Big weekend: The bumper New Year watcher

Date published: Saturday 31st December 2016 5:55

Because of the scheduling, there is one Big Weekend for both sets of fixtures. Don’t blame us, blame The Man…

 

Game to watch – Liverpool vs Manchester City
One of the games of the domestic season, crowbarred into the schedule for broadcasting reasons. It’s ludicrous that away supporters are asked to attend a game that will finish at 7.30pm on New Year’s Eve. Sometimes football deserves all the criticism it gets.

Still, it’s not going to dampen our spirits. As long as you can persuade your loved ones that you’ll be available for shenanigans after the final whistle, we have the prospect of the two most potent attacks in the Premier League facing off at Anfield. Doesn’t it just make you think of 2013/14?

What’s more, this really matters. Both Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola have inspired a run of three straight victories after setback, despite missing key attacking players in Philippe Coutinho and Sergio Aguero, and both teams have conceded just one goal in that mini-run. Yet both managers realise that defeat at Anfield could have a long-lasting debilitating effect for their title challenges, especially with Chelsea in top gear. There is a pack waiting to draw both clubs back into a race just to make the top four.

If that makes you worry that a dull draw is the natural result, think on. Monaco are the only team in Europe’s top five leagues to have scored more times than Liverpool, while Manchester City are the top away scorers in the division. When you then consider that nine teams have kept more clean sheets than City, that only West Ham have made more individual errors leading to goals than Liverpool and that John Stones, Vincent Kompany and Joel Matip could all be missing through injury, you see the potential for entertainment.

There are bookmakers offering odds as low as 6/1 that there will be six or more goals. By way of comparison, Southampton vs West Brom has a price of 25/1 on that same eventuality.

 

Player to watch – Raheem Sterling
Man of the match against Hull, and sure signs that Sterling’s return to form under Pep Guardiola is a permanent fixture. Only Sergio Aguero has more league goals for Manchester City this season, and only David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne have more assists.

One of the most interesting aspects of Sterling’s play this season is how Guardiola has clearly instructed him to get closer to goal. We may consider Sterling a winger but, actually, that only describes part of his play. One of the stand-out statistics of the season is that only Zlatan Ibrahimovic (135) has had more touches of the ball in the opposition penalty area than Sterling (134) this season. Ibrahimovic’s one extra touch has come in 227 extra minutes.

Not only does that show that Sterling is dribbling towards goal rather than down the touchline, but also demonstrates Guardiola’s faith in the 22-year-old’s ability. No longer is he a passenger or occasional contributor, but one of City’s most potent attacking weapons. You’re sick of hearing how happy that makes us.

 

Team to watch – Manchester United
Shoots of recovery, if not yet a team at the full extent of its powers. The defence looks resolute, Michael Carrick a fixture in central midfield and Paul Pogba, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Zlatan Ibrahimovic have developed the kind of mutual understanding that is almost inevitable when excellent footballers train and play together.

Jose Mourinho’s team now have four winnable matches in three competitions before the home league fixture against Liverpool that could shape the rest of the season. Middlesbrough come to Old Trafford on New Year’s Eve before the trip to West Ham, and then it’s Reading and Hull in the domestic cup competitions. No room for error, of course, but two chances to continue a run not just of good form but invention and creativity in the final third.

 

Manager to watch – Claudio Ranieri
It was with some sadness that I predicted Ranieri’s eventual demise in my 2017 predictions. Nobody wants to see a friendly grandpa down on his luck, but there’s no obvious way Ranieri and Leicester end up walking into the sunset together. The problem with hitting the very top is that the only way is down, and that’s the excuse I’m sticking to for my tepid love-making.

Anyway, if Ranieri wants to walk with his head held high next summer then he needs to arrest Leicester’s current slump. They’ve conceded two or more goals in seven of their last eight games, and last won away from home in the league on April 10. They really could go down.

Having dropped Riyad Mahrez for an accused lack of effort in training, does Ranieri recall his winger after losing at home to Everton? Is Islam Slimani dropped after looking equally disinterested recently? And can he really continue to play Marcin Wasilewski in the Premier League?

