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PL Sunday preview: Man Utd and Arsenal chase top five; Chelsea host Liverpool

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Sunday’s slate of Premier League fixtures is filled up to the brim of top-six sides in action, as Manchester United and Arsenal look to climb into the top five in the table, while Chelsea looks to send a strong message as they host leaders Liverpool.

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West Ham vs. Manchester United — 9:00 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Aside from leaders Liverpool, there is no other team in the league experiencing such a positive run as West Ham. The Hammers are unbeaten in their last four bouts – wining twice and drawing twice – as they head into Sunday’s showdown against Manchester United. Equal with five other sides with eight points, Manuel Pellegrini is conscious that it’s the ideal time to make a statement and climb into the top six.

“We have a very strong team in front of us, it will be a strong test against United. It is the only way we can get into the top six, demonstrating you are able to do it,” Pellegrini said heading into Sunday.

As for the Red Devils, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s side – who share the podium with West Ham – are looking to extend their current winning form to three games. Ahead of the game, however, the talk surrounding United isn’t Sunday’s game, but Paul Pogba‘s rumored move to Real Madrid this summer. What a better way to get everyone’s mind of theoretical situations and injury worries than with a win.

INJURIES: West Ham — OUT: Michail Antonio (hamstring), Arthur Masuaku (suspended) | Manchester United —OUT: Anthony Martial (thigh), Paul Pogba (back), Luke Shaw (hamstring), Eric Bailly (knee), Timothy Fosu-Mensah (knee)

Crystal Palace vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers — 9 a.m. ET, on NBC Sports Gold

Not many expected it: Wolves winless throughout the first five games of the season. That, however, is the reality for a team that finished seventh last season. By now, Wolverhampton Wanderers have had plenty of time to pick up on the alarm bells, it’s time for them to respond.

Manager Nuno Espírito Santo, for instance, knows that it’s time for his side to get back into shape before it’s too late.

“This is important,” he said. “We face the reality and the reality says we not performing well so we have to analyse it and find solutions in the team to improve. We must react immediately. We have to take decisions and find solutions for the team because we have to come out of this situation and improve our performance so we can bounce back.”

Crystal Palace, on the other hand, are dealing with adversity of their own after falling to Tottenham Hotspur, 4-0, last week. Playing at Selhurst Park this time around should be a positive, but Palace has only managed to score a goal in three matches in front of their home crowd this season.

INJURIES: Crystal Palace — OUT: None | Wolverhampton Wanderers — OUT: None

Arsenal vs. Aston Villa — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBC Sports Gold

Arsenal have had several things going for them this season: scoring at home, positive first Europa League performance, a healthy and productive Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, among others. One thing they’ve been missing, though, is an effective Nicolas Pepe, especially after shelling record-money for the 24-year-old Ivorian.

“He needs more adaptation,” Emery said in his pre-match press conference. “He is playing good but progressively we know there is going to be more performance in him to help us and I want to do now quickly the last step in the adaptation for us, for example, against Aston Villa.”

With Alexandre Lacazette still out with an ankle injury, Pepe, again, will have the opportunity to showcase his true worth to a packed Emirates Stadium. Arsenal, too, can use his skill to get that much closer to three, vital points.

“When will Aston Villa finally break out of their shell?” is the million-dollar question for the visitors. At times, the newly promoted side has shown the flair that made it so powerful in the Championship last season, only to leave spectators on the edge of their seats, waiting for that final blow. In North London on Sunday, Dean Smith and Co. have the chance to do so with several players back in the mix, but that’s not to say the task will be a walk in the park.

INJURIES: Arsenal — OUT: Alexandre Lacazette (ankle) | Aston Villa — OUT: James Chester (thigh), Jonathan Kodjia (cheek)

Chelsea vs. Liverpool — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Liverpool, like Chelsea, suffered opening losses in European play midweek; however, there is a different, more positive impetus fueling Jurgen Klopp‘s side. The defending Champions League winners’ immaculate record speaks volume to their current situation, one that’s biggest setback has been the aforementioned loss to Napoli and the injury to goalkeeper Allison, while regaining influential player Nabi Keita in trainings.

It begs to ask: with Manchester City already behind and several top-six sides struggling, how will Liverpool not runaway with the league title this season? That type of talk, however, is exactly what Klopp doesn’t want to hear. The season is green – very, ver green – and this season, for one reason or another, is nothing like last year’s.

“Nothing is won already,” Klopp said. “We have seen teams make big steps. There is nobody you think will go down with no points. Watford and Wolves have been at the bottom, struggling, but will end up going back up. The league is much different (to last season). So many things can happen. Five games is nothing, not even created a basis…”

Klopp’s counterpart on Sunday, Frank Lampard, as a result of his own environment, is managing a different dialogue ahead of the clash, like the possibility of fielding Mason Mount, who came off midweek against Valencia in Champions League play.

