Big Weekend: Alli, Leicester, Toure, Walcott

Date published: Friday 1st April 2016 8:42

Dele Alli Yaya Toure

Dele Alli
You could forgive the 19-year-old for being high on life right now. As his first season in the top flight draws to a close, it could conclude with a Premier League title winner’s medal and a starring role for his country at Euro 2016.

Alli seems to have cemented his place in everyone’s England XI over the past fortnight and has received high praise from Bryan Robson and Sir Alex Ferguson, who said the teenager is “probably the best young midfielder I have seen in many years, probably going back as far as Paul Gascoigne.”

For now, however, the former MK Dons midfielder needs to forget all that and focus on the task at hand – beating Liverpool at Anfield, which is something Tottenham have struggled to do in recent years. Spurs have lost five of their last six Premier League meetings with Liverpool and have failed to score in four of their last five. They have won only one of their last 21 visits to Anfield, while the Merseysiders have netted 18 goals in their last six against Spurs.

The numbers make grim reading for travelling Spurs fans but they are following a very different side to the north-west. They have proved themselves to be tactically and technically up to whatever Liverpool can throw at them, especially as the hosts chase them all over Anfield for at least an hour. Their big-hitters, most notably Alli and his England team-mates, are brimming with confidence.

The next eight days bring the most intense test of Tottenham’s title credentials that they will face during the run-in. After the trip to Liverpool, they host Manchester United next Sunday. Mauricio Pochettino seems confident Alli can handle the pressure and the manager continues to do everything he can to shield his star from it. But with the hype comes expectation; Spurs need Alli to meet that in the coming week.

 

Leicester
My God, they’re close. The Foxes’ support have now shed the pretence and were openly singing about winning the league following the win at Crystal Palace. This weekend they host Southampton, and it’s anyone’s guess which Saints side will show up. Ronald Koeman’s team have been frustratingly inconsistent over recent weeks, having won two, lost two and drawn one of their last five games.

Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez will note that Koeman’s side have not kept a clean sheet during that run, following six consecutive shut-outs beforehand. The Foxes are making their fans sweat, having won five of their last six games by a 1-0 scoreline, but that is all that is required. They have shown the doubters that they can dig out more than one way to win.

 

Theo Walcott
Walcott is in danger of missing out on his third major tournament with England and, as Roy Hodgson said, he needs not only to get on the pitch for Arsenal but also make a positive impact.

“For Theo, he, like quite a lot of other players, will have to try hard to get back in the Arsenal team otherwise maybe I am not going to be seeing enough of him,” Hodgson said.

If Walcott is to get a chance this weekend against Watford, then it will almost certainly be as a substitute. Arsenal turned in perhaps their most impressive display of 2016 when they comfortably beat Everton 2-0. Danny Welbeck and Alex Iwobi demonstrated the early signs of a good understanding and both scored, while Walcott didn’t even climb off the bench. He is now fighting for his immediate international prospects and his long-term club future. Walcott must make count whatever time he gets.

 

Norwich
The international break halted whatever hopes Alex Neil may have had of his side maintaining their momentum, but the Canaries must build on  a perfect Premier League weekend a fortnight ago when Newcastle arrive at Carrow Road.

Victory at West Brom, combined with a Tyne-Wear derby draw and Crystal Palace losing at home to Leicester, allowed Norwich to climb out of the bottom three and closer to the sliding Eagles. The Canaries face those three nearest rivals in their next three matches in a run of games certain to make or break their survival campaign.

Neil has tightened his team up at the back, with Timm Klose finding his feet at centre-half to help the East Anglians keep consecutive clean sheets, so a repeat of Newcastle’s six-goal victory from six shots on target last October appears highly unlikely. Yet Norwich’s attack is still shot-shy, with the Canaries finding the net twice in the last five matches. Much will depend on Neil’s mindset. A draw would be far better for Norwich than Newcastle, but the hosts must go for the jugular and put six points between themselves and Rafael Benitez’s side.

 

Karl Darlow
The last thing Benitez needed ahead of the crunch trip to Norwich was to lose one of Newcastle’s best players this season. Rob Elliot, himself second choice behind fellow knee injury victim Tim Krul, has shone in the Newcastle goal, having been given more opportunity to impress than anyone on Tyneside would have liked. But his replacement is no rookie teenager stepping into the spotlight for the first time.

