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The Chelsea tactic that could be a masterstroke for Man United

A broken leg for Luke Shaw in the recent Champions League defeat to PSV Eindhoven has given Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal a major cause for concern, with the England international facing a significant lay-off.

Without the former Southampton star, who was starting to come into his own at Old Trafford, the Red Devils boss must decide the best personnel in his back four to continue the form that has propelled the side to the top of the Premier League.

The natural replacement appears to be Marcos Rojo, who has played consistently for Argentina at left-back and could slot into the role.

Matteo Darmian

If Van Gaal sees fit, the South American could even be used as a centre-half, with Daley Blind slotting in at full-back as he has done in the past.

However, a potential ideal solution comes in the form of a tactic that Chelsea have used over the last 18 months.

The Blues have successfully deployed right-back Cesar Azpilicueta on the alternative flank, where the Spaniard has been one of the team’s most consistent players.

Against Sunderland at the weekend, Van Gaal opted to play his usual right-back Matteo Darmian on the opposite flank, with Antonio Valencia coming into the team on the other wing.

This has worked for Chelsea, and with the Italy international having experience of playing as a left-back for Torino, the tactic could be ideal to plug the significant gap left by Shaw’s injury.

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What if Liverpool had signed Diego Costa, not Chelsea?

Diego Costa seems to be the final piece of Jose Mourinho’s jigsaw at Chelsea, with the powerhouse forward showing lethal form in front of goal since a summer move from Atletico Madrid.

The Blues had a trophyless campaign last term despite the expenditure on their playing squad, with a lack of cutting edge in front of goal the key reason.

Costa may well have given the Stamford Bridge side the necessary clinical edge that sees Mourinho’s men unbeaten this season, but what if the Spanish international had joined Liverpool last summer instead?

Charity tournament for the families of Soma victims: Chelsea vs Fenerbahce

Brendan Rodgers had identified the Brazilian-born striker as a potential new recruit, but the Spanish side did not allow the player to leave after selling Radamel Falcao to Monaco.

Costa went on to have a fantastic campaign with Atleti, proving himself as one of the best centre forwards in the world and firing the Vicente Calderon side to the La Liga title.

Given the problems that the Reds are currently having with goal-shy Mario Balotelli, had they landed Costa in the summer of 2013 surely the side would be higher in the league than the 11th place they currently hold.

Pipped by Manchester City at the death last season, a frontline containing Costa, Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge would surely have fired the Merseyside outfit to their first top-flight title since 1990.

Over the last number of seasons Liverpool have missed out on a number of transfer targets for one reason or another, but not landing Costa must now be a major regret for Rodgers.

Chelsea’s evolution the most impressive thing in victory over Liverpool

Jose Mourinho and his Chelsea side came under fire the last time they visited Anfield, with a defensive ‘negative’ display attracting criticism last term.

However, the current Premier League leaders’ evolution and progression was clear on Saturday in the Blues’ 2-1 victory over Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool.

The west London club continued their unbeaten start to the season but it was the performance that the visitors put in that caught the eye.

Chelsea

Unlike last season where Chelsea were accused of parking the bus and playing negatively, Mourinho this time decided to field his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation.

This encompassed two central midfielders, Nemanja Matic and Cesc Fabregas, who were outnumbered by Liverpool’s Emre Can, Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson.

It would have been easy for Mourinho to leave the more attacking-minded Oscar on the bench and opt for John Obi Mikel instead to even things up, but the Portuguese trainer went for the more offensive option.

Over the space of the game Chelsea were the better side and in the end deserved winners.

At this rate, with the Blues full of confidence and looking like they have no visible weaknesses, just where they are going to drop the required points to let other teams into the title race remains to be seen.

Assessing the English sides’ chances in the Champions League

After the hectic domestic festive season fixture list, the focus on Champions League football is set to return, with the knockout stages to be played next month.

England have four representatives in the final 16 teams, with Manchester United, City, Arsenal and Chelsea all eyeing up a place at this year’s Champions League final in Lisbon.

The Premier League sides have been given stern challenges in the next stage, but what are their chances of progression?

Chelsea vs Galatasaray

Jose Mourinho has experience of lifting the Champions League crown with Porto and Inter, and will be charged with bringing Europe’s top trophy to west London this season.

