Big Weekend: Man United, Morata, Rafa, Lovren v Vardy

Ian Watson

Game to watch – Man United v Southampton
Amid all the sniggering at Man United’s results over the last week and Jose Mourinho’s claim that the club had not spent enough money to keep up with Manchester City, the fact that the manager made a fair point in the wake of a home draw to Burnley has been somewhat lost.

“One thing is a big club and another thing is a big football team. They are two different things.” United certainly fulfil the criteria for one but remain someway short of the other, due to a number of factors, with varying levels of blame falling at the current manager’s feet.

There is no question Mourinho’s life is being made all the more difficult by Pep Guardiola’s success across town. United are making progress under the Portuguese – their tally of 42 points is two short of the average for Premier League leaders at the halfway point over the last 25 years – but it’s not coming fast enough to satisfy his critics.

Mourinho makes himself fair game. As does United’s recent form. Their last three performances have driven the manager to call his side “childish” after conceding a series of “S” – or sh*t – goals. He also praised the United fans for sticking with the team while they were chasing a two-goal deficit at home to Burnley, but a repeat of such inadequacy this weekend will not be tolerated quite so well at Old Trafford.

Luckily for them, United face a Southampton side that have won one of their last 11. And that victory came against a pre-Big Sam Everton side, when everyone was beating them.

The Saints are in dire straits, which culminated in a 5-2 Boxing Day hiding at the hands of Spurs. Only Bournemouth have been in worse form over the last five matches.

After rolling over at Wembley, Maya Yoshida said “the situation is even worse now’ than when Claude Puel was fired in the summer. “I would say yes,” said Yoshida when answering his own question over whether the team’s attitude needs to improve. Hardly a ringing endorsement for Mauricio Pellegrino and his methods.

Nor were the travelling fans’ chants at Wembley for the manager to be sacked. At the very least, Pellegrino needs his players to have a go, which, encouragingly, has been proven to be a successful tactic against Mourinho’s defence of late.


Player to watch – Alvaro Morata
Stoke are facing a defensive crisis this weekend, just as they were when they last took on Chelsea back in September. On that day, Alvaro Morata helped himself to a hat-trick, and the Chelsea striker will likely fancy his chances of repeating such a haul.

The Potters have avoided defeat in their last two outings, with the 1-1 draw at Huddersfield coming on the back of a precious win over West Brom. Despite their improvement, Mark Hughes won’t fancy a trip to Stamford Bridge but he travels with an excuse at the ready.

Ryan Shawcross and Bruno Martins Indi are both injured while Erik Pieters is touch and go. Add those absences to the fact that Kurt Zouma is ineligible to face his parent club, and you see Hughes’s problem.

If Stoke can’t keep Morata quiet, perhaps they might be wise to focus their efforts on cutting off his supply line – namely, Cesar Azpilicueta.

The Spain defender has set up six of Morata’s 10 goals so far this season, with the cross from the right onto the striker’s bonce especially fruitful. It has proven to be Europe’s most potent working relationship so far this term, and Stoke appear wholly ill-equipped to stop them this weekend.


Team to watch – Swansea
As if being bottom of the league wasn’t motivation enough, the Swansea players have received a double kick up the arse this week.

Firstly came Leon Britton’s assessment that the Swans made errors that might make academy players blush during the 5-0 defeat at Liverpool. They won’t be the first side to get rolled over at Anfield, but they turned over of their own accord and offered up their bellies to be tickled by the Reds.

Then came the appointment of Carlos Carvalhal on Thursday, proving that not only is the football management game one of the weirdest industries around, but also that the Swans are desperate.

They sit six points from safety, which they must recognise is a deficit that cannot be allowed to grow over the remainder of the festive period, which culminates with a visit from Spurs. And beyond that, they face the Championship’s best side, Wolves, in the FA Cup, before going to Newcastle and Arsenal either side of hosting Liverpool. Welcome, Carlos…

Before any of that, Carvalhal will be hoping the new manager bounce can help his new side get something from a trip to Watford. Marco Silva’s side have actually been in worse form than their visitors over the last five games, with their win over Leicester on Boxing Day arresting a winless run that saw them lose five of their previous six matches. Swansea’s new manager must view his first game in charge as his best opportunity to get anything from his opening six.


