Game to watch – Liverpool v Manchester City
This isn’t just any Big Weekend. It’s quite possible that it will be looked back upon as one of the two biggest weekends of the Premier League season. Of the 760 battles to be fought between last August and next May, it may be that only one other will be remembered as quite so pivotal as the champions’ visit to the leaders on Sunday.
That was how last season panned out and though it is hard to imagine this term varying greatly while City and Liverpool slog it out at the summit, there is one crucial difference: the Reds already have some breathing space.
It will be fascinating to see how that plays on the minds of Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola. When they met at Anfield last October, both managers were happy to take a draw in which both sides cancelled each other out. Klopp and Guardiola both made conservative decisions in selection and formation and each got what they wanted from the goalless stalemate.
Will Sunday’s meeting mirror that cagey stand-off, or might Guardiola be tempted to recreate January’s frenetic return meeting, when City not only kept themselves in the title race, they also swung the momentum in their favour?
Guardiola is staring at a five-point deficit and the City boss knows he cannot rely on other teams to do his dirty work. Even though Liverpool haven’t got close to peaking in their opening 11 games, only Man Utd have taken points from them. If City are to claw back the ground, it may be that they will have to get the job done themselves.
The reward of victory in this six-pointer, of course, carries high risk. The gap could be three points on Sunday night; it could also be nine. Since City have two more months and 10 matches to grind Liverpool down compared to last January when the season was two games beyond the halfway point, it may be that Pep stays guarded
The same goes for Klopp. The German must be tempted by the potential advantage on offer but not so much that he would send his Liverpool side out to chase it. With just as much to lose – arguably more – than to gain, Sunday for both managers will be an exercise in pragmatism.
That means we will likely be served up a wary stand-off at Anfield, punctuated by the odd decisive moment rather than an all-action affair for the ages. Liverpool’s full-backs, their most creative players, will probably be kept on a tighter leash to counter City’s most creative forces, Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling. Likewise, City’s full-backs won’t be bombing forward at every opportunity for fear of leaving their centre-backs exposed to Klopp’s front three.
That shifts the creative burden into the middle of the pitch, where neither side are strongest, likely resulting in a circumspect 90 minutes. It will still be bloody fascinating. And surely pivotal come May.
Manager to watch – Unai Emery
Emery’s Arsenal sit in fifth place in the Premier League, which is certainly no disgrace. But their standing in the table doesn’t begin to tell the whole story around the Gunners and their manager.
Defeat at Leicester on Saturday evening could be curtains. There is as little clarity around Emery’s position as you’ll find among his defenders, but the sand certainly seems to be shifting from under his feet.
If it is true that any manager is only ever six games from the sack, then Emery is in trouble. In their last six matches, Arsenal have won once, when they made bloody hard work of beating Vitoria Guimaraes in the Europa League. The Gunners go to the King Power on the back of four successive draws in which they have surrendered leads in each. Despite Emery having been in place for a year and a half, this is very much the same old Arsenal.
There will be no respite at Leicester. Emery’s defenders will be tasked with stopping the Premier League’s leading scorer and Jamie Vardy will be licking his lips at the prospect of extending his record of eight goals in eight games against Arsenal. The likelihood of Arsenal’s centre-backs retaining the required concentration levels to keep Vardy quiet and not being lulled into a false sense of security by his disinterest outside the box is, at best, remote.
In stark contrast to Arsenal, Brendan Rodgers’ side are on fire having won five of their last six, scoring 22 goals in the process, with only a last-gasp defeat in at Liverpool denting their record. Rodgers is still sussing out how to take on the big six but the experience of his eight months in charge and the vastly contrasting fortunes of both sides before this meeting means the Foxes boss need not be clever.
Emery, though, needs to come up with something. How can Arsenal stop Vardy riding roughshod through their defence? How can a midfield in disarray compete against one of the most efficient engine rooms in the division? Only up front can Emery find grounds for optimism in the individual talent at his disposal. But even then he’s banking on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette making the most of scraps against the Premier League’s stingiest defence.
With the international break looming and the fortnight on offer for Arsenal to take decisive action should they see fit, Emery’s employment status may come down to this: Arsenal’s second-biggest test of the season so far, at perhaps the worst possible time.
Team to watch – Everton
Another manager fearing what the international break may bring is Marco Silva. At least his team, unlike Emery’s, faces what on paper seems a simple enough task: turn over a Southampton team that in their last home outing shipped in nine goals.
But the pessimist in Silva will recognise the danger facing the Toffees. Saints have a point to prove to their own supporters and Ralph Hasenhuttl’s men demonstrated an appetite for redemption while pushing Manchester City to the dying stages at the Etihad last week.
Still, this is a game Everton are expected to win. Any other outcome is likely to leave Silva sweating and Everton’s flakiness this season leaves the manager no more certain than the rest of us over how his players will respond.
They came out fighting for Silva the last time his job appeared to hinge on a single result, though that 2-0 win over West Ham really should carry an asterisk denoting how wretched the Hammers were at Goodison Park last month. Since then, Everton have lost at Brighton and drew with Tottenham in a game overshadowed by Andre Gomes’ injury.