Didier Drogba

The Blues have been handed the task of 180 minutes against Turkish champions Galatasaray, with a number of familiar faces set to feature for the opposition.

Didier Drogba will return to face his former club, while ex-Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini is at the helm of the eastern European outfit. With a former Mourinho favourite in the form of Wesley Sneijder also in Gala’s ranks, it should be a test for the London side.

However, despite Galatasaray’s progression at the expense of Juventus in the group stages, Chelsea will fancy their chances of making the quarter-finals.

Arsenal vs Bayern Munich

Defeat to Napoli in their final group stage fixture has come back to haunt Arsenal, with the Gunners facing European champions Bayern in the next round. That said, Arsenal fans will have rushed to buy Champions League tickets when the draw was made, as the tie should be of the highest order.

Pep Guardiola’s star-studded squad will be motivated to retain their crown, and eliminated the north Londoners on the way to the title last term.

Arsene Wenger will be buoyed on by his side’s win at the Allianz Arena in the tie last season, and will look to improve on home soil this time round.

In what is set to be an explosive encounter, the Emirates Stadium side will need to be at their best to progress.

Manchester City vs Barcelona

A real glamour tie, this one pits a new force in European football against one of the perennial mainstays.

Yaya Touré

The sheer quality on both sides will make this a top-notch encounter, with Lionel Messi and co’s visit to fortress Etihad sure to be an eye-catching clash.

Yaya Toure will feature against his former club, while City’s credentials will be thoroughly put to the test at Camp Nou.

The winner of this tie will be confident of making it to the latter reaches of the tournament, and the clash could go either way.

Manchester United vs Olympiakos

The easiest of the four ties was handed to Manchester United, who face Greek side Olympiakos over two legs.

With domestic form the cause of agony for David Moyes, the Scottish manager will hope for a comprehensive progression through to the quarter-finals of the European tournament.

The opposition have one deadly striker in their midst in the form of Kostas Mitroglou, who has the ability to end United’s dream on the continent.

Despite a hostile environment in the away leg, anything other than a United progression would be something of a shock here.

Forward Thinking at The Bridge

Francis Johnston examines Fernando Torres’ upturn in fortunes of late.

As Britain braced itself for the onslaught of the St Jude storm on Sunday afternoon another natural phenomenon was already in full swing at the so called “clash of the cash” in West London. Those in the know about climate will be familiar with“El Nino” which is Spanish for “The Kid”. Those familiar with the English Premier League over the last couple of years however, are more likely to translate to “has-been”, “expensive flop”, or, going back a bit now, Fernando Torres. The nickname was given to Torres in Spain, during his days of youthful goal-grabbing for Atletico Madrid. The difficulties of recent seasons, since his £50 million move from Liverpool to Chelsea have been well publicised but against Manchester City at the weekend the forward worked himself up to gale force and eventually blew the roof off the Bridge.

With two of the league’s title contenders and financial heavyweights preparing to touch gloves, Sky showed a graphic during their build up which compared the goals already scored by strikers at the two clubs this season. While City’s front men were streaking into double figures, Chelsea’s marksmen had registered one between them.

Fernando Torres

Much has been made of Jose Mourinho’s decisions regarding his team’s forward line and especially the move to allow Romelu Lukaku, prolific last term, to go on loan to Everton where he is already scoring like nobody’s business.

Enter Torres: he worked like a man possessed, caused constant problems for the City defence, eventually bagged the winning goal and with it, a precious three points for Mourinho’s men. He looked, to use a phrase invented in 2011 and widely used since, like the Torres of old.

We have however, been here several times before. Multiple Torres “returns to form” have been heralded and then petered out before he could even begin to dream about putting the doubters in their place. He has netted a goal here and a couple there, scoring in fits and starts. He threatened under the tenure of Rafa Benitez, who many would say was appointed to “fix” him more than anything else, but ultimately he failed to see his rejuvenation through and has largely remained in the shadow of El Nino, his alter-ego. This time though, under the Special One, there are signs that things may be different, also that Mourinho’s choices about strikers may well yet turn out to be a masterstroke.

