Game to watch – West Brom vs Liverpool
West Brom are in the type of poor form that says “Hey, we’re managed by Tony Pulis and we’ve reached 40 points while it’s still dark before 9pm.” Yet you suspect the great capped one would take some satisfaction from derailing Jurgen Klopp’s bid for Champions League football. Liverpool are still only six points ahead of Manchester United having played two games more.
Yet this is advisory viewing mostly because we don’t quite know what to expect. Liverpool have beaten Stoke and Burnley in recent weeks to alleviate their ‘other’ team issues, but haven’t won in their last four visits to The Hawthorns. Their last six away league games have seen points dropped against Sunderland, Hull and Leicester but points gained at Old Trafford and the Etihad Stadium, followed by the win over Stoke. This run of inconsistency followed consecutive wins to nil at Everton and Middlesbrough, and was preceded by a bonkers 4-3 loss at Bournemouth. Work that lot out.
Somehow, Jurgen Klopp needs to. Even if we make the top four a straight battle between United and Liverpool, the former can feasibly be expected to collect 18 points between now and the end of the season. That would leave Liverpool needing 13 to be sure of Champions League football. With no member of the top seven left to play, Liverpool’s Achilles heel is going to be tested. That starts on Sunday.
Player to watch – Gylfi Sigurdsson
Matt Stead picked six alternatives for Player of the Year on Thursday, but refused to listen to our arguments for the inclusion of Sigurdsson. Such disobedience will not be tolerated for long.
Sigurdsson now has his chance to join the latest in a long list of those to make Matt look stupid, but might have slightly more pressing matters on his mind at Watford on Saturday. Having dug themselves out of a hole, Swansea have since jumped back in and allowed Hull City to shower them in soil.
It is an inexact science, but Swansea probably need ten points from six matches to ensure survival. That will surely require them to win once away from home, something they have done twice in the league since the opening day. That said, Watford is a good place to start, given that Walter Mazzarri’s side have nothing to play for and last week at White Hart Lane demonstrated a propensity to wilt under pressure like an Amazon parcel left out in a storm.
If Swansea are to survive relegation, Sigurdsson is their key. He is their second top goalscorer, has assisted 44% of their league goals, has had 35% of their shots on target and created 27% of their chances. It would be wonderful to think that his teammates will suddenly rally round and service a returning Fernando Llorente, but Sigurdsson probably knows better. If Swansea do go down, Gylfi isn’t guilty.
Team to watch – Tottenham
For little reason other than that they are a beautiful team to see in full flow, especially at home. Beat Bournemouth on Saturday lunchtime and Tottenham will be 14 points clear of Manchester United, who play the league leaders on Sunday. Mauricio Pochettino can watch that game knowing that either his team will have a squeak of a shot at the title, or have their Champions League pass for next season printed and delivered.
It is in these situations, when they can play with a free will and with tails up, that Pochettino’s team are normally at their most alluring. In their last ten home league games, Spurs have scored 30 goals, had 79 shots on target and created a ridiculous 166 chances. Watford were the last team to be blown away, and Bournemouth could well be the next.
The Premier League’s third worst defence meets its third best attack, and Tottenham’s has been better than that in the last two months. Bournemouth have conceded 17 times in their last seven away games, and that includes a clean sheet. With Harry Kane likely to start after injury and looking to close the gap to Romelu Lukaku in the Golden Boot race, Artur Boruc could be a busy man.
Manager to watch – Jose Mourinho
Well who else? There is a collective fear that the game at Old Trafford might be as dull as listening an evening of Dads explain why footballers go down injured too often these days, but this is a vital match for Mourinho.
Manchester United’s manager has already resorted to type, accusing the media in advance of “killing him” should he rest players, but there will sharp words if United lose against Chelsea on Sunday whatever his team. Defeat would put United 21 points behind Chelsea. That is only one point fewer than the gap between United and champions Manchester City in the David Moyes/Ryan Giggs 2013/14 clusterf*ck.
