Game to watch – Liverpool vs Newcastle
Manchester City vs Chelsea is certainly the game between the two teams highest in the league, but there is actually a futility to City’s league games now. At the start of the season, this was viewed the period around Champions League fixtures and tricky league games that would define the title race. City’s dominance has rendered them virtually meaningless.
Instead it’s Liverpool vs Newcastle, a game that will have an impact in the battle for Champions League football and to survive in the Premier League. Broadcasters are contractually obliged to select this game for live coverage after the two 4-3s over 20 years ago. Nobody wants to miss the hat-trick, no matter how unlikely it is.
This also promises to be an intriguing game on its own merit. Liverpool’s attack is somehow speeding up the goalscoring pace rather than slowing down, but Jurgen Klopp faces the master defensive coach in Rafa Benitez. Newcastle’s record away from home has been far better than their home record, at least according to reasonable expectation. They rank tenth in the Premier League for their away points total, Benitez happier when setting up a team without the expectation to play on the front foot.
Newcastle have a squad littered with Championship-level players, but it’s pretty clear that central defence is their strong point. I’ll stop banging on about Jamaal Lascelles when he finally gets into the England squad, while Florian Lejeune is an excellent defender who has struggled with injuries this season. Newcastle have conceded ten goals in eight games with those two starting, and they were immense in the home win over Manchester United.
Still, Benitez will need them to be. Liverpool’s front three have an ability to score in bunches and make better defences than Newcastle look foolish. Concentration will be key. Teams tend to start defending well against Liverpool, who have only scored five goals in the first 15 minutes of matches this season (the same number as Southampton). It’s then as if teams then get complacent after the early onslaught, push out a little and get caught on the counter. Liverpool have scored 15 goals between the 16th and 30th minutes. That’s five more goals than any other team in the league.
Back at Anfield, Benitez has a personal motivation to over-perform with his Newcastle team. Liverpool supporters will always be grateful for what Rafa helped them achieve, but they have a new hero in Klopp. Becoming the third manager to stop Liverpool scoring at home since May 2017 would be a wonderful reminder of his aptitude. On a weekend when other relegation rivals play each other, it would be timely for Newcastle too.
Player to watch – Alvaro Morata
Boy does Morata need a good news story. Given the continuous discussion over Romelu Lukaku’s big-game performance, it’s worth pointing out that scoring against weaker teams (if that is indeed an accurate criticism) is better than not scoring at all. Since scoring the winner against Manchester United in early November, Morata has scored three times in 20 matches for Chelsea in all competitions, against West Brom, Bournemouth and Brighton. It is a pitiful return.
Just as worrying is Morata’s demeanour. Absent are the battling qualities that we would expect from a player fighting for form. Morata is too often seen throwing his arms in the air, bemoaning either a missed chance or a refereeing decision failing to go in his favour. He has been booked twice for dissent in the last few weeks, to the frustration of Antonio Conte.
The suspicion within Chelsea – as detailed by the Daily Telegraph’s Matt Law this week – is that Morata is weaker (both physically and mentally) than the club had expected. The regularity of his missed chances has diminished his confidence, but it is the physical limitations that are most concerning. Morata had never previously played 1,500 minutes in a league season before arriving in England. That was interpreted as a positive, particularly in comparison with Lukaku’s historic workload. Yet the flipside is that Morata still looks rusty and raw. He is a 20-year-old striker in the body of a 24-year-old.
The question for this weekend is whether Morata even starts. Olivier Giroud’s hold-up play is at least on a par with Morata’s in this form, while Conte used Eden Hazard as a false nine against Barcelona, another team against whom Chelsea are likely to sit deep and have to sacrifice possession. Being a £50m-plus signing no longer guarantees you a starting place.
Arsenal have already bought a new expensive striker after being underwhelmed by the performances of last summer’s high-profile signing. Morata might have ten weeks to persuade Chelsea that they don’t need to do the same.
Manager to watch – Sam Allardyce
This week’s stories come as little surprise. Farhad Moshiri is reportedly already searching for Allardyce’s replacement. After the last two months, can you really blame him?
Allardyce may have seen this coming, of course. He pushed for a longer contract than Everton initially offered presumably because he thought he could be a success, but also as a form of insurance. The longer the contract, the bigger the pay-off when the club want to move you on. Allardyce can go back to his Spanish villa and drink wine in whichever volume of receptacle he wishes.
Given that Allardyce would be quids in and Everton would get a manager they actually wanted, it’s tempting to sell this as a situation in which everybody wins. Yet Allardyce cannot truly be happy with his lot. This is probably the biggest club job of his career and gave him the chance to add a final flourish to a CV that contained plenty of pub grub but little restaurant-quality food.