Here’s why: firstly Torres himself, why will this be the time that he finally comes good? The answer is attitude. It is early to make this call but it seems his manager has given him reassurance and belief. Before being sent off against Spurs the Spaniard was looking committed, dynamic and dangerous. On his return from suspension his selection to lead the line against City despite Samuel Eto’o’s encouraging display in his absence, was a show of faith from Mourinho. In the first half Torres got what he wanted, a glorious chance to repay his boss. Cue the ball in the stand rather than the net and another shot of the forward looking despondent, disbelieving his own failure. His response to this setback is the key. Shortly afterwards he was dropping a shoulder and surging beyond Gael Clichy, one of the league’s more fleet-footed full backs propelled mostly it seemed, by sheer desire to make amends. He reached the by-line, supplied the pass, Schurlle scored, but the Bridge rose to salute the role of Torres. Buoyed, the 29 year old then smashed a dipping effort against the bar, unlucky yes but something to dwell on, no. Fernando was looking to create his own luck. Constantly he tried to make something happen. Mourinho kept the faith as the game wore on. Over the last two years Torres has constantly been substituted but, in the final minute, when Hart and Nastasic suffered a communication breakdown in City’s rearguard, Torres was still on the pitch. A gut-busting run saw him reach the ball before it rolled behind the goal to slot in the winner. It was a simple finish but absolute vindication of his afternoon’s effort, a lost cause he had chased down. Symbolic even of his career at the moment, not pretty, but he was going to turn it in the right direction through pure guts.

Fernando Torres

Whatever way it works out for Torres it cannot be argued that he lacks experience and that is something Mourinho seems to value highly. Apart from the former Liverpool man his options include Samuel Eto’o and Demba Ba. Both with plenty of miles on the clock. Almost invariably he prefers to deploy one main striker ahead of an ensemble of attacking midfielders and supporting wide men. Given Chelsea’s embarrassment of riches in terms of creative midfield talent this would seem the way to go. Even if El Nino doesn’t hit form, the Manager can opt for Eto’o and if that doesn’t work he can fall back to Ba or even the midfield itself. Oscar and Hazard for example are contributing well in terms of goals.

Even if Chelsea are scoring heavily as a team Mourinho’s decision to let Lukaku leave on loan will be heavily scrutinised as long as the young Belgian’s tally continues to outshine that of the front men who remain at Stamford Bridge. People though are looking at Lukaku’s goals and failing to see the bigger picture. The grand plan of a man who has been an instant success in almost every dugout he has sat in, been sent from or conducted borderline inappropriate celebrations from. Mourinho sees Torres and Eto’o as proven winners, ready-made title chasers, the sort of footballer his track record suggests he can turn into champions. He will no doubt appreciate Lukaku’s physical ability, his raw talent and his potential for goals. This is precisely why he’s been despatched northward. The Portuguese knows Everton are not good enough to pose a threat in the title race. They are however, more than good enough to beat a big team on their day. Lukaku will only increase their chances of doing so and he is now allowed to do so against all the big teams except Chelsea.

In what is shaping up to be the most open title race for years all of Chelsea’s strikers including those not currently at the club will have a big role to play. Regardless of what has been about his selection policy up until now, Mourinho’s men are sitting a close second. Don’t bet against some more theatrical celebrating come May.

Why won’t Chelsea give Romelu Lukaku a chance?

Chelsea have started three different strikers in their first three games of the new campaign. Fernando Torres, Demba Ba and Andre Schurrle have all failed to hit the back of the net – so, why are the Blues not giving Romelu Lukaku a chance?

The 20-year-old Belgian sensation had a flying season on loan at West Brom last term, scoring 17 Premier League goals in a middle of the table side. How many would he score if he was given a consistent run in the Chelsea team?

Romelu Lukaku

He is strong, can hold the ball up, is good in the air and has an eye for the onion basket. No wonder he is constantly compared to Didier Drogba – he has the potential to be just as good as the Chelsea legend.

Against United if Lukaku had played instead of Schurrle, he would have held the ball up and give the visitors an out ball. The threat of his pace in behind would have forced the United defence to drop deeper, allowing more space for Eden Hazard and Oscar.

Chelsea – forget signing Rooney or Eto’o – you have an awesome striker on your bench.

As Chelsea hunt Cavani – is Torres’ time finally up?

