We wait to see if Manchester United’s players recognise how big their midweek clash with Chelsea actually is. Also: a chance for Villa to lay down a marker; while Anthony Gordon and Chris Wilder go home…
Game to watch – Manchester United v Chelsea
No reprieve for Manchester United fans this week. Twice in four days they have to trudge to Old Trafford to watch their team go through the motions…
Or not. Like Gary Neville, many are “tired” and “bored” of the turgid fare being churned out by Erik ten Hag’s side and the visit of Chelsea on Wednesday night is unlikely to prompt a change in the mood around Old Trafford.
The United doom cycle seems to be in full effect, with the players once more intent on seeing off another manager and Ten Hag doesn’t even feel able to trust the players he signed. The 10 outfield players who phoned it in at Newcastle featured not one of his signings.
We’ve been here before with United, where the manager looks fresh out of options and ideas on how to spark something – anything – from his rabble.
It doesn’t help that in the opposite dugout will be Mauricio Pochettino, the man seemingly made for Manchester United but apparently not wanted. Pochettino inherited a similar mess at Chelsea to that which he could have taken when he was looked over once more last year. The Blues remain as inconsistent as United, but there is more encouragement for Shed Enders than Stretford Enders. Which would have been a unthinkable at the back end of last season.
United have every lost every game they have played this term against top-half opponents, which Chelsea are – just. Ten Hag desperately needs to arrest that wretched run. How? F*** knows.
Player to watch – Anthony Gordon
Marcus Rashford continues to be the poster boy for United’s current slump and the England attacker’s ‘efforts’ could not have contrasted more sharply with Gordon’s while they both occupied the same flank at St James’ Park on Saturday evening.
Gordon was outstanding – again – in Newcastle’s triumph, scoring the winning goal while being everything Rashford wasn’t: lively, incisive and threatening in attack; hard-working and selfless defensively.
It was the latest in what is now a long-running series of performances that highlight just how wrong we were about Gordon. And maybe so too was Gareth Southgate. Can the England boss continue to ignore the 22-year-old, especially if he maintains his current form through the winter to the next international break in March?
Probably not, but Gordon can’t look that far ahead. Next up is a visit to his old club where he is about as popular as the Premier League suits.
That’s assuming Gordon is fit to return to Goodison. He was replaced late on while feeling his hip which isn’t expected to be a concern. Nick Pope, though, is a huge worry for Eddie Howe. The goalkeeper is set to be out for up to five months with a shoulder injury, giving Martin Dubravka the chance to make his case before Howe dips into the transfer market for another keeper, possibly Manchester United’s former No.1.
Team to watch – Aston Villa
Highlighting further the ridiculousness of the job being done by Unai Emery, Villa could leapfrog the Treble winners with a home win on Wednesday. And City would be wise to be wary of the Villans.
Their home form is brilliant. Villa haven’t dropped points on their own patch since a late defeat to Arsenal all the way back in February. Thirteen successive wins have followed in which time they have conceded only seven goals. City have shipped 10 in their last four outings.
And before he worries about Villa, Pep Guardiola has problems of his own. City will be without Rodri, arguably their most important player, especially against a resolute Villa engine room, and ex-Villan Jack Grealish. His absence would not normally be a major blow given the form Jeremy Doku has shown to take his place this season. But Doku too is struggling after going off in the 3-3 draw with Tottenham.
The clash with the champions, plus the visit of Arsenal on Saturday, will not only be an excellent barometer of where Villa are – if the table isn’t evidence enough – but perhaps a perfectly-timed opportunity to beat City for the first time in over a decade, with Chelsea, Spurs and Liverpool – the kind of company Vila could realistically aim to keep – all holding Guardiola’s side to draws in the last three games.
Manager to watch – Chris Wilder
At the time of writing, Sheffield United are taking their sweet time gathering Paul Heckingbottom’s cards before they welcome back a ‘changed’ Wilder to Bramall Lane on what is expected to be an 18-month contract.
Heckingbottom couldn’t survive Saturday’s 5-0 defeat at Burnley. The promotion-winning boss has plenty of mitigation in terms of injuries, but the players available to him dug Heckingbottom’s grave with a truly wretched performance to replace the Clarets at the foot of the table.
At the back, they were a shambles. In attack, they have struggled for potency all season but the minimum requirement for any side hoping to avoid the drop is defensive cohesion and an appetite for a battle. Both have been woefully lacking, never more so, though, than at Turf Moor. Summing it up, Burnley’s opener, after 15 seconds, followed the Blades losing a header and two tackles before showing no enthusiasm to deal with a cross from high and wide.
Assuming Wilder takes training on Tuesday, his first job is simple: stiffen up a backline that has conceded 39 goals already, whatever shape it takes. Especially with Liverpool coming to South Yorkshire on Wednesday night.
Wilder’s return will undoubtedly galvanise the United support and most likely make them harder to beat than Burnley found at the weekend. Maybe not hard enough to stop Liverpool but reclaiming some morale is arguably more important than the prospect of unlikely points on this occasion.
European game to watch – Marseille v Lyon
The Choc des Olympiques (it’s a thing, honest) will kick off a few weeks late on Wednesday night and not where Lyon want.
Les Gones wanted the game moved after the original clash was postponed in the wake of their team bus being attacked. Coach Fabio Grosso was left bloodied and dazed after one of the missiles shattered the window next to where he was perched. Grosso, though, won’t have to go through it all again since he was sacked last week after Lyon’s truly awful start to the Ligue 1 season.
They are still looking for a new boss, their third of the season, with ex-OM coach Jorge Sampaoli said to be a prime candidate. But the Argentine, if he gets the gig, is highly unlikely to be in place to visit his old club.
Lyon need to use the events of late October as fuel against their ninth-placed rivals given their desperation for points. They remain bottom of Ligue 1 and six adrift of safety.