Game to watch – Liverpool v Tottenham
If Spurs’ thrashing of Red Star Belgrade on Tuesday was not quite Mauricio Pochettino turning the corner with his beleaguered side, it certainly represented a pit stop on the road to nowhere they have been speeding down of late.
It is hard to know what Pochettino will have been most pleased with: five goals or the clean sheet. Spurs have been broken at both ends this season so it was reassuring for home supporters to see that the players might not be the lost cause that many have been written off as.
It was a nice sighter for Sunday when Pochettino takes his side to Anfield. But the under-fire manager will be all too aware that putting a wretched Red Star side to the sword on home soil is one thing; going to the Premier League leaders’ backyard, with a defence that has changed shape and personnel almost with each passing half of football, is quite another.
At least now Pochettino has reason to keep faith with a particular set of players. The XI which walloped Red Star was arguably his hungriest side, with Ben Davies, Tanguy Ndombele, Erik Lamela and Son Heung-min restored to the team, while Christian Eriksen remained on the bench. Fellow want-aways Danny Rose and Toby Alderweireld were nowhere to be seen.
Pochettino, only a few weeks after discussing the “different agendas” in the Spurs dressing room, will need that hunger from his players as they prepare to chase after unbeaten Liverpool. And on the agenda for Sunday is revenge for Madrid.
Despite not playing to their potential, Jurgen Klopp’s men still kept Spurs at arm’s length in the Champions League final and Pochettino reckons that showpiece is at the root of many of Spurs’ current problems. The current gulf between Klopp and Pochettino’s sides is even greater than four months ago, despite Spurs strengthening in the summer while Liverpool chose to sit on their money.
While Spurs have moped, Liverpool have sprinted out of the blocks. They are already 13 points ahead of Sunday’s opponents with more than double Spurs’ haul and, like Pochettino’s side, Klopp’s enjoyed a Champions League confidence booster in midweek when Genk were brushed aside. It may seem strange to suggest that the unbeaten league leaders needed it, but last Sunday’s trip to Manchester United certainly checked their stride a little and offered Pochettino some hope that Liverpool can be stopped by a side wallowing in their own self pity.
“They just defend,” said Klopp of United, apparently affronted by the Red Devils’ refusal to play straight into Liverpool’s hands. Will Pochettino take a leaf out of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s book? Does he feel he has a defensive unit he can trust to base a game plan on? Possibly not, but it is hardly as though he has many better alternatives.
Player to watch – Joelinton
Said Steve Bruce of his £40million striker: “He can only improve.” Ouch.
But it is a fair comment from the Newcastle boss. Joelinton goes into Sunday’s clash with Wolves amid a barren spell having scored just once since becoming the Magpies’ record signing in the summer when he made the switch from Hoffenheim.
Wearing Newcastle’s No.9 on his back, the expectation upon the 23-year-old is of goals. Newcastle let go the scorers of 23 of the 42 they scored in the Premier League last term and Joelinton, despite often playing as a wide forward for Hoffenheim and never having scored more than eight league goals in a single season, was signed as the centre-forward to cover for Ayoze Perez and Salomon Rondon’s exits.
But the uncapped Brazilian is struggling badly. Joelinton has managed only three shots on target all season and 19 other centre-forwards have attempted more than the 11 attempts he has registered overall.
Joelinton is playing his part in Newcastle’s limited build-up play but Bruce has to find a way to get his leading striker in more threatening positions. One option might be to pair Joelinton with Dwight Gayle, though that would involve a significant change in approach from Bruce.
However he does it, the Newcastle boss can’t hide from the fact that his team are the joint-lowest scorers of the 91 clubs in the top four divisions of the pyramid. Playing to his record signing’s strengths may be the first step towards remedying that chronic shortage.
Manager to watch – Manuel Pellegrini
All eyes were on Marco Silva last week when West Ham went to Goodison Park with the chance to put the Everton boss out of a job. As it turned out, the Toffees finally found some fight and Silva was granted a stay of execution.
But as impressive as Everton were, Silva shouldn’t be sitting too comfortably because West Ham were absolutely wretched. The Hammers rolled over to have their bellies tickled and though they offered the illusion of interest for 15 second-half minutes, they should have been long since beaten.
Bizarrely, Pellegrini found some positives amid the absolute dross his side had just served up. “I’m happy with the performance, but not with the result,” he said, apparently having watched a different game to the rest of us. The Chilean boss suggested that Everton’s awful run of form offered them added motivation.
