Game to watch – Tottenham v Liverpool
How Jose Mourinho would relish being the manager to halt Liverpool’s march towards invincibility. In years gone by, he might have been well fancied to pull it off, but in the here and now it is difficult to imagine a worse time for Mourinho’s Tottenham to be facing the rampant Reds.
The Jose bounce dissipated a month ago and after four wins in his first five games as Spurs boss, Mourinho’s side closed out 2019 and began 2020 with two wins in seven. There is no unit of his side which isn’t riddled with problems; his forward line was not long ago the least of those, but Harry Kane’s hamstring injury arguably takes his attack to the top of his troubled list.
Not this weekend, however. Saturday evening is likely to give Spurs fans the first glimpse of Mourinho parking his bus. And it needs to work because fans sceptical of his appointment are already starting to question the manager’s approach, having already experienced some of Mourinho’s more destructive idiosyncrasies.
But what other choice does he have this weekend? His back four have kept only one clean sheet in nine games so Mourinho will surely opt for a five-man defence. Not a back three with attacking wing-backs – Serge Aurier and presumably Ryan Sessegnon will be kept on a tight leash by centre-backs petrified of having to deal with Liverpool’s front three while Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold charge towards them too.
Those three centre-backs need protection from all sides, so Mourinho’s midfield will be structured to screen rather than serve a forward line already shorn of Kane. Yet still, given Tottenham’s struggles to play as a cohesive unit whatever the shape and Liverpool’s ridiculous ruthlessness, it is hard to imagine Klopp’s side failing to pick through the holes in Mourinho’s plan.
Parking the bus can always be justified as a means to an end when the reward is a point or three. But sitting deep in defeat is never a good look, especially for a manager who doesn’t yet enjoy the full backing of the home support. Mourinho has nothing and yet everything to lose on Saturday.
Manager to watch – Frank Lampard
Given the inexperience and youth that runs throughout Chelsea’s team all the way to the dug-out, we can excuse some inconsistency this season. But one area they have been consistent of late is their home form. It’s been sh*te.
Southampton, Bournemouth and West Ham all did a job on them before the end of the year, with only a narrow win over a sliding Villa offering Stamford Bridge any relief since November 9. The defeat to Saints marked the first time since successive losses to Arsenal and Liverpool under Andre Villas-Boas in 2011 that Chelsea had tasted back-to-back Premier League defeats at home.
The most concerning aspect of those three losses in four matches was not the concession of goals to toothless outfits – worrying though that is – but their own failure to score against any of the strugglers. Southampton hadn’t kept a clean sheet since September prior to shutting out Chelsea. Picking off the likes of Arsenal and Tottenham on the break away from home is one thing; overcoming stubborn opponents willing to soak up pressure is entirely another.
Fortunately for Lampard, he has a great deal more credit in the bank with supporters than many of the players, and now Chelsea are back in the transfer market, some of those players are fighting not only for their places but also their futures. And if they thought any of their previous four visitors were stubborn to break down, they have got a shock coming their way when Sean Dyche pulls up the handbrake on the Burnley bus.
The Clarets themselves are on a dire run having lost three on the bounce, so it’s safe to assume that since the defeat to Villa on New Year’s Day, Dyche has been drilling his back four to deal with whatever creative threat Chelsea carry. But Lampard simply has to tease some imagination out of his side. Their Premier League position has not been seriously affected by their troubles at home, but relying on the wretchedness of their rivals is not a sustainable route to a top-four finish.
Team to watch – Everton
Whatever the reaction against Brighton on Saturday, it will be a game late and a dollar short for many Evertonians and perhaps too Carlo Ancelotti. So dire were the Toffees while being given the run-around by Liverpool’s kids last week that the derby defeat may have ended the Goodison careers of some big-hitters in Ancelotti’s dressing room.
