Premier League: 10 things to look out for this weekend

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Mesut Özil in from the cold, Andy Carroll’s West Ham return and Southampton’s fears for another visit to Manchester City

Simon Burnton, Paul Doyle and Rob Smyth –   The Guardian

1) Revitalised Rashford can become much-needed talisman

Manchester United’s recent form has put a new twist on an old cliché. The international break came at a good time for United, but not just for the usual reasons. Marcus Rashford’s performances before he went away with England were abysmal; he looked unhappy, demotivated and in desperate need of a rest. It turned out all he needed was a change. Rashford always seems happy playing for England, and his storming goal to open the scoring in Bulgaria has apparently given him a huge injection of confidence and zeal. He has sparked United’s mini-revival with a number of moments of coruscating brilliance. A tactical change and the return of his on-field kindred spirit Anthony Martial have also helped, with Rashford now playing wide left or as a split striker rather than an isolated No 9. He is still a long way from the finished article, like most 22-year-olds, but he is the most likely of the current squad to become what all emerging teams need: a talisman. RS

  • Bournemouth v Manchester United, Saturday 12.30pm (all times GMT)

2) Villa unrecognisable from 2016 rout by Reds

Liverpool’s last league visit to Villa Park, three and half a years ago, ended in a 6-0 spanking for the hosts. Afterwards a delighted Jürgen Klopp said his team’s performance was “good for the soul”, which was an apt turn of phrase not least because Villa, back then, were a club whose soul seemed to have been hollowed out. Now, though, they have it back. Dean Smith has a vibrant team who are growing stronger by the week. Do not be fooled by last week’s 3-0 defeat at Manchester City, where Villa were better than the scoreline suggests. Liverpool face a serious test, especially if Jack Grealish recovers from a calf injury in time to play, and Joël Matip’s knee trouble rules him out again. PD

3) Özil’s class can still help Emery out of a hole

If Mesut Özil doesn’t return to Arsenal’s Premier League team against Wolves on Saturday, he probably never will. His performance at Anfield on Wednesday was a timely reminder that, for all the frustrations, few players in the world have his ability to strip a defence naked with such insouciant élan. His improvised backflick to create Ainsley Maitland-Niles’s goal at Anfield was the latest in a rich portfolio of unique creative genius. The fact he has played only 71 minutes of Premier League football this season is almost an act of cultural vandalism. At his best, there is no one in the world with Özil’s cold-blooded serenity, technique and imagination in the final third. And while he has generally been nowhere near his best under Unai Emery, his performance against Liverpool could serve as an olive branch. Who knows: in one final twist, a returning Ozil could even save Emery’s job. RS

  • Arsenal v Wolves, Saturday 3pm

4) Everton and Spurs sense chances to lift the gloom

Excluding lower-league opposition in the Carabao Cup, so far this season Everton have beaten Watford, Wolves, West Ham and Watford again. The bad news is that they are not going to play another side beginning with W until mid-January, but Marco Silva hopes victory over the Hornets in the Carabao Cup on Tuesday will mean “the mood and confidence will be different” when Tottenham visit on Sunday. The performance in that match, and particularly in a dreadful first half, was, however, not so overwhelming that Spurs won’t be looking at this game as an opportunity to improve their own mood and confidence. News just in from the mildly curious historical anomaly department: though overall Everton have won 31% of their games against Tottenham, drawing 31% and losing 38%, in the month of November they have lost 44%, drawn 44% and won just 12% (two out of 16, and only once in 11 games since 1961). SB

  • Everton v Tottenham, Sunday 4.30pm

5) Don’t expect fireworks from toothless Watford

Quique Sánchez Flores has wrought a complete tactical transformation at Watford: from four at the back to five; from a team that could hardly defend to one that have conceded only one – handball-assisted – goal in their last three league games; from one that might occasionally score to one that hardly even tries. Troy Deeney’s injury hasn’t helped; João Pedro’s arrival in January – the 18-year-old Brazilian received a work permit this week – might eventually. In the meantime Roberto Pereyra and Gerard Deulofeu are much happier outside the penalty area and tend to stay there, leaving Watford blunted. It’s just as well Watford Borough Council’s big festive display has been put back half an hour to allow fans to make it after the game, because unless Flores has been working on another transformation they’re unlikely to have any fireworks to enjoy at Vicarage Road. SB

  • Watford v Chelsea, Saturday 5.30pm

6) Saints to settle for a respectable thrashing at City?

