Game to watch – Arsenal vs Manchester City
Season-saving Sunday, as almost nobody is calling it. Pep Guardiola knows that a mere top-four place is less than sufficient to impress Manchester City’s powers that be, but an FA Cup victory combined with a third-place finish could be sold in a vaguely positive light.
Arsene Wenger, meanwhile, has used FA Cup triumph as a method of keeping the wolf from the door before. Even if his contract is signed and sealed but the news not yet delivered, Wenger desperately needs a good story on which to spread the filling for this sh*t sandwich. FA Cup semi-finalists and Premier League sixth-placers is a ballsy platform for the summer rebuild Arsenal’s PR machine has promised.
Of course there is no guarantee that the winner of this semi-final will go on to lift the trophy, but the losing manager will be forced to concede that their side’s season is effectively over with a month of the season remaining. Both failed to instigate progress in Europe, and both have been beset by defensive issues in the Premier League. That shared defensive incompetence promises to make this a fascinating watch. So too does the array of majestic attacking midfielders on show.
Player to watch – Diego Costa
The latest round of stories suggest that Chelsea are losing patience with Diego Costa and will sell him in the summer, with the Evening Standard’s Simon Johnson reporting a likely move to either Atletico Madrid or China.
Costa was absolved of some responsibility for last weekend’s defeat at Old Trafford after it emerged that he had been suffering with illness, but he has not scored in six Chelsea matches. Stamford Bridge has never truly felt like Costa’s natural habitat, and reports linking Romelu Lukaku with a summer move grow in volume every week.
If it is the case that Costa will move on this summer, Chelsea could do with him ending his time in England on a high. When he is on form he will cause problems even for Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen, but when below par cuts a frustrated and ineffective figure. If Costa is not firing, and therefore not busying both central defenders, Eden Hazard is asked to do an awful lot of the attacking work. Chelsea needed the pair working in tandem.
Team to watch – Tottenham
Tottenham are likely to become the only club to finish in the Premier League’s top three in each of the last two seasons, a campaign of underperformance from several of England’s major clubs followed up by a campaign of rebuilding. Through it all, Tottenham have flourished.
It is slightly melodramatic to declare that nobody remembers who finishes second, but that statement contains a strand of truth. For all Tottenham’s progress under Mauricio Pochettino, the Argentine would not consider the last two seasons as an unqualified success if Spurs were not to win a trophy.
“We are thinking about the league but if I’m in Tottenham’s shoes, this week is all about the FA Cup and the chance for this team to get a trophy,” said Jamie Carragher on Monday Night Football.
“This team is too good not to win things. We have watched them for two or three years and we love watching them. We want to see them do well. They’ve got young English players and for the manager, it would be a travesty in two or three years’ time if this team haven’t won something.”
Exactly that. Nobody can deny the improvement in Tottenham, but without something shiny in the trophy cabinet that can easily be overlooked. On Saturday, they have a chance to cause Chelsea’s confidence to wobble further ahead of a sprint to the Premier League finishing line. More importantly, they can be led out by their manager for an FA Cup final at Wembley for the first time since Terry Venables in 1991.
Manager to watch – Paul Clement
If not or never, then soon. Swansea’s wretched away form is somehow downstaged by Hull City’s, but Marco Silva’s outstanding home record has increased the pressure on Swansea to make the Liberty Stadium a fortress. That doesn’t mean drawing 0-0 against Middlesbrough and conceding three times in the last five minutes against Tottenham.
Swansea’s last three home games are against teams safely ensconced in the top 12, and therefore safe from relegation. If Clement might consider these the best teams to play on the run-in to the end of the season, he needs his team to prove that their desire to avoid relegation can overcome any gap in quality. It is not just Swansea’s results that have tailed off in recent weeks, but their performances too.
These are huge days in Clement’s managerial career. Having ultimately failed at Derby County in the Championship, adding Premier League relegation to his CV, despite the problems he faced in South Wales, would make mid-table Championship his natural level for next employment. Keep the Swans up, and he can begin to play for another season in the sun.
One-on-one battle to watch – Joe Gomez vs Christian Benteke
According to the excellent Physioroom’s Premier League injury table, Liverpool can currently ‘boast’ three more players out than any other Premier League team. If Jurgen Klopp wasn’t annoyed enough by absences up front (Sadio Mane) and in midfield (Adam Lallana and Jordan Henderson), he now has a defensive injury crisis to contend with.
“There are a few things from the last game,” Klopp said in his pre-match press conference. “Muscle problems for Joel Matip, a little bit with Lucas Leiva and still a problem with Ragnar Klavan. It was a very small ligament problem for Klavan, really small but it might not be enough time for Palace. It will be interesting.” Yes it will, Jurgen.
