Game to watch – Liverpool vs Arsenal
In a season during which each of the managers of the Premier League’s top six has been placed under significant pressure, this is perhaps the first time that two are in the same boat simultaneously.
For Arsene Wenger, this is a stern test of his future credentials. Champions League exit to Bayern Munich was predictable rather than disastrous, but he still has to address his away record against the best teams in the league if he is to convince Arsenal supporters that he is the man to take the club forward next season. Their last 14 away league games against clubs currently in the top six have produced one win and one clean sheet. Arsenal have conceded two or more goals in 11 of those 14 matches.
Win, and Wenger may again be able to talk up his chances of staying at the Emirates without causing a mutiny while also cementing Arsenal’s top four credentials. Lose, and Arsenal will be out of the top four at the end of this weekend, and probably as low as sixth.
Yet Jurgen Klopp might stress that his need is even greater. Liverpool’s season can roughly be split into fine results against top-half teams and disappointing results against the rest, the flipside to Arsenal’s own norm. Liverpool’s only league win this year was the pulsating, stirring victory over Tottenham.
The question for Klopp is where the change comes, but the suspicion is that Liverpool are more likely to get worse against the best teams than better against the rest. That really would be a cause for concern. Beating Arsenal would not only buy him more patience from those beginning to feel uneasy, but prove that Liverpool can match up to the best in the league while climbing back into the top four. Roberto Firmino scoring would be nice, too.
Player to watch – Morgan Schneiderlin
“I’m not surprised by Schneiderlin’s level because I know the player,” said Ronald Koeman after his midfielder’s man-of-the-match display against Sunderland last weekend. “He needed game time to get into his rhythm but he’s such a good player and he showed that in all aspects of football today. In his pressing, his tackles, comfort on the ball and then he had Gana back on his level next to him which is good because you need a strong midfield with competition.”
There are finally signs that Schneiderlin is over his bad experience at Manchester United. What seemed a perfect fit ended only in disappointment on both sides, with Jamie Carragher this week expressing his surprise that the move did not end well.
Still, it’s one thing successfully protecting a defence at home to Sunderland and another entirely doing it against Tottenham at White Hart Lane, particularly when facing both the club you originally wanted to join and your former teammate in Victor Wanyama.
With Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen buzzing around the edge of the penalty area, Schneiderlin will have his hands full on Sunday afternoon. Thwart both successfully and help earn Everton a surprise result, and supporters will truly start to believe their manager’s claim that they have found a bargain at £20m.
Team to watch – Leicester City
This week there will be no Claudio Ranieri fanfare, nor a team super-charged by the criticism it received before the match. The circus has rolled out of town, for now.
Leicester are not plucky underdogs as against Liverpool; they are expected to beat Hull. That creates its own pressures, and raises questions of how the players will respond to the latest round of media criticism. Fail to win and the reaction will be two-fold: 1) The players just turned up for one game, and 2) Maybe it wasn’t Ranieri’s fault after all.
Leicester have been here before, remember. After they beat Manchester City 4-2 in December, Leicester promptly lost 1-0 to Bournemouth and won only one of their next ten league games. Only a concerted run of results will take them away from danger.
For Craig Shakespeare too, an important game. Reports this week suggested that Leicester’s players are keen on their caretaker manager being given the job on a full-time basis. Win both of his games in charge – which would represent Leicester’s first consecutive league wins since last April – and the club’s owners will have no choice but to keep the faith at least until the summer.
Manager to watch – Eddie Howe
The blue-eyed boy of British coaching is coming in for more than a little flak. After being touted by multiple newspaper journalists as Arsene Wenger’s natural heir, that particular moniker hasn’t been used for a while. Howe needs to concentrate on keeping Bournemouth up first.
Organising a proficient defence would be a start, something Winners and Losers went big on this week. Howe now takes his makeshift back four to the home of the country’s in-form striker, and will be acutely aware that his team have lost their last four league games, conceding 12 times in the process. Extend that record back to the start of the year, and it’s 24 times in eight matches.
With Manchester United scoring 14 times in their last six matches, I like the odds of 11/4 that United score four or more times. Should that happen, Howe really will have a problem on his hands. Defensive resilience is the strongest weapon in the fight against relegation; Bournemouth are currently waving a white flag.
One-on-one battle to watch – Ander Herrera vs Jack Wilshere
Pass against pass. Tackle against tackle. Snide against snide.
