Big Weekend: Arsenal v Villa, Liverpool, Van de Ven, Iraola, Neverkusen no more, Leeds

Dave Tickner
Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta, Liverpool player Mo Salah, Bayer Leverkusen coach Xabi Alonso, Spurs defender Micky van de Ven and Aston Villa's Unai Emery
One title could be won this weekend but another may be lost

Another big weekend in the offing for both the title and Champions League scrap after a set of midweek results in Europe that have heightened the need to finish fourth rather than fifth and hinted at flaws in all three title contenders.


Game to watch: Arsenal v Aston Villa
A huge Super Sunday game with significant implications in both the title and Champions League battles.

Both will know what their rivals have done by the time this one kicks off and be under pressure to respond/take advantage as required.

For Arsenal, the nature of this title fight means they will almost certainly have slipped faultlessly from first to third by kick off here, while nobody could state with any certainty at this time what Spurs have got up to at Newcastle; if it’s anything like last season, Villa might even climb a place before this game begins.

It’s a game to remind us of the way form ebbs and flows across a season. It was no great surprise when Villa beat Arsenal in the reverse fixture. It would be a huge one were they to avoid defeat here.

Arsenal’s midweek draw with Bayern was the rarest of recent blips, the sight of them losing control of a game like they now really quite striking with such control having for so long simply been the Gunners’ norm. They will want and expect a return to the new normal on Sunday.

That 2-2 draw was a significant result for Villa, too, one of a few this week that has heightened the need for a weary side to nevertheless rouse themselves to win their top-four battle with a fresher Tottenham. A fifth Champions League spot looks far less likely now than it did a week ago, with Villa themselves the only English team to record a win this week.

Yet that was only their third in the last eight games, while in the league that number now reads one in five. In that run they have shipped four against both Spurs and Man City plus three against Brentford. They must rediscover their midseason selves and soon, but even that may not be enough here against an Arsenal side at the peak of its powers.


Team to watch: Liverpool
We’ve been slightly worried about Liverpool for a few weeks now, but let’s none of us pretend we saw Thursday night’s capitulation coming.

It’s true Jurgen Klopp necessarily rang the changes, but they were alarmingly second best against an Atalanta side sitting sixth in Serie A. And the introduction of Liverpool’s big beasts in the second half did little to affect that game’s direction of travel.

It was an awful performance and as bad a defeat as Liverpool have suffered at Anfield under Jurgen Klopp. Nobody could have predicted it, but something like it has been in the post for a while. Liverpool are demonstrably not as ready for a title challenge as City and Arsenal are. They weren’t really supposed to be back in one, not yet. They don’t control games the way those two do and it is to Klopp and his players’ enormous credit that they find themselves still in with that pair at this stage of a supposedly transitional season in which a new midfield was bedded in and some combination found to match up to Salah-Firmino-Mane as a front three.

What Liverpool do have now, though, is just about the ideal fixture to get themselves back on track if they can stay out of their own heads and avoid any repeat of the last week’s carelessness at Old Trafford or catastrophic collapse in general performance level in Europe.

Crystal Palace’s only wins in 2024 have come against Sheffield United and Burnley while their last win away from Selhurst Park, also against Burnley, came in November.

Liverpool will probably win this one. They will probably go 1-0 down before doing so because they simply can’t help themselves. But the manner of the win will tell us a great deal about whether Klopp’s side can last the pace in a title race that will not allow any room for a repeat of Thursday’s surrender.


Manager to watch: Andoni Iraola
It’s been a curious first season at Bournemouth for Iraola, proud leader of the country’s streakiest football team. They’ve had nine-game and seven-game winless runs along with runs of seven wins in nine and four wins in five.

That last run looked set to become five wins in six until a late collapse against Luton. A frustrating defeat for sure, but overall it’s been mission accomplished for Bournemouth whose decent runs have first lifted them out of and then kept them clear of any relegation trouble.

Iraola for O’Neil was a controversial managerial change but clearly one with the long term in mind. Avoiding any trouble – or at least quickly getting out of the early trouble they did find – is enough for the first season of this project. The manner of it is also probably encouraging. Those streaks of high-quality form hint at something that would be easier to see in a more consistent side.

They offer proof of concept that what Iraola is attempting can work and work enormously well if it can be harnessed on a more consistent basis. Completing a league double over a Manchester United side Bournemouth humiliated in December.


Player to watch: Micky van de Ven
Tottenham’s flying Dutchman has undoubtedly been one of the signings of the season. He might also be the first centre-back in history for whom ‘flying’ feels like a suitable descriptor. Van de Ven is clearly not the first centre-back to be blessed with pace, but we can’t recall seeing one where it is so striking.

Young centre-backs, even those of obvious quality, can take time to adjust to the Barclays. Not Van de Ven.

He instantly became so integral to everything Spurs are about, his recovery pace so crucial in allowing that high line and aggressive press while giving the the full-backs licence to appear in all manner of places full-backs are rarely to be found, that his absence has if anything been even more noticeable than his presence.

Spurs have lost just two of the 20 Premier League games he has played in this season, and one of those was the Chelsea game he limped out of at 1-1 in the first half. We all know what happened next. Spurs have lost five of the 11 he has missed.

His was far from the only significant absence during the bleak post-Chelsea run Spurs endured, but he is the one whose availability or otherwise has continued to be a reliably consistent indicator of results since then. Spurs have thrown in two real defensive horror shows since that run of one point in five games and Van de Ven missed both – against Brighton in December and Fulham last month.

Now Tottenham return to the scene of the mother of all defensive horror shows almost exactly a year since conceding five goals in 21 minutes at Newcastle.

A lot has changed at both clubs since a game that appeared to signify so much. Van de Ven’s arrival is among the most significant.


European game to watch: Bayer Leverkusen v Werder Bremen
Leverkusen may shed the Neverkusen tag without even having to kick a ball this weekend. If Bayern Munich and Stuttgart both lose on Saturday, the job is done for Xabi Alonso’s unstoppable force.

But that would almost register as a disappointment now. It would be far more satisfying for Bayer to land their first title, end Bayern’s decade-long monopolising of the German title and unleash a torrent of Harry Kane banters that Twitter in its current forlorn state may simply be entirely unable to process, off their own boot at home to Werder Bremen the following day.

So extraordinary has this season been for Bayer Leverkusen that talk isn’t of if they’ll win the league. And it isn’t even of when they’ll win the league. And it isn’t even of whether they’ll go an entire league season unbeaten. It’s whether they’ll go an entire season unbeaten in all competitions. It would be a staggering achievement, with unbeaten game number 43 set to be one of the most significant staging posts.


Football League game to watch: Leeds v Blackburn
A pleasingly early Barclays years vibe to the Championship’s Saturday lunchtime offering, and a chance for a tired, stuttering Leeds to leapfrog and pile the pressure on Ipswich.

For Leeds it is now just one win in the last four as the finish line approaches, while Ipswich – the last of the three-into-two contenders to play in this round despite a Saturday 3pm kick-off – have themselves only one point and no goals to show for their last two games.

Leeds have appeared a weary old side for a few weeks now, and it’s going to take a huge effort to drag themselves over the line and back into the Premier League. Theirs and Ipswich’s recent stutters suggest this might be one of those mythical years where finishing third really is a disadvantage in the play-offs.

Blackburn, drifting around above the relegation picture but not much more with one win in 12 and a 5-0 midweek defeat at Bristol City, would at least appear to offer ideal opposition for a team that is pure knackered and would just like an easy three points from somewhere, anywhere, please.