Premier League and Carabao Cup final: 10 things to look out for this weekend
1) A planned impromptu drinks break
Although it may be coincidence, someone far more observant than this column recently noticed that Southampton appear to have devised a clever, completely legal mid-game tactic that involves one of their players going down “injured” and in apparent need of medical attention between the 60th and 70th minute, at which point their teammates adjourn to the sideline to receive energy gels and tactical instruction from Ralph Hasenhüttl and his backroom team. Should it occur on Friday evening, we can but hope it won’t be the most interesting talking point to arise from their match against Norwich, but it has piqued our curiosity and is the first of our now traditional 10 things to look out for this weekend. BG
2) Toffees still in sticky situation
With Liverpool otherwise engaged at Wembley, Manchester City have a chance to reopen a six-point lead at the top. In Frank Lampard they take on a former City player; the manager’s single, 2014-15 season in Manchester a forgotten coda to his long spell at Chelsea. Beating Leeds 3-0 two weeks ago lent optimism to his new Everton regime, only for last week’s 2-0 defeat at Southampton to reintroduce the Goodison gloom. Leeds conceding nine goals in their next two matches further deepened it, and all four of the teams below Everton in the table have been in better form over the past five matches. That Leeds and Brentford are on more of a slide may ease some of the nerves but Everton are in their deepest relegation trouble since the 2001-02 season when David Moyes was brought in to escape the drop. In such a situation, a wounded, motivated City feel the opposite of the ideal opponents to face. JB
3) Watford need another turning point
When Watford beat Manchester United 4-1 at Vicarage Road in November to bring down the guillotine on Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s spell in Old Trafford’s managerial hotseat, they sat 16th in the league, as close to eighth-placed United as they were to the bottom three with the season nearly a third of the way through. It was a turning point in both sides’ campaigns: since then only Manchester City and Liverpool have outperformed United, who have taken 29 points from 14 games, while not until last Saturday did Watford win another game, and their five points from 13 is, on a points per game basis, not far off twice as bad as Everton, the next worst-performing team in the division (0.38 v 0.63). It goes without saying that the Hornets desperately need another turning point but though Roy Hodgson has brought greater defensive organisation, he has not eliminated individual mistakes, has reduced the side’s attacking ambition, and salvation looks as distant as ever. SB
4) Weary resignation at Elland Road
Antonio Conte and Marcelo Bielsa have both recently admitted they are struggling to justifying their large salaries and when Leeds host Tottenham on Saturday, the game is likely to be a Derby della Despair for one of them in the event of any outcome other than a draw. While Tottenham go into the game as hot favourites, only a wild optimist would bet heavily on them to prevail despite the porousness of their hosts’ defence. While Bielsa’s future is constantly clouded in uncertainty, Friday’s press conference will reveal if his opposite number has calmed down since his very public existential crisis in the wake of midweek defeat at Burnley. As rare as the sight of elite managers falling on their swords might be, it would be massively surprising if the result of this Saturday’s lunchtime game prompted one of the Premier League’s two more impassioned leaders to decide the jig is up. BG
5) Bees crying out for saviour to lead them to safety
At some point during this relegation six-pointer, Christian Eriksen is expected to make his first appearance for Brentford. Almost certainly as a substitute, he will return to top-level football eight months after he suffered his cardiac arrest during Euro 2020. And the stakes will almost immediately be sky high. Brentford are crying out for a saviour, having collected just one point from a possible 21 since beating Aston Villa on 2 January. Newcastle are heading in the opposite direction, having taken 10 from a possible 12, and on last week’s visit to London had West Ham on the ropes before having to settle for a point. A win at the Community Stadium can leapfrog Eddie Howe’s team over that of Thomas Frank, who hope to have Ivan Toney back leading the line. Toney, cast aside from Newcastle during Rafael Benítez’s reign, was a scorer when the teams drew 3-3 in November, Howe’s first match in charge. JB
6) Villa to offer Brighton home comfort?
