Big Weekend: Palace v Leicester, Ozil, Pochettino, Man Utd

Date published: Friday 1st November 2019 12:14

Game to watch – Crystal Palace v Leicester
A meeting between third and sixth should never go unnoticed or overlooked, particularly not now we are permitted to actually talk about the Premier League table. Crystal Palace and Leicester have lingered long enough to prove they are not here by accident.

Leicester certainly have, anyway. Their defence has been sturdy and solid but, of late, it is their attack that has caught the eye. Brendan Rodgers has moulded a quite wonderful side in his image.

Yet they cannot possibly hope to emulate their last record-breaking Premier League outing. Southampton might have been kind enough to give up nine goals in 90 minutes but Palace have let in just three at Selhurst Park this season.

Roy Hodgson has built this unfathomable success from the ashes of a potential disaster. His two best players sought to leave this summer, with one able and the other clearly shaken by his inability to follow suit (though he has not lost his ability to cause problems for the opposition). Their only signings for money were of a player they already owned in Jordan Ayew and another that has hardly played in James McCarthy.

And they beat Leicester the last time these two sides faced one another in February, a 4-1 humbling that prompted the departure of Claude Puel the next day. The Foxes owe the Eagles a debt of gratitude that is unlikely to be repaid on Sunday.

But there is genuine intrigue. The assumption was that Palace would drop off and their results start to revert to the mean; it is difficult to decipher much from the 2-2 comeback draw against Arsenal, given the nature of the opposition. As for Leicester, this is precisely the sort of obstacle they have to manoeuvre to prove themselves worthy of their current standing. It might be time for someone to lose their temporary seat at the top table.

 

Player to watch – Mesut Ozil
Something had to give. A decision as drastic as ostracising the highest-paid player in your club’s history – whether Unai Emery’s call or not – would only ever be viewed through the prism of Arsenal’s results and performances. Every step in the right direction justifies his absence; every slip, stumble or stutter precipitates calls for his return.

Considering this past fortnight has included a defeat to Sheffield United, a narrow home win against Vitoria, a very public clash between captain and fanbase and a game in which a couple of separate two-goal leads were spurned, it is no surprise that a ceasefire beckons.

Mesut Ozil was, after all, excellent against Liverpool. And though the reasons for his lack of opportunities remain a mystery, what is certain is that Emery’s alternatives have simply not worked. It’s almost as if Lucas Torreira is not designed to play intricate balls from behind the striker.

His likely return signals a change in mindset, a mea culpa of sorts from the manager. But it has to elicit a response. Ozil must make an impact against Wolves, to prove the folly and futility of his treatment. He has to show how foolish it has been to omit him or Emery will feel more vindicated than ever in ignoring him.

It seems strange that a 31-year-old World Cup winner might be subjected to this sort of judgement on a per-game basis, but Ozil is aware of the situation. He is in control of his own prospects, and only he is able to change established perceptions. The most effective, compelling argument he and his supporters can make now is on the pitch.

 

Manager to watch – Mauricio Pochettino
Having described his last visit to Goodison Park asmy present for my wife” after 26 years of marriage, Mauricio Pochettino would not have expected his other holy union to be questioned so soon. Yet we are no closer to discovering whether he and Tottenham are still compatible.

It was here where Spurs reached the point upon which they could never build. A 6-2 win over Everton on December 23 was a thrilling showcase for a side pushing Manchester City and Liverpool to their limits. Christian Eriksen was sensational. Heung-min Son and Harry Kane were lethal. Kieran Trippier was booked.

This really was a three-horse race.

Then the rollercoaster took a nosedive. The journey to the Champions League final feels like more of a belligerent outlier with each game. Liverpool highlighted and perhaps even extended that gap last weekend. This is the second time this season Tottenham have gone three or more consecutive Premier League games without a win, and fourth of 2019 overall.

For context, they had only suffered seven such runs in four years under Pochettino from his appointment in May 2014 to December 2018.