Without Gomes, Everton haven’t won in the Premier League this season. His four-game absence saw the Toffees land Silva in hot water last month when they lost each game before the midfielder’s return sparked the team back to life against West Ham. Without Gomes or Bernard at St Mary’s, it is hard to fathom where Everton might find any creativity.
Gomes’ absence almost certainly means a return to 4-2-3-1 at a ground Silva won’t have fond memories of. On Everton’s last visit in January, they were beaten 2-1 with the manager admitting they got what they deserved. It may be similar for Silva should they repeat that performance.
Player to watch – Giovani Lo Celso
Injuries have forced the new boy to take his sweet time to play an active part in Tottenham’s season, but a first start on Wednesday night offered some hope that Lo Celso will be worth the wait for Mauricio Pochettino.
Against Red Star Belgrade, Lo Celso scored his first goal in a Spurs shirt while offering the kind of drive and intensity Pochettino’s side has lacked so far this season. Yes, the standard of the opposition made it a comfortable start for the 23-year-old but playing to the right of Dele Alli behind Harry Kane, Lo Celso offered a hugely encouraging performance.
Now we wait to see how he fares in the Premier League. Hopefully Lo Celso will get an opportunity to shine again on Saturday when Sheffield United visit White Hart Lane but Pochettino suggested he could make changes against the sixth-placed Blades.
Sitting Lo Celso’s backside back on the bench to play Christian Eriksen would be needless interference from the Spurs boss. Eriksen’s form suggests he has already checked out so why not give as many opportunities to the Dane’s natural replacement to adapt to the Premier League?
In contrast to Eriksen’s anonymity this season, against Red Star Lo Celso had more touches than any teammate, provided more crosses and completed 71 of his 79 passes. Out of possession, the Real Betis loanee showed the kind of appetite Eriksen has lacked, making more tackles than any other team-mate and recovering the ball more often than anyone other than Tanguy Ndombele.
Lo Celso has been given three months to build up his fitness and adapt to his new surroundings but now must be the time to give Spurs fans a glimpse of a future without Eriksen.
Football League game to watch – Nottingham Forest v Derby
You have your pick of rivalries to pore over on Saturday lunchtime. Chelsea host Palace in an all-London affair but at the same time, Sky Sports offers a similarly tempting prospect in the form of the East Midlands derby.
Hosts Forest have enjoyed a hugely encouraging start to the season, in contrast to their friends from the other end of the A52. A run of 10 games without defeat saw them flirt with top spot before two losses and a postponement saw them drop to tenth. Getting back on track against Luton has lifted Forest to fifth, and another win this weekend could take Sabri Lamouchi’s side level with the three sides between them and leaders West Brom
Derby’s inconsistency over the last six weeks (W, D, W, L, W, L, W) comes as blessed relief after a run of seven games without a win. Those victories, however, came at Pride Park. On the road, the Rams haven’t tasted victory since the opening weekend when they beat a Huddersfield side in the final throes of the Jan Siewert reign.
“We know how to quieten them down,” said Derby’s Tom Lawrence of the Forest supporters this week, when evidently they don’t. Derby haven’t won at the City ground since 2012 – they haven’t scored a goal by the Trent for two and a half years – and their last visit back in August for a Carabao Cup tie saw Forest hammer the Rams 3-0. Phillip Cocu switched to a diamond-shape midfield with a front two last time out with some success. Having scored twice in the 2-0 win over Middlesbrough, we have to assume that change in formation is what Lawrence is pinning his hopes on.
European game to watch – Bayern Munich v Borussia Dortmund
Saturday evening offers a similar dilemma to lunchtime. Do you watch Leicester 3 Arsenal 0, or tune into BT Sport for Der Klassiker.
The season’s first Bundesliga meeting between the two German giants offers plenty to get your teeth into. The hosts sit in fourth place after last week’s 5-1 battering at the hand of Eintracht Frankfurt which cost Niko Kovac his job. Bayern could leapfrog Dortmund into second with a home win; the possible reward for the visitors if results got their way is top spot in a ludicrously tight table in which two points separates ninth and second. Alternatively, Dortmund could fall to any position in the top half while dropping six points off Borussia Monchengladbach.
To avoid that fate, Lucien Favre needs former Bayern centre-back Mats Hummels to be on top form to stop ex-Dortmund striker Robert Lewandowski. The Poland hitman is looking to maintain his ridiculous record of having scored in every Premier League and Champions League match he has played this season, a streak that has given him 20 goals in 14 games.
Bayern caretaker boss Hansi Flick may well be rueing Bayern’s willingness to let Hummels return to Dortmund last summer because the Bavarians are desperately short at the back, with Jerome Boateng suspended and Niklas Sule and Lucas Hernandez both injured. Bayern have kept only two clean sheets in the league this season and it may well be in that area where this meeting is won and lost, especially with Dortmund having applied a fix to the leaky defence which blighted their early season before a run of three clean sheets in their last three games.
Maybe wait until Leicester are out of sight before turning over for the second half of this one.
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