Big Weekend: Manchester derby, Tottenham v Arsenal, Frank Lampard, Mitrovic back in Toon
The fixture computer has inadvertently spoiled us this weekend, with a couple of huge derbies, the top eight all facing each other, while the bottom four fight among themselves.
Game to watch – Manchester United v Manchester City
United can move within a point of City if they win at Old Trafford on Saturday. Which was an utterly ludicrous prospect when these derby rivals last met at the Etihad.
There, City obliterated United. A 6-3 defeat flattered the Red Devils, who made the deficit look slightly less horrific with two late goals, long after City had taken their foot off the gas after a hat-trick apiece for Erling Haaland and Phil Foden.
Then, United had Cristiano Ronaldo and Casemiro on the bench but now the outlook is very different for Saturday’s hosts. Ronaldo is no longer United’s concern while Casemiro has established himself as one of the signings of the season, with Erik ten Hag sorting his rabble out in commendable fashion.
United’s progress has Pep Guardiola wary and City’s current form has him worried. Very worried. “If we perform this way, we won’t have a chance,” said Guardiola after his side lost to bottom-of-the-league Southampton in the Carabao Cup quarter-final, the first time in 275 matches that they failed to muster a single shot on target.
City won’t be that bad again. The likelihood is that Saints gave City’s cage a necessary rattle and United will face an angry neighbour on Saturday lunchtime. But the Red Devils look better equipped than they have for a long time to stand up to the champions. Both in terms of points and performance, this could be closest-fought Manchester derby in bloody ages.
Read more: Guardiola has ‘ridiculous ideas’ for the Manchester derby and we have figured them all out
Team to watch – Tottenham. And Arsenal
In terms of league standings, United v City is a closer-run thing than Sunday’s north London derby. Arsenal carry an 11-point cushion over Spurs and a game in hand. But you can bet arses will be nipping among the visiting support with so much more at stake than they would have anticipated.
Aside from local pride, it’s not unfeasible that the Gunners could end the weekend with an eight-point lead at the Premier League summit. And they are now at the stage of thinking about each game in the context of the title race, whatever Mikel Arteta might say publicly.
At least we know which Arsenal side will show up. Arteta has no reason to overthink his approach to the derby. The Gunners just need to stay the course and maintain the performances and consistency that has surprised us all. Easy, right?
At Spurs, it’s never quite as simple. At least they seem to have got over their post-World Cup hangover, which saw them take one point from a trip to Brentford which saw them go 2-0 down, and a home defeat to Aston Villa that swayed many Spurs fans against Antonio Conte. Beating Arsenal will have a few back on the Italian’s side, but not many Tottenham supporters will head to the game on Sunday evening optimistic of a win, or perhaps even entertainment.
On this occasion, though, they’ll settle for a defensive, smash-and-grab triumph to serve their top-four ends while simultaneously reining in the Gunners. Because, as is the case for most derbies, the result is everything here.
When they lost at the Emirates earlier in the season, the performance was almost as dispiriting as the result. But come Monday morning, Tottenham could be five points off the top four having had their backsides slapped by the local enemy; or back among the Champions League places in possession of the local bragging rights. The second scenario might only be temporary relief, but the first could irreparably ruin the relationship between Spurs fans and Conte.
Read more: Local derby number crunching: North London Derby reigns supreme as Premier League’s best
Player to watch – Aleksandar Mitrovic
Our player to watch, initially, was Joao Felix on what might have been his debut, but at the very least his first home appearance for Chelsea. Then this happened.
So our focus moves around 300 miles north to S James’ Park where one of the Premier League’s most deadly hit-men comes up against the best defence.
Mitrovic has a miserable record against his old club, having never beaten Newcastle or contributed to a goal against them. He was given the big build-up when Fulham faced Eddie Howe’s side earlier in the season but the Cottagers caved in and the Serbia striker last barely half a hour before going off with an injury.
At least Mitrovic should be fresh for his reunion, having sat out the FA Cup win over Hull and he was suspended for Thursday’s win over Chelsea that means Fulham could move into the top five and within a point of Newcastle and possibly Manchester United with a win at St James’.
To do that, though, Fulham will have to be the first team to score past Nick Pope in over two months. The Newcastle keeper hasn’t conceded since Southampton’s late consolation on November 6, keeping seven consecutive clean sheets along the way.
Mitrovic has little to prove to anyone but he’ll be fired up to make his point against his old club and the Prem’s best defence. Which almost guarantees some form of fireworks.
Manager to watch – Frank Lampard
It’s hard to remember a time when Lampard wasn’t the manager to watch before a Premier League weekend. But once again, the Everton boss finds himself in dire need of some relief.
On Saturday afternoon, his Toffees host the Premier League’s bottom-placed side at Goodison Park. But Southampton’s trip to Merseyside requires rather more context which could make for another miserable weekend for Lampard.
At least Lampard is guaranteed to end it still in his job. Probably. Farhad Moshiri said this week that he has ‘faith’ in the management team but his interview on Thursday with Talksport offered no reassurance over the owner’s plan or conviction to follow it through. Especially the bit about being swayed by fans over managerial decisions.
And Goodison will be a grim place to be on Saturday evening if Lampard’s side maintain their recent form. Especially if the Manchester City-slaying Saints do the same.
EFL game to watch – if we must, Rotherham v Blackburn
We can’t lie, it’s not a vintage weekend in the Football League.
Sky Sports offers you two viewing choices: On Saturday, your alternative to the Manchester derby is fourth-from-bottom Rotherham hosting third-from top Blackburn. Then Monday Night Football comes from Port Vale, where League One’s 10th-place side welcomes Peterborough in ninth.
We didn’t say they were good choices.
European game to watch – Napoli v Juventus
It’s hardly a humdinger in Europe either. But you can start your weekend with a first-versus-second clash in Serie A on Friday night if Villa against Leeds doesn’t grab you.
Juve have sneaked up to the runners-up spot ahead of their opportunity to reduce Napoli’s lead to four points. It’s been an odd season for Max Allegri, with his side spending more of it outside the top six, but the Old Lady appears to have got her sh*t together. Juve have climbed the table on the back of an eight-match winning run during which they have not conceded a goal.
Juve have clawed their way back into the title race but the feeling is defeat to Napoli will undo a lot of that good work and leave them with too much to do. Victory, though, could inspire the new board of directors when they take their place next week, to free up some funds to make a push for the Scudetto.