Big Weekend: Brighton v Palace, Wood, Benitez, Burnley

Ian King
Paul Merson on Chris Wood

Brighton and Crystal Palace will be slugging it out, Rafa Benitez’s job is on the line and Chris Wood starts his Newcastle rescue mission.


Game to watch: Brighton v Crystal Palace
Alan Mullery has got a lot to answer for.

Brighton & Hove Albion and Crystal Palace hadn’t played each other in 11 years by the opening day of the 1974/75 season, when the two sides met at The Goldstone Ground. Brighton won that match 1-0, but the headlines the following day were largely about the crowd trouble both inside and outside the ground.

There were further rancorous meetings between the two sides, but things really stepped up a gear when the they were drawn to play each other in the first round of the FA Cup. After stalemates at both The Goldstone Ground and Selhurst Park, a second replay was scheduled to be played at Stamford Bridge. Palace took an early lead and went on to win 1-0, but Brighton dominated much of its remainder, scoring two controversially disallowed goals, one of which was for encroachment at a penalty, leading to a re-take that was saved.

After the final whistle, Mullery approached the referee and was escorted from the pitch by police while flicking V-signs and swearing at the Palace supporters in the stands. The Brighton manager is then alleged to have entered the Palace dressing room, throwing a five pound note on the floor and telling Venables: “Your team’s not worth that.” Mullery was fined £100 by the FA for bringing the game into disrepute; a rivalry was born.

Four and a half decades on from the birth of this rivalry, Brighton and Palace have finally found equilibrium. The former have the nominally better record at present – they’re currently four points ahead with a game in hand – but both teams have drawn 18 of 39 games between them this season, while Brighton’s goal difference is zero and Palace’s is -1. Perhaps unsurprisingly when they met earlier this season it ended in a 1-1 draw.

The African Cup of Nations means that both teams are a little short, but again this seems to be a little in Brighton’s favour. They only have two players in Cameroon at present and one of those – the other is Yves Bissouma – isn’t a first-team player. Palace are missing Cheikhou Kouyate, Wilfried Zaha and Jordan Ayew. But having said that, the historical record is definitely in Palace’s favour. The two sides didn’t meet at all between 1991 and 2002, but since then, of 21 meetings Brighton have only won five, while Palace have won eight.

This may be a mid-table match on a Friday night, but the atmosphere at The Amex is sure to be spicy.


Team to watch: Burnley
The Premier League’s second lowest goalscorers have just sold one of their main attacking threats, and that’s not good news, even though he’d only scored three goals in his 21 games for them in all competitions this season. Add Maxwel Cornet being away on AFCON duty, and Burnley will be looking at this match with something of a sense of trepidation.

If they’re going to stay in the Premier League come the end of this season, home games against mid-table opponents are exactly the sort they need to be winning, and Leicester City aren’t too bad a team to have as opponents. After all, only four Premier League clubs – Leeds United, Watford, Newcastle and Norwich City – have conceded more goals this season, so perhaps the scarecrow in a replica shirt that Sean Dyche is presumably starting up front will grab a goal itself.

Only Cornet, Wood, Ben Mee and Jay Rodriguez have scored more than one goal for Burnley so far – and that’s in all competitions – while Leicester have been a model of inconsistency.


Player to watch: Chris Wood
No pressure, Chris.

It’s likely that Newcastle’s new £25m striker will start against Watford, and Newcastle could definitely do with him scoring a goal or two on his debut. A win for Newcastle would lift them out of the bottom three and drop Watford into it, and it certainly feels like the right time to be playing the Hornets, with them having lost their last six consecutive Premier League matches since beating Manchester United 4-1 almost two months ago. Coincidentally, the date of Watford’s last win was also the date of Wood’s last goal for Burnley: the second in a 3-3 draw with Crystal Palace.

He certainly might not get many better chances. Watford have lost the second most games in the Premier League after Norwich City this season and have conceded two goals per game. Three in 21 matches doesn’t look like the sort of spectacular return that will keep Newcastle in the Premier League, but Newcastle fans seem confident that their season will be transformed by Kieran Trippier crossing the ball and Wood heading it in ad infinitum. Who knows? Perhaps it will work.


Manager to watch: Rafa Benitez
His team may have overcome Hull City in the FA Cup, but Rafa is still under huge pressure as Everton travel to Carrow Road to play Norwich City. It hasn’t been an easy week. The Lucas Digne saga may have come to an end, but it had a sting in its tail and Farhad Moshiri still seemed hellbent on signing Anwar El Ghazi from Aston Villa, even though the manager had already rejected the player three times. His arrival was announced in time for him to be registered for this game.

The match is a double-edged sword for Rafa and Everton. On the one hand, Norwich City are probably the team that everybody wants to play at the moment. Since the end of November, they’ve lost all six of their Premier League fixtures, haven’t scored any goals and have conceded 16. But that said, records of this nature have to end some time and Norwich will likely be looking at this with as much hunger as Everton, fully aware that the brittle Toffees have been almost as vulnerable as they have over the last couple of months, even though Everton beat them 2-0 in September.

Should Norwich take all three points the pressure to replace Rafa will reach a new crescendo. He is, at the time of writing, the joint-favourite to be the next Premier League manager to leave his post, alongside Claudio Ranieri.


Football League game to watch: Luton Town vs AFC Bournemouth
For those among us who aren’t terribly interested in Manchester City 1-0 Chelsea on Saturday lunchtime on BT Sport, there is an attractive-looking alternative being played at the same time on Sky Sports.

Having gotten themselves to the end of October unbeaten and all the way to the top of the Championship table, Bournemouth’s season started to fall apart at the seams a little – at least in terms of results, if not league position. A run of one win in eight matches followed, and the team has only recently come out of this torpor with a victory against Cardiff City and an FA Cup win at non-league Yeovil Town which told us practically nothing about where they stand at the moment.

Luton Town, meanwhile, have been models of inconsistency, although they’ll be pleased enough to be roughly mid-table, some distance removed from the scrap to avoid relegation, despite sitting in a relatively lowly 16th place. They haven’t played at all in the league since December 11, but their 4-0 FA Cup win against Harrogate Town was comfortable enough to suggest that this enforced break hasn’t done the players’ energy levels any harm. Luton are capable of beating anyone on their day and with just three points separating the top three in the division, Bournemouth can ill-afford to drop any in this one.


European game to watch: Atalanta vs Internazionale
It’s fourth versus top in Serie A from Bergamo on Sunday night, in a battle of the Nerazzurri which might be considered a must-win for Atalanta’s lingering hopes of becoming Italian champions. They’re currently eight points behind league leaders Inter; cutting that gap to five may well ignite the belief that Atalanta could yet win Serie A for the first time.

The task ahead of them couldn’t be much more daunting, though. Inter won Serie A by 12 points last season. They’re top of the table this time around, one clear of Milan, having won their last eight while claiming their first silverware under Simone Inzaghi: the Supercoppa Italiana, won in extra-time against Juventus. But Atalanta rattled in six goals (with five different scorers) at Udinese last time out, so this will be a tough test for the defending champions.