Big Midweek: Chelsea v City, Zlatan, Wenger, Spurs…

Date published: Tuesday 4th April 2017 10:50

Game to watch – Chelsea v Manchester City

“I didn’t sleep for six days because it was a shock for me to lose the title.”

Antonio Conte was reliving one of his worst experiences of a 16-year playing career. Having gone unbeaten for 22 games from October 1999 to March 2000, Juventus were expected to seal the first Serie A title of the new millennium at a canter.

“Lazio in the last six or seven games recovered seven points and we lost the title in the last game against Perugia. I was captain of the team,” Conte recalled in February of this year. It was less a charming story for the room of assembled journalists, and more a warning to his Chelsea players.

At that stage, the Blues boasted an 11-point lead at the Premier League’s summit. It will not be lost on Conte that Saturday’s defeat to Crystal Palace, coupled with Tottenham’s victory over Burnley, reduced that gap to the same seven points Lazio once overturned.

If the “shock” of ceding that advantage almost two decades ago caused six sleepness nights, the Italian can expect a summer of cold sweats and nightmares if Chelsea suffer an even worse title collapse under his management. Tottenham could conceivably close to within four points by 9.30pm on Wednesday evening. Conte must provoke an instant reaction and prove that the Palace defeat was a mere blip.

The narrative surrounding Manchester City’s season has been one of failure and disappointment, but Conte will know not to underestimate this beast in midweek. Pep Guardiola’s side suffered their first home defeat of the season to the Blues in December, and revenge is on the agenda.

Guardiola’s first season in the Premier League, much like Conte’s, has not been without its negatives. His tactics have been questioned, his transfer dealings scrutinised and his comments inspected by the fraud police. Yet City are five points clear in fourth, are certainly improving, and have a point to prove.

A meeting with Chelsea completes a difficult hat-trick of fixtures pierced by the international break. Draws with both Liverpool and Arsenal were not without regret, but it has helped City to an unbeaten run of eight Premier League matches – their best of the season.

But perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Guardiola’s nascent reign is City’s record in games against their direct rivals. In ten fixtures against the rest of the current top seven, they have won just twice – the same as both Bournemouth and Burnley.

It is a game neither side can afford to lose, rather than one both will seek to win. City were somewhat unfortunate to be beaten at the Etihad Stadium four months ago, but neither manager can rely on fortune this time. It could be that only one is sleeping easily by Wednesday evening.


Player to watch – Zlatan Ibrahimovic
“I don’t know. We’ve had matches here with Zlatan we drew. He missed a penalty in a game to win it 2-1 against Bournemouth. He missed chances too, so I can’t say if Zlatan and Juan Mata had played today, we would have won.”

True enough, Jose. But the last time Manchester United failed to score a single goal with Zlatan in the starting-line was February 1 against Hull; it has happened twice in the three games of the Swede’s recent ban, against Chelsea in the FA Cup and then against West Brom on Saturday.

Ibrahimovic absolutely does not guarantee goals but United attempted 18 shots in his absence and tested Ben Foster only three times. Anthony Martial did not hit the target at all, and he tried five frustrating times.

This season, Marcus Rashford has scored just three Premier League goals from 35 attempts, so Zlatan’s 15 from 109 looks dead-eye in comparison. If you want that in percentages, that’s 8.6% conversion rate v 13.8%. Welcome back, Zlatan. You have been missed.


Team to watch – Tottenham
Their form has been described as a ‘juggernaut’. We’re not sure that 23 points from ten games makes them a ‘huge, powerful, and overwhelming force’, but what it does do is make the last few weeks of the season a tad more interesting. They are now within seven points of Chelsea and a visit to Swansea on Wednesday could cut that gap further.

They faced Burnley on Saturday without their two first-choice full-backs, their most creative central midfielder and their top scorer, and still emerged victorious. There was little that was dynamic or devastating about the performance, but there was plenty to admire in Christian Eriksen’s delivery and the defending of their incredible centre-halves.