Manager to watch – Rafa Benitez
The Newcastle boss received plenty of criticism over the tactics he employed to try and stop Manchester City on Wednesday, though his backers will ask: ‘What was he supposed to do?’ This weekend will be very different and it brings a challenge far more pivotal to his side’s prospects for the rest of the season.

The “clever” Newcastle fans Benitez referred to on Wednesday will expect their side to attack Brighton on Saturday afternoon, just as they expected them to go at Bournemouth, Watford, Everton and Leicester. Except those St James’ Park meetings also ended in defeat, leaving United on their worst home run since 1953 and Rafa having been beaten in six of his last 10 home matches in the Premier League – he’d lost six out of 110 prior to that.

So what will Benitez do to arrest his side’s slump this weekend? Who sodding knows?! The Newcastle boss has tinkered with everything from formation to selection in trying to find a winning formula and the only thing we know for sure ahead of the Seagulls’ visit is that there will be changes to the XI again. That, and also the guarantee of a plea for new players next month, regardless of what his current crew of try-hards achieve against Chris Hughton’s men.


One-on-one battle to watch –  Jamie Vardy v Dejan Lovren
All of Liverpool’s centre-halves were put on notice this week by the impending arrival of Virgil van Dijk. You might say they must have seen it coming, but Jurgen Klopp’s defenders have missed plenty more besides over recent months.

Dejan Lovren, Joel Matip and Ragnar Klavan obviously have most to worry about, even if Martin Keown suggested all three should be bombed and Joe Gomez moved inside to partner Van Dijk. Given Klopp’s tendency to rotate his centre-halves, it is not immediately obvious who is most at risk from the £75million recruit’s arrival, but the suspicion is Lovren has used up most of whatever credit he had in the bank with the Liverpool boss.

So, this weekend, the Croatia centre-back will be looking to make a point. But, as always against the big clubs, so too will Jamie Vardy.

The Leicester striker is the opposite of a flat-track bully, a reverse Romelu Lukaku – he loves playing against the big clubs and invariably scores against them too. His strike against Man Utd in the 2-2 draw last weekend took his tally to 21 goals in 40 matches against the top six.

Six goals in his last four games against them suggests Vardy especially loves playing against Jurgen Klopp’s side. The England forward has scored more goals against the Reds than any other opponent, likely due to the high line Klopp likes to use despite the fact that none of his centre-halves are especially rapid. Vardy will be licking his lips again this weekend, while Lovren worries about his short and long-term prospects.


Football League game to watch – Bristol City v Wolves
The Championship ends 2017 with a bang as the top two meet at 5:30pm on Saturday.

Lee Johnson spoke this week of the need for City to “do a job for the league” as they look to put a dent in Wolves’ eight-point lead at the summit. Given their form of late, if anyone is going to rein in Nuno Espirito Santo’s side, then the Robins appear best placed to do so.

The Carabao Cup semi-finalists are unbeaten in their last seven, with the famous triumph over Man Utd one of six victories on that run. They will host a Wolves side that is unbeaten in 10 matches, with eight of those being wins. Both teams have lost three times in the Championship all season, leading up to what Nuno must regard as his team’s biggest test so far during their procession back to the Premier League.


European game to watch – Inter Milan v Lazio
It’s slim pickings while most of Europe puts its feet up during their winter break, but Serie A ploughs on regardless, with Inter Milan in need of some festive cheer this weekend.

After three straight defeats, the last of which came in extra-time in the Italian Cup to struggling city rivals AC Milan, Luciano Spalletti’s side sit in third place in Serie A, trailing Juventus by four points and leaders Napoli by five. With both Napoli and Juve facing 17th and 19th-placed opposition respectively this weekend, Inter need a drastic improvement against fifth-placed Lazio to keep in touch with the pace-setters.

Spalletti tore into his players, including leading scorer Mauro Icardi, after the midweek derby defeat, hoping for a reaction this weekend. “We must turn a corner, and realise that we should do more,” he urged. If the coach’s words fall on deaf ears, Inter will allow Roma the opportunity to leapfrog them this weekend, while Lazio could close the gap to a single point with a game in hand.

Ian Watson