Premier League: 10 things to look out for this weekend

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Clockwise from top left: Arsenal’s Emile Smith Rowe, Tottenham’s Dele Alli, Pep Guardiola and Thomas Tuchel at Wembley, Man Utd’s Luke Shaw and Fulham players brace for relegation. Composite: Getty Images

The Champions League finalists meet, Manchester United begin a daunting run and Wolves face their bogey team

The  Guardian- Paul Doyle, Daniel Harris and John Brewin

1) A dress rehearsal fit for champions?

A fixture that could see Manchester City seal the Premier League title and is vital to Chelsea’s pushfor the top four has taken on the status of dress rehearsal. Pep Guardiola and Thomas Tuchel both devour great long dossiers on what their opponent might be doing, so there could yet be some subterfuge in advance of the Champions League final. With City having plenty in hand at the top and Chelsea three points ahead of West Ham in fifth, there would seem little point inrisking an entire tactical hand. Of the Premier League’s “big six”, these two have never quite hit on a white-hot rivalry to compete with City’s recent power struggle with Liverpool, or Chelsea’s collisions with Manchester United in the 2000s. But it is also worth considering how different English football might have been had Roman Abramovich landed the signature of Guardiola, as was once his desire. JB

  • Manchester City v Chelsea, Saturday 5.30pm, all times BST

2) Foxes need points in the bank before hectic run

Leicester require eight points from their four remaining matches to be certain of concluding an excellent season with Champions League qualification. They need to get those points as fast as they can for the sake of their nerves and so as not to encourage West Ham, who have a relatively benign run-in. Failure to beat Newcastle on Friday on the back of last week’s draw with 10-man Southampton would ramp up the pressure on Brendan Rodgers’ team, whose schedule after that gets highly intense. In a seven-day period, Leicester will play league games against Manchester United and Chelsea either side of the FA Cup final. Newcastle have improved recently but still need points to be sure of dodging relegation; Friday’s showdown at the King Power could be a belter. PD

  • Leicester v Newcastle, Friday 8pm

3) Top-four cash reward is essential for Klopp

Not long ago, Ralph Hasenhüttl was lauded as a sophisticated tactician and purveyor of futuristic football. Which he may still be, but since Southampton went top in November, they’ve recorded just five league wins ­– and two of those came against Sheffield United. They did, though, take three points from Liverpool, for whom this weekend is crucial. One reason the European Super League was so brazenly ill-conceived is that several of the clubs involved appear to be desperate for money. Last summer, even though Liverpool’s playing staff needed urgent strengthening and refreshing, principal owner John W Henry allowed Jürgen Klopp just a pair of senior first-team additions. It’s unlikely that amid a global pandemic, he’ll feel especially generous this year. With the teams above them poised to use Champions League revenue for squad-strengthening, a win is absolutely essential. DH

  • Liverpool v Southampton, Saturday 8.15pm

 

4) United face fixture pile-up amid fan unrest

With a European final place booked and a top-four spot almost in the bag these might be cheery, optimistic times for Manchester United. The events of last Sunday, though, cast a long shadow. It is an unhealthy situation where insurrectional supporters are in open revolt against owners whose reaction to those scenes at Old Trafford has been to return to a default stance of saying nothing at all. Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s diffidence and status as unimpeachable club legend usually allows him to safely negotiate past tough questions on the club’s future direction, but last week’s postponement of the Liverpool game has also presented his team with a gruelling schedule. The trip to Villa Park starts a run of three league games in five days, taking in tough home matches against Leicester and Liverpool on Tuesday and Thursday next week. Villa, excellent in winning at Everton last weekend, cannot be taken lightly, either. JB

  • Aston Villa v Manchester United, Sunday 2.05pm

5) Moyes’ Hammers are benchmark for Ancelotti

Everton are the new West Ham, an enragingly inconsistent side with some expensive recruits of dubious worth. Meanwhile their former manager, David Moyes, has made West Ham uncharacteristically reliable and lifted them to where Carlo Ancelotti was supposed to hoist Everton. Ancelotti has yet to earn a league win over a side managed by Moyes – although Everton put four past the Hammers in the Carabao Cup in September. An away win this weekend would seriously dent West Ham’s Champions League ambitions and keep alive Everton’s hopes of gaining some satisfaction by qualifying for Europe instead of Liverpool – an outcome that would be welcomed by fans of both Merseyside clubs. PD

