Big Weekend: Villa v Newcastle, Dean Smith, Leeds host Liverpool, Anthony Martial

Ian Watson
Manchester United striker Anthony Martial, Aston Villa manager Unai Emery, and Leicester interim boss Dean Smith.

It’s a biggie for two sides who’ve shown the difference a good manager can make. Leicester start life under their new boss, while Leeds need a response against a similarly unpredictable Liverpool side.


Game to watch – Aston Villa v Newcastle
Six years ago, these two clubs were duking it out in the Championship. On Saturday lunchtime, both have eyes on Europe, with the hosts timing their run into the top six beautifully while the visitors look to maintain their current status as the best of the rest below the title contenders.

Of course, changes in ownership have played a huge role in Villa and Newcastle’s ascent from the second tier towards a return to continental football. But each manager would reasonably claim to have an even bigger hand in their club’s success.

If the Saudis had their way, Unai Emery would be in the visitors’ dug-out this weekend. The Spaniard was their first choice to be their first manager and though Emery opted to stay with Villarreal, they fell on their feet with Eddie Howe.

Emery’s success at Villa, coupled with how Wor Eddie is leading Newcastle, suggests those Saudis know how to spot a manager. The impact both have had on their respective clubs makes each a candidate for manager of the year.

So Newcastle will be well aware of the threat Emery’s Villa pose to their current momentum. Since going five without a win, including three defeats to half of the Big Six, the Toon have won their last five to reestablish the Champions League credentials many were questioning. When they lost to Liverpool and Manchester City either side of a Carabao Cup final defeat to Manchester United, it was feared their bubble had burst. Nope.

But in the same way Howe has transformed and reinvigorated Newcastle, Emery has had a similar effect on Villa. They are undefeated while winning six of their last seven and all of their last four, setting up a tantalising clash at Villa Park. Those last four Villa wins have come against bottom-half opposition; the visit of Newcastle starts a run of four against top-half rivals when we can expect to gauge more accurately just how good Emery has been for the Villans.


Manager to watch – Dean Smith
Leicester have little time to waste, which perhaps best explains the surprise appointment of Smith, who is joined at the King Power by Craig Shakespeare and John Terry. The Foxes wanted Graham Potter first, then flirted hard with Jesse Marsch. But as they languish second from bottom, having lost both of the games they have played since Brendan Rodgers departed, Leicester needed a manager.

So they’ve gone for one with form for survival. Smith kept up Aston Villa on the last day of the 2019/20 season, but he also sank after being dropped in at the deep end with Norwich last season. The Foxes will be praying for two out of three and a new manager bounce over the next eight games to stay afloat in the top flight.

Smith’s first game in charge: Manchester City away. All the best.

Leicester, though, might see Saturday as something of a free hit. No-one expects them to get a result at the Etihad, and it allows Smith the opportunity to look at the disheartened squad he has inherited before a run that will go a long way to deciding the Foxes’ fate. After facing City, Leicester have home games against relegation rivals Wolves and Everton, with a trip to Leeds sandwiched in between.

At the Etihad, Smith and Leicester fans will be looking more than anything else for indications that the squad have finally grasped the perilousness of their situation. Those signs might be found in Leicester’s defending which, for much of the season, has been rotten. They are currently on a run of 15 games with a clean sheet. A shut-out against City and the ridiculous Erling Haaland is wildly optimistic, but the requisite desire to be hard to beat will be easy for Smith, Terry and Shakespeare to gauge.

Then Smith has to find a way to pierce City’s defence. Getting James Maddison’s lip off the floor should be a priority. The playmaker was wheeled out in front of the media last Saturday after his error contributed to a miserable defeat to Bournemouth. His interview was hard to watch, so downbeat was the England star. Smith and his assistants have to find whatever way best lifts Maddison from his funk, and settle on which striker they want him to service.

Read more: Did Leicester City leave it too late to push the panic button and replace Rodgers with Smith?


