Premier League, Championship and FA Cup: 10 things to look out for

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Jordan Pickford needs to find form, Watford and Palace have scores to settle and there’s a huge game at Elland Road

Gregg Bakowski, Paul Doyle, Tom Davies, Will Unwin and Niall McVeigh – The Guardian

1) Another tough away assignment for Solskjær

After winning at Arsenal and Chelsea in earlier rounds, Manchester United face another difficult away tie, this time at Molineux. A Saturday night duel under the floodlights, with a Wembley appearance up for grabs, is sure to generate a noisy atmosphere. That will give extra impetus to a Wolves team who have enjoyed a fine season so far, and been particularly strong against top-six teams. Recognising that, and the way Wolves shackled Chelsea for long periods last weekend, Ole Gunnar Solskjær may take a cautious approach and look to strike through counter-attacks. This has the makings of a tight game and a showdown that could go all the way to a late-night shootout. PD

2) Pickford needs pick-me-up performance

Having been lauded for his mental strength as England’s first-choice World Cup goalkeeper, Jordan Pickford appears to be unravelling somewhat this season. Erratic displays for Everton have not helped Marco Silva in his attempts to form a settled defensive unit. Pickford’s fluffed attempt at catching a cross and subsequent rugby tackle on Salomón Rondón, to concede a penalty he then saved, set the tone as the Toffees managed to lose 3-2, having led 2-0 at Newcastle. Also telling was his lack of focus as the former Sunderland keeper dropped an Ayoze Pérez shot that led to a goal and became embroiled in arguments with home fans. His distribution – perhaps his greatest strength – has also suffered through a sticky patch since his egregious error at Anfield in December. With his status as England’s No 1 under scrutiny, he would be well advised to get back to basics. Pickford was supreme in a 0-0 draw at Chelsea in November; a repeat performance on Sunday could help settle his jitters. GB

 

3) Scores to settle at Vicarage Road

Watford have beaten Crystal Palace twice in the league this season, but Palace have held sway in the really big games this decade – the 2013 Championship play-off final and the FA Cup semi-final three years later. The time is right for Watford to correct that – Javi Gracia’s side haven’t lost to a side outside the top six for more than three months and must fancy their chances of finishing seventh this season. But more important than a “best of the rest” accolade is the chance for a talented side to claim a real-life trophy. They can and should make the FA Cup a priority now. Palace’s Cup pedigree is not to be sniffed at though, and nor is the rivalry between these sides, fuelled not just by those Wembley showdowns but recent beef between individuals, exemplified by Troy Deeney’s admission that Watford players took it in turns to foul Wilfried Zaha during their win over Palace in September. So while Roy Hodgson’s side are still looking nervously over their shoulders in the league, they should be fired up for this one and we can expect a spicy encounter. TD

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4) Parker has little hope of breaking run of defeats

Fulham were supposed to have pulled off a marvellous coup when they signed Jean Michaël Seri from Nice in the summer. Now, the player once courted by Barcelona cannot get into Fulham’s midfield ahead of Calum Chambers. That fact underlines how unsuccessful most of Fulham’s transfer activity has been since their promotion. Scott Parker, since replacing Claudio Ranieri, has tended to prefer players who helped the club win promotion from the Championship but there has been little improvement. The team have continued to look out of their depth in the top-flight and are headed back to where they came from. Their best hope of avoiding a seventh straight defeat this weekend is if their opponents, Liverpool, are tired or complacent. But it is far more likely that Jürgen Klopp’s team will be invigorated by Wednesday’s win at Bayern Munich and the prospect of returning to the top of the table. PD

5) Swans to lean on Newport’s Citizens advice

Manchester City have scored 16 goals and conceded just one in their three FA Cup ties so far, beating Rotherham 7-0, Burnley 5-0 and Newport 4-1. Only fourth-tier Newport, who held them at 0-0 for 51 minutes, caused City any discomfort. Padraig Amond’s 88th-minute strike gave them brief hope when he made the score 2-1, only for City to ruthlessly exploit the gaps in the home side’s defence as they pushed forward in the final minutes. Swans manager Graham Potter said he will speak to his Newport counterpart Michael Flynn before the visit of Pep Guardiola’s rampant side for tips as to how to stay in the game. “I’ve got his number … I’ll give him a call,” he said. “His way and his players are different to ours, and I’m not saying we are any better. Knowing how good [Manchester City] are and knowing what they can do is the relatively straightforward bit. It’s finding out how you can stop it is the trick. But I thought Newport did brilliantly.” GB

