It’s a huge weekend everywhere we look, in the FA Cup, Premier League, Championship, and National League. Arsenal, Illan Meslier and Cristian Stellini need to shape up sharpish…
Game to watch – Man Utd v Brighton
Manchester United had one of their moments again on Thursday night. What next?
It was bad. Oh so bad. The defeat to Sevilla was every bit as bad as anything served up under Ralf Rangnick or Ole Gunnar Solskjaer last season. We knew United still had in them to sh*t their bed and smear the walls, but the manner of their Europa League exit ought to end a number of Old Trafford careers.
They have two days to get over the hangover before they face Brighton in the FA Cup semi-final. The bad news: they have no centre-backs. The good news: Harry Maguire is suspended.
And Bruno Fernandes is back. The Portuguese playmaker was missing in Seville and without their leader, United caved in. Unfortunately, he’s not a central defender, and they are left with Victor Lindelof, as Lisandro Martinez and Raphael Varane are crocked. And possibly so too Luke Shaw.
All of which is a massive problem because at Wembley they will face a side better than the Sevilla team that pulled their pants down on Thursday. If Brighton weren’t strongly fancied before to turn over Erik ten Hag’s men, they certainly are now. Especially if Roberto De Zerbi can inspire a similar performance to the one that embarrassed Chelsea on their own patch last week.
It is difficult to articulate how much better Brighton were than Frank Lampard’s bunch of beleaguered Blues. The 2-1 scoreline certainly wasn’t an accurate indication of the Seagulls’ superiority. De Zerbi watched his side pepper Chelsea’s goal with 26 shots while putting on a clinic for Lampard and Todd Boehly on how to organise a team and run a club. United could be forced to sit through the same again on Sunday.
Player to watch – Illan Meslier
The Leeds goalkeeper is a contradiction in gloves. Bayern Munich and Manchester United are supposedly among the clubs tracking the France Under-21 international who, right now, can’t stop conceding.
Meslier has given up 11 goals from 11 shots on target over the last two games which his side have lost 5-1 and 6-1 to Palace and Liverpool respectively. The Leeds No.1 hardly chucked any of them in but it’s a damning statistic. And there is little doubt he has been far too easy to beat of late.
His recent form has confirmed to some what they already suspected. “They look like they have got a kid in goal,” said Jamie Carragher on Monday night. “He’s got no presence.”
He’s got no defence to speak of either, but Carragher is not a lone voice; Meslier has an impressive showreel of saves but also too many bloopers. He might have looked a kid to Carragher because, not long ago, he was. But Meslier is now 23 with plenty of experience behind him. Javi Gracia is entitled to expect more.
Leeds need more, especially if their defence doesn’t shape up sharpish. But Gracia isn’t a miracle worker – individually and as a unit, they have been making these kinds of mistakes for months now. Maybe Meslier was covering for them, but the numbers suggest he’s hardly pulled his weight.
Dropping their No.1 would be a huge call and an even bigger gamble given Joel Robles is their only viable alternative. But Gracia needs to find some way of motivating Meslier to demonstrate why others seem to rate him as one of the best prospects around.
Team to watch – Arsenal
Are Arsenal bottling it? F*** up on Friday and it would be hard to argue otherwise.
After blowing two two-goal leads inside eight days, at Liverpool and West Ham, the Gunners return home to host the side currently bottom of the league. On paper, it’s the kindest fixture they could have hoped for after a chastening fortnight, before the all-important trip to Manchester City in midweek.
But if the jitters have set in, it won’t matter much that Southampton are at the polar opposite end of the table. They have already held Arsenal once this season and though they have been naïve, sloppy and sometimes downright wretched, Saints can still produce moments to touch every last nerve at the Emirates.
This would be a mighty fine time for Arsenal to summon the ruthlessness and consistency that has seen them lead from the front this season. They started brilliantly against both Liverpool and West Ham before caving alarmingly.
They might not have bottled it, but they are wobbling and their margin for error is gone. Nothing but a win – and a convincing one, in terms of performance if not scoreline – will do on Friday night.
Manager to watch – Cristian Stellini
The Italian was a surprising choice to replace Antonio Conte, even if only as an interim boss. Rather less surprising to everyone not named Daniel Levy is the fact that Stellini hasn’t changed a damn thing since stepping up to replace his mate.
The former assistant has stuck rigidly to the same system, style and personnel that got Conte fired in the first place. The result: Spurs have continued to flounder and their top four hopes have waned to the extent that they could finish the weekend six points off the Champions League qualification places with six games to go, having played at least one more than Manchester United or Newcastle.
To Newcastle they go on Sunday and the contrast between the two clubs could hardly be greater. The Magpies are unified, spirited and ahead of schedule in achieving their ambitions. Spurs are fighting among themselves without the sketch of a plan.
Yet, somehow, all is not yet lost. It remains possible that this Spurs side could play Champions League football next season. That prospect will quickly evaporate, possibly on Tyneside, unless Conte Lite finds a way to shake things up. We won’t be holding our breath.
EFL game to watch –Preston v Blackburn
It’s a Big Weekend for the second, third and fourth-placed sides in the Championship with Sheffield United Wembley-bound for an FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City, while below them, Middlesborough and Luton meet in the hope of keeping their faint automatic promotion hopes alive, or at least securing a cushier play-off place.
At this stage, Blackburn and Preston would take whichever play-off spot you might offer them. Rovers are clinging to the last one as they sit sixth, while Preston might be five places below but could overtake their Lancashire rivals by beating them in Saturday evening’s derby at Deepdale.
Rovers would be sitting more snuggly had they not conceded a 95th-minute equaliser to Coventry, scored by Sky Blues keeper Ben Wilson, in midweek. That was their fifth game without a win – six if we include the FA Cup quarter-final defeat to the Blades – and they’ve taken six points from their last 21.
Preston are hardly in fine fettle. They have lost their last two after a run of five wins in six but remain among a gaggle of seven clubs within three points of one another. Then there’s Watford and Swansea who are three further off with three games to go. Now’s the time to stop treading on rakes, lads.
European game to watch – Wrexham v Boreham Wood
We might be stretching the boundaries here but Wales is definitely still in Europe. And Wrexham will be a huge story beyond the continent should they seal promotion to the Football League on Saturday evening.
Three more points is all they need for the National League title and for Ben Tozer to become Ryan Reynolds’ legal guardian. Ideally, the Red Dragons want to get it done and dusted on home soil against Boreham Wood in front of the BT Sport cameras. And the Netflix ones, and Ben Foster’s GoPro too.
A very-Hollywood story could be given a somewhat anti-climatic ending if Notts County fail to win earlier in the day and make Wrexham champions before they kick-off at 6:30pm. But the Magpies face rock-bottom Maidstone, so Phil Parkinson’s men are likely to need to finish the job themselves against a side with promotion ambitions of their own.