Game to watch – Liverpool vs Tottenham
For all the positives of Tottenham’s win over Manchester United – and there were many – this is merely the first step on a bloody horrid journey. Think ‘rush hour to pick up the kids, then drop one of them off at a mate’s house before taking the other one to Toys R Us to buy a present for her party on Saturday, then to McDonalds because she has been indoctrinated by capitalism and then back to pick up the first one and drive home’ horrid.
Sorry, I digress.
Between January 31 and April 14, Tottenham face United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City, then Juventus (twice) plus two games in the Champions League quarter-finals should they progress. Get past Juventus, and that equates to nine grudge matches in ten weeks. The challenge is to stay in the Champions League this season and stay in it for next season. Let plate-spinning commence.
Spurs started that mission in style at Wembley on Wednesday, but now face another hurdle. Their atrocious away record against the traditional top four of United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea has become folklore (four wins in their last 97 Premier League games away at those clubs), and that must change if Tottenham are to reach the top four. Lose to Liverpool and Chelsea in February and March, and they can surely kiss the Champions League goodbye.
Yet there is an argument that Liverpool are a good team for Tottenham to face. They often flourish against teams who push forward and are thus vulnerable to being picked off, exactly what United did on Wednesday. Liverpool are also a team that likes to commit players forward. Jurgen Klopp’s attack is obviously dangerous, but could Tottenham hit them on the lightning counter?
A draw certainly suits Liverpool, and any other team might well play for one. But Klopp cannot trust his team to defend successfully against Christian Eriksen, Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Heung-min Son and so must use his attack as the best form of defence once again. That’s going to make for a magnificent spectacle.
Like Liverpool vs Manchester City, this is a fixture that always feels as if it will produce goals and drama, and recent history reflects that. The last ten league games between the two teams have produced two 3-2s, a 5-0, a 4-1, a 4-0 and a 3-0. Bring it on.
Player to watch – Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
There is something incredibly exciting about a star player arriving from another domestic league, and getting to find out how he settles in. With Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Alexis Sanchez, Romelu Lukaku, Olivier Giroud, Kyle Walker, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Nemanja Matic, there has been a boom in intra-Premier League transfers. The arrival of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang therefore added a spice to the January transfer window.
The first question is where Aubameyang will play. Having featured solely as a central striker in the Bundesliga this season, he could force Alexandre Lacazette to the left and Henrikh Mkhitaryan to the right. That would give Mesut Ozil a deeper role with more responsibility to link the play (a la Kevin De Bruyne) rather than solely being a creator.
But more interesting than Arsenal’s shape is their new style with Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan. As two key members of Borussia Dortmund’s attack under Jurgen Klopp, when the plan was to turnover possession and then embark on lightning quick counters, will their arrival see Arsenal play in a similar way? One of the key features of Arsenal over the last 12 months, particularly away from home, is their sluggish attacking that has become very easy to defend against. Putting Ozil back into a midfield three in a 4-3-3 could help change that, and the pace of Aubameyang combined with Lacazette moving wide certainly should.
Most of all, it will be fascinating to see how prolific Aubameyang will be in the Premier League. His goal record in Germany is astonishing, and merits the ignorance of any personal issues he may have had at Dortmund. Get him firing, and Arsenal will look very sexy again.
Manager to watch – Mauricio Pellegrino
Sometimes disaster can be preferable to gradual decline. When Frank de Boer began his Crystal Palace reign in such a shambolic manner, it gave the club little choice but to make a move. Roy Hodgson was brought in, and has taken Palace away from grave danger.
At Southampton, the process has been very different. There has been nothing particularly shambolic about Pellegrino’s tenure, but neither has the club been able to halt a very obvious slide down the Premier League table. Performances have not been disastrous – Southampton have lost only two of their last 13 league games by more than a single goal – but neither have they been nearly good enough. Suddenly, Southampton are 18th in the Premier League.
The problem here is draws. While other clubs in the bottom half fluctuate wildly between stirring wins and wretched defeats, Southampton are producing boring football and boring results. They have drawn seven of their last 11 league games. It is not bad enough to cause Pellegrino’s sacking, but not helping their fight against survival either.