Darlow is 25 years old with over 100 Championship appearances at Nottingham Forest to his name. Yes his only Premier League appearance, at West Brom at Christmas, ended on a sour note after he let Darren Fletcher’s header squirm through his grasp, but he kept Newcastle in contention up to that point. He received the latest of call-ups that day when Elliot hurt himself during the warm up. The keeper will have had four days to mentally prepare for the responsibility he holds at Norwich.

The goalkeeper is not Newcastle’s biggest problem: Darlow will be fine. His team might not be though, having lost their last seven away matches – their worst run on the road in almost 40 years.

 

Sunderland
Sam Allardyce is unlikely to have been good company during the international break. Sunderland went into the two-week hiatus in the bottom three when the manager knows his side should be well clear of it. Big Sam would have taken a draw in the Tyne-Wear derby had he been offered it before kick-off, but to let victory slip in the closing stages would have infuriated him.

It is a habit Sunderland must break. Prior to the derby, they let two points go when Southampton scored a last-gasp equaliser at St Mary’s which left Allardyce “crying into his wine”. The manager spoke of his exasperation at his team’s failure to keep clean sheets, though having allowed the most shots on target of any team in the Premier League, it is easy to see why.

This weekend gives Sunderland a decent opportunity to put things right when West Brom arrive at the Stadium of Light. The Baggies were beaten by Norwich last time out and their attack is every bit as ineffective as Sunderland’s defence, with Pulis’s men having recorded the fewest shots on target in the division. If the hosts’ defence can be the least terrible of the two units, then it represents a great opportunity to gain an advantage over at least one of Norwich or Newcastle.

 

Alan Pardew

“We’re in a run of form in the league where we have no momentum and we are going to have to grind it out.”

Palace absolutely have momentum, but not in the direction Pardew is looking for. The Eagles are 13 without a win in the Premier League, having lost nine of those of those matches. They go to buoyant West Ham on Saturday, and few people would fancy Pardew’s side to bring the Hammers back down to earth.

Pardew’s side should be safe. They are seven points clear of the drop zone and their fine work in the first half of the season will more than likely be enough to keep them in the division. One more win will probably be enough to ease what fears they may have; two will be more than enough to secure safety. But the goals were far grander at Christmas, since when they have collected only four points. Pardew will be seething that he has been dragged into a discussion about relegation after Palace were previously discussed as being one of the European contenders, and answers will need to be found in the summer.

 

Yaya Toure
The Manchester City midfielder’s statistics suggest that his form and work-rate have not dipped in the dramatic manner many suggest. But the City fans who have regularly watched Toure struggle to influence games in much the same way he flopped in the Manchester derby a fortnight ago will need more than a spreadsheet to convince them that the Ivorian is worth keeping around under the incoming regime.

Pep Guardiola has already sold Toure once and, unless something astounding happens between now and the end of the season, it looks almost certain that the new coach will do so again. Toure’s agent certainly seems to think his client will be on his way, with Dmitri Seluk this week having spoken again about a perceived lack of respect from City. They are yet to offer the midfielder a new contract.

So Toure is playing either for his City future or a move. Either way, if he hopes to earn a deal in a major league comparable to the one he is a year from completing, then he needs to do more than just keep his numbers ticking over and begin controlling games again.

Bournemouth is a big trip for the rest of the City players too. With talk that Guardiola wants up to nine new players perhaps some of them have already zoned out, but the threat of West Ham and Manchester United below them should help at least some of Manuel Pellegrini’s men rediscover their focus.

 

Eric Black
Most clubs in trouble at this time of the season dismiss their manager in search of a new boss bounce, a new voice to inspire an immediate-if-brief upturn in motivation and form. No one expects Black to do that at Villa. The greatest managers in the game would struggle to eke anything out of the current rabble at Villa Park, so the 52-year-old perennial caretaker is not expected to suddenly drag the team back from the dead. The Villans have been toe-tagged and await their imminent burial.

The situation at Villa Park is now so toxic that further embarrassment, such as that inflicted upon the Holte End when their team stepped aside for Liverpool, must be avoided. Black, who has acted as a caretaker boss five times before, must at least rouse some sign of life from his players. Some of whom are actively taking the p*ss, according to Stan Collymore.

Luckily for Black and Villa, Chelsea appear to have swapped their boots for flip-flops and are blowing up their lilos. Guus Hiddink’s side still haven’t been beaten in the Premier League but they have lost two of their last four games in all competitions, with Champions League and FA Cup exits being sandwiched by uninspiring home draws with Stoke and West Ham.

 

Ian Watson

 

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