Big Weekend: Guardiola, Zaha, Hughes, Everton, derbies

Date published: Friday 13th April 2018 7:06

Game to watch – Tottenham vs Manchester City
Tottenham vs Manchester City has long been a distinctly watchable game. Their 13 meetings since the beginning of 2011/12 have produced 55 goals at a rate of 4.2 per game, including three 4-1s, two 5-1s, a 6-0 and a 3-2. The style of football with and without the ball preferred by these two managers tends to produce absorbing contests when they face one another.

Yet the game is suddenly meaningful too. It might not have been, of course. Tottenham are virtually certain to finish in the top four, and Manchester City had the chance to win the title last weekend. But three consecutive defeats have raised questions in some quarters for the leaders. Some of them are valid, while others rely on their inbuilt bias towards a particular manager.

(Sorry, I hate subtweeting. I’m talking about Duncan Castles, who I don’t think we can ever take seriously on the subject of anything or anyone either affiliated to Jose Mourinho or in direct competition with him.)

Guardiola could certainly do with a win, and would be forgiven for wishing that his Manchester City team had a tap-in league fixture after their Liverpool-Manchester United-Liverpool run. Instead they face Tottenham, who might possibly be the worst opposition, given the circumstances.

Firstly, the form. No team has taken more points than Tottenham since the start of the year – 30 from a possible 36 – and they are unbeaten in the league since the corresponding fixture between these teams on December 16. Spurs have also won their last six league games, and haven’t lost at Wembley in the league since their first home game of the season.

Just as importantly, Tottenham are set up perfectly to exploit City’s new-found weaknesses. Jurgen Klopp has demonstrated that operating on the front foot can expose City’s frailties. You simply need the players with sufficient quality to use the strategy, and the courage of your convictions to make it successful. Tottenham have both.

There are obvious similarities between the way Tottenham attacked Liverpool and Manchester United in their home games against both and the way Liverpool stunned City at Anfield. Christian Eriksen scored one of the quickest ever Premier League goals and Tottenham were 2-0 up before half an hour against United in January. Harry Kane scored within four minutes and Tottenham were 2-0 up after 12 minutes against Liverpool in October.

More of the same, and Manchester City will again face a stern test of their defensive merit. Are we ready for another edition of the Nicolas Otamendi box set?

Because we’re great (or at least like to think we are), we’ll have 16 Conclusions on Saturday evening’s game. Which you’ll probably read half-p*ssed, you lucky buggers.

 

Player to watch – Wilfried Zaha
The best player in the bottom half, and the man who probably carries the responsibility for Crystal Palace’s survival from relegation. He has created 14% of their chances, completed 24% of their dribbles and had 12% of their shots despite only playing 70% of their minutes.

Now Palace really do need Zaha to show his magic. Since the home win against Burnley in January, when the injury crisis first struck in earnest, Roy Hodgson’s team have taken six points from ten league games. Continue this form, and they will be relegated.

And yet Palace’s destiny is very much in their own hands. They have the gentlest run-in of any Premier League struggler, facing teams currently ranked 8th, 12th, 13th, 19th and 20th in the table in their last five matches. This should be Zaha’s time to prove his worth, just so long as Christian Benteke can actually start scoring.

Yet Hodgson and Palace supporters know only too well that Saturday will shape the mood for the rest of the season. Lose to their most bitter rival, thus failing to produce a performance in the biggest home game of the season, and you could consider Palace as favourites to be relegated if other results went against them. Win, and survival would surely be virtually assured. Time for their talisman to step up again.

 

Manager to watch – Mark Hughes
There were small nuggets of positivity to take out of Southampton’s 3-2 defeat against Arsenal last weekend. Sure they have conceded six times in two league games under Hughes, sure it was against a reserve team and sure they lost again, but they did at least show some fight.

Unfortunately, Southampton can no longer afford to take baby steps forward; only unqualified success counts from now on in. The chances are that Hughes will need to collect at least seven points from his final six matches if Southampton are to survive. When you consider that they have taken ten from their last 48 available and face four top-half teams in those six games, it doesn’t look good.

Perennially the gruff, grumpy touchline manager, Hughes now needs to inject belief into his Southampton players. The arrival of Chelsea to St Mary’s affords them the chance to overcome a club down on its luck and one that has dropped plenty of points against the bottom half.

