Big Weekend: Aston Villa v Arsenal, Steve Cooper, Man City, Rasmus Hojlund

Ian Watson
Aston Villa manager Unai Emery on the touchline with Mikel Arteta; Nottingham Forest boss Steve Cooper and Man City manager Pep Guardiola.
It's another Big Weekend for Unai Emery, Mikel Arteta, Steve Cooper and Pep Guardiola.

Title-charging Villa get a shot at the last team to beat them at Villa Park, while Rodri is back to restore some order at Man City. It’s also a biggie for Steve Cooper and Rasmus Hojlund…


Game to watch: Aston Villa v Arsenal
As you would expect, Unai Emery played down Aston Villa’s prospects on Wednesday night. But the Holte End didn’t get the memo. The Villans are starting to believe

The mood will be even more fervent on Saturday if Emery’s side continue their stunning home run by turning over the last team to beat them at Villa Park. Arsenal ran out 4-2 winners back in February – thanks in no small part to a lucky late bounce – in what appeared to be a fork in Villa’s road.

The path they have taken since has seen them win every home game, a run that stands at 14 after they deservedly beat Manchester City to leapfrog the Treble winners in the table. They can’t quite do the same to Arsenal on Saturday, but they can move within a point of the current leaders if they claim a club record 15th straight home win.

The Gunners, though, are likely to be more stubborn opponents than City. Mikel Arteta’s side haven’t played well on their last couple of road trips, but they have found a way to win, just as they did at Villa Park back in February.

There is a feeling of inevitability around Arsenal these days – the good kind. Whereas in seasons past you might fancy them to panic, these Gunners have displayed resolve and composure too often to be doubted. The win over Luton was the fourth time this season they have triumphed courtesy of goals in the final five minutes.

Arteta has struggled to find a midfield balance he is truly happy with and Villa will offer as stern a test of that as anyone. Emery’s men turned the tables on City, not necessarily dominating possession – City had the biggest share – but dictating control and tempo. Arsenal have been warned.

READ MOREEmery the antidote to main character managers and Aston Villa are reaping the benefits


Team to watch: Manchester City
What is wrong with City?

Pep will play down their four-game winless run – he was bullishly backing his side for the title again before the defeat at Villa – and there is mitigation in terms of the profile of their recent opponents. Prior to Villa, three draws came against three fellow members of the Big Six. But in each of those stalemates, City found a way to struggle – defensively against Spurs and Chelsea, while Liverpool were allowed a way back into their draw after the champions failed to kill off the Reds.

The root of their problems at Villa Park was to be found in the hole where Rodri usually sits. We thought we were clear on how crucial the Spain midfielder is to Pep, but each absence makes it more apparent. Rodri has missed three league games this season; City have lost all of them.

Mercifully for Pep, the midfielder’s one-game ban will have been served before City go to Luton on Sunday. So too will Jack Grealish’s, so it’s reasonable to assume City will regain some balance. The trip to Luton marks the start of what appears to be an easier run of fixtures with their next five against bottom-half opposition, including three from the bottom four, around a trip to Saudi for the Club World Cup.

Pep reckons City will win four in a row. That being true, they need to prepare for Luton’s set-piece assault and arrest their slump at Kenilworth Road.


Manager to watch: Steve Cooper
Many Forest fans who watched their side get pumped 5-0 at Fulham might be pleasantly surprised to see Cooper in the dug-out at Wolves on Saturday.

Cooper was serenaded by the travelling support after a fourth successive defeat – so much so that the manager admitted he was ’embarrassed’ to receive such backing after his side served up sh*te at Craven Cottage.

Many Forest fans assumed they were saying farewell to their favourite manager since Brian Clough. But, as we write, Evangelos Marinakis has resisted the temptation to swing his axe. The owner’s unexpected fortitude last season led to a new contract for Cooper, but a fifth defeat at Molineux would surely take his waning patience towards breaking point.

Most damning for Cooper was his side’s lack of appetite at Fulham. There is an array of tactical and technical issues for Forest to fix after a run of one win in 11 but, as Cooper admitted in the wake of the Fulham thrashing, “a performance will only start and end with being competitive”.

If the squad aren’t playing for Cooper again at Wolves, Marinakis will feel he has little choice but to act. If he isn’t already lining up a replacement.


Player to watch: Rasmus Hojlund
Manchester United take on Bournemouth with a rare feeling of confidence after stringing together a decent performance for perhaps the first time this season in the Premier League. Concerning, though, was the lack of input Hojlund had in the 2-1 win over Chelsea.

Prior to a much-needed win, talk was dominated by an unchallenged leak from the Old Trafford dressing room that suggested Erik ten Hag had lost 50 per cent of his squad. Also, it was suggested that one ‘time-served’ player was ‘perplexed’ over why Hojlund had been signed.

The confusion perhaps stems from Hojlund’s graft. Such toil has been pitifully absent for too long at Old Trafford and some of his team-mates wouldn’t recognise it. If hard work gets its reward, Hojlund’s is surely on its way.

It can’t come fast enough for the centre-forward. He remains without a Premier League goal and despite United’s improvement, little of their attacking play was channelled through the man signed to be their goal-getter. The Red Devils recorded their highest number of shots on goal (27) this season against Chelsea but only one came from Hojlund.

There is no question United are still learning to adapt to playing with an actual centre-forward and we know they don’t catch on quick. So often Hojlund makes positive runs; too often they are ignored. It doesn’t help that he plays with inverted wingers, with neither Alejandro Garnacho nor Antony easy to read over their crossing intentions.

If United are to make this week’s improvement more than fleeting, they need to tune in to their centre-forward.

Erik ten Hag and Rasmus Hojlund.


EFL game to watch: Sunderland v West Brom
Plenty for EFL aficionados to get their teeth stuck in to this weekend. On Friday night, Wayne Rooney takes Birmingham to Coventry, while Monday night sees the biggest game of the League One season so far, with leaders Portsmouth welcoming second-placed Bolton.

Between both, on Saturday lunchtime, we get first sight of post-Tony Mowbray Sunderland when they host fellow play-off chasers West Brom.

Mowbray was axed after the 1-1 draw with Millwall last weekend and though it may seem like the veteran manager had been harshly treated, with players and fans still firmly behind him, it was clear from their statement, dripping with Jake Humphrey-isms, that the hierarchy have been waiting for their opportunity to get in a younger coach more aligned to their thinking.

Perhaps surprisingly, there was no immediate replacement and the Black Cats look set go into big games against the Baggies and Leeds with Mike Dodds in caretaker charge.


European game to watch: Barcelona v Girona
Barca were champions of Spain last season. Right now, they aren’t the best team in Catalonia.

According to the La Liga table, that title belongs to Girona, who visit Barca on Sunday. Even if the hosts triumph at the Estadi Olimpic, they will remain behind Spain’s surprise package.

Girona, with the 13th highest salary cap in the league, have lost only once this season, to Real Madrid. They have kept pace with Real by scoring more goals than anyone else, while spreading them throughout Michel Sanchez’s side.

Elsewhere on the continent, it’s a biggie in Germany where four of the top five face each other. Leaders Bayer Leverkusen take on Stuttgart on Sunday after Dortmund and Leipzig face off in each side’s attempt to reign in the top three.