Game to watch – Arsenal vs Manchester City
Now of course I’m supposed to say Manchester United vs Chelsea here, but to me that holds as much off-field interest as what goes off on the pitch (more on that later). Both managers at Old Trafford might see a draw as a positive result, and both teams might play accordingly. Plus, you’ve got Matt Stead doing 16 Conclusions on that game, and who can truly say they want that?
Instead it has to be the first Wembley final of the season, where two teams enjoying starkly different seasons face each other in a game that is harder to call than the first half of this sentence might suggest.
Nobody can claim that Pep Guardiola is under pressure, but therein lies the tricky thing about success: it is an addictive drug. The more you get, the more you want, to the extent that any stumble is treated as comparative failure to what came before.
Guardiola knows that downgrading a quadruple to a treble to a double in the space of a week would be no issue if City win the Premier League and reach the Champions League final, but he also knows that it doesn’t work like that. Lose to Arsenal, and people will talk of mini-crisis with a straight face.
The other complication for City is that Arsenal are something of a bogey team. They have won just two of their last ten matches against the Gunners in all competitions, including FA Cup semi-final defeat at Wembley last season, despite leading in that game. Time to right those wrongs.
If City want the win to get the first trophy of the Guardiola era on the board, Arsene Wenger needs it to keep the wolf from the door. Arsenal can still replicate Manchester United’s 2016/17 season of victory in the Community Shield, League Cup and Europa League combined with a sixth-placed league finish, a campaign Mourinho talked up triumphantly. That really would be the most sensational troll by Wenger. But results like Thursday’s make that goal hard to believe in.
Most of all, this promises to be a bloody good game. Both teams have central defences as their weak link, and neither side have kept a clean sheet in their last six meetings. Bring it on.
Player to watch – Jurgen Locadia
It’s not exactly rocket science to reveal that teams relegated from the Premier League tend to either score too few or concede too many goals, but there has been a change of pattern over the last couple of seasons.
Usually, the teams promoted from the Championship tend to spend their transfer budgets on strikers rather than appreciate the need to improve the defence. They therefore tend to fall into the first camp, conceding a high number of goals on their way to relegation.
Recently, that has changed. Hull’s defence was miserable last season, but Burnley and Middlesbrough struggled to score goals, not keep them out. The three promoted clubs were ranked 17th, 18th and 20th for goals scored, but ten teams conceded more than Middlesbrough and nine conceded more than Burnley.
This season has been a repeat. Huddersfield, Brighton and Newcastle are ranked 15th, 16th and 17th for goals scored, but Newcastle and Brighton have the seventh and eighth best defences in the league respectively.
With Brighton ranked 17th for goals scored but with a reliable central defensive (and goalkeeping) unit, Chris Hughton knew that purchasing a goalscorer in January was the key to his club’s survival in the Premier League. Glenn Murray and Tomer Hemed, for all the honesty and effort both provide, just isn’t enough.
Last week, Jurgen Locadia scored on his Brighton debut, albeit against League Two Coventry City in the FA Cup. Locadia was never particularly prolific in the Eredivisie, but at 24 represent a gamble worth taking. The strikers were hardly queueing up outside the Amex.
Score against Swansea at home to take Brighton close to the top half, and supporters will believe that they made precisely the right move at precisely the right time.
We know their defence can withstand pressure, but the attack?
Manager to watch – Alan Pardew
Oh Alan. It never rains but it pours.
Pardew would never pretend to sell himself as a strict disciplinarian, but you can’t help feeling that Sam Allardyce or Tony Pulis would have avoided having their coat, wallet and phone stolen on one night out before four of their players were arrested for stealing a taxi the following evening, all played out as the team’s results continue to slump. There is no good time have four first-team players arrested, but there are some worse than others.
Players will be fined and reputations have been dented, but Pardew is in bigger trouble than the late-night commuters. West Brom have already sacked their chairman and chief executive in a bid to make the wholesale changes that might just change the mood in time to avoid relegation, but Pardew is next. His usual trick is to ensure the Pardew Bounce, but West Brom have barely peeled themselves off the floor.
West Brom have earned eight points from Pardew’s 13 league matches, which given that Pulis took two more from his last 13 games is a pitiful return. Reports suggest Chunky has one or two more matches to at least offer hints of a brighter future or face being consigned to the past after three months in charge.
West Brom have got better. They are creating more chances and conceding fewer shots than under Pulis, and Pardew will insist that good fortune is now required. They had 23 shots to Southampton’s six last weekend and yet lost 2-1 at home.
Unfortunately, West Brom’s owners are in no mood to twiddle their thumbs and wait for Lady Luck to arrive at the dance. Fail to beat Huddersfield at home on Saturday, and another English manager might be consigned to the scrapheap. Just until another unimaginative Premier League owner forgets that there is a footballing world outside these shores.