 

One-on-one battle to watch – Sam Allardyce vs Arsene Wenger
I know we usually choose two players, but there are 20 games and I can’t narrow it down. Instead, we should be looking forward to Allardyce and Wenger revisited, and live on TV for your enjoyment.

Having spent years accusing the Arsenal manager of putting pressure on referees and being snooty about his own brand of football, Allardyce tried to bury the hatchet in December 2015 and did the same when he was appointed England manager: “I’ve never thought anything other than, from a professional level, Arsene Wenger is a top manager. I think it was just wind-up stuff that we all get up to. It was a part of my life at that particular time, because I was growing as a manager.”

That’s all very well, but just wait until Joel Ward goes through the back of Mesut Ozil or Scott Dann kicks Alexis Sanchez up the arse. Just wait until Wenger is whining to the fourth official and Big Sam rolls into town. Then we’ll see just what that olive branch means.

 

Football League game to watch – Brentford v Norwich City
On the second day of 2016, Norwich City beat Southampton at Carrow Road to move up to 14th in the Premier League. After a difficult start to the season, Alex Neil’s side had won three league games out of four over the festive period, including victory at Old Trafford. Norwich were three points ahead of Chelsea.

Quite a lot has changed since. While Chelsea are top of the Premier League, Norwich have endured a pitiful year. Between that Southampton win and the end of the season, Neil’s team won just three games in all competitions and were relegated to the Championship. Rather than rebounding after keeping their manager in place, Norwich are 12th in the second tier.

It’s difficult to believe that Neil is still in a job. Norwich have lost eight of their last ten league games to slip from second to 12th, and are now closer to the relegation zone than the automatic promotion spots. Lose at Brentford live on television, and that will surely be that for another highly rated British manager.

 

European game to watch – Rangers vs Celtic
Heard of it, have you? There might not be much (okay, literally none) top-flight European football as 2016 clips into 2017, but a New Year’s Eve Old Firm derby deserves to be noticed as the game of this or any other week.

Let’s not pretend that the result will have any bearing on a title race that Celtic have wrapped up and already placed under the tree for next Christmas, but, for one day, that doesn’t matter. Rangers’ return to the SPL might not have produced the challenge Celtic needed, but victory over the old foe in the first league derby at Ibrox since March 2012 would do plenty to lift the mood.

The bad news is that Celtic have forwards including Patrick Roberts, Moussa Dembele, Scott Sinclair and Leigh Griffiths to choose from. Rangers have Kenny Miller, Martyn Waghorn and Joe Garner. God I miss Scottish football being good.

 

Where is Mike Dean this week?
Fresh from giving a penalty and a red card in the Southampton vs Tottenham game (don’t hate the player, hate the game, or more specifically the laws that govern the game), Dean is given New Year’s Eve off as the fourth official for Burnley vs Sunderland. You can have too much of a flamboyant thing.

Still, the second day of 2017 brings us the first sight of Dean live on television as he takes charge of West Ham vs Manchester United. Red card, penalty, shoulder shrug, no-look yellow card or a heady blend of all four? We’ll all just have to wait and see.

 

Ten live matches to watch (because socialising with ‘friends’ is overrated)
Hull City vs Everton (Friday 30, 8.00pm, Sky Sports 1)
Rangers vs Celtic (New Year’s Eve, 12.15pm, Sky Sports 1)
Liverpool vs Manchester City (New Year’s Eve, 5.30pm, BT Sport 1)
Wellington Phoenix v Adelaide United – Should be a big audience for this one (New Year’s Day, 6.35am, BT Sport 1)
Watford vs Tottenham (New Year’s Day, 1.30pm, Sky Sports 1)
Arsenal vs Crystal Palace (New Year’s Day, 4.00pm, Sky Sports 1)
Maidstone United vs Dover Athletic – Because your New Year’s resolution is to watch more football (New Year’s Day, 6.30pm, BT Sport 1)
Middlesbrough vs Leicester City (Monday 2, 12.30pm, Sky Sports 1)
West Ham vs Manchester United (Monday 2, 5.15pm, Sky Sports 1)
Bournemouth vs Arsenal (Tuesday 3, 7.45pm, Sky Sports 1)

Daniel Storey

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