They might be ninth but last week’s defeat to Burnley was not entirely out of the blue for a Brighton side who boast only one home win in five months now. Encouragingly this weekend’s opponents, Aston Villa, have lost to Newcastle and Watford in their past two games, managing only one shot on target in each fixture, which led Steven Gerrard to this intriguing analysis last week: “We’ve had 19 shots but only managed one on target, so we haven’t worked [Watford goalkeeper] Ben Foster anywhere near enough and that falls on my shoulders. That’s on me and my staff to be more inventive and creative in the final third. We’ve got talented players in there. We’ve got internationals, Brazilians, Argentinians and England internationals. Players have got to want to get in the right areas and people have got to want to create and score. The result falls on me, I’ll take that and I’ll take the heat to protect the players but moving forward you need to be better in the final third.” Which appears to translate fairly clearly as: “It’s my fault we haven’t been more creative. Although obviously it’s the players’ fault. Just to be clear, I’ll take the blame for this, but it’s on them.” SB
7) Will Wolves cash in at West Ham?
West Ham’s wobble since the turn of the year could have been more costly: they are still four points behind fourth-placed Manchester United, but their stalled form has fans grumbling. A failure to freshen up the squad in January is likely to be costly. That Michail Antonio, Tomas Soucek and Pablo Fornals have flagged is understandable given their workload in a thin squad. As well as a Champions League place – a publicly stated target from the club’s ownership when they moved to the London Stadium in 2016 – it could cost them an extra year of Declan Rice. Wolves, Sunday’s opponents, have refreshed their squad by cashing in assets to bring in fresh talent with an efficiency not reflected in the Hammers’ tentative steps into the transfer market. And with Newcastle now also flush, the chance to top the Premier League’s middle class may already have been squandered. JB
8) A Burnley side set in its set-piece ways
It’s been a little under three years since Burnley last won back-to-back-to-back Premier League matches but Sean Dyche’s men can make it three on the spin against a Crystal Palace side that have managed successive wins only once this season. That the first of those two triumphs came at Manchester City tells you all you need to know about Palace’s progress under Patrick Vieira – they are a team capable of beating the best on their day but are maddeningly inconsistent and often don’t get the results their performances deserve. The corresponding fixture at Turf Moor earlier this season was one such game, with Palace gifting Burnley a share of the points in an entertaining 3-3 draw through their inability to defend set pieces. It is a frailty Sean Dyche will look to exploit again, having seen his players score once and go close with at least two other headed opportunities from dead-ball situations against Tottenham. BG
9) Reds back on way to Wembley
The time when Liverpool fans would call Wembley “Anfield South” lies long in the past. Jürgen Klopp has concentrated his squad’s efforts on winning the Champions League and Premier League during his time in England, choosing to blood youth in the domestic cup competitions. Sunday’s Carabao Cup showpiece will be only the second English cup final Klopp has presided over, the last coming in February 2016, when he had been in charge for barely four months. Liverpool lost that League Cup final to Manchester City on penalties and – of Klopp’s squad that day – only Jordan Henderson, James Milner, Roberto Firmino and Divock Origi remain. The overhaul that Klopp has carried out in those six years is reflected in names such as Simon Mignolet, Nathaniel Clyne, Alberto Moreno, Mamadou Sakho, Philippe Coutinho and Emre Can, all of them decent, talented players but expendable to a manager who has transformed the club and widened their horizons. JB
10) Chelsea calling for shots?
Chelsea have had 20 shots on target and scored six goals in the Premier League this calendar year; Liverpool have had 19 shots on target and scored nine goals this week. While defensively the two teams have been comparable this season (Chelsea have conceded 17 goals to Liverpool’s 19, and 76 shots on target to Liverpool’s 72) the Reds’ attack is not so much streets ahead of their opponents’ as entire motorway networks more advanced. Meanwhile Jürgen Klopp said after Wednesday’s thrashing of Leeds that in midfield “more often than not you need really fresh legs” and has been putting those words into practice – Liverpool’s two matches this week featured entirely different starting midfield threes, two of them later being substituted on each occasion. This makes it hard to guess whose legs will be freshest come Sunday but though the remainder of the team could feasibly be unchanged some kind of reshuffle here seems likely. SB