Game to watch – Chelsea v Manchester City
Those at the summit of their respective fields are always willing to widen their knowledge, to embrace new ways of thinking and methods different to theirs. Take Pep Guardiola for example: a man whose views are so entrenched, whose style is so unique, but whose mind is always open to alternative ideas.
“It’s a good lesson for me to see his teams and learn,” said the Spaniard of Antonio Conte in April. The pair deploy different systems and different approaches, but can appreciate the beauty of other journeys on the same route to success.
There is little wonder Guardiola is so respectful of Conte. They have met just twice as coaches throughout their careers, and the Blues boss has won on both occasions. Guardiola has faced 160 different managers since taking over at Barcelona in 2008; he has only failed to beat ten of them.
Ronald Koeman, Carlo Ancelotti, Brendan Rodgers and Steve Agnew are also included in that eclectic selection of managers never to have shaken Guardiola’s hand in defeat, but Conte is the biggest thorn in his side. He is the only manager to ever complete a league double over the Spaniard in one season.
Guardiola will be looking to right what he considers a wrong on Saturday. “We were much, much better than Chelsea, by far,” he said after that 2-1 defeat in April, in which City had more possession, more shots and more shots on target at Stamford Bridge, but again lacked the crucial killer instinct.
Five months later, and much has changed. City have motored to the top of the Premier League, are cruising in the Champions League and are in the next round of the EFL Cup. Their aggregate score in all competitions this season is 29-3, and they have not lost since the FA Cup semi-final in April.
In fact, they have lost just one Premier League game since January – their last visit to Stamford Bridge. Eden Hazard scored twice in that game, and has been in electric form since returning from injury.
Buoyed by one of the most accomplished away performances by an English side in recent Champions League history, Conte and his men will look to shut the three-point gap that has opened up at the top of the table. It will be an intriguing test of both of their credentials.
Player to watch – Marcus Rashford
Even in praising Anthony Martial, it felt as though Jose Mourinho was giving with one hand before snatching away with the other.
“The game adapted to his qualities, the way we play adapted to his qualities too,” Mourinho said after the crushing victory over CSKA Moscow. “He had a lot of freedom and lots of support and lots of quality around him.”
In truth, Martial could have played with ten cardboard cutouts of Jesse Lingard in Russia and still have emerged with the victory. The Frenchman was a tour de force, a whirlwind of dribbling, close control and trickery. One goal and two assists in 72 minutes is a difficult return to argue with.
The grey lining to the silver cloud was an apparent injury suffered in the second half. Martial limped off, and so the chances of Mourinho risking him by starting him on United’s return to Premier League action against Crystal Palace are slim.
Step forward Marcus Rashford – and while you’re at it, you had better step up too. The 19-year-old has been excellent so far this season, but Martial raised the bar even further in midweek. The bottom club and most porous Premier League side provide the perfect opponents for Rashford to try and clear it.
Martial has ensured that the he is the main subject of conversation around Old Trafford heading into this weekend. With the international break looming after the Palace game, the onus is on Rashford to join him.
Team to watch – Leicester
The bags are packed, the flight home has been overbooked, someone has misplaced their passport and that dodgy curry last night is starting to take effect. The honeymoon is not over for Leicester and Craig Shakespeare, but harsh realities are starting to set in.
Life started as well as it could have between this couple, Shakespeare becoming the first English manager to win each of his first five Premier League games, and guiding Leicester into the Champions League quarter-finals.
Since that phenomenal opening run, the Foxes have been rather less cunning. They have won just five times in 18 games since the end of April, and the faint sound of alarm bells can be heard approaching in the distance.
Failure to beat Bournemouth at Dean Court would turn that faint hum into a ringing in the ears. Three teams sit below Leicester in the Premier League table, and the Cherries are one of them. That their only victory so far came against Brighton, the sole team Shakespeare’s men have beaten in the league this season, is a damning indictment.
Of the last 16 permanent mid-season Premier League managerial appointments, only five are still in their posts. Tony Pulis, Jurgen Klopp and Rafael Benitez are all relatively comfortable after clearing up the messes left behind by their predecessors, while Paul Clement always felt like a long-term appointment for Swansea. His managerial résumé was limited; Shakespeare’s was non-existent.
