Manchester United and Arsenal might both be a touch surprised to find themselves in a scrap for fourth spot. Antonio Conte, too.
Game to watch: Manchester United v Arsenal
There was a time when this would be the game of the season. It can still just about lay claim to being the game of the week, though, despite a Merseyside derby on the programme. Everton are just too rubbish right now (see below).
Manchester United are also a bit rubbish, of course, while Arsenal – customary thumpings at Anfield apart – have been quite good actually. As a consequence of both these things, these two – if the odds are to be believed and with all due respect to West Ham – find themselves in a fight for the one Champions League spot that hasn’t already been locked down.
There have been some encouraging signs for United since we were all finally put out of the misery of the Great Solskjaer Experiment, and Ralf Rangnick as interim is an eye-catchingly non-demented move for a club that appeared to have lost that knack.
How much influence Rangnick will bring to bear on the game is hard to say, although it was possible to perceive his presence in Sunday’s efforts if one squinted hard enough, but this is a bigger game for United than it is for Arsenal regardless of the manager situation.
For one thing, it is United who expected and were predicted to be not just in the top four this season but an actual title race. Arsenal, out of Europe for the first campaign since the mid-90s, were just trying to get back to regular Thursday night football.
More importantly, defeat to Arsenal would leave United eight points adrift, giving their new manager a pretty sizeable mountain to climb.
Team to watch: Everton
There’s an old Eddie Izzard routine about the French where he talks about how much he likes them, before acknowledging that “they can be a little bit French”. That’s where I always find myself with Everton. I like Everton, but they can be a little bit Everton.
Having once again started the season in eye-catching fashion under another new high-profile manager by winning four and drawing one of their first six games, it has all gone horrifically to sh*t.
Just two points have been added in the last seven games, with Everton failing to win a single Premier League game in either October or November.
You’d like to think/hope that they’ll take one of the seven chances presented in December, but they don’t exactly have a straightforward start with Arsenal and Chelsea to face in the space of three games after kicking off the month with a Merseyside derby.
While Everton haven’t managed a single goal in their last three games, Liverpool have scored at least twice in each of their ten Premier League matches since a 1-1 draw against Chelsea.
If ever a club needed a cliché to be true, it is Everton and the traditional journey taken by the formbook on these occasions.
Player to watch: Neal Maupay
It was an unwelcome return to the bad old days for Maupay and Brighton against Leeds at the weekend, with the Seagulls winning something like 18.35-0.76 on xG (subs please check) but coming up with nothing better than a 0-0 on the Only Statistic That Matters. Both those numbers were due in no small part to the endeavours of Neal Maupay, whose early-season flirtations with competence now appear to have ended after an open-goal miss that became the first in history to actually measure over 1.0 on xG. Boffins can’t explain it, but it’s a fact.
Brighton fans booed at full-time – to the obvious confusion and disappointment of Graham Potter who by that stage had preferred to go with Jurgen Locadia in pursuit of the goal Brighton craved.
The beauty of a rare midweek Barclays programme, though, is the chance to get straight back on that horse and go again. Maupay and Brighton can put it all behind them on Wednesday; all they have to do is get the better of West Ham. More plausible than it initially sounds, that. In the context of their current success, the Hammers’ run of two successive league defeats since beating Liverpool is basically a FULL-BLOWN CRISIS. If Maupay and co can get the job done, it’ll be full #MoyesOut by bedtime. It’s a tough game.
Manager to watch: Antonio Conte
The slightly weird postponement against Burnley means Conte and his Spurs players will have had a full week to stew on that pitiful display in Slovenia against NS Mura before getting the chance to do anything about it on the pitch.
We can’t imagine the Spurs players have been having any kind of fun this week – lobbing some snowballs around East Lancashire notwithstanding – but the performance against Brentford on Thursday night should be telling.
Spurs will have the rare luxury of playing a game having had a longer break than their opponents and some extra time to learn Conte’s methods. Conte, meanwhile, has had a bit more time to expand upon his learnings from the first three weeks.
Whether that will be enough to improve the team’s “not high” levels is hard to know, but the Busy Festive Period (which can surely be said to start on December 1) has actually been quite kind to Spurs.
Of the eight Premier League games they play between now and New Year’s Day, only one – Liverpool, at home – is against a team currently above them in the table. Right now they are, vaguely preposterously, only four points off the Champions League places with a game in hand.
If Conte can get some kind of tune out of these talented wastrels over the next month they really could be there or thereabouts by the turn of the year. But first up they must beat Brentford and they will, clearly, have to improve on their last outing.
European game to watch: PSG v Nice
It’s first v third in Ligue 1, which definitely makes it sound quite enticing as long as you don’t look at the table for too long and realise there’s already a 14-point gap between them.
Ah well. Nevertheless, it’s a chance to have a look at Lionel Messi, who has just won his seventh Ballon d’Or and is therefore, one assumes, pretty good. That’s if he plays, of course. Which he might not. He doesn’t always these days. Truth be told he’s slightly phoning it in in Paris. Heart doesn’t really seem in it. Still, though. Good player. There’s a whole load of Serie A fixtures as well, if you prefer. Up to you really.