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With both early games postponed on Boxing Day, we can only hope that players remain COVID free ahead of game week nineteen to keep those remaining fixtures intact. My biggest worry is the match at Turf Moor with Everton stretched to capacity. As always, plan your transfers carefully and try to ensure you have a bench of starters. Good luck, stay safe and have yourself a very Merry Christmas!
Mikel Arteta failed to provide an update on Takehiro Tomiyasu, who wasn't "100 per cent confident" of finishing the game at Leeds due to a calf issue. Hopefully, his withdrawal was precautionary, and he can be included at Norwich. Cedric Soares is his likely replacement if he fails to recover. Ghana have arranged a pre-tournament get together in Doha ahead of the Africa Cup of Nations, but it looks as though Thomas Partey won't join up until after Boxing Day. A decision on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang will be taken "game-by-game", and he could miss out again after Eddie Nketiah scored a hat-trick in the Carabao Cup. Sambi Lokonga, Calum Chambers and Pablo Marí are confirmed COVID-19 cases.
Steven Gerrard told reporters they were "wasting their time" if they wanted team news ahead of Sunday. "I don't even know myself," he mused. The situation with COVID is changing by the hour, although Villa will welcome some of their recent absentees back into the fold. Keinan Davis, Anwar El Ghazi and Morgan Sanson could be among those, while Ashley Young and Emiliano Buendia have shaken off knocks. Marvelous Nakamba will be sidelined for up to four months after knee surgery.
Thomas Frank expects to have more or less the same squad that faced Chelsea in the Carabao Cup on Wednesday night. No one is expected to recover, meaning the Bees could be missing up to six players. However, the situation has improved dramatically from the 13 positive COVID cases that prompted the game at Southampton to be postponed. Rico Henry needs to be checked after he complained of tightness in his hamstring, and a decision on Ivan Toney will be made nearer kick-off to determine whether the striker is ready to start.
Brighton and Hove Albion
Graham Potter says Danny Welbeck, Neal Maupay and Pascal Gross are all in contention, and thanks to the recent mini-break, several other players are on the cusp of a return. Adam Webster has trained, and barring a setback; he will be included. There is also hope for Joel Veltman, who was forced off at West Ham. His hamstring niggle was fatigue-related, giving him a chance, and Shane Duffy is back after a one-match ban. The Seagulls do, however, lose Yves Bissouma after he collected his fifth caution of the campaign. Lewis Dunk is currently in a knee brace and receiving injections with a view to returning ahead of the winter break in January.
A positive COVID test has hampered the recovery of Maxwel Cornet, and Sean Dyche only rates his chances of a return as a "maybe" due to the thigh injury he suffered at St James' Park. Dale Stephens is "back amongst it", but the Clarets will be without Connor Roberts after a "nasty infection" and Ashley Barnes, who is "making good progress" after a setback last month.
Romelu Lukaku and Callum Hudson-Odoi were able to submit consecutive negative lateral flow tests to enable a return to Cobham on Thursday, and both players should make the trip to Villa Park. Thomas Tuchel is still waiting for Kai Havertz and Timo Werner to be cleared while Ruben Loftus-Cheek (ankle) and Hakim Ziyech (calf) face a late fitness test. Andreas Christensen is over the niggling back complaint that has kept him out of the last two, and Ben Chilwell is hoping that he does not require knee surgery. A decision will be taken next month.
Joachim Andersen is in contention for a start following minutes from the bench last time out. The centre-back formed an excellent partnership with Marc Guéhi during the early part of the season, and James Tomkins could lose his place. James McArthur is training with the group, and the status of Jordan Ayew remains unclear as Ghana have arranged a pre-tournament training camp in Doha that began on Wednesday. The Eagles may have an agreement in place for him to join up later, so expect an update from Patrick Vieira to clarify the situation on Friday.
Rafa Benitez told reporters he was "really surprised" that the game at Turf Moor was still going ahead after his request to postpone the game was rejected. The Toffees had five positive COVID cases following the 1-1 draw with Chelsea, and when you factor current injuries, Everton are struggling to name a side with only nine senior outfield players and three goalkeepers. Included in those available for the game is Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who has been sidelined for close to four months, and Rafa admits it is a "massive risk" as he may be forced to play players who are not fully fit. Lucas Digne also returns after illness, but numbers are likely to be bolstered by development players, most of whom are under 21-years-old. Richarlison (calf), Yerry Mina (hamstring) and Andros Townsend (foot) are among those who are expected to miss out.