Moving from assistant to manager is an extremely difficult task after the early feel-good factor has worn off. Shakespeare needs the players who lobbied for his appointment in the first place to ease some of the pressure.
Managers to watch – Slaven Bilic
On January 7, after consecutive defeats to Leicester and Manchester United, The Sun reported that Bilic had two games to save his job at West Ham. They won them both.
On April 7, after seven games without a league win, a run which included five consecutive defeats, the Daily Mirror reported that Bilic was ‘fighting to save his job ‘ at West Ham. They won their next game a day later.
On May 2, after Premier League survival had been secured but the club had won only one of their last 11 games, The Guardian reported that Bilic’s West Ham future would be ‘will be determined by how his team performs’ in their final two home games of the season. They beat Tottenham 1-0, but were thrashed 4-0 by Liverpool.
On August 28, two days after a 3-0 defeat to Newcastle, it was reported that Bilic had four games to save his job. The final fixture in that sequence, following a win, a defeat and a draw, comes against Swansea on Saturday.
At some stage, West Ham’s infamous owners will realise that the brief shot in the arm such public warnings garner are not worth it. Leaking to the media that a manager has to win the next game is like the drug that dodgy bloke on your street is trying to flog: the high is wonderful but ever so brief, and then the familiar dread of the comedown sets in.
But for now, Davids Gold and Sullivan believe that telling their media friends Bilic has one game to save his job is a viable long-term solution. The manager’s ninth life expired long ago, but it will at least be interesting to see what happens if Swansea get a result at the London Stadium.
One-on-one battle to watch – Rafael Benitez v Jurgen Klopp
Rarely does a pair of managers come so diametrically opposed to one another. Rafael Benitez is the cerebral tactician and defensive obsessive whose man-management skills are often said to be lacking. He will welcome Jurgen Klopp, the yin to his yang, leader first, coach second, and whose free-flowing football often has to take a back seat as defensive ineptitude takes the wheel.
Benitez is stoic; Klopp is running out of sleeves to wear his heart on. Perhaps the only two things unifying these men are their shared love of football, and Liverpool fans’ shared love of them. One came within inches of delivering the Premier League title; many fans still feel Klopp is the man to finally achieve that dream, despite the currently bumpy nature of this particular ride.
A minority of Liverpool fans think a little differently. A minority of Liverpool fans have seen enough moments of brainlessness from Dejan Lovren, Ragnar Klavan, Joe Gomez, Joel Matip, Andrew Robertson, Alberto Moreno, Trent Alexander-Arnold, every midfielder, apparently every forward, Simon Mignolet and Loris Karius. A minority of Liverpool fans recall 1-0 wins in the Bernabeu and yearn for the days of defensive organisation and security over scintillating attacks.
The best way for Klopp to silence those pining for Benitez to return is for Liverpool to dispatch Newcastle on Sunday. Just three clubs have conceded fewer league goals than the Magpies, who will have home backing behind them, and a clean sheet on the mind before anything else. Time for Liverpool to show the virtue of attack over defence.
Football League game to watch – Mansfield Town v Notts County
Notts County are top of League Two and Saturday’s hosts, pre-season title favourites Mansfield, are nine points behind in ninth. But this game will be about more than a fierce local rivalry.
“This was the very least that we could do for Matt,” said Notts County chairman Alan Hardy earlier this week. “We were all devastated to learn of Matt’s passing, it was incredibly sad.”
The two clubs will compete for the Matt Salmon Trophy at Field Mill in honour of the former physiotherapist, who died earlier this year after a long battle with lung cancer at the age of just 25. Salmon worked with both clubs and was an immensely popular figure, and members of his family have been invited to the game as special guests.
Hardy put it best: “We’re both East Midlands rivals at heart but ultimately we’re all football people within our region and in that sense we’re on the same side.”
European game to watch – Porto v Sporting Lisbon
North takes on south, first takes on second as two clubs who wish to make immediately clear their country of origin clash on Sunday. Porto have won each of their seven league games so far, and kicked off their Champions League campaign a round late with a fine away win over Monaco. Sporting have won six and drawn one in the league, and were narrowly beaten by Barcelona in midweek after winning their first group game in Europe.
These are the only two unbeaten clubs in Portugal, and it will be their 225th meeting. Don’t get me started on the first 224.
Writer to watch – Matt Stead