There are plenty of reasons to watch Manchester United’s home game against Bournemouth: Eddie Howe attempting to create a resilient defence, Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s continued march to cult hero status, Anthony Martial’s resurgence or Steve Cook’s world-class defending.
Yet all of those pale into insignificance when you think about Herrera leaving one in on Wilshere, only for the Bournemouth player to jump to his feet and push his head up against Herrera’s so that their noses are touching. Five minutes later, Wilshere will make exactly the same foul and look over Herrera. “Get up, you muggy little c***.” We can’t wait.
Football League game to watch – Huddersfield Town vs Newcastle United
This column regularly moans about the lack of variation in Football League coverage, but there’s no doubt that Sky Sports have picked the game of the weekend in the Championship. Newcastle’s astounding late salvo against Brighton has again given them the upper hand in the title race, but even automatic promotion is not yet secure.
Forget Newcastle or Brighton, for Huddersfield are the form team in the division. Despite predictions that David Wagner’s side would fall away, they have taken 35 of a possible 42 points. Since the beginning of December, Huddersfield have taken three more points than any other Championship team, and have played a game less than every other team in the top six.
Newcastle midweek victory makes Brighton the team for Huddersfield to catch, but beat Newcastle on Saturday and they would be right back in the hunt to catch both. Lose and, should Brighton beat Nottingham Forest, the gap between the top two and the rest would suddenly be nine points with 12 games to play.
European game to watch – Barcelona vs Celta Vigo
It was always likely that Luis Enrique would leave Barcelona this summer. Despite his extraordinary success (eight trophies from a possible ten before this season), the thrashing by Paris St Germain caused cracks to appear in his reputation.
Yet Enrique’s announcement on Wednesday evening that he would be leaving still came as some surprise to those assuming that this would drag out into May and June. Now begins a period of intense speculation, after which Barcelona will probably choose between Jorge Sampaoli and Ernesto Valverde but during which we will see a few interesting names mentioned. Arsene Wenger? Mauricio Pochettino? Ronald Koeman? Ryan Giggs?
As it happens, the La Liga title race got more interesting still on Wednesday evening, with Real Madrid clawing back a two-goal deficit but still dropping points against Las Palmas. Zinedine Zidane’s side were booed off the pitch at the Bernabeu and now trail Barcelona by a point with a game in hand. Tune in on Saturday evening to see what effect Enrique’s announcement has on Barca as they take on his former club Celta.
Where is Mike Dean this week?
Mike Dean is in Leicester, to oversee Leicester vs Hull. He loves the Midlands, because it feels like the last pocket of England’s green and pleasant land. He will take an over-exaggerated breath as he climbs out of the Ford Cougar, lifting his right hand as he exhales like a stage actor.
The success of Dean’s day will be judged by the number of Shakespearean references he makes to Leicester players without them realising he is making puns on their caretaker manager’s surname.
“Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them,” he will say to Riyad Mahrez after a fine cross. “Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once,” he will utter into Wilfred Ndidi’s ear after a strong tackle. “If music be the food of love, play on,” he will shout after every advantage.
“Forty-two. FORTY-TWO!” Dean will tell his wife in bed on Saturday evening. “I can’t believe I remembered that much of old Bill. Now, you really should see a doctor about all these headaches you’re getting just as we get into bed, but have magically disappeared by morning…”
Ten live matches to watch (because it is a genuinely brilliant weekend for football on TV)
Chester vs Tranmere Rovers (Friday, 7.45pm, BT Sport 2)
Guangzhou R&F vs Tianjin Quanjian (Saturday, 7.30am, Sky Sports Mix)
Manchester United vs Bournemouth (Saturday, 12.30pm, Sky Sports 1)
Liverpool vs Arsenal (Saturday, 5.30pm, BT Sport 1)
Huddersfield Town vs Newcastle United (Saturday, 5.30pm, Sky Sports 1)
Barcelona vs Celta Vigo (Saturday, 7.45pm, Sky Sports 5)
LA Galaxy vs FC Dallas (Saturday, 9.00pm, Sky Sports 2)
Tottenham Hotspur vs Everton (Sunday, 1.30pm, Sky Sports 1)
Sunderland vs Manchester City (Sunday, 4.00pm, Sky Sports 1)
Monaco vs Nantes (Sunday, 7.45pm, BT Sport 3)