Game to watch – Crystal Palace v Manchester United
Amidst all the fuss about Manchester United’s 1-1-flavoured home form, it’s been slightly lost that their three away wins have come against Swansea (18th), Hull (19th) and Bournemouth (12th), with the latter coming on the opening weekend of the season. It’s been almost that long since United have recorded back-to-back Premier League victories; if we are to believe that Jose Mourinho’s United have truly turned a corner, we need to see more than one 1-0 win at Old Trafford; we need a run of victories, we need a spanking, we need something that makes us all sit up and say ‘f***ing hell, they’re good’.
The intriguing thing is that, having finally realised that last season’s outstanding Bundesliga player might be slightly better than Jesse Lingard, Mourinho must now find a line-up without him. A return for Juan Mata seems inevitable but for once, that elicits groans rather than whoops from United fans who quite enjoyed some old-fashioned direct running from a seriously nifty player. Whoever plays for United, they really should be good enough to beat a Palace side who have won just one of their last nine Premier League games.
And then there’s the ridiculously in-form Wilfried Zaha, who will surely be encouraged to run full pelt at Matteo Darmian (or whoever fils in at left-back if the Italian is switched right in the absence of Antonio Valencia), while Christian Benteke will be keen to test the newly reliable Marcos Rojo in the air. Palace’s tactics are pretty simple – sit back and break quickly – so will United be able to avoid the slow, ponderous play we have seen too often over the last two/three years against packed defences?
Crystal Palace, West Brom, Sunderland, Middlesbrough, West Ham and Hull are United’s opposition before a January 15 clash with Liverpool. Six games from which the target should be at least 13 points if we’re to be convinced that they are capable of truly bothering the top four. It starts here.
Player to watch – Diego Costa
Frankly a bloody joy to watch right now in any week and he really could fill his Adidas F50 Adizero Leather boots against Papy Djilobodji at the Stadium of Light. If you can be destroyed by an ageing Fernando Llorente, imagine what kind of damage the still bizarrely youthful Costa could do.
“At this moment he is right up there among the best in the world. The statistics don’t lie,” says Gary Cahill, and we would take it further; Costa is the finest exponent of centre-forward play anywhere in Europe right now. No other player in the Premier League, Serie A, Bundesliga, La Liga or Ligue Un has recorded a combined goals/assists total of 17 in league games alone. We’d venture that few run more, chase down more or battle more either. In a system that suits him, alongside players that suit him, Costa is without parallel. Good luck Sunderland.
Team to watch – Liverpool
West Ham (when they were good), Arsenal, Manchester United – Liverpool’s opponents the last time they embarked on a three-game winless Premier League run.
That was back in January. To repeat that ‘feat’ in December against Bournemouth, West Ham (no longer good) and Middlesbrough would be pretty embarrassing for Liverpool, who are in the bizarre situation of being in a position they would have gladly taken in August (third and within six points of the leaders) but would have rejected just two weeks ago when they looked like genuine title contenders.
Middlesbrough provide exactly the wrong kind of opposition for Liverpool, managed as they are by the pragmatic sorcerer’s apprentice. Aitor Karanka will happily set up Boro to play for a 0-0 just as Jose Mourinho did at Old Trafford in October; and so he should. Can Liverpool do a better job of circumventing an organised defence than they managed on that dark (Red) Monday, when United did not give their creative players the space to operate?
“It’s over,” joked Jurgen Klopp on Monday when asked about the title race. Silly Jurgen. But allow that gap to grow to nine points and it looks more like a statement of fact than a quip. Having raised expectations this season, Liverpool are at risk of looking like failures by only competing for a top-four place.
Manager to watch – Ronald Koeman
Everton were unbelievably awful on Saturday and Ronald Koeman is understandably talking about a long-term project and needing investment to buy players who fit his style. Sorry but that does not wash when you are getting comprehensively beaten (ignore the misleading 3-2 scoreline) by a Watford side that is in almost constant flux, who are working under their sixth manager in three years. Walter Mazzarri is not the first to make Koeman look like the naked emperor this season, and he likely won’t be the last. Everton fans are predictably getting antsy.
You might think that the last thing Koeman needs is a visit from Arsenal, but the Dutchman engineered two home wins over the Gunners while Southampton manager and – this is astonishing – Everton have somehow managed to remain unbeaten at home in a stuttering season. Imagine what a win over title-chasing opposition could do to his standing at Goodison Park?
Anybody sane of mind would not advocate the sack for Koeman at this stage, but he does need a signature win to get fans onside and turn the heads of potential January signings. Step forward Arsenal and then Liverpool; emerge from those two home games with four points and the defeats at Watford and Burnley may be forgiven and forgotten.
One-on-one battle to watch – John Stones v Stefano Okaka
Well, we say John Stones but we could have a sweepstake on the defence Pep Guardiola will pick to face Watford and we would need ten or 11 gamblers to make it work. Having watched Okaka make mincemeat of Ashley Williams on Saturday, we’re looking forward to watching him against a City defence that isn’t coached in tackling. Or apparently heading.
Football League game to watch – Norwich City v Aston Villa
A Premier League fixture last season (it ended 2-0 to Norwich with goals from Jonny Howson and Dieumerci Mbokani), these are two clubs moving in opposite directions. In the last eight Championship games, Villa have won five while Norwich have only won once, with Steve Bruce girding his loins for a play-off challenge while Alex Neil wonders how long he can conceivably keep his job. It might be worth flicking between this and Everton and Arsenal and wondering how they were all in the same division just a few months ago.
European game to watch – PSG v Lille
If you’re wondering why anybody would watch a Coupe de la Ligue Round of 16 game when you could be watching Manchester United, keep in mind that this is a PSG side that has not won in three attempts. What they have done three times in the last three years is win the Coupe de la Ligue, so exit at the hands of mid-table Lille would pile even more pressure on poor Unai Emery.
Where is Mike Dean this week?
How can they make him only the fourth official at Everton v Arsenal after he was the main event at Chelsea v West Brom?
Mike Dean wanders off the Stamford Bridge pitch practising his golf swing and grinning at the TV gantry. Oozes star quality.
— Jonathan Wilson (@jonawils) December 11, 2016
Ten live matches to watch (thankfully there are exactly ten)
Chelsea U18 v Cardiff City U18 (Tuesday 7.05pm, Chelsea TV)
Norwich City v Aston Villa (Tuesday, 7.45pm, Sky Sports 1)
Everton v Arsenal (Tuesday, 7.45pm, BT Sport 1)
Sochaux v Marseille (Tuesday 8pm, BT Sport 2)
Wigan Athletic v Newcastle United (Wednesday 7.45pm, Sky Sports 1)
Crystal Palace v Man Utd (Wednesday 8pm, BT Sport 1)
PSG v Lille (Wednesday 8.05pm, BT Sport 3)
Man Utd U23 v Sparta Prague U23 (Thursday 7pm, MUTV)
Genoa v Fiorentina (Thursday 7pm, BT Sport 1)
Coventry City v Sheffield United (Thursday 7.45pm, Sky Sports 1)
Editor to watch – Sarah Winterburn