Big Midweek: Lindelof, Spurs v West Ham, City, Unsworth

Matt Stead

Game to watch – Tottenham v West Ham
‘West Ham manager Slaven Bilic has two games to save his job.’

It is the fifth time West Ham’s co-owners have tried this particular trick; at some point, they will pull the rabbit out of the hat only to discover it has shuffled miserably off this mortal coil.

Slaven Bilic has been teetering on the edge of unemployment for months, and it felt as though a 3-0 home defeat to newly promoted Brighton might have been the final nudge. But Davids Gold and Sullivan saw fit to hand the Croatian a lifeline.

They did the same on January 7, when The Sun reported that Bilic had two games to save his job. West Ham won them both.

They did it again on April 7, when the Daily Mirror reported that Bilic was ‘fighting to save his job’ at West Ham. They won their next game a day later.

They did it once more on May 2, when The Guardian reported that Bilic’s West Ham future ‘will be determined by how his team performs’ in their final two home games of the season. They beat Tottenham 1-0, but were thrashed 4-0 by Liverpool.

They did it for a fourth time on August 28, when it was reported that Bilic had four games to save his job. What followed was two wins, a draw and a defeat.

The relative success of this transparent tactic does suggest that the West Ham squad is behind Bilic, with performances generally more unified and impressive when the manager’s job is in immediate danger. But at some stage, the children will realise that their parents never intend on carrying through the threat to ground them. It is an empty strategy that can only ever boost results in the short term.

Tottenham will be keen to sound the death knell, or at least place more pressure than ever before on Bilic’s shoulders. Mauricio Pochettino is sure to rest a number of the players who followed a 1-1 draw with Real Madrid by thrashing Liverpool, but the north Londoners now have viable replacements for Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen in their squad.

Pochettino will know only too well the importance of maintaining the momentum that recent results have built, and will not make the mistake of surrendering it easily. Tottenham have bigger fish to fry, but the Carabao Cup is the sort of plankton they can feast upon. Winning this competition would at least silence the ‘but they haven’t won a trophy’ brigade.


Player to watch – Victor Lindelof
In terms of centre-halves playing for clubs based in north-west England whose surnames begin with the letter ‘L’, Victor Lindelof’s weekend could actually have gone worse. While a Croatian was embarrassing himself before being subjected to the humiliation of an early substitution at Wembley, a Swede was suffering a similar fate in West Yorkshire.

Jose Mourinho warned that his £30.75million summer signing would take time to settle in England, and that self-fulfilling prophecy came to pass on Saturday. United conceded as many goals in Lindelof’s first ten minutes on the pitch at the John Smith’s Stadium as they had in their previous eight Premier League games without him.

The chance to atone for his mistakes will surely come on Tuesday. Mourinho will be tempted to shield the centre-half from further criticism, but to not start him at Swansea would be to destroy the confidence he has been careful to build over the last few months.

The 23-year-old has started each of the club’s five midweek fixtures this season, not missing a single minute of their UEFA Super Cup defeat, nor their Champions League or Carabao Cup campaigns. Expect that record to be extended at the Liberty Stadium, and expect to see a player eager to prove a point.


Team to watch – Manchester City
“I am happy for the 11 wins in a row because we showed that we can win a lot of games in a row,” said Pep Guardiola on Saturday, the Spaniard rather stating the obvious. “But that’s all.”

The Manchester City manager was understandably keen to downplay the achievements of his current Manchester City side, but it is difficult not to get carried away. Guardiola never oversaw more than 11 consecutive victories during his four years at the Nou Camp, and did so only twice with Bayern Munich. His career-best run of 13 straight wins will be in jeopardy if Wolves can be dispatched on Tuesday.

It is not as easy a task as it sounds. Nuno Espírito Santo has guided Jorge Mendes’ new plaything to the top of the Championship after 13 games. Wolves have lost one of their last 11 games, winning eight. They will be no pushovers.

The test for City will be to maintain their winning run with an entirely new starting line-up. “Everybody will be involved as you can’t play the same players in every game in all competitions,” said Guardiola at the weekend. “On Tuesday we will play 11 new players.”

It means a trial run for Oleksandr Zinchenko at left-back, a start for Claudio Bravo, and precious minutes for Ilkay Gundogan, Danilo, Eliaquim Mangala and Yaya Toure. Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling will likely feature too, having been rested against Burnley.

City’s squad is ridiculous, isn’t it?


Manager to watch – David Unsworth
Sean Dyche might be the overwhelming favourite for the Everton job after Ronald Koeman’s departure, but breathing down his dinosaur neck is David Unsworth. The man second in the running with bookmakers will be the only one afforded a proper audition for the post.

Unsworth has been here before. He revelled in a “perfect afternoon” after his last brief foray into the Goodison Park hotseat, with a young Everton side beating Norwich 3-0 on the final day of the 2015/16 season. Unsworth handed starts to Matthew Pennington, Jonjoe Kenny, Kieran Dowell and Tom Davies, and they impressed in the first game of the post-Roberto Martinez era.

Still manager of the Under-23s, Unsworth will have the honour of leading the club into their newest dawn. With Koeman leaving behind him a talented if unbalanced squad, his replacement will be handed the enviable task of coaching performances out of a £150million squad and finding a system that masks an inherent lack of pace.

The 44-year-old’s first and possibly only game in charge of the club is against Chelsea, but the players have a point to prove, the fans have a manager to cheer, that manager has a job to work towards and their opponents have both eyes on other competitions. A dedicated display is all a long-suffering support will ask for.


One-on-one battle to watch – Per Mertesacker v Cameron Jerome
In the likely absence of Laurent Koscielny, Cameron Jerome will be starved of the opportunity to come up against one of the few Arsenal players he faced for Birmingham in the 2011 League Cup final. The only other Gunner who started on that fateful February afternoon who is still at the club is Jack Wilshere, whose inclusion in the starting line-up against Norwich will likely depend on whether Arsene Wenger wishes to hand him a Premier League start at the weekend.

In which case, Jerome will have to make do with Per Mertesacker, one of a few fit centre-halves left in the Arsenal ranks. The Carabao Cup is bottom of Wenger’s list of priorities, below even taking the washing out and doing the dishes, but the fact he has never won the competition will likely eat away at him if he retires without completing his collection. Another fusion of fringe squad players and youngsters should work.


Football League game to watch – Oldham v Bury
It’s the only Football League game on. This stuff writes itself sometimes.


European game to watch – Inter Milan v Sampdoria
With Spanish sides competing in the Copa del Rey and German clubs turning their attentions to the DFB-Pokal, our continental pals are taking their eyes off domestic league matters for the briefest of moments. But not in Italy, where the Serie A ploughs on undeterred.

Napoli still reside at the top of the table, but their perfect record suffered its first blotch on Saturday when Inter Milan held them to a goalless draw. But Luciano Spalletti’s side should not make the mistake of thinking they are out of the woods, for a date with a flying Sampdoria side beckons on Tuesday.

Sampdoria have lost just one of their nine league games this season, and will have designs on crashing the party at the top of Serie A. Just four points separates leaders Napoli from fourth-placed Lazio, with sixth-placed Sampdoria a further five points behind. Get Inter ’em, f*** ’em up.


Writer to watch – Matt Stead