On the bright side, Chelsea are unbeaten in their last four league bouts, and have a game against Liverpool under their belts this season already – a penalty-shootout loss in the UEFA Super Cup – that should have seasoned them ahead of this season’s part two of the rivalry.

“Times have changed slightly, but it doesn’t change that feeling,” Lampard said on the Chelsea-Liverpool rivalry. “I think the fans feel it, the players feel it, it does involve a lot of passion whenever it’s played. If your levels aren’t there it’s a game that can get away from you quickly so my first thing to say to the players is to make sure they feel this game, recognise what it is, because it always does have an edge.”

INJURIES: Chelsea OUT: Antonio Rüdiger (groin), Ruben Loftus-Cheek (achilles), Callum Hudson-Odoi, Reece James (both fitness) | Liverpool  OUT: Alisson (calf), Nathaniel Clyne (knee)

Premier League most underrated XI

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On Twitter, we asked Premier League fans to submit their choice for most underrated player in the English top flight right now. There were a host of fascinating answers, with plenty of different teams represented.

Tottenham and Liverpool players appeared a lot, not surprising given they reached the Champions League final but have just a handful of true superstars on the roster, with Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino preferring to put together a squad that plays as a greater whole than the sum of its parts.

So, with that in mind, we thought we should take it one step further and put together a full-blown starting XI of underrated Premier League players.

While putting these together, obviously being just five matches, prior seasons are of course taken into account, but this season’s early performances are also heavily weighed. Behold, our most underrated players all together in one squad. How well would these lineups perform in the league?

Our Premier League Underrated XI’s

Kyle Bonn: [ ]

Kasper Schmeichel

Ricardo PereiraJoel MatipWilly BolyLucas Digne

Declan Rice — Ruben Neves —

— Emiliano Buendia — James MaddisonHeung-Min Son

Roberto Firmino —

Nicholas Mendola: [ ]

Bernd Leno

Aaron Wan-Bissaka — Willy Boly — Tyrone Mings — Ricardo Pereira —

Harry WinksFabinho

— Heung-Min Son — James Maddison — Felipe Anderson

Callum Wilson

Daniel Karell: [ ]

Angus Gunn

Matt DohertyMaya YoshidaYerry MinaPatrick Van Aanholt

Todd CantwellManuel LanziniJack GrealishRyan Fraser

— Callum Wilson — Raul Jimenez —

The highlights

Heung-Min Son was probably the most often mentioned name in our Twitter question, and so he earns a spot on two of the lineups. A number of Liverpool players also cropped up, and Bonn responded with the inclusion of do-it-all striker Roberto Firmino and defender Joel Matip, who often finds himself in Virgil Van Dijk‘s shadow but has risen from injury substitute to regular starter.

Also appearing twice are Bournemouth striker Callum Wilson, Wolves center-back Willy Boly, Leicester City midfielder James Maddison, and Foxes full-back Ricardo Peirera. Otherwise, the writers all went in their own directions!

Jack Grealish is mentioned on Karrell’s list, and he has already proven a divisive topic amongst our writers. Mendola included Reds midfielder Fabinho while also singing the praises of West Ham attacker Felipe Anderson who is doing his best to make up for the departure of Marko Arnautovic. The Hammers also appear on Karrell’s lineup with Manuel Lanzini, who owns two assists on the young season. Many folks may still be learning Emiliano Buendia’s name, but the young Argentine has been the brains behind Teemu Pukki‘s breakout season at the head of the Norwich attack.

Manchester United full-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka is mentioned, although is he really underrated after moving for $60 million this summer? Wolves midfielder Ruben Neves could lay claim to the label as the best player outside the Premier League top six clubs, although Declan Rice might claim he’s not even the best midfielder. Who is a bang-on starter for your most underrated Premier League squad?

Pellegrini chastises Masuaku for red card against Villa

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Manuel Pellegrini said he was “very happy for the performance of the team” despite the 0-0 draw with Aston Villa that saw West Ham record just one single shot on target.

Still, he noted that he was less than pleased with the sending off of Arthur Masuaku, for a number of reasons.

First and foremost, the West Ham manager said the referee can be easily goaded into soft decisions against the away side by raucous fans. “It’s a typical sending off when you play away,” Pellegrini said in his post-match television interview. “With the pressure of the fans in every foul, of our players that had a yellow card – in this case Arthur Masuaku, Mark Noble, and another player in the first half, I don’t think this was a yellow card, but playing away it is very easy for the referee to send him off.”