“I tell the players we must show we have learned from last season,” said Mauricio Pochettino after a forgettable but pleasingly professional performance. We asked last week when Tottenham would get The Fear, but they are looking pretty brave right now. There appears to be little in Swansea to shake their convictions, but Spurs have been Spurs for too long to make them anything other than eminently watchable.


Manager to watch – Arsene Wenger
Yes, we are bloody here again. It’s still the most fascinating managerial soap opera and no pressure was eased by a 2-2 draw with Manchester City that showcased the very worst of Wenger’s flimsy players and flimsier fans. So, just three days later, let us all gather again at the Emirates for more of the same.

Let’s have more fighting in the stands, a lack of fight on the pitch and a man in the dug-out who looks absolutely shattered. Unless Arsenal can just swat West Ham aside, and suddenly – with Manchester City at Chelsea – all the obituaries of the Gunners’ top-four ambitions may have to be saved to desktop once again.

All that desire, all that loyalty, all that focus…it all needs to contribute to the team talk of your life, old man.


One-on-one battle to watch – Riyad Mahrez v Bryan Oviedo
He fancies it. It’s as simple as that. And when Riyad Mahrez fancies it, pity the full-back. On Tuesday, the full-back will be Bryan Oviedo. Eric Pieters did not enjoy Saturday and we cannot imagine that Oviedo will relish Tuesday.

It all seems such a long time ago that the Costa Rican made his Sunderland debut in a 4-0 win over Crystal Palace; since then he has lost four games and drawn another 0-0. Oviedo himself has been predictably solid but predictably solid will not keep Sunderland in the Premier League.

“When I came to Sunderland I knew what the position was,” he said this week. “I need to help the team more. I try my best but it’s not easy. I’m fighting to the end.”

The battle continues on Tuesday against last season’s PFA Player of the Year. Good luck, fella.


Football League game to watch – Huddersfield Town v Norwich

Damn right. And no more so than at Huddersfield, who somehow contrived to lose 1-0 to Burton Albion at home on Saturday. Next up are Norwich, and David Wagner’s side cannot afford to slip again. For those of you looking at the table and thinking that the play-offs are surely guaranteed, the author would like to point you in the direction of 1999/2000 – a season where the Terriers were in the play-off places pretty much all season until the very last day.


European game to watch – Barcelona v Sevilla
The vagaries of La Liga’s scheduling means that Real Madrid will know by the time they face Leganes on Wednesday whether Barcelona have (even temporarily) taken top spot. As Barcelona have scored 29 goals in their last seven league games in the Nou Camp, this will be worth watching. They will hoping to put the fear of God into Real Madrid; and that means entertainment for the rest of us.


Where is Mike Dean this week?
Still celebrating this while trying upstage Eden Hazard at Chelsea v Manchester City.


Ten live matches to watch
Hoffenheim v Bayern Munich (Tuesday, 7pm, BT Sport ESPN)
Rotherham United v Sheffield Wednesday (Tuesday, 7.45pm, Sky Sports 1)
Roma v Lazio (Tuesday, 7.45pm, Sky Sports Mix)
Manchester United v Everton (Tuesday, 8pm, BT Sport 1)
Atletico Madrid v Real Sociedad (Tuesday, 8.30pm, Sky Sports 3)
Barcelona v Sevilla (Wednesday, 6.30pm, Sky Sports 3)
Napoli v Juventus (Wednesday, 7.45pm, Sky Sports 5)
Huddersfield Town v Norwich City (Wednesday, 7.45pm, Sky Sports 1)
Chelsea v Manchester City (Wednesday, 8pm, Sky Sports 1)
FC Twente v PSV (Thursday, 7.45pm, Sky Sports 5)

Tickets for many of the games above can be found at Football Ticket Pad.

Compilers to watch – Sarah Winterburn and Matt Stead

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