There are times when the fixture list is downright sadistic. Just ask Southampton, who have had to follow their 9-0 defeat at home to Leicester with two trips to the Etihad Stadium. They got off pretty lightly with a 3-1 defeat in the Carabao Cup, when City rested key players such as Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling and David Silva. Ralph Hasenhüttl may endure a long night of the soul as he considers what a full-strength team could do to his side. City, after all, have already scored 49 goals this season. There have been thousands of football matches involving teams who would both secretly settle for a draw beforehand. This might be the first, certainly in Premier League history, in which both sides would accept a 4-0 home win. RS

  • Manchester City v Southampton, Saturday 3pm

7) Blades sharpened by firm defensive foundations

No side has conceded fewer goals than Sheffield United in the Premier League. They have let in eight, the same number as Leicester and Manchester City, and another clean sheet at home to Burnley would give them a counter-puncher’s chance of a victory that could take them as high as fifth in the table. United’s defensive record compares especially well to their fellow promoted sides: they have conceded half as many as Aston Villa (16), and a third as many as Norwich (24). The back three of Chris Basham, John Egan and Jack O’Connell, the kind of EFL stalwarts who are supposed to get vertigo in the Premier League, have all been outstanding this season. The club broke their transfer record four times in the summer, all on attacking players. But it is the old defence that is pushing them to unexpected heights. RS

  • Sheffield United v Burnley, 3pm Saturday

8) Odds are against Carroll to thrive on return to West Ham

Andy Carroll returned to training this week after a slight groin strain, and looks set to return to West Ham for the first time since leaving on a free transfer this summer. “I hope he will be fit,” the West Ham manager, Manuel Pellegrini, said, charitably. “He, like Winston Reid, is a player who has had many injuries, long injuries, and they deserve to have a normal career.” It is probably already too late for that: a few months from his 31st birthday, and with this game being played 13 years to the day since he made his senior debut, the famously injury-prone Carroll has started precisely 100 fewer club matches than Crystal Palace’s 26-year-old Wilfried Zaha. If he continued to start as frequently as he has across his career so far, he would catch up with Mark Noble’s current number of career starts sometime in October 2036. Football of course has its immutable law of the ex, which states that a player will always over-perform against his former teams, but Carroll appears to be an exception here as well: having played six times for West Ham against Newcastle without scoring (and another three barren games against them for Liverpool), it would be somewhat galling if he were to score against the Hammers at his first attempt. SB

  • West Ham v Newcastle, Saturday 3pm

9) Pukki and Maupay key to Amex outcome

The two most prolific scorers in last season’s Championship will have a big say in who wins Saturday’s important Premier League encounter at the Amex. Teemu Pukki struck six times in his first five top-flight matches this season but has failed to find the net in his past five. Meanwhile Neal Maupay has thrived at Brighton even if his goal tally (four) is lower than Pukki’s. The Frenchman, a £20m summer signing from Brentford, is much more than a goal-getter and his intelligent movement and passing have been integral to the attacking style introduced at Brighton by Graham Potter. Maupay is as likely to score net this weekend as he is to create a goal for his striker partner, Aaron Connolly, who is far more Pukki-like in his play. Expect Brighton to prevail in an entertaining duel on the south coast. PD

  • Brighton v Norwich, Saturday 3pm

10) An unlikely top-six set-to at Selhurst

On the day Everton (16th) play Tottenham (11th), Selhurst Park hosts the most unlikely November top-six fixture for some time. Leicester’s success this season was not entirely unexpected, but Palace’s position is a genuine surprise – though it would be even more impressive should they still be there once their current testing run of fixtures (Manchester City, Arsenal, Leicester, Chelsea, Liverpool) comes to a conclusion later this month. Leicester fans are unlikely to relish a visit to a team that did the double over them in each of the past two seasons, even if not all of those defeats had entirely negative consequences. After all, it was Palace’s 4-1 victory at the King Power Stadium in February that precipitated the sacking of Claude Puel the following day, and the transformational arrival of Brendan Rodgers soon afterwards. After that Palace game they had lost seven games out of nine; they have lost five of 21 since, winning 12. SB

  • Crystal Palace v Leicester, Sunday 2pm

 

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