Team to watch – Manchester United
Because I worry about absolutely everything, I was a little concerned about the post-match piece on Wednesday. I feared that social media and the comments section may respond with a flippant “yeah, but we’re going through so who cares?”.
In fact, I was entirely wrong. Despite 0-0 in an away leg not being an awful result, Wednesday seemed to be the performance after which plenty of Manchester United supporters turned. Such was the utter lack of creative spark, despite Paul Pogba, Juan Mata, Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial all being on the pitch at one time or another, that many Jose Mourinho defenders ran out of patience.
It simply has to improve. If Manchester United reach the Champions League semi-finals and finish second in the league then Mourinho can reasonably argue significant improvement, but United’s sluggish, clunky style narrows the margins and ebbs away at the goodwill. We cannot keep being told to delay judgement on this team.
If that weren’t enough to ponder on, United could also do with an improvement in performance against a fellow top-six team. Since he joined the club, Mourinho has taken an average of 1.06 points per league game against Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham. Their combined average under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal? 1.4 points per league game.
The positive spin is that United should win this weekend. Chelsea have won three of their last eight away matches and faced Barcelona on Tuesday, while United have only lost to Manchester City at Old Trafford throughout the course of Mourinho’s tenure. Win and a top four place will feel far more secure.
The negative spin is that only victory will do, and only a more attacking performance will suffice too. This team, packed full with new signings and exciting young players, cannot continue to play not to lose. Sixteen goals in their last 12 league matches is not enough.
One-on-one battle to watch – Jose Mourinho vs Antonio Conte
October 2016 – Mourinho accuses Conte of “humiliating” him and his players with his over-exuberant celebrations during a 4-0 home win. The world explodes due to sharp increase of irony.
February 2017 – Mourinho accuses Chelsea of being “defensive” despite them being on the way to winning the Premier League title. The world, only recently repaired, explodes due to sharp increase of irony.
April 2017 – Conte points out that Manchester United spent an awful lot of money but are failing not just to win the title but finish in the top four.
July 2017 – Conte has a pop at Mourinho’s Chelsea collapse: “Two years ago Chelsea finished 10th. That cannot happen again. We know the difficulty and for sure we want to avoid the Mourinho season.”
October 2017 – Mourinho accuses other managers [and means Conte] of crying about injuries, saying that he never moans about absentees. The world, patched up again, explodes due to sharp increase of irony. Conte responds by telling Mourinho to mind his own business and “start looking at himself”.
January 2018 – Mourinho says that other managers act like clowns on the touchline and says that he is more mature than his peers. The world, wrapped in bandages, explodes due to sharp increase of irony. Conte, perhaps wrongly assuming he was the subject of Mourinho’s ire, responds by saying he must have senile dementia, although later tries to clarify his comments.
January 2018 – Mourinho goes on a long rant about how the media has manufactured this rivalry between him and Conte and that there is nothing in it. He ends the speech by saying that, unlike Conte, he will never be found guilty of match-fixing. Conte labels Mourinho a “little man” in response.
Of course you’re going to watch the before, during and after of Sunday’s game.
Football League game to watch – Fulham v Wolves
Quite simply the two best teams in the Championship on current form, and a ridiculous 7/1 on them finishing as the top two. Cardiff, Aston Villa and Derby may well be eight, four and three points ahead of Fulham, but Slavisa Jokanovic’s side have won eight and drawn three of their last 11 Championship games.
Plus you get to watch four of our top ten Championship players in one match.
European game to watch – Just pick one
An extraordinarily busy weekend of televised European football. Between Friday 7.30pm and Sunday 10pm you can watch:
Mainz v Wolfsburg
Genk v Antwerp
Strasbourg v Montpellier
Deportivo La Coruna v Espanyol
Celta Vigo v Eibar
Werder Bremen v Hamburg
Leganes v Las Palmas
Barcelona v Girona
Inter Milan v Benevento
Pacos de Ferreira v Benfica
Villarreal v Getafe
Ajax v ADO Den Haag
Crotone v SPAL
Feyenoord v PSV Eindhoven
Sassuolo v Lazio
Bordeaux v Nice
Bayer Leverkusen v Schalke
Athletic Bilbao v Malaga
Lyon v St Etienne
RB Leipzig v FC Cologne
Juventus v Atalanta
Carmarthen Town v Aberystwyth Town
Valencia v Real Sociedad
Sevilla v Atletico Madrid
Roma v AC Milan
PSG v Marseille
Portimonense v FC Porto.
Twenty-seven matches in 50 hours from eight countries. This is truly the age of enlightenment.
Writer to watch – Daniel Storey
We will have 16 Conclusions pieces on both of Sunday’s big games. You lucky buggers.