Sam Allardyce and Sunderland
Sunderland always leave it late. Last season they had 29 points from 32 games, and they survived. In 2013/14 they had 25 points from 32 games, and they survived. This season they sit bang in the middle, with 27 points at the same stage. All hope is not lost.
Yet if a magical survival run is just around the corner, it doesn’t feel like it. Sam Allardyce knows that if his team lose to Norwich on Saturday then they will be seven points inside the bottom three with only five games remaining, including visits from Arsenal and Chelsea.
Sunderland’s form is dreadful. They have taken nine points from their last 11 league games, scoring ten goals in the process. That run of games includes matches against Bournemouth, Crystal Palace, West Brom (all at home) and Newcastle. They really should have blown their chance by now.
But they haven’t, and Allardyce will be preaching positivity into his Sunderland squad. Win at Carrow Road and players and fans will once again believe that an improbable escapology act is underway.
A chance to effectively secure Premier League survival for only the fourth time. Three points on Saturday and Delia will put on her dancing shoes.
Despite the mood of glum acceptance across Tyneside, Newcastle still have a fighting chance. It’s the fight that’s missing.
Beat Swansea at St James’ Park on Saturday, and Newcastle could be three points from safety. Then again, they could be nine points inside the bottom three, with all hope lost. That second scenario feels a lot more likely.
Right, forget for a second the silly things Martinez says, forget touting Tom Cleverley and Gareth Barry as shining lights of the English game, and forgetting talking up Everton as a club that can win titles. Let’s just focus on the league form.
Everton have taken two points from their last five league matches, scoring once in their last four games. Their recent home record is dire, taking five points from the last 27 available over four-and-a-half months. Martinez’s side have kept two home league clean sheets since April 2015, against the current bottom two.
On Saturday, Everton face Southampton. Ronald Koeman is everything that Martinez should be. As Sarah Winterburn wrote this week, Koeman doesn’t just accept that Southampton are a selling club, he embraces it and thrives on the opportunity that provides. While Martinez puts his fingers in his ears and closes his eyes, Koeman walks into the reality with his senses open.
Since Koeman was appointed at St Mary’s, Southampton have made a profit of over £20m on transfers, and sit seven points off the top four. Everton have made a loss of over £60m, and sit ten points behind Saturday’s opponents. That shouldn’t just be embarrassing for Martinez, it should probably be attached as a note to his P45 this summer.
West Brom and Watford supporters
West Brom lost their last home game to Norwich and have scored once in their last three games. Watford have not won in six games, and have scored twice in the process. The team in 14th hosts the team in 15th and both are safe.
Aston Villa are the only team in the country to score fewer goals than the two teams who meet at the Hawthorns on Saturday. It might just be the worst Premier League game of the season. Now go and prove me wrong.
There is no doubt that Thursday’s win over Dortmund was one of Anfield’s greatest nights. Yet unless they win the Europa League, Jurgen Klopp will know that Liverpool’s league form still very much matters if they are to ensure European football at Anfield next season. If Manchester United do not win the FA Cup, it is likely that only sixth place will be enough for Europa League qualification. If they do, seventh will do it.
Klopp’s side are currently four points behind West Ham in sixth with a game in hand. With four home games still to come their 2015/16 schedule is still in their own hands, but those four games include a Merseyside derby and the visit of Chelsea. Defeat to Bournemouth this weekend, so soon after an emotional and tiring night against Dortmund, and the pressure will truly be on. This can’t become a case of after the Lord Mayor’s show.
It also raises the possibility of Liverpool supporters who want European nights at Anfield having to support United in the FA Cup final, which should make them itch.
And Manuel Pellegrini has exactly the same issue and, unlike Liverpool, City are not favourites to win the tournament that would allow them backdoor entry to the Champions League. Finishing in the top four is absolutely paramount. With United facing Villa and City hosting Chelsea, that gap could be a lot tighter come Saturday evening.
This really is it. Beat West Ham on Sunday lunchtime (before Tottenham and Arsenal play) and Leicester will be ten and 16 points ahead of them respectively with only 15 and 18 points left to play for. With a comparatively gentle fixture at home to Swansea next weekend, the title is appearing into view.
There have been remarkably few signs of Leicester nerves in recent weeks, but each performance is getting less and less convincing. West Ham supporters may not want Tottenham to win the title, but Slaven Bilic will demand a reaction to midweek FA Cup exit. Is this the weekend when Leicester finally show a weakness?
Robert Huth and Wes Morgan
As part of Troy Deeney’s excellent insight into Leicester’s defence, he made the point about how hard it was to move either Morgan or Huth from their positions.
“Part of my job leading the line for Watford is to occupy centre-halves – by that I mean those battles with Huth, say, to try to win headers when the ball is played forward,” Deeney said. “But I also look to bring centre-halves out of position to the flanks and make space for my team-mates in the middle.
“It is difficult to do that against Leicester because their centre-halves, Huth and Wes Morgan, never put themselves in danger of being isolated. When Watford had the ball in wide areas they kind of left us to it, and concentrated on dealing with the cross rather than stopping it being put in. Huth and Morgan take two positions – one takes the near post and the other takes the middle of the box near the penalty spot as if to say ‘go on, cross it, and we will deal with it’.”
That’s all very well, but this weekend Morgan and Huth face a striker who might be happier to see the crosses coming in than Leicester’s defenders. Will Claudio Ranieri be as comfortable allowing West Ham’s wingers to ‘get on with it’ when they have Andy Carroll to aim for?
The title may have gone (Arsenal are 33/1 to effect a remarkable redemption), but Arsenal should beware taking their foot off the gas with another season drawing limply to a close. Manchester United play their Aston Villa tap-in card on Saturday, meaning the gap to fifth could feasibly be as little as three points by the time Arsenal play on Sunday. Victory over Palace is needed to make those horrible doubts disappear.
With Karim Benzema ruled out of Euro 2016 by France, there is suddenly a starting spot up for grabs in Didier Deschamps’ starting line-up on home soil. Three months ago Giroud would have been nailed on for that spot, but he’s not scored a league goal since January 13 and can’t even get into Arsenal’s team. Like Theo Walcott for England, Giroud must seize every opportunity that comes his way.