It’s the biggest midweek of the season, with what is likely to be a title decider at the Etihad. Then there’s Tottenham versus Man Utd amid a miserable week for Spurs, and Leeds in dire straits…
Game to watch – Manchester City v Arsenal
Even after the nerve-shredding draw with Southampton, their third in as many games, Arsenal can still say that the title remains in their own hands. City, having sat in the Gunners’ slipstream all season, can claim the same. But whichever side loses the battle of the top two at the Etihad on Wednesday night will be relying on the other to f*** up down the home straight.
Arsenal are trying to put on a brave face. “This young team reacts in a way that is incredible when it is against the odds, but the chances they created and the spirit they had, it was a joy to watch,” said Mikel Arteta on Friday night after two late goals secured a point when none seemed to be forthcoming. His touchline demeanour told a different story and such a frantic stalemate was not the reaction he or the Arsenal fans needed after two previous draws, each of which were a consequence of spaffing away two-goal leads.
Much about it really was ‘incredible’ but Friday illustrated a naivety in Arsenal. They have lacked composure and the calmness that City are oozing. Which is to be expected given how green these Gunners are in this position, certainly in comparison to a side chasing their third straight title. But you don’t have to have experience of a title race to recognise that it calls for cool heads. Arsenal were off their t*ts. Perhaps they wanted it too much, Jeff.
If Arteta’s men defend on Wednesday like they did on Friday, City will have their wicked way with them. It doesn’t help that William Saliba is set to be missing once more, but at least, in this bonafide title decider, the Gunners’ task is clear: they simply have to win at the Etihad for the first time since 2015. That ought to make for a thriller, at least for those of us without a dog in the fight. Can Arsenal, belatedly but in the nick of time, find a way to handle the pressure?
Team to watch – Tottenham
They can’t be that bad again. Can they?
Tickers suggested that Sunday’s putrid performance at Newcastle might not be rock bottom for Spurs, but having made the decision to hold Cristian Stellini accountable, just the tiniest new-manager bounce will ensure they up their game for Manchester United on Thursday. That’s assuming there can be a bounce when the new fella has been around longer than either of the previous two.
Stellini had to go. He should never have been made the main man in the first place but it turned out to be an even worse decision than initially thought. So what now?
Well, United first, then to Anfield they go on Sunday. Ryan Mason might be tempted to change the system but Stellini tried that for 21 minutes on Sunday, in which time they gave up a goal every 252 seconds. Maybe he might go full John Sitton, but that doesn’t seem like a very Ryan Mason thing to do.
Maybe Daniel Levy – or Daniel as we’re to call him now apparently – told Cristian Romero and Eric Dier to bring their f***ing dinner when he met the players’ committee on Monday. But Daniel’s voice, as the ringmaster of the Spurs circus, probably carries as much weight in the dressing room as it does among the fans.
Manager to watch – Javi Gracia
Stellini wasn’t the only temporary manager having a thoroughly miserable time. Gracia is having to watch Leeds disintegrate and the Spaniard seems to have little idea how to stop them sleepwalking towards the Championship.
It isn’t Gracia’s fault. The Leeds fans recognise that and their ire is reserved for Victor Orta and the board who have overseen a transformation from peak Bielsa-ball into whatever the hell this is.
The fans have also held a little back for the players who have become a shell of the side they were under Bielsa. Even under Jesse Marsch, they retained a bit of the old fire. At Fulham on Saturday, following 5-1 and 6-1 home defeats, they wilted by the Thames without so much as a whimper. Even after they fortuitously pulled a goal back late on, the expected bombardment never materialised. The one thing Leeds could be relied upon was to fight. But right now their spirit looks utterly broken.
Which is a huge problem with two massive relegation battles this week. First they host Leicester before going to Bournemouth in a pair of six-pointers. After that, it’s City and Newcastle.
Can Gracia rid Leeds of their listlessness? He appears bereft of answers and those he had aren’t working. His changes and tweaks, between and during games, aren’t working. Two he has to consider before the Foxes arrive at Elland Road: a possible, if unlikely, change of goalkeeper; and a way to get Willy Gnonto back in the side. The Italian winger, one of the few positives of Leeds’ season, has been on the bench for the last four games. Why he has remained there so long, only Gracia knows.
Player to watch – Anthony Gordon
Newcastle might be flying but Gordon’s Toon career is going about as well as his botched attempt to grow facial hair. Which is one of the few things Everton fans have to smile about right now.
On Thursday, Gordon returns to his boyhood club, the team he left in January amid much rancour and acrimony. On one of the last occasions the winger was at Goodison, as an Everton player, he was chased away from the stadium – that was before he departed for Newcastle, and just a hint at the stick Gordon can expect when he goes back to Merseyside.
That’s assuming Eddie Howe doesn’t decide to spare Gordon the grief. It hardly as though Newcastle can’t do without him. The £40million winger has started just one of the last seven games – the miserable 3-0 defeat at Aston Villa last week.
Amid his struggling start, Howe insists he’s happy with Gordon, even after the player’s tantrum when he was a sub subbed at Brentford. The start at Villa felt like an olive branch but Evertonians will be in a much less charitable mood towards the 22-year-old, regardless of whether he sees any action.
EFL game to watch – Sheffield United v West Brom
There’s a Championship game on every evening through midweek, with a Lancashire derby between wobbling Blackburn and champions-elect Burnley on Tuesday night, while Rotherham host Cardiff on Thursday evening.
Sandwiched in between on Wednesday is Sheffield United’s opportunity to secure promotion with three games to spare. Their FA Cup semi-final disappointment will be forgotten if they beat West Brom at Bramall Lane, assuming it hasn’t already been wiped from their memories. Many Blades were thinking about the Baggies long before the final whistle at Wembley.
There’s plenty at stake too for Albion. Defeat to Sunderland on Sunday saw them trade places with the Black Cats and they go to South Yorkshire in ninth but it’s not impossible that they could climb back up to fifth with a win in their game in hand over most of their rivals for a play-off place.
European game to watch – Inter Milan v Juventus
Inter are a Milan derby away from the Champions league final and, on Wednesday, they enter a derby d’Italia with a place in the Coppa Italia final at stake.
Juventus go to the San Siro having been held at home in the first leg, due in part to Romelu Lukaku. The Inter striker scored a late penalty before being sent off as a consequence of his celebration – a little f*** you to the Juve fans who’d been racially abusing him.
Lukaku will be eligible to play after receiving a pardon from the Italian authorities following the failure of Inter’s original appeal. That doesn’t mean he will – Lukaku came off the bench in Turin but two goals and an assist at Empoli at the weekend won’t harm his prospects.