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Arsenal set to benefit from fitness boost ahead of derby vs. Spurs

Arsenal set to benefit from fitness boost ahead of derby vs. Spurs


He may be a West Ham player these days, but it would appear that Pablo Zabaleta's heart still lies with Manchester City, the club at which he spent nine long years before leaving for east London in May.

Indeed, the 32-year-old was spotted wearing his old club colours around his neck during a recent Hammers training session, donning a blue-and-white scarf for the occasion.

Once a ????...Pablo Zabaleta rocking the City scarf in West Ham training today. ????

Of course, it's also worth remembering that Zabaleta is a former Argentina international, with the Albiceleste obviously sharing fairly similar livery.

Either that, or the veteran full-back just hasn't found the time to update his winter training wardrobe quite yet.

Chris covers the funny side of the game for ESPN FC in the Toe Poke blog.

Manchester City's trip to Leicester last season was one of the low points of their season. The 4-2 defeat, which was made only marginally respectable by two consolation goals for Pep Guardiola's side in the final eight minutes, was perhaps the second-worst result of the campaign behind the 4-0 loss at Everton.

That afternoon at Leicester, some fans began to question the logic in Guardiola's methods. Pablo Zabaleta was asked to tuck into midfield when City had the ball, while a remaining back three of Aleksandar Kolarov, Bacary Sagna and John Stones was all over the show. All of that was going on in front of a hapless Claudio Bravo.

There were mistakes everywhere. The defensive line was regularly crooked, as some tried to catch the Leicester strikers offside while others dropped to cover; closing down was at best lazy, and at worst non-existent; and the icing on the bad-performance cake was Stones providing a blind pass to assist Jamie Vardy's hat trick goal in the second half.

Just under a year on from that fixture, City go to the King Power looking a completely different team at the back. Ederson's arrival has added confidence to the passing ethos, while Stones and Nicolas Otamendi have formed an excellent partnership in front of him. The pair seem to know when each has to cover the other and both have been far more comfortable on the ball.

The addition of Kyle Walker has provided much-needed pace and consistency on the right flank, and Fabian Delph has been a shock revelation on the opposite side. His central midfield background has meant he's been more than comfortable stepping into the middle when City have the ball, rather than overlapping like a traditional full-back would.

If you'd told a City fan even as recently as last August their team would be comfortable defending without Vincent Kompany in the back four, you'd have been laughed out of the room. However, the reality is when the captain is fit again, it's difficult to see how he gets back into the side, barring others being unavailable.

Yet as Guardiola prepares for a trip to Leicester, he must be wary of a breakdown in his defence because of one small detail. Otamendi is banned, having picked up his fifth yellow card of the season in the 3-1 win over Arsenal. It means City's best partnership for some time will have to be broken up.

It's not ideal, especially as a resurgent Leicester will sense an opportunity to become only the second team to take points off Guardiola this season, perhaps even feeling they may be the first to beat the league leaders if they can exploit whoever comes in to replace Otamendi.

With Kompany sidelined with an injury picked up on international duty at the beginning of September, Guardiola's options are looking limited. His only natural options for centre-back alongside Stones are Eliaquim Mangala and Tosin Adarabioyo. However, the former he wanted rid of to make way for Jonny Evans last summer, while the latter is an inexperienced rookie with just three starts to his name, one of which was as part of Manuel Pellegrini's team of sacrificial lambs in the 5-1 FA Cup fifth round defeat to Chelsea in 2016.

With roughly 301 senior minutes under his belt, the youngster could be a risk, though it has to be said that sometimes there's nothing quite like being thrown in at the deep end to see if a player will sink or swim.

An out-of-position Danilo could also be the answer. He arrived in the summer with the promise of being a utility man, able to play in defence on both the left and right flanks and in central midfield, but has rarely been seen thanks to the form of Walker, Benjamin Mendy, and Delph.

For a more in-form option, Fernandinho could drop into the back four -- though, as impressive as he's been since returning from a long injury, Ilkay Gundogan hasn't given the team the same sort of impetus the Brazilian has when used as the midfield anchor.

Whatever the manager decides, City will have something of a makeshift backline despite investing over £150m last summer in the defence.

Despite the hearty goal-scoring form the club have been in this season, the rearguard has truly allowed them to open up an eight-point lead at the top of the Premier League. That solid foundation has been the bedrock for the destructive attacking displays that have left both fans and neutrals purring.

Otamendi's suspension for the trip to Leicester might seem like a small problem, but it's in this sort of situation where we'll really see how well equipped City are to cope with the issues they failed to deal with last season.

David Mooney is ESPN FC's Manchester City blogger. Twitter: @DavidMooney

Didier Drogba has told RMC he does not believe the high turnover of managers at his former club Chelsea is anything exceptional in the current game.