Antonio Conte can hardly relax with the likely pre-match gap to Tottenham only four points, but for Mourinho this is a chance to put down a marker ahead of next season towards the end of what has been a domestic campaign of false dawns. Having lost 4-0 in the reverse fixture at Stamford Bridge and suffered humiliation in front of home supporters who chanted “You’re not special anymore”, there is nobody to enjoy getting their revenge quite like Mourinho.
The Portuguese has improved Manchester United’s defending since that sorry Sunday. Having conceded four times in 70 minutes, United have allowed only 12 league goals in almost six months since and never more than once in a match. Yet he also knows that United can ill-afford to be as sluggish as in recent matches, or Eden Hazard and Diego Costa, two of his three ‘rats’, will punish such inertia.
One-on-one battle to watch – Romelu Lukaku vs Michael Keane
Sarah Winterburn this week picked five English players who are likely to be overpriced this summer, but Keane was not amongst them. At £25m for a senior England international central defender, and one who is still young, some might just get a bargain. Everton are considered to be at the front of the queue.
This weekend, Keane takes a stern test in front of his prospective suitors. Lukaku gave Yohan Benalouane a torrid time at Goodison last Sunday in scoring his 22nd and 23rd league goals of the season, and will have half an eye on Gary Lineker’s total of 30 goals in 1985/86. That was the last time an Everton player reached that total, and Lineker was also the last Everton player to win the Golden Boot. If Lukaku is indeed to leave this summer, and that seems likely, doing so with that honour would be fitting.
Lukaku’s recent home goal record is astounding. He has scored 13 in his last eight at Goodison in all competitions, and last week became the first Everton player in 52 years to score in eight consecutive home games. If Keane stops him, it might cost Everton a bit more come the summer.
Football League game to watch – All of them!
I have moaned repeatedly about the lack of live Football League action in recent months, with Newcastle United, Leeds United and Aston Villa accounting for about 40% of televised matches. Yet the Easter weekend brings a veritable banquet of live games.
There’s Portsmouth vs Plymouth on Friday, followed by Wolves vs Brighton and Newcastle vs Leeds. Then on Bank Holiday Monday you have Sheffield United vs Bradford City, Fulham vs Aston Villa and Derby County vs Huddersfield. Yes the big three are still covered, but now isn’t the time to grumble. Simply sit back and enjoy as the Championship reaches its denouement.
European game to watch – Granada vs Celta Vigo
Not a match that would normally command any more than a dribble of UK viewers, but that all changed when Granada went for the option several fields to the left of leftfield in Tony Adams. Nigel Reo-Coker and Kieran Richardson are on trial, players are being kicked up the arse in changing and every day starts off with a cup of sugary tea and a full English breakfast, because “it never did my old man any ‘arm”.
It looks like a thankless task for Adams, and one that he has been grossly overpromoted into. Granada are seven points behind Leganes in 17th, and are still to face Sevilla and Real Madrid in their seven remaining fixtures. Basically, it’s s**t or bust against Celta.
Where is Mike Dean this week?
He’s at Selhurst Park, making slightly off-colour – but nothing blue – comments to The Crystals before kick-off and then having Jamie Vardy scream “F**k off you c***” in his face at least twice in 90 minutes. ‘They’re only swearing because they aren’t clever enough to think of other words to say,’ Dean will think to himself.
Ten live matches to watch (because you went outside for an hour on Wednesday and got a bit of hayfever)
Wolves vs Brighton & Hove Albion (Friday, 5.00pm, Sky Sports 1)
Newcastle United vs Leeds United (Friday, 7.45pm, Sky Sports 1)
Inter vs Milan (Saturday, 11.30am, BT Sport 1)
Tottenham vs Bournemouth (Saturday, 12.30pm, Sky Sports 1)
Bayer Leverkusen vs Bayern Munich (Saturday, 5.30pm, BT Sport 2)
Southampton vs Manchester City (Saturday, 5.30pm, BT Sport 1)
Napoli vs Udinese (Saturday, 7.45pm, BT Sport 2)
West Brom vs Liverpool (Sunday, 1.30pm, Sky Sports 1)
Manchester United vs Chelsea (Sunday, 4.00pm, Sky Sports 1)
Granada vs Celta Vigo (Sunday, 7.45pm, Sky Sports 1)