It was thought that little would be learned from the two league games that followed the Brighton debacle and subsequent international break – that Watford would be beaten and Liverpool too strong. But the first match was a draw and the second an onslaught. The bar is somehow still being lowered.

A return to the scene of one of their last truly brilliant performances serves as both a reminder of how far they have fallen but also how high they once climbed. Against an Everton side that have lost five of their last six league games, failure to win would be debilitating.

 

Team to watch – Manchester United
There are greater, more pertinent examples of their struggle for consistency, but Manchester United have not recorded consecutive Premier League results of any kind all season. An opening-day win was followed by a draw and a defeat, then came draw, win, defeat, draw, defeat, draw and finally the Norwich win.

United have suffered back-to-back draws (v Chelsea and Huddersfield in April and May) or losses (v Everton and Manchester City in April) more recently than they have recorded successive league wins (v Crystal Palace and Southampton in February and March). So for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, even a semblance of stability and regularity would be welcomed.

Bournemouth could be the ideal opponent; one might even say cherry-picked. The only goal scored for or against Eddie Howe’s side in the entirety of October was by David Luiz. They are three games without a goal, four without a win, and their only victories so far have come against the teams currently 15th, 16th and 18th.

They should not be underestimated. It stands to reason that their new-found defensive resolve will eventually fuse with their old attacking instincts. Callum Wilson remains a threat and Josh King a unique danger.

But United have no excuse not to reiterate the message they sent first against Norwich and then at Chelsea. Anthony Martial’s return has rejuvenated them, easing the weight on Marcus Rashford’s shoulders and thus the pressure on the midfield to create and the defence to stand firm. They look more free, more confident and more like themselves. A setback now could derail it all again.

 

Football League game to watch – West Brom v Stoke
A Premier League fixture as recently as December 2017, this Championship match pits one team bound for the top flight against another hurtling uncontrollably towards the third tier.

Much has changed since that 3-1 Stoke win almost two years ago. The two managers, Mark Hughes and Alan Pardew, are both currently out of permanent work. Nathan Jones could soon be joining them, with the Potters level on points with Barnsley at the bottom, four points from safety.

Slaven Bilic, conversely, has inspired West Brom in much less time. The seeds that were sown by Darren Moore have been reaped to form a side that has scored more goals than all but Preston but conceded more than nine others, and as many as Middlesbrough in 22nd.

The Baggies have kept just two clean sheets but have scored two or more goals eight times. Jones has been in charge of Stoke for 38 games and their points total of 33 is just six more than West Brom have managed in 14 matches under Bilic. The irresistible force meets the eminently movable object on Monday when something has to – and inevitably will – give.

 

European game to watch – Dortmund v Wolfsburg
As we tentatively step into November, five clubs across Europe’s top ten leagues are still unbeaten. Farewell, Familicao; we hardly knew ye.

Wolfsburg are perhaps the most intriguing of those left standing. Bruno Labbadia guided them to sixth last season through an attacking approach that promoted high-scoring matches. Their final two games – a 3-0 defeat to relegated Stuttgart and 8-1 victory over Augsburg – rather summed them up.

But his and his coaching team’s mutual decision to leave in the summer has prompted more than a managerial change. Labbadia’s spirit lived on through their first three games as FC Koln were beaten 2-1 and Hertha BSC 3-0, with Hallescher FC overcome in a 5-3 DFB-Pokal thriller. But replacement Oliver Glasner has since instilled a defensive discipline and structure that has seen them fail to either score or concede more than one goal in any of their last seven Bundesliga games.

It has not made for particularly exciting matches, but the success is undoubted. Wolfsburg are fourth, two points behind surprise leaders Gladbach. Dortmund, unfortunately for them, are one point further back and intent on closing that gap.

Lucien Favre has overseen just three wins in his last nine matches, and four draws in five in the Bundesliga. The Black and Yellows are stuttering somewhat, yet their only defeats have come away to relegation strugglers Union Berlin and Antonio Conte’s Inter Milan. Only Schalke and Tottenham have visited the Westfalenstadion and won since the start of last season. Wolfsburg will not be relying on a goal fest to change that.

Matt Stead


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