Big Weekend: Tottenham, Sanchez, Wolves v Liverpool, Puel

Ian Watson

Game to watch – Wolves v Liverpool
After the Lord Mayor’s show comes the sh*t-cart, and after a bumper Christmas of football, comes this weekend.

FA Cup third-round weekend is often seen as one of the more romantic times in the football calendar, but arousal is in short supply this year. We may come out of the weekend with some thrilling stories to tell, but it is hard to see where they might come.

Tottenham’s trip to Tranmere, one of the few David v Goliath ties pulled out of the hat, on Friday is perhaps a decent start to the weekend for reasons we will come to. But then we have to wait until Monday night for the other intriguing tie.

Perhaps we’re not getting into the spirit of things by picking out Liverpool’s trip to Wolves, what with it being an all-Premier League tie, one of only two in this round alongside Bournemouth v Brighton. But there are plenty of questions to be answered by Nuno and Jurgen Klopp’s sides.

The pair met only a fortnight ago and it went as you might expect. Liverpool were impressive in holding off a spirited Wolves side, who often cause the big boys but subsequently suffer against more run-of-the-mill opponents. Will Nuno rally his men and how many changes will he make after the 2-0 home defeat to Crystal Palace in midweek?

Klopp also has the tricky task of balancing his side. Some learned observers suggested Liverpool chuck in the Champions League to focus on the title race so this competition is nowhere near the top on their priorities. But momentum is the buzzword – one of many, seemingly – and the Reds have it to regain after Thursday night.

 

Team to watch – Tottenham
It was Wolves who ruined Spurs’ momentum before the end of 2018 with a 3-1 win at Wembley. Mauricio Pochettino admitted that defeat was largely down to fatigue after a run of 12 wins in 15 but he chose not to pay too much attention to the problem when he made only one change for the victory at Cardiff on New Year’s Day.

Knowing what Pochettino thinks of the FA Cup and where he places it among his priorities, we can be sure that Spurs will have a very different look about them when they go to Prenton Park to face Tranmere from League Two. Especially so with Chelsea and Manchester United due at Wembley next week.

Pochettino had this problem last season and his squad failed to deal with it as efficiently as the manager might have liked. AFC Wimbledon were eventually swatted aside in the third round a year ago, but that home win prompted a trip to Newport, where sloppy Spurs were fortunate to avoid a humiliating exit.

Spurs were also made to go to a replay when they were dispatched to Rochdale in round five. With the same squad at his disposal, Pochettino would prefer if his players have learned their lesson.

His approach too will be fascinating. Even though Spurs are competing in the title race, they are the third-favourites to cross the line first. Either domestic cup appears the simplest and quickest way to silence his doubters who point to a lack silverware, despite the obvious progress being made. Losing in the FA Cup semi-final last year was another wasted opportunity and who knows how long Pochettino has left to right the only wrong of his Spurs reign?

 

Player to watch – Alexis Sanchez
We’ve all seen Paul Pogba’s response to being freed from Jose Mourinho’s shackles. Now it is Sanchez’s turn.

The Chilean forward returned at Newcastle on Wednesday from a very conveniently-timed hamstring injury, sustained in training, ruling him out until January at a time when relations between the player and former manager were reportedly at their worst. But now Mourinho is gone, it would surprise very few to see Sanchez rediscover his mojo in a way similar to so many of his team-mates.

Solskjaer will make changes for the visit of Reading on Saturday lunchtime, with the highly-anticipated debut of Mason Greenwood perhaps the most exciting among them. But Sanchez seems almost certain to play in the frontline given how he needs the minutes in his legs after a seven-match absence, with his last start coming over two months ago.

The 30-year-old needs to make the most of this opportunity to kick-start his United career. Under Mourinho, he was finished and there are plenty of others at Old Trafford, many who remain in place, who had written Sanchez off – even if the size of his salary meant Ed Woodward would struggle to do the same.

The former Arsenal and Barcelona star will have no better opportunity to get his eye in. Buoyant United host a free-falling, 23rd-placed Championship side who last won on the day Sanchez last started, with the 4-1 home defeat to Swansea the Royals’ 10th game without a win.

 

Manager to watch – Claude Puel

“It will be a good opportunity for the squad to perform together and to win something. We know the importance of winning something. The cup will be important for us. The chairman liked it a lot and it will be our desire to try to perform.”

That was Puel speaking about the Carabao Cup, which Leicester exited at the quarter-final stage to Manchester City on penalties. The Foxes boss rested a number of players despite being comfortable in the Premier League table. The Frenchman was widely criticised – Paul Merson thought his selection was an ‘absolute disgrace’ – and before Christmas, it was thought he would beat Mourinho to the dole queue.

Then Leicester beat City in the Premier League, with wins at Chelsea and Everton either side. A last-minute home defeat to Cardiff was the only other sour note of a Christmas period that perhaps kept Puel in a job.

If the manager was serious about winning something, especially in the memory of Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, then the road to glory begins in the uncomfortable surroundings of Newport, in full view of the BBC cameras on Sunday afternoon.

Puel has previous with tricky FA Cup ties. His first was a trip to Fleetwood a year ago when the Foxes fought out a goalless stalemate when the only regulars in his XI were Demarai Grey and Ben Chilwell. The boss appears to recognise that the cup means more to Leicester this year and he has to find the balance with his selection. Coming a cropper on the ground that Spurs struggled on last season would see Puel quickly lose a lot of the credit he has built up over Christmas.

 

European game to watch – Sevilla v Atletico Madrid
With little to get the pulses racing domestically, we can’t even look to the continent for kicks. Most of the big European leagues are still in the midst of their winter breaks, with La Liga the only division among the big five to be in play this weekend.

If an hour of Woking v Watford reserves has worn you down, then Sevilla against Atletico Madrid should serve as some immediate blessed relief. It’s third hosting second, with Atletico looking to move level on points with Barcelona, at least until Barca recommence their season at Getafe on Sunday night.

That Atletico are so close to Barca is quite remarkable given their away form this season. Diego Simeone’s side have won just twice in eight matches on the road, though they have only lost once. If Atletico could have turned a couple of their five away draws into victories, they would have topped the table at Christmas.

That would have eaten away at Simeone over the festive period, during which time at least Antoine Griezmann will have enjoyed a break. The star striker, who played 69 games in 2018, started the season slowly but three goals in four games prior to Christmas suggests he has rediscovered his spark.

Sevilla haven’t lacked theirs this season, especially in attack – only Barca have scored more than Pablo Machin’s men. Their priority this month is to do the required strengthening to retain their place in the title race, and climbing above Atletico into second this weekend might tempt sporting director Joaquin Caparros to really push the boat out.

Ian Watson