Team to watch – Leeds
Marsch was only talking to Leicester because Leeds gave him the elbow. So you might have forgiven the American a wry smile at the sight of his former club caving in to Crystal Palace at Elland Road last week.

While conceding five after going in front, Leeds capitulated in breathtaking fashion. Palace’s leveller on the stroke of half-time may have come against the run of play but the demoralising effect it so clearly had has Elland Road fretting hard about relegation again so soon after a win over Forest had calmed the nerves ever so slightly.

Leeds fans are used to this. Under Marsch and Marcelo Bielsa, they were always a fragile side prone to fluctuation like few other teams. Worse even than Monday’s visitors, Liverpool. But the second half against Palace was wild even by the Whites’ standards.

Javi Gracia looked shellshocked as he struggled to offer an explanation in the immediate aftermath of conceding five to a Roy Hodgson side but he will have had nine days to come up with one and apply the necessary fixes before Liverpool, and whichever version of themselves they decide to be this week, show up at Elland Road.

At least he can point to the fact that Leeds have already beaten Liverpool this season. They are the only side to win away at Anfield in the Premier League and Gracia has to muster the belief they can do it again and not allow the Palace pumping to linger.


Player to watch – Anthony Martial
Martial’s 427th chance to establish himself as a striker upon whom Manchester United can rely takes in a trip to Nottingham Forest on Sunday.

The cynical among us already know how this one goes. Martial might score, United will look a more fluid side for his presence, and again the talk will be about the penny finally having dropped. Then something will twang or he’ll disappear up his own backside once more, leaving United to muddle on with the level of centre-forward their aspirations demand.

Could this time be different? It might be, but it almost certainly won’t. United will move for a top-class goalscorer this summer whether Martial scores a goal a game between now and then. But even the frustrating Frenchman must recognise that if he isn’t playing for his United future, he is playing for a future elsewhere.

His loan spell at Sevilla last season was, in Marca’s view, a ‘fiasco’. And no-one, even the MartialFC fan boys, could reasonably argue otherwise. This, and United’s remaining games, must be his last chance to prove he’s not a lost cause.


EFL game to watch – Middlesbrough v Norwich
Three games from the Championship this weekend, with Sheffield United’s promotion quest continuing against Cardiff on Saturday lunchtime before the cameras focus on Blackburn and Hull on Saturday evening. Before those games, it’s Friday Night Lights at the Riverside.

Boro were on course to rein in the Blades before a run of three games without a win. Losing to Burnley could be easily explained; caving in at Huddersfield and giving a two-goal lead to Bristol City rather less so. Mercifully for Boro, they arrested that slump in time to fight back for a point at Ashton Gate that still leaves them sat below Luton in fourth place.

Norwich also suffered for a draw on Easter Monday, when they were held at home by Rotherham. In eighth, the Canaries remain in touching distance of the play-offs and a win at the Riverside will have them sat snug a place below their hosts before the three teams currently above them by a point kick-off the following day.


European game to watch – Schalke v Hertha Berlin
At this point of the season, we’d expect to be looking towards the top of the European leagues for a match-up to big-up. But, frankly, there’s very little across the continent this weekend to get the balls tingling.

In Germany, however, there’s a clash that has already got bums squeaking. Hertha Berlin’s trip to Schalke represents a clash of two sides in the bottom two who really ought not to be. At least in terms of history and stature. More recently, each has been something of a basket case.

Hertha needed to navigate a play-off against similarly shambolic Hamburg last season to stay in the top flight, where Schalke returned after a one-year hiatus in Bundesliga II. Neither club catch on quick, apparently, since that is where both are heading without a swift change in fortunes.

It seemed as though the penny had dropped for Schalke when they went eight unbeaten once Thomas Reis had got to grips with the Royal Blues. But they have lost their last two, prompting Reis to question his players’ desire. He’ll get his answer in Friday night’s six-pointer.