Game to watch – Tottenham vs Arsenal
For the first time since February 2015, the north London derby takes place in the Premier League without either of the two clubs in the top four. That only makes the stakes higher than ever.
For Arsenal, a chance to right at least two wrongs. Arsene Wenger’s side must haul themselves into the top-four race to avoid this season going stale, but their biggest challenge on Saturday is to address a run of appalling away form that runs to just seven wins in 25 league matches.
Yet there is an argument that this might be the ideal game for Arsenal right now. The paradox of the local derby is that you enter enemy territory and yet the games often pan out as if they were played on neutral territory.
That’s particularly true at Wembley on Saturday. “We win at Wembley, right,” was Hector Bellerin’s social media message to new signing Alexandre Lacazette before the Community Shield, and so it proved. Arsenal have now won nine consecutive games at the stadium. That’s more than Tottenham have managed in their temporary home.
Having scored five last week and with a new attack that Tottenham’s opponent scouting will not necessarily be clued up on, Arsenal are right to feel bullish. It may well come too late to save this season, but for the first time in a while they at least have options and alternatives in attack.
Yet Spurs will hardly be fearful either. The only game they have lost in any competition since the end of November was at the home of the champions elect. They have won 13 of their last 16 home games and haven’t conceded at Wembley in over a month.
Furthermore, if Arsenal have new-found options in attack then so too does Mauricio Pochettino. The signing of Lucas Moura, return of Erik Lamela and recent excellence of Heung-min Son gives Pochettino decisions to make to start the game, but more importantly will leave him with at least a couple of game-changers on the bench. That’s something the Argentinean has been without for too long.
Most of all, the game just really matters. Arsenal are desperate to get back into the Champions League while Tottenham are desperate to stay there, but there will be space for a maximum of one of north London’s two Premier League teams. Saturday’s game could not be more tantalising.
Player to watch – Virgil van Dijk
“Everybody can say what they want, but I am working hard every day and I am getting back to where I need to be with the help of everyone here,” said Van Dijk in an interview with the Times this week. “I am just doing my thing. No one is going to look at the good things that you do. Everybody is going to watch the bad things and that is how it is.”
In a way, Van Dijk is spot on. The central defender has not played much football over the last year, and is acclimatising to a new team halfway through the season. None of that is easy, and all of it makes rustiness virtually inevitable.
And yet Van Dijk should not be surprised. Having pushed for a move to an elite club, he must know what comes with that. If the positive spin is greater financial reward and playing on higher-profile stages, the flipside is that patience is lower and your performances are judged more harshly and under a brighter spotlight. You don’t get one without the other.
Van Dijk goes back to St Mary’s on Sunday and can expect a frosty reception. Nobody imagined he would arrive at Liverpool in his best form, but that won’t make Van Dijk immune from criticism. When you raise your head above the parapet, expect flying bullets. Now would be the perfect time for an assured Premier League performance and clean sheet.
Manager to watch – Sam Allardyce
Well isn’t this going swimmingly well? You have to hand it to Allardyce, a man so confident of taking teams away from danger that he’s prepared to do it twice in half a season at Everton.
It isn’t just that results and performances have turned south so quickly that you strongly suspect that Everton’s players are not enjoying the Allardyce Experience, but that everything we feared about this marriage of inconvenience is being proven true. A short-term manager at a club with a long-term ethos looks like precisely that. Allardyce is not prepared to change his spots and Everton shouldn’t have to.
You might mock Everton supporters for wanting things a certain way, like their club giving young players a chance and approaching matches with actual intent. You might even label it arrogant. But when your club hasn’t won a trophy since 1995 and has a range of only 14 league positions (4th – 17th) in the last 31 years, fulfillment can be hard to come by. So why shouldn’t they yearn for a club that they can be proud of?
Allardyce might not give two hoots (and can take his pay-off in the summer in any case should he leave), but there is a growing majority at Goodison who believe their club is going backwards, not forwards. That’s as much the fault of Farhad Moshiri and his transfer scattergun as it is Allardyce, but Everton are less reliant on the latter and he is easier to change.
