We’re being spoiled again this weekend, with perhaps the biggest Arsenal versus Man Utd clash in years. It’s massive for David Moyes and West Ham too, while Mykhaylo Mudryk could feature in a mid-table clash with Liverpool…
Game to watch – Arsenal v Manchester United
It has been far too long since this match really mattered. The past decade has seen both sides trade heavy blows but neither from a position of real strength like they used to. Sunday, though, sees Arsenal and United meet in the top three for the first time in almost a dozen years.
That last occasion in 2011 saw the third-placed Gunners clip the wings of Sir Alex Ferguson’s leaders and eventual champions. With the roles reversed, United must become the first team to beat Arsenal at the Emirates this season if they are to retain their recently-earned status as title contenders.
That came easier to United than it did for Arsenal, despite the Gunners setting the pace from the starter’s gun. The Gunners had to go almost half a season before many would consider them as a genuine prospect to win the Premier League. Even now, plenty are waiting in expectation of Arsenal blowing up.
It’s looking less and less likely with each test that Mikel Arteta’s side pass. There was a widely-held belief that Arsenal would have caved by now, especially amid a perilous run of fixtures against Brighton, Newcastle and Tottenham. Two of those games highlighted Arsenal’s class; the other illustrated their stoicism.
Which means Arsenal can relish welcoming United to the Emirates, especially since the Red Devils will be without arguably their most important player after Casemiro received a yellow card on Wednesday which, to some United fans, seems to be viewed as a bigger blow than the concession of a last-minute equaliser at Palace.
For the neutral, it’s a shame that Erik ten Hag will be unable to pick his strongest side. Because Sunday has the makings of a Premier League classic, like the Arsenal v United ding-dongs of old.
Manager to watch – David Moyes
While two of the top three do battle, this weekend also sees two of the bottom three meet in a clash that could have rather more immediate consequences for the losing manager.
Despite their points totals being as wretched as each other, it feels like Everton’s trip to West Ham is bigger for David Moyes than it might be for Frank Lampard. Everton are a mess, and while a new manager would doubtless improve their survival prospects, they appear too busy being a shambles at boardroom level to address any shortcomings among their coaching staff. Unless it gets really, really bad at the London Stadium.
At West Ham, though, all eyes are on the manager to turn their fortunes around – and quick. Moyes has urged the supporters to “give back” after the European runs they’ve been treated to in the last couple of years, which is a ballsy strategy for a manager under serious pressure. But Moyes is adamant that he is on track to create a new West Ham. And he might be right. Although if he doesn’t hurry the process along, starting on Saturday, then he might well be taken off the project.
Few would have argued had the Irons squeezed the trigger after last weekend’s miserable defeat at Wolves, which saw their winless run extend to seven matches. Not since October 24 have they claimed three points. They have taken only one since that home win over Bournemouth.
The signing of Danny Ings could be seen as Moyes’ last throw of the dice and the Hammers certainly need an injection of firepower. Only Wolves have scored fewer goals, but Julen Lopetegui has sparked an improvement at Molineux. If West Ham lose to a dreadful Everton side, the Hammers will likely take a similar approach.
Read more: West Ham don’t need a firefighter to stave off relegation – they need a firestarter to reignite a spark
Player to watch – Mykhaylo Mudryk
It’s a biggie at the top and bottom of the Premier League. And as mid-table clashes go, they don’t come much bigger than Chelsea versus Liverpool.
Neither manager is quite sure how it’s come to this. Graham Potter will doubtless offer injuries as mitigation for Chelsea’s slide while Jurgen Klopp can point to the chasm in his midfield and the need for a refresh. Klopp will get all the time he needs to reverse the Reds’ descent. Potter hasn’t anything like enough credit in the bank to ask for such patience.
So the Chelsea boss needs his new signings to settle sharpish and bring him some respite. The Blues’ splurge in the transfer market can be seen either way: as a show of faith in the manager; or a sign that a swift and significant improvement is expected with Potter unable to say he wasn’t backed.
The newest, priciest, shiniest tool in his box is Mudryk. Given his price tag, the Ukrainian is expected to make an immediate impact at Stamford Bridge, despite his relative inexperience to date. His debut against Liverpool, should it happen, can’t go any worse than that of Chelsea’s previous big-name arrival.
For many Chelsea fans, it will be their first glimpse of Mudryk away from YouTube without a ear-splitting European techno soundtrack. If he plays off the left flank, where he did for the most part at Shahktar, his battle with Trent Alexander-Arnold should be a Saturday lunchtime treat.
Team to watch – Tottenham
Losing 4-2 to Manchester City is no disgrace. Even losing from 2-0 up is forgivable when City flick the switch in the way they seemed to at half-time on Thursday night. But wilting in such a way was also symptomatic of whatever funk Tottenham currently find themselves in.
Despite having a couple of goals virtually handed to them by the champions, Spurs rarely offered the illusion of belief at the Etihad, where they have previously enjoyed success under Antonio Conte. But on this occasion, on the back of a miserable north London derby, Conte’s men showed few signs of the kind of conviction Conte craves.
It is forever an uneasy peace at Spurs, even when things are going well under the Italian. Right now, they aren’t. And Tottenham are in danger of falling away from Champions League contention.
With only Monday’s trip to Fulham between one beating by City and, as it appears right now, quite likely another, Spurs have to take something from the trip to Craven Cottage. Points, of course, which won’t be easy since the Cottagers have the opportunity to draw themselves level with their visitors, another indicator of the fine work being undertaken by Marco Silva and his men. But arguably more than points, Spurs fans need to see signs of life. More than flickers.
Their team is currently littered with top players seemingly going through the motions. Hugo Lloris is having a wretched few weeks but there is little prospect of him being dropped since his understudy, Fraser Forster, is no more than that. Ivan Perisic seems to be suffering a monster World Cup hangover. Heung-min Son looks utterly spent. But more worrying than the individual struggles is the collective fog that seems to have shrouded over Spurs. It has to lift, at least in part, by Monday.
EFL game to watch – Sunderland v Middlesbrough
There are three games on the box from the Championship this weekend, culminating Sunday at midday with a meeting that may or may not be a derby.
Is the Wear-Tees derby actually a thing? Sunderland fans are obviously more invested in their rivalry with Newcastle, but since the Magpies aren’t coming down the A19 anytime soon, the Black Cats will have to vent at Boro instead.
Doubtless both managers would rather play down whatever significance there might be, and Michael Carrick is rather more focused on the table than local-ish pride. The Boro boss has reinvigorated the Teessiders, taking them to fourth on the back of 25 points from his 11 games in charge.
But Sunderland can rein them in and move to within a point amid a ridiculously packed field of play-off contenders. Derby or not, it’s a delicious appetiser for Sunday’s Premier League action.
European game to watch – RB Leipzig v Bayern Munich
Every league took a break for the World Cup, but the Bundesliga has had its feet up for the month and more since the final in Qatar. Finally, it is back this weekend, with a humdinger to kick-off on Friday night.
Leaders Bayern can put nine points between themselves and third-placed Leipzig if they restart with a victory on the road, while the hosts could trim the gap to a much more manageable three points. Marco Rose’s side were in fine fettle, having been unbeaten through their last 13 games. But that’s so long ago now, it’s arguably irrelevant.
Bayern aren’t shying away from the importance of this game to their ambitions of an 11th-straight Bundesliga crown. When asked whether the Leipzig trip was potentially title defining, “definitely” came the reply from Bayern sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic. And let’s not pretend you’ve anything better to do on a freezing cold third Friday in January.