For if Klavan, Lucas and Matip are indeed injured, it will be Joe Gomez who is picked alongside Dejan Lovren. Gomez impressed at the start of last season before suffering serious injury, but is yet to start a league game under Jurgen Klopp. His last Premier League game came at Old Trafford, when Christian Benteke scored Liverpool’s only goal.
Now Gomez will be asked to contain Benteke as Crystal Palace look to continue their fine run under Sam Allardyce. It is hyperbolic to suggest that Liverpool’s top four place depends on the result of that battle, but nor too can Liverpool afford to drop points. Good luck, kiddo.
Football League game to watch – Lincoln City vs Macclesfield Town
Technically incorrect, given that this is a National League game, but there is no Football League match live on UK television on either Saturday or Sunday. Norwich play Brighton on Friday night and Newcastle host Preston on Monday.
Instead, you can witness live the possible (and in fact probable) promotion of Lincoln City to the Football League. After a season in which manager Danny Cowley has gained national media attention for the club’s FA Cup run and been linked with Football League jobs, victory will mean Lincoln secure the title and only automatic promotion spot. In their way stand Macclesfield Town, whose chances of a play-off place have evaporated after three league defeats in four.
Lincoln deserve their promotion. After an extended FA Cup run left them playing catch-up in terms of fixtures, they were forced to complete six league fixtures in 18 days, ending on Monday evening. Cowley’s side won all six of those matches, conceding only twice.
16/1 for promotion at the start of the season, this has been a magnificent achievement from Cowley and his players. Lincoln will almost certainly return to the Football League for the first time since 2011. It has been worth the wait.
European game to watch – Real Madrid vs Barcelona
Or The One That Could End Barcelona’s Season, as it will be billed in Madrid. Should Real Madrid win El Clasico on Sunday evening, you can start attaching white ribbons to the La Liga trophy and tell Cristiano Ronaldo to take off his shirt and start applying the oil for the photos. Victory would take Real six points clear with a game in hand and a better head-to-head record.
If Barcelona are going to wrestle back a modicum of control in the title race, they will need to improve their away record. Since the beginning of October, Barca have played 21 away matches in all competitions, and have won fewer than half of those. Defeats have come at Celta Vigo, Deportivo and Malaga in La Liga, Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey and Manchester City, PSG and Juventus in the Champions League. There remains an aura around Barcelona’s for at the Camp Nou, but on the road they regularly displayed a soft belly that Real Madrid will be only too happy to pierce.
That said, Barcelona have enjoyed plenty of success at the Bernabeu in recent years. Since a 4-1 defeat in May 2008, a fixture in which Raul and Ruud van Nistelrooy were among Real’s goalscorers, Barca have won seven and lost only three of their 13 matches against Real Madrid in this stadium. That includes the 4-0 rout in November 2015, the last El Clasico in the Bernabeu.
If you can ignore the likelihood of extreme histrionics, this should be an exceptional match. Zinedine Zidane would surely be content with the draw that continues to leave Real Madrid in the driving seat, but Barcelona have been at their most flimsy when teams have tried to attack them rather that sitting behind the ball. Real have also kept one clean sheet in their last 13 matches, hardly evidence for playing for a point.
Where is Mike Dean this week?
I don’t really know how to break this news in any other way but giving it you straight, but Mike Dean has been disrespected. Not only has he not been given one of the FA Cup semi-finals – “Who the f**k is Craig Pawson anyway?” – but Dean has not even got a Premier League game.
Instead he is fourth official for Bournemouth vs Middlesbrough, the refereeing equivalent of being sent to Coventry. As well as engineering tension between the two dugouts in order to create controversy and planting jewellry on unsuspecting substitutes just to feel the buzz of telling them off, Dean will be composing limericks about his new nemesis.
“When I heard about Wembley and Pawson,
My language did immediately coarsen.
It should be Mike Dean there,
With his wit, charm and flair.
And his body in perfect proportion.”
Ten live matches to watch (because there’s just a stupid amount of good games on)
Lincoln City vs Macclesfield Town (Saturday, 12.15pm, BT Sport 1)
Chelsea vs Tottenham Hotspur (Saturday, 5.30pm, BBC One)
Sporting CP vs Benfica (Saturday, 8.30pm, BT Sport ESPN)
Celtic vs Rangers (Sunday, 12.00pm, Sky Sports 2)
Burnley vs Manchester United (Sunday, 2.15pm, Sky Sports 1)
Arsenal vs Manchester City (Sunday, 3.00pm, BT Sport 1)
PSV vs Ajax (Sunday 3.45pm, Sky Sports Mix)
Liverpool vs Crystal Palace (Sunday, 4.30pm, Sky Sports 1)
Real Madrid vs Barcelona (Sunday, 7.45pm, Sky Sports 1)
Lyon vs Monaco (Sunday, 8.15pm, BT Sport 1)