Equally as concerning for many home supporters this Saturday will be reports that the Everton players refused to accept much of the criticism hurled their way in the immediate aftermath of their Anfield shame. If they thought they had been harshly treated in the dressing room last week, just wait until the supporters get their chance to have a pop. No ground in the Premier League does angry quite like Goodison and only a vast improvement in application and performance will take the heat off Ancelotti’s under-performers.
Some of the fans couldn’t wait and they made their views clear at the training ground, where they were invited in by Marcel Brands. So this squad cannot claim to be unaware of the strength of feeling. That was presumably why only Djibril Sidibe bothered to acknowledge the away end at Anfield last week.
Ancelotti is immune from much of the criticism given the infancy of his reign, but this is a test far earlier than he perhaps anticipated upon agreeing to take over. The Italian coach was hired with a rebuild in mind, but that cannot be achieved this month – perhaps not even this year – so the wrongs can’t be put right before Graham Potter turns up with his Seagulls on Saturday.
There will be changes – not enough – and the Everton players given the opportunity to atone for last week’s embarrassment face a must-win scenario. Even a handsome victory might not be enough for some, with Ancelotti’s mind supposedly made up on half a dozen players worth at least £162million. Since the new manager can’t drop them all, it is up to them to show at least a hint of character.
Player to watch – Nemanja Matic
The Manchester United midfielder has gone from being an outcast to perhaps one of their most important players ahead of the visit of Norwich this weekend.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has had no choice but to use Matic in recent weeks while the central midfielders he would prefer to use were either crocked or crap. But the United boss has been impressed with Matic, weirdly picking him out for praise after the defeat at Arsenal before turning to him on Tuesday in a desperate attempt to steady a sinking ship.
Since Fred and Andreas Pereira failed once more to tackle or pass forward, it fell upon Matic to show them how it was done. “He offered more presence in there, it was more about wanting the ball, believing, taking the ball, passing forward,” said Solskjaer, and the assumption is that Matic will keep his place against the Canaries.
This weekend is not the sort of encounter that usually screams Matic. But since Solskjaer is down to one fit centre-back, United’s defence needs a screen while their starved forwards require the kind of service that Matic doesn’t usually offer. But nor do any of United’s other fit midfielders. Someone has to do it until United find a string-puller in the transfer market. Given their track record, it seems reasonable to assume that won’t be this month, which gives Matic the opportunity to either earn himself a new deal or, more likely, put himself in the shop window.
Football League game to watch – Cardiff v Swansea
Who rules south Wales? QPR apparently…
Cardiff and Swansea both go into their second derby of the season with hammerings at the hand of Rangers still fresh in their memories. Cardiff’s last Championship outing ended in a 6-1 defeat in west London while Swansea were only marginally better in going down 5-1 at the Kiyan Prince Foundation Stadium in the FA Cup last week.
So redemption is very much the order of the day at the Cardiff City Stadium. Those pummellings will be forgotten with a derby win, especially for the hosts after their meek defeat at the Liberty Stadium earlier in the season.
Since then, the Bluebirds have swapped Neils – replacing Warnock with Harris – and they remain in touching distance of the play-offs, four points off the top six, even if Harris insists they are not ready to challenge for promotion. Swansea currently occupy that sixth spot but they have had a rocket up their arses launched by Steve Cooper, who questioned his players’ character after last week’s cup exit. That, and the arrival of Rhian Brewster from Liverpool, should gee the Swans up for a derby made too tough to call by both sides’ infuriating inconsistency.
European game to watch – Roma v Juventus
The Bundesliga and La Liga are still on winter break but this weekend is a biggie in Serie A with six of the top eight facing each other.
Narrow leaders Inter host Atalanta on Saturday just after Napoli have taken on Lazio, while Sunday sees second go to fourth when Juventus make the trip to Roma.
Roma might want to keep an eye on a decent-looking prospect by the name of Cristiano Ronaldo, who has scored in each of Juve’s last five games, netting eight in total. That run will surely come to an end when he is inevitably pocketed by Chris Baresi Smalling. At least the loanee’s parent club aren’t short of centre-backs at the moment…