Game to watch – Liverpool v Manchester United
Manchester United have form for ruining unbeaten runs. It was the Red Devils who ended the two longest streaks in Premier League history when Arsenal’s Invincibles came a cropper at Old Trafford after 49 games in 2004, a year before Chelsea’s 40-match sequence was brought to a screeching halt.
This, though, isn’t Sir Alex Ferguson’s United, even if Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s are the only team this season to have taken anything from Liverpool in the Premier League. Were it not for a late Adam Lallana strike at Old Trafford in October, there would be no talk of Invincibility. Might that close shave make Jurgen Klopp’s champions-elect more twitchy before United come to town?
Solskjaer’s side certainly seem to save something for the bigger games and there is little doubt they will have a deficit in possession, which they seem to prefer these days. There is a lot wrong with this United, yet they seem better suited than most to being the team that finally topples Liverpool.
Klopp is well aware of United’s threat and the Red Devils are one of the few sides against whom he has shown caution in the past. The German coach has faced little criticism over the last year but the past two trips to Old Trafford have seen Klopp ease his foot off the gas. And at Anfield, last season’s win which finished off Jose Mourinho is Klopp’s only triumph over United in the Premier League.
Pep Guardiola described United as one of the best teams in the world “when they can run” and Solskjaer’s front three, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood, have outscored Liverpool’s devastating attacking trio so far this term. Rashford’s fitness could be pivotal, but with Fabinho out, will Klopp urge more caution from Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson to prevent United’s speedsters being allowed to get down the side of his centre-backs?
That would place greater emphasis on Klopp’s three midfielders providing the ammo for Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane and Liverpool’s engine room should certainly enjoy domination of whichever pair Solskjaer employs to screen his defence. Presumably their first look will be to the right flank where Brandon Williams could face a huge test against Salah.
Our Sunday afternoon entertainment largely depends on how brave Klopp is feeling. If Liverpool stick to their usual game plan, it could be a thriller. If the Reds get jittery over chasing three points when really only one is necessary, it will produce a far edgier encounter.
Balls out, Jurgen.
Team to watch – Bournemouth
Fresh from being out-thought and out-fought at home by one fellow bottom-three dweller last weekend, Bournemouth somehow have to get their sh*t together for another basement battle on the road on Saturday.
Eddie Howe would not have planned to be spending the 11th anniversary of his first appointment as Bournemouth boss looking over his shoulder only to see Norwich – certainly not when they sat in 7th at the start of November. For the Canaries, too, this is a huge clash: they could finish the weekend nine points adrift, or within three points of the Cherries, who haven’t won for a month.
Bournemouth’s woes go back beyond a surprise win at Chelsea in mid-December, which was their only three-point haul in 11 games. Howe’s men have taken four points from their last 33 and against Watford last weekend, they never looked likely to add to that meagre total.
Injuries have not helped Howe but the return of Nathan Ake and Adam Smith last weekend could not stop Troy Deeney and the Hornets terrorising the Cherries. An attack which last season was compared to Liverpool’s front three has been firing blanks for a period which stopped being a blip weeks ago. Callum Wilson hasn’t scored since September but even more alarmingly, he has mustered only a single shot on target in that 14-game barren run. The service of Ryan Fraser, last season’s leading big chance creator by a margin of ten, has dried up, which isn’t helping Dominic Solanke’s pursuit of a first Premier League goal for the club which paid £20million for his services.
“There are things not right all across the pitch right now,” admitted Steve Cook after the Watford defeat in which he accepted the Cherries showed “no fight, no endeavour, no bravery”. Six days is not long enough to remedy all the technical and tactical problems, but the rediscovery of some backbone is the absolute minimum required at Carrow Road.
Player to watch –
Bruno Fernandes Japhet Tanganga
The Tottenham youngster was handed a surprising debut against Liverpool last week when Tanganga turned in a hugely creditable display. The 20-year-old followed that up with a man-of-the-match performance against Boro in the cup on Tuesday so you would expect Spurs’ sixth right-back of the season to keep his place against Watford on Saturday.
Tanganga isn’t a right-back by trade but he has looked more comfortable there this week than the five who have gone before him. Jose Mourinho has already spoken of the “trust” he has in Tanganga which will presumably extend to being given the responsibility of stopping Gerard Deulofeu at Vicarage Road.
Unlike Spurs, the Hornets are buzzing at the moment and Deulofeu has played a large part in their stunning ascent from the bottom of the table to beyond the drop zone with four wins in five games under Nigel Pearson. In contrast, Spurs have failed to win four of their last five.
Deulofeu will be raring to get at a rookie centre-back being played out of position and how Tanganga handles the former Barcelona winger will go a long way to deciding whether each side maintains their recent run or if Spurs can stop the rot and claim their first Premier League win since Boxing Day.
Manager to watch – Dean Smith
The Villa boss is in a pickle. Injuries have wreaked a similar degree of havoc to Manchester City last week but Smith somehow has to find a way to negate both of those factors before the trip to Brighton on Saturday.
Villa have spent most of this month scouring the transfer market looking for cover for John McGinn, Wesley and Tom Heaton: three-quarters of a spine which has been dismantled because of injuries. Smith and Villa’s sporting director Suso thought Danny Drinkwater might fill McGinn’s boots but his disastrous debut last weekend suggested that, shockingly, a player with six Premier League starts in two and a half years and 59 minutes in half a season at Burnley might not be best placed to offer a dynamic presence in a struggling side’s midfield.
Smith will hope Pepe Reina fares rather better in his mission to fill Heaton’s gloves, but up front, he is still without a recognised striker. Villa have been playing Anwar El Ghazi up front and try though he might, the Egyptian is struggling to lead the line. Can Smith find a different solution in time for Saturday?
Confidence was at a low ebb before City rocked up and scored six last week but Smith will have to choose carefully between his carrot and his stick. He admitted after the woeful defeat at Watford that he tore into his players for the first time and the response was a win at Burnley. Another rollicking coming so soon after the last one is unlikely to have same effect, however, and it could erode what little belief some of these players have left.
So Smith has to hope that some cajoling and two or three new faces will help Villa rediscover some spirit in time to face Brighton. A win at the AmEx would take the Villans to the same points tally as the 14th-placed Seagulls before the imminent arrival of a new striker – and games against Watford and Bournemouth – sharpens everyone’s focus even further.
Football League game to watch – QPR v Leeds
Are Leeds falling apart again? Probably not. But one win in the last six Championship games isn’t doing much to soothe the jitters of the travelling supporters, many of whom are heading south having read the script and already come to terms with QPR 1 (Clarke 87) Leeds 0.
Because of course Jack Clarke is going to score. The Leeds academy graduate, who was expected to be with the United squad this weekend midway through a season-long loan return from Tottenham, will instead line up for Rangers in his first game since being redistributed by Spurs.
Fortunately for Leeds, their recent wobble hasn’t hurt them too badly. They remain six points clear in second place and a point behind leaders West Brom who host Stoke on Monday. Had they not stumbled over the last month, they could have had one foot in the Premier League by now. But that’s not the Leeds way. Losing to a Clarke winner on Saturday very much is.
European game to watch – Sporting Lisbon v Benfica
On Friday night, Free Sports allows you to watch Bruno Fernandes rip Benfica to shreds in the Lisbon derby before he is carried off the José Alvalade Stadium stadium pitch shoulder high with the very best wishes of the Sporting fans to take to Manchester United.
All of this will prompt Ed Woodward to pull his finger out and offer £10million, Phil Jones and a box of slim fits from United’s official denim partner.
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