Everton are not going to be relegated. There is too big a gap to the bottom three, too many clubs below them and too many gentle home assignments to come. But in the absence of any tension, supporters must feel a connection to their club and their manager. Allardyce has much work to do if he is to convince them of his merits.
Team to watch – Huddersfield Town
“I’m obviously very disappointed but not surprised. When you’ve had a month like we’ve had and lost six on the bounce, then it leaves you open to being sacked.”
Those were the words of former Bradford City manager Stuart McCall, sacked this week despite doing an excellent job in League One. Elsewhere in West Yorkshire, another manager this weekend aims to avoid the same record. Defeat would not see David Wagner suffer the same demise, but Huddersfield are in a little trouble.
The main concern lies in the teams Huddersfield have lost to on this run of defeats: Leicester, West Ham and Stoke as well as Manchester United and Liverpool. They are proving themselves incapable of rising to the occasion against the best nor matching the determination and hunger of the rest. That only ends one way.
It is not just the losses, you understand, but a downturn in form has ended in results falling off a cliff. Break their league season down into three chunks, and the pattern is obvious: 12 points in their first nine games, nine points in their next nine games, three points in their last eight games.
Perhaps Huddersfield cannot expect to compete with United and Liverpool (although they did at home to the former), but recording 25% and 26% possession respectively and having one shot on target in total over the two matches is evidence of a team saving themselves for the winnable matches. That strategy only works if they beat Bournemouth on Sunday.
One-on-one battle to watch – Jamaal Lascelles vs Romelu Lukaku
Because it’s my strongest footballing crush against my second strongest footballing crush. I’m favouring Lascelles over Lukaku for those keeping count (the Lukaku thing was over unfair criticism rather than fanatical love), but I’m mainly just looking forward to watching these two colossi battle for my affections. Or something.
Football League game to watch – Aston Villa vs Birmingham City
All credit to Steve Bruce. The Aston Villa manager was under an awful lot of pressure after spending a whacking great amount of money in the Championship, both on transfer fees and wages, but now has Villa pointing in the right direction and favourites to go up automatically with Wolves.
Everything suddenly looks rosy at Villa Park. West Ham may not value Robert Snodgrass highly but he is the form player in the Championship, while Scott Hogan is finally scoring goals as we knew he could and Bruce is getting a tune out of Jack Grealish too. At the back, Sam Johnstone has overcome his early issues and is now one of the most reliable goalkeepers outside the top flight. All four have played a part in six straight league wins.
If taking a step closer to promotion wasn’t enough motivation to win on Sunday, plunging their most bitter rivals towards relegation is. Steve Cotterill has turned round a dire situation with four wins and a draw in their last six league games, but Birmingham are still only four points above the bottom three and six above Burton at the foot of the table. Villa fans would like nothing better than to halt their recent revival.
European game to watch – Napoli vs Lazio
The title race may be run in Spain, England and Germany, but Serie A has a marathon being run at sprinting pace. The record points total in a 20-team, three-points-for-a-win Serie A season is the 102 managed by Juventus in 2013/14, when they won the title by 17 points. This season, Juve are on track to reach 97 points and are still in second place.
That’s because the majesty of Maurizio Sarri and his Napoli team just will not go away. Their elimination from the Champions League was a blow, as was Coppa Italia collapse to Atalanta, but Sarri has steeled his team for the domestic fight. Napoli have now won seven straight Serie A games.
Juventus are not going to surrender. They have also won seven straight league games and sit on Napoli’s tail like a detective waiting for the prime suspect to make the one slip that will give his game away. Having grown accustomed to title marches, Massimo Allegri are not averse to a title scrap.
On Saturday evening, Napoli face third-placed Lazio knowing that every win sends out the repeated message that there is no soft centre to be exposed. Having delighted and wowed in the autumn, winter brought dogged resilience. Napoli have conceded six times in 12 Serie A games. Long may their challenge continue.
Writer to watch – Daniel Storey