But clearing the fog that exists over the squad looks like a task beyond a manager sacked by the team directly below them. Lose on Saturday lunchtime and you’d have to consider Hughes and his team as dead men walking.

 

Team to watch – Everton
Some teams you watch for their attacking invention, magnificent defending or wonderful bastardry. Others you watch to see if they will crash and burn. And that’s where Everton are right now.

Most supporters are against the continued employment of Sam Allardyce, certainly beyond this summer. Allardyce is minded not to give two shiny shites about most supporters. There is a war brewing between a manager who looks mercifully temporary and the highest-paid player who – perhaps sadly – is there for the longer term. There are reports of other first-team players struggling under Allardyce’s management. There is a growing mistrust within supporters of an ownership structure that talks the talk and has the bank balance to buy expensive shoes, but is yet to walk the walk in them.

Most Everton supporters cannot wait for the end of the season; football shouldn’t be like that. Allardyce only merits part of the blame for this widespread apathy, but he could do with lifting it pretty damn quickly. Even if he is to leave Goodison this summer, this is about lasting reputations. For all Big Sam talks of taking Everton clear of danger, nobody is buying it.

Everton did at least end a run of six straight away defeats in their trip to Stoke last month, but they have still been rotten on the road under Allardyce It is that away support that matters most, a loyal band of season ticket holders who will still be singing long after players, managers and owners have left. With league games at Swansea, Huddersfield and West Ham to come, starting this weekend, Everton must provide supporters with a good news story. There have been precious few this season.

 

One-on-one battle to watch – Jonjo Shelvey vs Jack Wilshere
There is no better place to be than outside of the England squad looking in, lauded above those selected without actually having to prove it.

Jonjo Shelvey will not go to the World Cup. He has not played for his country in two-and-a-half years, has only started three matches of any kind for England and there are no more friendlies left until Gareth Southgate names his squad. It would seem absurd for Shelvey to waltz in now.

Yet we don’t have to look upon that as a negative. His form for Newcastle over the last six months has been consistently good, he retains the faith of Rafael Benitez and he’s finally enjoying a period of stability after a number of problems with injury and discipline. Good for him.

But we do so like making comparisons between individual players, and this weekend gives us a fine opportunity to see Shelvey up against another central midfielder with an outside hope of making Southgate’s England squad. If Shelvey’s problem is peaking too late, Wilshere’s recurring injury problems cost him the chance to impress against Netherlands and Italy.

There are other similarities too. Both players are capable of direct running with the ball and fine forward passing, but also occasionally throw in abject displays and have a tendency to let feistiness – a positive – blur into ill-discipline. Should they wind each other up on Sunday, the result will be fun to watch.

 

Football League game to watch – Fulham vs Brentford
Fulham are closing in on the most extraordinary march to automatic promotion. As 2017 clicked over into 2018, Slavisa Jokanovic’s team sat 12th in the Championship. They had actually improved, with five wins in their last seven matches, but losses to Sunderland and Brentford left promotion as nothing more than a forlorn hope, and even then only via the play-offs.

Their 2018 form has been astonishing: 52 points from a possible 60. They have beaten leaders Wolves (2-0), Cardiff City (4-2), Aston Villa (2-0) and Derby (2-1); that’s the top five covered. On Tuesday evening, like a jockey timing his sprint for the line perfectly, Fulham finally moved into second place.

Cardiff still have a game in hand, but Fulham have the power of belief. They are on their longest unbeaten run in all competitions in their history, and in in the next ten days can equal a club record for the longest unbeaten league run that has existed since 1898. Saturday gives you the chance to watch the form team in the country, and one of the most exciting too. You’d be a fool to miss it.

 

European game to watch – Anything or everything on ‘Derby Sunday’
No really, you’d be a bloody fool to miss it. Take the phone off the hook, get your jobs done by lunchtime and then sit back and take it all in:

West Midlands derby: Wolves vs Birmingham – Wolves can earn promotion.

Old Firm derby: Celtic vs Rangers – The small matter of well-natured bragging rights and a place in the Scottish Cup final.

Revierderby: Schalke vs Dortmund – second vs third in the Bundesliga.

De Topper: PSV vs Ajax – first vs second in the Eredivisie.

O Clássico: Benfica vs FC Porto – first vs second in the Primeira Liga.

Derby della Capitale: Lazio vs Roma – third vs fourth, level on points and with a Champions League place at stake.

You absolute beauty.

Daniel Storey

 


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