Big weekend: The watcher…

Date published: Friday 16th September 2016 8:03

Game to watch – Watford vs Manchester United
Sunday’s early fare would not have featured on this page had Manchester United taken one or three points from their home fixture against Manchester City and avoided defeat in Rotterdam, but suddenly there are a few questions surrounding Jose Mourinho. Does he go 4-3-3 to get the best out of Paul Pogba? Can he risk Jesse Lingard again so soon after that wretched first-half display at Old Trafford? Does Marcus Rashford finally get a league start? Will Anthony Martial be recalled? Does Chris Smalling find himself persona grata again?

With Wayne Rooney rested in Europe, United’s captain will surely keep his place in the starting line-up. Even those who believe that he is still one of the club’s best 11 players must concede that fitting him and Pogba into the same team will prove difficult; Rooney’s No. 10 role relies on a 4-2-3-1 formation and Pogba’s dynamism relies on a 4-3-3. One option would be to put Rooney on the left or right, but again that just feels like crowbarring him into the team at the expense of the greater good.

Personally (no, I know, you never asked), it would be lovely to see United try a 4-3-3 formation with a team of De Gea, Valencia, Shaw, Smalling, Bailly, Fellaini, Herrera, Pogba, Mata, Martial, Ibrahimovic/Rashford. Think I might be waiting a while.


Player to watch – Kelechi Iheanacho
Sergio Aguero’s suspension will have caused Pep Guardiola an initial headache, but victory in the Manchester derby was the perfect paracetamol. Manchester City now face Bournemouth in the Premier League and Swansea in the League Cup, two opponents who Guardiola will be content to face without his best striker.

Guardiola’s equanimity stems directly from the performances of Aguero’s backup. Iheanacho arrived on the scene under Manuel Pellegrini, but he is already developing under Guardiola. Nine goals and three assists in 822 league minutes is not sustainable in the long term, but it’s a remarkable run that may well continue at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday. Bournemouth conceded 15 goals in their away games at last season’s top six, and five of those came against City as Raheem Sterling hit a hat-trick. Odds of 5/1 on Iheanacho scoring two or more goals look mighty generous.


Team to watch – Chelsea (and their new central defence)
The injury to John Terry made David Luiz’s second debut likely, and on Thursday Antonio Conte confirmed that the Brazilian would indeed start.

“Tomorrow David Luiz will play for the first time with us, and we are confident about this,” Conte said. “We expect him to play very well, with great attention. We know David is a great player. We are working to put him in the best condition to give us the best of him.”

Luiz might be a “great player” (and Conte has already spoken of him as a potential Chelsea great), but there are valid questions regarding his suitability for the role; let’s not pretend he was Chelsea’s first choice. Luiz’s weaknesses are in his positioning and concentration, and it is in exactly these areas that Liverpool’s band of attacking midfielders will test him.

Knowing when to follow Roberto Firmino and when to let him drift could well be the key to Chelsea’s success. So too will Luiz’s concentration, with Liverpool constantly pushing forward runners from midfield to assist their counter-attacks. It’s going to be a fascinating watch.


Manager to watch – Claude Puel
Southampton’s new manager is struggling, of that there is no doubt. His team are winless in their first four league games and, while defeats at Arsenal and Manchester United are not disastrous, failing to beat Sunderland and Watford at home does provide cause for concern.

The interesting element of Puel’s team selection comes in attack, where the Frenchman cannot seem to settle on a balanced front two. Winger Nathan Redmond has started every game as a striker, but has been joined by Shane Long, Charlie Austin and Jay Rodriguez in turn.

The suspicion that Southampton needed a replacement for Graziano Pelle is not going to go away any time soon, particularly as Puel searches for a make-do solution. Fail to beat Swansea on Saturday, and the grumbles will ring around St Mary’s.


One-on-one battle to watch – Diego Costa vs Joel Matip
A central defender finding life in the Premier League tough after arriving from abroad is nothing new, but Joel Matip is in danger of showing up his peers. The Cameroon international has slotted so easily into Jurgen Klopp’s defence that it feels like he’s always been there. Only good things can come from Liverpool finally having a truly reliable centre-back.

Having impressed against Tottenham and Leicester, Matip now faces his toughest examination yet – dealing with an in-form and prickly Diego Costa. The Chelsea striker is already only two yellow cards away from a suspension, but has scored four goals in 350 minutes to lead in the early stages of the Golden Boot race. Costa will try and threaten Matip’s usually calm demeanour; Matip will try and frustrate Costa beyond boiling point.

