Big Weekend: Liverpool v Chelsea, Ozil, Man Utd

Date published: Friday 24th November 2017 7:57

Game to watch – Liverpool v Chelsea
One team embarked on a gruelling 5,000-mile journey on Wednesday, while the other enjoyed the rather shorter trip to sunny Seville on Tuesday. One team cruised to a comfortable 4-0 victory in which they could afford to rest a number of players, while the other contrived to squander a three-goal half-time lead with an almost full-strength starting line-up. One side has won their last three Premier League games, while the other has won their last four.

For both Liverpool and Chelsea, the preparation has not been ideal. The latter thrashed Qarabag in Azerbaijan but have fewer than 72 hours to recover and compose themselves for a far grander occasion on Saturday evening. The former are blessed with more time, but the nature of their collapse in Sevilla will dent confidence, both collective and individual.

As the Premier League table begins to take shape after 12 games, both sides find themselves in the rabble of contenders tripping over themselves to try and keep the pace of Manchester City. Chelsea are nine points behind the leaders and Liverpool a further three, and so even the slightest slip is magnified.

It is a game neither side can particularly afford to lose, and yet neither are proficient at playing for a draw. Chelsea have drawn just two of their last 36 games, and each instance was more due to their own inefficiencies than any game plan coming to fruition. They were the weaker side against Arsenal in their September stalemate, while they held on to a draw against Roma last month.

For Liverpool, their crown as champions of the top-six mini-league is slipping, if it hasn’t already crashed to the floor and been stamped on by their contemporaries. They gained 20 points from ten games against Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham last season, not losing a single one. But they have won only one of their last five meetings with any of those opponents, and have suffered heavy losses against both City and Tottenham in that time.

Jurgen Klopp’s side can take solace in the fact that Chelsea have not beaten them since January 2015, that Klopp has never lost to Antonio Conte as a manager, and that Anfield has witnessed only one away victory since late January. But the magnitude of this game means that windows can be kept ajar for form books to be carelessly discarded.

In the red corner is a competitor with an attack as brilliant as its defence is porous. In the blue corner is a challenger with a wonderful forward pair and a defence that has kept four clean sheets in their last five games. But that outlier, the 3-0 defeat to Roma, is sure to stick in the back of the mind. After all, the £34.3million winger the Italian side sold in the summer is in unstoppable form for his new employers.

 

Player to watch – Mesut Ozil
What a difference seven months and a positive run of form makes. In April of this year, the Daily Mail reported that Mesut Ozil was set for an ’embarrassing climbdown’ over his Arsenal contract negotiations, as no potential suitor wanted to sign him. By November, and with a dominant north London derby performance to his name, £330,000-a-week demands are being made of Barcelona.

The German himself will know only too well after four years in England that there can never be a middle ground. That a player has to be either brilliant or rubbish, that a signing has to be either a bargain or a waste of money. And for Ozil, his displays must be either definitive proof of why he is one of the best players in the Premier League, or definitive proof of why he is not.

It is a battle he often cannot win, but also one he knows better than to engage in. Yet the critics can be thoroughly silenced if his display against Tottenham can be repeated against a rather different opponent. Sure, he can do it on a breezy Saturday at the Emirates Stadium, but can he cope on a windy Sunday at Turf Moor?

Different clubs have brought different tools to try and breach Burnley’s defences. Cesc Fabregas could not pick the lock for Chelsea, nor could Harry Kane or Dele Alli for Tottenham. Liverpool’s triple threat of Mohamed Salah, Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino was thwarted, while the brute forces of Swansea, Newcastle, Southampton and Everton was swatted aside. Manchester City are the only club to score more than two goals against Burnley in their last 19 games.

Arsenal are next to step up to the plate, and Ozil will be expected to deliver. Which narrative will take centre stage this week?

 

Team to watch – Manchester United
Jose Mourinho and Roy Keane were eager to dismiss Manchester United’s midweek defeat to Basel as a one-off, a misnomer. The club are almost assured of Champions League progression, and so this was little more than a dead rubber. Seven changes to the starting line-up in Switzerland confirmed as much.

But if any club has learned the lesson of how important momentum can be this season, it is United. They struggled to regain theirs after October’s stalemate with Liverpool, and their Premier League title challenge suffered as a result. They scored seven goals in their next six games, losing to Huddersfield and Chelsea as City swatted aside any and every team presented to them.