Later, he noted that a discussion at halftime with Masuaku about his earlier booking was unsuccessful. “They [the home fans] try to do it with the pressure of the fans,” Pellegrini said in the post-match press conference. “They tried to do it with Mark Noble in the first-half, they try to get a second yellow. We [Masuaku] talked about it at half-time. We told him he must be careful.”

That didn’t pan out, as Masuaku was sent off for a second yellow card earned while fouling Ahmed Elmohamady who had just come onto the pitch moments earlier. The foul was deemed somewhat soft, but match commentator Martin Tyler pointed out – as Pellegrini seems to be indicating – that Masuaku’s mistake was giving the referee the opportunity to make the call for an otherwise needless foul.

Despite the one negative moment, Pellegrini was pleased with the team’s overall performance on the road.

“I prefer to talk about our team,” Pellegrini said when asked about the refereeing decisions. “I think we played a very good game. We had the personality to come here and try to win the game from the beginning, and the last action, the last play of the game we had a very clear chance to score. We played with 10 men exactly the same that we did with 11. We tried defending well, we tried to continue scoring a goal, so I am very happy for the performance of the team, for the personality of the team, and when you are playing away if you can’t win the game, don’t lose it.”

Should we expect more from Jack Grealish?

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The beautiful game often divides opinion, and Jack Grealish is one of those players who often stirs up plenty of debate.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]

Aston Villa’s captain is obviously a genius, but after another frustrating result for his hometown team, how has he fared as a regular in the Premier League?

Joe Prince-Wright and Kyle Bonn watched the same game on Monday, as Aston Villa and West Ham drew 0-0, but both of our writers have very different opinions on Grealish. That is why we love this game, and talking about it.

Let’s see what JPW and Bonn thought about the English midfielder.


JPW: So, I want to start by saying Grealish can pretty much do anything with the ball. He is a magician and his clever passes and flicks will win Villa plenty of points this season. But he needs to do more, and fast, to have a big impact this season in the Premier League. Against West Ham he gave the ball away cheaply and his hurried finish late on summed up another off night for Grealish. He isn’t a youngster anymore. He’s 24 and needs to deliver, otherwise Villa will be in trouble at the wrong end of the table this season. Villa play well when Grealish performs and he’s just not doing it for me.

Bonn: Grealish can’t be the sole creative force in this team. He’s a fabulous do-it-all player for Villa, and clearly their most valuable asset, but this team has serious issues up front and that can’t all fall on Jack’s shoulders. He was excellent against West Ham, controlling possession and bringing the ball forward. He got a bit frantic and panicked slightly after the red card, but without a clear presence on the wing and a black hole at striker, Aston Villa needs to get him help rather than heap more attacking pressure on the 24-year-old.

JPW: I think one of the biggest issues is that Grealish is doing a lot of his work 50 yards from goal. Marvelous Nakamba and Douglas Luiz aren’t offering much in central midfield and a trio of McGinn, Hourihane and Grealish seems better balanced to me. Grealish just took too much time on the ball, was too predictable and Mark Noble and Declan Rice easily won the midfield battle. I think Villa can get the best out of Grealish by starting him just off Wesley in a much more advanced role. What is Grealish’s ceiling, though? Maybe a decent PL midfielder and a very good Championship player is his level. If that’s it, there’s nothing wrong with that. I just think Villa want more from him.

Bonn: If he’s a decent Premier League midfielder, that’s perfectly acceptable at this point for Aston Villa, and they need to support him. He was the team’s most creative presence against West Ham, and while you’re right that he wasn’t able to control the midfield battle with Rice and Noble, he still provided far more contribution forward than Jota in front of him, or even Anwar El Ghazi on the opposite flank. Who was the one making runs in behind the defense to deliver crosses? Grealish. Who was the one charging at defenders with purpose? Grealish. I know he missed that chance towards the end against West Ham, but he was the only one even pushing for that ball. The rest of this team needs a kick in the tail, and Jack is the one to provide that. While he’s still not a finished product – something we’ve admittedly been saying about him for years now – that fire and spark has value and it’s slowly producing results on the pitch, at least far more than anyone else in this squad. I’m not saying he should start for England, but he’s the most consistent presence Villa has at the moment, and that’s saying something. Get him some help, and he can be a consistently dangerous presence against most Premier League sides.