“There’s no better place to be than at Chelsea with Mourinho”. These were the unequivocal words of Fernando Torres recently when questioned on his future with Chelsea. Words that exude nothing else but an unmistakable desire to ply his trade at Stamford Bridge this coming season. Compare these words with the “so-so” that Jose Mourinho mumbled recently to describe Torres’s time at Chelsea and you would be forgiven for thinking that things don’t quite add up for Spain’s number 9.

“So-so” – not a direct denunciation of Torres but certainly not a declaration of faith from Chelsea’s new manager either. Mix this with Mourinho’s not-so-secret desire to bring in Napoli’s Edinson Cavani and the signs do not look good for Torres.

The Chelsea faithful are unlikely to shed many tears if Torres’s departure means Cavani is brought in with the two strikers’ goal-scoring records last season contrasting starkly. 26-year-old Cavani scored a staggering 38 goals in 43 games, 29 of which were in Serie A. Torres, now 29, managed 22 in 64 for Chelsea in a season that many considered his best in blue – just eight of those 22 goals however were Premier League goals. To put it bluntly, Cavani is the player Chelsea thought they were signing in Torres from Liverpool – and more. Any fans doubting Cavani’s ability to make the notoriously difficult transition from Serie A to the Premier League should take solace in the success of strikingly similar players Carlos Tevez and Luis Suarez on these shores.

Fernando Torres

One element that Torres has in his favour however is the competition Chelsea may find in landing the understandably much sought-after Uruguayan. PSG are widely reported to have made Cavani prime target number one this summer and are more than capable of outspending even Chelsea yet Cavani, who was relatively quiet in the Confederations Cup, is believed to be eager to ultimately prove himself in the Premier League.

If Chelsea are unable to nab the Salto man it still remains difficult to imagine Mourinho’s Chelsea lining up against Hull in August with Torres or Demba Ba, who managed just the two league goals last term, leading it. Mourinho is likely to line his side up with just the one striker more times than not and he understandably won’t want to hand that responsibility to a player whose light has significantly faded since his Liverpool days.  Stephan El Shaararwy is another signing that Chelsea have strongly been linked with and one that Torres, like with Cavani, is supposedly being used in as a bargaining tool. Chelsea are unlikely to want their most expensive acquisition festering on the bench and are perhaps wise to use him as makeweight for the future development of that forward line.

Chelsea and Torres are believed to be holding talks this week over his future at the club with the Spaniard hoping to persuade his new manager that he still has a role to play at the club, be that with a new strike partner or not. He’ll certainly not want his roll to be as a deal-maker in the negotiations for his eventual replacement.

Torres is still likely to demand a costly fee and, at his best, remains formidable in every department in front of goal. Enquiries for his services will certainly not be shy in coming forward yet the problem for Torres would be convincing potential suitors that he is able to recapture the scintillating form he has shown slivers of at Chelsea and that he is worth a gamble with what would surely be a pricey fee.

If this is indeed the end of Torres’s spell at Chelsea then the question that remains is where next for ‘El Niño’. Perhaps the most likely destination is wherever Chelsea want him, whether that is in Naples or Milan. Barcelona are rumoured to be interested in Torres as a possible replacement for David Villa whose form has, for him, waned since his injury. Torres though has talked down this link, instead deciding to focus on Chelsea and his wish to benefit from the tutelage of Mourinho. After two-and-a-half underwhelming seasons at Chelsea and with Mourinho mercilessly tracking Europe’s elite however, that wish may well be left unfulfilled.

Should Tottenham, Liverpool or Chelsea be looking at Swansea target Wilfried Bony?

Swansea have been doing exemplary business in the transfer market over the last few years, their headline-grabbing £2m capture of Michu the one that really caught the attention. With that in mind, as Swansea look to be ever closer to signing striker Wilfried Bony from Vitesse Arnhem, the obvious question is; are they getting more quality that clubs at the top of the league should be looking at themselves? In the same way that surely Michu’s 20+ goals could have been of use to Spurs or Liverpool last season if they’d known about him. Perhaps Swansea are sneaking through another bargain signing under the noses of clubs that need a striker.