There’s nothing wrong with pub grub, but it was Allardyce who complained about the lack of chances at bigger clubs. He has so far wasted that chance by making Everton look like a Sam Allardyce team, namely one that won’t go down but won’t entertain either. He must know that Everton aim for broader horizons.
Having got Everton far clear of relegation trouble, Allardyce missed the chance to kick on. The next ten games could be his last as a top-half Premier League manager. This is his time to show the doubters that they were wrong. Right now, the only words Allardyce is disproving are his own.
Team to watch – Arsenal
Say it quietly, but finally noises from within Arsenal that action might be coming. Stories were leaked to at least two newspapers this week that the club were looking at a list of replacements for Arsene Wenger. When those with inside sources like John Cross say their hunch is that Wenger will leave in June, it’s worth considering that the winds of change are starting to blow.
Of course, cynicism will still reign amongst many Arsenal supporters. They consider such timely leaks as a strategy to push through season ticket and membership renewals. A list of leaked transfer targets usually does the trick, but at a time of crisis they have gone for the manager list instead. Will all the talk of Leonardo Jardim be forgotten by May?
Whatever the validity of the new rumours, Wenger must address Arsenal’s away form if he is to justify his continuation as Arsenal manager. Their home form was pretty solid until being dismantled by Manchester City, but you do not prove your mental strength amidst home comforts. Arsenal’s last 14 matches away from the Emirates:
Manchester City – 1-3 – Lost
FC Koln – 0-1 – Lost
Burnley – 1-0 – Won
Southampton – 1-1 – Drew
West Ham – 0-0 – Drew
Crystal Palace – 3-2 – Won
West Brom – 1-1 – Drew
Nottingham Forest – 2-4 – Lost
Chelsea – 0-0 – Drew
Bournemouth – 1-2 – Lost
Swansea – 1-3 – Lost
Tottenham – 0-1 – Lost
Ostersunds – 3-0 – Won
Manchester City – 0-3 – Lost
Sunday takes Arsenal to Brighton, a team whose home form gives them plenty of reason to believe that they can upset their high-profile opponents. Chris Hughton’s team have lost three home games in all competitions all season, to Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City. This home form is the backbone of their survival bid.
Only a win will do for Arsenal. The League Cup has gone. The FA Cup has gone. A top-four place has gone. The Europa League looks unlikely, given the standard of teams left in the competition. If pride is all that Wenger has to play for, no manager needs it more than him. This is about saving a legacy.
One-on-one battle to watch – Kevin de Bruyne vs N’Golo Kante
The one Premier League player Pep Guardiola might want more than any other meets the one player Chelsea must wish they had never let go. The best attacking midfielder in the Premier League meets the best defensive midfielder. The Premier League’s best creator meets the best destroyer, and yet both can do so much more than that.
Football League game to watch – Blackburn Rovers v Wigan Athletic
I’ve made my feelings clear on the lack of televised League One and League Two football before, but there is actually a boom coming. With Blackburn, Wigan, Portsmouth, Doncaster and Bradford, five teams with decent fanbases, there is genuine interest for Sky. Between March 4 and April 2, six League One games will be televised, each including at least one of those five aforementioned clubs.
The first is on Sunday, between two of the top three in the division. Blackburn are on a superb run of form, now four points ahead of Shrewsbury (who have one game in hand) and six ahead of Wigan. The Latics’ FA Cup exploits mean they have four games in hand on the leaders. Avoid defeat on Sunday and they will hold the advantage in the title race. If you can put up with the incessant reference to Will Grigg from the commentators, it will be worth the watch.
European game to watch – Porto v Sporting CP
Consider this section as a public service. Not many people have cottoned on to the existence of Freesports, a channel available on Sky Sports but also, and more importantly, Freeview (channel 95). Yes, there is actual live football available for free if you scout around.
In truth, some of the quality is a little testing. Freesports has effectively picked up the contracts that nobody else wanted, including the Portuguese Primeira Liga, Belgian Jupiler League, La Liga 2 and international Under-19 football. Still, when it’s free football to watch on TV, who the hell needs standards?
This Friday, Freesports viewers actually have a treat. The channel is broadcasting Porto vs Sporting, first against third in Portugal. Porto are back on top after a barren couple of years, but are only five points ahead of Sporting in third with Benfica sandwiched in the middle.
With Middlesbrough vs Leeds United likely to be postponed because of the snow, this might be a godsend for those of us intending to stay wrapped up for three days solid and absorb as much football as possible. So watch it, drink it in…
Writer to watch – Daniel Storey
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