Matip is quick, patient, strong in the air and disciplined. Unlike Mamadou Sakho, Dejan Lovren, Kolo Toure and Martin Skrtel, there isn’t any obvious deficiency. Pass this test, and Liverpool fans can truly begin to get excited about their new central defender. Now don’t go and prove me wrong.


Football League game to watch – Newcastle vs Wolves
Both Newcastle and Wolves have European managers trying out their hand in the Championship for the first time at clubs with full pockets and promotion ambitions, but that’s where the similarities between Rafael Benitez and Walter Zenga end. While Wolves’ 4-0 home defeat by Barnsley increased the rumours that Zenga is already preparing to leave the West Midlands, Rafa is enjoying every minute of life in Newcastle.

It is difficult to imagine a better fit for Benitez, despite Newcastle’s relegation from the top flight. He has a football-mad city desperate to see their sleeping giant wake and embrace a new day, a club that appears to finally have allowed a manager to do things his way, and by far the strongest squad in the Football League. Before anyone points out Newcastle’s massive transfer budget, they made a profit on players this summer.

Newcastle have now won six consecutive games in league and cup, scoring 17 times and conceding once. Their 6-0 away win at QPR on Tuesday was remarkable, not least because they had one goal wrongly disallowed and hit the woodwork too. Benitez’s side were one goal away from equalling their biggest ever away victory.

With Wolves having taken one point from their last three games as the Zengabus careers into the central reservation, the crowd at St James’ Park will be confident of another comfortable victory. Should they do so and Huddersfield fail to beat QPR, Newcastle will go top of the Championship. It’s going to be damn hard to shift them from that position between October and May.


European game to watch – Internazionale vs Juventus
The first Derby d’Italia of the Serie A season, between Italian football’s two modern heavyweights, Juventus’ recent league results against Inter have followed a pleasing pattern: win, draw, win, draw, win, draw, win. Last season also saw a wonderful Coppa Italia semi-final between the two, with both home sides winning 3-0 before Juve advanced on penalties.

Were this game being played at the Juventus Stadium, interest may soon wane. Juve have won their last 18 home league games, conceding just five goals in a run stretching back until September 2015. Yet away from home there have been some signs of weakness. By that I mean that Massimo Allegri’s side have dropped five points on the road since last October, and three of those were in a meaningless last-day encounter against Verona.

Inter are currently a fascinating watch, having won one, lost one and drawn one so far under Frank de Boer. The Dutchman is trying to pick up the pieces Roberto Mancini left strewn on the floor, but in Mauro Icardi and Ivan Perisic has forwards who can hurt Juventus. All eyes are on the partnership between Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala for the visitors.


Punt of the week
Romelu Lukaku is 7/5 to score at any time (and 9/2 as first goalscorer) against Middlesbrough at home, six days after scoring a hat-trick. It doesn’t take much to persuade me to climb all over Lukaku, and this is plenty enough excuse.


Where is Mike Dean?
He’s back, like that old friend you see again after 15 years, go for a drink with to catch up on old times and promptly realise three sips in why you stopped replying to his messages.

After being cruelly shunned and disrespected with the job of fourth official for the Manchester derby, Dean is back in business and back on the telly, with Tottenham vs Sunderland. Prepare your penalty bets.


Ten live matches to watch (because having a social life is overrated)
Chelsea vs Liverpool (Friday, 8.00pm, Sky Sports 1)
Leganes vs Barcelona (Saturday, 12.00pm, Sky Sports 5)
Cardiff City vs Leeds United (Saturday, 12.30pm, Sky Sports 1)
Everton vs Middlesbrough (Saturday, 5.30pm, Sky Sports 1)
Napoli vs Bologna (Saturday, 7.45pm, BT Sport 2)
Watford vs Manchester United (Sunday, 12.00pm, BT Sport 1)
Crystal Palace vs Stoke City (Sunday, 2.15pm, Sky Sports 1)
Tottenham Hotspur vs Sunderland (Sunday, 4.30pm, Sky Sports 1)
Inter Milan vs Juventus (Sunday, 5.00pm, BT Sport 2)
Marseille vs Lyon (Sunday, 7.00pm, BT Sport 1)


Daniel Storey

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