Bony is, at 24, about to really hit his prime. Last season he scored 31 goals in 30 games in the Eredivisie. Now, that in and of itself is not an indicator for success in the Premier League. However, when comparing Bony to other goal filled strikers who have failed elsewhere, notably Afonso Alves at Middlesbrough, it’s important to see why he is different. The most successful Dutch league exports are those possessed of physical talent, as well as technical ability. Alves and Luuk de Jong for example, struggled because their relative physical talent was no more than average at a higher standard. Uis Suarez and Ruud van Nistelrooy possessed the football intelligence and raw ability to succeed when stepping up.

Wilfried Bony

Bony is an elite physical specimen. He’s 6ft tall, very quick and strong and has elite balance and spring. It means that not only can he burn away from players when running, he can also more than handle himself in the physical battles. This makes him ideally suited to the Premier League. His canny runs on the shoulder of the last defender were supplied by soon-to-be Chelsea youngster Marco van Ginkel. At Swansea he will have Pablo Hernandez, Michu and possibly a re-signed Jonathan De Guzman picking him out. He could be this summer’s Michu for them. But, should Spurs, Liverpool or Chelsea be having a look?

There’s no question all three clubs are in the market for striking reinforcements. Of the three, Chelsea are probably the least likely spot, but, if they are signing van Ginkel, and considering they have a great relationship with Vitesse, they might want to reunite them in blue. However, with Lukaku, Schurrle, Torres and Ba already at the club, they seem to be trying to sign a proven world-class player like Edinson Cavani rather than another prospect.

Spurs would be a great fit. They want to upgrade on Jermain Defoe and Emmanuel Adebayor, and Bony could well prove to be that. At this stage he’s not really in a position to start every game ahead of those two straight away, but Andre Villas-Boas is an excellent coach and would perhaps feel like he could mould the physically talented Bony in to a complete forward in due course. He’d make great sense for Spurs if they are willing to be patient and let him develop.

Liverpool is an interesting destination for Bony. It seems the Luis Suarez saga has gone quiet at the moment and with the assumption that he will leave now almost taken for granted. But there hasn’t been much news on his possible move. If Liverpool do manage to keep Suarez then Bony isn’t an option. However, Liverpool are trying to build a team to win the league in two years, not this year. This is why they are signing younger, technically talented players that Brendan Rodgers can coach up. Bony has the pace that Rodgers covets and would be able to push Daniel Sturridge to earn the long-term striker role rather than just have it granted to him.

At Swansea Bony would be the starter. They would be signing him in the expectation that he can score 20 goals, which he certainly has the talent to do. Spurs, Liverpool and Chelsea could do worse than look at what Swansea are up to and see whether they rate him as a long-term option.

Does Jon Obi Mikel have a future at Chelsea?

Chelsea fans can be forgiven for watching Nigeria during the Confederations Cup and wondering who the majestic, elegant play maker in the number 10 shirt was. With his inventive range of passing, ability to cover ground, make tackles and interceptions, he pulled all the strings in a dangerous looking attacking unit. ‘He’d be a good signing for us’ you could forgive them for thinking, in need as they are of that type of player in deeper midfield areas. And then the camera zooms in on his shirt. And it’s Jon Obi Mikel. Jon Obi Mikel? So why was he playing like that for Nigeria, but seems to have lost his way at Chelsea? Can he forge a future for himself under Jose Mourinho or will he need to move on?

Mikel played in Brazil like the player Chelsea thought they had signed for £16m in 2006 when he was just 19 and has intermittently shown at Stamford Bridge. Since being at Chelsea he has changed from a buccaneering all rounder to more of a defensive shield, and it doesn’t really suit him. His defensive discipline and intelligence isn’t his strong point. In his more restricted role as a defensive shield he isn’t able to show off his athleticism. He is required to play a very simple passing game at Chelsea, always moving the ball on quickly and easily to his team-mates. For Nigeria he is the absolute fulcrum of the team, with freedom to exploit his physical gifts and show off the kind of creativity and passing that he seemed to have kept hidden at Chelsea. He’s put himself firmly in the shop window with plenty of teams able to find use for him and his suddenly rediscovered talents. But has he also forced his way in to Jose Mourinho’s thinking?

