xhaka had every chance to try and make a tackle, or at the least bring El Mohamady down farther from goal if there was no choice but to foul and give up a free kick. Instead, Xhaka just followed El Mohamady before passing him off to a teammate in the box, who was equally as poor.

Not long after, Xhaka was substituted, with some Arsenal fans raining boos down on their captain. And whether it had to do with him or not, Arsenal went from a goal down to a goal up once Xhaka left the field.

According to manager Unai Emery, Xhaka was taken off in the 72nd minute not due to his performance, but to bring on fresh legs. It was a double substitution, with Dani Ceballos also coming off in place of Lucas Torreira and Joe Willock.

“My opinion is we need our supporters and we need our supporters helping each player but our responsibility is to transmit our capacity, our spirit, our commitment and behavior,” Emery said after the game. “And Xhaka is doing that. He played very well on Thursday and also last week in Watford he played with a good individual performance. Today I changed him because on Thursday he played 90 minutes and prefer to use fresh players for today a chance for him but for me Xhaka is very good player for us. He has a very big commitment here. He is improving and I am not asking the people to support him but I am sure that he is going to achieve the best thing individually and collectively for the supporters to help him.”

Just one week earlier, Xhaka claimed that his Arsenal teammates – and presumably himself as well – were “scared” in the second half as Watford stormed back for a 2-2 draw. Man City’s 8-0 pummeling of Watford makes that draw look even worse in retrospect.

If Arsenal is “scared,” and they’re giving up two goals in two straight matches each to two of the worst defensive teams in the league, then perhaps the club captain isn’t doing enough. It seems that although Xhaka has experience, he’s going through a rough patch of form in the Premier League – he looked good in Europa League action – and might do well with a match off.

Luckily for Arsenal, if Emery does agree to give Xhaka a rest, he has a talented player in Lucas Torreira who will run himself into the ground for the team. In addition, he’d likely have stopped that run from El Mohamady instead of letting him glide into the box with hardly a challenge.

It appears Unai Emery is publicly sticking with Xhaka. Arsenal needs Xhaka at his best to make it back into the top four. But right now, he’s clearly not there, and he needs to figure things out on the training pitch so he can shine once again.

Top Premier League storylines – Week 35

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It’s a short Premier League weekend with the FA Cup taking place, but all eyes will be on the Emirates Stadium after Friday’s stunning news.

Arsene Wenger begins his farewell tour at Arsenal this Sunday as the Gunners host a London derby against West Ham United.

[MORE: Arsene Wenger’s legacy

Arsenal aims to finish season on a high
Arsenal vs. West Ham —  8:30 a.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN

The decision to step down has taken attention away from Arsenal’s defeat last Sunday when Newcastle came back from a one-goal deficit to defeat the Gunners, 2-1. Perhaps with the manager on his way out, Arsenal’s players will be extra motivated to end the season on a high note. If Arsenal continue to slip up, it could be out of Europe entirely, as the club sits just two points above seventh place.

For West Ham, a win would all but ensure the club’s place in the Premier League next season, but the club currently sit just six points above the relegation zone, and with the team going through a rough past few months, every point gained at home or away counts.

Does a guard of honor await Manchester City?
Manchester City vs. Swansea City —  11:30 a.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN

By virtue of Manchester United’s defeat last Sunday, Manchester City became officially Premier League champions-elect.

The club will get to raise the trophy officially at the end of the season, but for now, it appears Swansea City will be the first club to show its respect to Man City’s dominance throughout the season with a guard of honor. Man City is still chasing more Premier League records, but Swansea City, just four points above the drop zone, needs this win more.

Relegation scrap on tap
Watford vs. Crystal Palace —  10:00 a.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN

It’s a proverbial six-pointer as Watford, about as far north you can go in the London area, takes on Crystal Palace in south London in a key relegation battle.

Just three points separate the two sides, but a win for Watford would push the club up to 40 points while a win for Palace would put the Eagles even on points with the Hornets at 37 each. Interestingly, via the Premier League, “Watford are winless in their last six home meetings with Crystal Palace in all competitions (D3 L3), since a 2-0 victory in the Championship in February 2009.”