It has left an eight-point gap that United can close, but only if they avoid any further missteps while near-perfect City march on. They have three league fixtures left before they host Pep Guardiola’s side in December, and while Brighton and Watford have enjoyed strong starts, there can be no excuses if the outcome is anything other than six points. Then comes a meeting with Arsenal, but the laborious recollections of voyeurs, non-handshakes and technical area shoves can wait.

There is no doubting Brighton’s merit, but their points this season have come against teams currently placed 8th or lower, and the only top-half opponent they have not lost to was Watford, where they drew 0-0 in August. City and Arsenal powered past them, and so United must do so too. Luke Shaw will presumably enjoy it from the bench.

 

Manager to watch – Mauricio Pellegrino
Thursday represented the one-month anniversary of Everton’s inability to replace the sacked Ronald Koeman. The Toffees have since been exposed as having absolutely no viable back-up plan, flittering from Sam Allardyce to Marco Silva to Ralf Rangnick with each route, aside from the path into the unknown marked ‘David Unsworth’, being blocked off.

Unsworth will continue to march his troops into battle on Sunday, where they will be greeted a side with mounting problems themselves. Southampton are just one point above Everton, and look like a unit with alarmingly few answers to a growing amount of questions.

Mauricio Pellegrino spoke of the need to “react” and “show our best face” after Liverpool eased past them last weekend, but the positive signs have been so rare under the new manager that the light at the end of the tunnel is little more than a dot. No side has scored fewer goals from open play (4), and yet they are having as many shots per game (13.5) as Chelsea. They have more possession per game (55.8%) than 15 sides, including Manchester United.

Which makes their current malaise worrying. There is little discernible improvement that Pellegrino can coach aside from the obvious and yet most difficult: scoring and not conceding. Perhaps hosting a similarly troubled club can coax a reaction, but the pressure will be amplified if Everton can make it seven defeats from 12 on Sunday.

 

One-on-one battle to watch – Aaron Mooy v Kevin de Bruyne
“We are now seeing how our growing network of clubs can translate both into commercial opportunities for the group and development opportunities for players,” read a statement from Manchester City earlier this year. “As an example, we saw young Australian Aaron Mooy, formerly a Melbourne City player, join Huddersfield Town.”

As a player with 142 career first-team appearances by the age of 25, it is difficult to argue that Aaron Mooy’s “development opportunities” were not furthered by Manchester City. The midfielder did not play a single game for the club upon joining in June 2016, but the chance provided by his move to England and Pep Guardiola’s seal of approval was crucial. Huddersfield have been the beneficiaries ever since.

No player has been more prominent for the Terriers. He ranks joint-first in the club for goals, joint-first for assists, first for tackles, first for passes and first for touches. He has created more than twice as many chances as any teammate, and is the only Huddersfield player to have both scored and assisted in the Premier League.

But there was a reason that Mooy’s “development opportunities”, while helped by City, were never destined to involve the Etihad Stadium itself. Kevin de Bruyne is the sort of roadblock to midfield progression that cannot be bypassed. He might not have as good a delivery as Kieran Trippier, but the Belgian’s brilliance makes him City’s omnipotent midfielder, just as Mooy is for Huddersfield.

 

Football League game to watch – Mansfield v Chesterfield
It’s a local derby, and a Saturday lunchtime kick-off means that Mansfield town centre will be crawling with drunkards and ne’er-do-wells from the early hours onwards. No change there then.

But if your fancy is not tickled by League Two football, look one rung further up the ladder. Shrewsbury (1st) host Bradford (5th), while Charlton (4th) travel to Scunthorpe (3rd). Sexy.

 

European game to watch – Valencia v Barcelona
After employing three full-time managers in 2016, Cesare Prandelli seeing out a calendar year that started with Gary Neville at the helm, Valencia have had just one in 2017. The stabilising effect that current assistant manager Salvador González had as caretaker manager should not be overlooked, but he laid the foundations that Marcelino has built upon.

A goalless Madrid derby was painted as a victory for Barcelona, but Valencia would have had cause for celebration too. They remain unbeaten in La Liga, and are now closer in terms of points to leaders Barcelona than they are to third-placed Real Madrid.

The litmus test will be on Sunday evening, when they welcome Barca and former manager Ernesto Valverde to the Mestalla. Let’s see what you’re made of, fellas.

 

Writer to watch – Matt Stead


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