Big Weekend: City v Liverpool, Hodgson, Spurs, McTominay, EFL Trophy final, Der Klassiker
Manchester City hosting Liverpool is a highlight of a massive weekend for Roy Hodgson, Spurs and a Man Utd star, with some Papa Johns on the side.
Game to watch – Manchester City v Liverpool
It might not be the super-massive-mega City v Liverpool clash of recent seasons – owing largely to the visitors’ decline – but Saturday lunchtime’s meeting at the Etihad is still huge for the hosts and Arsenal.
There’s plenty in it for Liverpool too. Jurgen Klopp’s side are two places and seven points off fourth-placed Tottenham, with Newcastle sandwiched in between and Brighton breathing down the Reds’ necks. Liverpool need the top four. Their rivals crave a Champions League place just as much, but the repercussions of failure would be greater at Anfield, though Spurs might argue that viewpoint.
Going to City represents the start of a pivotal week for Klopp and his men. They follow that with a trip to Chelsea before welcoming Arsenal to Anfield next weekend. The Reds have been better against tougher opposition this term, but no one, not even Klopp, can be sure which Liverpool will turn up: the machine that battered Manchester United or the shambles that surrendered at Bournemouth.
Arsenal must hope it’s the former in the face of City, who will be loathe to lose further ground in the title race. Like Liverpool, City are seven points off where they need to be and they cannot afford to give up more ground to the Gunners before they face Leeds later that afternoon.
They may have to face Liverpool without the ridiculous Erling Haaland who, according to his father, is ‘touch and go’ to face the Reds after picking up a groin injury before the international break. Pep Guardiola needs to hope his medics in Barcelona have worked their magic.
READ MORE+: Rodri v Klopp: football’s two sorest losers facing off adds irresistible edge to Man City v Liverpool
Manager to watch – Roy Hodgson
It’s fair to say that no one saw this coming. After Crystal Palace’s wretched run since the turn of the year, and Patrick Vieira’s apparent helplessness, it was of little surprise to see the Eagles make a change. But bringing Hodgson back to Palace caught everyone on the hop.
Roy’s return seems to have split the Palace fans and left many outside Selhurst Park somewhat bemused. Palace were keen to be seen to be moving forward but wheeling Hodgson out of retirement certainly flies in the face of whatever progression they may have been making.
Given their recent run, stagnation will satisfy the Palace board who for so long were perfectly happy to hover in the upper areas of the bottom half. That’s where Hodgson left them and where he finds them now. If he departs once more at the end of the season in a similar position, Palace can give the progressive thing yet another go.
But for now, it’s all about arresting their current slump to avoid being pulled into a crazy-tight relegation fight. In April, they play six games all against opposition also scrapping for their lives, all of whom currently sit below the Eagles, with Leicester first up at Selhurst Park on Saturday.
Hodgson’s immediate priorities are to inject some confidence and get Palace scoring. One may well lead to the other but Hodgson’s forte has always been making teams hard to beat. Can he unlock some creativity and sharpen their clinical edge while keeping that solid base?
Team to watch – Tottenham
At Everton on Monday, Tottenham also start life under a new-ish boss. Spurs have appointed their sacked manager’s assistant, who served as the middle man between the squad and Antonio Conte while the Italian was convalescing in Italy after parting with his gall bladder. Then, Cristian Stellini was very much Conte’s mouthpiece. Now the 48-year-old has to find his own voice.
Stellini’s previous senior management experience is limited to a brief stint in charge of Italian third division outfit Alessandria. Since then, he’s followed Conte to Inter Milan, then to Spurs. Now he has 10 games to assert his own authority.
He will be assisted by Ryan Mason, who has already had a go at managing Tottenham. This is the second run-in in three seasons that Spurs will go down the home straight under caretaker leadership. Mason, upon stepping into Jose Mourinho’s shoes, got Spurs on the front foot for the remainder of the season and he will likely encourage Stellini to follow a similar path, especially if he wants to disassociate himself with Conte’s approach.