  • West Ham v Everton, Sunday 4.30pm

6) Alli can continue hard road back to prominence

Dele Alli seemed precisely the kind of player José Mourinho would enjoy, given his mischievous, confrontational, competitive charisma and knack for contributing big moments in big games. But things didn’t work out that way, and though it’s easy to wonder whether Mourinho took exception to him for the sport, it’s equally easy to wonder if he was one of the fringe players whose laxity was chastised by Hugo Lloris following Spurs’ disastrous defeat to Dinamo Zagreb. Now though, Mourinho has gone, giving Alli a chance to reignite his Tottenham career. While he wasn’t brilliant last weekend against Sheffield United, in his first league start for nearly two months, he may have done enough to earn another chance against Leeds. If Alli continues to do the basics well, the complexities will surely follow. At just 25, he still has time to become not only the player he was but the player heought to be. DH

  • Leeds United v Tottenham, Saturday 12.30pm

 

7) Young Gunners must add numbers to promise

Arsenal’s inconsistency is not especially surprising given that of their best players, only Thomas Partey and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang are over 23, while the others – Bukayo Saka, Kieran Tierney, the on-loan Martin Ødegaard and Emile Smith Rowe – are still learning the game. For the latter two, the necessary improvements are obvious. So far this season, in 17 appearnces for Arsenal Ødegaard has two goals and no assists, while Smith Rowe has two and seven in 30. Ultimately, though workrate is also important, a serious team can feature a No 10 only if they deliver serious numbers. It is no coincidence that Dennis Bergkamp’s stats were poor when Arsenal had poor seasons, nor that Wayne Rooney’s remained consistent as Manchester United consistently won and contested titles. As we saw most recently in the painful goalless draw with Villarreal, transcendental magic must be underpinned by reliable goal contributions, and it is time for Ødegaard – if he stays next season – and Smith Rowe to step up. DH

  • Arsenal v West Brom, Sunday 7pm

 

8) Weary Wolves tackle bogey team Brighton

Strange but true: Wolves have never beaten Brighton in the top flight. In fact, they’ve found the Seagulls to be pesky opponents in any division, winning just four of 33 league encounters despite almost always finishing above them in the table. Their last four meetings have been draws, including their clash at the Amex in January, when Wolves went 3-1 up but then lost their way. Owen Otasowie missed a last-minute sitter in that match and played only one more minute of Premier League football until injuries led to him being given a start in Monday’s draw at West Brom. He did well, as did other youngsters given opportunities, especially the Portuguese duo of Vitinha and Fabio Silva. There has not been much optimism around Molineux lately but skies would look bluer for the Old Gold if the youngsters helped deliver a first top-flight victory over Brighton. PD

  • Wolves v Brighton, Sunday 12pm

9) McGoldrick can help Brewster find cutting edge

Last season, it took until the third-last game of the season for David McGoldrick to finally open his Premier League account (in a 3-0 win over Chelsea, no less). It was a beautiful moment for a wonderful player and, what is more, it inspired him. He immediately scored again and has become the closest thing poor Sheffield United have to a goal machine: with seven league goals this season, he is responsible for almost half of their tally. One of the few challenges to which the Blades could still rise in this season in the abyss is to help Rhian Brewster become a slayer in front of goal. The 21-year-old is a very different player to McGoldrick and at the opposite end of his career, but he needs a goal even more badly. Getting off the mark at last, against Crystal Palace on Saturday or in one of United’s three other remaining matches, would be the ideal way for the Blades’ record signing to prepare to make a big impact next season. PD

  • Sheffield United v Crystal Palace, Saturday 3pm

10) Lessons for sinking Fulham to learn – again

Fulham’s yo-yo back down to the Championship would be all but guaranteed by losing to Burnley. The period of reflection that follows relegation might take in the consideration of where a relatively well-resourced club, able to recruit players attracted to London life, is going wrong compared to a provincial northern club operating on a shoestring budget. Burnley’s flagship signing last summer was £1m midfielder Dale Stephens. Sean Dyche first took his team up in 2013-14, only for them to be relegated at the first time of asking. Regrouping at that juncture and not panicking was the making of Burnley, now part of the Premier League furniture despite a season of relative struggle. Clubs punching above their weight like Burnley will eventually drop, as Scott Parker will know from his days as a Charlton player. He could learn from the collective spirit that managers like Alan Curbishley, his gaffer then, and Dyche himself have harnessed. JB

 

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