JPW: There’s a reason Grealish hasn’t broken into the England national team yet. His consistency in the final third just isn’t there. I asked Dean Smith about Grealish after the game, and he said the quality on his final pass wasn’t there, but pointed to the cross for Wesley’s early header. That is the most annoying thing about Grealish. The quality, like he showed on that cross, is there. But he’s made the same mistakes over and over again early this season and I want to seem him learn from that and develop. Remember, this is a player Tottenham Hotspur wanted to replace Christian Eriksen last summer. Is he on that level? Maybe in a top six team he’d be better around top quality players, but I’m not sure he’d play on a regular basis. I’ve seen him twice in the flesh this season and on both occasions I’ve walked away very disappointed.

Bonn: I absolutely agree he wouldn’t play much on a Top 6 side. I don’t think that’s a fair barometer for him at this point, though. Villa doesn’t need a Christian Eriksen. With Marvelous playing well, I thought, at DM and McGinn somewhat positive on the other side, Grealish is in a good spot. He just needs better support up front so he doesn’t receive the bulk of attention. I like where his trajectory is pointed, given what I saw against West Ham, and I hope Villa gives him the tools he needs moving forward.

JPW: I would loved to be proved wrong, but I don’t see Grealish hitting double figures in goals or assists this season. If you’re going to be the main playmaker on a Premier League team, you need to hit those numbers as well as the fancy flicks. Quick final question: Who else can play in Grealish’s position for Aston Villa?

Bonn: You mean of the players currently in the squad?

JPW: Yep. Who comes in for him?

Bonn: Nobody.

JPW: And that is the problem. Villa have no back-up plan. If Grealish doesn’t rip it up, they are going to be in a relegation struggle. At the moment he is not, and they play Arsenal, Man City, Chelsea, Liverpool and Man United in five of their next 10 games.

Bonn: We saw the same last season with Fulham. Tom Cairney is a similar player in a similar position. He didn’t have the season the Whites needed from the main midfield playmaker after destroying the Championship, and that was a death sentence.

JPW: We both agree Grealish is crucial to Villa’s success then. But we disagree about his current play. And that, right there, is why we love this game. Nobody is wrong, but I’m right Kyle, I’m right…

Bonn: We shall see!

JPW: Indeed. Enjoyed this. I’m off into the Birmingham night to dodge some Villa fans who have no doubt read this by now. Wish me luck.

Three things we learned: Aston Villa v. West Ham

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BIRMINGHAM — Aston Villa and West Ham played out a tense, tight 0-0 draw at Villa Park on Monday, as the Hammers were reduced to 10 men but held on fairly comfortably.

In a game where both teams somewhat cancelled each another out, with their similar approaches and two big men starved of service, Aston Villa had the better chances and will feel like that was two points dropped.

Here’s what we learned from Villa Park.


Wesley v. HALLER A DAMP SQUIB

This was billed as a battle of the big men, and neither showed up. Both big men are essential to the way their teams play, and both had tough evenings. Wesley was more mobile than Haller, making runs right across West Ham’s defense, and he did just that but somehow put a header wide from inside the six yard box early on. He worked tirelessly but it just didn’t happen for him.

As for Haller, he was less mobile, which was surprising, and his first big chance was a tame header wide after Anderson popped the ball right on top of his head. Haller didn’t run himself into the ground and was slow to react to loose balls around the box, but in fairness the service to him was lacking. Both teams are set up to play the ball to their target man as soon as possible and then get their playmakers around them to create havoc from the knock downs or layoffs. Both Wesley and Haller will be far from happy with their displays.


POINTS NOT MATCHING VILLA’S PERFORMANCES

There’s not doubt Villa had the better of the play, and chances, but just as much as their build-up play dazzled, their lackluster finishing once again let them down. Playing against 10 men for the final 25 minutes, Villa failed to make that advantage count. John McGinn‘s efforts from outside the box caused Lukasz Fabianski the biggest problems, and had Wesley powered home a header early on it could have been a very different outcome.

Villa have played well enough in their opening five games to have at least an extra four points on the board. It’s still early days but Villa are in the bottom four, and unless they become more ruthless that’s where they will stay this season.


STAGNANT GREALISH A CONCERN

Many believe Jack Grealish should have be in and around the England national team. Monday’s display, which epitomized his season so far, proved he still has a long way to go. Grealish was busy, trying to get on the ball as much as he could, but he took too many risks in front of his back four and gave the ball away needlessly on plenty of occasions. He failed to make incisive runs off Wesley and aside from the odd long ball out wide or clever flick, he didn’t cause West Ham many problems.

Grealish has the quality to unlock defenses and deliver moments of real quality in the final third and he had Villa’s best chance in the 88th minute but he shanked horribly wide when unmarked at the back post. That summed up his night. Grealish has yet to do it in the Premier League and at the age of 24 he is no longer a young buck with plenty of potential. He has to stand tall and deliver to drag Villa up the table.