The loss of three players to injury compounded the penalty shootout defeat to Liverpool on Wednesday, and all three are flagged as doubts for the trip to The Etihad. Ricardo Pereira was caught by Tyler Morton, a robust challenge that would've probably have earned him a red if VAR was used in the competition. The full-back failed to make half-time. The returning Çaglar Soyuncu lasted until the hour mark after complaining of a hamstring issue, and the absence of Jamie Vardy from spot-kick duties was explained when Brendan Rodgers confirmed his leading marksman "couldn't really move" due to muscular tightness. Daniel Amartey has already joined Ghana ahead of the Africa Cup of Nations, leaving the Foxes squad stretched following their recent COVID outbreak. Kelechi Iheanacho and Jannik Vestergaard have only just returned to training, and the status of Jonny Evans remains unclear after limping off against Newcastle.
Pep was in a spikey mood on Thursday, and he wasn't prepared to give too much away regarding his squad. It seems likely that Kyle Walker will miss out again as he is "short of full fitness", although there were no specific details mentioned. Guardiola also chose not to clarify the decision to bench Phil Foden and Jack Grealish at Newcastle after the pair went on a night out. "In our careers, the work you do on and off the pitch is the same importance," he said. "It's so demanding physically and mentally – you have to live for your profession. All the time, every single second."
Ralph Rangnick confirms his team have trained normally for the last three days after Carrington was reopened following a deep clean. United were down to seven first-team players last weekend, but now that their period of self-isolation has ended, everyone is back and working well. Paul Pogba is the only absentee as he continues his recovery from the thigh injury he suffered with the national team. That could mean a potential return for several players: Raphael Varane and Edinson Cavani, Anthony Martial and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, plus Victor Lindelof, who was replaced at Carrow Road because of breathing difficulties. "From what I saw today in training, I can say most of them, if not all, might be available, although I might have to make some different decisions who will be in the squad and the starting XI."
Emil Krafth and Javier Manquillo are expected to recover from illness. At the same time, Eddie Howe is hopeful that Jonjo Shelvey can overcome the minor muscle issue that prevented him from lining up against Manchester City on Sunday. "He hasn't trained with the group yet; we hope to have him back very soon. He's such an important player for us in many different ways." Frederico Fernandez, Jamal Lewis and Paul Dummett are all out of the festive programme, and probably, most of January, with muscle injuries. The Tynesiders will be forced into at least one change after Isaac Hayden picked up his fifth caution of the campaign.
Dean Smith confirms the Canaries have some "fresh" COVID cases, although players are coming back, which means the game with Arsenal is not currently at risk. Pierre Lees-Melou, Joshua Sargent and Christos Tzolis are among those who have returned to the training pitches, while a late decision will be made on Lukas Rupp. Ozan Kabak has recovered from a calf issue, but Norwich will be without Grant Hanley (shoulder) for a "few weeks" and Andrew Omobamidele for another ten days due to a stress-related back injury. Mathias Normann has undergone pelvic surgery, and the midfielder is now out for the "foreseeable future", meaning Jakob Sørensen is likely to keep his place alongside Billy Gilmour.
After returning to the training pitches, Ralph Hasenhüttl reveals Che Adams and Stuart Armstrong are in contention. Adams (hamstring) has missed the last two, while Armstrong has spent most of the season battling an ongoing calf complaint. Willy Caballero looks set to retain his place in goal with no word on the fitness of Fraser Forster and Alex McCarthy out until mid-January. Adam Armstrong is the only other concern with no reported cases of COVID in the Southampton camp.
Ryan Sessegnon and Cristian Romero (both hamstring) remain sidelined for Spurs. Antonio Conte confirms there have been no new COVID cases, although the squad were given the day off following the Carabao Cup win over rivals West Ham. The squad will be tested ahead of their first session back. Giovani Lo Celso is still working to recover his peak "physical condition" following a knee injury with the national team in November. "Then he will be ready."
West Ham United
David Moyes hopes to have Michail Antonio available to face Southampton following a positive COVID test. "He has no symptoms, and I have to say that he is double vaccinated. For all those things, hopefully, we might have him back, yes." The Hammers boss admitted he "does not know" when Aaron Cresswell will return, although problems in defence were eased midweek following the return of Ben Johnson and Ryan Fredericks. Vladimir Coufal is available for selection after serving his ban in the Carabao Cup.