That being the case, then Sheffield United beware. The Hammers have won one of their last six, with that victory over a dire Man Utd side that finished the game with Jesse Lingard at centre-forward seemingly having taken the spotlight from the draws and defeats around it. In the month since that win, West Ham have been brushed aside by Everton and Palace and thrashed by Oxford, though at least they took a point from Bournemouth.
Pellegrini’s theory suggests he need not bother with a team talk before sending his woefully inconsistent side out to face Chris Wilder’s bouncing Blades. Though he might want to think about formulating a plan: something there appeared to be no evidence of last weekend.
His biggest concern surrounds servicing Sebastien Haller. The £40m striker is being starved of the ball – this sounds familiar – with Pablo Fornals, Felipe Anderson and Manuel Lanzini all candidates for the hook when Jack Wilshere was introduced at Goodison Park. Fornals on the right looked especially lost and the Spanish midfielder can expect to return to the bench this weekend.
Team to watch – Arsenal
The Gunners have been taking cover all week after their dismal performance in the defeat at Sheffield United. Patrice Evra labelled Unai Emery’s players “babies”, while Emmanuel Petit also stuck the boot in.
Emery’s captain, Granit Xhaka, responded to the criticism: “We have to stop about mental bullsh*t like this,” he said in reference to questions of Arsenal’s lack of backbone. Xhaka is hardly speaking from a position of authority, having been wretched for most of the season while also admitting after the draw at Watford that his team-mates had been “scared” of the Premier League’s bottom side when they led 2-0.
At least Arsenal have their home comforts this weekend, though that often counts for little when Crystal Palace are the visitors. Roy Hodgson’s side were the last opponents to beat Arsenal at The Emirates, and though the Gunners haven’t been beaten at home since, they have drawn two out of five and won each of the other three games against Burnley, Villa and Bournemouth by just a single goal.
Emery is unlikely to be taken by surprise by Hodgson. Palace have their plan and for as long as soaking up pressure before breaking at the speed of lightning works, they will continue to use it. So Arsenal’s mettle is likely to be tested again on what could be another frustrating afternoon.
The players’ response to a week’s worth of familiar criticism will be closely measured, but Emery’s should be just as interesting. The Arsenal boss seems to be fighting a battle with himself over the blend of “creativity and competitiveness”. The two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. And the Gunners aren’t ticking either box at the moment.
Football League game to watch – Sheffield Wednesday v Leeds United
One of Sunday’s two EFL offerings on Sky Sports is the south Wales derby between Swansea and Cardiff. Feisty. But Saturday lunchtime sees another derby, this time in Yorkshire between Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds. Dirty.
Both sides could move to the Championship summit with a victory before West Brom host Charlton on Saturday afternoon. The Owls have ascended to third on the back of a three-game unbeaten run, with Garry Monk tightening up his new side since taking over last month.
Marcelo Bielsa’s concern is at the other end. Leeds continue to play some sublime football but their finishing all too often fails to match the approach play. Still, Bielsa will likely persist with Patrick Bamford, goalless for two months, up front while Eddie Nketiah sits on the bench, waiting and waiting, then pretty much always scoring.
Monk will find motivation in facing his former employer. And perhaps a little too from Gjanni Alioski: “To be honest I don’t know who is Garry Monk,” said the Leeds star this week. “I don’t watch the coach and what he is doing and what start he has had.”
European game to watch – PSG v Marseille
This was due to be El Clasico weekend but that has been shifted to the week before Christmas, presuming Barca, Real and La Liga can stop bitching among themselves and nail down the date.
Chris Smalling and Jack Rodwell’s Roma taking on AC Milan would be worth watching were it not taking taking place half an hour after Liverpool kick off against Spurs. So for your European fix, rather than El Clasico, may we recommend Le Classique.
PSG are trucking along as we have come to expect at the top of Ligue 1 while Marseille sit in fourth, vying to be the best of the rest. The champions have their injury concerns, including Neymar and Idrissa Gueye, while OM are in decent form, especially in attack. Dario Benedetto, a summer singing from Boca Juniors, has hit the ground running with five goals and he will be supported by Dimitri Payet, who returns from suspension for the trip north.
Not that Andre Villas-Boas is particularly looking forward to it: “We’re going to try to play the game for the game’s sake, but it’s a game that doesn’t mean much to me,” said the Marseille coach. “We obviously dream of winning, but it’s a team from another league. It was a Classique in the past.”
Thanks for the heads up, AVB. Maybe watch Fiorentina v Lazio instead…