6) Millwall and Brighton putting league worries aside

Sunday’s quarter-final at the Den looks, on paper at least, the most obvious place for an FA Cup upset. Millwall have beaten five of the last seven top-flight teams to visit them in this competition, and face a Brighton side who are often poor travellers. Since beating Everton in the fourth round, however, Millwall are winless at home, relying on away wins at Derby and Birmingham to keep them out of the Championship’s bottom three. FA Cup exploits have also distracted from a league wobble for Brighton, although the win at Crystal Palace boosted both their survival prospects and their away record – now a healthy three wins in six, including the Cup run. Success at Selhurst Park will have also eased fears of a repeat of 1983 – when the Seagulls took Manchester United to a Cup final replay, but were relegated. NMcV

 

 

7) McNeil and Hendrick to help Clarets create

Burnley’s defeat at Anfield left them dangling just two points above the relegation zone. They’ve lost three in a row in the league now, undoing the good work they did going unbeaten in the league from late December to the end of February. They host Leicester this weekend, a team who have looked fluent and tactically flexible – everything Burnley are not – since Brendan Rodgers took charge. Sean Dyche’s side have become all too predictable in their past three games, hitting easy-to-read balls into channels and relying heavily on set pieces to create chances. With Cardiff not playing this weekend and then facing Chelsea and Manchester City, Burnley have a chance to pull clear of danger. To do so, they will have to loosen up and try to be more creative. Jack Cork and Ashley Westwood are adept at breaking up play but Burnley need to use the ball better in home games. Dwight McNeil’s bold wing play caught the eye at Anfield and Jeff Hendrick was a pesky menace too – perhaps Dyche should look to the flanks to get the creative juices flowing. GB

8) More telepathy from Rondón and Pérez?

Like short shorts, rattles and happy fans wearing rosettes, strike partnerships appear to belong to English football’s past. Which is why it’s been a retro joy to watch Salomón Rondón and Ayoze Pérez strike up a burgeoning one in recent months. It’s taken its time to get going but the near-telepathy the two have displayed during Newcastle’s charge away from danger has helped to create some delightful – and important – goals. Rondón’s volley against Everton came after a sumptuous bit of interplay, with Pérez leaping to nod down to his bigger teammate, receiving a pass back off him, and dinking a delicious ball back into Rondón’s path for him to slam home on the volley. “If Messi did this, people would be talking about it for a while,” said Rafa Benítez. “[Rondón] gave me the ball and, without looking, I knew the movement he was going to make,” said Pérez. They’re the new Toshack and Keegan. Bournemouth beware. GB

9) Hammers fans need reason to pay up

Announcing a ticket price rise prior to (theoretically) their easiest home game of the season could be seen as a cunning plan by West Ham. The Hammers were swept aside by Cardiff last time out and Huddersfield’s almost certain relegation means they could be the cannon fodder the London Stadium marketing department requires. Home form is imperative at this stage of the season following five defeats in their last six away games. The increased ticket price could lead to demands for a more exciting product than the current offering, which has seen just eight goals in nine league matches – just two of those from open play. Considering the array of attacking talent at Manuel Pellegrini’s disposal, the fans and hierarchy might be hoping for something a little more expansive this weekend to get bums on seats. The league’s bottom club appear to be the ideal target. WU

 

10) Hernández and Norwood can swing promotion race

The biggest game of the weekend might just be at Elland Road, where Leeds and Sheffield United meet in a crucial derby. Both sides are locked in a three-way battle for automatic promotion with leaders Norwich. Leeds hold a two-point lead over their local rivals which can be traced back to Pablo Hernández’s winner at Bramall Lane in December. The mercurial Spaniard has found consistency in his team’s promotion charge, scoring 10 and setting up 11 goals, and impressing Bielsa with his ability to influence games from the right flank. Hernández may bring top-flight experience but Chris Wilder has his own trump card in Oliver Norwood. The midfielder is bidding for a third straight promotion after helping Brighton and Fulham up. A virtual ever-present since arriving in August, Norwood has eight assists and the Championship’s best passing stats. Both he and Hernández deserve a shot at the top flight, but only one may get it. NMcV

 

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