Drogba, 39, won four Premier League titles and the same number of FA Cups in two spells at Stamford Bridge.

Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich has appointed nine managers in the last 10 years, but Drogba said: "Everyone says Chelsea isn't very stable. But in modern-day football, there is no coach who lasts more than three or four years at a club.

"I asked him [Abramovich]: 'We have had how many managers in how many seasons?' He replied: 'But Didier, each time I have done it, we have got results.'"

Drogba said he did not believe the changing managerial cast was a conscious strategy on Abramovich's part.

"No, because when the managers come in they have carte blanche at the club," he added. "They do what they want.

"Having said that, I don't see the relationship with the chairman on a daily basis. But you can't get into a conflict with your boss. If that's the case, it's that you want to leave."

After winning the Premier League in his first season in charge, current boss Antonio Conte has seen his own future brought into question with the Blues nine points behind leaders Manchester City.

Drogba was part of the 2014-15 Premier League-winning side, which he then saw struggle badly in the following campaign after he had left for Montreal Impact.

And with Champions League demands now placed on Conte's squad, Drogba said: "What's happening now is normal.

"Two years ago, they were on the brink of relegation. Last year, with one match a week, everything went well. The coach came in with drastic methods and the club became champions again.

"But most of the players have never been further than a Champions League quarterfinal or semifinal for a while.

"You have to get used to matches every three days again, get used to the demand for results, which is permanent, to the intensity.

"You have to be at your best every day, which isn't easy."

Ian is ESPN's French football correspondent. Twitter: @ian_holyman

With Arsenal's infamously fragile squad, the international break is always a nerve-wracking period for Gunners fans. Supporters scour the headlines, desperately hoping their key players return to London unscathed. This week, there will be more prayers said and fingers crossed than usual because, when the Premier League resumes at the weekend, Arsenal face a hugely important fixture against rivals Tottenham.

Thus far, though, the indications are that any fears may have been misplaced. Arsenal are actually heading into the derby in unusually good healthy.

Of course, there had to be one Arsenal casualty in this international period. Olivier Giroud has already returned to London after sustaining a thigh injury during France's 2-0 win over Wales. Giroud scored in the game and is now his nation's seventh top scorer of all time, but it's not a massive blow to his club.

Indeed, Arsenal should be able to cope without Giroud against Spurs. Although his record of 29 goals in 69 caps for France is nothing to be sniffed at, he is no longer an automatic starter for either club or country. Alexandre Lacazette may have missed out on a starting spot for Arsenal's last big game at Manchester City, but after the former Lyon man came off the bench to thrash home the Gunners' only goal he'll surely be named in the line-up on Saturday.

Giroud would have provided a useful option from the bench, but Arsenal have at least received a boost with the news that Danny Welbeck is now fit to play. The England international rejoined Wenger's first-team sessions shortly before the City game and, with a fortnight's training under his belt, should be raring to go.

There might even be a chance that Welbeck starts. This season, Arsene Wenger has sought to include him whenever possible.

The manager's eagerness to deploy Welbeck is presumably two-fold: firstly, he values his tactical discipline and workrate. However, there's also a sense that he might be more willing to invest playing time in Welbeck than Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, both of whom seem certain to leave the club in the near future.

The Tottenham game is sure to be a physical, tactical affair -- and that would suit the athletic and astute Welbeck. Though, a match of this magnitude might come too soon for a player who was last seen in action a month ago.

Another Arsenal player in the France vs. Wales fixture was Aaron Ramsey, and fortunately he emerged unharmed. Chris Coleman has consented to rest him for Wales' friendly against Panama, so the midfielder ought to be fit to start against Spurs. That's a big lift: Ramsey's problematic hamstrings mean his international involvement is always a concern for Arsenal fans. He's far from the perfect midfielder, but he remains the best Arsenal currently have at their disposal.

Wenger will also be delighted to have Shkodran Mustafi back in the ranks. Against City, a shortage of centre-backs led to Francis Coquelin being pressed into action in an unfamiliar role -- with unsurprising results.

Mustafi will resume his position at the centre of the back three, and may even be tasked with a man-marking job on Harry Kane. He carried out a similar role when up against Alvaro Morata of Chelsea in September and kept the Spaniard very quiet. Kane invariably shines against Arsenal, so anything Mustafi can do to stop him could prove invaluable.

With Mustafi, Ramsey and Welbeck all fit to start, Arsenal's squad has been strengthened right through the spine of the team. The challenge now is for Wenger to select the right XI.

Against City, he made a couple of bold decisions which backfired -- Lacazette ought to have started; Coquelin did little to justify his selection. The Arsenal manager can't afford any similar errors in judgement when Tottenham come to the Emirates Stadium on Saturday.

James McNicholas is one of ESPN FC's Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @gunnerblog.