Jon Obi Mikel

One of the few weaknesses at Chelsea is that they don’t have a pure deep lying playmaker. Ramires is an athlete and Frank Lampard is able to grab goals and set a decent tempo. David Luiz has a nice range of passing but doesn’t yet utilise his talents in the way that a Pirlo, Xavi or Schweinsteiger does. Could this be where Mikel fits in again suddenly? He’s been so far off the radar to play this role for Chelsea that it is almost forgotten what abilities he has. He did a good job in a playmaking role with a Nigeria side who showed exuberance and threat in attack. However, his skills are not really refined enough to play the role for Chelsea, and a fresh start makes more sense.

It’s very hard to say to the rest of the Chelsea squad that the player who used to be their shield, is suddenly their main passing presence. Having played with him for several years, it’s going to be too hard to change the mindset of the squad to go from trying to receive the ball from him to suddenly looking to pass to him.

Mikel needs to be signed to be the main man somewhere else. Galatasaray have been linked but the transfer fee was ridiculous. There’s no way Galatasaray can say on the one hand that Wesley Sneijder can be had for £16m and then immediately spend it on Mikel. Chelsea could probably demand something like £8m though which is a fair price for a player who hasn’t consistently shown that he can do this role for a while at club level. He probably needs to leave the Premier League for a slower environment. Serie A would seem to be a perfect league for him where his physicality would be an advantage but the pace of the game is slower to give him more time.

Mikel really needs a fresh start and an opportunity to be the main man somewhere else. He does an OK job as a screening midfielder for Chelsea but no more. His defensive nous hasn’t really improved so he isn’t an optimum solution for the club. A move elsewhere, and a chance to show the kind of skill he showed in Brazil would suit him more.

Man United handed tough opening to title defence

New Manchester United manager David Moyes will have mixed feelings as he reads through today’s newly released Premier League fixture list for 2013/14. On the one hand, he will be excited to get started but on the other, he will see that he faces Chelsea, Liverpool and Man City in his first five games. Although he’s not really under pressure, because United have committed so fully to him, it’s a tough start and questions will be asked if after those five games they already have a couple of losses.

Things don’t start easily, with a trip to Swansea on opening day, which will surely be selected for television. Although United would expect to win, Swansea have shown they are hard to beat at home. It’s the rest of August that could be tough for Moyes though.

David Moyes

His first game at Old Trafford sees him host Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea. Chelsea are looking like being United’s main title challengers this season, barring some dramatic moves from Man City, and playing them early is not ideal. Moyes will still be getting his message across, still teaching his game plans in a new dressing room for the first time in 11 years. Mourinho on the other hand, has changed dressing rooms four times during that period. He may be able to get his message across quicker. Last season Chelsea showed that they could be a match for United. The FA Cup game at Old Trafford saw them run roughshod through United in the second half as a tease of what could be possible. Of all the teams in the country to play in his first home game, Moyes would probably have picked Chelsea last.

However, he will have overwhelming crowd support and if he wins it will be a fabulous start. From Chelsea he then takes his team to Anfield for the always vociferous game with Liverpool. For Moyes, this is a double-edged rivalry. As an ex-Everton manager currently at Man United, he couldn’t get a hotter reception than he will at Anfield. Liverpool have done well at home to United over recent years and the team will be flowing with adrenaline cheered on by a boisterous crowd. Again, the result of this could go either way for Moyes. If he was to lose this on the back of a loss to Chelsea the alarm bells will be ringing. However, should he beat Jose Mourinho and then go to Anfield and win his legitimacy will be sealed. He will have shown he deserves the job.

A routine home win over Crystal Palace should follow before what has become the hardest game in the league over the last couple of years; Manchester City at the Etihad. City will also have a new manager who will be under pressure to win. Unless Moyes loses to both Chelsea and Liverpool in all likelihood Pellegrini will be under more of a spotlight. It’s a big early momentum decider for both men. A win would give them both breathing room and an advantage in the title race.

If David Moyes can get out of these five games unbeaten then he will have firmly established himself as the boss. If they lose a couple, or even all three of these tough games, the spectre of Sir Alex Ferguson will loom large. However, after this tough start the fixtures ease significantly for a considerable period.

Elsewhere on opening day the newly promoted teams have very tough starts. Hull face a trip to Chelsea for Jose Mourinho’s first game, Crystal Palace host Spurs and Cardiff travel to West Ham. Arsenal and Man City host Villa and Newcastle respectively and will be expecting to win.

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