But it will be difficult to stray too far from what Spurs have been doing this season. They have stuck rigidly to a back three and have a squad assembled for a particular style. And Mason had rather more of a free hit. He took over a side in seventh, five points off the top four; Spurs currently occupy the Champions League places and the expectation is of staying there, despite Liverpool, Newcastle and Brighton chasing them hard.
Player to watch – Scott McTominay
Again. For it was McTominay who was player pinpointed in the last of these columns before the international break. And anyone who checked on the Manchester United midfielder in their FA Cup quarter-final win over Fulham would have watched him lose the midfield battle before being withdrawn, before the Cottagers lost their minds.
A lot has happened for McTominay in the fortnight between that outing and Sunday’s trip to Newcastle United. Last Saturday he scored twice against Cyprus for Scotland before repeating the trick against Spain on Tuesday night. That’s four goals in two games for his country after the same total in two years for United.
McTominay returned to Carrington amid calls – okay, sarcastic tweets – for the academy graduate to be unleashed as an attacking presence but, in the short term, that’s not what Erik ten Hag needs. And fulfilling his manager’s brief this weekend and in the coming games could go a long way to securing his long-term future at Old Trafford.
That is assuming he still wants one. McTominay seems to have been pigeon-holed as a holding midfielder, allowed to foray forward in certain circumstances, but his primary role is at the base of Ten Hag’s engine room. Where Casemiro usually patrols.
With Casemiro suspended for this and two more games, Ten Hag needs McTominay to curb his bursts forward and set the tempo from a deeper position. Which is something he is yet to master. Too often he takes a touch or two too many, slowing the build-up. And that’s when he can free himself to take the ball on the half-turn from his centre-backs.
The opponent adds extra narrative around McTominay on Sunday. If Ten Hag decides he needs a stand-in for Casemiro more like Casemiro, and United put the midfielder up for sale, Eddie Howe seems a willing buyer. Newcastle enquired about McTominay in January but Ten Hag wasn’t ready to sell. The summer could see a shift in stance, in which case, McTominay has vast swathes of St James’ Park to win over, even if Howe is already sold on his qualities.
EFL game to watch – Papa Johns Trophy final
There are big games in the Premier League but the biggest crowd in the country this weekend will be at Wembley to watch two League One sides slug it out for the Papa Johns Trophy.
Bolton are expected to take at least 34,000 to the capital, while Plymouth have already sold 38,000 tickets. It might not match the 85,000 attendance that watched Portsmouth beat Sunderland in 2019 but it’s still a remarkable indicator of the appetite below the top flight.
Plymouth go to the final as favourites on account of their standing at the League One summit. Argyle have a five-point cushion in the automatic promotion places, while fifth-placed Bolton are scrapping for a play-off place. If the drama matches Pompey’s penalty shoot-out victory over the Black Cats, it’ll be well worth straddling the Premier League offerings either side of the 3pm kick-off.
There’s plenty of EFL goodness on Saturday too, with two lunchtime derbies on the box. Sky Sports are offering a West Lancashire ding-dong between Preston and Blackpool at the same time as the Beds-Herts battle between Luton and Watford…
Read more: Luton Town profit from Watford gaffe with manager of the year contender Rob Edwards
European game to watch – Bayern Munich v Borussia Dortmund
The Papa Johns Final is likely to be watched by as many fans who will cram into the Allianz Arena for Der Klassiker on Saturday evening. This 108th edition could be massive in deciding the destination of the Bundesliga title.
So big that Bayern chose to bin Julian Nagelsmann and hire Thomas Tuchel in time for a clash with the new manager’s old club. Bayern have won the last 10 titles but they welcome Dortmund as the chasers following nine games and a draw from the visitors since the World Cup that has seen them soar from sixth to the summit.
Dortmund’s surge has certainly got Bayern backsides twitching. Tuchel will only have had a maximum of two or three training sessions with his new players but his mere presence ought to jolt a Bayern squad which was apparently stunned at Nagelsmann’s removal.
Tuchel’s first job will be to stiffen Bayern up, especially in the face of Dortmund’s potency. Bayern have kept only two clean sheets in 10 Bundesliga games since the World Cup, while Dortmund, driven by Jude Bellingham, have averaged three goals a game in the same period.