Something has to give, and this might well be Pellegrino’s last chance to keep his job. Fail to beat West Brom, one of the two teams below them, and Southampton will probably knock on Marco Silva’s door and ask him if he fancies another go.
Team to watch – Newcastle United
Newcastle scored 25% of their away goals for the season in 51 minutes at West Ham in December, and one of those goalscorers has already left the club on loan. If you still needed any more evidence that Rafael Benitez desperately needed a goalscorer in January, watch Joselu’s penalty against Burnley.
Unfortunately, the Mike Ashley reign of misery continues. Newcastle signed a back-up goalkeeper, left-back and striker all on loan. Islam Slimani is their season-saver, and he’s injured for at least two weeks and won’t be eligible to play against Leicester City in April. What a farce.
The cliche is that your home form will keep you up, but for Newcastle the opposite might be true. No team in the Premier League has won fewer home points, while Benitez’s side rank 11th in an away table having won the same number of times as Arsenal. Is that even a compliment anymore?
That hints at Benitez’s greatest strength: setting a side up not to lose, be resilient and take their chances as and when they arise. At St James’ Park, with the home supporters expecting to see their team attack, Newcastle have struggled most.
Which all makes a trip to Palace, two points and one place above Newcastle in the table, massively important. Lose and the fears of immediate relegation will only grow.
One-on-one battle to watch – Aaron Mooy vs Paul Pogba
Pogba may have been crowned ‘king of the assists’ by Manchester United supporters, but he was dreadful at Wembley on Wednesday. Jose Mourinho had used the Frenchman’s absence as a reason for his side’s poor results in away games against Big Six peers. That excuse was disproven against Tottenham.
And yet Mourinho is to blame as much as Pogba. When you know your central midfielder excels at surging forward and playing intricate passes through the lines for attacking players, picking him alongside a lone defensive midfielder and in front of a questionable centre-back pairing against a team who delight in counter attacking was tactical suicide.
However, Mourinho picked that system for a reason: it is the only way to get Alexis Sanchez and Pogba in their favourite positions. The only alternative would be to play a 4-3-3 with Pogba on the left of a midfield three and Sanchez as the wide forward, but that potentially leaves even bigger gaps on the left.
So does Mourinho go with the same again and hope that Huddersfield just fail to exploit the flaws like Spurs did? If so, it leaves Aaron Mooy and new signing Alex Pritchard as a potential overload on Matic when Huddersfield win possession. You can get 9/1 on either of them scoring anytime. Why the heck not? (Because they probably won’t score).
Football League game to watch – Wolves vs Sheffield United
Wolves will get promoted this season. The quality of the players is too high and the lead too great to cause any kind of collapse now. The battle for second place in the Championship is intriguing, but Wolves now have an 11-point gap over Derby County.
Still, Nuno will want his team to get themselves back on track against Sheffield United. Midweek victory at Ipswich ended a run of four matches without a win, and Wolves were deservedly beaten in their last home game by Nottingham Forest. Sheffield United are a stronger team than Forest this season.
Chris Wilder has the same issue, but even more pronounced. If Wolves have suffered a blip then Sheffield United are stuck in a rut after a wonderful first three months of the season. The Blades looked like automatic promotion contenders until November, but since beating Burton 3-1 away have won only two of their 12 league matches. FA Cup progression is heartening, but the league form is becoming a niggling headache.
Still, there is reason to be positive. Wilder’s team have drawn two and won one of their last three away matches at Derby, Aston Villa and Norwich. Win at Wolves on Saturday and their promotion campaign can get back on the rails.
European game to watch – Atletico Madrid vs Valencia
I’ve written plenty enough words already, and there are places you can go to for expert La Liga previews. Instead I’m going to list the incredible number of unwanted Premier League players that could play in this match:
Stefan Savić – Failed miserably at Manchester City.
Diego Costa – Told by text message that Chelsea didn’t want him.
Filipe Luis – Dreadful at Chelsea.
Fernando Torres – See above.
Gabriel Paulista – Not fit for purpose at Arsenal, which is saying something.
Francis Coquelin – See above.
Simone Zaza – Embarrassingly bad at West Ham.
Is this the golden age of La Liga?
Writer to watch – Daniel Storey
Planet Sport quiz: Test your knowledge on British star Kyle Edmund. (Tennis365)